Shacknews - Steve Watts

Sony has trademarked a service called "BigFest," sparking speculation that the company is working on another social network akin to PlayStation Home. The trademark references Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE), which developed the original PlayStation Home.

IGN reports that the trademark was filed almost a year ago, on February 6, 2012, but wasn't published until January 1 of this year. The trademark says it includes "hosting on-line web facilities for interactive game play" and "hosting web sites of others for video and computer games or parts of video and computer games created by others on a computer server for a global computer network." It also mentions "introducing video game players to each other for the purposes of playing multiplayer games online, participating in online games communities and competitions, and online player networking and social interaction."

Some of those features sound very much like PlayStation Home, and the name itself implies a giant PlayStation party. SCEE has also registered, which currently forwards to the PlayStation UK site.

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

Splinter Cell Blacklist lets you play as two Sam Fishers: the spy that enters a hotzone and leaves it untouched--or a gung-ho kill-em-all commando type. So, how does Blacklist adjust its story to accommodate these two very different play styles?

Apparently, it doesn't. "The narrative doesn't necessarily change based on what you do," Ubisoft producer Alexandre Parizeau told us, echoing earlier sentiments that morality shouldn't be tied into gameplay systems. "It doesn't have an impact on the narrative per se. But it has an impact on how you build Sam and the Paladin. How you play will impact where you get points, which impacts how you choose to upgrade and customize Sam."

But, does Blacklist take a stance on what's right and what's wrong? Dishonored, for example, gives players the ability to kill freely--but offers many repeated warnings on why the stealthier approach is the better one. Apparently, Blacklist won't take a stand on how you play. "We don't really have a moral stance," Parizeau explained. "We're allowing players to do what they want to do. It's all about player expression and player choice. We're not really judging if the player is making the right call or not."

Undoubtedly, Sam will have to do bad things for the greater good. But will it involve the same brutal torture tactics seen in Conviction? Parizeau wouldn't say, but he did note that: "You're beyond the law. Sam can kill people to stop these attacks that will eventually kill millions of people. You're in a situation where morality is hard to figure out. The narrative arc is built on this. Sam will walk that fine line throughout the game, and will struggle with it in the game."

For more on Blacklist, read our preview.

Shacknews - Alice O'Connor

Tera's free-to-play relaunch as Tera: Rising will come on February 5, publisher En Masse Entertainment confirmed this morning. The PC MMORPG will be free for everyone to download and play, supported by optional subscriptions and microtransactions for players who want to pay for extras.

People who've already bought Tera, or do so before the relaunch, will be granted Founder status, locking in their character slots and bank space at the old limits rather than the new, lower, microtransaction-bait numbers. Check out En Masse's FAQ for more on the various membership tiers.

Tera only launched in May 2012, making this yet another fast, high-profile F2P turnaround for the MMO world. The Secret World abolished subscription fees, but kept a box price, after only five months, while EA's boldly-going Star Wars: The Old Republic only lasted 11 months before going F2P. It all seems pretty clear: unless an MMO can offer something different, like EVE, or find monumental popularity, like WoW, they won't last long under a conventional subscription model nowadays. It's a very bold developer indeed who doesn't design with a F2P switch in mind from the start.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

At this point, no one should be surprised that a big-budget release like Dead Space 3 is going to get some downloadable content. Usually early bits of DLC include cosmetic items or extra weapons, so we expect DS3 to feature some microtransactions. But Visceral is apparently setting its sights on story content too, which will follow the game's release by only a few weeks.

"The team is hard at work on a top secret additional story that will be coming in a few weeks," executive producer Steve Papoutsis said in a dev blog. "We're not saying much, yet - but think 'disturbing' to get your imaginations going."

"Disturbing" goes hand-in-hand (or needle-in-eye) with Dead Space, and the game has always lent itself more towards moody, atmospheric stories. For those who want to look fashionable, the blog mentions that the game will also feature some more suits to buy on day one, similar to Dead Space 2.

Finally, Papoutsis announced four game modes that unlock once you've completed the game. New Game+ is back, obviously, but there are three others. Classic imitates the first game, making it a single-player only experience and eliminating the crafting. Pure Survival Mode makes the enemies only drop resources, forcing you to carefully consider what to craft. And Hardcore Mode limits you to one life for the entire game.

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

When Splinter Cell Blacklist launches later this year, Sam Fisher will be 55 years old. He will be eight years older than when we first met him in the very first Splinter Cell--yet many will argue that he's far more spry and agile than ever before. As RowjinZee points out, Fisher is our medium's Benjamin Button.

Ubisoft producer Alexandre Parizeau says that Sam Fisher isn't getting younger, saying gamers might expect him to be much older than he actually is. "You have to keep in mind that this happens six months after Conviction. Even if it's been a few years for us, so maybe we expect him to age older," he said.

I said that having a more agile Sam gives him, at the very least, the appearance of being more youthful. However, Parizeau said that "a lot of the stuff you do in Blacklist, you could do in Chaos Theory, but the controls were not as fluid or as easy to access. If you were really good at the controls, you can do a lot of the stuff you could do now. But we streamlined the controls, and made it a bit more fluid."

Oddly, in spite of replacing Michael Ironside as Sam's actor, the team decided against doing a full reboot of the franchise. In fact, Blacklist continues to make references to earlier games, including the kidnapping of Sam's daughter. "If you're a fan, you'll see some stuff that goes back to previous games," Parizeau teased. However, while Blacklist may not be a fresh beginning for the series, it will feel that way for many. "We made sure that with the story, we have a fresh beginning for the team and for Sam... A lot of characters in the game are new, either to Echelon or to Splinter Cell... For the story, we made sure that you don't need to have all that knowledge to appreciate what's going on."

For more on Splinter Cell Blacklist, read our preview.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

The open-world shooter (and TV marketing tie-in) Defiance has set a release date of April 2, to pave the way for the SyFy show debut on April 15. It will launch globally on that date for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, but if you want to give it a go-round early, you can try to get in on the next beta test.

The "Advanced Mission Beta" will start on February 8 at 8 AM PST and last until February 10 at 9 PM PST. You'll be fighting in a a future version of San Francisco, which we can only assume means super high-tech food trucks. This will be the second short beta for the game, after one that ran earlier this month.

You can sign up for a shot at the beta test at the official site. Trion has also created a virtual scavenger hunt that lets you scout for six-digit codes in various game assets and redeem them in for in-game rewards.

"In terms of ambition and scope, Defiance's transmedia features make it unlike any other entertainment experience," said executive producer Nathan Richardsson, in the announcement. "After five years of development, it brings great pride to the Trion and Syfy teams seeing Defiance come to fruition."

Shacknews - Jeff Mattas

Back in 2009, in a small cafe in Culver City--peripheral to that year's IndieCade festival--a friendly, deep-voiced indie developer named Borut Pfeifer gave me my first taste of Skulls of the Shogun, a vibrant and colorful turn-based strategy in which rival teams of undead samurai would beat the tar out of each other. It was a very early build running on a laptop, but was more than enough to get the neglected turn-based strategy gamer in me to sit up and take notice.

As I sat down last week to begin playing through the game for this review, I really hoped that developer 17-Bit Studios--formerly Haunted Temple Studios--could live up to the growing expectations they'd built up over several years of development.

Skulls of the Shogun's main campaign puts players in the boots of a powerful samurai, General Akamoto. After being betrayed on the battlefield, the (now skeletal) player must battle his way through the underworld on a quest for vengeance, and ultimately, the title of Shogun of the Dead.

Skulls of the Shogun uses its colorful, Japanese art style with traditional flourishes. The game's writing is silly, irreverent, and peppered with modern vernacular, but it all works together really well. I didn't really expect the developers to use an admittedly dark premise to such great comedic effect. I almost never laugh or chuckle when playing strategy games, but Skulls of the Shogun's dialog--which bookends each mission and is sprinkled throughout--somehow manages to be referential and snarky without being obnoxious.

To make a quick comparison: The excellent XCOM reboot made classic TBS systems more elegant, whereas Skulls of the Shogun fundamentally changes how it feels to play such a game. Though foes still take turns moving troops and executing orders, Skulls of the Shogun make the proceedings play out with the quicker pace of an action title. Gone is the hex-based grid prevalent in most TBS games, replaced instead by a radius of movement for each unit. The tactile feel of moving units around the battlefield is much more fluid, as a result, making the game feel less stilted and Chess-like. Commanding units is a quick and easy process, and once you're comfortable with the different unit types, turns can go by incredibly fast. For a genre that often receives complaints of being "too slow," Skulls of the Shogun is the answer. Deep thinkers need not worry either. There are also plenty of options to accommodate traditional, slower-paced, and more thoughtful play-styles.

The single-player campaign is long enough to satisfy, and it's made even better by some clever and entertaining AI that won't necessarily implement the same strategies, even when the same map is replayed. It basically means that, as a player, you'll never really be able to go on autopilot when it comes to your on-the-ground commands.

Resource management in Skulls of the Shogun is also handled in a very clever and innovative way. Each map contains rice paddies, and "haunting" them with one of your units claims the currency you'll need to summon more units from various types of shrines. Some shrines produce the standard archer, infantry, and cavalry units, but others allow the recruitment of special monks. One type of monk can do things like heal wounded units, while another has powerful offensive spells. Yet another monk type can summon a gust of wind to blow friendly units to safety, or enemies off cliffs. Powerful and unique units such as these could really turn the tide of battle.

You'll typically start with a handful of units, whose ranks you'll need to supplement in order to take out the enemy forces. During the campaign, victory conditions can vary from mission to mission, which also goes a long way to keeping the gameplay feeling fresh.

Most often, you'll be tasked with slaying a rival general, but some levels will simply ask you to progress from A to B, or eliminate all the enemy troops. A particularly fun twist in one of the missions involved an avalanche that would traverse a central pathway every round, damaging all the units still in its path. Part of the joy of playing the campaign was wondering what surprise would come next. New gameplay twists and units are introduced throughout most of the campaign. Besides keeping things new and exciting, the progression serves as a great primer for multiplayer.

Multiplayer consists of online matches and couch-based grudge matches, in addition to cross-platform, asynchronous options. In short, players on Xbox Live can play against folks on Window 8 PCs or mobile devices. Though I haven't personally played the final release on anything other than XBLA, I did get to see how the game worked on a Windows 8 tablet, during an earlier demo. As one would hope, the controls work really well on both an Xbox 360 controller and a touch-screen. It's a really elegant cross-play effort that loops in PC, mobile, and Xbox, hampered only by the fact that Windows 8 isn't exactly ubiquitous. Regardless of how much time you have, Skulls of the Shogun can serve you up an appropriate multiplayer match. I fully expect that Skulls of the Shogun's multiplayer is something that I'll keep in my gaming rotation for quite some time.

Skulls of the Shogun is a deceptively brilliant strategy game that basically streamlines things to a degree that it often feels like one is playing an action game, rather than one of turn-based strategy. Witty writing and engaging art serve as the presentational support for some really solid gameplay systems that interlock to create a comparatively fast-paced experience that rewards smart, tactical player decisions. The multiplayer might be the star of the show for many, but it would be a mistake to avoid the game's immensely entertaining single-player campaign.

This Skulls of the Shogun review is based on a copy of the final release on Xbox Live Arcade, provided by the publisher.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

Despite a ten-year history in the states and more than double that time in Japan, Fire Emblem has been one of Nintendo's under-the-radar franchises. It's enjoyed its releases and Smash Bros cameos with a quiet but devoted base of support. Fire Emblem: Awakening is coming relatively early in the 3DS lifespan, before many of the company's heavy-hitter franchises make their debut. This is well-timed, as it allows Fire Emblem to step out of the shadow cast by other franchises and prove itself. To that end, Awakening is a near-perfect encapsulation of the series' unique charms.

In the most vital ways, Awakening is very similar to its predecessors: an anime-inspired, sometimes brutally difficult turn-based strategy game. Those attracted to the punishing nature of last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown should find this game perfectly comfortable, as much of the same deliberate thinking defines a play session. Your characters can die, at least in Classic mode, and that makes every move matter.

But unlike XCOM, Fire Emblem leans heavily on its cast of colorful characters. Your troops aren't faceless, replaceable grunts, but individuals with their own stories that are integrated into the lengthy campaign. A mismanaged turn could result in the loss of a character that you've gotten to know over the course of hours. I genuinely liked each of my regular team and didn't want to see them harmed. These connections made each loss meaningful, and created greater tension as I struggled to avoid death.

Optional story sequences are rewarded with gameplay bonuses, and characters that have spent some time interacting in the Barracks fight better alongside each other. By the end of the game, a few pairs of my best soldiers were nearly unstoppable if they were standing side-by-side. But aside from the gameplay benefit, these dialogue sequences made me familiar with the characters, and all the more devoted to protecting them.

The game features a large band of heroes, in part to substitute for any you lose, but you could also turn on the Casual option if the prospect of dying troops causes too much stress. That will simply keep dead units out temporarily, ready to fight again for the next battle. This is a series first, at least for a North American release, and is one of the refinements built to make the experience more welcoming. Simple access to a threat assessment view and a multitude of options for the game speed and battle animations help streamline the experience. The game eases you into its multitude of interlocking battle dynamics and equipment managing systems, and I never felt overwhelmed.

Your own place in the tale is partly determined by creating your avatar and determining your relationships. Even though the story boasts a superb localization with its own good-natured sense of humor, it takes an unfortunate and sustained foray into concepts more sci-fi than fantasy. It's the most infuriating kind of sci-fi, in fact: the kind that is never adequately explained. But the characters dealing with these issues are so wholly likable, so differentiated and fun to be around that its easy to enjoy their journeys and forget that the math doesn't always add up. Plus, it doesn't hurt that important moments in the story are punctuated by lush 3D animated sequences.

These parts -- the story, characters, and systems -- may seem disparate, but they coalesce beautifully. Caring about the characters made me invested in their safety, which in turn impacted how I approached missions, which made plot beats carry a more satisfying pay-off. The experience on the whole is an expertly-tuned piece of gaming machinery, each part turning the gears of another like clockwork. It's one of the most addictive games on the 3DS, and a treat for any who appreciate deep, lengthy video game experiences.

This Fire Emblem: Awakening review was based on a digital version of the game provided by the publisher.

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

Splinter Cell Conviction proved to be quite divisive, introducing faster, more action-packed gameplay into the long-running stealth franchise. While critics and newcomers largely enjoyed the redefined Sam Fisher, many longtime fans lamented the franchise's new direction.

Three years later, the newly-formed Ubisoft Toronto is taking the reins with Splinter Cell Blacklist. Although this sequel comes from a brand new team, it plays close to the formula established by Conviction. As before, you'll be able to run, mark, and execute your way through the game--but Blacklist also attempts to return to the series' roots.

Blacklist has been designed around three different play styles. Conviction established what the team calls the "Panther" style, where players strike from the shadows. This is a lethal playthrough, one where they use stealth to take out enemies silently, in the quickest way possible. If Batman were bloodthirsty, this is probably how he'd play.

Conviction players will find themselves jumping into Blacklist quickly. It won't be long before you're doing corner take-downs, and mark-and-executing targets. However, the combat has been upgraded to be more fluid. Sam can now perform take-downs while moving, like after sliding down a zipline on top of an enemy. You can also mark and execute while moving. At the end of each level, you'll be graded on your performance, and awarded points based on how much of a "Panther" you are.

However, the game is also grading you on two other play styles as well. You can earn "Assault" points if you take enemies head-on and simply run-and-gun your way through the level. While I personally don't see that as a very fun way of playing, the option is certainly there. And, with the refined aiming controls, it becomes far easier to play that way, should you wish. The "correct" way of playing, as many longtime fans would argue, is to become a "Ghost," by remaining undetected and waiting for the best opportunity to move through the shadows.

I saw many opportunities to vary my play style through the two levels Ubisoft previewed. For example, as I was climbing up a building, I could deal with a sniper in two ways: grab him and throw him off the ledge, or sneak around him and avoid his line of sight for the rest of the level. In another section, I saw a key target getting interrogated. I could simply kill the captors, but I chose to throw a smoke grenade in the room and silently (and non-lethally) take the two guards out. In an escort segment, I could mark and execute the assassins getting in my way, or navigate a path to the exit without confrontation.

At the end of each level, you'll earn rewards based on your play style. The in-game money you earn can then be used to customize Sam to best suit your needs. You'll be able to save multiple loadouts for Sam, so you can choose before each mission how silent you want to be. For example, Ghost players will probably want to upgrade the Paladin to unlock better radars. With enough credits, you'll be able to see not only where enemies are, but what direction they're facing. Assault players will probably want to upgrade their weapons; Panthers will probably want to upgrade their gadgets.

Not only does the in-game economy enable players to customize their Splinter Cell experience, it also encourages replayability. Perhaps you want to try a no-kill run, now that you've purchased better equipment. Or maybe you'll want to challenge yourself to a harder difficulty, but with better gear. Each mission can be replayed at any given time through the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI)--a map of the world that looks similar to what you'd see in a military CIC. Here, you'll see not only any active single-player missions, but also various online missions as well. If your friend is playing a co-op mission and there's room on the server, you'll be able to enter that game as if it's another single-player mission. Should it work as Ubisoft envisions, it will certainly be an elegant way of combining single and multiplayer gameplay experiences.

While Blacklist largely continues the blueprint established by Conviction, I do appreciate Ubisoft Toronto's attempt to sate every type of player. Sam may be far more agile and lethal than ever before, but who will notice if you stay hidden in the shadows?

Splinter Cell Blacklist will be available on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 on August 20.

Shacknews - Alice O'Connor

When Nvidia announced its big goofy Android handheld Project Shield earlier in the month, it also quietly revealed Arma Tactics as one of its games. Developer Bohemia Interactive today formally announced that mobile game as a "turn-based close-combat strategy" affair, mentioning the XCOM and Jagged Alliance series as influences. It'll be available for other Nvidia Tegra-powered devices, mind, and may hit other platforms later too.

Arma Tactics gives you control of a four-man squad, on a turn-based mission to shoot other men in the face. As well as a proper story-driven single-player campaign, it'll boast procedurally generated missions with randomised objectives. Your characters can level up across mission, and you get to unlock and upgrade weapons too.

"Whether using stealth or a more direct approach, players will need to use their strategic thinking and use both basic and advanced weaponry while facing many different opponents - ranging from unorganized local militia to smart and skilled mercenaries," Bohemia says.

Arma Tactics will debut for Nvidia Tegra devices between April and June this year. It'll support multiple screens on Project Shield, letting spectators see the game from other angles on a television or what have you. Bohemia says it may potentially come to platforms including PC, Mac, Linux and iOS from Q3 2013 onwards. Hit the official site for more information.