Game of the Year 2017

This year, I’ll be doing my first ‘Game of the Year’ entry for this site. For this, I’m going to list 4 categories (Game of the Year, Old Game of the Year, Best Surprise, and 2018 Most Anticipated Game). In each category I will go over the nominees that apply and in my winner section will spell out exactly why my winner is the winner. And with that, let’s begin!

 

Game of the Year

It’s a popular thing to say online, but I couldn’t agree more – 2017 has been an incredible year for games. The volume and sheer quality of releases has made it impossible to keep up, and even though I’ve played more new releases this year than I have in any of the last 5 years or so, I still have games that I want to play but have not gotten to (Super Mario Odyssey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0 to name a few). Here are the titles that released in 2017 that I have completed this year:

 

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Sonic Mania

 

Horizon: Zero Dawn was something I had been looking forward to cautiously for some time. The concept of an open world with mostly primitive technology and giant mechanical ‘animals’ roaming the landscape grabbed me immediately – but Guerilla Games was known primarily for Killzone and frankly, that gave me a bit of pause. After release and universal acclaim, I jumped in and wow were my expectations exceeded. The stunningly beautiful world, the music, the story and how it was acted all were exceptional across the board. Aloy has one of the dumbest protagonist names in recent memory, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t love her by the time credits rolled. All is not perfect here – the difficulty is a bit punishing in the beginning, some systems aren’t explained properly, and while the story is great overall, it over relies on information dumps at key moments which makes it feel a bit half hearted in execution.

 

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is the latest entry in the series, and the first without Nathan Drake. I was expecting greatness here and was not disappointed. I have finished every Uncharted title to date (including Golden Abyss) and I consider myself a fan of the series – so when this was announced as a standalone story starring Chloe and Nadine I was all in. It’s almost boring to write any kind of review for modern Naughty Dog games – they completely nail every aspect of these third person action adventure games. Story, characters, visuals, music, set pieces – everything is the best in the industry. Chloe and Nadine have a sometimes adversarial relationship that makes them feel like real people – I can’t think of higher praise for the writing, animation, and voice acting teams. In fact, this might be a better game than Uncharted 4 – which I like better because I can personally identify with the story more. If you like the Uncharted series, this can’t be missed – it may be the best one yet.  

 

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a crazy ride start to finish. It takes place in an alternate timeline 1960s where Hitler not only won the war, but conquered mainland USA. The game play is very similar to the first game – first person shooting levels that have multiple pathways, non regenerating health, and the ability to dual wield every weapon or combination of weapons. The gameplay is possibly the weakest part here – the shooting feels good, but when you get hit it isn’t conveyed very well and you just suddenly die. There are also two distinct difficulty spikes that made it virtually impossible for me to progress and it seems like I’m not alone. These shortcomings are all made up for by the story. The story here (which I won’t get into details) takes place over so many cutscenes that I lost count and is absolutely bonkers in the best way. There is a moment near the end that I feel doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story and is incredibly jarring – but otherwise the story is fantastic from start to finish.

 

Sonic Mania – if you told me that a new 2D Sonic game would be released in 2017 (by Sega no less)  and it would be excellent, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are, and yes it happened. Sonic Mania takes great pleasure in referencing the older games (1, 2, 3, and Knuckles) and subverting your expectations. The levels are gorgeous and look like they could run on a Genesis even if they couldn’t in reality. The controls feel right, the music and stages are the originals with remixes thrown in for good measure and the designers find new ways to surprise you in virtually every zone. I’ve been waiting 20ish years for a good new Sonic game and I finally got it – it feels like coming home after a long trip.

 

Winner:

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy – while not a perfect game by any means, I had a ton of fun with it start to finish. This series is pure escapism, and this is no different. I’m so happy we got another Uncharted release without Nathan Drake that manages to rival the previous entries.

Old Game of the Year

Each year, especially now that I’m a bit older, it seems that I play old games more often than new releases. Either I go back to stuff I bought previously and never played, or I dig deeper into libraries for systems that are new to me or have piqued my interest for one reason or another. I have too many to do individual write ups for each one, but here are the titles I completed this year that were not released in 2017:

 

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood
Killzone Mercenary
Doom (2016)
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Resogun
Ratchet and Clank (2016)
Axiom Verge
Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Until Dawn

 

Doom (2016) is one of the best first person shooters I’ve ever played – and I’ve played a lot of shooters.  The fast paced action, beautiful graphics, incredibly good soundtrack, and pitch perfect tone all make this a memorable ride you won’t want to get off. The story is silly and self aware in the best ways, and the doom guy may be just a cardboard thin character with nothing but rage behind him – but it’s perfect. The soundtrack is just wonderful – relentless and pounding, it plays homage to the original and still manages to be its own thing. Rip and tear.

 

Castlevania Symphony of the Night is well regarded as a classic, and now that I’ve played it I couldn’t agree more. The core of the game is action platforming, with the entire world open from the beginning and new areas being gated off by the abilities needed to get to them. There is a lot of backtracking, but the fact that overall progression doesn’t feel linear and the sheer amount of secrets make this one very replayable. The visuals are incredibly fluid sprite based graphics that really reached their peak in this generation, and the music is delightful. Controls are tight and the exploration is great. Really, if you like these kinds of games you have here perhaps the best the genre has to offer.

 

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir is a remake of Vanillaware’s Playstation 2 game Odin Sphere. Released late into the console’s lifecycle, it had a few issues with the design that made it more of a niche title. This version on PS4 (also on Vita) not only resolves some of the gameplay issues with the original release, but contains 1080p art assets which are frankly beautiful. On a basic level, this is an RPG with combat similar to a beat em up. There are combos and special abilities you can unlock that keep it fresh, but it is repetitive. The visuals are 2D hand drawn art that is just amazing, and the music is equally wonderful. A nice touch here is that the original is also included if you have desire to go back to that.

 

Until Dawn is an interactive adventure that is modeled after a teen horror movie. Starring Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere the game follows the story of eight ‘teens’ (who all look like they are in their mid 20s, in grand horror movie fashion), who are stranded at an abandoned ski resort with a killer on the loose. The story is good for what it is, and the choices you make do impact the outcome (all characters can die, and all can survive – and everything in between). It plays like an interactive movie, and I had a blast playing through it with my wife. It’s not perfect, but the flaws here are very minor and is worth seeking out.

 

Winner:

Castlevania Symphony of the Night. This title is foundational to the genre, and can’t be missed by fans. Without overselling it, this is one of the best titles released in the 90s that I’ve played in a very, very long time. Even if you don’t like the genre, you owe it to yourself to at least give this a shot.

 

Best Surprise

This category is all about things that surprised me – a game I thought I wouldn’t like, or something that I had no idea was coming out and blew me away.

 

Winner:

Sonic Mania should be bad. Sega has really dragged this series through the mud over the last 2 decades… there are some good Sonic games released in that time frame, but they are few and far between. Sonic 4 was a disaster, and I held out little hope for this 2D sonic release. I’ve talked about it above, but this is just a great treat for fans, with some reverence to the source material and some just bonkers surprises. This was made with love, and you can feel it.

 

2018 Most Anticipated Game

 

Winner:

Red Dead Redemption 2. As I get older, I find that I like westerns more and more, and the original Red Dead Redemption was one of my favorite games last generation, and Rockstar is one of my favorite developers. Their last release that I played was GTA V which released in November of 2014. It’s been a long time, and the quality expectations from me are through the roof. If nothing else released next year, and Red Dead meets my expectations I would be happy.

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Long Play: Batman Conclusion

2361161-nes_batmanClint Eastwood once said: “A man’s got to know his limitations” – and I know mine (at least when it comes to Batman). This is certainly not the most difficult game in the NES library, but it is almost certainly one I will never be able to finish. And that’s OK – there is still a lot here I like, so let’s get started with that.

For one thing, this game has a wonderful soundtrack – among the best on the system. The opening level’s background music is fast paced and amps me up every time I hear it.  Sunsoft became well known for their music during the NES generation, and it shows here.

Gameplay is certainly difficult, but it also fits the game and license perfectly. I have never been Batman, but I imagine that it would be a difficult job – practically impossible even. And perhaps to its detriment, the game follows suit.  The controls here are precise to a degree I rarely experience in platformers; the closest comparison I can make is Super Meat Boy. When you die (and you will) it is because your reaction times or fingers were just not fast enough or you made a lapse in judgement. Like all games of the era, enemies follow set patterns and learning their weaknesses is part of the fun.

The game is not without fault of course. First in my mind, and definitely the most petty is that Batman is purple. I suspect it has to do with the NES color pallet and the developers not wanting constant sprite flickering, but it’s a distraction. And just as I suspected in my previous entry, there is no save or password system. In a game that is this difficult, that’s inexcusable. To add insult to injury, lose all your lives and back to the main menu with you – no continues.

Overall, I didn’t hate my time with this, but the difficulty makes me reluctant to return. Perhaps I’ll play through it in an emulator where I can do save states and scum my way through it.

Image courtesy of Giant Bomb.

Long Play: Batman

 

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Batman is the next title up for long play. I never played this as a kid – in fact, this will be my first go at this game ever. I know that it is famously difficult and supposedly has a great soundtrack, Sunsoft did some great soundtracks in the NES days so I’m excited to hear what they do with Danny Elfman’s famous Batman theme. The difficulty does intimidate me a bit I’ll admit – especially since this era has a lot of games with no save or password system and punishing diffuculty. I’m a huge Batman fan in general, so I’m hoping I’m in for a treat here. I expect to play this over the month of October and move on to something else in November.

 

Image courtesy of Giant Bomb.

Long Play: Goldeneye 007 Conclusion

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Goldeneye 007 is a time capsule of sorts, much like the movie it ties into. The controls are clunky, performance is significantly lower than what would be considered acceptable today, and all around the edges you see things that are held back by the technology of the day. Underneath it all is a game that is still charming, and despite all of the above issues, still incredibly fun. There are flaws here –  a lot of them – but overall this is still very fun and I think it’s worthy of being in every N64 owner’s collection.

 

Let’s start by talking about the two main issues with this game – controls and frame rate. The N64 controller only has 1 analog stick which is a large problem in a 3D first person shooter. The developers worked around this the best they could, and I think the result is actually quite good given the limitations. Generous auto aim combined with a toggle for precision aiming really resolved a lot of the primary issues caused by the controller layout. I did see that there is an option for dual analog control using 2 N64 controllers simultaneously, but I don’t have a second controller to test it out so I’m not sure how well it works. The game also supports the rumble pak, which is a plus for me but that is largely personal preference. Now the larger issue is frame rate. I do not have any special tools or capture gear but Digital Foundry does and they did a retro episode on Goldeneye and found single digit frame rates – which is not a surprise when playing the game. The jungle level in particular is really, really bad. The single digit frame rates, fuzzy N64 graphics (that built in antialiasing filter is rarely a benefit to games), and environmental color palette matching enemy uniforms makes this particular level ugly, difficult, and just plain not fun to play. Performance is easily my second biggest complaint with the game and it’s really unfortunate that this doesn’t run better.

 

Single player in Goldeneye is split up into 20 missions – each of which is relatively short. The story roughly follows the movie (full disclosure, I haven’t watched the movie in at least a decade) and is largely disposable. Most missions are varied enough and short enough that they are entertaining without being repetitive. The missions also have secret goals (such as ‘complete under 2 minutes on 00 agent difficulty’) that unlock additional multiplayer modes. This is a great incentive to run these missions over and over and earn these extras for the multiplayer mode. One negative I ran into is that mission objectives aren’t always clear and I ended up replaying some missions multiple times because I misunderstood what the game wanted from me. It’s a minor annoyance, and nothing compared to my main issue with the missions, and the game really: escort missions. The term ‘escort mission’ should strike fear into the heart of anyone that played games in the 90s and it’s just as awful here as you remember it. You end up escorting Natalya through several missions that have an added objective that she cannot be killed. If she does, you need to restart – the mission will continue and allow you to complete the other objectives but you will still get a mission failed screen when you’re done. Natalya has terrible pathfinding and will get killed often without you being able to do anything about it. She will get stuck in corners and be unable to get herself out of them forcing you to restart the mission. She will block doorways and refuse to move. She is the reason I didn’t finish the game – I played the Control Center mission at least a half a dozen times, each time getting to the end until she inevitably gets killed by the guards. These types of missions have largely disappeared from modern games for good reason.

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Natalya is maybe the worst part of this game.

So how was my time with the title overall? I had a blast. Not only do I have a history with this one, but the game itself holds up very well in my opinion. Sure, it has issues that would be unacceptable today, but that doesn’t mean it’s unplayable or unfun. The missions themselves are usually pretty quick even on the first playthrough so it’s easy to knock a mission or two out in a short period. I played 2 months of this one and didn’t finish, but I had a blast and did play through over 80% of the single player – I’m considering this a success. Maybe one day I’ll go back and finish those handful of final missions. Or not. I hate you Natalya.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb.

Long Play: GoldenEye 007

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Where to begin? I guess 1998 or 1999 is the first time I played GoldenEye. I never personally owned an N64 when it was current (in fact, this was part of a gap where I didn’t have any current consoles – I went right from Genesis to PS2) as I was mostly playing on PC at the time. My friends however, all had N64s and every one of them had a copy of GoldenEye. At the time, it felt like a must own for the system – if you had an N64 you needed a copy of GoldenEye no if, ands, or buts. The main draw – for us at least – was the multiplayer mode. Get 4 friends together and you have hours of fun. The one thing that sticks out to me is that we were so into the built in cheats (paintball mode, DK mode, etc.) that we would make sure we had someone’s cartridge with a save that unlocked everything – in a strange way, the single player mode was important to us only in that it unlocked more options for multiplayer. I do remember at least one of my friends had every mission done in 00 Agent difficulty – something that was not achieved easily or without tons of level memorization and experimentation.
Some of my recollection of the game is that controls are a bit strange, as there is only 1 analog stick, and that the frame rate is awful on occasion. I also seem to recall people hating the difficulty in some later levels, but that may just be due to playing them in 00 Agent difficulty to unlock stuff for multiplayer. I do have a rumble pak, and since this is one of the few games in my collection that supports it, I’m excited to give it a workout.

I started playing on 7/19 and hope to be done in roughly a month – we’ll see!

P.S. No Oddjob allowed!

Image courtesy of Giant Bomb

Hiatus over – here’s what’s changing

Hey everyone, it’s been a while (7 months actually). I haven’t abandoned the blog, even though it may look like it. I’ve taken some time to think about what I want to do with it now that the initial goal has been met – 52 weeks of random games from my shelves was an interesting experiment for me. Here are the changes I’m doing or at least considering:

 

  1. Rename the blog – this should be pretty obvious, but “52 Week Backlog Challenge” was a hasty name I put in to get me rolling, and I never changed it. I’m still not certain what the new name will be (I’ve got some ideas), but I will be renaming it sometime soon.
  2. Label content better – I’ve been using tags, but really I should be noting the type of content in the title as well. Here are the preliminary types:
    1. Review – self explanatory, game or hardware reviews. I don’t feel that I need to finish a game to review it, but at this time I don’t see me reviewing something that isn’t done yet. I only did one review last year and it took me a while to write it, so don’t expect a ton of these.
    2. Quick Play – this was the bread and butter of the blog last year – a few hours of something and some first impressions. I’ll still be doing these from time to time but they are no longer the focus of the blog.
    3. Long Play – a new feature which I will go into below.
  3. Long Plays – I’ve had this idea kicking around for some time. Inspired by the ‘Together Retro’ feature on Racket Boy I will select a game randomly from a list and play it for a month or two. Because of my real life responsibilities I will probably only be able to play a few hours a week, but most of the games I’ve selected should be able to be finished in that time. I’m setting up just a few rules for myself… if I’m hating the game I can stop, if I’m loving it and I’m out of time (2 months are up) I can keep going, anything from the PS2/GC/Xbox era and older is up for grabs, and I should do my level best to finish the game before time is up. If I finish a game early, I will immediately pick another to play. I’ve created a list mainly using items from last year’s backlog challenge so I know before hand that I’ll like most of the games that can be selected. Before I start, I will write about my history with the game up to this point and my preconceived notions before I start. After I’m done, I’ll write about the game (not necessarily a review, but possible) and my experience with it – how does it hold up, was I right or wrong with my thoughts before hand, etc.

What all this means is that this blog will be updated less frequently, but with longer, meatier entries that are hopefully better composed than last year.

Thanks for reading the wall of text and hope to see you around!

Home Alone

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Due to the holidays, this is running a bit late – sorry for that!

Home Alone (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is a platformer released for most common platforms of the time to tie into the film of the same name. From my limited research, it seems that most versions were the same game ported to different platforms with the exception of the NES version which was totally different. Gameplay is fairly simple: you can jump and move side to side, you can attack using your water pistol (which only stuns enemies for a brief period of time), and your goal is to gather as many family valuables as possible and shove them down the laundry chute. Once the right amount of valuables are in the basement, you’re given a key and can go into the basement for a boss fight and end the level. This sounds like a fine idea for a game, but unfortunately the execution is not what you’d hope for. For starters, controls are not tight enough for a platformer – running is always a crap shoot on when you will stop and start relative to pressing the button, so doing it precisely is  almost impossible. Kevin is also very fragile – take 3 hits and you’re dead. And while you can temporarily disable enemies, they can still damage you if you touch them in their stunned state. Lose all of your lives and you’re booted back to the beginning of the first level – this game is ruthless. All this adds up to an experience that is frustrating and unpleasant. Full disclosure: I played the SNES version of this game extensively as a kid, and only made it past the first level once.

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Visually, this looks fine on the Game Boy – certainly nothing to write home about, but it looks good enough. The opening and game over screens have some large detailed sprites of Harry and Marv, but otherwise there isn’t anything graphically that stands out as interesting.

Sound effects are fitting and I dare say good for the Game Boy – I don’t know if it’s the work of the developers or the sound chip but either way the effects are good. Music on the other hand is a fairly good rendition of the Home Alone theme, but that’s all there is – 30 seconds of the theme. Repeating constantly. Repetitive doesn’t begin to describe the monotony. If I had been a kid in 1991 who got this and a Game Boy for Christmas, I think I’d end up playing it with the sound off.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Not great gameplay combined with frustrating childhood memories means this is done as far as I’m concerned.

Images courtesy of Game FAQs and  Giant Bomb

Batman Returns

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Up this week is a Christmas themed title (well, there are Christmas trees in the first level at least) – Batman Returns (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) on the Super Nintendo. Developed by Konami, it’s a side scrolling beat em up much like Turtles in Time. Only playable by one player at a time, you control Batman and beat up seemingly endless waves of the Penguin’s men. You have a basic punch and kick, as well as combos like slam and grab. There are also gadgets that you have access to, such as batarangs (which just stun enemies) and a grappling hook that can move you above the action. Rounding this out is a move that spins Batman in a 360 degrees and damages all enemies around him, but takes some of Batman’s life. Let’s talk about these kinds of life stealing super moves for a bit – they were very popular in the 90s, and I can understand from an academic perspective why a designer would want to do this (makes the player debate when to activate it because they will take a hit) but its never been a good mechanic. I accidentally activated it at least half a dozen times in my time with this game, and it was always not what I intended to do at all. I’m glad that this has disappeared in modern games, but it rears it’s ugly head here. Other than that, the gameplay here is great – controls are super responsive and Batman feels agile. Difficulty seems a bit higher than average unfortunately, but I’m sure a dedicated player could get through it.

Visually, the game looks great – scrolling backgrounds, well animated enemies, and cool effects – you can slam enemies into reactive background items like street signs and shop windows. It really looks great.

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Sound is also quite good overall. Music is the arranged type, and it sounds great. The music makes you feel like you’re in the film (I believe many of the tracks were either lifted directly from the movie or are modified versions). Sound effects were also great, with punches and kicks having the right amount of bass, and environmental effects like windows breaking and motorcycles revving sounding just as you’d expect.

Verdict: Play again! I love this genre and this is a solid entry. If you’re a collector, it’s fairly cheap and available – go for it if you like brawlers or Batman.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Sesame Street A-B-C

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Sesame Street A-B-C (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an educational game released for the NES and contains two ‘games’, each with several modes that change the game play a bit. Designed for children, and to cash in on the success of the NES I’m sure, it is really basic and contains little replayability. I don’t say this to knock the game – it delivers on what it aims to do without a doubt – but an educational NES game isn’t where I would typically spend my time.

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Gameplay consists of first selecting which game you’d like to play of the two included (Letter Go Round and Ernie’s Big Splash). Letter Go Round has you select one of six modes, which are all minor variations of the same basic game. A merry go round rotates with six letters – hit A when the matching letter hits the bottom of the rotation. That’s it – pretty basic. Ernie’s Big Splash is a little more complex, but only a little. You have a starting point indicated by a faucet and rubber duck, and your goal is to place tiles to route the duck to Ernie. There are ten or so different tiles and you rotate through them using the d-pad and select by hitting A. Once you’ve successfully routed the duck to Ernie some music plays as the duck traverses the course you’ve laid out. There are only three modes in this one, and the other two only differ from the basic by placing a tile randomly on the board containing another sesame street character. Because these games are so basic, I played each one in about 20 minutes – I guess I could say at this point that I beat the game since there isn’t anything else for me to do in it.

Visually, there isn’t a ton going on here. While there are some impressively large sprites used in Letter Go Round when you finish a stage, there is no scrolling or parallax and both games exist on static backgrounds. This is not a great looking game – I’d put it near the bottom of the range of acceptable for an educational title.

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Sound effects were acceptable, and music was shockingly good. That’s not to say that it was good enough to hang with the greats on NES, but for an educational game of that era it was definitely above average.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. I can see breaking this out for my daughter when she’s a little older, but I have no more interest in it.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb

Gauntlet II

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Gauntlet II (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is an early arcade game ported to the NES featuring 4 player support via a multitap. Like its arcade ancestor, it is a top down dungeon crawler where your goal is to gather food and loot and make it to the end of the level. Food increases your health which slowly ticks down, and money simply adds to your score. Most levels have some sort of gimmick – the exit may move, the walls may be invisible, or there may be hidden tiles that stun you. This certainly adds some variety to what is a simple game. You can move using the d-pad and attack using the B button, but that’s it. Enemies are not very bright and simply swarm towards you. To be honest, playing this by myself was a bit of a bore – I imagine when it was new it was fairly fun, but the gameplay is very simplistic, repetitive, and not very interesting.

Visuals were fair, with sprites relatively small and lacking detail but enough to identify them at a glance. The system did seem to manage to keep lots of enemies, even of different types, on screen at the same time without issue. I will also say this – I did not see any sprite flicker at all when I played, which is a rarity on NES titles.

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Sound was sub par here. Stages did not have any music – in fact, the only music I heard in the game was at the title screen and between stages. Sound effects ranged from acceptable to screechingly loud and obnoxious.There was also some digitized voice work that was quite good. Overall though, sound is pretty bad here.

Verdict: Back on the shelf. Not very fun with just one player, and the simplistic gameplay and sometimes jarring sound effects mean I probably won’t go back.

Images courtesy of Giant Bomb