A Fading Melody by Anchorcast

>>Community Game Brief

A Simple Lullaby Box ArtWith shades of gray, and shades of Braid, A Fading Melody opens with an art-game pretense. You are a woman living in a world between dreams and a coma. By facing her nightmares she begins to unravel the truth of her circumstances. This is where you take control, running and jumping your way through a collection of obstacle courses. Much like Braid, there’s a huge difference between what you see and what you’re told, but with A Fading Melody, the juxtaposition is far less convincing.

The woman dreams of herself, naked, in a forest full of monsters. That’s what the game tells you. What you actually see is a repetitive gauntlet of blue platforms with a tree or two slapped in the background. The woman and monsters are nothing but poorly animated paper cut-outs. If not for the premise, this tale of a comatose woman’s struggle for truth wouldn’t get a passing glance.

A Simple Lullaby
Then there’s the actual gameplay. For the hour or so it takes to complete the story, it’s nothing but one tedious platforming challenge after another. Imprecise controls complement level design reminiscent of a bad Super Mario World hack. Checkpoints make it all a little more tolerable, but each one reached brings relief that you’ll never have to play that bit of A Fading Melody ever again.

Price: 200 points
Go to Xbox Live Marketplace

Community Game Briefs are short but informative impressions on the ever-expanding Community Games catalogue on Xbox Live. These are not full reviews. The verdict comes in three flavors: AVOID, TRY, or BUY. Anything can be awarded an AVOID or TRY rating, whether I actually buy it or only sample the demo. You can be assured that any game awarded the BUY rating has been purchased and played extensively.

Bored Meeting by Steven Jones

>>Community Game Brief

Bored MeetingUnlike most quality Community Games titles, which sell themselves on unique concepts, Bored Meeting focuses on uproarious multiplayer fun. It’s developer Steven Jones’ tribute to Sega’s Chu Chu Rocket. More specifically, it’s a flexible take on Chu Chu’s local multiplayer mode.

A Dreamcast classic, Chu Chu Rocket pits four players on a grid, directing hundreds of mice into a colored rocket by placing arrows. Bored Meeting keeps the basic premise, replacing rodents and rockets with marketing metaphors. One twist: players can create “marketing buzz” to destroy walls, a mechanic used to great effect in certain stages, where players dig through the level to reach their respective goals.

Bored Meeting gameplay
It’s a must-buy under the right circumstances, but there are a few catches. As a copycat, Bored Meeting isn’t a replacement for Chu Chu Rocket, as it simply isn’t as polished or fully-featured. More importantly, this is a four-player party game, and if you can’t get 1-3 other friends (and controllers) in a room, there’s not much of a game here.

Price: 80 points
Go to Xbox Live Marketplace

Community Game Briefs are short but informative impressions on the ever-expanding Community Games catalogue on Xbox Live. These are not full reviews. The verdict comes in three flavors: AVOID, TRY, or BUY. Anything can be awarded an AVOID or TRY rating, whether I actually buy it or only sample the demo. You can be assured that any game awarded the BUY rating has been purchased and played extensively.

GTA: Lost & Damned to Repeat History


GTAIV The Lost and the DamnedNaysayers move along. If you didn’t enjoy Grand Theft Auto IV, then The Lost and Damned will do little to change your mind. Rockstar plays it safe with the first of GTA’s heavily-hyped downloadable episodes. Think of it as the cliff’s notes GTAIV – the sweeping 45-hour epic is compressed to a more manageable, 10-hour size. For better or worse, it doesn’t miss a beat, with a colorful cast of characters, tightly scripted missions, and a rollercoaster plot.

You play as Johnny Klebitz, VP of The Lost Motorcycle Club, a brotherhood of anarchistic middle-aged white trash. The story begins as the gang reuinites with their leader Billy. Fresh from a brief stay in jail and rehab, Billy immediately begins to shake things up. His destructive attitude causes tension with Johnny, who had spent his time as substitute leader cleaning up the club.

Johnny Klebitz, star of The Lost and the Damned
The conflict between the two is compelling from the start. Their shaky brotherhood and the dialogue that results is a reminder that Rockstar is ahead of the video game storytelling curve. These polygonal puppets can act, with performances so fascinating they transcend the haphazard script. But when Billy and Johnny’s conflict takes a backseat, and the production values falter, everything suddenly seems less interesting. The same problem plagued vanilla GTAIV, and while its last act was as long as the entirety of The Lost and Damned, it’s sad to see Rockstar make the same mistakes twice.

It’s not to say the last act isn’t full of action and excitement; on the contrary, the finale is just a bit too much. Rockstar has a field day deconstructing their characters. Take Nico, whose original GTAIV journey transformed him from a charming criminal to a mass-murdering monster. Johnny’s path is equally absurd – The Lost are clearly bad people, but the final mission has you breaking into a prison and mowing down scores of cops, all to reach one man. The end game is so nonsensical that the brilliant character development early on is moot.

The Lost MC Rides
That final mission, and others like it, shed light on another issue Rockstar failed to address: mission variety is seriously lacking. Riding motorcycles and bustin’ caps is a lot of fun, but that’s about all there is to do. GTAIV’s world is packed with gadgets like camera phones, internet, TV, and police databases, but none of it is used to spice up the missions. Rather than shooting your way through that final mission, wouldn’t it have been more interesting to use some of those gadgets, or even get arrested intentionally?

The Lost and Damned doesn’t stray far from its big daddy. Marginal improvements imply that Rockstar isn’t fixing something which is arguably unbroken. Maybe they’re right – a year after the original GTAIV, despite that game growing stale towards the end, this new episode manages to entertain. But with so much life already built into Liberty City, it’s hard to deny The Lost & Damned is a little less than the sum of its parts.

— The Full List of Radio Station Updates @ Rockstar’s Official Site
— My previous words regarding GTAIV, here and here

Mithra Shows Potential, Eats Your Money

>>Community Game Brief

Community Game - MithraFrom a technical standpoint, Mithra is a milestone of the Community Game library. It offers the most impressive 3D engine on the service, with lighting, detailed characters, and fully explorable, albeit small environments.

The production values are relatively top-notch, with full voice acting, cutscenes, and a few unique gameplay mechanics. It’s an adventure game with puzzles to solve, light stealth elements, and some platforming. It can be heavy on trial-and-error in spots, but regular checkpoints alleviate most of the frustration.

The protagonists, Tag and Vee, begin the game imprisoned in a mysterious lab. These two creatures are colorful and detailed, though equally at home in the margins of a high schooler’s notebook. Their voice actors aren’t the most professional sounding, but there’s an endearing honesty in their performances. Mithra’s world isn’t entirely convincing, but it’s clear there’s someone behind the scenes who cares deeply about it.

And now for the bad news: beyond this brief introduction, you don’t learn much more about Tag and Vee. Developer Afiction isn’t kidding when they call it Mithra: Episode 1, Chapter 1 – the game can be finished in about thirty minutes. It appears to have three levels, but the second and third options are merely placeholders. Suddenly, what seems like a value at 400 points suddenly feels like highway robbery.

Price: 400 points
Go to Xbox Live Marketplace

Community Game Briefs are short but informative impressions on the ever-expanding Community Games catalogue on Xbox Live. These are not full reviews. The verdict comes in three flavors: AVOID, TRY, or BUY. Anything can be awarded an AVOID or TRY rating, whether I actually buy it or only sample the demo. You can be assured that any game awarded the BUY rating has been purchased and played extensively.

The Maw Swallows Fun Whole


the mawAs we grow older and our lives become busier, the vast realm of entertainment becomes an intimidating beast. Casual gaming, serialized television, MMOs, Facebook, Hulu, Netflix – there are many channels, new and old, through which media demands our time. Like money, free time has become a commodity. Time spent on the couch has a value attached, and just as wasting money is an anger-inducing experience, so is a waste of free time.

It’s with this notion that The Maw sounds like a fantastic game on paper: it offers varied gameplay across a short campaign, at a reasonable price, downloadable right from your couch. If only every other minute you’re playing didn’t feel like a massive chore.

the maw
The Maw is, at it’s roots, a 3D platformer. Stepping into the house that Mario 64 built is never a simple task, but it seems like the mistakes made by a long-line of copycats are repeated here, albeit in a charming, indie-cool way. As the main character, Frank, you drag the leashed Maw around a mysterious world, allowing it to consume the local wildlife. But with a set limit of things to eat and a strict quota to reach before progressing, the game is simply a collect-a-thon in disguise.

While each level brings a new twist, with the Maw gaining a new ability, the core gameplay remains – you traverse the land in search of fuzzy creatures, watch the same eating animation play out for the hundredth time, and repeat. Combine that with one of the slowest running speeds to ever grace a video game, and it quickly becomes an exercise in tedium.

the maw
The Maw is an empty promise from beginning to end. The colorful, visually appealing opening level raises expectations, but flat, barren, ugly areas round out most of the game. Feeding the Maw appeals to that same sense of wonder that makes Katamari Damacy such a treat – unfortunately the process is so heavily scripted that you have no influence on how big he ultimately becomes. The characters have some charm, but the developers did little to expand on some cute noises and funny expressions. The Maw grasps at originality, but always finds it just out of reach.

— Visit the Official Website @ http://www.mawgame.com/
— Twisted Pixel on The Maw and contract work @ Ars Technica

Street Fighter IV is Out, Shoryu-Ken Handle It?


RyuBack in the early nineties, dark, dingy mall arcades were our battlegrounds. Our match-ups: Ryu vs. Ken, Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat, Sega vs. Nintendo. Quarters were slapped on arcade cabinets and champions nursed their Slurpees, hundred-hand-slapping their way to victory. Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Honda, Sagat, and the full list of stereotypical warriors were immortalized in those days. Some players went on to enjoy these characters in many sequels and off-shoots, but most fell out of the loop, leaving the fighting game genre the hardcore niche we know it as today.

With Street Fighter IV, developer Capcom hopes to ignite nostalgia, with a sequel that calls back to those glory days. Unlike Street Fighter III, which roped in hardcore players with a unique roster and advanced mechanics, SFIV has been billed as a return to the series’ roots. The entire vanilla SFII cast returns, including Super Street Fighter II extras Fei-Long, Cammy, and Akuma. Capcom’s focus on simpler combat intends to draw in a casual crowd, while new systems keep the hardcore crowd happy.

street fighter iv
To the born-again Street Fighter fans Capcom hopes to rope in, Street Fighter IV accurately captures the feel of the old days. The core gameplay is identical; players execute three degrees of punches and kicks, retreat to block, and perform more complex motions for their characters signature special moves. The super moves introduced in later SFII versions and popularized by later series entries make an appearance in the form of flashy super and ultra combos.

The most significant departure from the old games is visual, with Capcom creating the first core Street Fighter game in a 3D engine. Polygons replace traditional hand-drawn artwork, and for the most part it works. Characters are just as expressive as their 2D counterparts and are bursting with a rainbow of primary and secondary colors.

m bison
Stylistically, it’s somewhat haphazard. The opening cutscene shows CG combatants fighting through inky splashes of color, seemingly escaping their hand-drawn shackles. The effect is used sparingly throughout the main game; just enough to make you think it was dialed back in favor of more traditional Street Fighter flashiness. Then there are the anime cutscenes, brief videos that bookend each fighter’s story. They’re ugly, amateurish, and completely out of place, amplifying the frustration of playing through the game several times to unlock the full roster of fighters.

Several new warriors round out the list of classic veterans, and they’re every bit as colorful and painfully stereotypical as you’d expect. The line-up offers a lot of variety, with someone to appeal to every type of fighter. Unfortunately, there’s a very clear tier structure separating the fighters, with some, like Sagat, overpowered in the hands of anyone who can throw a fireball. Ryu, Ken, and Akuma are favorites online, maintaining the status quo and discouraging the use of more unique warriors like the Lucha Libre wrestler El Fuerte. But with online updates and patches, there’s potential for Capcom to smooth it out.

What can’t be fixed are the advanced combat techniques built into the core of the game. Using all the tools at your disposal, Street Fighter IV is not the elegantly simple brawler that SFII was. Focus attacks alone would take a full paragraph to explain, and each character comes with a laundry list of frighteningly powerful combos that require inhuman timing to execute. You can get by without touching any of it, but its presence expresses a clear move by Capcom to please the hardcore tournament players, rather than create a game that more players can appreciate the depth of.

The juggling act of pleasing everyone comes at a price, but overall the gameplay is a joy. Fights, whether online or on a couch, are fluid, fast-paced, and methodical. Street Fighter IV captures the defining pleasures of the fighting genre, with two players not only competing in thumb dexterity, but the far more interesting battle of the minds. It is in that regard that the game is a return to form, as nostalgic fans can play Street Fighter IV and have technical, exciting fights, while ignoring some of the fancier systems in place.

— More opinions on SFIV @ TestFreaks.com
— In-depth strategy @ MyCheats SFIV Superguide
— Up-to-Date News @ Capcom-Unity’s Street Fighter Blog

Gladly Taking Banjo Kazooie’s Nuts and Bolts


Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts has some self-esteem issues. As the sequel to a couple of me-too N64 platformers, it features two washed-up mascots who are painfully aware of their pedigree. Through self-deprecating humor they break character to call out tired gameplay mechanics, their competition, and a grim sales outlook. They represent the humble voice of their creator, Rare, which may have stumbled in the past, but has certainly bounced back with one of its most creative titles to date.

Nuts & Bolts begins by teasing you with a collect-a-thon reminiscent of the previous Banjo games’ endless gathering. After admitting that there’s a certain Italian plumber who does traditional platforming better, our also-ran heroes are stripped of their classic moves and saddled with a wrench instead. Their goal: to best the evil Gruntilda in a variety of vehicle missions.

From there you’re thrown into Showdown Town equiped with what looks like a motorized shopping cart. Doors throughout the town transport you to new worlds to complete missions. Each world has a different theme, opening with a parody of classic TV series intros, and casting Banjo regulars as characters in need of help.

These worlds each have a unique look that adds to the charm. The first world features the typical, lush island that so many games open with, but it’s actually a Truman Show-esque facade. A closer look reveals that the rolling hills are made of metal. Go out to sea and you’ll find large gears creating the waves. Take to the air and you’ll realize you’re trapped in a giant globe, complete with a phony sky and clouds attached to wires.

Completing missions in these worlds will net you golden jigsaw pieces, nicknamed jiggies. Just like the previous games, collecting enough jiggies will grant access to new worlds. It seems to follow the typical Banjo blueprint, but lighter restrictions freshen up this clich├ęd framework. Scattered throughout Showdown Town are crates full of vehicle parts – they’re easy to spot, yet just out of reach. Do enough missions and you’ll unlock the tools to easily reach the crates, but that’s only one approach. Most of the crates are accessible early on through a little creativity. This becomes almost as fun as the vehicle missions, as you concoct unorthodox ways to reach new heights. Stacking boxes from the other side of town or using your cart as a platform feels like cheating, but it’s all part of a consistent design philosophy that promotes out-of-the-box thinking.

Collect enough of these crates and you’ll open up more options in the vehicle missions. Those missions range from typical races, to escort missions, vehicle combat, and mini games. The variety leads to a lot of time spent in the workshop tweaking new designs. Thankfully, Banjo features a snappy and intuitive editor. From concept to finished product, a design takes minutes.

That’s not to say vehicle creation is simplistic. Designs will handle differently based on weight distribution, engines, and aerodynamics. That complexity leads to moments where the controls can be frustrating, but that’s usually your own fault. A car may spin wildly out of control because it’s too light, or the wheels are too close together. Because of this, missions can be approached in wildly different ways, and you’ll be surprised by how simple the solutions can be.

If your creativity runs dry, online leaderboards for each mission allow you to download replays of the top players. And that’s just scratching the surface as far as online functionality. Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts offers one of the most robust online feature sets on 360. Users can share photos, replays, and vehicle blueprints with friends. Matchmaking allows up to eight players to party up for events similar to the vehicle missions in the main game. Hosts can even allow for a workshop phase before a match, forcing players to quickly assemble an appropriate vehicle for the chosen event. Unfortunately, with depressingly low sales so far, it’s hard to imagine an active community will be there to support these features.

At a discount price, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is an overwhelming smorgasbord of content, brimming with charm. The result: a game so rich with quality content it demands recognition. With a lengthy single player experience and expansive multiplayer options, beautiful graphics, an orchestral score, hilarious dialogue, and unique gameplay, Banjo has it all.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato