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Playing Games


'Monument Valley' review: Short but visually thrilling game

Wed, 23 Apr 2014 22:08:19 UT

M.C. Escher's playful use of optical illusion fascinated me as a child - I remember first seeing his room of impossible staircases and feeling that the world was filled with wonderful mysteries I could never understand. "Monument Valley," an iOS title developed by Ustwo Games, brings back that feeling of wonder and merges it with the modern sensibility of a graphic designer, producing what is probably the most beautiful mobile game yet. "Monument Valley" is a puzzle-solving game in which the player guides Ida the Silent Princess through an architectural world set in isometric perspective and full of impossible geometry - rotating your perspective merges two pathways into one, turning a crank changes gravity, pressing a button unfolds a hidden staircase. Many players might take issue with the fact that the game is so short, but seeing as it's meant to be played on a mobile device, the length didn't detract from my experience - and Ustwo has promised that new levels will be added soon.

'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2': Leave poor Dracula alone

Wed, 12 Mar 2014 22:38:39 UT

Lords of Shadow he was transformed into Dracula himself and left waiting to fight Satan's return in the modern day, which sounds like an insanely cheesy action game. [...] he transforms into his younger self with a bare-chested cloak getup resembling a pro-wrestling pirate. Ready to wipe out legions of Satan's virus-laden contemporary acolytes with a whip made of your own blood? You can cast a swarm of bats as a distraction or change into a rat to sneak around tunnels, but it's a startling disconnect for a character who took out an army. The game seems to know this, too, and as much as possible takes a detour into Dracula's mind, during which he's back in his old castle and fights personal demons given shape by his own regrets. Everything about "Lords of Shadow 2" seems a bit confused, from a hero we're told is monstrous yet we're supposed to feel sympathy for, to its brutal action undercut by tepid platforming and stealth sequences.

Indie computer titles are worth a look

Wed, 12 Feb 2014 21:57:54 UT

Though the well-crafted first act lacks challenging puzzles, I sense a great deal more will be delivered as Schafer and Double Fine Productions develop their first episodic series video game. ($24.99 for entire series) Telltale Games has sharpened its storytelling craft with this dark comic book adaptation of Vertigo's Fables, which is, in its own right, a great reinterpretation of classic fairy tale characters. Similar to Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead," "Wolf" is a game of choices and their consequences, with splices of interactive fight scenes. ($24.99; also available on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and iTunes app store.)

Video and online game preview for 2014

Wed, 8 Jan 2014 20:55:38 UT

Expect higher stakes and more melodrama now that protagonist Gabriel Belmont has been transformed from a miserable pile of secrets into Dracula himself. Bungie's latest space opera has elements of "Halo" with a dash of "Battlestar Galactica," featuring a group of Earth-based super soldiers fighting aliens that have nearly destroyed society. There's a sprawling backstory (involving the colonization of, and then attack on, cities in our solar system) and the promise of plenty of action. [...] the expansive world of Tamriel is open for exploration in Bethesda's upcoming massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Players will take a role within one of the three factions fighting for the throne. More than 2,000 percent funded on Kickstarter, "Hyper Light Drifter" is on most people's list of indie games to watch in 2014. Judging from the trailer, it's a 2-D action-adventure RPG that looks like a happy meeting of 16-bit "Legend of Zelda" with the aesthetic of "Tron," a sort of dark, futuristic dungeon world punctuated by neon colors. With pilots and mech-like "Titans" engaging in fast-paced skirmishes on battle-ravaged playing fields, "Titanfall" should provide one of the adrenaline rushes of the year.

Best games of 2013: exciting new entries, rebooted favorites

Wed, 25 Dec 2013 19:43:46 UT

New Leaf (Nintendo 3DS): In the newest installation of this life simulation game, you're the mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic animals, and they're all counting on you to make the town a success. Black Flag (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4): Last year's "Assassin's Creed" title saw gamers playing a key role in the American Revolution; this year, we sail the high seas of the West Indies with pirate Edward Kenway. Devil May Cry (Xbox 360, PS3): The year's other big reboot spends its first few minutes giving the finger to hardcore fans turned detractors, then brashly makes the case for why there should be a new "Devil May Cry." The action effortlessly slips between human and demon worlds, while nuanced voice acting grounds the high stakes in a tale of sibling rivalry. FIFA 14 (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Wii): "Madden NFL" gets more mainstream press coverage, especially with this year's 25th anniversary, but the FIFA and NHL series have quietly become the best sports video game franchises. Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360, PS3): The latest in this ever-popular series moves the action to Los Angeles (rather, Los Santos) and you play as not one, but three antiheroes.

Last-minute gift ideas for your favorite gamer

Wed, 18 Dec 2013 20:41:25 UT

ThinkGeek is our favorite online location for last-minute stocking stuffers - previous years have yielded a Han Solo carbon freezing chamber ice cube mold and a "The Empire Strikes Back" Wampa rug. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment is a nonprofit museum dedicated to preserving video game history and includes playable exhibits, classes and workshops, and special events, including the Bay Area Fight Night tournament. There are a number of membership levels ranging in price from $30 to $100, some of which include free admission to the museum, access to its game library and tickets to events. Attract Mode, part game-maker collective and part video game culture shop, has commissioned some of the best illustrators to make game-related art and products. Remember the weeks or months cruising the streets of Los Santos in "Grand Theft Auto V" or riding horseback with John Marston in "Red Dead Redemption" with a trip to the Rockstar Warehouse.

Holiday gifts: Console someone, or give them one of these pastimes

Wed, 11 Dec 2013 21:25:19 UT

[...] if a next-gen console isn't in your budget, the Playing Games crew is here to help: The adventure in the floating air city isn't finished just yet with this tabletop board game adaptation, BioShock Infinite: The LP is available in a number of formats, including vinyl ($24), CD ($12) and limited-edition audio cassette ($12) at Guthrie's online store ( The Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda is a gem, ideal for a date, children's birthday party or walk down memory lane. The museum has more than 100 pinball machines on the floor dating from the 1930s to the 1990s - all set on free play with admission. The nonprofit has started a fundraising campaign to move across town, creating its "Smithsonian of Pinball" in a former Carnegie Library.

Sampling PlayStation 4 launch titles

Thu, 28 Nov 2013 00:04:30 UT

The franchise on the previous generation of consoles felt like an '80s Hollywood action movie, riddled with poor special effects. The PS4 and its hardware help the franchise enter into the modern era of moviemaking with realistic explosions, stunning lighting, richer textures, higher frames rate and better set staging. The game isn't challenging because of the lack of great puzzles. Because it's free with your PlayStation Plus membership, "Contrast" is worth a quick look until you open your holiday presents. Though "Killzone" utilizes the hardware and abilities of both the PS4 console and new DualShock 4 controller, the game itself feels like a showcase for Sony's inner circle of developers, while overlooking the opportunity to create an engaging playing experience for gamers.

Top-selling video games often get best reviews

Wed, 13 Nov 2013 23:25:46 UT

The independent film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" would be approaching the $1 billion mark worldwide. [...] Fast & Furious 6" grossed a modest $5.5 million opening weekend - overlooked next to the runaway success of the art house film "Before Midnight." It's a bit of a generalization, but for the most part the highest-grossing video games of the year coincide with some of the stronger critical reviews. There are exceptions: "Gravity" is raking in profits with huge critical support, and more than one horrible "Tomb Raider" game or lackluster "Madden NFL" sequel made its money back. The Chronicle will probably review it next week. Three of the top-selling games so far in 2013 according to VG Chartz - Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us and Animal Crossing: Compare that with "Iron Man 3," "Man of Steel," "Despicable Me 2" and "Oz the Great and Powerful," top-grossing 2013 films that received mixed reviews. Video game critics often seem to grade on a softer curve, with many raves coming from the so-called enthusiast press.

'Rocksmith 2014': Video game uses real guitar

Wed, 30 Oct 2013 23:04:59 UT

Unlike its predecessors, where you play along with any number of hit or classic rock songs, pushing the right button at the right time to earn points and unlock rewards, "Rocksmith" requires an actual guitar that you plug into your console. [...] you're playing the actual notes to the songs, which increases the difficulty of the game. The earlier version's "journey" mode has been replaced by a "mission" mode (it is a video game, after all) with tasks like playing a song that "Rocksmith" recommends or hitting 75 percent accuracy. First is "session mode," which gives you a backing band. [...] for those who don't feel ready to tackle songs yet - or just need a refresher on guitar play - "Rocksmith 2014" has 1980s-looking Guitarcade games to help you work on various skills. "Gone Wailin'!" is a "Jetpack Joyride"-esque game where you fly through the air to catch bananas; how high and low you fly depends on how loud you play.

'Beyond: Two Souls' review

Wed, 9 Oct 2013 21:42:22 UT

[...] it's hard to imagine the game without the warmth that Page and Dafoe bring to their voice and motion capture performances. "Beyond," on the other hand, captures the ambitious tone of a supernatural drama - involving secret labs, the CIA and rifts to other dimensions - with Page as Jodie, the girl with mysterious powers at the center of it all. Why misbehave? Because it's fun to throw around some godlike powers and give the illusion of cheating in some otherwise tightly scripted levels. [...] yet the big action moments when Jodie cries out, "Aiden, save me!" (usually involving a death-defying leap) are a rewarding reversal in making you the sidekick to the heroine. For every intense level in a lab experiment gone wrong, there's an unhappy childhood memory of a snowball fight or a run-in with some saintly homeless folk.

'FIFA 14' review: Realistic soccer play

Wed, 2 Oct 2013 20:38:47 UT

Unlike the "Madden NFL" and "NHL" series, this EA Sports mainstay doesn't seem to be striving for photorealism. When rain falls, it looks more like static than the perfectly formed droplets you'll see in more image-obsessed video games. More than perhaps any other entry in the sports video game genre, "FIFA" strives for gameplay realism. [...] with apologies to the excellent "NHL 14," this may be the video game that most closely resembles the sport it represents. Formerly known as "Winning Eleven," the PES series has pushed "FIFA," much as the "NFL 2K" series did before Madden secured the exclusive rights to NFL players. In the mid-2000s, "FIFA" seemed to be striving for a higher-scoring form of soccer, which was theoretically more attractive to casual gamers in the United States. The teammate artificial intelligence seems especially improved in this game, with strikers making smart dashes at the right time, and goalies acting as if their livelihoods depend on each successful defense. The new Ignite Engine is set to debut for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, promising even more player and environmental realism.

'Grand Theft Auto V' not highway robbery

Wed, 25 Sep 2013 22:36:45 UT

Rockstar's much-anticipated "Grand Theft Auto V" launched last week, making $800 million its first day and more than $1 billion in its first three days of release. Like the "Call of Duty" franchise, "Grand Theft Auto" tweaks the game a bit between releases, but doesn't offer too much that's new to fans. Each new game looks better, is set in a different location ("GTA V" takes place in Los Angeles stand-in Los Santos) and offers the same basic formula of shootouts, strip clubs and satire. "GTA V" is a step up in game play from 2008's "GTA IV," though it seems, so far, to lack some of its predecessor's depth in storytelling. [...] Trevor is the violent one, he enjoys bloodshed; Michael is retired from crime and seems more concerned about his family; Franklin wants to find a way to make an honest buck. Less than a third of the way in, I've tortured a guy for information while working with the feds and tried to blow away as many people as I can in 90 seconds for sport.

'Killer Is Dead': Too much going on, needs refining

Wed, 4 Sep 2013 22:42:34 UT

"Killer Is Dead" bears some expected flourishes - think the cel-shaded look of "No More Heroes" centered on a taciturn Connery-era Bond as a cyborg assassin. The setup borrows from anime conventions as well, with executioner Mondo Zappa working alongside a bubbly sidekick, sultry manager and gruff boss in an agency that doles out contract killings. In between levels you can visit a nurse riding a giant floating syringe who doles out special combat trials. Stare at their eyes to maintain a romantic mood, and at, er, other parts to build up enough guts to present a gift and win them over. A dozen years after "Devil May Cry," a mix of third-person slashing and shooting just doesn't cut it anymore, especially when switching between weapons breaks the flow of the action.