Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dragon Age: Last Flight Review

The Fourth Blight.  Apparently this was one of the worst Blights to occur in the world of Thedas, where the Dark Spawn emerged from the Deep Roads, taking everyone by surprise, and starting a war that lasted for about a decade and almost saw Thedas fall to the Taint and Corruption as entire nations were thoroughly ravaged.

The Fourth Blight also happens to be the primary setting for Tor Book's latest novel, Dragon Age: The Last Flight.

In the present day, the conflict between the mages and Templars rages on, and some mages have sought sanctuary with the Grey Wardens in their secluded fortress of Weisshaupt.  One of these is the young mage Valya from the Hossberg Circle, with a few of her peers.

In no rush to put them through the Joining, the Chamberlain of the Grey has requested their assistance in combing for specific information regarding the Blights through their vast library, and Valya stumbles across a hidden diary from Isseya, the sister of the hero Garahel, who sacrificed himself to slay the Archdemon and end that horrible Fourth Blight.

Having never played a Dragon Age game before, Dragon Age: The Masked Empire was my first foray into the universe, and I enjoyed it immensely.  I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed myself just as much, if not more so, with Dragon Age: Last Flight.

The diary from Isseya, which provides much of the backdrop and narration for the novel, is dark and at times, thoroughly desperate.  I found this tone very appealing, as it narrates through key moments throughout this decade-long Blight, from when Garahel and Isseya were new Grey Warden initiates, to their maturity as leaders and the difficult and dangerous decisions they made, to the war's conclusion and a bit of its aftermath.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no griffons in the Dragon Age games, but of course a stylized griffon is the order's symbol.  During the time of the Fourth Blight, there certainly were griffons, and the Grey Wardens exclusively road them, giving them air superiority against the Dark Spawn that typically only the Archdemon could effectively counter.

With the end of this Blight, however, all the griffons died out and are now simply a memory to the Wardens and the people of Thedas.  The reason behind this, the real reason the griffons vanished, is ultimately the primary theme of the novel, and it's a rather interesting and sad twist and one that will affect Valya and her companions in the present day.

Liane Merciel, the novel's author, interweaves the story between the narration from the diary and Valya's overall reactions to them in the present day, and does so well with some solid foreshadowing of the plot points to come.  More time is spent recounting the Blight, and that worked strongly in my opinion as it's not only where the real action lay but also the major choices of the story, choices that would have repercussions straight to the present. 

Garahel and Isseya, amongst other Wardens of the time, rode griffons into battle, using them to the best effect possible during offenses and defences, breaking sieges or simply passing messages.  Without the bonds between the Wardens' and their griffons, the Fourth Blight would likely have been lost, and even with their aid, the Dark Spawn were so strong and so well coordinated that the Wardens and their allies nearly failed and nearly lost everything several times over.

This forced the Wardens to make significant sacrifices to stem the horde, both in terms of people, locations, and morals.  To stop the Blight, the Grey Wardens did some rather bad things with good intentions, and it left its mark on Thedas, but was subsequently buried to time and mystery.  Until now, until Valya goes through Isseya's diary.

I was so taken by the story and the locations that Merciel wrote about that for a few days afterwards, I found myself reading up on the nations, races, Blight's, etc. from the world online, simply to immerse myself more in the story and to understand and appreciate it all the more.

That, to me, is the mark of a good novel, one that makes you want to expand your experience happily and to long for more.

For current fans of the series looking to dig themselves deeper in the rich history of the franchise, for those anxiously waiting for the next game, or for those simply looking for an entertaining dark fantasy read, you'll find all of that in Dragon Age: Last Flight.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dragon Age: Last Flight Released

Our friends at Tor Books have released the following press release for their latest, Dragon Age: Last Flight:

Tor Books Releases Latest Dragon Age™ Novel Based on BioWare’s
Award-Winning Dark Fantasy Role-Playing Game

New York, NY — Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC—the largest publisher of
science fiction in the world—and BioWare™, a division of Electronic Arts, are thrilled to announce the on-sale availability of a new paperback and e-Book title, DRAGON AGE: LAST FLIGHT (ISBN 978-0-7653-3721-4; $15.99; Sept. 16, 2014). Penned by acclaimed fantasy author Liane Merciel, who wrote The River King's Road and its sequel Heaven's Needle, this is the fifth novel in the award-winning Dragon Age™ fantasy RPG franchise.

The team at BioWare, responsible for such beloved classics as Baldur’s Gate™, Neverwinter Nights™, Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic™, and Mass Effect™, set a new Fantasy RPG storytelling standard with the Dragon Age franchise, which has won over 80 awards between the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009 and Dragon Age II in March 2011. BioWare’s upcoming release (Fall 2014), Dragon Age: Inquisition, is a next-generation action RPG that gives players a story-driven, open world filled with complex characters, challenging combat and difficult decisions.

The previous four Dragon Age™ novels, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne (March 2009), Dragon Age: The Calling (October 2009), Dragon Age: Asunder (December 2011) and Dragon Age: The Masked Empire (April 2014), have been well-received by fans and further establish the dark, heroic nature and epic scale of the Dragon Age Universe.

DRAGON AGE: LAST FLIGHT returns to Thedas, the setting of BioWare's award-winning Dragon Age dark fantasy RPG, and discover what dark, forgotten secrets lurk in the history of the legendary Grey Wardens.

The Grey Wardens are heroes across Thedas once again: the Archdemon has been defeated with relative ease and the scattered darkspawn are being driven back underground.  The Blight is over.  Or so it seems.

Valya, a young elven mage recently recruited into the Wardens, has been tasked with studying the historical record of previous Blights in order to gain insight into newly reported, and disturbing, darkspawn phenomena.  Her research into the Fourth Blight leads her to an encoded reference scrawled in the margins of an ancient map, and to the hidden diary of Issenya, one of the last of the fabled griffon riders.  As the dark secrets buried in Isseyna's story unfold, Valya begins to question everything she thought she knew about the heroic Grey Wardens. . . .

Fans of BioWare are invited to visit the official Dragon Age™ website at:, where they can preview and find additional information about all of the Dragon Age novels.

I really enjoyed the last Dragon Age novel, and I'm looking forward to this one!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire Review

BioWare is a developer known for their excellent, in-depth games and wonderful story telling, and their Dragon Age franchise is currently one of their most popular universes along with the Mass Effect series.  While I have enjoyed all three Mass Effect games extensively and read all four novels in the series, I actually have no experience with the Dragon Age franchise.

Our friends at Tor Forge sent me a copy of the recently published Dragon Age: The Masked Empire to read, thus marking my first experience with the world.  I've heard a lot of praise for the original game in the series, and a lot of criticism for its sequel, as well as mixed regarding the games' stories, so I wasn't sure what to expect going in.

The dark fantasy universe of Dragon Age is set within the world of Thedas, filled with men, elves, dwarves, kingdoms and orders of knights and mages, as well as enemies of undead, spirits, demons, and other conventional fantasy fair.

Unlike conventional fantasy however, and one thing that really stood out for me is that elves are not revered by men, but rather they are mainly a conquered race living in slums and serving the reigning human empires and kingdoms, with scattered clans of "free" elves living in the wilderness, the Dales.

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire takes place in the empire of Orlais, the strongest empire of men, which seems heavily based on our own former kingdom of France.  Orlais is ruled over by the Empress Celene who claimed the throne around the tender age of 16.  Throughout her reign, Celene has sought to bring further enlightenment to the Orlesian Empire, enhancing and supporting its art and education, and she is also slowly trying to introduce tolerance of the elves, thanks in no small part to the influence of Briala, her elven handmaid since childhood.

Taking place after the events of Dragon Age II, a war is brewing between the Circle of Mages and order of the Templars, and Grand Duke Gaspard, cousin to Celene, is urging action.  He believes that the Orlesian Empire would be stronger through military action and war and he views Celene as weak and an elf lover who will only bring ruin to the empire.

Thus Gaspard gains the favour of several prominent nobles and begins to undermine Celene in an attempt to take the throne, and this coup attempt makes up the central conflict of the novel's story.

Standing loyally by Celene is Ser Michel, a Chevalier, or knight, who serves as her personal bodyguard and champion.  Having a strong sense of honour and duty, Ser Michel harbours a dark secret that he struggles with constantly, lest it be revealed and ruin him.  His true metal, and loyalty, is tested in the conflict to come.

Briala, loyal to Celene and seeing her as a strong chance to help her own disenfranchised people, secretly learns about her own culture's history and roots through the wandering Dalish mage Felassan who patiently guides her and teaches her to simply think for herself.

Most game-related novels I read I honestly find rather predictable, with endings that I usually see coming a mile away.  I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised that Dragon Age: The Masked Empire broke that expectation.  Perhaps it's because I'm unfamiliar with the source material, or perhaps it's because Patrick Weekes did such a great job writing the tale and its characters and plot twists, but the last few Chapters certainly kept me guessing, and I did not predict the outcome in the slightest.

While the central conflict certainly revolves around Gaspard's attempt to take Celene's throne, the story branches out further and sees the characters not only try to secure a kingdom, but also an ancient power, one that other forces are also interested in, and one I suspect will figure prominently in BioWare's upcoming game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

It should also be noted that the novel has a heavy subplot involving same-sex relations, and bears heavy influence from the feedback and contact of BioWare's LGBTQ fans.  BioWare has always been a developer looking to push the boundary of same sex relations with its stories, evident in the Jade Empire and Mass Effect franchises and now in Dragon Age as well, and I think that's absolutely great.  It's 2014, such plot lines provide extra options and content, and shows open tolerance and acceptance for relationships that are quite commonplace.

I've thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age: The Masked Empire, and it's certainly been a positive introduction to the franchise.  Featuring compelling drama, characters, and history, the novel was greatly entertaining, and I'm sure fans of the series will be delighted by it.  I've enjoyed it so much, that should I ever get through my game backlog, I might look into checking the franchise out in full.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Halo: Mortal Dictata Review

In my personal opinion, Karen Traviss' best work is in her Star Wars: Republic Commando novel series.  For those who haven't read it, the series follows the exploits of Omega Squad and their training Sergeant, Kal Skirata, who ultimately becomes their adoptive father.  Kal is opposed to the concept of the clone army the Republic has created for itself and the accelerated aging the clones go through and is bent on freeing his "kids" so they can have normal lives.

There's no question at all that the core themes of this series have found their way into Traviss' latest work, Halo: Mortal Dictata.

Halo: Mortal Dictata is the third and final novel in her Kilo-Five trilogy, and Osman's crew is engaged in tracking down the stolen Covenant CCS-Class Battlecruiser, Pious Inquisitor.  This pursuit has lead them to the insurrectionist world of Venezia where they discovered Naomi-010's father, Staffan Sentzke, in residence and potentially interested in buying the missing ship to pursue a plot of revenge against the UNSC.

When Naomi was abducted years ago to take place in the Spartan-II program and replaced with a clone to fool her parents, Staffan deduced quickly that this wasn't his daughter, yet no one believed him.  After the clone's death, he spent years searching for his real daughter and learned from a rougher crowd how to survive and deal with a corrupt government.  Having no love for the UNSC or Earth, Staffan has spent years working for the insurrection while piecing together what happened to his real daughter.

The character, in truth, bears many similarities to Kal Skirata that while reading the novel I kept picturing him as Kal.  The manerisms, emotions, and strong connection to family all resonate between both identities, and I personally felt this really helped the narrative.

While Traviss explores a tapestry of politics and black ops, both from the perspective of the UNSC and their ONI branch, the insurrection, and even the Jackals, I still personally feel she doesn't have a firm understanding of the species dynamics in the Halo universe, particularly the Brutes.

For example, on Venezia, humans, Brutes, Jackals, and Grunts are living together in the same communities.  While I can see this with the humans, Jackals, and Grunts, as this has occurred before in another novel under plausible circumstances, the Brutes' presence is in complete contrast to how they've always been represented.  The Brutes would not, under any circumstances, live peacefully next to humans.

Same with the Elites.  In the novel, some Brutes are still working for the Elites, which contrasts the return of the Elites and Brutes trying to wipe each other out in the past novel, which in turn corrected the horrible representation of Brutes gardening for Elites in the first novel of the series.  The Kilo-Five trilogy has flip-flopped on its representation of inter-species politics a few times, lacking consistency, and demonstrating a lack of the core specie traits on Traviss' part.

Excluding this discrepancy, however, the novel is a good read unto itself.  The moral line of the Spartan-II program, and the fallout that has on the lives of others, is really explored here in detail.  We also get to see the Jackals and their society and culture brought to the forefront for the second time in franchise history, and that widens up what we can expect from future Halo media.

The core story also really focuses on spy work and infiltration as befitting this branch of ONI.  Large scale battles are out, but back stabbing, plotting, and moral ambiguity are represented in spades, which is another fresh look for the franchise.

The fact that the story also seemed to be a mini, condensed version of Traviss' earlier Star War: Republic Commando work also played a nostalgic cord for me, allowing me to appreciate it as the strongest book in her trilogy.

At the end of the day, the Kilo-Five trilogy is an overall fun read, expanding the core universe and fleshing out some of the back-story for Halo 4.  Any fan of the franchise looking to broaden their scope of the Halo universe will enjoy what Traviss offers here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Halo: Mortal Dictata Announced

The final novel in Karen Traviss' "Kilo Five" trilogy has been announced, and you can check out the full press release below:

Tor Books announces release of Halo®: Mortal Dictata by #1 New York Times bestselling author Karen Traviss 
The riveting final installment of the Kilo-Five trilogy in the New York Times bestselling series based on the enormously popular game 

New York, NY – June 20, 2013 Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLCthe largest publisher of science fiction in the worldand 343 Industries™ are excited to announce the forthcoming January 2014 publication of Halo: MORTAL DICTATA by #1 New York Times bestselling author Karen Traviss. Traviss has penned #1 bestselling novels in the Star Wars universe, as well as bestselling novels for the Gears of War franchise, and this winter she completes her trilogy set in the Halo® universe. 
Based on the universe and characters from the multimillion copy selling Xbox video games, MORTAL DICTATA completes a trilogy set in the Halo universe, and ties into the highly anticipated Halo 4, which launched in November 2012.   
Halo novels published by Tor have sold over a million combined copies to date. 
No. 1 New York Times bestselling novelist, screenwriter, and comics author Karen Traviss has received critical acclaim for her award-nominated Wess’har series, as well as regularly hitting the bestseller lists with her Star Wars, Gears of War, and Halo work. She was also lead writer on the Gears of War 3 game. A former defense correspondent and TV and newspaper journalist, Traviss lives in Wiltshire, England.  

About Tor Books 
Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, is a New York-based publisher of hardcover and softcover books.  Founded in 1980, Tor annually publishes what is arguably the largest and most diverse line of science fiction and fantasy ever produced by a single English-language publisher.  In 2002, Tor launched Starscape, an imprint dedicated to publishing quality science fiction and fantasy for young readers, including books by critically acclaimed and award winning authors such as Cory Doctorow, Orson Scott Card, and David Lubar.  Between an extensive hardcover and trade-softcover line, an Orb backlist program, and a stronghold in mass-market paperbacks, books from Tor have won every major award in the SF and fantasy fields, and Tor has been named Best Publisher 24 years in a row in the Locus Poll, the largest consumer poll in SF.  

About the “Halo” Franchise 
The “Halo” franchise is an award-winning collection of properties that has grown into a global entertainment phenomenon. Beginning with the original “Halo: Combat Evolved” (2001), the critically acclaimed and record-shattering series of games has since inspired multiple New York Times bestselling novels, comic books, action figures, apparel and more. 

Published by Microsoft Studios, the “Halo” franchise of games is exclusive to the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system and the Xbox Live online entertainment network. To date, more than 50 million copies of “Halo” games have been sold worldwide, driving more than 5 billion hours of gameplay by people connected to Xbox Live. 

I love that cover art, though it looks like Noble 6's helmet on the ground.

Injustice: Gods Among Us "Martian Manhunter"

Martian Manhunter joins the cast of Injustice: Gods Among Us.  I'm not sure if he'll be a stand-alone character to download or if another Season Pass is coming, but you can see him in action in his announce trailer here or below:

Monday, July 08, 2013

8th Year Anniversary and Announcement

Exactly eight years ago, I started Arbiter's Judgement with this post.  Shortly thereafter I recruited my buddy Telly as "The Staff" and we set off to have some fun and create our own version of ActionTrip, a site we both still read and follow to this day.

During these last eight years, I've brought you my own thoughts on games, movies, books, and other random crap.  I've been privileged to attend many gaming events, including private/invite only ones which have let me do a lot of cool things.  I played and received a copy of Gears of War 2 before it went on sale, I viewed Halo: Legends in a swank hotel theatre and got a copy before it released, I was one of the first eight people in the country not employed by Microsoft to play the Halo: Reach beta, and more recently, I was able to play BioShock Infinite months before release.

These are just some of the highlights from a gaming standpoint.  Outside of but also related to gaming, I've had the pleasure of helping others raise money for charity via Child's Play, I've received many complimentary novels from Tor Books to read and review, and I've been able to influence and inspire many in various gaming communities.

Some years back Telly got swamped with personal and professional life and had to take his leave, leaving the running of this place to me and I've certainly given it my all as a one-man operation.  However, I too must admit that time is at a premium for me these days.

I have a full fledged career, a home, and I'm juggling many personal relationships and friendships to boot.  I've also had some health issues that have come up which demand proper attention and care, and the truth is I don't have the time I once did to dedicate to the blog.

And yet again, social media has changed how we read and deal with news.  Thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook, anything I'm posting up has long since been read days before elsewhere, and even for unique and personal articles, like reviews, I find it challenging to now fit them into my daily schedule.  My recent Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition review, for example, took me almost a month to complete.  I wasn't actively working on it for that month, mind you, I started it in early June and simply didn't have the time to continue it until early July.

Another truth is the game's industry isn't what it was eight years ago.  When I started Arbiter's Judgement, we were at the peak of what I now call the Golden Age of Gaming.  A time when games were truly innovative and inspiring and when I gladly spent several hour binge sessions each weekend playing my favourite titles.

Now, with the pending release of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year, we're on the verge of a new generation of consoles, and I'm not sure if they'll be for me.  Over the last few years in particular I've watched many trends in the industry flourish that I do not find encouraging, and today, while there are still some excellent games being released, I find them much fewer and farther between.  Sure, they look prettier, have higher production values, and are far more cinematic, but the industry itself and how developers and publishers work has changed.

Gone are the days of true and constant innovation, now we're in the age of nickle and dimming the consumer and maximizing profit.  Gaming is truly a business now, and while I'm not giving up on gaming or abandoning the hobby I do spend far less time on it and I personally no longer want to do any major marathon sessions; it's just not the same any longer and overall I feel the industry has not evolved for the better.

And so, after long and careful consideration, I've decided the time has come for me to take my own leave.  I don't make this decision lightly as I have greatly enjoyed writing and creating here, but the truth is my focus needs to be elsewhere.  As Tor Books sends me novels to review I'll still do so, and if a game of great worth comes out that I want to review I'll likely do so as well, and you may see me post a bit of really great news now and again, but for all intents and purposes I'm retiring the blog.

Perhaps I'll take it up again in full force one day when circumstances are different, but for now, it's time to move on.  I want to thank you, my readers, for sticking by the site for so long.  I've really enjoyed bringing you my thoughts and opinions and I hope you've enjoyed reading them, even if you haven't always agreed with them.

I also want to thank Xbox Canada and Jaken Bear, Jade, and Mister Switch.  Thanks also go to Tor Books and Sally, Justin, Alexis, and Patty.  You've all given me great stuff to cover over the years, and thank you for your faith and support. 

I'll still be active at Delay of Game, so anyone seeking to reach me can easily do so there.  So again, thank you everyone for helping to make Arbiter's Judgement what it is, and best wishes.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us "History of General Zod" ViDoc and "Man of Steel" Skin

As General Zod is the fourth DLC character for Injustice: Gods Among Us, a ViDoc providing the history of the character has been released.

You can view it here or below:

Also, a new skin for Superman based on his costume in Man of Steel is now available for purchase, and you can watch that skin in action in this video here or below:

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition (Xbox 360) Review

Batman: Arkham Asylum remains one of the greatest super hero games that I have ever played.  Rocksteady Studios did such a fantastic job truly letting you feel like the capped crusader.  The fighting mechanics, the gadgets, and story telling and setting were all top notch and certainly one of the best gaming experiences to come out of 2009.

The sequel, Batman: Arkham City, released in the fall of 2011, and I regret that I made a huge mistake:  I picked up Gears of War 3 instead.  I wanted to finish that trilogy and its storyline, and I was sorely disappointed with the lackluster experience Epic Games had bungled up.  Thankfully between now and then, a "Game of the Year Edition" for Batman: Arkham City was released, and I just so happened to have snagged a copy.

Set a year after the events of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Quincy Sharp took the credit for stopping the Joker's rampage in the Asylum and used that fame to be elected mayor of Gotham City.  In order to keep the city safe, Sharp turns a section of the city into a fully contained prison, where he has the super villains from Arkham Asylym and general thugs from Blackgate Prison transferred.

Calling this city prison "Arkham City," Sharpe appoints Hugo Strange as its warden and declares it Gotham's ultimate solution to crime.  Within Arkham City, the criminals are free to roam and do as they please, however any attempt to escape will be met by lethal force courtesy of Strange's private security force called Tyger Security.

Batman is highly suspicious of this new prison, and as Bruce Wayne, begins a political campaign against it in an attempt to shut it down.  Strange, having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne, sends his Tyger Security forces to arrest Wayne and incarcerate him in Arkham City.

Unlike Arkham Asylum from the first game, Arkham City is a fully fleshed out section of Gotham that players can free-roam and navigate.  While you have specific missions and side missions to accomplish, tracked by your handy Bat Computer, players can simply patrol the city looking for random thugs and encounters to play against, and there's also other challenges to tackle.

The main story and core focus of the game, however, is extremely well fleshed out.  Almost every major villain Batman has ever fought is present in Batman: Arkham City, which is both surprising and a little concerning as one would expect things to get overly convoluted and bogged down with so many personalities, but this didn't turn out to be the case at all.

Rocksteady Studios did a superb job of balancing each villain's time in the game, setting them up nicely as major players or supporting villains, and the overall story flows exceptionally well and never feels too confusing.  This alone I see as a huge accomplishment for the developer, and the game's story is most definitely one of its highest points.

You see not only does Batman have to contend against Hugo Strange and his Tyger Security forces while trying to unravel the true purpose of Arkham City, but the Joker is also ill as a result of the Titan formula he injected himself with at the end of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Not only is the Joker intent on getting cured, but he's also looking to get a little payback against the Dark Knight and becomes a major player in the game.

Now the Freeflow combat from Batman: Arkham Asylum was excellent and very innovative for it's time, and Rocksteady Studios have taken things up another notch in the sequel.  Freeflow mainly works just like you remember only now it's even easier to move from opponent to opponent and to use Quickfire Gadgets during combos;  the whole process just feels smoother.  I think the best I was ever able to do in Batman: Arkham Asylum was a 30 hit combo, but in Batman: Arkham City, after only a little warm-up, I was doing 40 hit combos pretty consistently.

The majority of Batman's gadgets from the last game make an appearance again, and several new ones have been added.  Tapping Left Trigger still Quickfires a Batarang, and other key gadgets now have a dedicated Quickfire button used by holding Left Trigger.  Hold LT and press "Y" to Quickfire the Batclaw, pressing "X" quick drops Explosive Gel (great for crowd control), "B" uses his new Electrical Charge, and so on.  All extremely quick and intuitive, and the use of each gadget has been expanded as well.

As you beat the snot out of enemies and complete missions you earn Experience which let's you level up and apply an upgrade to your different fighting tactics.  You can increase your durability to regular attacks or bullets, improve your Freeflow combat, unlock new moves or expanded ways to use your gadgets, etc.  By game's end you'll likely have enough Experience to unlock everything, however this allows you to really customize Batman to your own personal style early on, making things a little simpler and more fun.

The challenges Batman faces in Arkham City aren't just combat related, though that is a huge part of the game.  There's now environmental challenges to tackle in the form of Gliding. Gliding is a larger part of the gameplay now, and Batman can Glide, Dive Boom, and Zip Line his way quickly across all of Arkham City.  There are various points where specific navigational challenges, called Augmented Reality Training, are set up, and properly Gliding and navigating through these challenges is part of one of your side missions.  I personally found the complex gliding mechanics clunky, however, and the Controller layout for it wasn't the best.  The challenges are doable, I completed all of them, but it took many attempts and lots of cursing to do so.

The Riddler Trophies are also back, and there's a whopping 440 of them to collect this time around.  Their inclusion and the Riddler's subplot in Batman: Arkham Asylum was a very cool part of that game, but here in the sequel the Riddler is more present and has a larger story role.  As one of your side missions, he's taken a bunch of police officers and doctors hostage and will kill them unless you solve his challenges, but in order to attempt a rescue, you'll need to collect X number of trophies for the Riddler to give you a clue as to a hostage's location.

This had the potential to be extremely cool and involving, however regrettably Rocksteady Studios took a devilish approach to this task.  Unlike the first game, finding the Riddler Trophies often isn't enough to collect them, as you'll usually need to complete an environmental challenge, use a specific gadget, or solve a puzzle to claim your prize.  The puzzle ones, such as hitting switches in a certain order or speed with Batrangs, or pressing a proper number of pressure pads in a certain order, etc., often felt very frustrating and given the shear volume of Trophies to collect, well, let's just say this part of the game, which took some time, was more tedious than fun.

Once you finally get enough Trophies to get a clue from the Riddler, you can try and rescue the hostage, which usually involves Batman needing to navigate through a deathtrap maze to free them.  In contrast to Trophy collection, these hostage rescues are extremely fun and I thought they were very clever and well done; it's just a shame you have to spend so much time hunting for annoying trophies to get to try them.

While you won't come across any maps in Batman: Arkham City pointing out the location for all the Riddler collectibles in an area, Batman can interrogate Riddler henchmen to learn additional Trophy locations.  Basically in any group of thugs, whether they're working for Joker, Two-Face, or whoever, if one of them is a hidden Riddler agent they'll appear with a green glow.  You'll then need to defeat the other thugs while leaving the Riddler agent for last to interrogate them; simply press "Y" when they're the last thug standing to lay the beat-down on them and they'll reveal a few more Riddler Trophy locations.

I generally found it best to simply interrogate as many Riddler agents as you can and then wait until you get all of Batman's gadgets before trying to get most of the Trophies, as many of the Gadgets prove essential to their collection, and I found it best to just sweep an area clear at a time once they were all revealed.  If you have the patience to collect all of them as I did and to find most of them without using a walkthrough, this will keep you busy for some hours, though as I mentioned I found it far more tedious than fun.

While I consider the story to be one of the main highlights for the game, it's interesting to note that you don't actually begin Batman: Arkham City as Batman, or even Bruce Wayne, but rather as Catwoman.  Originally included with new copies of the game (or purchasable as an add-on for used game buyers) and of course included in the "Game of the Year Edition," Catwoman is featured as a playable character and has her own story missions, challenges, and collectibles.

The game opens with players taking on the role of Catwoman as she takes down some of Two-Face's thugs in Dent's former campaign office to gain access to his safe.  She's then captured and Batman has to save her, however Catwoman becomes playable several more times in the story.  I believe the exact statistic is that Catwoman's missions make up 10% of the total game, and I personally wish it was a lot more as she's fantastic.

Her storyline is good, features Poison Ivy who's absent from the core game, and her story intersects with Batman's a few times, but it's her gameplay that I really love.  Simply put, I find Catwoman a more intuitive character than Batman.  While the general mechanics behind her Freeflow combat is the same as the Dark Knight's (and several of Batman's upgrades carry over to her, though she does have her own upgrade section) I find her faster and actually possessing a slightly more aggressive playstyle.

She also has her own unique gadgets, such as a bola, caltrops, and her signature whip, all of which are very handy for crowd control.  I found her so affective in combat that I was actually able to pull of a 40 hit combo before I was able to do so with Batman, and I can pull off a 50 hit combo with her without abusing any fight mechanics, something I can not do with Batman.  The only aspect of combat that I find her lacking is her general takedowns, which are slower than Batman's and generally safer to avoid performing.

Since she has a limited number of gadgets and can't glide, Catwoman navigates through Arkham City a little differently.  She can use her whip to swing, but that only takes her so far, and when she hits a wall she attaches to it with her claws.  You can then quickly leap up the wall to finish your ascent, gaining a bonus if you time the jumps just right, and then continue running or stop.  She can also use her claws to crawl along certain ceilings or railings upside down, providing her different stealth options that aren't available to Batman.

All in all she's a great character and addition to the game, and I've greatly enjoyed playing as her.  She even has her own Riddler Trophies to collect, 40 of the 440 I mentioned above are hers, and only she can collect these items, Batman is unable to get them.  Ironically however, Catwoman can collect Batman's Trophies, though they'll be properly added to Batman once you snag them.

The Challenge Maps featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum are back (though different maps of course), and have taken a Riddler spin this time out.  Called Riddler's Revenge, you unlock additional Challenge Maps or Challenge Campaign Maps by collecting specific Riddler Trophies.  You can play these Challenges as either Batman or Catwoman, whichever your preference, and the regular Maps function along the same lines as they did in the previous game.  The Challenge Campaigns are different and from what I understand are a collection of areas requiring both combat and specific tasks to complete, however I haven't tried them yet.  To be honest my core interest is with the Campaign and Story and I've only done a few Challenge Maps to refine my combat skills a bit.

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition also comes with the Robin Bundle and Nightwing Bundle.  These previous DLC add-ons allow players to play the Riddler's Revenge challenges as either Robin or Nightwing, who both have their own unique set of moves and gadgets, and each bundle includes a few extra maps as well.  I briefly tinkered with Robin and he's alright, and I haven't touched Nightwing yet, but in truth I'd rather play as Catwoman anyway.

Considering the game was first released in the Fall of 2011, the graphics are gorgeous for a console title of that time.  The characters, particularly the heroes and super villains, are well detailed and fluid in their animations.  The environments, both interior locations and Arkham City itself, are gorgeous, teaming with detail, moody colour, and atmosphere.

The game's voice acting is top notch, once again featuring the talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker.  This is actually Mark Hamill's final performance as the Joker ever, and he did not disappoint.  Chilling and full of character, Hamill is and always will be the Joker for me.  The game's sound effects are as tight as ever, and the musical score is fantastic, both gothic, epic, and inspiring.  In terms of the visual and audio, the game's production values are top notch.

Also bundled with Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is the final DLC released for the game, "Harley Quinn's Revenge."  Without ruining any major plot points from the core game, "Harley Quinn's Revenge" is set about two weeks after the main game, and Harley Quinn has once again taken up residence in the locked down city prison.  Batman has gone missing, and Robin embarks on a rescue quest.

"Harley Quinn's Revenge" isn't that long and its story isn't as strong as the core game, but it's still Batman: Arkham City and features the same core gameplay mechanics, save that this time you get to play as Robin for a lot of the story.  You get to use the Boy Wonder's own sets of gadgets and the like, and eventually you do get to play as Batman again who's fully upgraded.

Comprising the collectibles department of the DLC is fifty balloons from Harley Quinn scattered about, however thankfully that's it and there's no Riddler Trophies.  Sadly, Catwoman is not present in this add-on, and neither is Nightwing.

Finally, every single skin released for Batman, Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing are available in the "Game of the Year Edition."  The overall package is on two discs, the first being the core retail disc and the second containing all the DLC and extras, and this disc functions as an install disc only.  A download token for an animated film is also bundled in, however it's expired now and thus I didn't get to redeem it.

Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is an exceptional experience.  It takes pretty much everything that was amazing about Batman: Arkham Asylum and refines it further, adding in more of everything.  The combat, the gadgets, the additional playable characters, the open world and excellent narrative are all part of this amazing package.  The gliding mechanics and Riddler collectibles were a bit much, but once you're done with the whole 50 to 60 hour experience, really, they're a minor complaint as to what's otherwise a stunning game.

At the going rate of $19.99 brand new, you simply can't go wrong here.  Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition is a must play game and one of the best titles from 2011.  I am sorry that I missed out on it then and regret getting Gears of War 3 that much more, but at least I've been able to experience this amazing game now, and I'm greatly looking forward to my subsequent playthroughs.

Mortal Kombat "The Road to EVO"

I completely missed this a few months ago, but NetherRealm Studios has started a video series for Mortal Kombat called "The Road to EVO."

EVO is the premiere fighting game championship tournament, and Mortal Kombat is indeed present again at this year's event.

"The Road to EVO" video series features some of the worlds best Mortal Kombat players, and is certainly worth the watch.  The first two episodes are available here, here, or below:

I know the American players featured, but I'm actually not familiar with the UK players, so it'll be interesting to see them play.  EVO runs this year from July 12 to 14.