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Jack Gardner
There are fans, and then there are FANS. Scattered throughout the rich world of BioShock Infinite, there are audio recordings contained within devices called voxophones. After playing through Irrational's fantastic follow up to the original BioShock three times, one intrepid and creative fan decided to make a voxophone of his own. You can see two videos showing off his creation below in different stages of completion. Each one includes music and songs found in the game.
 
 
 
 
The device isn't entirely working on the same principle as its in-game counterpart. The spinning disk makes use of a computer fan motor, creating too many rpms to accurately be read by a gramophone needle. This means that the home-made voxophone makes use of an internal MP3 player to store music. Still, the effect remains undeniably cool. Perhaps we will see more refinements on the design going forward.

Jack Gardner
Whenever people complain about the abundance of overly dark, washed-out post-apocalyptic settings and the lack of strong storytelling in video games, one game has always stood out as incredibly overlooked and underappreciated by the gaming community: Enslaved. In an age where brown, gritty visuals have become the norm and players are craving strong characters with compelling story lines, there exists a small group of gamers who have played Ninja Theory’s colorful reimagining of the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West. Like any game, Enslaved has its flaws, the combat can be bland and the story treads some familiar ground, but what it does right, it REALLY does right. If someone is looking for textbook examples of solid art direction, riveting storytelling, engaging character development, or perfect pacing, Enslaved is their game.

One of the hugely refreshing aspects of Enslaved is the vibrant and imaginative world it envisions. Many people have expressed frustration over this console generation’s obsession with realism and how that usually seems to translate into grey-brown shooters with explosions and feelings of despair. Enslaved eschews all of that (okay, it does have explosions), in favor of a colorized apocalypse. Though the game takes place 150 years in the future, the world has been destroyed for generations when the narrative begins. The time that has passed since the end of the world is beautifully reflected in the environments. The scenery embraces spectacle with truly magnificent vistas full of green foliage, crumbling structures, eccentric robots, and fantastical machinery around every corner. The depiction of a world in which nature reclaims mankind’s cities and dangerous future technology lies rusting and weathered is inviting simply through the originality of the visual design. This approach to visual aesthetic engages the player with the novelty of the experience. Not knowing what new fantastical sight could lie around the next twist in the path can be a huge motivator.
 


Enslaved opens with a daring prison escape from an airship as it crashes from the sky into the remains of New York City (Edit: If that previous sentence doesn’t catch your attention and immediately get you interested in this game, I don’t know what will). During the harrowing escape, protagonist Monkey meets a young woman named Trip and the two nearly kill each other attempting to leave the rapidly descending vessel. Monkey, knocked unconscious while clinging to the outside of an escape pod, awakes to find that he has been enslaved by a headband Trip put on him while he was unconscious. If he disobeys one of her orders, if he wanders too far away from her, or if she dies, the headband will kill him. Trip agrees to remove the headband once Monkey returns her home. The arrangement clear, the two set off on a pilgrimage across the ruins of America in search of Trip’s village. As is to be expected from a story that was novelized in the 16th century, but existed in legends long before that, the story can seem a bit formulaic at times. However, there are enough twists, especially one toward the end, that keep the game compelling for its relatively short duration. 
 
Strong writing and performances elevate the story into something unique. Over the course of their adventure, Monkey and Trip gradually learn about each other and develop a strong, yet platonic, attachment to one another. Part of what makes their relationship relatively unique in the video game industry is that their interaction stays firmly rooted in friendship. Trip might be the only female character in the game, but she is never relegated to being the tired and overused role of damsel in distress/love interest. Too often video game characters are written to fulfill some stereotypical role that remains static for the remainder of the game. Monkey shows his rage at being forced into slavery, while Trip visibly shows her remorse at having used the headband in the first place, yet maintains that it was necessary to survive. These feelings change over the course of their time together in what feels like a natural progression.
 
Writing and performances that make the characters believable as human beings set Enslaved apart. The authenticity the two characters display is largely due to the solid vocal and motion capture work from leading man Andy Serkis (best known as the actor who for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) and leading lady Lindsay Shaw (who might be recognizable from her role as Paige McCullers in the television show Pretty Little Liars). Both actors really steal the show and create the emotional bond that seems so absent in many games with larger budgets.
 


Ninja Theory was careful to avoid falling into stereotypes and lazy writing with Enslaved. It was somewhat shocking that the team didn’t make Trip an obligatory love interest. Most games would have written her as a piece of eye candy who Monkey eventually has to save from some generic villain because he “loves” this person who he met a day or two ago. Instead, Ninja Theory took the time and effort to give each of the characters motivations and personalities and then threw them into strange scenarios. Ninja Theory even avoids cheapening the thematic elements of Enslaved like friendship, free will, and memory. Players are shown how Monkey deals with his enforced servitude through his interactions with Trip throughout the game. The result is a stronger, more effective narrative that allows players to connect with the characters and care about what happens to them. It would have been so easy for the writers and designers or the marketing department to tweak the originality out of Enslaved, but somehow Ninja Theory got the game through development while keeping what made it great intact.
 
Enslaved represents almost perfect execution when it comes to pacing. Both the story and gameplay are perfectly timed so that you are never really doing the same thing the same way more than a few times. For example, there is a recurring boss robot that first appears early in the game. Each time players encounter this boss they must use a different tactic in order to proceed. Sometime you have to run, other times you have to fight or solve puzzles while avoiding its powerful attacks. When one enemy can recur and each time it feels new because different skills are in play; that's good game design. As previously stated, the combat in Enslaved isn't the deepest or most interesting, but Ninja Theory designed and paced Enslaved in such a way that players don’t lose interest in fighting the various enemy types. Well-timed set piece moments and the introduction of new abilities like projectile stuns and plasma blasts break up what could have easily been a lackluster experience and create something great. The story moves along at a good pace where nothing feels rushed and you aren’t left to grow bored with what is happening.
 


Here is the TL:DR version – Enslaved: Odyssey to the West does so much right, that it is a crime that not many people bought it when it released or have played it since. The visuals are unique and interesting. An extremely competent narrative provides a few great water cooler moments. The character development between Monkey and Trip should be the standard for non-romantic video game relationships. The pacing is so well done you could probably power through the entire game in one sitting and feel like you never repeated a scenario more than once or twice. I’d strongly encourage anyone who is interested in game design or development to pick up a copy of this game.

Jack Gardner
EA Sports launched their second annual Cover Vote initiative for their flagship hockey series yesterday. After last year’s staggering 25 million votes cast, EA has brought back the hugely successful contest. Fans can vote as many times as they’d like for their favorite players to be featured on the cover of NHL 14. As an added bonus, up to 10 entries per day count toward the Cover Vote Sweepstakes. Winners of the sweepstakes will receive a trip to a 2013 Stanley Cup Final game.

There is no current release date for NHL 14, though it will likely come out toward the end of the year. View the trailer for the perennial hockey title below.
 
 
There will be several rounds of voting to narrow down the field of candidates from 60 to determine a single face for the annual game franchise. Below you will find the schedule for each of the voting rounds:
 
Round of 60 – April 22-28: Teammate vs. teammate. One representative from each team plus two wild card selections advance. 32-Player Leaderboard – April 29-May 5: Fans vote for their favorite 16 candidates; top 16 vote-getters advance. 16-player Bracket – May 6 - May 26: Weekly round-by-round, single-elimination playoff bracket decides finalists. The Finals – May 27- June 2: Winner takes the NHL 14 Cover.  
To cast your votes and see the initial 60 candidates, head over to CoverVote.nhl.com.

Jack Gardner
Naughty Dog’s acclaimed PlayStation 2 trilogy about a young, pointy-eared man named Jak and his companion Daxter is coming to PS Vita. The collection includes Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II, and Jak 3. While the graphics won’t be as high quality as the PS3 release of the collection, the graphical quality will be on par or better than the original PS2 releases. Several new features have been added into the Vita release including touch screen functionality for some mini games and a full list of trophies that will be different from the PS3 version.
 
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Jak and Daxter titles are action-platformers that tell the story of Jak and his battle to save the world by utilizing his ability to manipulate an energy source called Eco. Throughout the games, a core part of the story revolves around the partnership between Jak and his best friend Daxter, who is transformed early on in the first game into an Ottsel (a fictional and adorable otter-weasel hybrid). The series takes place over a number of years with players watching Jak and Daxter grow up and mature as the series progresses. Likewise, the storytelling techniques mature and the scope of the duo's adventures expand.
 
 
The Jak and Daxter Collection for Vita will be released sometime in June and will retail for $29.99. 

Jack Gardner
In a Nintendo Direct video, which can be viewed here, Reggie Fils-Aime, the president and COO of Nintendo of America, shared that a direct sequel to the classic top-down Legend of Zelda adventure is coming to the 3DS. The new title will make use of the 3D features on the handheld to incorporate vertical levels and the ability to transform into a 2D wall drawing into its puzzle solving mechanics. We are incredibly excited to see more details on the title which are likely to be revealed during E3 in June. 
 
The press announcement also included a slew of information regarding previously announced titles. Satoru Iwata touched on the story details of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (3DS), the wireless features of Mario Golf World Tour (3DS), the changes New Super Luigi U brings to the New Super Mario Bros. U (DLC for New Super Mario Bros. U on the WiiU), the differences between the Wii version of Donkey Kong Country Returns and the remake coming to 3DS, and a new flying pikmin type in Pikmin 3. Other new game announcements were made as well. A new Mario Party title, a downloadable Mario vs. Donkey Kong game called Minis on the Move, and a third installment in the Yoshi’s Island series (which is well worth being excited about as well) were announced for 3DS.
 

 
Mr. Iwata discussed the console update for the WiiU. The update will improve load times, allow users to transfer data between two hard drives, automatically install software, and allow gamers to download and install updates even when the system is turned off. The WiiU Virtual Console will launch the day after the update goes live next week. When the service launches, classic titles like Balloon Fight, Mario Bros., Punch Out, Super Mario Bros. 2, F-Zero, Super Metroid, Excite Bike, Kirby Super Star, Super Mario World, all of which can be played on the WiiU gamepad. Iwata added that Nintendo is working on bringing Game Boy Advance and N64 titles to the WiiU virtual console. Most importantly for Virtual Console fans, Iwata announced that Earthbound will finally be making its way to Europe and North America in response to fan outcry at the Japanese only release of the title in March.
 


Bill Trinen from the Treehouse branch of Nintendo then came on to demonstrate gameplay from the upcoming Game & Wario, discuss features in the newest Monster Hunter, and showcase a 3DS sequel to Lego City Undercover. Trinen also announced that numerous Japanese releases are being brought overseas for 3DS. Among these titles are Square Enix’s Bravely Default Flying Fairy (see image below), a wide variety of Level 5 titles such as Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, The Starship Damrey, Bugs vs. Tanks, and Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale. Atlus also announced an incredibly lavish Shin Megami Tensei IV release for the 3DS this summer.
 


For more information, you can watch the Nintendo Direct press release here (if you are only interested in the Legend of Zelda announcement, skip to 35:10).

Jack Gardner
The open world, superhero-creation title by Phosphor Games, Project Awakened, has surpassed 1,000 supporters with 18 days left in their independent support campaign. After failing to meet their goal in an ambitious Kickstarter endeavor, Phosphor reached out to their backers asking if they should give up their dream game, or try one last time to raise enough money to continue working and finish Project Awakened. So far they have raised $56,467, a sizable chunk of change, but still $193,213 short of their minimum goal of $250,000. If they fail to meet their goal in 18 days, all money pledged will be refunded via PayPal.
 
 
The goals for the project are incredibly tantalizing. At $250,000, they will release a single-player version of the game that Phosphor Games has been working on in Unreal Engine 3 under the name PA: Danger Room, an early version of which can be seen on their website. $300,000 nets the game multiplayer support including lobbies, matchmaking, scoring, and multiple game modes. Mod support will be added if the project reaches $350,000 in pledges. The next two stretch goals will add support for Linux and Mac. After that, $500,000 will solidify the release date of PA: Subject, another part of Project Awakened, in June 2014. If the game surpasses $1,000,000 in pledges, the team will release Subject with an open world instead of a more linear experience. The final goal for the project is $1,500,000 and if it is reached, both Danger Room and Subject will be released in Unreal Engine 4 instead of Unreal Engine 3.
 
Just ask yourself the questions posed on Phosphor's website: “Want to be a Batman-like superhero with an awesome arsenal of guns? Or a Stormtrooper wielding a giant battle axe?” If the answer is yes, you might want to support Project Awakened. Again, if they don’t make their goal of $250,000, the studio will refund all of the money and go back to working on their game part-time, hopefully to finish it someday.
 
You can view a few screenshots of the Unreal 3 version of Project Awakened below. More screenshots, videos, and information are available over on www.projectawakened.com.
 


Jack Gardner
Nintendo announced today that as of June 28 they will be ending the online support of several of their main applications. The major developer and hardware manufacturer accompanied their announcement by saying, “We apologize to those of you currently using these services, and ask for your understanding.” Five front page channels will be affected, along with some of the ability to swap data and Miis between systems among friends.
 
Below are the changes as of June 28:
 
Forecast Channel
News Channel
Everybody Votes Channel
Nintendo Channel
Check Mii Out Channel
Data exchange between Wii friends via WiiConnect24
 
Did anyone rely on these applications? Will anyone miss them now that they are gone? Let us know in the comments!

Jack Gardner
Electronic Arts announced today that it is bringing its popular city-building game to Mac on June 11. It will be available exclusively as a digital download through the company’s Origin service and other digital distribution sites. As an added bonus, future purchases of SimCity will work for both Mac and PC, with cities created in one version being available in the other as well. People who have already bought SimCity on PC will receive a free Mac version via Origin.
 
Despite selling 1.3 million copies since launch, many enthusiastic customers encountered numerous server issues due to the always-online component of Maxis’ city simulation. Server instability became so bad that Maxis disabled part of the time-speeding feature (called Cheetah Speed) and players were frequently required to endure ridiculously long login queues. To try and earn consumer loyalty back, EA offered free games to affected customers. Even with the free game giveaways, many people still cried that EA hadn’t done enough to repair the damage.
 
Maybe offering free Mac versions to existing customers is another attempt from EA to make reparations to jilted consumers?

Jack Gardner
Retro video game reviewer and content creator over at Cinemassacre.com James Rolfe (AKA The Angry Video Game Nerd) has accrued quite the following over the last few years. With over one million YouTube subscribers and his own website, he reviews old video games and movies, makes his own films, and works on various other projects like the Monster Madness month-long events. The Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN) show that he creates reviews retro games and features a lot of amusingly hyperbolic language and rage-filled tirades about crappy game design. (AVGN Disclaimer: The show makes use of a very colorful vocabulary. If you are offended by vulgar language, it isn’t recommended for you.)
 
Today marked the Nerd’s entry into the arena of making games. The debut trailer for Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures, which you can see below, makes it clear that it will be a sidescrolling shooter in the vein of classics like Mega Man, while retaining the show’s sense of impropriety and James’ trademark exaggerated frown. Not much is known about the title as of yet, but the screenshots released alongside the trailer seem to indicate that many of the levels will draw inspiration from a variety of classic 2D sidescrollers like Super Mario World and Castlevania.
 
 
The game is currently slated for release on PC sometime this year. People who are partial to Steam, you can visit the title’s Greenlight page and vote for it to be released on Steam.
 
For more information, you can visit the Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures Facebook page.
 


Jack Gardner
Recently, I was given the opportunity to ask Sundance DiGiovanni, the CEO and founder of North America’s largest eSports organization, Major League Gaming (MLG), a few questions regarding console eSports and the future of gaming.
 
Jack Gardner: If console manufacturers had their hearts set on getting in on the growing eSports industry, what more could they do than the features the PS4 was announced to have (i.e. accessible streaming options, partnership with a streaming service, increasing the amount of competitive titles available, integrating social media, etc.)?
 
Sundance DiGiovanni: In addition to all of the great technology and features planned for PS4, in order to have a strong eSports presence it really comes down to the games themselves. Titles need to have competitive settings built in and a strong community following to be successful in the eSports landscape.
 
He’s not wrong. Many recent games billing themselves as the next big thing in eSports have failed or been only marginally successful. Tribes: Ascend and Heroes of Newerth are perfect examples. Both games are free-to-play, relying on microtransactions to make money for the developer, which would seem to guarantee a large user base because who doesn’t love a free game? However, despite holding tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, neither have found anywhere near as big a following as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, StarCraft 2, or League of Legends. The bottom line is that not many people are interested in watching professional gamers play a game that isn’t popular and that lack of interest kills eSports potential.
 
Jack: What can developers do to create games better geared toward eSports (in terms of casting, recording, content distribution, etc.)? Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s eSports features seem to be the best consoles offer. Can developers do better or are those what we can expect from future console releases? 
 
Sundance: Activision and Treyarch did an incredible job of developing Black Ops 2 with eSports in mind; that is why we are featuring it on our MLG Pro Circuit this year. They connected with the eSports community, attended our events, listened to what players wanted out of a game and even brought on Pro Players to consult on the feature set. They were dedicated to making the game work and they should be a model for other game publishers looking to create a successful eSports title.
 
Now that we have seen just what is possible when you create a video game from the ground up with eSports in mind, we can reasonably expect to see other titles aping the features in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Being able to stream while in-game with no additional set up is an incredible boon to gamers looking to go pro, as they can look over their matches and see where they need improvement and also make names for themselves online. The functionality brought to viewing and shoutcasting these matches is nothing short of incredible: Players can commentate the action, switching between an overview mode, map, first-person perspective, and listen in to team chatter.
 
Jack: How will having built-in streaming and viewing features in the PS4 and possibly the next Xbox affect eSports and do you believe that this is at least partly a response to the massive growth we’ve seen in the competitive gaming scene over the last few years?
 
Sundance: In the last two years, online viewership of eSports competition has increased dramatically largely in part to streaming technology. It has become easy and seamless to stream on a regular basis, whether you are an individual player or an eSports organization like us. Having built-in features will make eSports even more accessible for aspiring competitive gamers looking to make a name for themselves as the barrier to entry will be even lower.
 
Throwing some statistics out there: From 2010 to 2012, MLG saw its audience grow from 1.8 million to 11.7 million, a growth of about 636%. In 2012, more than 15 million hours of MLG eSports content was streamed to viewers. None of this growth would have been remotely possible without the ability to stream via services like Twitch and Ustream. As Sundance said, having the ability to stream built into the console will allow more people to enter the streaming arena and make a name for themselves. This isn’t limited to professional gamers, more people could popularize themselves as game commentators, also known as shoutcasters, as well as broaden the audience of eSports viewers.
 
It also eliminates many of the difficulties inherent in streaming today. It is expensive to stream. You need a high-quality internet connection, a powerful computer, a subscription to a streaming program, and (if you are streaming games on consoles) a capture card. None of that comes cheap, either. Having these all built-in will be a huge boon to future streamers and hopeful next-gen competitive gamers.
 
Jack: MLG has a history of making gaming partnerships with companies like Microsoft. Do you think we could expect to see MLG or other eSports content making its way onto consoles in the form of apps or built-in functionality?
 
Sundance: MLG has a long standing relationship with both Microsoft for Xbox LIVE in the form of pic packs and video, as well as PSN. I think we will definitely see eSports content increasing its footprint within the console world.
 
That’s a good sign. Currently to watch eSports content of any kind on consoles you either need to use an internet browser or watch big tournaments after the fact using apps like YouTube. Neither of those alternatives are very appealing to most people, who opt for the much simpler alternative of viewing on a computer. The biggest ray of hope for those who were hoping to easily watch eSports on their televisions was a Twitch streaming app exclusive to the Xbox 360. It was announced last year, but since then it seems to have disappeared from the public light. What could have happened to it?
 
Jack: Do you see Sony’s partnership with the streaming service Ustream as significant to eSports on consoles? Why do you think they didn’t partner with the more gaming oriented Twitch streaming service?
 
Sundance: It's great to see Sony embracing streaming.  Hopefully we will see it crossover into eSports efforts on the console, but for now it seems to be a broader initiative. As far as why they picked Ustream over Twitch - I really can't speak to that. I wasn't involved in the decision making process.
 
The fact that Sony partnered with Ustream over Twitch certainly seems to indicate that they are aiming for a wider array of people interested in streaming for various reasons. However, it does seem like an odd decision, given that Twitch has made a name for itself (literally made a name for itself, changing from Justin.tv to Twitch.tv to cater to the gaming crowd) by focusing on streamed game content. Our theory: It could be that Twitch was already partnered with another company. Remember that Xbox 360 exclusive streaming app from Twitch? Remember that after the announcement that it existed, it promptly went completely dark, but the company insisted it was still being worked on? Remember that both the PS4 and the next Microsoft console are both expected to launch this holiday season? It is highly likely that the reason Sony wasn’t able to get Twitch on-board as their streaming service is because Twitch was busy creating services for the next-gen Xbox, which would certainly explain why not much has been heard about it recently. 
 
What do you think of eSports or the next-gen? Let us know in the comments!
 
Also, enjoy one of our favorite MLG StarCraft 2 moments below:
 
 

Jack Gardner
GOG.com, the bastion of all things indie and retro, is offering a 10 D&D flavored RPGs for 80% off their normal price for the next three days.
In this fantastic bundle you get: Baldur’s gate: The Original Saga, Baldur’s Gate 2 Complete, Icewind Dale 1 & 2 Complete, Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, The Temple of Elemental Evil, Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard, Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, and Planescape: Torment. The total price of all these games without GOG’s ridiculous sale is around $105.
 
 
If you have fond memories of old-school RPGs or have always been curious about them, now is a perfect time to dive into this rich part of gaming history. Here is a handy link to the deal, which goes from now through Sunday.

Jack Gardner
Massive cuts were felt around the industry recently, as multiple, high-profile developers had employees cut from projects or saw their entire studio closed.
 
Kotaku broke the first story, declaring that 40 members of Activision’s High Moon Studios had been laid off following the completion of their programming duties for the upcoming Deadpool video game. Activision released a statement to them reading:
 
"Activision Publishing consistently works to align its costs with its revenues – this is an ongoing process. With the completion of development on Deadpool, we are taking a reduction in staff at High Moon Studios to better align our development talent against our slate. Approximately, 40 full-time employees will be impacted globally. We are offering those employees who are impacted outplacement counseling services."
 
Meanwhile, major developer and publisher Square Enix has announced that it will be undergoing “corporate restructuring” in response to lower than expected sales of Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution, and Sleeping Dogs. Game Informer obtained a document indicating the unrealistic expectations the dev/publisher had for those three titles and the sales numbers to date. This corporate shifting has resulted in numerous layoffs in the Los Angeles Square Enix offices, and is expected to affect both the European and Japanese offices as well. While the exact amount of layoffs are unknown in Square Enix’s case, Joystiq has had several inside sources placing the number anywhere between 40 to 50 so far. 
 
Finally, in what might be the most shocking news of the day, Disney announced that the acclaimed LucasArts would be closing its doors as a developer. In an official statement made to Game Informer, Disney stated:
 
"After evaluating our position in the games market, we've decided to shift LucasArts from an internal development to a licensing model, minimizing the company's risk while achieving a broader portfolio of quality Star Wars games. As a result of this change, we've had layoffs across the organization. We are incredibly appreciative and proud of the talented teams who have been developing our new titles."
 
What does this mean for projects like the highly anticipated Star Wars 1313 that was seen at E3 last year? Given how much polish the game demonstrated at the press event, it is unlikely that the project is 100% dead, though Kotaku did publish a story that indicated the game had been put on hold indefinitely. It could still be outsourced to external development studios as per the new “licensing model” that Disney’s statement seems to indicate. This also means we will still be seeing Star Wars and Indiana Jones branded games, they will just not be made by LucasArts anymore.
 
 
While the move to close LucasArts came as a surprise to many, there were plenty of warning signs in retrospect. Many of the big Star Wars titles in recent years had either been cancelled a la Battlefront III, been disasters like Kinect Star Wars, or been average as in the case of The Force Unleashed II.
 
Our condolences go out to everyone displaced by these cuts and closures. We hope you guys find new employment soon.

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