By Ian Ording | | @IanOrding

One-man indie game developer Smudged Cat Games was clearly writing a love letter to its favorite games when it made Gateways. The game fuses the brilliant puzzle mechanic of Valve’s Portal with the upgrade-driven exploration of classic 2D Metroid games. While Smudged Cat executes the best aspects of those games with impressive precision, the game fails to find its own identity, getting lost in what the developer was inspired by. That said, for fans of either classic series mentioned above, Gateways will be a pleasant trip down memory lane, albeit a maddeningly difficult one.

The game centers around a scientist who has created “gateway guns,” devices that work much like Portal’s titular portal gun. They serve as the primary gameplay mechanic for overcoming the plethora of puzzles in his sprawling underground laboratory.

It manages to avoid being a wholesale rip-off of Valve’s masterworks, however, for two reasons. Gateways is set in a two-dimensional space and has four variations of gateway guns.

The first gun the player receives is essentially the same as the one used in the Portal games; it creates two doors on any wall, floor or ceiling that players can jump through to assist in movement and puzzle solving. The second allows the player to change size to fit into tight spots or get on a platform that is too high for a normal-sized scientist. A third gun changes the direction gravity pulls depending on where the gateways are places. The last gun lets players make clones of themselves that emerge from the gate a few seconds earlier than when they went in the first one. Players must then coordinate movement with themselves from the past in order to solve environmental puzzles. Near the end of the game the scientist gains the ability to use all the guns in tandem, allowing for truly migraine-inducing puzzles.

These puzzles are what make Gateways a worthwhile purchase for any Portal fan. With the addition of the extra guns, Gateways, despite having one less dimension, manages to be considerably more difficult than both Portal games. Personally, I can complete the first of Valve’s puzzle classics in under two hours and Smudged Cat’s homage has managed to stump me entirely at parts. This is a game that does not hold your hand. Although each puzzle has a station at its start at which players can spend collected orbs on the solution, there are only enough orbs in the game to cheat through about ten puzzles. That is just a paltry selection of the trials the scientist must traverse in his lab.

Unfortunately, Gateways has a substantial disconnect between execution and originality. While the gameplay, world and puzzles are all administered with precision and excellence, the game didn’t feel set apart from those that it drew from. I honestly forgot there was a narrative except when there was text actively on the screen explaining the scientist’s situation. And even at those points, the plot was painfully disinteresting. This isn’t a fatal flaw because story obviously isn’t the primary point of the game, though it does seem like a screaming missed opportunity to make something truly inspired rather than just very well done.

Disappointing plot aside, Gateways will be supremely enjoyable to any player who has enjoyed the influencing games listed earlier in the review. In addition, as an indie game on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Gateways is very inexpensive at only $1.00. The mind-bending puzzles and lab exploration are well worth that minimal price point.

Rating: 3.75/5


By Ian Ording | | @IanOrding
Rating 5/5

While many would argue there was almost nothing to improve upon with the original game, Borderlands 2 breaks the rule of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Luckily, it succeeds almost entirely without fault. Toting comic-book style graphics, a pop-culture laden sense of humor and an arsenal of millions of guns, Gearbox Software’s latest game is an absolute thrill-ride that cannot be recommended highly enough.

On a quest to the planet of Pandora to seek out the fabled Vault for its treasure, a quartet of adventurers are ambushed by the corporate villain Handsome Jack in the opening scene. Predictably, this is the player’s cue to select between the four very different warriors to guide through the game.

The differences that separate the characters are more tangible than mere statistical variations. Each has its own special power to be implemented in battle. Maya the Siren can use psychic powers to pick up and hold enemies. Axton the commando throws down turrets to offer backup firepower and defense against the dregs of Pandora. Salvador the Gunzerker can go into a rage and blast through baddies with two guns at once. Finally, Zer0, the awkwardly named assassin, turns invisible and produces a hologram to confuse his foes.

This choice is integral to your Borderlands experience as it will dictate how you’ll play during the entire game. While this may sound intimidating, it just means there’s a built-in reason to play the game at least four times; all four classes are a breeze to get a hang of and their combat styles evolve wonderfully as you level up and progress through the campaign. This ensures you’ll have a much more layered and complex strategy for late-level fights than at the start of the game.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this is an average shooter; just because the game is in first-person and uses guns doesn’t make it a Call of Duty wannabe. Borderlands 2 is first and foremost a role-playing-game. Your main motivation is improving your characters’ stats and gear. These are both a blast since the skill trees are greatly expanded from those of the first game and the second still boasts millions of different guns. Yes, millions. You will never see the same weapon twice while playing and there is endless room for improvement.

Although the game is an RPG, that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of action. Every firefight becomes supremely tense with large groups of enemies and a near-constant stream of boss battles. You’ll be strategically switching between machine-guns and shotguns and using your class ability every time there’s an altercation rather than just at the big ones, which is not something every RPG can boast about. Every time you finish a battle alive, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and relief. As a result, none of the action feels shoe-horned in and players will be much obliged to take on every bad guy they come across.

One of the few things the first installment faltered on was the story. While there was some funny writing here and there, it lacked in overall motivation and quantity of voice acting.

The sequel fixes the former problem immediately by presenting a great antagonist within the first three minutes of popping the disc in. Handsome Jack, capturing America’s newly reemerged fear of corporate greed, is equal parts sociopathic and hilarious incorporating a dialogue delivery style not unlike that of the titular character of the show Archer.

The latter stumbling block is completely reversed with tons of spoken dialogue from almost every character. To make matters better, the majority is somewhere on a spectrum between tongue-in-cheek and laugh-out-loud. Between the beatboxing robot Claptrap and missions that that reference everything from Dark Souls to Top Gun’s volleyball scene, even the most jaded gamer will chortle throughout his or her playthrough.

Gearbox provides a sensory assault both visually and aurally. Rather than utilizing the now industry-standard gritty, dismal graphic scheme of so many other modern games, Borderlands 2 looks much more like a comic book. Its thick outlines and bright color palette sets it apart from much of the rest of this generation’s biggest titles. Accompanying the refreshing art is a stellar soundtrack that would feel at home in a space odyssey or a western.

In short, if you’re not playing Borderlands 2, you should be. Gearbox has crafted an experience wholly unlike almost everything else on the market and definitely as good as any game released this year, if not this console generation. The brutal action and zany sense of humor accent excellent gameplay and character progression. Borderlands 2 is a veritable Vault in its own right containing a deep and priceless vein of entertainment.

By Eric R. Miller | | @Eric_R_Miller

The online shooter gaming scene is a very crowded one. With juggernauts like Call of Duty and Battlefield gaining the most playtime, it can be very difficult and daunting for a new IP to launch. Starhawk, from Austin-based developer Lightbox Interactive, looks to break into the scene by mixing in elements of tower defense and third-person shooting. It’s a strange yet fulfilling mix that creates one the best multiplayer experiences available on consoles.

Though multiplayer is the main focus, there is a single-player campaign. You take on the role of Emmet Graves, a freelance mercenary who never turns down a job. Excluded from society after being partially infected from rift energy, he must prove his worth. Rift energy is the main resource of this world, providing fuel and electricity to civilizations across the galaxy. The whole idea of staking claims in unforeseen lands exudes a good rush theme, and this game feels like a space western. Even with this rich universe, the single-player campaign falls flat, with little character development and a convoluted story. The campaign never shakes the feeling that it’s one extended tutorial for the multiplayer.

In the end, that’s OK, because the majority of playtime will take place in the multiplayer sweet, offering a full array of co-op, clan and match support. The multiplayer component of Starhawk is as deep as any other game. The gameplay of Starhawk is extremely rewarding due to the build-and-battle system. As you defeat enemies, capture flags and control zones, you earn rift energy. At any time during a match, you can cash in that rift energy for a base structure, whether it be a wall, turret or jet pad. This unique feature allows the player to evolve the battlefield to fit his or her needs, and it ensures that no two battles are ever played the same.

The build-and-battle system creates a sort of controlled chaos for the players. At any moment, walls and buildings can come crashing from the sky, providing new opportunities for the player to strategize. If the players are skilled enough, they can even call buildings down on enemies, killing them almost instantly. There’s almost no greater feeling than that.

The build-and-battle system also allows for many different play styles to emerge. Not good with shooting? No prob. Stay back in the base and help build up the defense. Love flying? Great. Build a hawk pad and take to the skies. You can still be a team player and earn experience without even firing your gun a single time. This system allows everyone to have a fair shot at feeling like they’re important to the team.

This is a game that requires teamwork to succeed. Unlike Call of Duty, players can’t run off and be a lone wolf. Some of the best moments in the game come from strategizing. You may send three teammates ahead in tanks to take down the enemy’s base so another two people can swing in on speeder bikes to grab the flag. Nothing is more exhilarating than working together with your team.
Overall, the fun and beauty of Starhawk is something that can’t really be put into words. The thrill of the flag capture, the terror of being bombed at the base, the tenseness of running down an opponent — all come from the feeling of teamwork. The build-and battle-system allows players to control their own destiny on the battlefield, and it creates a unique system that makes this game feel fresher than any per game in a long time. In the end, Starhawk is an excellent game that all PlayStation 3 owners should play. Though the single player is short, the multiplayer will keep you coming back for weeks and months to come.


By Ian Ording | | @IanOrding

Ask yourself: Does the idea of riding a dirt bike through the beaches of Normandy sound exciting? How about through an exploding factory? The set of the movie Inception?

If any or all of those scenarios capture your attention, the new Xbox Live Arcade release Trial Evolution should absolutely be on your radar. This downloadable title from RedLynx puts players in the seat of a bike with the simple goal of making it to the finish of each track. However, that simplicity can overshadow the difficulty of the levels in the latter half of the game. It is a game that has an easy door in and is as rewarding as a game can get for those who stick with it.

Trials has a control set that is as easy to grasp as it is difficult to master; the right trigger button accelerates and pushing left and right makes the rider lean back and forth. The game is set up on a two-dimensional plane, so the only directions you can go are forward and backward. These few actions must be used in increasingly difficult manners in order to come out on top of the tracks at the end of the game. That said, the game offers an almost incomparable level of relief when you finish a particularly grueling course.

Where Trials Evolution shines is in the replayability department. The courses vary greatly in both style and architecture, and each has requirements for bronze, silver and gold medals. Once you reach the levels labeled “Hard,” you will be hard-pressed to make it in the zero crashes required for the gold medals. And then, once you have unlocked the 135 medals required to win the game, the ability to win platinum medals is unlocked and you gain access to a set of “Extreme” levels that will have you pulling hair.

But don’t let the thought of constant crashing discourage you. The game employs a very forgiving checkpoint system that has little to no loading time. After almost every other jump is a checkpoint where your biker will return should you record a fault. This mechanic encourages you to keep trying to complete the levels, and after the repetition, familiarity in course setup will lend to cleaner runs. Trials is a game that will wave the players’ improvement in front of their faces.

When you feel like you’ve had enough of besting yourself, Trials Evolution allows you to take your skills online. The multiplayer of Trials allows for up to four-person races on tracks set up for the contests. It is a good diversion from hitting your head against the wall during your platinum medal runs.

Trials also provides tools for track creation. These user-made courses can be uploaded and downloaded to and from Xbox Live, making RedLynx’s dirt bike tour de force a communal project.

If you need further distraction from the excellent core gameplay, there is a set of minigames based on the biking gameplay. They include riding a course without the ability to tilt, wearing wings and making extra-long jumps and landing a flying saucer on landing pads. While these are mildly enjoyable, they will not merit your attention for very long. They offer an easy way to get a few medals if you are running short, though.

The only unfortunate misstep is in the soundtrack. The game opens with a grating rap-rock travesty and similar tunes play throughout your playtime. You may want to upload some songs onto your console to play, or mute the game and have Netflix or music on a nearby laptop as I did. It is an easily remedied issue, though one that stands out in an otherwise superb showing.

Trials Evolution is an excellent game that will suck away hours upon hours from your day. It epitomizes the “one-more-try” mentality with its medal rewards and outrageous difficulty. If you’re looking for an excellent game to thoroughly distract you, you need not look further. Trials Evolution is one of the best arcade games of this year. And at only $15, it provides a ton of fun for your money.



By Ian Ording | | @IanOrding

The rise of the Internet has caused great shifts in not only the real world but in the video game world as well. It has brought gamers together in more ways than one. While the obvious result of this is direct competitive and cooperative play with other people, it has also taken the surprise out of modern gaming.

When video game consoles first began appearing, one of the greatest assets of the games was that thrill of stumbling upon the ins and outs of the worlds that were being traversed. Whether it was the warp pipes in Super Mario Bros., the burnable bushes in The Legend of Zelda, missile upgrades in Metroid or the gruesome fatalities of Mortal Kombat, the infant years of gaming employed an infantile attitude of discovery. Word of mouth provided players with fascinating new secrets in the games they were playing and it was only through individual experimentation that these mysteries were uncovered.

That has since ceased to be the way of games. The Internet has become a veritable convenience store for video game handholding. The modern gamer is coddled by the Web; any time a hitch arises in the progress of any game, he or she is only a trip to a popular game walkthrough site away from having a detailed guide on how to overcome the obstacle. The only way the old-school style of going into games blind can be achieved once more is if a game could be so difficult and confusing that it cannot be explained or figured out.

That is where Fez comes in.

Fez is a recently released 2D/3D hybrid platformer developed by Polytron for Xbox Live Arcade. Phil Fish and his development team have done seemingly everything they can to make a game that is full-walkthrough-proof. Between its complex map and lack of direction, the game has avoided getting an entire walkthrough (at least none that I could find) since its April 13 release. This is almost unheard of with modern games.

While on the surface the game may seem reasonable, its innards hold nasty secret puzzles that have left the vast majority of players baffled. Some involve translating Morse code-like sequences of blinking dots into binary code. Others have the player working with QR Codes that appear in-game. Fez also has its own invented language that is necessary in the solving of the final secret puzzle in the game. However, that is about the only thing known about this puzzle, seeing as the developers of the game are the only people on the planet that know how it works.

Since the so-called “Black Monolith” puzzle was found, players have been trying desperately to uncover its solution. Discussion boards online are filled with pages of notes deciphering the language and the clues scrawled on the walls in the world of Fez. The only players to have conquered this stumper did not actually figure it out. One called a friend who helped develop the game and another hit buttons at random until something worked.

In a modern world where games paint lines on the ground directing gamers to objectives and have architecture that is little more than corridors leading players from one explosion to the next, Fez dares to not say a word of how it is beaten. If this lack of direction can make a comeback in the gaming industry, many classic game enthusiasts will rejoice. It has taken away the ability to look up the solution in two minutes. Instead, gamers must collaborate and share knowledge to figure out the enigma that is Fez.