Saturday, June 23, 2012

Chatty, blocky LEGO action in 'Batman 2: DC Super Heroes'

(CNN) -- "Batman 2: DC Super Heroes" is a blocky-looking comic book come to life, with an open world for exploring, more new heroes and villains, and (for the first time ever) actual dialogue from LEGO characters.

Batman and Robin return from their adventures in the original title to take on major baddies with a little help from their friends. The story takes place in Gotham City, where the Joker and Lex Luthor decide the best way to rig a presidential election in Luthor's favor is to drug everyone with Joker gas.

The campaign takes players through several different set pieces, but also allows for free roaming throughout Gotham City in between the missions. Everything is built with LEGOs, which means nearly everything can be broken into blocks and bits, the currency of the LEGO world.

Break more things, get more bits, as well as access to more vehicles, heroes and villians.

The story is fun and brings in Superman as a playable character. The Man of Steel is (no surprise) really powerful and can fly, which makes some of the puzzles a little easier than they should be. Obviously, there is Kryptonite in the game and he gets weakened -- so much that he's almost a hindrance at times.

Batman and Robin can use special suits to grant them unique powers during the missions. Batman can be stealthy, powerful or electrified depending on his suit, while Robin gets aerobatic, cold powers or a hazmat suit with vacuuming powers.

Each scene has special items to be collected -- but you aren't going to get everything on the first playthrough. The set pieces are designed for players to come back with new characters and find areas that were previously unavailable to them.

The dialogue, which LEGO says is a first in its video-game franchise, is great, even if it is slightly exaggerated in its tone, even for comic-book characters. Batman is extra broody; Robin is extra peppy; Superman is extra nice. In previous games, LEGO characters grunted or emoted instead of speaking words.

Some of the voices may be recognizable to those who have watched cartoons. Clancy Brown provides the voice of Lex Luthor in the game, just as he's done for the "Justice League," "The Batman" and "Superman" cartoons. Tara Strong, Claudia Black, Nolan North and many other strong voices offer depth and meaning to the dialogue.

The speech only comes during "cut scenes" between the action. That's fine, because I have a feeling we'd be hearing a lot of the same battle cries during a fight, which would get old in a hurry.

Bruce Wayne's faithful butler, Alfred, also makes an appearance as the icon that gives you things, helps players figure out new powers or tips them off on what to do next. He's pretty persistent, so do what he says or he'll repeat himself often.

Toward the end of the campaign, members of the Justice League join Batman and Superman (and Robin) to put an end to the reign of terror in Gotham City. Wonder Woman, Flash (my favorite), Green Lantern and Cyborg all become playable characters, each with special powers.

At one point in the game, six different characters were on the screen. While players can switch to any character they see during gameplay, it got a bit crowded when a puzzle required a specific ability. For example, if I needed super strength to pull open a robot's chest, I had to track down Cyborg or Wonder Woman and stand next to them to switch. Not a deal-breaker, but it did create a little delay in the action.

But what to do once the campaign is finished? Sure, you could go back through and collect all the items you missed along the way. But you can also venture outside into the open spaces of Gotham City to see what there is to find.

There are locations in the open world marked by spotlights that direct players to special items, like connections to the Batcomputer or new heroes and villains. Those heroes and villains can be "bought" using bits. There are a whopping 50 DC Comics characters, and 10 other characters, available to be found and used.

Special items and adventures are available out here as well. If you are a completionist gamer who has to earn a perfect 100% for the game to be rewarding, you'll spend a lot of time running around Gotham City looking for items.

The one major criticism I have is how characters move in the open world. Players can use vehicles if they want, but if they choose to walk or fly, the LEGO character will automatically speed up and make it difficult to control. I understand why developers saw the need to make characters run (there is a lot of ground to cover), but I wish they would have made a button to run instead of making it automatic. Collecting bits in the open world requires a bit of touch, which is lost when the character breaks out into a full sprint.

Drop-in/drop-out co-op play makes it easy to share the fun with a friend. Just make sure they don't turn on you and start using their powers on you instead of the bad guys (It was a mistake, of course!).

Overall, the vocal quips and additional characters are enough to make "LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes" worth playing. The cuteness of the LEGO characters combined with the "seriousness" of the Joker and Lex Luthor make for quite a contrast.

Open-world exploring offers players the chance to fully utilize all the characters in the game. Superman is a bit overpowered during freeplay (can't be hurt, just flies everywhere) since there isn't Kryptonite just laying around, but it doesn't affect the game unless you want it to.

And of course, as with pretty much every super hero movie, there is a special teaser reveal at the end of the campaign mode. Bring on the next LEGO superhero game!

"LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes" is available now in North America and on June 22 in Europe and June 27 in Australia. It is available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita and PC. The game is rated E 10+ for everyone 10 years of age and older due to cartoon violence. This review was done with a provided copy for the Xbox 360.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Apparently This Matters: Paging Dr. Mario

Editor's note: Each week in "Apparently This Matters," CNN's Jarrett Bellini applies his warped sensibilities to trending topics in social media.

New York (CNN) -- This week I was sent on a three-day work trip to New York because, for some unfathomable reason, these people trust me outside the confines of my cube. Generally speaking, I don't mind being there. I like my cube. It has Tiki torches.

Nevertheless, they were sending me out on an assignment with real journalistic merit. (Mind you, this wasn't it. This will make you dumber.)

So, on the morning of my flight I poked around several sites to see what was trending in the Big Apple. Surely there was something locally interesting going on that people were talking about all over the Web -- something culturally relevant and noteworthy that could give us a deeper glimpse into the psyche and spirit of New York.

Conclusion: It seems they like a sports team known as the Yankees.

Fortunately, when the rest of the Web gives you Yankees, there's always Reddit. And after a simple search for "New York City," I found a newly uploaded photo that was becoming somewhat popular with users on that site. The image showed wall art from somewhere in the city depicting one of Nintendo's Mario Brothers throwing a vitamin and yelling, "GET YO' FIX."

Locally interesting? Not really. Culturally relevant? Doubtful. Noteworthy? Hardly. But it was popular on Reddit, and that's good enough for me. I have fairly low standards. Which is to say, I have none.

(Seriously. I like Olive Garden.)

Later I learned the art was actually the character Dr. Mario, who I believe was an alter ego of Super Mario -- the Italian plumber who got freaky with a princess in the Mushroom Kingdom. I wasn't immediately aware of this because my fascist parents wouldn't let me have a Nintendo as a kid. I admit it was a bit of a first-world problem, but to this day I'm still bitter to be the only one from my generation who doesn't know the secret "Thirty Lives" cheat code to "Contra."

Speaking of my parents ... this is the part of the column where my dad turns to my mom and asks, "What the hell is he talking about?" And then my mom says, "Some sort of video game thing." And then he says, "This is stupid."

And he's right. This is pretty stupid.

But finding Dr. Mario was a good excuse for an urban adventure in New York. And a short flight later I was there, walking through the terminal at LaGuardia, which is the city's way of immediately reminding visitors to use Purell. Often.

As soon as I checked into my hotel I quickly logged onto Reddit and found that some of the commenters had already discussed the art's location. This was helpful. Dr. Mario was in Chinatown at the corner of Walker Street and Cortlandt Alley.

Also on that corner? Nothing you ever need to see.

So, after a short ride downtown on the Q train and wandering about with the help of maps on my iPhone, I finally spotted the art off in the distance.

Iceberg! Right ahead! There it was. That thing I saw on the Internet!

Sadly, it was a feeling similar to poking your head through the sun gate at Machu Picchu and seeing the ancient ruins for the first time after four days of hiking the Inca Trail. Only, Machu Picchu is one of the most amazing wonders on the face of the planet. And this was Dr. Mario throwing a vitamin.

Anthropologists won't be knocking on my door.

But I guess it says something about the spirit of discovery and the possibilities that stem from random curiosities found online.

There's usually fun involved with a completely pointless adventure. Without Dr. Mario, I wouldn't have ventured off into this particular part of town. I wouldn't have enjoyed roasted pork and wonton soup at a little hole-in-the-wall called Wo Hop. And I wouldn't have met two really nice tourists from Charlotte on the subway.

Granted, I might have otherwise napped and built a small fort out of my hotel bed sheets. So, that was kind of a lost opportunity. But, still ... totally worth it.

The moral of the story is this: Somewhere in your city there's something completely unimportant and you should totally go see it.

Remember, though. The world is a strange, dirty place. So use Purell. Often.

Google fights to save 3,054 dying languages

(CNN) -- Will you be any worse off the moment humans cease to speak in Aragonese? How about Navajo, or Ojibwa? Or Koro, a language only just discovered in a tiny corner of northeast India?

No, you probably wouldn't, not in that moment. But humanity would be. Science, art and culture would be. If, as the phrase goes, another language equals another soul, then some 3,054 souls -- 50% of the world's total languages -- are set to die out by 2100. Kindle Espanol: Amazon launches Spanish-language ebook store

If there is hope, it lies in the world's centers of information -- such as Google. The search giant's philanthropic arm,, has launched the Endangered Language project, a website devoted to preserving those ancient tongues that are now only spoken by a few thousand of us. How technology is speeding up humanitarian response

The site, launched early Thursday, features videos and an interactive map. The curious can click on any one of the dots that hang over each country (including a suprising number in the U.S.), each representing a whole language.

You can hear the heartbreaking, beautiful sound of Koro being sung, or read 18th-century manuscripts written in a nearly-dead Native American tongue.

"Documenting the 3,000+ languages that are on the verge of extinction is an important step in preserving cultural diversity," write project managers Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman. 5 startups infusing social good with innovation

The idea is to unite a lot of smaller preservation efforts under the banner.

"By bridging independent efforts from around the world we hope to make an important advancement in confronting language endangerment," said Rodriguez and Rissman. "We hope you'll join us."

Check out the project's video on

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Instagram wants photos to be seen beyond '10-hour' window

London (CNN) -- Instagram is hoping to extract more value from photos uploaded in the past, co-founder Kevin Systrom said Tuesday.

Systrom, making one of his first public appearances since Facebook acquired his photo-sharing app in April for $1 billion, said he wants to expand the software to go beyond the "10-hour" time frame viewed by most users.

"We're still really hard at work on our product ideas," he told attendees at Le Web London -- an offshoot of Europe's biggest internet conference, usually held each December in Paris. "We're going to see Instagram evolve in really interesting ways, and I'm really excited about it."

With the Facebook deal still under financial scrutiny in the United States, Systrom gave few other details about what changes its 50 million users can expect.

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Systrom said Instagram's success lay in its ability to help people communicate visually and express themselves to a wider audience in new, creative ways. "If it's an honest, genuine photo, it will go far," he said.

But he admitted there was considerable room for improvement. He said the company plans to introduce "channels" to organize the flow of images and help users find the best ones.

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"I think we need to do a better job of creating these channels and silos that allow people to learn new things about the world," he said. "We have the content -- it's about exploring it."

To escape the sense that Instagram's feed is merely a snapshot of the past few hours, Systrom said his developers are working to find better ways to curate older content.

"We are trying really hard to take all the data that you've put into Instagram and let you see into the past," he said.

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Systrom appeared alongside celebrity chef and British TV personality Jamie Oliver, an avid Instagram user. Oliver, who has led healthy-eating campaigns in the United Kingdom and the United States, spoke about the democratizing power of the Web, but was more blunt in his assessment of what images attracted the widest circulation: "boobs, pretty girls and dogs."

Systrom offered his own inspiration to other startup companies looking to follow in his footsteps.

"Entrepreneurs need to focus on solving problems," he said. "If you try to solve big problems, there will always be funding."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Facebook to show you ads based on your Web browsing

(CNN) -- Facebook will soon be using your Web browsing to help decide which advertisements you see.

A new Facebook system will use your activity on other websites to send you what Facebook thinks are ads about your current interests. Advertisers will, in effect, be bidding to get their ads in front of you.

Here's an example: Say a Facebook user visits a travel website and clicks on a page about a vacation package to Las Vegas. If an advertiser has bid on that kind of search, that user could then see ads for discounted trips to Vegas the next time they visit Facebook.

"By bidding on a specific impression rather than a larger group, advertisers are able to show people more relevant ads while also running more efficient and effective campaigns," a Facebook spokeswoman said in a written statement.

The site announced the new system, called Facebook Exchange, to marketers last week. It's expected to begin rolling out in the next couple of weeks.

Real-time bidding is already widely used across the Internet. In a blog post, Mike Stiles of Atlanta-based social marketing company Vitrue compared the feature to Google's Ad Words, which pushes an advertiser's ad in front of users when they search for a keyword that advertiser has chosen.

"The underlying principle is that users want relevant ads, advertisers don't want to waste money on misguided ads, and Google wants both users and advertisers to be real happy so they'll come back again and again," he wrote.

Currently, Facebook ads are targeted based on users' profiles and the companies or other pages they "like." Stiles writes that model will still be available for advertisers, but the new one should be more specific.

Facebook noted that users will be able to opt out of Exchange by going to the site's About Ads page, by clicking on an "X" that appears on the ads themselves or by blocking cookies on their Web browser.

The company statement said Facebook won't share any user data with the advertisers and that no advertising controls that users currently have will go away.

Jim Anderson, Vitrue's chief operating officer, said the new system probably won't appear dramatically different to the typical Facebook user.

"It's not going to be discernible to most consumers," he said. "Most people won't notice any difference or, to the degree they can discern a difference, it will be 'Wow ... this is more relevant to me.'' "

And while the "real time" nature of the new system will enhance relevance, it won't be perfect, according to Anderson.

"It's possible you might not be served an ad until after you took that trip to Vegas," he said, referring to the previous example. "But without this kind of targeting, you might be served an ad for a trip to Miami, which you weren't considering anyway."

As Web giants like Facebook and Google get better at harvesting user activity, using Web searches for advertising is becoming increasingly popular. According to research firm International Data Corporation, more than $5 billion in online advertising is expected to go to real-time bidding ads in the United States in 2015. That's 27% of what's predicted to be spent, up from less than 10% last year.

Facebook, of course, is increasingly under pressure to demonstrate a sustainable advertising model since its stock went public last month. Anderson predicts the site will continue to diversify how its ads work in the coming months.

It's sometimes a tricky prospect. It was just revealed that Facebook settled a lawsuit last month by the state of California over its "Sponsored Stories" feature. According to reports, Facebook paid $10 million to charity after five users claimed the site broke California law when it used their posts in the feature without paying them.