Latest on Reviews

Sonic Lost World Review

I vividly remember finally nabbing that final star in

That's odd considering this is a game that shamelessly lifts ideas from its plumber-fronted rival. Each of its levels are filled with the same free-floating islands and gravity-based trickery that made Galaxy such a success, and even includes those super tricky tunnels and half-pipes that slide you along at a pace while you nudge into rings and avoid deadly spikes. Frozen Factory throws slippery surfaces into the mix, with one wrong move hurtling Sonic off into space, while Tropical Coast throws you into a lush tropical environment filled with some familiar-looking planetoids. Even the boss battles are similar, with one fireball-dodging session an almost like-for-like replica of Mario's Bowser battle atop a small planet.

This is a game that shamelessly lifts ideas from its plumber-fronted rival.

Lost World's copying isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, if you're going to take ideas from anywhere, it might as well be from Galaxy. Sometimes this approach works. You might have to use gravity to guide a giant apple into a mincer on a small planetoid, carefully avoiding enemy fire before leaping into the stream of juice to catapult to another area. Or, you might have to deftly guide a Sonic snowball around a series of intricate platforms, much like the levels in Galaxy where you manoeuvre Mario atop a giant ball.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time Lost World lacks its rival's finesse. Sonic's raw speed sits uncomfortably alongside the gravity-based platforming, making it far too easy to suddenly leap off into oblivion. And while you can at least slow Sonic down to a more sedate pace, his overly twitchy movement makes it tricky to land on certain platforms, or perform the precise movements needed to nab one of the many red coins hidden amongst a level. Plus, a loose sense of depth means it's difficult to jump precisely onto switches to free trapped critters, and line up jumps, making the already difficult levels more taxing.

Lost World's own ideas often fall flat too. Rings placed alluringly up the sides of walls can be reached with a spot of parkour, but its implementation is clumsy. All too often I found myself cursing at the screen as Sonic failed to leap smoothly from a platform to a wall-run and frustratingly plunged to his death in endless space. The wisp powers of Sonic Colors, such as drill, which lets you burrow through the ground to collect extra rings, and rocket, which lets you jet off to distant planetoids by aiming with the motion sensor, make a return, but they're more of an amusing aside than an integral part of Sonic's arsenal.

Then there are the new powers, such as eagle, which uses the motion sensor to fly Sonic through the air, but does so erratically, with an imprecision that makes collecting the bonus rings it puts tantalizingly within reach a nightmare. Each power is time limited too, and in the case of eagle, if you drift off course because of the frustrating motion controls, you're dropped off the planet to your death. Again.

Lost World fares better in its 2D sections, where some of the classic Sonic platforming magic makes an appearance. Zipping Sonic through loop-the-loops and smashing badniks to free the cutesy animals trapped within is great fun, with the depth and control niggles far less of an issue here. And while the challenges aren't all that imaginative--avoiding falling blocks and navigating banks of bouncy springs--they're way more enjoyable than the frustrating mishmash of speed and exploration found in the 3D sections. Unfortunately, here too a misjudged level of difficulty stifles progress; I defy anyone not to develop an unhealthy hatred of the all-seeing owl that unleashes an insta-death flurry of bats when you wander into its evil, gazing spotlights.

The fact that these moments are thrown into the main story arc is baffling and immensely frustrating too. At least you're not missing much when it comes to the story, which plays out like a Saturday-morning kids' show, complete with grating 90210 voice acting and a gross overuse of the word "bro." Plus, while it's not going to win any awards for its art style, Lost World's colourful visuals are easy on the eye, and even raise a smile or two during its more esoteric moments, with the candy-based platforms of Desert Ruin being a particular highlight.

Sonic Lost World desperately wants to be Mario Galaxy, but in overtly coveting the great Italian plumber, it smothers the talents of its blazing blue hedgehog.

If you opt for the 3DS version of Lost World don't expect a dramatically different, or better experience: both the story and zones are the same. There are some redesigned levels to accommodate the 3DS version's simplified powers (reminiscent of the shield-based power-ups from Sonic 3), but the same design, control, and difficulty issues remain.

That some inoffensive visuals and a few fun 2D sections are the highlights of a largely 3D game is telling. Sonic Lost World desperately wants to be Mario Galaxy, but in overtly coveting the great Italian plumber, it smothers the talents of its blazing blue hedgehog. There were moments when I thought it might all come together, when Sonic's fun, if slightly erratic, speed would be matched to levels that were intelligently designed to make the most of it. There were some brief glimpses of that, but for the most part, Sonic Lost World is confused and derivative, and tries far too hard to be clever without any clever design to back it up.

Skylanders Swap Force Review

You've been hankering to send a team of elite heroes to fight the forces of evil. Luckily, Skylanders Swap Force, the third game in this charming series, has arrived to sate the needs of returning collectors and newcomers alike. Like its predecessors, Swap Force places you in the role of a portal master, commanding the Skylander warriors to defend the Cloudbreak islands and prevent raving villain Kaos from plunging the Skylands into darkness. To summon your warrior, you place a Skylander figurine on the game's Portal of Power accessory; the game detects the figure and swaps it into play within a matter of seconds.

Swap Force is a solid action adventure game complete with a wide variety of lush, colorful environments, an extensive array of enemies to slay, and fun characters to interact with. This is a ridiculous, Saturday-morning-cartoon world, with goblins, trolls, frost giants, mechanical golems, bats, goo-based monsters, and startled sheep being hurled at you as you fight through the single-player campaign. The game's outstanding voice acting, complete with over-the-top performances from Invader Zim's Richard Steven Horvitz and Seinfeld's Patrick Warburton, adds warm humor and characterization that make the cutscenes a joy to watch. Horvitz provides a nigh-on-maniacal vocal energy in his role as Kaos, while Warburton slathers on intentional cheesiness as the pilot character Flynn. Little touches, such as a hot-swappable difficulty setting through the options menu, make it simple to adjust the difficulty to an easier setting if you are having trouble completing a level. Additional content, such as unlockable Time Attack and Score modes, offers new challenges and replay value to boot.

Swap Force has a good underlying structure that makes it easy to enjoy. The game's responsive controls make things feel snappy as you blast away at enemies from afar or venture in close to stun or bash those around you. Swap Force pushes the enemies to swarm you as you jump and dodge out of the way, fighting back all the while. As the levels progress, you learn to manage the battle around you, stunning or taking out weaker or ranged-attack enemies first before going after stronger enemies. In the more frenzied moments, I found myself using melee attacks to buy distance to move in, ranged attacks to take out clusters of enemies in relative safety, and a special attack to telepathically hurl either a kitchen sink or a nearby opponent at nearby enemies to clear space.

Although each enemy type tends to be limited to two or three basic attacks, Swap Force remains diverse by throwing a wide variety of foes at you. Each level features its own distinct units and works to a fevered pitch in which you simultaneously fight simple melee combatants, ranged attackers, and tougher, higher-end enemies. Role-playing elements deepen this simple but exciting foundation, allowing you to upgrade your character, equip items that improve your stats, gain new abilities, and become more formidable. One of the game's joys is that it doesn't spend too much time on any one thing. It's not just a straight shooter in which you slay hundreds of enemies in a given stage, or just a platformer in which you leap from one moving surface to the next. Instead, the game evenly blends melee fisticuffs, ranged battles, and environmental puzzles into a satisfying mix that draws you in and holds your attention.

Swap Force taps into the sheer joy of experimenting with new character combinations.

With Swap Force, you can physically split the magnetically attached top and bottom sections of your Skylanders figurines, joining them into new combinations and then warping them into your game. Once they're warped in, you can purchase new attacks and abilities for the top and bottom sections of your new characters on the fly via power-up stations found throughout the game and create cool new combinations, such as the half-robot, half-eagle warrior that I wound up using as my main character. Using these combinations don't substantially change the gameplay, but there's considerable joy in trying new combinations. In the case of my own character, I was able to blend my Skylander into a new unit complete with both strong ranged and melee attacks to create a character that could handle most combat situations it encountered. It's this kind of mixing, matching, and customizing that makes the game enjoyable to play, especially once you begin to experiment with new combinations.

There's a definite sense of accomplishment in reaching your character's next level, though the game doesn't tell you which attributes, if any, have been upgraded upon reaching the next level. Instead, you see more defined changes to your characters through purchasing new abilities, attacks, and wearable inventory items, which might increase your health, boost your standard attack, and so on.

In addition to a solid single-player campaign and unlockable Time Attack and Score modes, Swap Force features a Battle Arena mode where you can fight in Solo Survival, Team Survival, Rival Survival, and Ring Out modes, fighting with or against a human teammate. Arena battles work well enough, but don't evolve beyond basic button mashing, and feel like a side dish instead of a main course. Worse, Team Survival mode is punitive; players who die early in the game have to wait until their teammate beats the round or dies, because Swap Force fails to offer additional lives or a means of resurrecting friends. This flies in the face of the rest of the game's philosophy, which goes out of its way to be friendly and accessible; it's boring to wait around a few minutes before getting a chance to play some more.

No matter how old you are, you might get annoyed with Swap Force's static camera, which doesn't always provide the best possible angle and will have you longing for more control of your view. A greater annoyance is also a returning one: you can't unlock certain sections without purchasing specific Skylanders figurines or collections of them, which can come at a steep price. True, the game arrives with either three or five Skylanders figures, but it also frequently subjects you to advertisements for new toys, which can make the whole experience feel like a crass marketing campaign. The game's mechanics also encourage you to run to the nearest toy store. In certain circumstances, the game states that your character has run out of energy, and needs to rest so that another Skylanders figurine can be swapped onto the Portal of Power and pick up where your other character left off.

Despite its push to have you run out and buy additional figures, Skylanders Swap Force remains fun and charming for kids and adults alike. The new character combinations enhance the gameplay, expanding on what can be created and adding an interesting mechanic to the game. You may wind up shopping for new figures to unlock new content, which isn't a cheap habit to build, but Swap Force taps into the sheer joy of experimenting with new character combinations and building them from there.

The Stanley Parable Review

I have always been someone who wants to go the "wrong" way first in games. When I sense that a game is trying to usher me down a particular path, to get me to run from left to right or maybe to charge straight ahead, I need to satisfy my instinct to go against the grain, to explore, to see what the designers have put back the other way. Sometimes I find a 1-up or a collectible stashed away to reward me for my intrepid behavior. At other times, my explorations are rewarded only by the crushing disappointment of running up against an invisible wall. Whatever I find or don't find, my action is a manifestation of my desire to exert some independence, to make my own choices within a system that severely limits my options and encourages certain, specific behaviors.

In The Stanley Parable, you control Stanley, aka employee #427, a cog in a machine, an employee in a system that offers him no options and demands certain, specific behaviors. He sits in his drab, tiny office, waiting for orders to appear on his screen telling him which buttons to push, and then pushing those buttons. Then, one day, the orders stop coming, and he is confronted with freedom, or at least the illusion of it. You take control of Stanley and walk down a hallway as a haughty narrator comments on what Stanley is thinking and feeling about this strange new circumstance in which he finds himself. Then, you come to a room with two open doors.

Behold, one of the most exciting choices in the history of games. No, really.

"When Stanley came to a set of two open doors," the narrator says, "he entered the door on his left."

It's a choice. A real choice, made all the more fascinating by the fact that the game, via the narrator, explicitly communicates its expectations to you. Do you cooperate with the narrator, letting the story he wants to tell play out? Or do you go the "wrong" way, seeing what awaits down the hallway on the right? No matter what you do, here, as in most games, exerting true independence is impossible. You are operating within a severely limiting system that others have created. You can play into its expectations or attempt to defy them, but either way, you are engaging in behavior that the system allows, moving through environments that others have constructed with you, the player, in mind. No matter which way you go in The Stanley Parable, you are confronted with choices again and again. And again and again, the narrator communicates his expectations to you. When the narrator tells you that Stanley walks straight ahead into the room marked Mind Control Facility, do you follow his narrative lead, or branch off to the left, down the hallway marked "ESCAPE"?

It's an experience that makes you reflect on the nature of choice in games, on how games that purport to offer choice almost always offer only an illusion of choice. You might find the narrator commenting that you made a choice that you shouldn't, by design, have been able to make, or you might make your way to an area that the narrator claims you were never meant to see. But of course, the very fact that there's recorded dialogue commenting on these circumstances makes it clear that these are situations that the designers planned for and wanted you to discover.

The Stanley Parable feels alive in its responsiveness to your choices and its desire to subvert your expectations and keep you on your toes.

But it's not the fact that The Stanley Parable makes you think about the nature of choice in games that makes it extraordinary. It's the fact that it does so while simultaneously managing to be a wildly entertaining, hilarious, and surprising experience that satisfies your yearning to go off the beaten path and to make impactful choices even as it makes you question how much freedom you ever really have in a game.

As you make your choices, going along with the narrator's expectations or defying them, his commentary constantly has you in stitches. It's particularly amusing to listen to him as he insults Stanley (or just as often, you, the defiant player) when you don't follow his instructions. Spend a bit of time dawdling in a broom closet that offers you nothing to interact with, for instance, and the narrator eventually becomes so exasperated with your seemingly pointless behavior that he eventually concludes that you, the player, must have died. He then calls out to anyone near your computer, asking for your body to be taken away and a new player to be found, one who (unlike you) understands basic first-person video game mechanics and the history of narrative tropes in games "so that the irony and insightful commentary of this game is not lost on them."

I'm not very good at The Stanley Parable.

It doesn't take long to arrive at any one of The Stanley Parable's many endings, but it's exciting to play again and again, because the choices you make can take you down such wildly different paths, and because the narrator's commentary is so smartly written and its delivery so hilarious that finding ways to trigger new bits of it is as rewarding as discovering a secret area containing precious treasures in a great adventure game. You're simultaneously questioning whether or not any of your choices really mean anything and enjoying the inventive ways in which The Stanley Parable rewards you for the choices you make. And often, just when you think your understanding of The Stanley Parable is nearing completion, it throws you for a loop; the starting area might suddenly be different for no apparent reason, or doing the same thing you've done before might result in a different (and delightful) response from the narrator. The Stanley Parable feels alive in its responsiveness to your choices and its desire to subvert your expectations and keep you on your toes.

I think of The Stanley Parable as a sort of video game analogue for Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's brilliant film Adaptation, which gently mocked the ways in which so many films manipulate audiences with formulaic plot twists and situations in which characters learn huge life lessons, while simultaneously moving me with its formulaic plot twists and situations in which characters learned huge life lessons. The Stanley Parable is both a richly stimulating commentary on the nature of choice in games (and in other systems, too, like our workplaces and our families) and a game that offers some of the most enjoyable, surprising, and rewarding choices I've ever been confronted with in a game. Going the wrong way has never felt so right.