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There are not enough games that are powered by music. I don’t mean the games where you play or dance to a list of pre-selected songs, but games where you play against the music tracks you load in. Beat Hazard and Audiosurf are great examples of this, as each session is generated by the tempo and overall complexity of the song you chose. Drive Any Track (DAT) from FOAM Entertainment and Firebrand Games is an excellent addition to the scarce genre of music powered games. DAT features very fast paced, frantic at times, gameplay with amazingly tight controls and visuals that will captivate anyone playing or watching. Fueled by the MEGA (Music Environment Gaming Algorithm) Engine, this Early Access game has everything it needs to become among the greatest music based indie games.

Upon launching DAT, you are presented with a menu that is very easy to navigate and makes it quick to get into the action. You choose your song, pick a vehicle to race with and, voila, you’re racing your music.

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A straight to the point menu. Clicking on “New Track” brings up a window to navigate to your music.

I have to admit, when I loaded up my first song into the game I was not immediately sold on it. Unlike most racing games where you start the race idling, you are launched immediately at top speed into a three-beat countdown in time with the song. I chose a ridiculously fast Happy Hardcore song so this caught me way off guard. I could not read the on-screen instructions as I was distracted with my runaway vehicle and very pretty flashing colors everywhere. On top of this I was failing to grasp the controls because I think I was trying to play it like Mario Kart which I quickly learned, you cannot do. I was hitting every barrier and launching off the track with every jump and it was not until about half way through my first song where I figured out what you had to do. Also, dropping use of the keyboard and plugging in an Xbox controller to play made me finally understand how the game handles.

There are a series of electrified lines that are traveling the track with you, which represent the “Sync” of the song. If you slow down by hitting barriers or walls you will fall behind the first Sync area, which is between the first two Sync lines. This means you are a bar behind the song and will earn less points. When you either fall too far out of sync, wipe out or fly off the track, the game will re-sync you just behind the first two sync lines which is a very welcome feature since trying to catch up to the sync lines would otherwise be near impossible. Along the tracks there are small boxes that, when hit, fill a meter displayed on your vehicle which represents your boost ability. When the meter is filled you can propel yourself forward with a button press to catch up with the sync lines or launch ahead into the “Super Sync” area, which gains you more points. The stay-in-sync gameplay is very well implemented and is incredibly fun.

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Falling out of sync after hitting a barrier. You can see the first sync line further down the track.

Without realizing it I ended up playing DAT for four straight hours after my first song and I was hooked. DAT  is very easy to get lost in. The track pulses along with the beat, and most genres of songs have their own beautiful visual aesthetic. The actual handling of the driving feels really responsive and the drifting works very well and is similar to drifting in the Gran Turismo games.

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Blue and purple elongated hexagon style for Dance and Classical songs.

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Yellow and orange block style for Rap, Hip Hop and Jazz songs.

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Black and red angled style for Rock and Metal songs

The track, as far as I can tell, is loosely generated on the song provided. However, there were many times where there was a barrier, loop, spiral or jump section that I couldn’t really place in the song as a drop or an upbeat section. I think it works better for some songs over others. Either way, because you are driving so fast on these tracks, the fact that they sometimes don’t match to the song isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You need to stay very alert when playing as there are many times where twitch reaction is required to save yourself, for better or for worse. Due to the snaking of the track and the camera placement, it is sometime impossible to see or react in time to avoid barriers or jumps in front of you. Infrequently there will also be jumps that, based on your trajectory, force you to land on barriers, fall through a jump gap or launch you into the abyss as the track turns sharply either direction immediately after the jump. There were a couple of times that I also landed so hard after descending from a jump that the shock flipped my car upside down causing me to wipe out. These are more of a common occurrence in higher than three star difficulty tracks and can be pretty frustrating, especially when you are doing very well on a song and something unfair messes up your run.

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Is there a barrier ahead? Who knows!

Along with the Boost Boxes, there are coins that litter the track. You are awarded the coins you snag during the race plus additional coins at completion of the track.

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My cash out of coins after a race. I’m rich!

Coins are used to purchase additional vehicles or style packs for each vehicle in the garage. I like the inclusion of multiple vehicles and the ability to change their appearance although I could not figure out if the differing vehicles had unique attributes. They all felt the same when handling them and the speeds felt identical as well. Either way, there is a plethora of immaculately designed vehicles ranging from a sports car, to an SUV, to a pick-up truck.

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Using my coins to buy a new car! Exciting!

At the end of a race you are awarded experience which goes towards your in-game level. It was unapparent to me what the point of the leveling system was. There is a possibility that it will be used for ranking in the highscore leaderboard feature that is already implemented. I love the inclusion of the leaderboard as it immediately makes the game competitive. Every song that has a track generated for the first time will also have the name of the user who created it. This is the same track that everyone who plays the song will race on. Each track has a worldwide top five ranking. If you achieve the highest score on the track, the game will generate a ghost of your race and put in online for everyone to see or race against. One thing to note about the ghost is it is completely opaque. I ran into a couple instances where a ghost obstructed my view from a jump or barrier making me hit it or wipe out. Lowering the opacity of the ghost would help this tremendously.

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Opaque ghost threatens your eyesight.

Another really neat feature is the first person mode while racing. Tapping the Y button on the Xbox controller enables this mode which allows for an entirely new playing style. The first person mode feels faster than the regular play because you are closer to the ground but is just as gorgeous.

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First person mode in its finest.

There is one major drawback to the first person play. The camera spins and angles itself with the car making some jumps and spirals to be very confusing and incredibly tough to land as the track goes out of sight. If the developers fix it so that the camera will always point towards the ground when you are airborne, you would easily be able to recover and land safely on the track.

Drive Any Track is an incredibly fun thrill ride. FOAM Entertainment and Firebrand Games have created a welcome addition to the music powered genre of games. It has already offered me hours upon hours of fun gameplay, and I will probably continue replaying it for a very long time; especially because the full version is targeted for release later this year with even more features. I look forward to the future of this game after a few of the aforementioned things have been fixed and the community becomes involved with the feedback process. The foundation has been set and is as strong as it possibly can be. If you like music based gameplay, you need to pick this gem up.

Review Score: 8/10

Pros:

  • Very fast and fun racing gameplay
  • Tight driving and drifting controls
  • Sync gameplay feature implemented very well
  • Beautiful graphics that differ between other games
  • Online leaderboard, ranking system and race against ghosts
  • Infinitely replayable as long as you have music to play with

Cons:

  • Camera placement makes for some unfair disadvantages
  • Some jumps lead to unavoidable wipe outs
  • First person camera is broken
  • Ghosts can obstruct your vision of the track
  • Leveling up has no point?

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The Order: 1886
Developer: Ready at Dawn
Release date: February 20, 2015
Available for PlayStation 4

The Order 1886

Round up the Knights of the Order and take on the role of Sir Galahad to fight off both myth and human monstrosities in The Order: 1886. That is all the plot-line you will get from me, as this is a spoiler-free review of The Order: 1886. Just an un-influenced take on the experience from this casually hardcore game player. In keeping with the element of surprise, I stayed away from any preview, and review, coverage to see what Sony and Ready at Dawn could deliver exclusively on its PlayStation 4 with the new entry into the gaming world. It was a challenge going dark on The Order: 1886, but I’m glad I did. So how does the PS4 exclusive stack up, coming from the hands and hearts of the excellent God of War PSP game developer Ready at Dawn?

The Order 1886

To sum up my first impression, you would would be hard pressed to find the graphic quality and fidelity in other PlayStation 4 games out there to date. The third-person cinematic offering is without a doubt the best eye candy you will currently get on the PS4. The foggy and gritty feel of old London, the linty-looking material in the fabric of characters’ clothing, all the shiny steampunk inspired contraptions, dark rainy evenings with glowing lanterns – the detail is amazing.

The Order 1886

Just as strong is the voice and motion-captured acting, framing of scenes, facial features and expressions, and the sound production.  It all pulls you into the environment of The Order: 1886. The developers have crystallized their vision to deliver a world that leaves little for your eyes to fill in. A second pass of the game is worth it to just to gaze at all the detail you will definitely miss on first-pass. With all that laser focus in the visuals, there is one part in the game’s presentation that is missing early on in the game experience. And as trite as that may seem for a game with such an emphasis on delivering a highly cinematic experience, it is a nuance that all of a sudden blows away the smoke and mirrors (ahem, literally) grounding you back in a game setting.

The Order 1886

Where The Order: 1886 has less weight on is in its ability to deliver adrenaline-pumping gaming experiences. With such a linear story, and infrequency of highly controllable combat sequences, it would have been great if some kind of branching paths with different outcomes were thrown in to the mix to add to the tension. The Order: 1886 is fairly straightforward story, more than it needs to be or benefits from. There is a lot of variety in the way the button and directional controls are played in the canned combat sequences (aka “quick time sequences”). The Order: 1886 just leaves you hungry for some more full-on controllable action moments. It does take several gameplay elements from duck-and-cover third-person shooters, slow-motion focus targeting moments and chapter-by-chapter play (some noticeably shorter than others). When your character dies, the continues just kick-in to move you along. There is no real penalty, or frustration, in losing a life or starting over. In fact, I encourage throwing in some sacrificial Galahads and company to see the death scenes (or you’ll be missing out on some of the cinematics!). For the most part, the weapon selection is straight-forward (pistols, rifles, grenades) but there are a couple that are creative steam-punk weapon contraptions. The M86 Thermite Rifle and the TS-23 Arc Induction Lance creatively light-up your enemies.

The Order 1886

The feel you come away with from playing The Order: 1886 is that it delivers a graphical punch and movie-quality experience unlike anything currently out there. For that, it knocked me out. You would be remiss to overlook the cini-game for the delicious treat it is. I could smell the popcorn, just like I did when I played Resident Evil 4, Dead Space or the original Gears of War games for the first time. I am actually grateful the developers didn’t try to tack on any kind of multiplayer element to the game. It is welcome to see a focus on a strong and enjoyable single-player storyline game with The Order: 1886. I enjoyed The Order: 1886 and recommend it to any player who is hungry for a completely new story with a bang-out graphical experience.

**This one has been redeemed, enjoy, J!: (One time use promo code for Knights Arsenal DLC is EBJD-G6NA-H9HN Only 1 exists – once redeemed, it will no longer be valid. Good luck, Knights!)

The Order 1886

The Order: 1886
Developer: Ready at Dawn
Release date: February 20, 2015
Available for PlayStation 4

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Hand of Fate

Hand of Fate review

Developer: Defiant Development
Release date: February 17, 2015
Available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Reviewed on PS4

Fond of fantasy collectible card and role-playing games? Expect the unexpected from Defiant Development with Hand of Fate, a unique concoction of those genres for adventure-hungry gamers. Hand of Fate packs in all the hooks to bait the fantasy gamers looking for an enjoyable and fresh game experience.

Hand of Fate

A foreboding card dealer lays out unique paths which you, the adventurer, must venture and survive. Decks are built out from common RPG elements such as equipment (axes, magic-imbued swords, armor, etc.), elixirs and shops – and of course, loads of enemies. There’s a lot of chance, fortune and misfortune in many different scenarios, narrated and written out before you. See a shiny sword in the distance? Go for it or not? Give a goblin some food? Help out the local peasants? Huge success or huge failure. There are choices a-plenty, which could easily move you along the path of cards the dealer has dealt you, or trip you up in one misfortune to an untimely death.

Hand of Fate

Don’t think it’s all sitting back at the table top with the dealer and your token hero mini-figure. Enemy, and boss, encounters put you in a third-person action view where you can put your ice swords and coin-dropping cards to use. They tend to be fairly quick encounters but are just enough to bring in another colorful layer of fantasy to the game. The only part that seemed a bit of an annoyance was the always slow-motion rag-doll kill endings to the battles. But the environments, just as random as the cards, and the quick-action fun was enough to break what would otherwise be a monotonous and set outcome as in collectible card games. Your fate isn’t so easily sealed.

Hand of Fate

Another different part of the action-based gameplay comes in dodging trap-filled mazes. Some are fun in the beginning, but they do become complex – and frustrating – later in the game. Working your way around spiked rotating traps seemed obvious, but I never understood the spikes on the floor. Those seemed somewhat random, and unbalanced, in the way they were triggered and could easily end the game for you. The good thing is you can avoid certain cards if you want (though some are locked in at times) in the deck-building options before the game.

Hand of Fate

The card artwork, music, lore and effects offer all the elements to dish out your fantasy-fix. Nothing overly breakthrough here, but modest. It’s in the whole presentation of the different gameplay elements together that make Hand of Fate a unique experience. The storytelling scenarios, the deck-building and playing components, the randomness of some of the outcomes, the third-person action modes of play – all make for a fun challenge. The difficulty does ramp up fairly quickly – giving a pretty steep curve of challenge and frustration early on in the game. But be persistent and pace through the experience in the Story Mode and then come back for more in the Endless Mode and you’ve got some gameplay longevity and fun in Hand of Fate. If you’re looking for something unique and enjoy fantasy games, delve into Hand of Fate!

Hand of Fate

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TITLE

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Bandai Namco Games & Sora Ltd.
Release date: November 21st, 2014

Super Smash Bros has always been the must-have title since it was released back in 1999. From the Nintendo 64 all the way to todays generation – the Nintendo WiiU – Super Smash Bros has seen countless hours of casual and competitive play throughout the world. Does Super Smash Bros for WiiU deliver upon expectations and if so, does it exceed them?

It has been 15 years since we saw the release of the original Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo 64 and I still go back to play the classic roster of characters. The one thing I have to credit Nintendo on is the ability to remake old games but put a twist on them that makes them feel new and refreshing. They did exactly that with Super Smash Bros for WiiU as they brought the same, old fashioned game mechanics with a plethora of new game options to expand on the already perfect formula.

Read the full review here

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To cut (or crack the whip) to the chase, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Mirror of Fate is an excellent 3DS execution by game developer MercurySteam. The artwork, action gameplay, storyline and musical composition puts Mirror of Fate within the high quality of Castlevania games. Mirror of Fate is what brought me back to the 3DS after leaving it several months ago, and boy did it have me hooked. I couldn’t put it down, setting aside some other console games I had been playing. And yes, you can count me among the longtime Castlevania fans. It’s one of the few games I play and collect since the series began. The Castlevania series has its share of hits and misses among the many varities (side-scroller, action, puzzle, fighter), but count Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Mirror of Fate among the hits. The good it offers far outweighs the bad. Here’s a breakdown after my first play through of Mirror of Fate:

The Good:

+ Varied action and abilities throughout the gameplay perspective of four (or really, mainly three) Castlevania characters.

+ Beautiful gothic cathedrals and ornate interiors in 3D. It will stop you in your tracks at times, to take in the scenery.

+ Detailed, dark villains.

+ Surprising 3D effects, besides the expected differences between the background and foreground. Fire and flying demons tease outward to poke at the player’s perspective.

+ Several nice puzzles dispersed throughout, especially during Alucard’s segment.

+ Dramatic big boss enounters.

+ Cell-shaded cutscenes are a nice interlude from the in-game 3D. Although some may complain about lip-syncing, to me it wasn’t a distraction. The artwork is beautiful. The cinematics are available for playback when unlocked.

+ Fills you in on the history of the prime Castlevania characters, including a surprising revelation on Alucard.

+ Detailed 3D bestiary with information on each beast/character.

+ Ability to leave notes on a map screen for backtracking when new abilities are unlocked.

+ One the fallen brotherhood turns up to be Nintendo’s icon (hint, hint).

The Bad:

- No manual. Not a fault of the developer, but on Konami’s part for deciding to opt with a digital only version. Sacrilege for us Castlevania fans who enjoy the series for its beautiful artwork and atmosphere. Mirror of Fate is available from the Nintendo Store online to appease those who want to go digital, so why Konami didn’t at least provide the Castlevania core collectors with some embellished physical version beats me. Even the pre-order sticker 3DS case offered from another game retailer felt very cheap for the series. Collector’s Editions seem to be a dime a dozen for some games, but the Castlevania series is definitely worthy of it, if not at least a color instruction manual (or even a black & white physical copy!) /rant

- A bit on the shorter duration of the Castlevania adventures. Completionists will likely go on for the 100% and hardcore more (and another surprise teaser incentive at the end that I won’t spoil), though expect a 90-95% completion at around 12-13 hours into it.

To sum it up, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Mirror of Fate is a must for fans of the Castlevania series or for those who are looking for a gorgeous looking 3D game. Highly recommended, solid game for Nintendo 3DS gamers (or a good reason to buy a 3DS!). Excellent job, MercurySteam!

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