Monthly Archives: September 2012

A Super Time with Super Time Force

There’s a particular point in human history where everything was a cartoon something on rollerblades and everything was drenched in colors Crayola scholars would one day come to call Electric Pink and Razzle Dazzle Blue. Music was unironically infused with pop synth and ripping guitar solos from dudes that refused to wear shirts that properly covered up their hairy chest plates. And for some reason, everyone wore sunglasses.

And that somehow only describes a portion of Capybara Games’ upcoming time-bending side-scrolling shooter Super Time Force. Namely, that describes an unlockable character named Zackasaurus, a totally chill raptor that speaks in 80s rap-style lyrics. Also, he wears a floral Hawaiian shirt, rocks Terminator-style sunglasses, and rides a neon-ridden skateboard. And he might have a mohawk.

Stranger than that, though, is how you obtain him. That is to say, you have to fight a giant cybernetic Tyrannosaurus rex with a huge flamethrower strapped to its head, a rocket launcher on its arm, and an infinite supply of smaller but equally dickish enemies in its mouth. So know that when I say Super Time Force is a weird game, I truly mean it.

The basic premise, though, is simple enough to put into words. You play one of several (starting out with four) characters, each with their own special attacks and weapons, and you must get to the end of a series of levels. You have a set amount of lives that you can lose by either taking a single hit or by running out of time. Simple, right?

Each time you die, however, you are respawned all right, but you are respawned alongside all previous iterations of yourself. This single-player co-op play allows for you to save past versions of yourself from dying, so if you go back and make contact with the saved guy, you’ve made a checkpoint and spared a life from being wasted (otherwise you start over from the beginning of the level).

And once you add in power-ups like slow motion (a particular programming challenge, said lead programmer Kenneth Yeung during the Fantastic Arcade panel, as you aren’t really slowing down but rather you are moving ten times as fast, something that tends to break physics engines), things can get pretty hectic. You can see it plainly once you beat a level and get a Super Meat Boy-ish playback reel of all versions of yourself playing through the stage.

That’s not to say, however, you have to make it that complicated. If you wanted (and are capable of doing so), you could beat the entire game with just one life. Even the controls are simple: just a directional stick, a jump button, and an attack button, perfect for the arcade setting I played it in. It won’t be easy, though, as at certain points it felt like I was trying to dodge so many projectiles and enemies that I was playing a bullet hell game like Jamestown or Deathsmiles instead of a platform shooter.

Each death also allows you to mix things up by choosing a new character to play with. You start out with four including machine gunner Jean Rambois, rocket launcher-wielding Jef Leppard, sniper Lady Sniper, and shield-toting Shieldy Blockerson with the ability to unlock (at least) Zackasaurus during the three-stage demo. Each character has their own unique weapon but they can also hold down the attack button to use their secondary fire. Lady Sniper, for instance, can shoot through walls and Shieldy Blockerson can one-shot most fodder types with a charged up shield.

Zackasaurus is especially unique in that given that he can’t block attacks like Shieldy despite also being a close-range fighter, his attacks actually cut through projectiles. Slashing and dashing, he can close distances between enemies without taking damage, which came in pretty handy while fighting the asteroid.

Yes, you fight an asteroid.

While riding a pterodactyl.

And even without all the ridiculous trappings of a double eye-patched colonel or gigantic armadillo dinosaurs or President Dinosaur declaring open season on humans, Super Time Force is a really good game from what I’ve seen. The game can get super manic, but it’s all by your hand.

Continually racing previous versions of yourself to get the slow motion power-up eventually gets to feeling like you’re a speeding train about to flip off the rail as the turns wind tighter and tighter. Trying to get all past lives to line up with your current and future ones to daisy chain checkpoints and synergize attacks is like spinning plates if the plates were constantly on the verge of getting shot and revived and shot again.

And all of that fits within a 30-second to 1-minute level. Once it’s all said and done, a single successful run from start to finish of any level will be extraordinarily short despite you having just spent the past 10 minutes on it. Imagine you took a playthrough of a Super Mario World level, chopped it up into 100 pieces, and overlaid them on top of each other. Then you have some idea of what Super Time Force is like.

And it’s fantastic.

Look for Super Time Force on XBLA in 2013.

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Lost and Found: Arcade Joy

At this year’s Fantastic Arcade down in Austin, Texas, I experienced a lot of great things. I ate at 24 Diner and had an amazing peanut butter milkshake (followed by an equally spectacular roasted banana and brown sugar milkshake because I love feeling like shit when I wake up); I went to a house party that was populated almost exclusively by indie game developers, including one Phil Fish of Fez fame who pulled DJ duties for most of the night; and I played and listened to people talk about some of the best games yet to be and already released.

One of those unreleased games was Hotline Miami, the top-down action game from Dennaton Games that eventually went on to win the Most Fantastic award as the festival came to a close last Sunday. And as Most Fantastic as that game is, the weird thing is that I found myself enjoying how I was playing it almost as much as what I was playing.

When I first arrived early that Saturday morning, walking through the appropriately empty bar and back under the bright, anachronistic ARCADE light-up sign, I found a bustling backroom full of stand-up arcade cabinets, an inordinate amount of banquet tables just lousy with Alienware laptops, and a stage adorned with a projector and a disco ball. Understandably, all of the laptop stations were taken, so I immediately turned to perhaps post up at a nearby dining table to write up a few things before the panels started.

But as I turned, I found myself face-to-face with the Hotline Miami cabinet and figured why not. I’d heard from a fellow writer that it was worth checking out (and by “heard,” I mean I saw that he’d been tweeting about it almost nonstop since playing it the night before), but the setup was a bit…odd. It was an arcade cabinet, sure, and a good-looking one at that—clean but ornate, sticking out like a sore thumb, just like an arcade cabinet should—but instead of being equipped with a conventional set of controls like a joystick and flat buttons, I found a keyboard and mouse simply set atop the blank slab.

And yes, it was weird at first and, being a rather tall fellow at 6’3″, a tad painful on my wrists, but soon I fell back into my arcade roots. Maybe it was the old school pixel graphics or the chippy, tinny sound effects or the crowd that had begun to gather around to watch me die over and over again, but it felt right, and it was a feeling I would be chasing for the rest of the weekend.

When I came back from what my local University of Texas friend called Taco Tour V (I prefer Inappropriately Large Lunch 2012, Austin Edition), The Highball was straight bumping. Every bowling lane was occupied, the bar and dining tables were full, and every arcade cabinet was in use, even the one of mostly broken but very much intriguing Adventure Time-themed Game Making Frenzy games (and probably the world’s most inconveniently sized keyboard ever). I spotted an empty laptop, though, and asserted myself with the speed and determination of a man who wasn’t overflowing with taco meat.

Given that I’d missed out on playing it at PAX Prime and the panel with Capybara Games lead programmer Kenneth Yeung was about to start, I fired up Super TIME Force and gave it a whirl, and you know what? That’s a good game. I had a ton of fun trying out all of the characters, seeing how I could use each one to help the other temporal clones progress in their own instances, and reveling in the satirical 80s overload. Without qualification, that is a promising game and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed playing. Capy has yet to let me down.

Yeung mentioned during the panel that they intentionally wanted to keep the game simple, utilizing only directional controls and two buttons (jump and attack), a configuration seemingly made for an arcade environment. Keeping that in mind, as soon as the audience Q&A was over, I beelined it straight for the Super TIME Force cabinet awkwardly positioned between the partition curtain and the kitchen entrance (but brandishing a proper arcade controller layout this time) and played through the demo one more time.

And I didn’t think it was possible, but I somehow managed to enjoy it even more. There’s something just very immediate-feeling and primal about how you use an entire limb to smash around a tiny but stalwart joystick as the other arm attempts to minutely articulate its intent between two comically large, red buttons. The way you jerk your body around as you stand—heaving your entire weight around as you hoist the stick left then right then left again as you attempt to dodge every bullet and dinosaur coming your way, both in real life and in the game—is such an unbelievably primordial sensation that I felt like a genuine thrillseeker of Joseph Kittingers proportions.

The heavy thud and click-clacks of every oversized gesture you make is a reaffirmation of how deeply connected you are to that game in that moment. And then once people start gathering around, either because that’s the only standing room left in the entire building or because I’m yelling AAAAGGGGHHHHH as I fight a giant cyborg T. rex that can spit up even more dinosaurs, the experience is truly complete.

Even as I play Vlambeer’s Luftrausers,the remake/sequel to their original free-to-play Flash game Luftrauser, I am overcome with a feeling I’d lost so many years ago when the TILT arcade closed down—just as so many other stores around it—in my local mall. Granted, many improvements to Luftrausers have been made over Luftrauser (pay attention to that “s”) such as the screen shake and the cloud movements and explosions and custom Rausers (all pointed out during the Vlambeer panel), but the simplistic point-and-shoot mechanics of piloting a intermittently powered, potentially amphibious biplane against non-Nazis during non-World War II becomes something else entirely when you play on a proper arcade configuration.

There’s nothing wrong with playing it on a keyboard, but when the music is almost literally being poured onto you from the cabinet’s overhanging facade and you can feel people crowd around to catch a glimpse of your score or how totally almost dead you are, something happens. A euphoria hits hard, deep inside of you in a place normally reserved for when you rewatch War Games or play a Theatre of Magic pinball machine, and it takes you over—mercilessly. Completely. It’s a joy that was lost but can be found. That arcade joy that you miss so much is still there.

Just go out and find it.

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The Skewed Design

There has been a shift, as of late, within the interaction design world. It was once a feud between those that supported the practice and those that decried it. It was pretty straightforward; either you were for it or you were against it. Now it has become plain ol’ admonishment. Instead of a line being draw in the sand, it has become either you know of the line or you are blissfully ignorant, likely coming into interaction design from graphic design.

I’m talking about skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is the practice of maintaining old interactions with a product for reasons other than pragmatism. This is a term that originated from physical items, such as when a hubcap on a car’s tire has fake wire spokes even though there’s an underlying rim that is actually supporting it. In interaction design, it has come to mean when some sort of interaction is attempting to imitate its real world analog, like in Apple’s Notes app for OS X. Or Apple’s Find My Friends app for iOS. Or really most of Apple’s apps nowadays.

It is essentially form over function taken to the extreme. Look at this audio controller from Crysonic. That’s not a physical product you can buy; that’s a piece of software you download and install. What is the point having rotary dials that take up all that space when you could fit everything onto sliders that would accomplish the same thing in a smaller space? This actually obfuscates the functions of the program rather than enhances it.

Video games, as it turns out, are a lot of interaction design. You press some buttons and you achieve an onscreen goal. That is your objective. The game designer’s objective is to make that as fun and entertaining for you as possible. But could it be that skeuomorphism is as big of a problem in video games as it has become in other interaction designs? That was the question posed to me by a designer friend of mine.

The most obvious comparison can be drawn within the concept of the uncanny valley, or the hypothesis that there is a point in robotics and computer graphics where human replicas become similar but not quite similar enough to the real thing and disturb, frighten, or repulse an actual person. A prime example in the realm of CGI would be the 2004 film adaptation of the book The Polar Express. A solid chunk of people found the characters right in that uncanny valley and were too unsettled to watch the movie.

For the most part, reversing over to function over form, video games would need nothing more than a smiley face representation of characters. Video games are already an abstraction of real world interactions, so why not have an abstraction of human beings (or aliens or whatever)? All you really need is two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth all within a circle and you’ve got a face.

However, video games have mostly achieved a sweet spot to date. They are right on the cusp of the valley to where you achieve maximal realism with the least amount of creepiness. Games generally considered cinematic for their expressive characters and plot-driven stories like Uncharted 3 make the argument that skeuomorphism is not a problem to be found in this facet (at least if you ignore things like the hilariously but appropriately disturbing Deadly Premonition).

Then perhaps it is found elsewhere. If not the people, then what about the world? I don’t know about you, but I’ve caught myself more than once staring at the mini-map in the corner of GTA IV instead of actually watching the road. At blazing speeds with unfamiliar territory, it’s a lot easier to discern the proper path you’re supposed to take on the mini-map of discrete roads and walls than looking at the realistic representation in the RAGE engine. I can’t tell if that’s an alley or a road or even just a divot in the median barrier, but with the clear-cut road/not road mini-map, I know exactly where to go. Is this another case of presentation taking precedent over performance?

Probably not. The increased graphical complexity actually aids us in most cases. For instance, we can tell more easily the actual 3D location of pedestrians and objective markers. We can tell how our vehicle is handling at any given moment just by looking at it such as which tires are intact and if we’re actually flipping through the air, headed for certain trouble. The discrete display of paths and non-paths is necessarily boiled down for navigation because we don’t need all that other information for that. For everything else, though, we do need the depth-wise display to fully grok any particular predicament in a video game.

But then, of course, the riposte would be that you could just as easily distill every object to their polygonal form. Cars become boxes and people become a series of boxes. It achieves the same purpose without all the extra graphical fluff. And in this case, that is very true. Games didn’t necessarily need to evolve beyond wireframes and some shading technology. There is no proper response to this except that, well, design is important, too. Websites don’t necessarily need anything more than their wireframes, either. Posters and brochures could just be memos on company letterhead. At a certain point, you fulfill the interaction, and now you want the design. Non-detrimental design, that is.

Menus aside (they fall under traditional user interfaces and have their own can of worms), the methods with which you interact with a game are entirely abstractions. In no way whatsoever does moving an analogue stick compare to the complex interweaving actions of actually walking. But is that something someone would want to do all the time? Do people really just want QWOP? Perhaps that is the skeuomorphism problem analogy of video games.

I would counter, though, with another analogy. Websites are very intricate systems. When you press that button on Amazon to buy your Dunkaroos, more happens than a box falling off a truck and onto your doorstep. API calls have to be made between their fulfillment system and their credit card transaction gateway and their shipping framework. You could easily do that yourself (and by “easily,” I mean you could theoretically get that all set up and try it yourself but please don’t), but that is the QWOP-ing of e-commerce. So it makes sense that these simplified abstractions of movement and shooting are there to facilitate your pleasures and eliminate your pains.

So to answer my friend, no, I’ve yet to find the same problem of skeuomorphism in video games as I have in interaction design. Skeuomorphism is a specific representation of a greater problem: things taken to the extreme. I don’t mean skateboarding and the like (that’s XTREMEEEEEEE), but rather things in excess. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being pretty, but when those looks get in the way of being a functioning car or a usable iPad app or a contributing member of society, then we’ve got a problem. Fortunately, video games usually just get in their own way when it comes to be a working piece of entertainment.

And by “fortunately,” I really mean kind of unfortunately. Making things that are fun is hard.

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Mainlining Hotline Miami

Fantastic Arcade is probably one of the best kept secrets of the game industry. It is an indie video game spin-off of the annual film festival Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and unsurprisingly, it is rather fantastic. It’s definitely not the biggest gaming event what with only 22 official game selections and a handful of Sony titles on PS3s and Vitas being shown and, at its busiest, barely making the backroom of The Highball bowling alley feel cramped, but boy does it have everything else going for it.

The games across the board are just fantastic. These are the cream of the crop indie games, previewing titles like Super TIME Force from Capybara Games and Proteus from Ed Key and David Kanaga (some released games were there, too, like Lone Survivor and FTL). And most of the developers are actually on-hand. You can just walk up and talk to the Vlambeer guys and ask them about Luftrausers or watch Terry Cavanagh beat Super Hexagon‘s Hyper Hexagonest mode over and over again without breaking a sweat. And the panels and game commentaries are so spectacularly candid that you feel like you’re watching their therapy sessions.

And that’s not to mention THE DANCINGULARITY.

So even among Pid and Where is my Heart?, imagine my surprise when a game sticks out like a sore thumb beacon of quality and intrigue. The two-man development team Dennaton traveled all the way from Sweden to show off their upcoming title Hotline Miami, and holy crap am I glad they did.

Hotline Miami is a top-down action game that revolves around…a guy. In the 80s. It’s hard to pin down what he is exactly as the developers were “intentionally vague” about the story (despite appearances, he is not a hitman and not a psycho killer). At certain points, it seems like people wearing animal masks creep into your consciousness and ask you deep, thought-provoking questions about what you’re doing, so maybe you aren’t even really killing people. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.

The closest they would get to a definitive answer was saying that the game is heavily inspired by the 2011 film Drive. During their panel, Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström mentioned that there is a clear point where the movie could have gone one of two ways, and whereas Ryan Gosling’s character chose one path, Hotline Miami will go the other. When the driver walks up to that pizzeria with that mask on, instead of walking away, imagine that he just goes in guns blazing.

And much like Drive, Hotline Miami plays in a similar fashion of mindful but instinctive, pressure-filled scenarios punctuated by intense violence. Played with a keyboard and mouse (at an upright arcade cabinet, of all places), you use WASD to move around and the mouse to aim and fire and pick up and drop weapons. You’ll have your choice of a myriad of weapons such as knives, shotguns, axes, scythes, swords, axes, crowbars, and so much more.

And you’ll need all of them. Each stage starts out with you listening to a cryptic but suggestive voicemail on your answering machine (something along the lines of “there’s an open house you should check out” or “some pests need terminating“), jumping into your DeLorean, and driving to the location of the impending massacre.

Once you get there, you’ll choose between several animal masks with names like Dennis and Aubrey, each one granting you a different ability or power-up like increased walking speed or starting with a knife instead of just your bare knuckles. After you do that, it is, for lack of a better word, on. You have to clear each floor of the building before returning to your car and driving off to see a bespectacled, long-haired dude at various food or service establishments (yeah, don’t ask).

But that clearing action is where the meat is at. You move your Axel Foley-inspired guy around at what feels like Quake-level speed trying to eliminate the Miami Vice-ish thugs patrolling each floor. Each guy can go down in one hit from a weapon or can be knocked down with your fists or by busting through a door, but the same goes for you. Just one pellet from a single shotgun blast can kill you or kill your enemy. Die and you’re immediately sent back to the start of that particular floor.

And you should expect to die a lot.

Dying is part of the learning process in Hotline Miami. For the most part, enemies start out in the same places albeit with some minor, random variance, so it eventually becomes a brutally bloody and nigh masochistic puzzle game. Each intersection of hallways becomes a process of elimination as you decipher what situations can be handled with what you have. Firearms are loud and will draw attention, but with enough rounds or proper positioning, that could be exactly what you want as thug after thug blindly runs through the doorway. Melee, however, is silent and appropriately primal, allowing you deal with each enemy at your own pace and on your own terms.

Don’t mistake this for being a stealth game, though. While you will occasionally find yourself hiding behind walls or creeping up behind a slacker guard, there aren’t many stealth systems in place. Seeing the dead bodies of fellow white-suited foes does little to alarm anyone, nor does seeing doors mysteriously open and close or weapons being thrown around the room. The point of this game is to be fast and efficient and brutal.

It’s almost operatic in that way. You’ll eventually lock down how you want to proceed in any given situation after a few initial creeping walkthroughs and either through impatience or practice, you’ll start to really zip through the first half of a floor. I mean, you’ll really be cooking, stopping for really just about nothing. Not even your own death is worth a moment’s hesitation from neither the game nor yourself.

But then you’ll start to catch earlier and earlier timings on patrol routes, so then you get into the mindset that you can’t possibly slow down or you’ll mess it all up. It’s a race against yourself to make sure everyone gets an axe to the face, and by the end, you’ll be like flowing water; cold and indifferent but fluid and powerful. You will feel, in all senses of the word, cool.

The sensation you get from being a pseudo-Ryan Gosling is only heightened by the thumping electro soundtrack. Currently a melancholy, 80s-tinged mixtape of artists like M.O.O.N. and Pertubator, the game will also feature music from Lone Survivor creator Jasper Byrne. Each ambient bass hit and stringent snare tap will eventually bump along through your veins, pushing and pulling all your gooey innards as every single bit of the game is mainlined into the very core of your being.

Once you get into the rhythm of things, you reach the same mind space as if you were playing something like Dyad. You get to that place in your head where things become primeval, animalistic. It’s almost the exact opposite of a composed, structured strategy game; everything is reactionary, and yet to get to that place, Hotline Miami demands an incredible amount of forethought and consideration from you or all you will get back is one failure after another.

And really, that’s the only way to get the big scores and the high marks. And I can’t wait to grade this dark, funny, sadistic, bloody, surprisingly philosophical, neon-filled game.

Look for Hotline Miami on Steam later this year.

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From Pixar to Face Hoodies: Epic Games Talks Fortnite

In spite of the four years since retiring his long-standing nickname in an effort to “grow up a bit,” Cliff Bleszinski, design director for Gears of War developers Epic Games, is still a child at heart. You can tell by the way he sheepishly smirks at the little throwaway quips he interjects as other people speak or by the way he still has a PR-killing lack of a refined brain-mouth filter. Or perhaps you can also tell by how he has hundreds of people file into a conference room to wear fast food worker hats while Motown blares over the speakers.

In a late panel on the Friday night of PAX, Bleszinski, producer Tanya Jessen, art lead Pete Ellis, community manager Will Kinsler, and programmer Cody Haskell were led by G4 host Jessica Chobot through an hour-long discussion of Epic’s upcoming game Fortnite. I came into it with a mild curiosity and some nigh imperceptible chunk of interest, but I walked away with a great sense of urgency to invent time travel and play Fortnite immediately.

While other panels were streamed live out to the Internet, this one was not one of them. This afforded the group a bit more candor than if say the rest of the human population was watching via TwitchTV, which resulted in the crowd being given a fairly open look at the development and roadmap of the game.

This includes the genesis of the project, too. Looking at it now, the present day Fortnite would be almost unrecognizable compared to its progenitive incarnation. The first stab at the game was much darker, much more akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It was intended to be an incredibly bleak and all around depressing world full of drab colors and an interminable rolling fog. It was, by all counts, an absolute downer.

Bleszinski, however, pointed out that this wouldn’t work. For them, this was a world that people would (hopefully) be spending dozens—maybe even hundreds—of hours in, creating forts and fighting trolls. “We don’t want people to walk away and slit their wrists,” he said.

So instead they went bright, headed towards the opposite end of the spectrum, towards what Bleszinski calls a “Pixar style.” It is a crucial shift in tone to where people don’t have to feel overwhelmed simply by existing. Characters are cartoonish, animations are exaggerated, and everything looks like they were spit out from every Saturday morning of my mid-90s childhood.

And perhaps a foil to the Bleszinski arc, this bubbly veneer betrays the more grownup core. While he puts on a mature face to hide his childish tendencies (though it sometimes appears those tendencies have rubbed off on his peers), Fortnite has thrown on this facade to mask something more sinister. And by “something,” I mean “face hoodies,” or at least that’s what Bleszinski calls them.

The general fodder enemy is called a Husk. While not technically zombies (Bleszinski would only go so far as to say “they’ve had the soul sucked out of them”), Husks are still just as terrifying. Once up close, you’ll notice their emaciated torso, ribs sticking out past the spine-tight skin and hips protruding and shifting with every awful, tortured shamble. Their former faces have been pulled back through the mouth and over their skulls, sockets empty as the hellish glow blooms from their eyes.

It is, in a word, gross.

And it’s not like they get any cuter. Leg bones are shooting out from the leg skin into pointed stilts, dragging along in a way that makes you hear the bone-on-pavement scrape you wish you could get out of you mind. Even the little troublemaking Trolls are just as unpleasant, and they’re basically little laughing (albeit maniacally) balls of, well, something. Darkness, I guess?

Every enemy, though, has a very specific purpose. From the Trolls to the Husks to the bigger and badder creepy crawlies (we saw a couple; please don’t make me relive it), they all exist to counter something or somethings that you can do or make. If you build walls, they will be knocked down. If you perch up in the sky, you will be dragged back down. If you hide in the darkest recesses of the map, you’ll find that you can no longer trust the shadows. Fortnite will never make you feel safe.

That’s not to say, however, that you will be constantly under the pressures to play Fortnite in any particular way. In fact, a point was hammered home by Bleszinski and Jessen that they want you to “play it your way,” a mantra that inevitably makes me think of Burger King and now, unfortunately, zombies. If you just want to kill bad guys, you can do that, but if you just want to build, you can do that, too. In fact, if you just want to be the gatherer to everyone else’s hunter, that is a totally viable way to play as well.

You can take your axe or sledgehammer or what-have-you and just smash everything to bits. Chop down trees, break down brick walls, or dismantle any structure you see and you’ll gather up materials. This allows you to build up your fort. The process is a bit like Minecraft in that collect-and-build sort of way, but whereas Minecraft is wholly additive, Fortnite operates under a subtractive pipeline. You’ll use blueprints to sort out how you’ll use your stuffs, so if you want to build a wall, you select the blueprint, pick a location, and build.

However, you can break down the blueprint into discrete grid blocks and remove parts you don’t want. If you have a wall and you want to add a door, simply remove that block and put in a door. If you want to build a staircase, throw up two walls and remove a diagonal half and place a plank running up. It’s a dynamic system to build whatever you want out of a basic set of elements, and it totally adapts to whatever it is you’re doing. If you chop out a new corner, it will automatically round itself. It’s a level of automation that makes the subtractive process just as customizable as the additive one. The last not-to-be-released trailer actually ends with what appears to be a 20-story castle.

And the “play it your way” mentality extends to the meat of the direct control gameplay, too. Fortnite operates mostly like a third-person shooter what with running and jumping and assorted, uh, weaponing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to kill everything in the face with a gun. Over the course of several prototyping videos, we’re shown the evolution of the crossbow weapon and how it fits into multiple play styles.

First and most obviously you can just shoot a bolt into a Husk’s head. Simple enough. But that is extensible into firing triple bolts or even explosive bolts for extra fun. But then again, if you feel like setting traps, you can do that, too. Electrified bolts can be shot into walls or into the ground and triggered by the proximity of enemies. If you want to avoid harming enemies altogether, though, you are also afforded that chance by way of the tightrope bolt. You can shoot it into pretty much anything and a tightrope will form between you and your target. You can then hop onto it and traverse to places you previously couldn’t reach.

And that evolution is pretty indicative of the entire game right now. Fortnite is currently on schedule for a release schedule of Eventually, so many things are still up in the air. Only recently (in terms of game development, anyways) was everything switched to Unreal Engine 4 where everything is allowed a greater level of fidelity and complexity. All of the advanced graphical treats are in there but so are the design tools. Level designers are given such an incredible level of freedom that one was able to cook up the fire hydrant launcher with just the in-engine toolset.

But the level of persistence, for example, is still undetermined. Bleszinski pondered with the crowd whether they would reach Minecraft levels of permanence with read/write permissions on forts or if things would get wiped nightly (fortnightly?), but he also said, “I’d like to hang onto my fort for at least a little bit.”

Modding is also undetermined at this point and is an absolutely solid “maybe.” As is whether or not there will be an open beta (there’s already a confirmed closed beta), just like whether or not there will be dedicated servers. So much, in fact, has yet to be nailed down by Epic that it’s hard to believe that there’s still a game under there. Not only that, but a game that truly interests me.

The ability to customize forts to such a minute degree and how the tightrope and various player-launching objects will add verticality to the game and the secretly sinister design are all things that I wasn’t expecting. I figured Fortnite was a quick experiment of sorts to test the waters for non-Gears games from Epic, but I now know they are wholly dedicated to this project. It will, admittedly, be a much smaller game lacking the $60 price tag and the $100 million marketing budget, but it is also not supposed to be a single, monolithic title. Jessen called it a “living project” while Bleszinski preferred to call it a “slow, tantric release” (okay, maybe he isn’t so grown up).

The point being that Fortnite is a lot of different things, and while one of those things is not done, it’s also not stale or rote or boring. And Bleszinski may have outgrown his CliffyB britches, but he, just like Fortnite, is not done. He is also not stale or rote or boring. Fortnite may be more representative of the new Bleszinski than the overwrought machismo of Gears of War or the blood marathon of Bulletstorm. It’s subtle and complex and altogether intriguing under a festival of colors and shenanigans.

And I hope it stays that way. Look for Fortnite on (at least) PC sometime in 2013. Maybe?

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The Frosted Cold: Hands-on with Company of Heroes 2

Sitting in this rented out, Company-of-Heroes-2-themed conference room up on the otherwise dark and abandoned seventh floor of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Seattle, I was a little weirded out. Not because everything was tinted red from the gels in the open windows or because one of the developers at that moment was making me tea but rather because it finally dawned on me: we haven’t seen Company of Heroes in six years. Sure there was Tales of Valor and Opposing Fronts along with the MMO-ified Company of Heroes Online, but we haven’t seen a CoH proper since September of 2006, a fact cemented by the opening PowerPoint presentation.

And Relic Entertainment has been busy in the intervening years with the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series and the oft overlooked Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, so why now? Why did it take so long? “To get it right,” said a designer on the title. I’m not sure if CoH2 is quite there yet, but it’s well on its way.

We are first run through the bullet points of the game (which allows me a few moments to drink my tea and find my notepad in this anxiety-hued and decorated room). CoH2 will run on the brand new Essence Engine 3.0, allowing it to ramp up to DX11 and integrate a whole slew of fresh systems.

First off is the destruction. Just about everything is destructible. From windmills to houses to frozen lakes, they’re all destructible and liable to leave you out in the open with no cover. “If you can see it, you can destroy it,” we’re told.

This largely affects two other systems, one of which is restricted to certain maps and/or settings while omnipresent. It is the True Sight system, a new way to determine how far the fog of war goes in an RTS. Traditionally, games determined unit- and overall army-viewable territory with circular plots, radiating outwards from center mass. True Sight is more like it ray traces eye lines from each unit with visibility blocked by trees and buildings and enhanced with higher ground.

The other impacted system is ColdTech. Considering that most winters during World War II in Russia often reached temperatures of -40° (according to Relic, anyways), the team figured it was worthwhile to incorporate it into the game as well. This means that blizzards will not only impact your overall visibility but also hinder your ability to call in air strikes and will force you to take cover in buildings or behind vehicles while your troops warm up. If you don’t keep their temperatures up, you will not only hurt them health-wise but also affect their ability to move quickly and shoot proficiently.

This pretty much turns the cold into another enemy. You’ll constantly have to manage building proximity or have an engineering unit build up a fire. Lakes will freeze over but too much weight will damage them (a health bar will actually come up), causing tanks or whole platoons to fall through as the top layer quickly begins to refreeze. Snow will accumulate and slow down everything that attempts to move through it, a consequence of the season easily mitigated by flamethrower units. It’s a rather nice addition to what might have otherwise been a straightforward sequel.

Armed with that basic knowledge of the game and a sizable display of the controls (totaling up to something around eight keys all told in addition to the mouse), we are offered time to play the beginner map Rzhev Meat Grinder and then the more advanced map Battle of Moscow. Given that I hadn’t played CoH let alone many other RTS games in recent years, I figured I’d start with Rzhev and go from there.

Starting out with three or so units (each unit is comprised of a few individual soldiers), two riflemen and one engineer, I approach a bridge that’s being occupied by some enemy guards. My objective is to assault and take over their position, so I do the absolutely foolhardy thing and charge in. Well, bad idea, as I quickly lose a unit while at most scuffing the shoes of their well-covered fighters. As it turns out, though, being on the beginner demo (map or setting I’m not sure as the two demos were separate desktop shortcuts), I had endless units, so another one quickly materialized.

Regrouping, I decided to employ strategy. A bold decision, I know, but I was willing to take risks. Sending out my engineers around to the left of the bridge and behind a truck, I moved some riflemen right into the frontline, pretty much facing off with the enemy American Revolution-style. This afforded my other riflemen time to move to their right so when the bullet-weary unit retreated out of range, the enemies would turn to face them.

This allowed my engineers to approach now from what was effectively the rear, and being that they had flamethrowers, it was a brutal end to the bridge dwellers. But objective complete, so no remorse!

Past the bridge was a village where the enemy was fairly well entrenched, having taken cover behind some choice buildings and set up a rather bothersome Gatling gun. The theme here, if you haven’t noticed, is flanking, so I once again move my engineers off to the left, behind a building and through some moderate tree coverage. Here is where I have my first encounter with the ColdTech as the high snow off-road drastically slows them down to the point where I fear the enemy will notice my other units moving into position far before the flame-wielding techs are ready.

And it is a fear well validated by the fact that they soon start shooting in my general direction. One unit is fairly well exposed, forcing them to dive down behind some crates. The others continue to move around to the side, but I can’t force these guys to retreat because they are pinned down. I can see and hear their pleas for help but all I can do is move forward with the flank and hope it’ll get them out of hot water soon enough.

Apparently, though, a few of my clicks were rather haphazard and my engineers wander straight into the western entrenchment. The machine gun turns and begins to fire, quickly mowing down one and critically damaging the others. Out of blind loyalty, I Braveheart’d their rescue by selecting all units and throwing them right into the ring. It actually worked out well as soon I was destroying buildings and flushing out the cowardly with fire and lead. I lost a lot (a lot) of men, but the endless supply of dudes was pretty luxurious.

Next I had to defend against a minor onslaught on our recently acquired village. The enemy attacked us in spurts, employing a guerrilla style of warfare, and despite having destroyed most of the prime cover in our hostile takeover, managing the attack was pretty easy. Minimal casualties and minimal clicking beyond selecting everyone and pointing all of their bullets in a certain direction.

Then we had to cross a frozen lake. It was a bit tense as we had just prior been shown a sizzle reel involving tanks and soldiers crashing through icy surfaces into the watery death below, but we made it across only to find ourselves face-to-face with a tank.

Not wanting any particular part of that action until I had sussed out what needed to be done, I took cover behind the house on the left. A few tank shells later, there wasn’t much of a house to hide behind, so I decided to have one unit distract while the others escaped. As it turns out, though, that bit of military genius was unnecessary; somehow when I came up on the tank, it was abandoned even though enemies were still milling around the outside. So I hopped it, blew them up, and then waited for the reinforcements to arrive. This included another tank, but it was easily handled by employing two key tactics: 1) never stop moving, and 2) never stop shooting.

That ended that beginner demo, so I moved on to the expert Battle of Moscow. This would require base, resource, and outpost management along with a constant monitoring of the freezing conditions on behalf of the soldiers I controlled. This arena actually appeared to be a 2v2 map as I later would find some yellow companions. Humans or AI, I’m not sure, but I do know I almost tried to kill them. Sorry, guys!

My mentality of the entire game also shifted somewhere along the way. At first, I was cautious in this capture mode, pumping out a few ammo and sandbag outposts with my engineers and some fire pits and barracks for cold management. It was like I was actually playing a Blizzard RTS, albeit this was just an RTS that happened to be in a blizzard. However, as I began to capture my first enemy base, constantly alternating flanking units and reheating units in buildings (that little dropping thermometer around them is very disconcerting) until I finally took my first point.

I began to flesh out this second base of mine, but a counterattack was quickly mounted. I could see them occupying the flag and the bar filling in their favor, but I had superior numbers and simply ambushed them from around the multitude of buildings (the True Sight truly an advantage here). This was fun but soon made me realize I had very little time to dawdle with resources and structures, so I charged headlong into the unknown winter.

I encounter a yellow team and after my attempts to attack failed, I realized they were on my side. Correction: a very minimal amount of them were on my side as most of them died in attempting to take the point north of us, a point heavily fortified with a tank and many troops. As I begin to set out with my newfound allies, my/our second base was under attack, forcing us to run back through the inhibiting snow and harsh haze of winter. A few times, I’m forced to send engineers (the class that also builds most other things in the game thus far) out just ahead to build fires as we approached. Managing cold was an anxious affair but also made the simple rote action of walking across the map nerve-wracking.

Turns out, however, whether on purpose or by happenstance, what started out as a vanilla base takeover soon escalated into an ambush, an ambush I was on the wrong side of.

So every one of my green dudes died, a few yellow lingered on, and the red was now dominating most of the map. I decided to pack it up and leave, already having spent close to 90 minutes playing this game.

Aside from looking pretty good (especially the fire and snow effects), CoH2 also plays well and in some very interesting ways. Having a constant enemy in the cold—one that both sides must battle and yet can turn vicious or helpful at the drop of a hat—makes for a totally up-in-the-air encounter every time. The random dice rolls of CoH also remain. Or at least I think so given how situationally aware and mildly random damage seemed to occur (compared to the cold, hard math of say a StarCraft).

In fact, I’m fairly sure the reason why that tank was empty was because one of my grenades actually managed to kill the driver, something of a rarity when you’re just attacking a tank otherwise. From what I can remember, this is very CoH. The additions seem to be well in line with what I remember even after six years of RTS-related game brain atrophy but the changes so far seem good and, more than that, appropriate.

Given, it’s hard to get that in-depth into any strategy game even after 90 minutes, but so far I feel good about what I saw, especially knowing that it was announced just earlier this year in May. Look for it early next year on PC.

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Angry Dragons and Lucky Dwarves: Hands-on with Card Hunter

Jonathan Chey is an interesting fellow. He got his start at the now defunct but still every bit as legendary Looking Glass Studios where he had a hand in such marquee titles as Thief and Flight Unlimited II and soon was a designer on Freedom Force and a producer on System Shock 2. Chey then moved on to co-found Irrational Games with Ken Levine and Robert Fermier and worked on BioShock as the director of development.

But in July of 2011, he forged on alone and formed Blue Manchu Games, the announcement coinciding with the reveal of his first independent title, Card Hunter, just about as far as you can get from the likes of BioShock and Freedom Force. It is an online collectible card game that plays a bit more like an MMO but has the trappings of a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons.

You see, you’ll have your party—in my case, a sorceress, a dwarf, and a paladin knight—and you’ll explore dungeons while collecting loot, fighting bosses, and the like. You play on a grid-based system where every move or attack you do has a certain range of blocks it can affect, so an axe-wielding dwarf can maybe run and attack just within a 9×9 area in any given turn but a sorceress can teleport and attack pretty much anywhere on the map.

It sounds a bit like standard fare until you add in the cards to the mix. Everything you do from dashing around the dungeon to mitigating damage with a shield requires a card, each character and enemy having its own individual hand to draw from. Each character’s deck is built from the items they equip, so if you equip a good axe, you’ll get better attack cards and if you equip a paltry shield, you’re liable to get easily-bested counter cards.

Each turn, you’ll be given to the opportunity to either play any single card from one of your characters or pass. If you don’t have any cards left to play, you have no choice but to pass, and if all players (AI or otherwise) pass, then a new round begins.

Rounds are important because they not only allow you to draw new hands for your characters while discarding whatever remains of your old hand but also delineate the timings of certain effects, such as environmental acid or character burn statuses. If a round ends with me standing on a square that is covered in acid, then I take damage, or if I’m unable to remove the burn status by the end of the round, then I take burn damage. Most of these effects only last a certain number of rounds, too, so passing quickly can determine just how long you’ll have to deal with or take advantage of them.

But here’s where it’s important to pay attention to the details: you don’t have to skip if you don’t want to. If your opponent runs out of cards and is forced to skip but you still have a bunch of sword stabs and lighting shots left in you, you can just ravage him. They’ll be defenseless, unable to move and unable to attack. Of course, the same thing could happen to you, so you’ve got to be careful about how you play your hands.

And this all makes for a very, very interesting game. After a brief tutorial level where I was taught how to move around the map and attack and how passive defense cards worked (there are also meta cards that allow you to draw extra cards or augment other cards based on what you have in play or in your hand), Chey dropped me into a fight against a single enemy.

I still have my knight, dwarf, and sorceress, and given the previous battle where I took down upwards of 10 goblins of varying power and abilities, I felt pretty confident I’d gotten the hang of the game. Attack from a distance with magic and get in close with my cutlery. Simple enough, right? Well, nothing’s simple when you’re fighting a dragon. A large, persistent, and mean dragon.

The thing about this particular dragon is that he also has natural armor, so while I have to have cards on my characters to roll virtual dice to determine if I block or halve damage with my shield, the dragon simply has it. This renders any non-penetrating, non-magic attacks on level with spitting at him. Attacking from the side or the back would help, but this guy is so agile and with moving and attacking each requiring one turn, that just wasn’t going to be an option, even with three characters in my party.

But luckily my dwarf drew some sizable movement and attack cards, so I figure I’d test the waters with him. The pillars obscured my sorceress’ spells and I preferred to have my knight heal if the occasion called for it, so I moved in, close enough to smell the beast. The dragon, however, had other plans.

He flew from the far end of the dungeon and landed smack dab in front of my knight. “Not a problem,” I remember thinking, “I’ll just move back.” But that dragon was having none of that. I may have cleared out a solid four or five squares between us, but his acid spit covered both my knight and my sorceress in about seven or so points of damage, which is a lot when you’re only working with 50 points of health to start with. Wanting to avoid that again and hopefully get far enough away from the dragon, I move my knight even further from the acidic epicenter.

No dice. The dragon flew right up against him once more, snarling and dripping globs of dragon drool onto his once pristine armor. And now I was out of movement cards, so I did what any knight would do: stand my ground. I took a mighty swing at him with a bronze attack card (every card has a color value associated with it, indicating its overall worth and rarity, much like Magic: The Gathering cards or pretty much any RPG loot system) and managed to knock another four points off of his seemingly insurmountable supply of health. And then he retaliates, and boy does it hurt.

At this point, Chey points out that the sorceress’ teleportation card not only works on her but pretty much anything, including other party members and enemies. Given that we’re all pretty much on the same side of the dungeon, I opt to teleport that dragon as far away as possible. This buys me a couple turns to burn through some healing cards and contemplate the meaning of life.

But the dragon closes in once again and spits more acid at me, covering more squares with dangerous vitriol and my knight and sorceress with more damage. Given no other choices, I move both my dwarf and my knight in closer and my sorceress further away in preparation for the inevitable last stand, but the next turn yields a minor miracle: the dragon passes.

The dragon had apparently run out of cards and I’d failed to notice (the top area of the screen shows how many cards each enemy has left while any attached or revealed cards are clickable for you to examine and read at your leisure). This was my chance, so I began to savagely stab and lightning and insult the dragon, a few beating his armor rolls, a few not, but in the end, I had taken him down to half health. Not bad, but also not enough.

The next round began after I used up my last remaining card—an environmental clearance card, removing any acid within a certain range—and it was the dragon’s turn. The next three turns would be my knight’s last, turning into a rather macabre game of fire-breathing cat and shiny mouse. But his was a necessary death, allowing my dwarf to get in two incredible silver penetrating attacks and using the knight’s card to draw into the dwarf’s hand a gold attack card. My dwarf is now standing face-to-face with the dragon, but given how much armor I have (some of which are of Reliable silver quality), I decide to play a gold meta card that allows me to draw cards until I find an attack card, and wouldn’t you know it, another gold attack card.

And in another turn of the tables, the dragon has also run out of cards while I am absolutely flush with them. I use up everything in the hands of my dwarf and my sorceress save for one last eight-point bludgeon. And the dragon has eight points left. This would depend on me beating a dice roll to win this battle, my two remaining party members haggard from unrelenting acid attacks.

And I do, and Chey and I celebrate, me silently cheering and him continuing to eat his sandwich. I dig through my loot, equip a few things, and end the demo.

Going into Card Hunter, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was so vastly different from anything else Chey or the few other Irrational and Looking Glass alumni he’d gathered along the way has ever made, but with Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and designer Skaff Elias on his side, there seemed to be a good chance that it would turn out better than my dubious mind could imagine. And given that my hour with the game seemed to pass by in an instant, I would say it has. By a large margin.

Card Hunter will eventually be free-to-play with a beta bubbling up in the coming months, so I suggest you hunt it down when you can. It’ll be browser-based and powered by Flash, but will hopefully also come to iOS and Android devices soon after.

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Why Not Guacamelee!

“So why can you turn into a chicken?”

“Why CAN’T you turn into a chicken?”

Though the response doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s very fitting of the world of Guacamelee!, an upcoming Metroidvania-style game about a luchador, alternate dimensions, and absurdity. In the time I spent playing the game and speaking with Drinkbox Studios designer Chris McQuinn (who said the chicken thing actually has some serious story implications), I gleamed two facts about Guacamelee!: it’s 100% silly, and it’s 100% worth your time.

As previously mentioned, you can turn into a chicken, but as you would expect due to the nature of luchadores and the title of the game, you also have a wide variety of melee moves at your disposal as you explore the world in search for El Presidente’s daughter. You are down-on-his-luck Mexican Juan Aguacate and you can punch, kick, dive roll, wall jump, air charge, and so much more to get around.

And as is true of Metroidvania games, not all of these abilities are unlocked right from the get-go. At one point in the demo, you are presented with two paths: upwards or through a door (opposite an entrepreneurial personal trainer, but we’ll get to him later). Upwards, however, is seemingly unreachable at this point. You can see the exit up top, but with the lack of any platforms along the way, you are left with two sheer walls and a very ornate door, so the door it is.

You eventually return to this room, but as a slightly more improved luchador than before. Taught to you by an old man that can turn into a goat (or is the other way around?), you learn the Goat Jump, which is basically a wall jump but presumably in reference to how mountain goats seemingly and effortlessly ascend near vertical cliffs. So you have an open world with progress cordoned-off by gaining additional abilities from currently accessible areas. Metroidvania? You bet. Only Metroidvania?

Not even close.

Remember those alternate dimensions I’d mentioned earlier? Well, they play a significant role in the game, too. Throughout the game, there are floating portals, black hole-ish things hanging around in the world. Whenever you touch one, the world flips into one of these alternate dimensions (such as The World of the Dead and The World of Nightmares, neither of which sound particularly pleasant to be in). These transitions will affect the existence and placement of traversal elements and environmental obstacles as well as enemy vulnerability. It happens in an instant and will require you react accordingly. If you think you can stop to catch your breath, you’re dead wrong.

You may start out by wall jumping across an open chasm, but you’ll pass through a portal, swapping in the fickle solidarity of another wall for abject emptiness and certain doom in the pit below. But then you’ll have to avoid another portal to get through to the other side that will allow you to fall through to your goal. It feels a bit like the water-freezing mechanic of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, which is a good thing considering that was one of my favorite parts.

They also add a nice wrinkle to the co-op play where the second player takes the place of an ostensibly female character named Tostada. If you don’t work together to time jumps together, you’ll quickly get out of sync and one of you will probably be cursing the other as you fall and die. Dying isn’t that big of an issue, though, as you’ll simply come up as a bubble à la New Super Mario Bros. Wii. You’ll float around until your partner can come around and pop you out of purgatory. I don’t know what happens if both of you get bubbled, though, as my newfound PAX buddy and I were not wanting for skill.

But the biggest thing Guacamelee! has going for it is that the game is just absolutely funny. Upon meeting a mostly ineffectual seductress, she eventually succumbs to being overt rather than subtle and even finds time to make a pun along the way. It’s hard enough to make a game entertaining but to create one that will have you outright laugh out loud is a feat in and of itself.

This is on top of, however, the fact that it is also a tight brawler. Things can get a bit hard to keep track of and you will occasionally feel overwhelmed at the fault of the game and not your skill, but the breadth of your abilities makes for some fun combat. You can punch and kick and whatnot, but you can also grapple with enemies and kick straight into the air for either additional juggling or heightened jumping capabilities. Rolling will get you out of sticky situations and past thorny walls. It feels a bit like Shank in the way that every move is short yet impactful but it is also much more about movement in combat than straight-up ravaging foes.

And either out of coincidence or homage, there is a portion of the demo that is similar to the Skulldozer level of the Mariachi-theme area of LittleBigPlanet where you are running away from a giant, stumbling, bumbling dragon-ish beast in a bit of forced scrolling platforming. You’ll beat up a few guys along the way, but by and large, the best way is to avoid them altogether and handily navigate your way to safety rather than punch your way through.

These aforementioned skills are things you can upgrade, too. That trainer in the room I mentioned before will trade skills for coins, improving your melee damage or health or whatever. It makes upgrading easy without the need to include experience points.

But Guacamelee! is also still very much under development. Just to the left of the trainer is a chest full of coins, enough, actually, to help you actually afford an upgrade. As I played, McQuinn said, “you know, it seems like it would be better for the chest to come first.” And you know what, he’s not wrong. That definitely would have helped understanding the trainer menu a bit better and removed an unnecessary instigation of trainer dialogue.

With that being the only qualm I have so far in my short 15 minutes with the game, I must say that I’m extremely looking forward to Guacamelee! It looks to be a more than capable side-scroller with the Metroidvania trappings that make me play and obsess over Metroidvania-style games; it’s genuinely funny; and it looks so incredibly charming.

Though playable since PAX East this year (and announced just the October before that), this is the first I’ve had with it and you know what? Everyone was right; Guacamelee! is pretty great. As I bring up that the only moderately recent luchador-themed games involved Saints Row 3 and that one pretty bad brawler for XBLA, McQuinn is sure to point out that they are trying to explore the lesser known parts of Mexican culture without poking fun at it, which seems that so far, they’ve done.

But still no word on that chicken. Look for Guacamelee! on PSN and PS Vita sometime next year.

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