- Buy the Games
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f the holiday season is the game industry’s busiest time of year, than the summer months that precede it are undoubtedly the slowest. With most students on break from school, and everybody else taking time off to enjoy the warmer weather, video games tend to take a back seat to more outdoorsy activities like picnics, theme parks and family vacations. But for those who refuse to put down their controller just because it’s sunny outside, Microsoft has you covered with their third-annual Summer of Arcade. Featuring five exclusive XBLA titles ranging from quirky indies to revamped classics, this year’s collection leans pretty heavily on nostalgia, but it still delivers the excellence that we’ve come to expect from the annual event.
Though it might seem a bit ballsy to lead off with a game of such humble origins, “Limbo” is sure to become an instant favorite thanks to its resemblance to past XBLA titles like “Braid” and “Portal.” The 2D puzzle platformer doesn’t have much of a story, however, other than that you play a young boy who is searching for his sister in Limbo. At least, that’s what appears to be going on based on the title and the creepy surroundings that the bright-eyed boy awakes to, but even that’s a guess at best. All you need to know is that “Limbo” features striking visuals and an array of addictive puzzles wrapped up in a minimalistic package of black-and-white silhouettes, an effectively non-existent soundtrack, and a two-button control scheme.
The gameplay may be simplistic (A jumps and B performs actions like pushing, pulling and activating switches), but it doesn’t make the actual puzzles any less difficult. In fact, they only get harder as you progress, and while many are challenging, some are downright impossible unless you’re willing to think outside the box. It can certainly be frustrating at times, but it’s only that much more rewarding when you do finally complete them. Playdead Studios has also done an incredible job of keeping the level design fresh and innovative, and although I missed the more immediate danger that came with the giant spiders and “Lord of the Flies”-like tribe of children from the earlier stages, the introduction of gravity in the later puzzles really takes things to the next level. It’s just a shame there’s such little payoff in the end, because while the ambiguity of the story adds to the game’s eerie atmosphere, “Limbo” had the potential to be so much more.
2) Hydro Thunder Hurricane
It’s been ten years since Midway’s powerboat racer, “Hydro Thunder,” became a staple in arcades all across the world, and if you’ve been inside a Dave & Buster’s since then, you’ll find that it’s just as popular as ever. This undoubtedly played a major role in Microsoft’s decision to develop a sequel for Xbox LIVE Arcade, but while “Hydro Thunder Hurricane” is definitely similar in spirit, it loses some of its appeal with a regular controller. The game still consists of racing, boosting and jumping your way through a series of themed water courses while riding tricked-out powerboats, but since that alone isn’t worth the $15 price tag, the game has been outfitted with a few extra modes.
Along with the basic Race option, there’s also a frustrating slalom mode (Ring Master), a time trial mode littered with exploding barrels (Gauntlet), and multi-event tournaments combining all three. Additionally, you can play with up to four players locally or eight players online, and there’s even a multiplayer-only event called Rubber Ducky that pits two teams against one another in a race to push their rubber duck across the finish line first. Though the single-player mode offers enough to keep you busy for an afternoon or two, it’s in multiplayer where the game really shines. Not only do the races feel faster, but you can also rack up points (used to unlock new tracks, difficulties, boats and skins) a heck of a lot easier. It’s still not an incredibly deep racer, but you get what you pay for.
3) Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
With the “Castlevania” franchise at a crossroads of sorts, it might have seemed like a good idea to create a game that helped remind fans why they fell in love with the series in the first place, but “Harmony of Despair” doesn’t even do that right. Recycling old characters, enemies and bosses from past installments, it’s like a Greatest Hits collection without any hits. There are only six levels to play through, and no story bridging them together. Instead, you just select one of five playable vampire slayers (Soma Cruz, Alucard, Jonathan Morris, Shanoa and Charlotte Aulin) – each with their own unique weapons and abilities – and trudge through each level hacking away at baddies until you arrive at the final boss. This is easier said than done, however, as you’ll often spend 20 minutes travelling through the labyrinthine mansions, only to be killed cheaply in the boss fight and have to start from the very beginning all over again.
Additionally, the mansions have plenty of hidden areas and treasures to discover, but since each level is timed, there’s little room for exploration. (Though this wouldn't be such a problem if your character didn't move like he was walking through quicksand.) You’ll also have trouble navigating through the sprawling 2D maps using the 3x zoom feature, as you can only make out what you’re character is doing in one of them. Thank goodness for multiplayer, then, as it’s the only good original idea in the game. Though completing levels with a six-player party can be a little too easy at times, it still makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Fallen teammates can be revived using Water of Life items found in treasure chests, and while you wait to be brought back from the dead, you get to play as a skeleton. But good luck finding a party that actually stays together for more than one round, let alone long enough to make it past the lobby. Fans deserved a lot better than this, because the only Harmony of Despair you’re going to find here is the thousands of gamers uniting to complain about how bad this game is.
4) Monday Night Combat
I didn’t have very high hopes for “Monday Night Combat” when Microsoft first announced this year's Summer of Arcade line-up, nor was I immediately taken with it after playing a few rounds. (Though that likely had more to do with the fact that the tutorial isn’t very helpful in explaining how to play the game.) But while it’s certainly not the best-looking title of the bunch, “Monday Night Combat” eventually wins you over with its incredibly addictive gameplay. At its core, the game is a class-based, third-person shooter à la “Team Fortress 2,” but it also implements the tower defense genre into basic strategy, and is set in the middle of a “Smash TV”-like game show complete with a sex-neutral mascot named Bullseye who pops up throughout the course of matches to taunt the players. Better yet, when you shoot him, he drops coins, which is the lifeblood of the game. Coins can be spent on upgrading your Pro’s abilities, building and upgrading turrets, or even unlocking jump pads that allow you to reach higher areas on the map.
There are really only two game modes to choose from: Blitz and Overkill. The former tasks you and up to three other players with protecting your moneyball (a New Year’s Eve-sized piñata filled with coins) from an onslaught of enemy bots, while the latter is a 6-on-6 Deathmatch-style battle to see which team can breach and destroy the other team’s moneyball first. Though Blitz is a great place to start because it gives players a good opportunity to try out all six classes (Assault, Tank, Support, Assassin, Gunner and Sniper, each with their own unique weapons and abilities), Overkill is where you’re going to have the most fun. Not only must you figure out how to strike the perfect balance between upgrading your Pros and turrets, but you also have to decide what’s more important: killing enemies or escorting bots to the other team’s base. Only bots can take down the shield protecting the moneyball, but you need coins in order to purchase them. It’s a simplistic yet necessary give-and-take system that forces players to work as a team, and it’s one of the main reasons why “Monday Night Combat” succeeds as a great multiplayer game of the once-you-pop-you-just-can’t-stop variety.
5) Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
It may no longer carry the “Tomb Raider” name in its title, but “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” is still very much a “Tomb Raider” game, although a very different one from what fans of the treasure-hunting archaeologist are used to. Square Enix has not only rebranded the series in name, but in presentation as well, shedding its trademark third-person viewpoint for an isometric fixed camera reminiscent of the dungeon crawler genre. It’s also the first time that a “Tomb Raider” game has been released as a digital download, but if this is the future of Lara Croft, then count me in, because while “The Guardian of Light” might be a little too easy for hardcore gamers, there’s more than enough content here to guarantee that you’ll be back for seconds.
The story is as follows: After accidentally unleashing the evil spirit Xolotl from a cursed artifact called the Mirror of Smoke, Lara must team up with a 2000-year-old Mayan warrior named Totec (the titular Guardian of Light) in order to imprison him in it once again. The combat system is slick and simple, with twin-stick controls that allow you to shoot and move in a fluid 360 degrees, while accessories like bombs, a grapple hook, and a golden spear keep the game feeling fresh as you explore each level to find shortcuts, hidden artifacts and relics that act as power-ups, and unique challenges that come with their own rewards. Though co-op mode is even more fun with the addition of Totec as a playable character, Square Enix really dropped the ball by failing to support online play. (An upcoming patch will fix that, but it should have been ready on Day One.) Still, while it may not be Lara Croft’s finest hour, between the replay value of co-op and the promise of additional content in the form of new maps and characters coming soon, it's a bright start to the series' latest chapter and a fitting finale to the Summer of Arcade.