Nintendo’s characters might be the most beloved in games, but it’d be a lie to call any of them great conversationalists. Some are only capable of introducing themselves in cartoonish accents, while the vocal skills of others are limited to repeatedly uttering an immutably pitched grunt. And although Donkey Kong’s wit is surprisingly biting, he’s no Dorothy Parker.

Even among this lot, Samus Aran sticks out for her reticence. The formidable bounty hunter at the heart of the Metroid series has remained silent since ’86, when she first blew up a planet full of Space Pirates all by herself. She had dialogue in the non-verbal cut-scenes of Metroid Fusion, but she’s never had a voice.

That changes with Metroid: Other M. Samus speaks now. She speaks a lot. It’s hard to shut her up, which one will quickly want to do whenever she starts whining in her dull monotone. “Samus talks!” could’ve been the tagline for Other M, but unfortunately she’s no Garbo.

The Samus of Other M isn’t the mysterious and supremely confident warrior from previous games. Lengthy melodramatic cut-scenes reveal all her fears and insecurities, laying bare intimate details about her past. Although well-animated, these vignettes are floridly overwritten, and plagued by listless voice-acting. They make one long for Metroids past, where the narrative flirted between understated and non-existent.

Historically Samus is pure cipher, with little to no development over the past twenty-odd years. That might make Metroid fans feel closer to her than other, more clearly delineated heroes. In the lack of concrete characterization Samus becomes all things to all people. The only constants are a direct, forthright attitude towards action and a willingness to explore every last corner of an isolated planet or abandoned outpost. Samus gets the job done as thoroughly as the player decides without ever complaining.

Other M veers sharply in a different direction. It focuses on Samus as a person, and many fans may not like who that person is. In trying to gin up sympathy for Samus Other M makes her less sympathetic. Somehow knowing more means caring less.

This doesn’t sink the game, fortunately. Other M’s action is a largely successful new take on the classic formula, at once more faithful and more wayward than the Metroid Prime series. Exploration and backtracking are still vital. Other M skips between the third and first person, from side-scroller to God of War-style fixed camera action game to a first-person shooting gallery. It sounds awkward, but there are only a few perspective shifts that are unexpected or momentarily jarring, and the player mostly decides when to enter first-person mode.

Other M also changes how Samus develops new abilities. She starts with almost all her powers, but promptly agrees to not use them until authorized by an old military commander she encounters on her mission. Even in deadly situations where a super missile or plasma gun would keep her alive, Samus won’t use a weapon until this random guy gives her the word. This is as poorly conceived as the game’s story and weakens the character even further. It’s a Metroid hallmark for Samus to start off relatively powerless and eventually turn into some kind of crazy robo-suited space God, but her arbitrary limitations in Other M are narratively unfulfilling.

A few power-ups are scattered throughout the environment, including energy tanks, missile packs, and widgets that increase the charging speed of Samus’s weapons. There are fragments of energy tanks that act like the heart pieces in a Zelda game; collect four for an extra bank of 99 hit points. Otherwise Other M is less about tracking down new powers than waiting for some guy to say it’s cool for Samus to finally put on the special clothes that keep her from hurting so much.

Despite all this, Other M is fun and engrossing. It’s just Metroid enough. There’s a solid chunk of pure, unadulterated Metroid at its core, with Samus single-handedly confronting evil and unlocking new skills in a creepy and claustrophobic spaceship. There aren’t many actual metroids in the game, but when they do appear they’re as deadly and frightening as ever. Samus is a drip, but even she can’t drag a good Metroid down.



“Fable II” and “Fallout 3” came out a week apart in 2008. “Fable III” and “Fallout: New Vegas” arrive two years later on subsequent Tuesdays. Is that enough time between trips to Albion? Who’s prepared for another trek through a post-nuclear wasteland? Do these sequels justify their quick turnaround times?

“Fable III” picks up 50 years after your hero brought peace to Albion in “Fable II.” His tyrannical son has inherited the throne. Playing as the king’s younger brother or sister, you try to unite the citizens in revolt against the crown.

This simple third-person action-adventure plays exactly like “Fable II.” You gain allies by completing various quests. Combat balances melee weapons, guns and magic, and townsfolk remain inordinately impressed by such simple actions as whistling or flexing. You can marry, have kids and buy houses and businesses. Most importantly, an endearing – and very British – sense of humor distinguishes the superior writing and voice-acting.

“Fable III” moves the series further away from standard role-playing conventions. Instead of gaining experience for specific weapons, you accumulate points to spend on a variety of upgrades. Menus are replaced by active environments, a distraction that slows the game down. Otherwise the “Fable” experience remains largely unchanged.

“Fallout: New Vegas” isn’t a direct sequel. The bombed-out city blocks of Washington, D.C., give way to the vast empty horizons of the Mojave Desert. It looks and feels different enough to forge its own identity until you start playing it.

Not much changes beyond the setting and story. It’s still a complex role-playing game that looks like a first-person shooter. Just like “Fallout 3,” you’re free to be as good or bad as you like, helping or attacking the survivors you encounter.

There are a few notable changes. “New Vegas” introduces various factions in the Mojave. You can work for or against any of them, and your actions and decisions affect how much they trust you. Playing these groups off each other is satisfying. There’s also a new Hardcore mode, in which ammo has weight and you have to eat, drink and sleep regularly to stay alive. It’s your call if that’s for masochists or realists.

Both games are so similar to their forerunners that they almost feel like downloadable content or expansion packs. Still, sturdy foundations and interesting new story lines make “Fallout” and “Fable” worth revisiting.



Get ready to give up your social life, and kiss productivity goodbye: there’s a new “Civilization” game.

“Civilization V” isn’t the deepest strategy game, but it might be the most engrossing. It simulates a civilization’s millennia-spanning rise from a nomadic tribe to a global power in macro, jumping ahead years per turn. It would get bogged down in details if it wasn’t played from a fairly broad view. It already takes long enough to finish a game of “Civilization” as it is.

“Civilization” isn’t about depth but addiction. If you’ve ever played the series you know how dangerously easy it is to keep playing “just one more round” until the sun rises. If I spent half as much time studying as I did playing the first “Civilization” Bob Kraft would probably be my butler by now.

“Civilization V” features a few big changes, including a new hexagonal map. Combat is overhauled in two major ways. You can’t stack military units anymore, so no more loading up on a dozen phalanxes per tile when besieging an enemy city. Cities can also defend themselves with ranged attacks, which is an excellent addition. Gone are cheap conquests when a city is left unguarded. You can also only garrison one unit per city, which keeps your military manageable and affordable.

“Civilization V” also introduces city-states, which are mini-civilizations with only a single city. They’re not as powerful as full-fledged civilizations, but they add a fascinating new wrinkle to diplomatic relations. You can war or align with them as with any civilization, and serve as their official protector. Attacking a city-state will immediately start a war with its allies. It replicates the complicated web of alliances and partnerships that triggered real-world conflicts like World War I.

A new Social Policy system also switches up the “Civilization” formula. Instead of deciding your civilization’s religion or type of government, you unlock Social Policies when you accumulate enough culture points. If you want your society to focus on the arts then you can select policies from the Patronage subgroup. If you’re on the Religious Right you can focus on Piety. Once enacted a policy’s influence only fades away when countermanded by a subsequent Social Policy. Policies are bonuses to stats and production but won’t have a strong impact on how you play the game.

Despite these updates, “Civilization V” still feels like the time-devouring classic you’ve known and loved for years.



It took too long for someone to make a good rap karaoke game. The industry has pumped out music games for almost a decade, largely ignoring the most popular genre of the last 30 years. The only rap game before “Def Jam Rapstar” was 2004’s completely broken “Get On Da Mic.” You can play guitar on “DJ Hero,” but a microphone is meaningless. I thought companies liked money?

“Def Jam Rapstar” avoids the mistakes that ruined “Get On Da Mic.” It uses the original songs, the lyrics are easy to read and a bouncing ball allows even the most rhythmically challenged guy the ability to follow the flow. It also accurately grades player performance. Those last points are essential for any successful karaoke game.

“Rapstar” also nicely avoids the animated stereotypes of “Get On Da Mic” by using the original music videos as backdrops.

The game judges you on three factors: timeliness, pitch and lyrics. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say something at the right time. Pitch only matters when there’s actual singing, as with Rihanna’s chorus on TI’s “Live Your Life.” For those singing parts, “Rapstar” uses an interface almost identical to “Rock Band” and “Karaoke Revolution.”

“Rapstar’s” set list is deep. Almost every major rapper of the last 25 years is represented. Old dudes can rock Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” while the kids spit Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.” There are a few surprising omissions (Jay-Z and Eminem), nothing earlier than the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” and almost no “conscious” rap. It completely ignores underground and foreign hip-hop, so no grime or Definitive Jux. Still, it’s a good selection of old and new hits from a variety of styles.

“Rapstar” has a solo career mode, but it’s best with a group of people. You can duet or battle with a friend on any song. You can’t directly battle online, but you can make a video and post it to the game’s servers for the world to rate. “Rapstar” also connects to Facebook and Twitter if you want to annoy your friends.

The game probably should be rated M just because the editing is distracting. Bad words and some overt drug references are bleeped, which occasionally makes it hard to keep with the beat. Otherwise, “Rapstar” is a good start to fixing the music game genre’s most glaring problem.


“The United States is probably my favorite country,” says Brian Kelly, the singer for Irish indie-pop band So Cow. It’s nice to know somebody in the world still loves us.

“The people here are generally generous and warm, too, though maybe we just get lucky with who we meet,” Kelly continues. “Also, American audiences aren’t afraid to make a front row happen, as opposed to the wallflower tendencies of audiences at home.”

Kelly must indeed love America, because So Cow are over here pretty much all the time. They’ve been touring almost constantly since February, when Chicago-based label Tic-Tac-Totally released their second album, Meaningless Friendly, and next Thursday’s show at the Paradise marks their third trip to Boston this year. That’s not too impressive for a band from New York or Philadelphia, but Ireland’s still part of an entirely different continent, no matter how many shamrock tattoos you see in Boston.

Constant touring has led to a steady increase in the band’s profile. In 2010 alone, they’ve graduated — in Boston rock-club terms — from O’Brien’s Pub to Great Scott to the ‘Dise. That’s due in part to So Cow’s touring with big-ticket bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the Thermals, the latter of whom they’ll share the stage with this time around. But Kelly’s not sure how he feels about these higher-profile shows. “There are bigger crowds, but I’m still trying to figure out whether this is a good thing for us. I guess it is. More people. The ceilings are higher in bigger venues, and that’s a little offputting for reasons I can’t articulate yet.”

It’s hard not to like So Cow. They make catchy, frantic pop that’s tight but ragged, and noisy when necessary without obscuring the two or three hooks embedded in every song. The band’s nervous energy is offset by Kelly’s humor and understated charm. They sound like a less precious Nodzzz, a more relaxed Nerves, or Boyracer with less feedback and no 8-bit asides. Map out a Venn diagram of various musical subcultures and So Cow would comfortably hug the punks, the twee kids, the surly garage dudes, and the indie-rock nerds.

Even when he’s not on the road, Kelly devotes most of his time to So Cow. “When I’m not touring, I’m pretty much writing all the time.” And when he’s not writing, Kelly also keeps busy recording covers, just for the hell of it. He’s done songs by the Go-Betweens and Del Shannon, among many others, and hopes to finish off another batch after the band’s current spate of shows (which includes the Homegrown II fest at the Temple in Jamaica Plain October 17) ends in December. “I want to cover Kim Jung Mi’s album Now in its entirety. Though it’s a lot of Korean to memorize in one go.”

After that, So Cow plan on a brief but well-deserved break. “We’ve had a pretty full on 2010. Batteries need to be recharged, if not entirely replaced.” Kelly adds that they’ll also be releasing a new album and a few singles and touring North America and the European Union countries in 2011. What’s more, one of those planned 2011 singles is slated to drop on Somerville-based Ride the Snake Records. Maybe it’s not really the United States Kelly loves — maybe it’s just Boston.