This humidity deserves a medal. Sure, it’s made the T more uncomfortable than usual, but it’s also given us a good reason to stay in and play video games during the summer. And you’ll know that’s good for everybody if you’ve ever seen me in swim trunks.

Summer’s a slow time for video games. Companies save their big releases for the holidays, making summer a great time to try out the downloadable games available through Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and WiiWare. They’re cheaper, shorter, and usually easier to pick up and play than full retail games.

Microsoft highlights its downloadable offerings during its annual Summer of Arcade promotion, during which five highly touted games are released through Xbox Live Arcade on consecutive Wednesdays. There’s a new release or two on XBLA every week of the year, but the Summer of Arcade games receive extra emphasis due to their supposed quality. Not every release merits the attention, but genuinely great games such as“Braid,” “Bionic Commando Rearmed” and “Shadow Complex” give the Summer of Arcade a good reputation.

“Limbo,” a subdued puzzle-platformer from Denmark’s PlayDead Studios, starts this year’s Summer of Arcade on a somber note. Like any number of sidescrollers, this winner of two Independent Games Festival awards finds a young hero trying to rescue a lost girl in a weird and confusing world. With stark, grayscale graphics, a barely there score, and nothing in the way of exposition, “Limbo” isn’t a fantasy world but a nightmare.

The first thing you notice with “Limbo” is the striking art design. There’s no color, just black silhouettes against a murky gray background, with fluid character animations. Bodies of dead children occasionally litter the background, and death is surprisingly gory. This creepy and mysterious atmosphere pervades “Limbo.”

Your main character searches for his sister throughout this dark environment. You solve a series of increasingly complex environmental puzzles, adjusting water levels, avoiding deadly traps and tussling repeatedly with a giant spider. It’s like playing last year’s “A Boy and His Blob” on your grandparents’ television.

“Limbo” tries hard to be art. It respects the player’s ability to figure out its goals and rules without direction. It also applies principles of German Expressionism to game design, with dreamlike levels that twist and spin in unexpected angles. It’s not just style over substance, though. With clever puzzles and minimalist presentation “Limbo” makes an indelible impression.



Comics never really change. Superman dies, Bruce Wayne retires and Spider-man goes through more costumes than Lady Gaga, but all of them inevitably revert back to their most iconic state. Publishers regularly try to increase sales and get press through shocking changes, but they never last. With comics becoming an increasingly niche market, DC Comics hasn’t hesitated to bring changes big and small to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman’s new costume recently made headlines, spawning a Fox News controversy over its perceived lack of patriotism. Sales, not politics, drove DC’s decision to revise its most famous superheroine. Despite the character’s fame, Wonder Woman’s comics haven’t sold well for decades, and DC hopes to rectify that with a new look and origin.

“Wonder Woman #600,” which launches a new story line from best-selling writer J. Michael Straczynski, proves once again that different doesn’t always mean good.

Wonder Woman’s new origin basically appropriates Superman’s. She grew up among humans after her Amazon homeland was destroyed in her youth. There’s little to this relaunch beyond the obvious cosmetic alterations, and that drab new costume will most likely be gone within two years.

Straczynski also brings change to “Superman.” Straczynski’s first story line, “Grounded,” sees Superman walk across the country in order to get in touch with the common man. Instead of fighting supervillains, he burns up the stashes of stereotypical drug dealers and warns old men about heart disease. Straczynski’s Wonder Woman might be flat, but his Superman is embarrassing.

“Superman #701,” Straczynski’s first full issue, is an overwritten mess that fundamentally misunderstands the character. Superman knows what it is to be human because he was raised as one. That combination of understanding and unworldly abilities is why the character has power, as when Grant Morrison has him elegantly save a suicidal jumper with a single poignant sentence in “All-Star Superman #10.” Straczynski repeats that exact situation with several pages of trite, mawkish dialogue. He tries too hard to find the humanity that Superman has never lost or hidden.

Speaking of Morrison, he’s currently wrapping up a years-long Batman epic that has thoroughly reconfigured the world of the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is thought dead after being trapped in the past. Dick Grayson, the original Robin, takes over as Batman in the monthly series “Batman and Robin,” with Wayne’s impertinent son, Damian, as his sidekick. Together they tackle new and classic enemies while slowly uncovering the truth behind Wayne’s disappearance. Meanwhile, in Morrison’s six-issue miniseries, “The Return of Bruce Wayne,” Bruce Wayne gradually works his way back to the present.

Despite substantial changes and heavily plot-driven stories, Morrison’s comics reaffirm the strengths of Grayson and Bruce Wayne while creating an indelible new character in Damian Wayne. They prove that change only matters if the stories are good.


Beatles: Rock Band

By Harmonix / MTV Games EA

For the 360, PS3, Wii

Grade: A+

Last week the New York Times called The Beatles: Rock Band “the most important video game yet”. I understand the enthusiasm, but please, back away from the hyperbole. Never underestimate the all-encompassing self-importance of boomer nostalgia. They’d have us believe a bunch of kids smoking drugs and listening to Sha Na Na in some cow pasture in New York changed the world.

The Beatles: Rock Band won’t change anything other than the proximity of your jaw to the floor. It’s a beautiful, breath-taking piece of interactive art, but any revolution it incites will pertain less to how we play games than to how we experience and connect to music. The gameplay is identical to Rock Band, but the presentation has advanced tremendously, to the point where the expected verisimilitude is almost disconcertingly powerful. You don’t just play along to Beatles songs with plastic instruments; you become engrossed in what might be the most storied career in musical history.

It’s amazing from the start. The wonderfully designed opening sequence quickly runs through the band’s trajectory, from the carefree scamps of Help! to the spiritual and psychedelic explorers of the late ‘60’s. It’s an absolutely gorgeous sequence, the best beginning to any game I can think of, and elegant visual design runs through the entire game.

The story mode is broken into several chronological chapters, each set in an iconic Beatles-related location, like the Ed Sullivan Theater and Abbey Road. The 45-song setlist is split up to reflect each time period. You progress from early R&B rave-ups like “Twist and Shout” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” to the grown-up rock’n’roll of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Gameplay features the traditional guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, but for the first time up to three singers can harmonize on some songs. The original Rock Band and its library of downloadable songs might offer greater variety and replayability, but the Beatles setlist is bulletproof, and overall this game is a far more memorable and moving experience.

Even though they’re digital avatars, it’s impossible to watch these Beatles grow into men and not dwell on the passage of time and the cultural changes they helped usher in. It’s bewildering and discouraging to consider what they accomplished in just under a decade. I might be wasting my time on video games, but at least I occasionally get to waste it on something as wonderful as The Beatles: Rock Band.


Finished your 10th prestige in “Modern Warfare 2”? Don’t fret, young soldier, there are always new first-person shooters to satisfy your virtual bloodlust.

“Blacklight: Tango Down,” a multiplayer-focused online shooter, is clearly indebted to “Modern Warfare,” with similar controls and player progression system. A light sci-fi sheen freshens up the stereotypical militaristic tropes, adding a touch of character to what could’ve been a generic shooter.

“Blacklight” contains all the guns you’d expect, but certain secondary weapons have unique effects upon enemies. EMPs and digital grenades don’t kill players but briefly incapacitate the visual input from their high-tech suits of armor, with blue computer error screens or pixilation temporarily disorienting them.

“Blacklight” contains a minor single-player campaign, but it’s undercooked and inessential. Multiplayer is why “Blacklight” exists, and it offers a surprisingly deep and full-featured suite of game modes for a $15 downloadable game.

If you’d rather play alone, consider “Singularity.” It’s another sci-fi first-person shooter, but with a considerable amount of personality. It’s excellent story mode makes the solid multiplayer feel like an afterthought.

“Singularity’s” strength isn’t innovation but execution. The atmosphere and combat recalls “BioShock”; the enemies and shock tactics resemble “Dead Space”; and the mystical sci-fi malarkey sounds a lot like last year’s remake of “Wolfenstein.” It’s a patchwork, but a thoroughly well-crafted one.

“Singularity” starts with modern-day American soldiers investigating the remnants of a secret Soviet experiment on an abandoned island near Russia. In the 1950s the Soviets developed time travel technology using the unstable Element 99. An accident creates a “singularity,” a collapse of space/time where all eras overlap. In “Singularity” you regularly travel between the 1950s and today, fighting a decades-spanning conspiracy.

“Singularity” follows the arc of a typical time-travel story. What you do in the past directly affects the present, leading to a nice early-game twist that sends the story in a slightly unexpected direction.

Time is the essence of “Singularity.” In addition to your guns, you’re equipped with the TMD, or Time Manipulation Device. The TMD is a weapon and a tool; you’ll use it to age soldiers into dust, freeze time around E99-ravaged monsters, and restore collapsed stairs and ammo boxes to their earlier state. The TMD recalls the plasmids from “BioShock”; both basically amount to sci-fi spellcasting.

Serious shooter fans will dig “Blacklight’s” multiplayer, but “Singularity’s” engrossing solo campaign is more satisfying.


Yep, the music industry is still dying. Eric Bachmann, the singer/songwriter behind Crooked Fingers and ’90s indie-rockers the Archers of Loaf, knows from experience. After working with major indies like Merge and Saddle Creek, Bachmann gambled that he could promote himself as well as any label, and he self-released the previous Crooked Fingers LP. It disappeared with little blog lust or Pitchfork hype.

When the time came for a follow-up, Bachmann appealed directly to his fans. He set up a Kickstarter account to fund a sequel to his well-loved 2002 covers EP Reservoir Songs, raising more than $12,000 in a few days. A $15 donation reserved a vinyl copy of Reservoir Songs II; larger sums could net fans tickets to Crooked Fingers shows and even a private concert.

Still, Reservoir Songs II isn’t just fanservice. Bachmann recasts old chestnuts like Glen Campbell & John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love” as atmospheric and melancholy folk pop. His raspy croon flirts between Tom Waits and Neil Diamond, evincing a weary resignation that contrasts nicely with the music’s bright textures. Reservoir Songs II might not match the first volume’s depth, but it’s a pleasant diversion for dedicated fans.

Read more:


It’s not always super being a supercop.

The Agency returns with a new superpowered agent in “Crackdown 2.” As in “Crackdown,” your agent leaps, climbs and races through the open world of Pacific City with superhuman agility, using guns, explosives and impossible strength to protect the town. Instead of the gang-plagued city of the original, “Crackdown 2” takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellhole overrun by urban terrorists known as the Cell and mindless zombielike Freaks.

More importantly, your agent still collects agility orbs, glowing spheres that gradually improve his speed and jumping ability. This ensures that “Crackdown 2” remains as fundamentally addictive as the original, especially with the new four-player co-op mode.

“Crackdown” was an early proponent of the parkour-style free-range motion prevalent in today’s sandbox games. This emphasis returns in “Crackdown 2,” but after games like “Infamous” and “Assassin’s Creed,” it doesn’t feel nearly as fresh as it did in 2007. Also, certain ledges mysteriously resist all attempts at climbing, leading to unexpected and frustrating death plummets.

“Crackdown 2” annoys in other ways, too. The autolock aiming system really hates cars, as it regularly latches onto vehicles in the background instead of the dozens of bad guys shooting your agent. It’s also almost impossible to take out a Cell crew without accidentally murdering civilians or fellow agents. There’s no punishment, but the game’s narrator constantly informs you whenever innocents are wasted.

The Freaks aimlessly mill about at night, waiting to be slaughtered en masse. The only danger they pose is to the game’s frame-rate, which dips noticeably when too many Freaks are on screen at once. They do make it easy to level up your agent’s driving skills; just hop in a car and plow through hordes of Freaks until you reach Level 5.

Worst of all, the mission structure is horribly repetitive. “Crackdown” was just a series of shoot-outs with gang leaders, but the variety of environments and enemies required some thought. The “Crackdown 2” story consists of two mission types that you’ll repeat several times with little variation or need for strategy. If you ignore the optional side missions you can blast through the solo campaign within a few hours.

“Crackdown 2” gives sequels a bad name. Its few new wrinkles aren’t substantial or satisfying enough to make it anything but a lazy rehash of the original. Instead of expanding the world of “Crackdown,” this inessential sequel diminishes it.


I can’t use the words that best describe “Sin & Punishment: Star Successor” in a family paper like the Herald. Nintendo’s brutally difficult new shooter can be extremely frustrating. Somehow, it’s also extremely fun.

“Sin & Punishment: Star Successor” is the sequel to a 10-year-old Nintendo 64 game that wasn’t released in America until 2007. Both are made by Treasure, a Japanese developer celebrated for ridiculously tough shooting games such as “Ikaruga” and “Bangai-O Spirits.” These old-fashioned spaceship-based scrolling shooters are like “Gradius” or “Defender” on speed. The good guys fly around shooting everything that moves while dodging ridiculous amounts of bullets.

Treasure’s games require inhuman reflexes and are less about story than racking up high scores. They’re also unabashedly video games, avoiding attempts at realism or immersion.

“Sin & Punishment’ ”s two playable characters technically aren’t spaceships. They’re annoying anime people who operate exactly like spaceships normally do in games like this. Isa and Kashi fly across the screen, blasting enemies with their ray guns while avoiding bullets as much as possible. Their controls are the same, although Kashi has an auto-targeting feature that makes things slightly easier. Theoretically their battle only takes about four hours to finish, but it’s so amazingly hard that you’ll wind up replaying levels over and over before completing them.

“Sin & Punishment” supports both GameCube and Classic Controllers, but it should be played with the Wii-centric control scheme. It’s easier to aim the targeting reticule when all you have to do is point your Wii remote at the screen. The remote’s B trigger fires your primary weapon, while the A button charges up special attacks that do tremendous damage but are limited by a cool-down meter. You move your character with the Nunchuk’s analog joystick, pressing the Z button for a barrel roll. It feels very similar to the original.

With arcade-style mindless destruction that’s far removed from any kind of reality, “Sin & Punishment: Star Successor” offers a nostalgic breather from generic army men shooting anonymous Middle Easterners. You might have to start on easy and slowly work your way up, but the challenge only makes success feel like more of an accomplishment.