Batman: Arkham Origins
Publisher: Warner Bros. (2013)
Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
This game has been taking heat for lack of innovation and bugginess, but I found this Wii U version to be relatively bug-free and just as addictive as the previous two Arkham titles. Origins features the same graphic style, fighting moves, stealth abilities, and even that familiar "kick the grate open" animation. The gothic visuals and the bone-crunching fights are still terrific, but don't have the "wow factor" they once did. Even the title seems a misnomer. Both Batman and the villains are fully realized from the start; they just don't know each other yet. Still, once I began playing Origins I remembered why I love this series. The controls are crisp and on-screen prompts provide timely hints. The combat has a slick counter system that lets our hero easily dispatch of several goons in rapid succession. Black Mask is the primary villain but there are plenty of supporting bad guys including the Penguin, Deathstroke, Copperhead, and the awesomely scary Killer Croc. As in previous games, you overhear a lot of conversations as you grapple between buildings and creep through dark hallways. A divide-and-conquer approach is wise when dealing with gangs, and it's fun to systematically weed them out. Navigating the city can be disorienting but a quick travel option helps ease the pain. The amazing scenery looks properly weathered and aged, and the dilapidated cruise ship is downright haunting
. Some areas do look very similar to others, giving you a frequent case of deja vu. I also found the upgrade system confusing, and using the control pad for the map doesn't work as well as you would expect. The graphical detail is commendable, especially with dust particles in the light fixtures and roaches scurrying across the prison floor. The only blemishes I could see were jaggy shadows and frame-drops when grappling between buildings. The game isn't particularly hard. After you die you pick up right where you left off and your progress is frequently saved. I think what I enjoy most about Arkham Origins is its wintry weather and holiday themes. Dating back to Batman Returns (1992), snow has always been a nice complement to the dark, gothic Gotham scenery. What I enjoyed least was the ridiculous boss battle with Deathstroke, which single-handedly gave me carpal tunnel! Overall Batman Arkham Origins has its share of been-there-done-that moments, but it's still one heck of a video game. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Publisher: Nintendo (2014)
Nintendo has released several excellent platformers for the Wii U, but Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze takes the cake! I was instantly struck by the sharpness of the graphics. Donkey Kong's fur looks so soft!
Then I realized this was the first time I've played a Donkey Kong Country game in high definition!
Unlike what the ill-conceived title might imply (bad
), the stages are not limited to snow and ice. In fact, most take place in warm locations like lazy island lagoons and African-style savannahs. You'll explore Alice in Wonderland-inspired giant fruit stages and quaint European villages with windmills and bells. In the opening stage you'll spot a frozen island in the distance, which is a forshadowing device used in many old-school games like Ghouls 'N Ghosts
(Genesis, 1989). The stage designs are incredibly inventive, and some of the visual effects will catch you off guard. It's fun to watch a big viking ship run aground, or witness a huge beanstalk spring forth from the earth. In one undersea stage the background illuminates to expose a giant octopus! The minecart stages are literally
rollercoaster rides - especially with their swinging vantage points. My favorite takes you through a working sawmill. As if dodging spinning blades aren't enough, you'll get dumped into the water below the mill as a thunderstorm rages in the background. It's just an amazing sequence to behold. Observant gamers will also notice subtle details like penguins armed with fish bone "spears", man-eating plants that drool, and baboons that stick out their tongue to goad you. Excellent controls complement the classic 2D gameplay. I love how slapping the ground breaks through weak floors, and pulling handles triggers all sorts of surprises. Don't be afraid of the water because Kong can swim just like Ecco the Dolphin
(Genesis, 1992). He can also carry a second character on his back like Diddy, Dixie, or Cranky. These imbue Kong with additional abilities like hovering or bouncing like a pogo stick. The difficulty can be pretty steep at times, especially when you're hopping between crumbling platforms or running for your life while making split-second decisions. Easing the difficulty are balloons you can purchase to provide extra lives or save you from falling or drowning. Tropical Freeze doesn't make use of the control pad, but it's not necessary so I'm glad Nintendo didn't force the issue. The game has tremendous replay value, considering all the coins, letters, and puzzle pieces hidden in each stage. A two-player coop mode is also included. Heck, there's even a color manual! Granted, there's not much to it but in 2014 we take what we can get. The more I played Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, the more it dawned on me that this could be the best platformer I've ever
played. If you're still on the fence about the Wii U, that should be food for thought. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.
Duck Tales Remastered
Publisher: Capcom (2013)
As a fan of the original Duck Tales
(NES, 1989) I was disappointed when this remastered version was only available via download. Thank goodness Capcom decided to slap it on a disc, and at a low price! Upon starting it my ears perked up at those distinctive Capcom chimes, taking me back to my Street Fighter II days. Next, the irresistibly jubilant theme from the original game kicked in. It's really one of the more memorable video game tunes of all time, and this remastered version is great. In fact, the game's beautifully orchestrated music often overshadows its slick high-definition graphics. That soothing melody that plays over the level select screen is truly amazing. Duck Tales begins with a bank robbery that serves as a tutorial stage. It gets you used to whacking things with Scrooge McDuck's cane, and also using it as a pogo stick. The zany characters and scenic backdrops call to mind the classic animated Disney shorts. The stage select screen offers the exact same locations as the original game: the Amazon, Himalayas, Transylvania, African mines, and the moon. It's pure old-school fun as you bounce between floating platforms, knock enemies clear off the screen, and snag huge gems. Remastered is true to the original Duck Tales - perhaps to a fault!
The stage layouts are just like the original game, and the developers missed a few opportunities to improve upon the controls. Moving from vine to vine is just as painful as it was in the original game. In addition, I'm not a big fan of having gems appear behind
you - forcing you to constantly backtrack. That said, the stages are ideal in length and the boss encounters are exciting. Sadly, the flow of the game is constantly disrupted by endless, unnecessary dialogue! I commend Disney for hiring Sean Connery to do the voice of Scrooge (no, not really), but he just doesn't know when to shut up!
And the whiny voices of the kiddie ducks ("Unca Scrooge!") really
get on your nerves after a while. Thank goodness you can hit pause and then select "skip dialogue", which quickly becomes second nature. Duck Tales Remastered is a sweet homage to an old classic, but I wish the developers had refocused their attentions. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
ESPN Sports Connection
Publisher: Ubisoft (2012)
ESPN Sports Connection tries to pick up where Wii Sports
(Wii, 2006) left off with a half-dozen events geared toward multi-player action. There's tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, football, and a simple cart racer. The game uses Mii characters to compete and the venues are set in New York's scenic central park. You get some lovely views of lush green valleys with shiny buildings in the background. Tennis is similar to Wii Sports tennis, using the Wiimote to swing as your character automatically scampers around. You can use the GamePad instead, but "swiping" the screen to swing is no fun at all. Playing solo is okay but I can't get over how choppy
the four-player action is. The golf game has a lot of problems. The load times between holes are excessive and you have to recalibrate
your Wiimote before every hole!
What the [expletive] is that
all about? Adding insult to injury, this game is riddled with bugs. At one point my ball disappeared below the putting surface!
Baseball uses both the GamePad (to pitch/field) and Wiimote (to swing). Pitching is tedious as you use the stylus to draw a line to direct your pitch. The batting controls are surprisingly erratic, but the felding is kind of neat because you hold the GamePad up to "catch" fly balls. Once again bugs abound, as you'll witness singles outside the fouls lines and homeruns that never clear the fence. Thank goodness for the "mercy" rule. Soccer doesn't try to do too much, using conventional controls and limiting the GamePad usage to penalty kicks. I actually played this one with five
players, but the game kept changing players on the fly, confusing the heck out of everybody. The cart racer is bare-bones and forgettable. Football reminds me of Kinect Sports Season 2
(Xbox 360, 2011). On offense you use the Wiimote to hike the ball, aim, and throw. On defense you use the GamePad to draw lines directing your defensive backs. I like the idea of telling your players to fade back or go for the sack, but the action doesn't unfold as it should. Defensive backs in proper position don't make plays, and receivers catch passes that are nowhere close
. On a positive note, the music is good, the load screens are helpful, and there's positive reinforcement in the form of constant achievements. The ESPN license was clearly just slapped on to give the game some street cred. Sports Connection looks like a half-baked rush job trying to cash in on a new console. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two
Publisher: Disney Interactive (2012)
The original Epic Mickey
(Wii, 2010) dished out some old-school Disney charm but suffered from the standard 3D platform issues (awkward views, confusing objectives, etc). Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two introduces cooperative action, and wouldn't you know - it's twice as bad!
Mickey Mouse is now joined by Oswald the rabbit as they navigate platforms, solve puzzles, and defeat robotic bad guys. Mickey is back with his paintbrush and paint thinner, and Oswald is armed with a remote control that can charge electric boxes and electrocute enemies. The game also introduces a lot of new play mechanics (fairy powers, picture-taking) that turn the entire affair into a colossal mess. Controlling Mickey via the GamePad is a big step back from the aim-at-screen controls of the first game. You position a reticule with the right thumbstick, which is especially clumsy since the right trigger squirts the paint. The GamePad screen gives you easy access to a map and menu options, but they aren't very useful at all. The stages tend to be generic floating worlds that lack a sense of wonder you'd expect from a Disney game. The designers dug deep into the Disney archives for characters but most of them look more creepy than endearing. Animatronic Goofy looks like a zombie
for Pete's sake! I'm all for split-screen and cooperative play, but joining up with a friend is more work than play. Oswald has the ability to glide and carry Mickey over gaping chasms, but both players have to struggle to get into proper position. It doesn't help that the difficulty (and quality of play) varies drastically from one area to the next. You get bombarded with things to do, and it's overwhelming. Whoever designed Epic Mickey 2 seemed to have a more-is-better mentality, and it's unfortunate. It will take some real perseverance to get all the way through this one. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
Lego City Undercover
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
Undercover is one of those easy-to-play games you can kick back and enjoy after a hard day's work. There's a lot of variety, good-natured humor, and enough content to keep you entertained for weeks on end. Lego City plays like Grand Theft Auto Light
, offering brief missions, funny cut-scenes, and a huge, bustling town that's fun to explore. The linear storyline is enjoyable enough, but you're always free to wander off the beaten path. When you do, you'll often stumble upon bonus items or secret areas. You can commandeer any car on the streets ("sorry, it's an emergency!") and GPS makes it easy to travel between destinations. Car chases play a major role in the game, so it's a real shame these vehicles handle so poorly! The Control Pad serves a number of functions, including a map, communicator (with crystal clear voices), and radar to locate suspects. Lego City gets off to a slow start but gradually gains momentum as you acquire new costumes. Changing outfits gives you various abilities and is key to solving most puzzles. As a policeman you can track down clues, as a miner you can use dynamite, and as a robber you can use a crowbar. The more progress you make, the more areas become accessible. The graphics are only average but the city contains a lot of interesting places. The cinematics can be corny but there are some genuinely funny lines and numerous pop culture references. The game is even self-referencing at times ("why was that thing even there?!
") An auto-save kicks in frequently and is clearly indicated on the screen. Unfortunately Lego City's chief weakness is hard to overlook: excruciating load times. I'm no stranger to long load times, but this is ridiculous. Not only does it take forever to get the game up and running, entering certain buildings (like the police station) repeats the whole loading process. Is it really worth the wait? Well, yeah, actually it is. Give Lego City Undercover a chance and it will grow on you. This is one likeable, family-friendly title with tremendous replay value. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Whenever I try to play Mario and Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games with friends, it's just a confusing mess. Setting up the game is a pain in the ass. You never know what controller to use or if you're supposed to look at the TV or the control pad. Depending on the mode, you may or may not get an explanation of the controls. Each player is besieged with annoying, unnecessary prompts like "aim at the screen and click A", "touch the control pad to continue", or "lay your Wii-mote face down... again!
" Press A to continue. Press A to continue. How many buttons do I need to press just to play a [expletive] event?!
It seems any glimmer of fun is promptly snuffed out by the horrifically over-engineered user interface. Your best bet is the Legends Showdown mode which lets one player methodically work through all the events while earning points and unlocking stuff. The polished visuals feature soft rolling ski slopes and sparkly indoor arenas at a location that's clearly not
Sochi. Some events are moderately fun. Tilting the Wiimote to ski down the slopes works well, and rhythmically waving it from side-to-side effectively propels your speed skater. The bobsled and skeleton events convey a palpable sense of momentum, and I love the sound of grinding ice coming from the control pad. The curling event combines skill and strategy and is probably the highlight of the entire game! Many events are poorly designed. The Biathlon forces the player to needlessly switch between the Wiimote and control pad. I have no idea how to land my jumps in slopestyle, and there are no instructions
to fall back on. The idea of catching wind drifts during the ski jump event is almost as idiotic as having to strike a pose
during the landing! And watching my favorite Nintendo characters parade around during a fabulous
figure skating spectacular makes me want to barf!
Worst of all are the "fantasy" events which include a blatant rip-off of Star Wars pod racing. What in the [expletive] is that
doing in the winter olympics?!
The auto-save works well, but I wish the game would stop pestering me about uploading my records to the internet (for the last time - [expletive] no!
). Mario and Sonic at the Sochi Winter Games packs plenty of content and there is some definitely some light-hearted fun to be had. Sadly, you'll have to dig deep for the good stuff and wrestle with the annoying user interface every step of the way. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.
New Super Luigi U
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
New Super Luigi U is a standalone title, but Nintendo made it clear that this is basically an expansion pack for New Super Mario Bros. U (which explains the reduced price). Now it's Luigi's turn to shine as he traverses a harrowing new set of stages. This kind of reminds me of Sonic & Knuckles
(Genesis, 1994) except without the "lock on" technology. Before reviewing this game I went back and played the original Mario U to calibrate my expectations (yep - it's still awesome). Compared to that, New Super Luigi U is a faster, more challenging experience. The world map, themes, and bosses are basically the same, but the stage designs are totally new. The difficulty has been ratcheted up substantially, and there are a lot of those limited visibility stages. Even in the very first stage you'll struggle while contending with ground that shifts beneath your feet. In the "rotating gears" stage the danger is heightened by giant flames that fire at regular intervals. On top of everything, the pacing is faster since most stages are timed. Luigi has a slightly different look and feel than Mario. His comical voice is an octave lower and he has the ability to hover in the air. An extra oomph lets him reach high ledges, the downside being that there's sometimes no place to land when he comes down! The game isn't rocket science, but it's definitely geared toward skilled gamers who mastered the first game. I prefer the easier difficulty and leisurely pace of the original, but this low-cost add-on serves its purpose. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
New Super Mario Bros. U
Publisher: Nintendo (2012)
I think my friend Eric perfectly characterized this game with his remark, "I could play this all day
." Familiar yet fresh, New Super Mario Bros. U is a slam-dunk title for the Wii U. Its platform gameplay is just like all the other 2D Super Mario titles dating back to the NES. You explore side-scrolling stages while jumping on platforms, collecting coins, bumping blocks, and pouncing on enemies. For the first time however, its wondrous worlds are rendered in high definition. The sharp visuals are inviting but remain true to the style of the classics. In fact, the game looks nearly as good when played on the GamePad (in case you need the TV for football). The story mode is better than ever thanks to a map screen that provides mini-games, alternate routes, and other surprises. As a "seasonal" gamer, I appreciate the option of selecting Frosted Glacier (a winter wonderland) over Sparkling Waters. The stage designs are thought provoking and there are inventive new gadgets to keep things fresh. Each stage offers a nice balance of risk-reward, so serious gamers can go for hard-to-reach coins while casual players can take the easy route. Power-ups come early and often, allowing you to do things such as glide like a flying squirrel or transform enemies into ice cubes. In the glacier stage I encased a penguin in a block of ice and proceeded to "surf" on him through most of the level. Pretty sweet.
Up to five players can participate at once. The person using the GamePad plays in "boost mode" (aka "girlfriend mode"), which lets them help or hinder other players by creating blocks and interacting with objects. It's a wonderful opportunity to annoy the hell out of your friends. Super Mario Bros. U uses the exact same save system as the DS/3DS Mario games. You can only save at certain points, although there is also a "quick save" option (which you can resume from only once). The surround sound in this game is extremely effective, and the audio emanating from the GamePad adds another dimension. Overall, New Super Mario Bros. U is everything I thought it would be. Yeah - it's that good!
© Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Nintendo (2012)
As the pack-in game for the Wii U Deluxe set, Nintendo Land does a decent job of demonstrating the system's capabilities. Each of its dozen mini-games uses Mii characters and incorporates the GamePad in a number of creative ways. There's a ninja game where you flick your finger across the screen to hurl throwing stars. In the maze game you'll tilt the controller to navigate a wooden obstacle course. In a flying game you use the stylus to create wind currents to propel your character. There are Zelda and Metroid-inspired games that let you hold up the GamePad to view your surroundings. These are all family-friendly and many support up to five players. In the chase variations the player holding the GamePad can see more than everybody else. For example, in Luigi's Mansion he plays the role of the ghost, sneaking up on other players and scaring the heck out of them. All of the games are mildly amusing but none could really hold my attention for more than a few minutes. Even the Metroid shooter made me yawn after a few waves. A robot provides tutorials and hints, but she talks way
too much. Ironically, the best game is a throw-away bonus game that doesn't even use the GamePad. It's a simple pachinko-style game where you drop bouncing balls down a peg-board and into slots. Nintendo Land is a nice way to get acquainted with your brand new Wii U, but it won't sell systems like Wii Sports did for the original Wii. None of these games could stand alone, but taken as a whole it's not a bad package, especially if you have kids. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.
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