Video Game DEMO-lition: DRAGON AGE 2, LEGO STAR WARS 3, More

DRAGON AGE 2 Hands-On Preview

We're back! Have not one, not two, but three weeks worth of demos for you this time around, with some really fun game samples hanging around, waiting for your download.

Dragon Age II (Xbox Retail)

The demo for Bioware’s own sword and sorcery IP shows off what the developer has learned in the past few years from the success of not only the original game, but Mass Effect 2 as well. Front-loaded with action, a few quick story beats and a late-game power tease pass before you and a small band of allies fight through waves and waves of the undead either through just hack and slash combat or using pause to issue specific orders/take control of your companions using a command wheel that feels a bit less useful than it did in the previous game. At the end of this first area, after a boss fight, a conversation sequence begins that utilizes a Mass Effect conversation wheel with a new feature to distinguish your possible replies. Icons display intent ranging beyond just good and bad to judicious or snarky. Once through the first sequence, the game fast forwards to a city interior, granting you several levels, new powers and new companions for another string of battles ending an a boss fight and a trailer for the full game that layers on the epic scale of the main character’s story in the Dragon Age world. Further separating this demo from the full game, and the roots of a ‘true’ RPG experience, customization features including the ability to access the inventory screen are locked out. The demo also teases a system like Final Fantasy 12’s gambits that allow you to ‘program’ your companions’ reactions to certain situations. Again like Mass Effect 2 this demo, and likely the full game, doesn’t show the greatest degree of visual polish but boasts gender specific spoken dialog. Noteworthy, aside from a full game unlock for downloading, is that despite the fact that different playable races have been removed, the demo experience changes significantly depending on the gender and class (Mage/Warrior/Rogue) of the “Hawke” you choose at the beginning. For example, an early companion will change to a complementary class to maintain party balance between ranged and melee, all but demanding multiple playthroughs.

Lego Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars (Xbox Retail)

Lego Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars applies the Lego game formula of low-consequence family-friendly action and humor to the characters and events depicted in the Clone Wars animated series that takes place between the Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, making the two properties a perfect fit for each other. The demo is two levels in the Malevolence arc of the show’s first season, one standard stage and the other a vehicle stage. In the former, Anakin, Obi-Wan and R2D2 board the Malevolence to rescue Padme and C3PO in a fashion that mostly requires them to solve simple puzzles and collect ‘studs’ using the Force to push blocks around in such a way to open doors and cross chasms. Unlimited lives means that jumps can be retried over and over, and boss fights can be won though brute force if necessary. New features to the Lego game formula include switching between two groups of characters as they work though a level in sequence and more context sensitive interactions like panels that need to be cut away using a lightsaber. In the other demo stage, you control Plo Koon in his Jedi starfighter as he systematically destroys (disassembles?) a massive Malevolence by blasting away at it to create openings to land in so he can temporarily fight on foot to open up new avenues of attack. Distracting from the impressive scale and detail of this Lego battleship are the difficult to handle to ‘flying’ controls. You are locked into one of two ‘z-axis,’ and are only able to gain/lose altitude by flying out to your hyperspace booster frame and zooming up/down to the other plane of attack. Movement in/out is handled on this plane in a relativistic fashion, and takes some time to get used to. Outside of the very cool Lego Malevolence, the visuals are standard for the Lego franchise, but you’ll get plenty of rousing Star Wars music to make up for it.

Bejeweled Blitz (Xbox Live Arcade)

Coming over from Facebook, where it no doubt sapped more productivity than fantasy football and internet porn combined, the demo for Bejeweled Blitz is a perfect sampler for anybody who has never played one of the most popular casual games of all time. Although the game proudly boasts its online and local multiplayer capabilities, in the demo you are allowed five total games of single-player Bejeweled in either classic ‘switch’ mode, where you can swap the position of two gems in a grid of one hundred gems to create an identical row of gems of at least three, or ‘twist’ mode where you can rotate four gems either clockwise or counter-clockwise to achieve the same result. The ‘Blitz’ part factors in by giving the player only one minute per game to rack up the highest score. Simple in design and execution, for the addict Bejeweled Blitz is the perfect regimented dose of the game and with this demo, the first few hits are free.

Hard Corps: Uprising (Xbox Live Arcade)

A homage to their stable of side scrolling shooters, the demo for Konami’s Hard Corps: Uprising will trigger plenty of positive memories while the upgraded interface will cause old frustrations to fade. After a cool amine opening and some perfunctory story, you’ll get a chance to fight though the game’s first stage, through two mini-boss encounters and up to but not including the level boss. Two game modes are available: Arcade which lets you select one of the two player characters (four in the full game) that are pre-loaded with a set of moves and skills, including an amazingly useful bullet deflection maneuver, and Rising mode where you can spend the points you earn to customize your character. Familiar weapons including a machine gun, a spread gun, a short range ‘plasma’ thrower and a grenade launcher all can be found by shooting floating pods mid-mission. Two of these weapons can be carried and swapped between at the same time. Using the available buttons on the Xbox 360 controller, Hard Corps: Uprising solves many of the control problems that plagued its antecedents, with buttons to lock firing direction and to strafe. Visually the character animations are of the kind of detail seen in the Metal Slug series, though the environment, at least in the one demo stage was unimpressive. This duality is reflected in the sound, as the music is toe-tapping updates to classic Contra/Konami themes, but the sound effects are tinny and distant.

Body and Brain Connection (Xbox Kinect Retail)

The Brain Age formula of minigames that require fast thinking comes to the Kinect, adding physical coordination to the mix. However, in the demo much of how this will work is implied, as it contains only one sample mini-game. In it, you (and up to three others in sequence) are given about two minutes to sort a stream of tiny cars, each in one of three colors, across to its corresponding exit by configuring a bridge with your outstretched arms. Afterwards, your brain gets an age rating, you are shown an ad for the full game and the door back to the title screen. This being an ‘educational’ game, corners were cut visually and audibly, blocky shapes instead of hi-res graphics and Tiger Electronic handheld quality sound. Any of the launch titles for Kinect is likely to give you more training in coordination and quick thinking than Body and Brain Connection.

Stacking (Xbox Live Arcade)

Strong execution and art design makes the world of Stacking a rare original gameplay experience. The demo comprises the first chapter of the full game’s story, setting up a humorous world populated by matryoshka (aka Russian nesting) dolls in which the smallest member of a large (in number and by degrees, in size) family must set out to save by hopping inside progressively larger doll-people and using their unique skills to solve puzzles. The various challenges in the demo stage are intuitive without being too simple and core storyline puzzles are built with multiple solutions that you will immediately want to turn around and look for. The real standout of the demo is the Great Depression era theme to the game world and how the detailed painted matryoshka doll characters that inhabit it have personality down to how they use their one point of articulation when walking. An especially clever touch is the use of cut-scenes presented silent film style complete with grandiose piano accompaniment and title cards that build the experience while reducing the game’s file size. All these details and quirky sense of humor make Staking the kind of game that would be as fun to watch someone else play as playing yourself.

Nail’d (Xbox Retail)

Though it has been on store shelves for a few months, a demo for this arcade style off-road racer has been released in the hopes that it might tempt a few speed junkies who might have missed the title during the busy holiday gaming season. You’ll get a quick fix at least from the two long, incredibly detailed and alternate route-laden tracks available for you to hurtle through on a four-wheeled ATV that you can customize with parts unlocked by good performances. Realism is cast aside for massive jumps and twitch-level dodging of sawmill blades and oncoming trains. Drifting and jousting with your opponents build up a nitro boost gauge to help you keep up with your rivals. The challenge for the uninitiated is high, when you crash (not if) you’ll respawn almost instantly and struggle to reclaim your position against racers that might not even been on the same side of a mountain as you. As mentioned, graphically the courses are impressive, and the soundtrack features some quality licensed metal to keep the tempo up. A great demo for racing fans and those gamers that prefer not to race with strategy, but with instinct.

TNT Racers (Xbox Live Arcade)

Very old school cart racing comes to downloadables with the demo for TNT Racers, a game whose three-quarters top-down perspective harkens back to the days of the NES classic, R.C. Pro Am. Strict crossing-the-finish-line-first racing takes a back seat to a variety of modes that put an emphasis on survival over a number of rounds of point collecting. Survival not only entails you and your fellow racers pick up one of the stock selection of kart racing weapons like a forward firing cannon, a mine layer, oil slicks, smoke screens and the like, but literally surviving the game’s camera. Most of the modes involve races that are decided by whichever driver remains on the screen; get knocked back by an attack or blow a turn and you can drop out of the game camera’s view and out of that round. An original conceit to the problem of keeping dispirit cars on the screen at the same time, but one that’s already been solved by online play’s ability to grant a view for each player and one that’s poorly implemented here by the all-important camera’s erratic zooming path that can end a round in a blink. To start you can select four of the eight cars, but their differences are only cosmetic, and the choice of the three demo tracks is determined for you by the requirements of that particular race at least in the lengthy ‘normal challenge’ mode available in the demo. Cartoony visuals and simplistic audio add to the fact that you’re likely to tire of the game before even getting to the end of the demo.

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