Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Developer: Zynga
Publisher: Facebook
Release Date: June 19, 2009
System: PC
ESRB Rating: N/A
Official Web Site

In a nutshell: 75 million players can't be wrong... or can they?

0:00 My main exposure to this game comes from two places. One is the roughly 5 billion unwanted Facebook updates from my friends and family telling me they just got a new chicken on their farm or something. The second is the Game Power conference at this year's CES, where the overnight success of Farmville is all anyone could freaking talk about! I figure if it's making this big a splash in the industry, I should at least see what the heck it's all about.

0:01 I type "farmville" into the Facebook search box in the upper right corner. The top result is a group called "Not Playing Farmville." I... don't think that's what I'm looking for. The group has over 2 million fans... maybe this game isn't as popular as I thought?

0:05 The actual Farmville application is a little ways down. It has "74,256,278 monthly active users" I strike my comment about the popularity. 11,326,674 of those players are "fans" of the game, and it's currently rated 4.1 out of 5 with over 4,000 reviews. Ho. Lee. Shit.

0:09 "Howdy Ya'll! Come on down to the Farm today and play with your friends. We got plenty of land for everyone. Come and see what everyone is hootin' and hollerin' about." That's the idea!

0:10 I click the little "allow" button to lt Farmville post stuff to my Facebook "wall"
and access my friends list. I'm always a bit worried when I do this that someone is gonna come and demand to remove my kidneys, which I just legally signed away.

0:11 Almost immediately I'm looking at a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in the middle of a largely empty green field. No installs, no noticeable downloads, just a peppy little guitar and piano tune.

0:11 "Harvest your crops. Plow two plots." I do the first by simply clicking on the "harvest tool" and then the fully grown crops that are in my started field. I do the second by clicking the "plow tool" and clicking on afew pieces of fallow land. Then I buy some soybeans from the store and plant them on the newly plowed area just as easily. The game tells me they'll sprout in a day. Like, real time? Who has that kind of time. I want my soybeans NOW!

0:12 The tutorial is already done. "Great job! That's farming for ya. Come back tomorrow to harvest your crops before they wither." That's it? That's the entire game? Really?

0:13 Clicking around, I find I can ask my friends to be my "neighbors" and help them with their farms. I look to connect with people who are already playing, but the entire list seems to be people who aren't playing yet. I don't want to spam people!

0:14 I go back to the main game, where I'm told there's limited time promotional pricing on Fuel. Oh, and I won 30 coins in a daily raffle. So this is a game like a slot machine is a game, then?

0:15 I have 233 coins and 5 Farmville dollars. That means the biggest thing I can afford right now is a cherry tree. I get 5 experience points just for planting it near my strawberry patch.

0:16 MAN, this music is incredibly catchy. I think it forms at least half the appeal of the game.

0:19 Ah, I was looking in the wrong place for my existing Farm-villian friends. When I look in the right place, I find 59 people I know are already signed up. This includes current friends, college friends, ex-girlfriends, game industry PR contacts, fellow journalists, family members and more.

0:24 "Gus is currently away from his farm and weeds have grown. Would you help remove them?" That's Gus Mastrapa, a colleague from my time at Crispy Gamer! I think it's a bit presumptuous of the game to ask me to do work for someone else, but Gus is a nice enough guy, so yeah, sure, why not.

0:25 Gus' farm is kind of sad looking... all overrun with brown weeds. I get 20 coins and 5 experience points just for agreeing to help out. That gets me up to level 2, "kinderfarmer," which unlocks some new trees for purchase. I'm prompted to share the news on my wall, and I do, with the accompanying message: "Yup, apparently I'm doing this now."

0:26 I click a single button and the weeds are magically gone from Gus' farm. Wow, that was easy. Now the game wants me to share gifts with Gus, "to show him how you really feel." Like weeding his farm wasn't enough? Sheesh! I give him a whitewash fence, because they seemed so fun to wash in Tom Sawyer.

0:28 Every time I try to add a new friend, I'm sidetracked by a message at the top of the page about someone who's away from their farm and needs my help. All these farms are overrun by gophers or ravens or need fertilizer or what have you. It's a mess!

0:30 Of my 59 player friends, 10 are at still at level 1. 9 more haven't broken level 5. Seeing as I'm already at level 2, this doesn't speak well of their engagement with the game. I wonder how many of those 70+ million people are really "active" players, and how many just checked it out and never came back.
0:32 I'm sending a neighbor request to a random selection of friends who seem to be pretty high level at the game, even the people I don't know too well. The worst they can do is deny my request, right? And after all, "You can have a lot more fun by visiting and helping your Neighbors."

0:39 I finally exhaust my 24 neighbor invites for the day. The system is incredibly cumbersome, requiring multiple clicks per invite. Seems like something they'd want to streamline, no?

"Click here to give your friends great free gifts." I try to send some collectible gloves, in an effort to entice my potential neighbors to be nice to me, but I've "run out of requests for the day." At least the game does something to limit the Facebook spam it sends, I guess.

0:42 My strawberries have gone from 55% grown to 64% percent grown. It's like watching plants grow...

0:43 I have a decent bit of money now, so I decide to plant some more crops. For some reason, I lose money just by plowing the field, for some reason. That's in addition to the money I'll have to pay for seeds. I get a one time bonus of 300 coins when I go bankrupt, at least.

0:45 I arrange my plowed plots to sell out a nice, friendly "Hi!" to any potential neighbors that might look in. That's the whole point, right?

0:47 Not much else to do but plant seeds, right? Strawberries only cost 10 coins and sprout in four hours! Wow! I fill up my "Hi!" with seeds and get up to level 3.

0:48 I post a little signpost next to my plowed "Hi!" message. The sign says "Hi!"

0:49 I can't seem to figure out a way to customize my freaky looking, blonde-haired avatar. I find this incredibly surprising.

0:50 Not much else I can afford to do on my own farm, so I go about clearing weeds from my cousin Carly's farm. There I find a sign-posted message from one Shani Dabush, which I assume is one of Carly's friends. "...and your farm is still ugly even after I helped get rid of your foxes." Harsh I feel so voyeuristic! I leave a note too. "You are an inattentive farmer!" Buuuurn!

0:53 I go visit the farm of Escapist colleague Susan Arendt, and it's a wonder to behold! "Oh, Hai!" is spelled out in hay bales. There's plenty of fallow land in the center, and plenty of colorful fruit trees in the corner. A few cute animals meander in another corner, making occasional noises There's a dairy farm and even some "spooky bats." My farm feels inadequate now.

0:55 I help Jess chase off some raccoons and get the "High Roller yellow ribbon," which gives me 500 gold and 50 experience points. Her farm is snowy and also full of animals packed into the corners. But no actual crops! Whaaaaaa?

0:57 "Colin Torretta commented on your post." That'd be the one announcing my second level. 'Haha, well done. Join the dork side... We have tasty veggies here!"

1:01 OK, that's it for me for now. Although maybe I'll come back in a few hours to pick my strawberries...


Monday, January 25, 2010

Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

Developer: Namco
Release Date:
Jan. 12, 2010
ESRB Rating:
Official Web site

In a nutshell:
Ace Combat Lite – less filling, half the gameplay.

0:00 The box says this is by the same people that made the Ace Combat series, which I like quite a bit on the Ps2. Wikipedia says this game is based on a 2008 anime movie which I've never heard of. Hopefully that won't get in my way.

0:01 I love the manic xylophone music on the preview screen. Sounds like an Electroplankton level run amok.

0:02 After a few long seconds creating data, the title comes up over eerily silent clouds. I dig out a Nunchuk, plug it in, and move on.

0:03 When I open the options menu, the game pauses to give me tutorial on how to navigate the options menu. Are there a lot of people playing flight sims that don't know how to manage a menu screen?

0:04 After a quick trip round the options, it's off to the first tutorial, “Fly with Grace.” What a delicious pun! Up and atom!

0:05 “I'm now going to explain basic controls” says an eerily robotic male voice. The tutorial expects me to hold the Remote in my left hand and the Nunchuk in my right. This feels pretty weird, but who am I to argue. I raise the Remote to speed up, level it out to go back to cruising speed. It's pretty hard to keep it perfectly level... I keep accidentally speeding up slightly. Tilting the Nunchuk controls the plane's angle. Pretty simple.

0:08 A large white cone points to the nearest targeted enemy. The heads-up display then frames the enemy with a green box indicator. I fire my guns with the Z button on the Nunchuk and get a very smoky explosion. The graphics look like a mid-generation PS2 game... kind of muddy. Also, it's pretty hard to get precise control and aim with this Nunchuk tilting. What's wrong with the analog stick, eh?

0:09 “This concludes the attacking enemies tutorial.” The message takes a few seconds. Then it takes 15 seconds to bring up the “quit tutorial,” menu. Then five seconds more to load the main menu. Then 10 more to load next tutorial. GET ON WITH IT!

0:10 The third tutorial simply explains that an enemy with a red “TGT” above it is a "target" that will trigger a “Mission Accomplished.” Why it took them a full minute to explain this simple fact, I have no idea.

0:12 Did you know that a radar shows you where other planes are in relation to you? You did? Well then you're smarter than the people this tutorial is aimed at.

0:13 Tactical Manuever Commands, or TMCs, are special commands that automatically place you behind an enemy plane. When you get close to an enemy, a gauge fills up. Press A when it's full, and it auto-magically does some fancy flying shit from a fancy camera angle and puts the enemy right in your crosshairs. Neat.

0:15 Trying out TMCs for myself. It seems like I could have shot this guy before the gauge filled up, since I was already in so close. Also, the TMC seems like a bit of a cop out, like they're dumbing down the dogfights so anyone can get that perfect shot.

0:16 The analog stick is used to choose manual maneuvers like barrel rolls and hard bank turns and such. It's hard to remember which one goes with which analog direction, but I bet I'll get it. Seems a waste of the analog stick, though.

0:18 The game spends two minutes or so telling me that different enemy types have different shaped green boxes around them on the HUD. OH MY GOD PLEASE SPEED THIS TUTORIAL UP!

0:20 Learning about bombs, now. When equipped, a nice white circle shows up where the bomb will fall on the ground. Maybe my depth perception is off, but I find I have to dive really low to get the bomb to hit where I want.

0:22 Quote of the moment, describing the mission gauge: “Fullness indicates safety while emptiness indicates danger.” That's some natural sounding English, right there.

0:23 And the tutorial is blessedly over! Time for the Story mode, Normal difficulty. “Rudakai, Misson 01.” Celtic strings play in the background. “Pilots, this is your mission,” says an unnamed balding commander in a low monotone. Radio jamming planes have been seen off the coast. “Your mission is simple: stop them by any means.” They have air support, “but I have faith our Cougar Squad will be able to neutralize them … That'll be all pilots. Happy hunting."

0:24 Looks like its five of our guys vs. 11 of theirs. Seems fair!

0:25 In the hangar I can choose from a wide array of planes, including the Suiga and... um... that's it. Luckily it's “Rostock's primary fighter” and “trusted by all Rostock pilots.” That's great. What's a Rostock?

0:26 Some friendly banter over the radio as we fly into our first mission. Captain Yamasaki tells me he'll be covering me as I take out the targets.

0:28 “Look at you go. Not bad for a newbie” says a grainy voice on the radio as I quickly take out my first two targets.

0:29 As my next target flies past me, I notice the TMC gauge starting to fill up, since he came in so close. I hit it as soon as it hits the minimum “level 1” and end up looping back to right behind him for a waaay too easy kill. Where's the skill and the thrill of manual aerial acrobatics?

0:30 Mission accomplished, with 18:30 left of my 20:00 time limit. “Guess the new generation is taking over,” someone says of my amazing rookie performance. “The life of a pilot is short as is,” replies another, morbidly.

0:31 I can view the replays of my kills from a variety of angles, including the enemy POV. They're all... pretty boring, actually. The skies are way too empty and the fights have barely any aerial acrobatics to them. I do like the wispy clouds, though.

0:32 “Lynx, fine job today. A lot of people looking forward to seeing what your true potential is.” Um, I think that sentence is missing a main verb there, boss. A stylized view shows our dogfights as blue and red lines dancing around the sky. It's not as impressive as the similar replays in Ace Combat 4.

0:33 I get a grade of B because I only had one TMC kill. So let me get this straight... the game is actively discouraging using manual skill in favor of the “auto-kill” TMC button? Man...

0:34 “Suiga Color 2 is now available.” Ohboyohboyohboy!

0:36 Over-the-top anime cut scene time. “Blue and white stretches out me forever,” says a light female voice. “I am bathed in light. In the sky I am alone forever. That is all I know. That is why I'm in this war. There are those who need war and those who supply it. As for me, the only reason that I can fly is that I'm part of that system.” Um...

0:37 In a pub now, the captain and two pilots watch 200 anti-war protesters on the news. “A bunch of idealists aren't they,” my character asks. But it's free advertising for the war sponsors, my partner argues. “A war between rival companies,” says the disembodied female voice. “A battle between hired hands. When they see us, people always think, 'good thing it's peaceful here.' The war has no cost, so we make one. Add a lot of extra baggage will only weigh us down.” I think this lost something in the translation...

0:38 The captain is over at the phone. He has to head back early, but won't tell us why. Then it's the female voice again: “But I'm afraid that cause will one day disappear. The sky is just too big for that. We fly because...” Because what? BECAUSE WHAT?

0:39 Ubasama, Mission 02 “Starting today, some new pilots have been assigned to our base.” They're en route as we speak, but in danger from an enemy that's “seeking a confrontation with them.” They may be rookies, but “assume they're defenseless.” The interception point is above a city... I'm told to keep civilian damage minimal.

0:40 Into the hangar, I'd like to spend the 8110 points I earned last mission, but there's nothing available to buy... only that new paint color I unlocked. Come on... these points are burning a hole in my digital pocket.

0:42 Some more friendly banter as we approach the interception point. Two of my fellow pilots make a bet on what type of planes we'll be facing when we get there, Vices or Fissions. Turns out their Fissions. Take THAT, guy who bet on Vices!

0:48 I end up abusing the TMC feature this time, using it on 14 of 18 kills. It makes the whole thing way too easy – all I have to do is get close and they don't stand a chance to my fancy auto-flying. During the firefight, there was a lot of radio chatter from a reporter on the ground. First she was talking worriedly about downed planes crashing into the city, but then she found out who as fighting up above and got very enthusiastic about “our boys.... As expected they flew with such finesse.” Jingoism run amok! Hooray!

0:51 I'm transfixed as I watch the stylized replay of my 18 kills. The colored arrows are like gnats hovering around a bug zapper. I earned an A for kills and an S for TMC use, meaning an A grade overall. 13780 more points, and even better, I can use them to buy stuff like engines and armor now!

0:52 Anime time again. A dirty plane lands and a repair clerk gets to work. The clerk seems worried about the new recruits: “But what are they?” “Pilots of course,” I say flippantly. We meet them down the runway, and the veterans stare with their mouths agape, for some reason. Really, I can't figure out why they're so flabbergasted. I mean, one of the pilots is a girl, I guess, but is that so gobsmackingly surprising? They're acting like these guys are aliens or something. I don't get it.

0:53 “Maimahara, Mission 03.” It's the primary farmland for this area, and the enemy is planning a major supply drop near the center. We have to intercept the transport planes. Our new pilots will join us this time.

0:56 My new Seiei plane has better speed but worse mobility, stability, defense, etc. Might be worth it, actually, as I had trouble getting close to the enemies quickly enough before.

0:57 I upgrade the engine and armor on my new plane, but I don't actually have to spend any of my points. I guess the points just unlock these upgrades instead?

0:58 Not enough time for another full mission, so I'll just end it here.

Would I play this game for more than an hour? No.
Between the TMCs and the touchy motion-sensing controls, this seems like a pale echo of Ace Combat 4, which I still need to finish. Why waste time on the shadow when you have the real object?

This review based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Developer: Gaijin Games
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: Nov. 23, 2009
System: Wii
ESRB Rating: E
Official Web site

In a nutshell: "Or play the game, existence, to the end ... of the beginning."

0:00 I loved the first two Bit.Trip games, even though I couldn't even come close to beating either one. Despite my well-developed rhythm-game skills, these punishing games pushed me past my limit. But I loved every second of their trippy gameplay. I somehow missed Void's release during the hectic holiday season, but it's never too late to dive on in.

0:01 Even though the game is on an SD card, I still need 286 blocks of memory on the Wii itself to play. So off to memory management we go.

0:03 So long, Wii Fit Plus Channel. Your constant reminders that it's been "more than a week" since my last check will not be missed. I still need 71 more blocks...

0:04 I don't Check Miis Out enough, and that will continue to be true now that the Check Mii Out Channel is gone.

0:05 And we're off. "The Nunchuk or Classic controller is required," I'm told, which surprises me, since the previous games just used the Remote like an NES controller.

0:06 The menu screen puts me in control of a large, pixilated black dot (the titular Void?) which I can move to select from three game modes: Id, Ego and Super-Ego. Id is the only one available, so let's go!

0:07 Commander Video stands in a red circle and does a little dance. The red circle grows bigger as two more Commander Videos watch from their own blue circles. They're getting shorter and stouter as the dance continues, then they fly off the screen. What the hell was that?



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dark Void

Developer: Airtight Games
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: Jan. 19, 2010
Systems: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: T
Official Web site

In a nutshell: The Rocketeer is missing his rocket pack.

0:00 I played Dark Void briefly at CES 2009, and then again at CES 2010. During those sessions I was a fan of the floating, jetpack-based combat but not a fan of the severe lack of ammunition I keep running up against.

0:01 A blue light with a metallic logo flying in. Timpani-heavy drums in the background. Fade to white and the menu screen, a generic futuristic computer interface.

0:02 I choose Normal difficulty and dive into: "Episode 1, Chapter 1: Prologue." Introducing: An Introduction!

0:04 "Silver Watcher Sergeants are tougher and more aggressive." Thanks for that, loading screen! August 1938. Biplanes fly over a mesa. But they have jet engines? In the '30s? A guy with a jetpack flies with them. "The lateral stabilizers seem to have made the difference," says a voice in my ear as the camera swings behind the jetpack guy and I'm immediately in control. "Yeah, I have to admit I was a little nervous, but it's flying great." And it is ... the controls and pretty fluid and natural. The beautiful rocky outcroppings below help.

0:05 "Hold up, we got company." It's a thin, circular alien ship, with a rotating ring around it. Looks like something straight out of "Independence Day." "Look out!" "Incoming!" The aliens take out a jet-biplane.

0:06 Some satisfying aerial dogfighting action -- dodging their shots with gentle loops, then zooming to get them in my sights. The only sour note is the constant radio chatter. "Now, take them down with your rocket pack." "Take 'em out, take 'em out!" "Let's make 'em pay." SHUT UP!



Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bakugan: Battle Brawler

Developer: NOW Productions
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: Oct. 20, 2009
Systems: Wii (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E
Official web site

In a nutshell: I still don't exactly know what a Bakugan is supposed to be.

0:00 The back of the box promises that "This is Bakugan like never before." That's highly accurate for me, since I'd never heard of Bakugan before receiving this game in the mail. But I like to keep up with the "youth culture" with its "Internet" and its "sexting" and its "industrials" and so forth, so I figured I'd see what this was all about.

0:01 Two Yu-Gi-Oh rejects stand alongside the game's logo as an awesome guitar riff plays on the preview screen. BWAH-NOW!

0:02 What seems like a billion game company logos fly by, then we see a view of the earth from space. A red-jacketed guy throws what looks like a gem. A circle with six colored gem pie pieces appear briefly. A blue-haired girl rides a robo-lion. The red jacket guy summons four girls, then throws another gem ... oh, no, it looks more like a poké-ball. Out of the ball comes a HUGE RED DRAGON to battle a HUGE BLUE DRAGON. They both shoot energy from their mouths in huge streams that EXPLODE in a HUGE CONFLAGRATION ARGH SO MUCH AWESOME AND TITLE!

0:03 A light electric guitar slow jam plays over the title screen. When I press +, red-jacket guy tells me how his "whole world changed one day when all these random cards rained down everywhere." Really? Cards falling from the sky? Really? Anyway, the kids made up a game to play with the cards, but it turns out the cards opened up a new dimension of monsters or something. "We are the Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Bakugan: One goal, two worlds." What goal would that be? And what two worlds, exactly?

0:05 I guess I'd better go to the Tutorial first. Maybe it'll teach me what a Bakugan is. "Hello, I'm Alice. I'll tell you all about playing Bakugan," She's a cute little redhead in a yellow summer dress. "Let me help you out." You can help me out anytime, Alice... *swoon*

0:06 I have a deck of cards and three Bakugan. My goal is to win three Gate Cards. That's great, but WHAT'S A BAKUGAN?



Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Army of Two: The 40th Day

Developer: EA Montreal
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: Jan. 12, 2010
Systems: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PSP
ESRB Rating: M
Official Web site

In a nutshell: Shanghai is exploding, but at least you're with your HARDCORE best friend...

0:00 I have no experience with the first Army of Two game. In fact, my entire impression of the game is formed by these two Penny Arcade comics, so you might say I have LESS than no experience with the first game. So I'm eager to see see what the relative lack of fuss is about.

0:01 "The latest update data for this software has been found." Really? The game just came out today and there's already a downloadable patch? It's OK ... version 1.01 should only take 75 seconds to download, according to the handy progress bar on-screen.

0:04 The patch is downloaded and installed and we're off on a magical journey. A city in flames appears in the background as the Army of Two title flies in with a metallic clang. Then immediate fade to the title in front of a blurry picture of the two skull-masked protagonists running away from an explosion. A bad Rob Zombie riff plays in the background. HARDCORE.

0:06 The background of the menu screens flickers between some grainy security camera footage of a sleepy Chinese alley, for some reason. I know this game is all about the co-op, but I don't think I know anyone who actually owns it yet, and I'm not about to play with some whiny 12-year-old brat on PSN.