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EA Sports has the reputation of an unstoppable giant when it comes to football, soccer, and hockey. With the juggernauts of Madden, FIFA, and NHL, you’d expect them to dominate every sport they touch. But as the tumultuous history of NBA Live has shown, it’s not a simple matter of EA simply showing up and expecting to be crowned champion.

After getting humbled by NBA 2K for several years, the folks behind NBA Live knew they had to go back to the drawing board in 2010. After handing development to EA Tiburon, taking a three-year hiatus from the franchise, and finally relaunching last year, the series might finally be headed for a turnaround. We had a chance to chat with executive producer Sean O’Brien and get an inside look at how EA Tiburon has gone about rebuilding the two-decade-old franchise from the ground up.

EGM: There was a three-year period there between NBA Live titles, so NBA 2K really got a monopoly on basketball video games in that time. Can you tell us about finally coming back to the market with NBA Live 14 and the difficulties you faced that first year back in trying to reclaim a piece of the market share?

Sean O’Brien: It’s definitely hard, and I think that, even outside of the brand, probably the biggest challenge was building NBA Live 14 on what we had. The game didn’t ship in those previous years for a reason, and that was because it simply wasn’t good enough. That, on its own, is challenging, but to complicate matters, our base wasn’t what Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K was, so we were trying to build up the quality while also bringing it onto the next generation of hardware at the same time.

I think part of that, too, was building the team that could actually do that. We had a bit of a broken, fractured team beforehand that I inherited, so we had to ask ourselves if we even had the right people to pull this off. Then came the decisions regarding what our direction was, what our identity was, and where we were going to go—and all that’s a work in progress.

I think, after those 11 months where we built the game and we launched with next-gen, it allowed us to come together as a team. Then we got reviewed, and it was so bad, and our scores were so low, and that could’ve been a point where the team just turtled and said, “Why are we doing this?” and given up. And, for a couple of days, there were definitely some doubters. What was really cool for me, though, was come that next Monday, almost a full week after we launched, I saw a lot of people start to rally. Asking what we could do to make this better, shouting that we weren’t done yet, wanting to prove to people that this wasn’t our best. To see the team rally, I understood then that the make-up of this team—sure, we had some holes to fill talent-wise—but the core team had the gumption to make it happen.

That’s part of it. You need the right people, the right talent to make a good product in anything—not just games—and I think we’re showing with NBA Live 15 that this is more in line with what people expect from the NBA Live brand. We’re ready to take on the fight. We have a different identity and are not creating a “me too” basketball game that copies 2K, not creating the same feature set or mechanics. We’re creating an identity around our own connected feature set that focuses more on control when you’re playing the game itself, the simplicity of the game itself so that you’re always feeling like the game is responsive when you play.

So, it’s just a question of bringing people in on a journey that’s steadily improving. Our goal is to prove that we’re constantly making the game better. And given that we’re shipping NBA Live 15 ten and a half months after we shipped Live 14, after we put out numerous updates to make 14 better, being able to put out something like 15 is going to reinforce the fact that everyone at EA is taking this very seriously. There’s a big investment around it. NBA Live 14 was not our best effort and was just a small step forward in the direction we’re going.

EGM: You mentioned how low the review scores were and that NBA Live 14 wasn’t your best effort. What advantages were there in releasing a product that might not have been your best foot forward and not nixing it like NBA Live 13 in the hopes of coming back stronger this year?

O’Brien: From a development standpoint, as you finalize a game—especially an annual title—you learn something about your team, and you also establish guidelines on what “good” looks like, how to achieve that, and then how to finish. In any game development, you have your pre-production, which is your ideas and early design. Then you have your production, which is how good are you at actually implementing those things. Then you have your finalizing process, which is how you pull it all together.

How you pull it all together and have it compliant by Microsoft and Sony standards and actually ship a game under the rigid and strict timelines in sports games is a huge learning opportunity for a team, and it can bring them together. So, for better or for worse, we set a bar for where we were, both inside and outside the company. But also, with all the stuff we did after launch, it allowed us to come together as a team and engage our fans. It helped us key players in on what we’re doing here.

We have different strategies across the board, and one of those is talking with the people managing our social channels and having them engage people 1-on-1 and making sure that, even if it was just some guy saying “this game sucks,” we made sure they got a response. Asking them about their experience with the game, having them explain their issues to us, seeing if they had any questions—and it’s really interesting to see the surprise from people when someone actually responds to them and shows that we’re paying attention to them. This helps build a bit of a transparency and an honest, listening relationship with players that I think they really want.

We see it a lot in a variety of games. You see it in the indie-game scene a lot more, where you ask people to get on this journey with you and pick their brains about what they want to see from it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, whether it’s with old Live fans and you miss things about the series, or you play 2K and you’re frustrated about some things with their series. We want to know the game players want made.

We put that out there—establish a baseline with what we did with NBA Live 14 and then show and build confidence in people based on what we do and deliver against it. As we learned this past year, we learned it in a good way, that we promised a bunch of things. We said that this wasn’t our best effort and asked people to bear with us and that we’re going to prove to them on this journey that we’ll make the game better. It easy to say that, of course, and it’s harder to do it, but I’d put up what we did post-launch with 14 against what any other sports game has ever done post-launch in the history of sports gaming.

That’s how much of an investment we put into showing players just where we’re going and then with our next release, NBA Live 15, having the game look and play as it does now is a huge transformation. And so, having people along on that journey to experience that, I think, is advantageous as well. And it gets the feeling some people might have when they contribute to a Kickstarter. You want to get in early or help shape something, or hop on board as it goes because it’s cool and you want to be a part of what’s next. It’s not about what’s there right now, and that’s sort of the philosophy we’re taking with the athletes we work with, the musicians we work with. It’s not about what’s cool right now, but if you want to be a part of something that will be cool, then that’s where we are.

EGM: You said there were some holes on the team. Can you specify where those holes were and how you’ve filled them since then?

O’Brien: Without getting into names or anything, I think we lacked a bit of creative leadership. We did fill those holes, though, as I brought down some guys that I used to work with previously, which made me feel better. I brought in some guys from EA Canada that I worked with on [the series] before. Connor Dougan runs our gameplay team, which is a very big team; he worked with me on NBA and NCAA basketball and was a line producer on SSX and was doing some work on UFC before we moved him down to [EA Tiburon]. Same with [senior designer] Ryan Santos, I worked with him on NBA Live and NBA Street. He’s a real lifestyle basketball guy, so we wanted him to insert some of the lifestyle of the sport that is so important, fusing the culture of the sport through music and footwear and apparel into the backbone of what NBA Live is, similar to what we did with NBA Live 10. We’re trying to reinvent it again on new-gen hardware. And a few other guys, too, to just really round out the experience level on making a basketball game, as well as to bolster what I felt was not enough creative leadership.

So, the designers and producers making the game, we really just needed more of them. And since then we’ve hired a number of engineers, a number of artists and animators, but what I was most happy with was the team that was there was actually a lot better than I thought. And what we produced was better than 13, because I played 13, it was better than what that looked and played like. And what we’re doing now is better than what 14 was. There are some really talented guys there, and I felt they just needed better direction, better leadership, and a better understanding of how to come together.

The coolest thing is that there’s some really strong talent there, so that’s why I feel even better about this year. For example, Paul Kashuk, our art director, who’s been at EA Tiburon for maybe eight years in a central role, worked on PGA Tour a few years back and is a former Disney guy. Giving him the opportunity to do this, he’ll be the first to tell you that his overall plan was a three-year plan. I believe we’ve achieved the vast majority of it in two years, but because of the way the art was built for 13, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted in that short timeframe for 14. But this was his plan all along. We built a scanner that was mobile and portable enough to go scan the athletes, and he had this strategy that we had to pick certain things we could in 14, knowing we could do more in 15 and even have the creative direction set already for 16, knowing where we could then take the franchise in the future as well.

EGM: Does the yearly iteration and near-constant work cycle due to the franchise’s annual nature make it easier then to implement long-term plans and follow through on them? Does the unending cycle become daunting at times, even with plans in place?

O’Brien: That’s one of the most challenging things. Knowing that we have a list of work can, at times, be overwhelming. But you got to stick to the plan, because I’d love to just snap my fingers and hand you the game I’ve got in my head. Obviously, I can’t do that, so it’s both the frustrating and challenging thing about being in sports-game development.

From the team’s standpoint, what we’re trying to figure out now is take what we proved internally with our post-launch support and expand on it. We’ve helped streamline this with new technology. Like for example, when LeBron James broke his nose last year, we have this live content update system now. Normally, when we want to update something, we’ll have to go through a submission process with Microsoft and Sony, and it becomes a patch, and they update your kit. So, we do the work, send it to them, they take about two weeks to review it, approve it, send it through the proper logistics channels of making it happen, and it finally gets to the player’s game. So, it takes a good chunk of time.

And so, when we’re living in a time when LeBron breaks his nose, you read about it, write about it, or see it on SportsCenter, and then you see him bring out that black mask/nose guard that the NBA didn’t want him to wear, and there was all this conversation about it. But when I went and played Live or 2K, he’s not wearing it. So, there’s a disconnect from reality. We could turn that around in three days now, though, with our new tech, so on the third day, LeBron in our game was wearing the black mask.

It’s a little thing, but maintaining relevancy is extremely important and one of the things that we’re going to hang our hat on. So, it’s the ability to support our games post-release and create this experience that doesn’t die. And at the same time of doing that, also executing for the next year’s game. That’s just the challenge of bringing our resources together and making sure we use them appropriately to ensure that the player who has the game now gets what they’re expecting and that we really fulfill the promise of that live service. Then, it’s making sure we have enough people and enough time to really innovate and build the new features that same player wants in next year’s game as well.

So, in regards to visuals, we made the game look better through one of our updates to 14, so if visuals were at a five out of 10 before, maybe the update bumped them up to a six. It was better, but it wasn’t what we’re doing for 15, because we took our new tech and went out and rescanned every player in the game, had to build a pipeline, and we had to actually re-author with new lighting to make the game take the step forward we needed to take.

It’s not something we could just update 14 with because we’re just getting to the point where we’re almost done now, and that’s something we were very honest about. I’ll tell you exactly what we can do; we’re not holding anything back. If we could’ve done this in 14, we would have. Sometimes, it’s just not possible, and I think that’s the challenge we’re taking on to make sure people can be a part of our journey and the trajectory to where we’ll be good—and, at the same time, understand why, have a stake in it, and give their feedback and have an opinion on where we’re going and then use our abilities to course correct as best we can along the way while supporting the live service of the current game and building toward the next one.

So, it’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because sports games don’t traditionally do a good job of that. We’ll do roster updates and the little things, and Ultimate Team helps keep games a lot more relevant from a fantasy perspective, but in terms of giving you content and new things that you can engage with, it’s cool, but our challenge now is primarily to do everything we did with 14 for 15, and then with 16 and moving forward, people really buy into it and get what’s happening. That’s a differentiator to me.

EGM: When you guys invite the NBA players to have them scanned into the game, what’s their response? Are they excited just because it’s a videogame, or are they disappointed it’s not NBA 2K? What’s the feeling from the players around the league about NBA Live?

O’Brien: It’s interesting because, just to use a hypothetical here, a guy like [No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft] Andrew Wiggins, who’s only 19, doesn’t really remember Live unless he had an older brother or someone who played Live. But the older guys all know Live and grew up with it and love it and want to see it make a comeback. Most of the guys who play, though, now say they play 2K, or there’s a small minority of guys who played both last year. But they’re all very interested. I’ll exaggerate slightly and say they’re all interested, but most of the guys are more interested in what we’re doing. How we’re doing it, where Live is in its development, how we’re going to make it as good as 2K, and they talk about this as they sit down and scan with us.

Most of the environments we do in the scans in are a hotel ballroom or meeting room, and we’ll have the scanner set up, the game on the screen, and then the PR departments bring the players through, the coaches through, and most of the guys just sit around and play. They talk and make fun of each other because we get them to do screams and stuff to get different emotional performances from them. So, they talk and make fun of each other, and then they ask questions. And there’s usually three or four guys who are really interested in software development and what we’re doing, and they’ll ask these questions, and the other guys start listening.

It’s pretty cool, because it’s a different generation. Fifteen years ago, guys wouldn’t care about this, and now they all want to know what their ratings are, if their hair is right—like, we’ve had guys not want to get scanned and ask us if we could come back the next day because they’re getting a haircut. It’s all really important to them. So, the engagement on the players is extremely high, and then what we did throughout the course of the year, when we actually did some scans and ran them through the pipeline and showed them the graphical differences between last year and this year, we were getting the “Holy s***!” reactions to how good it looked, which is pretty rewarding. Anytime you can show players how good they look in a game, it’s kind of cool.

EGM: Have you made enough advancements between NBA Live 14 and 15 to completely narrow the gap with NBA 2K?

O’Brien: It’s hard to know for sure without knowing what 2K has done this year. Taking that into consideration, at the very least, visually, I can say yes. I think when we put our two games up side by side, we’ll absolutely be in the ballpark. I think there’s a different style between the two—like, if you look at a 2K game, I think there’s only two different body types. 2K tends to go for more of a heroic look, big feet and big shoes. They use their shaders a bit differently, so it’s a little more of a different artistic style, whereas we go for more of a photorealistic EA Sports style. So, that’ll be a plus or minus depending on your own personal preference.

I think that, from the gameplay side of things, we’re going to offer something different. Their animation is so strong and looks so good. That’s the one area where I’m curious to see how we stack up this year, but I do think that unless they’ve completely changed their approach, I think our game will be more responsive. What I mean by that is, I think you’ll feel more in control of what’s happening. The action, the input on your controller, what your expectation is, we feel that’s a point of differentiation that we can take advantage of.

What we’re trying to do is really give you the control that you expect. So, I think that’ll be an opportunity for us, and we’re going to hang our hat on responsiveness and control, so I’m curious to see if 2K has done anything to address that. That’s an unknown for me. They took a different approach last year with their virtual currency and how they’re doing online teamplay and online play in general. They had some server problems that everyone either experienced or read about, so I’m curious to see how much they’ve cleaned up there. It’s something we do extremely well at EA in general. Except for Battlefield. [Laughs]

But speaking for sports, the Ignite engine and our online experience is really buttoned up and really solid, and we rarely have server issues or challenges—if ever. The connected experience and what we provide, our relationship with [real-time stats company] Synergy Sports, it provides new data and tendencies on an ongoing basis based on what’s happening in the real world and changing your experience.

Maintaining the relevancy is something else we’ll hang our hat on and continuing to invest in. I think that’s where we’re best in class in sports games. And I think once our game looks better and plays better, that’ll get a little more recognition—because now, who cares? If it doesn’t play good or look good, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t really meaningful. And then, looking forward, seeing how we invest in online teamplay, what that experience looks like, as well as how Ultimate Team ends up looking like as well and evolving that, I think that’s where we’ll continue to form our identity and differentiate.

So, I’d say we’ve definitely caught up in a lot of areas. I think the gap last year was quite significant. I think we’ve done an incredible job within 10 and a half months of closing that gap significantly in a lot of different areas. Overall, they’re an 85-plus-rated game, so it’s still going to take us some time to actually really catch up, but I think we do offer something different, and I think that’s important.

EGM: It really seems there’s been a culture shift within EA’s halls. I don’t think a few years ago you guys would’ve been talking about three-year plans. Do you think this could’ve been done a few years ago, or have things changed?

O’Brien: Things are changing. A lot of it is around [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson and [executive vice president of EA Studios] Patrick Soderland’s approach to quality and the emphasis on quality, not around headcount or your business plan. It’s about having the right people to make a great game. We’ll figure out the logistics, but that’s the most important thing now, and it’s what Andrew wants to hang his hat on and all of our hats on as a company.

So, it’s a really cool thing for me, just as a side note, how Andrew is giving me build feedback. The CEO of our company is talking about animation blending and AI states, and it’s cool and empowering in a way, because I can go back to my team and be like, “This is what Andrew thinks of our game.” Patrick is the same exact way, where they’re honed in on making a great game, making sure we’re focused on quality.

And then, even the tough decisions—which Andrew says are tough but aren’t really tough, like [pushing the release date back for] games like Hardline out and Dragon Age: Inquisition. EA, as a company, would’ve never made those decisions before. We were so quarter-by-quarter focused, and he pushed Battlefield: Hardline out of a quarter, which is enormous revenue, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. The game’s not ready, and they want to make 9s. We’re done with making 7s and 8s, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. So, it’s pretty cool to have the support of all these guys who believe in what we’re trying to do, understand the challenge, are giving us the resources to make leaps and bounds, recognizing those leaps and bounds, and then continuing to push us to be even better. It’s a pretty cool—and I’d say new—take on what EA’s all about, and it’s a lot of fun.

EGM: From an outsider’s perspective, the announcement of NBA Live 15 signified a change to me, becausesorry to bring up the bad review scores againthe EA of old, I think, would’ve never moved forward with NBA Live 15 after how poorly 14 was received.

O’Brien: I agree with you completely. When I came back to EA—and Andrew’s the guy who actually wanted me to come back before he got promoted to his big-boy job—I was just grilling Andrew on what the expectations were, what the support would be like, and I told him if he expected us to turn this around instantly, it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure there was the support internally, as a company, that they believed in this category, and they did.

It’s a huge opportunity, globally, on a number of different platforms. The NBA is an amazing partner with us, and they support us still, even with all the crap we’ve gone through over the past five years. It’s really important to me to feel like a part of something that the company sees a value in. If you think about it, in terms of games, what other genre can you say there’s an established $350 million category annually that EA’s had a huge presence in before? We’re really good at all the other sports, so if we came back and can take half of that, we’re in a good place—aiming for more, of course.

When we talk about creating new IPs and opening up new markets and new genres, yeah, this is an established market with an established genre and an established competitor, which makes it admittedly really challenging, but it gives you a court to play on. And I think that’s where Andrew’s vision is. For us, for the studio team, it’s just about making sure we can show the progress that he’s expecting and the company’s expecting to honor that commitment and keep that commitment alive. If we were a complete bust and had no plan and no idea what we were doing, it’d probably be a different conversation right now, but I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell. There’s more to what you saw in the package that was NBA Live 14. There are reasons why it was what it was. And it’s not a question of making excuses or being defensive; it’s just that there’s reality, and we just want to share some reality for those who are interested. And when you look at last year versus this year, you can see the differences. There’s a lot of good things happening, and it’s just a matter that some of them take time, and we’ll share as much as we can along the way. But believe in us, because we’re going to do it.

Actions have consequences

Editor’s Note: In order as to not spoil the events from previous episodes in this and/or the first season, the language used will attempt to remain as vague as possible. That being said, some situations may still be specifically referenced and thus, if you do not want anything spoiled, we recommend you fully play previous episodes and then return. Consider yourself warned.

After finally catching a little bit of the magic that made Season One so great in its previous episode, The Walking Dead: Season Two hoped it could continue its rebound from a slow start in Episode 4 – Amid the Ruins. Picking up right where Episode 3 left off, much of this latest chapter deals with the fallout of Clem and the gang’s escape from Carver’s compound. Decisions you’ve made along the way once again dictate the kind of dialogue you’ll have with your remaining compatriots as new bonds are formed and others are pushed to the breaking point due to the stress of your ever-changing group makeup.

While Amid the Ruins starts off strong, rich in the drama you’ve come to expect from anything based in The Walking Dead universe (especially when several problems come to an unexpected head in this episode and not the finale), the storytelling rapidly devolves about halfway through. The group splinters up to accomplish a necessary task more quickly, with Clementine moving between different cliques to help speed the process along. Besides the fact that the “fetch quest” nature of this section of the game left a sour taste in my mouth, the group physically drifting apart also signified (rather bluntly I might add) a newfound lack of focus on the common goal of surviving as a collective, punctuated by infighting and bickering becoming staples of nearly every conversation.

Though Amid the Ruins does introduce some major threats to the group in order to replace those that were solved when you left Carver’s makeshift bastion, the division of the group introduces a multitude of nagging problems that make it hard to focus on the bigger picture. Season One’s penultimate episode was so phenomenal because at the end, there were only two situations you had to focus on: Lee’s bitten arm and Clem’s kidnapping. In Season Two’s fourth episode, however, the new problems that arise are sullied by the childish spats between the group’s core members, like a swarm of buzzing flies circling your head as you try to focus on the more pressing and delicate matters at hand. And it seems that Telltale would rather have left some of the strongest new characters of the season, especially Luke, in the background saying nothing at all if they weren’t adding to the unnecessary squabbling, leaving me as puzzled as I am disappointed.

Despite the sad storytelling decline after the spike in Episode 3, Amid the Ruins does at least provide enough interesting situations to keep you on your toes. After all, in between the war of words, there’s still a zombie apocalypse going on around you, and just when you feel like you’ve had enough of Clementine being the most mature character in the game, an action-packed zombie sequence kicks in to ratchet up the tension again and remind everyone why they’re here and what they’re running away from.

The good news with Amid the Ruins? Telltale seems to have left more than enough room to top this episode and still finish the season strong, and we’ve seen from this season alone that they have the potential to bounce back from a narrative misstep. Season Two – Episode 4 of The Walking Dead, however, feels like a weak stitching together of what I hope will be the two best episodes of the season.

Developer: Telltale Games • Publisher: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 07.23.14
6.0

Too many random problems arise and detract from the main issues of the story, leaving Amid the Ruins feeling like a weird valley right before the hopeful peak of the season finale.

The Good Some of the best zombie encounters yet.
The Bad Too many new problems crop up with just one episode left.
The Ugly Kenny’s face isn’t going to be getting better anytime soon.
The Walking Dead: Season Two: Episode 4 – Amid the Ruins is available on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and iOS. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Telltale for the benefit of this review.

Adam West, the man who played Batman on TV in the 1960s, will be a voice in Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced on the game’s official Twitter feed.

The picture accompanying the tweet leads us to believe that West has been cast as a Lego-fied version of himself and will only make a small cameo. For many Batman fans, though, his inclusion on any scale is a welcome nod to the character’s storied past.

West portrayed Batman in 120 half-hour episodes of what was a smash hit for ABC from 1966-1968, plus a full-length feature film that came out between the first and second seasons of the TV show’s run. Warner Bros. just announced the entire TV series will be released on DVD/Blu-ray for the first time this November. In recent years, West has seen a resurgence in popularity, in large part due to his role as “Mayor West” in FOX’s Family Guy, and got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April of 2012.

He joins an ever-expanding cast of accomplished actors/voice actors, led by Troy Baker as Batman and Dee Bradley Baker as Brainiac. West will also be a part of the Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham panel being held at San Diego ComicCon next week.

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham is coming out sometime this fall on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U, 3DS, and PS Vita.

 

Off the rails

When I first think of rail shooters, arcade experiences usually pop to mind, but every now and again, these games provide a refreshing change of shooter pace on home consoles as well. In fact, some of my favorite experiences on the last generation of consoles included The House of the Dead: Overkill and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for that very reason. Now that we’ve got a new generation of consoles, I wondered if there was anything they’d provide that could help freshen up the genre.

Enter Blue Estate, a prequel to a 12-issue comic book of the same name from a few years back that tries to insert players into that world’s tongue-in-cheek noir crime drama. Instead of playing as the comic’s bumbling detective protagonist, however, players are inserted into the shoes of Tony Luciano, the incompetent son of a Mafia Don, and Clarence, the handsomely paid ex-Navy SEAL who’s often following after Tony to clean up his messes.

The best thing Blue Estate does is circumvent the need for a PS Move by instead using the gyroscope built directly into the DualShock 4. While this does make aiming a tad less accurate, the game compensates with an aim-assist feature and the ability to recenter your cursor at any time, no matter the controller position, with just a tap of the L1 button. Surprisingly, the controls are rather intuitive because of this, and I saw myself mowing down rival mobsters with no issues whatsoever. The game even finds a way to make the touchpad useful with touch-sensitive prompts for melee and opening doors.

Once you get past the controls, though, there’s really very little to be excited about with Blue Estate. The premise is straightforward, but at no point do you get enough from the story to make you care about the characters or the ridiculous situations they’re in. And beyond the occasional chuckle, there’s really nothing funny about this self-described “dark comedy,” either. Throw in some of the most canned, stereotypical dialogue you’d expect, and the entire script should’ve never seen the light of day.

Besides its miserable excuse for a story, the game is also tremendously short, especially for its $19.99 price tag. It has seven levels, the first six of which should take you only three hours to complete. To lengthen the experience, the last level then sees a ridiculous difficulty spike that may cost you another hour or two. To help illustrate this: In the first six levels of the game, I died four times. In the last level alone, I failed 18 times.

Because of the boring story, the gameplay monotony becomes startlingly evident, even for a rail shooter. All seven levels are full of the same carbon-copy thugs who all go down with a simple headshot or nutshot (heh, the game says “nuts” a lot…so funny, right?). There’s no enemy variety whatsoever, except for the game’s three bosses. They don’t offer much of a challenge either, though, except as an exercise in trying to keep awake. They’ve got lifebars that are ridiculously long, yet their AI is so simple that you’ll repeat the same pattern a dozen times without taking a hit before they finally drop.

Even Blue Estate’s guns–a make-or-break element of these types of shooters–leave something to be desired. You have a simple pistol with infinite ammo, and come across another weapon in each level. Some, like the assault rifle, make the game too simple, as you’ll find yourself racking up 200- and 300-kill combos in no time. Others, like the shotgun and the Magnum, have too short a range, making distant enemies impossible to hit. That means you’ll likely spend most of your time sticking with your default pistol, which only adds to the frustration.

Blue Estate also includes a couple of other features that you’d expect from any rail shooter to help try to salvage this trainwreck. Local co-op is available if you want to play with a friend, and two DualShock 4-controlled crosshairs work just as well as one. Global leaderboards are also present if you feel like replaying the game over and over to try and get a high score.

The only issue with that? I can’t imagine people wanting to play this game once, never mind multiple times. Blue Estate should’ve been satisfied staying a mediocre comic book, because it only makes a crappy video game.

Developer: HeSaw • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.24.14
3.5
Utilizing the DualShock 4’s gyroscope and light sensor is a great gimmick, and it’s a concept I hope other rail shooters implement. Beyond that, though, Blue Estate is a boring shell full of cheap, unfunny stereotypes that isn’t worth a single playthrough.
The Good Uses the DualShock 4’s gyroscope for targeting.
The Bad Sad attempts at humor, dialogue, and character development.
The Ugly Just another example in my war against prequels of any kind.
Blue Estate is currently a PS4 exclusive. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.

Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Montreal’s sister studio, is ready to step out of its older sibling’s shadow by taking on an Assassin’s Creed all it’s own, Ubisoft announced on the company’s official blog this morning.

Ubisoft Montreal has spearheaded every Assassin’s Creed thus far, often with help from various members of Ubisoft’s global network of developers. But with Ubisoft Quebec’s recent $28 million dollar investment, $4 million of which is going to a brand new workspace designed specifically for triple-A game development, the studio is ready to spread its eagle wings and show off what they can do.

“We have the confidence of the brand team and also from Ubisoft to take leadership of an upcoming Assassin’s Creed title,” Ubisoft Quebec managing director Nicolas Rioux said. “The team is ready for the next big step.”

Ubisoft Quebec is very familiar with the franchise, of course, having helped out on every entry since Brotherhood and even spearheading The Tyranny of King Washington and Freedom Cry DLC for AC III and AC IV. The next big step for them now is bolstering their work force. Already 350 people work at Ubisoft Quebec (including some starting the groundwork for this new project), and the studio plans to reach 425 people by 2017.

With multiple studios helping out Assassin’s Creed on an annual basis (including as many as 10 for Unity), it only makes sense that at some point another studio would just take the reigns completely themselves for a title, much like how Activision has a three-studio rotation with Call of Duty.  What Quebec’s Assassin’s Creed will entail is anybody’s guess, but it only cements the fact that Assassin’s Creed has plans to stick around for quite some time.

As for this year, Assassin’s Creed Unity launches on Windows PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 28.

Swing and a miss

Like many others who grew up with R.B.I. Baseball, I was thrilled when I found out it would be making a return on modern platforms after two decades of dormancy. As a pioneer of baseball on consoles, R.B.I. Baseball obtained the license from the MLB Players Association to be the first game to feature actual player names back in the 1980s. Now, 20 years after the last game to bear the name—with this new title developed by Major League Baseball itself—R.B.I Baseball looks to reignite a passion in arcade-style sports games that has been snuffed out by the barrage of simulation games over the past couple of decades.

Unfortunately, it seems that the inexperience Major League Baseball has in actually making videogames is an issue. R.B.I. Baseball 14 is one of the biggest wastes of time and money I’ve ever had the displeasure of putting on one of my home consoles.

R.B.I. Baseball 14 has only three modes: Exhibition to play a single game, Season to play a full 162-game schedule (with options for shorter seasons), and Playoffs to jump right to October with your favorite team. As a baseball junkie, I jumped into a full Season mode and felt I’d get enough of a sense of the game. After eight games as my beloved New York Yankees, I never want to pick my controller up for the sake of this game ever again.

Let’s start by looking at the presentation. Once you’re past the colorful opening screen and get into an actual game, you’ll quickly grow weary of looking at the same three player models over and over again. Each stadium at least has a bit more character to it, with familiar landmarks etched out behind outfield walls, but you only get brief glimpses of them on long flyballs or home runs. You’re then met with the same repetitive scoreboard between innings, no matter the stadium, and the most annoyingly wretched jingle outside of your local doctor office’s elevators.

Also, while I’m fully aware that this is an arcade-style game and that stats aren’t stressed here, I can’t stand the fact that when a player comes to bat, his 2013 stats are shown every time. If you’re going to make that big of a deal about old numbers, you should update them for how well I do in the game—or nix them altogether.

I could deal with some lackluster visuals, however, if the gameplay provided a worthwhile experience. It doesn’t. The worst aspect? The defense. Every flyball is an adventure, because the game offers no indication whatsoever of where the ball will land. Cans of corn turn into inside-the-park home runs, infield flies into doubles, and every foul ball into another opportunity for the batter to punish you for not being able to judge virtual depth from a bird’s-eye view of the field.

Pitching is the next shortcoming. While R.B.I. Baseball 14’s pitching mechanics are a throwback to those versions we played on the NES, with every pitcher having a screwball, a fastball, and a really hard fastball that you can move around while the ball is in motion, the idea of managing pitching is completely lost. Every starting pitcher can only go four to six innings before becoming too tired to continue effectively in most instances. But there’s only one actual relief pitcher in your bullpen, so you’re often just rotating starters for other starters because the invisible stamina meters for the pitchers are out of whack.

At least hitting and baserunning are fairly straightforward, relying mostly on timing and not having to worry about a power swing versus a normal swing or matching up overlays with both analog sticks or anything too insane. It’s such a simple mechanic that even R.B.I. Baseball 14 couldn’t find a way to mess it up.

This doesn’t mean things get better outside of the batters box and the bases, though. The computer AI is atrocious, and remember those tired pitchers I mentioned before? Sometimes the computer forgets to adjust to the slower velocity you have. I struck out the side in three of the last four innings I pitched with Masahiro Tanaka after he was “exhausted” throwing 62 mph “fastballs.” The computer kept swinging early as if I were still throwing 93 mph.

The AI also has as much difficulty fielding as you do, often just standing still as slow groundballs find their way to the outfield while the first baseman and second baseman stare blankly at each other. Sometimes the computer will make up for this, though, and magically teleport the ball into a fielder’s glove. They don’t even have to be on the same side of the field!

Really, the only good part of R.B.I. Baseball 14 is the mercy rule: If you’re ahead by more than 10 runs past the 5th inning, the game is over. I was able to institute that in a couple of my games, and I was grateful: The game mercifully, for me, came to an early end.

In all seriousness, Major League Baseball should be as embarrassed about R.B.I. Baseball 14 as they were about the 1994 strike and the steroid scandals. This game is an abomination, and it’s not a worthy representation of the sport. Don’t even look this game’s way—or you risk losing your baseball-loving soul.

Developer: MLB Advanced Media • Publisher: MLB.com • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 06.24.14
2.0
R.B.I. Baseball 14 features horrible presentation, broken AI, and lacks so many features that no one with any love for the sport of baseball will be able to stomach playing the game.
The Good Mercy rules added to the basic baseball parameters.
The Bad Computer AI; the presentation; the defensive aspects of the game.
The Ugly Every single stadium and player model.
R.B.I. Baseball 14 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, iOS, Android. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.

Extinguishing the spark

Back in 2010, High Moon Studios did the unthinkable: They delivered an awesome Transformers videogame. Many thought it couldn’t be done, and yet High Moon not only delivered a great game in War for Cybertron but also a solid sequel with Fall of Cybertron. They even developed some decent standalone movie titles in between.

When Activision tapped Edge of Reality to work on the next Transformers game instead, to say there was a little trepidation among fans of the Robots in Disguise would be an understatement. Unfortunately, those fears were justified.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark tries to marry the original storyline created by High Moon Studios with the abominable canon that Michael Bay’s movies have provided, producing a horrendous patchwork plot. Half the game takes place in a flashback between War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron to provide the origin of the Dark Spark, a relic of unfathomable power that Megatron wants so he can turn the Autobots permanently into rust. The Autobots catch wind of this, however, so they take a break from building the Ark, the ship that will eventually take them to Earth, to put a stop to the Decepticons’ plans.

Moving back to the present day, as with everything that comes off Cybertron, the Dark Spark finds its way to Earth (no spoilers!). Lockdown, a Cybertronian mercenary who plays an integral role in the Age of Extinction movie, arrives hot on its trail and will fight Optimus Prime and company to own its power for himself.

As soon as the game gets to Earth, everything takes a sour turn. The quality of the levels there pale in comparison to those that take place on Cybertron. While repetitive design plagues most of the game’s chapters, it becomes far more evident in the Earth levels when you run around through the same bland-looking open urban environments over and over again—as opposed to the visually interesting segments you play through on Cybertron, such as Megatron’s main base, Kaon, with crumbling bridges on its approach and the prison in its underbelly, or the ancient Cybertronian ruins surrounded by a lava lake and the red desert you need to work your way across upon your exit.

The story also jumps over a cliff once you hit Earth. Lockdown’s motivations make no sense for the character, whether you’re familiar with him from his G1 story, or if you’ve been unfortunate enough to watch Age of Extinction and you’re using the game as it was intended—to learn why Lockdown came to Earth—since these provide direct contradictions to each other. Grimlock also shows up, for no rhyme or reason, and the worst part is he has the design from Age of Extinction, which makes him look more like Dinobot from Beast Wars and not the colorful tribute to the action figures and cartoons High Moon crafted in Fall of Cybertron.

If Rise of the Dark Spark had just been an interquel between High Moon’s two original games and the Earth levels and forced tie-ins to Age of Extinction weren’t included, this could’ve been a salvageable project. That’s because a few of Edge of Reality’s design decisions do have some potential. For example, they simply took the core mechanics from High Moon’s games and copied them over. From a third-person-shooter standpoint, the gameplay feels like it’s been lifted straight from Fall of Cybertron. Transforming from robot to vehicle is just as smooth as in the previous games, meaning that veterans of the more recent Transformers games will feel right at home.

On top of this, the game features a new leveling system where you earn XP from kills or completing challenges. By finishing each challenge or reaching a new XP perch, you can earn Gearboxes, which can then be opened up for characters to use in Escalation or items to be used in the campaign.

Besides the shoddy level design and weak plot, Rise of the Dark Spark also includes technical shortcomings galore. Glitches see your characters get stuck in walls or enemies melt through floors at least once per level. Mid-stage loading screens take place in the middle of a firefight countless times, decimating the game’s pacing. Of course, your friendly AI is also completely useless, which causes you to restart several sections. One particularly frustrating instance came as I was playing Drift and had Bumblebee by my side as an AI. We had to race away from a pursuing Titan mercenary and instead, Bumblebee drove toward the indestructible foe, instantly dying, and causing me to restart from the last checkpoint.

Speaking of the robots that join you on missions, the most mind-boggling decisions about Rise of the Dark Spark come from the lack of choice the game gives you. If there are multiple Transformers on each level, why not bring back the ability to choose which Transformer you play, like War for Cybertron did, or at least give us campaign co-op?

Instead of campaign co-op, though, all we get back is Escalation. This is the returning Transformers take on Horde mode, with 15 levels of enemies coming after you and three friends. While it’s still a solid take on the mode, I wish there had been a local option, and I miss Fall of Cybertron’s ability to customize my own Autobots and Decepticons. Along with this, all of competitive multiplayer has been sent to the scrap heap, too.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark feels like half of a good game. At times, the magic from High Moon’s efforts is captured here by Edge of Reality, but these moments are few and far between. You can’t help but feel that the forced bridge between High Moon’s series and Michael Bay’s movies rushed the project, leading to the obvious design mistakes. When you consider how many features have been cut on top of all that, Rise of the Dark Spark is nothing short of a throwback to when Transformers games were awful. In the end, this fails to deliver the type of game that fans have come to expect.

Developer: Edge of Reality • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.24.14
5.0
Some solid action can’t cover up the fact that Rise of the Dark Spark feels horribly rushed, with massive splotches of shoddy design and a poor plot evident from the opening cinematic to the end credits.
The Good Action feels as good as it did in High Moon’s games; new leveling-up system.
The Bad Lazy, incoherent storytelling; boring level design; no competitive multiplayer.
The Ugly Grimlock’s movie design being used instead of High Moon’s.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review.

Another Mighty No. 9 update came out this weekend on Comcept USA’s corresponding Kickstarter page, giving everyone a fresh glimpse at the game as well as detailing some changes that are coming to Beck’s partner, Call.

The bulk of the update came in the form of another gameplay video (embedded above) that sees Beck work his way through Mighty No. 2 and 5’s stages. While the bosses themselves are only briefly featured towards the end of the footage, you see key gameplay features again on display, like Beck’s various horizontal and vertical dash abilities.

The update also showed off a minor redesign of Call, Beck’s robotic assistant. Call became a playable character when the Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9 reached its $2,750,000 stretch goal, and because of this, some early animations of her running and crawling were also shown off. Since Call can’t perform a crouching dash like Beck, she resorts to crawling through tight  spaces, which is just one of the ways the two robots differ from each other.

The update also mentions that Keiji Inafune will be part of a panel at Anime Expo this weekend in Los Angeles, suggesting some more “mighty” information might come out of it.

Mighty No. 9 is currently slated for a spring 2015 release on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Linux, PS Vita, and Nintendo 3DS.

No quarters necessary

For many gamers, arcades are a thing of the past. Aside from certain chain restaurants like Chuck E. Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s, it’s damn near impossible to find a place with row upon row of arcade cabinets in America anymore.

But as soon as you start up Sixty Second Shooter Prime, you’ll feel like you’ve fallen through a vortex that puts you 30 years in the past. While bombastic colors wash over the background, the foreground is made up of a field that looks like it’s been plucked straight from Asteroids as it tries to channel everything that was great about that now-bygone era.

This follow-up to the Vita’s Sixty Second Shooter Deluxe sees players once again take control of a small spaceship (let’s be honest—it’s just a pyramid). Your lone objective? Pilot your way down through innumerable levels in “space,” all in the hopes of acquiring a higher score to move up the competitive leaderboards.

The big catch here is, as the title implies, that your life lasts only 60 fragile seconds. You can extend it by picking up special power-ups that slow down the world around you in the game’s standard mode or add seconds when playing “Infinite” mode—which, due to the time additions, means the game could theoretically last forever. You’re not guaranteed the full length of your fruit fly–esque existence, however, since enemies (most of them are just big cubes) try to prevent you from reaching each level’s goal by relentlessly pursuing and firing at you themselves. Much like how you can add or slow down time to fight the clock, though, you can also protect your little ship from your limitless enemies by picking up power-ups like missiles, bombs, invincibility shields, or gun upgrades that temporarily let you fire in eight directions at once—and you can laugh as your foes explode in a white-hot fireworks display worthy of next week’s Independence Day.

In the realm of twin-stick shooters, Sixty Second Shooter Prime is as easy to pick up and play as the best of them. You simply use the dual joysticks to move and shoot and press a button for your missiles. The issue that arises, however, is that it’s also an easy game to master. After only a few playthroughs, you’ll have unlocked all the possible power-ups, alternate game modes, different psychedelic background colors, and the ability to start from level 5 instead of the first level in the hopes of facing more enemies sooner and building up those combo multipliers for your score.

There’s also the issue where a glitch spawns you directly on top of an enemy, instantly killing you as soon as the game starts. It happened to me probably one in every 10 lives I had. If that happened in the arcade, you’d demand your quarters back. Here, it’s a little embarrassing to see that you didn’t survive more than a fraction of a second (which the game quickly points out), but at least you just have to press Start again, and you’re back to flying around in circles, blasting away at countless death cubes with only a few seconds wasted.

Here’s the major question you have to ask yourself when looking at Sixty Second Shooter Prime: How likely are you to become addicted to trying to constantly one-up your scores or your friends’ accomplishments? Thirty years ago, that would’ve been more than enough to turn this into a classic quarter-gobbler. Now, even in our ADD-addled world, 60 seconds isn’t long enough for players to really embrace a game, and I think many gamers will probably become tired of it after only an hour or two.

The good news, at least, is that it’s only $5 (20 quarters, in arcadespeak), so even if the game does last no more than two hours, you’ll probably still be getting your money’s worth if you have even the tiniest of old-school arcade itches that need scratching.

Developer: Happion Laboratories • Publisher: Happion Laboratories • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 06.18.14
7.0

Sixty Second Shooter Prime is a great throwback to the arcade machines of yesteryear, but it lacks the depth and difficulty needed for an old-school twin-stick shooter to appeal to most modern gamers.

The Good Easy to pick up and play…
The Bad …and even easier to master.
The Ugly The accidental psychedelic trance I put myself in after changing the background colors too many times.
Sixty Second Shooter Prime is an Xbox One exclusive. Microsoft provided a retail code for the benefit of this review.

Concerning a new Bad Company installment, it’s not a matter of DICE ignoring their fanbase, they’re just unsure what made Bad Company so popular, CEO Karl-Magnus Troedsson explained in a recent interview with Eurogamer.

“Some people say they found the multiplayer controls faster and more direct,” Troedsson told Eurogamer. “Some people liked the single-player and the characters and the humor. People love different things about it. It’s starting to almost get to that place where, if we were to make a sequel to Bad Company, what would than even imply?

“It’s scary to go back and try to remake an old fan favorite when actually no-one can really put their finger on what it is people love. Bringing back the characters and creating a great single-player out of that, sure, I can understand that.

“But some people say this: the Bad Company 2 multiplayer is the best you’ve ever done. Okay, why is that? It’s hard for people to articulate what that is, which is actually hard for us. It would be hard to remake something like that. Can we do it? Of course. We have our theories when it comes to the multiplayer.”

It sounds to me—and you can call my crazy here, Karl—that both the single-player and multiplayer were so good that the Bad Company games offered different things to a multitude of players. Maybe the reason you can’t put your finger on what made it great and people keep giving you different answers is that you appealed to such a wide audience, for once, that a lot of different people found something to love. Definitely not something that can be said for Battlefield 3 or 4.

Troedsson closed by offering Bad Company fans the faintest glimmer of hope, saying the sub-brand is not dead and it can be revived—but unless it’s suddenly revealed that Preston, Sweetwater, Haggard, and Sarge have suddenly become the funniest boys in blue since Steve Gutenberg and gang in Police Academy—those fans will definitely have to wait at least a little while longer.

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