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Tooth And Tail Review

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 09:23

Tooth and Tail is a bizarre cocktail of a dozen great ideas. It's a minimalist RTS that tosses out complex tech trees in favor of action-packed but accessible play. It's set vaguely in Eastern Europe in the 1910s, with both the Russian Revolution and World War I in full swing. Playing up the grim tumult of the era, Tooth and Tail also casts itself with all manner of cute--though ragged and crestfallen--critters. With so many disparate items, it's a wonder that Tooth and Tail manages to work at all, but it excels with but a few minor blemishes.

Superficially, Tooth and Tail looks the part of a standard RTS, but familiarity with genre staples isn’t required. Yes, you still have resources and units, and a "base," of sorts, but the similarities end there. Instead of using a cursor to drag and select groups of units, for example, you play a sole critter twirling your team's battle standard. Tooth and Tail simplifies a notoriously complex genre into a few fundamental, direct rules.

You need a gristmill to build farms. Farms are used to grow food. Food is spent on units, making more farms, and claiming more mills to make more farms. Before each match, you pick up to six units you want to be able to use from a pool of 20. You can only build near a gristmill. Finally, you marshal units to destroy your enemies' mills.

That simplicity is marvelous. Tooth and Tail distills strategy games to its essentials--building out armies, growing stronger, and the dynamic, puzzle-like nature of play--and gets rid of nearly everything else. That means ludicrous actions per minute no longer matter.Randomly-generated maps keep others from gaining an unfair advantage with terrain knowledge. The playing field is almost always as level as it can be, leaving commanders to compete on raw strategic/tactical prowess.

Instead of building out specialized scout units and sending them to collect telemetry on the map, your commander does it on their own. The cost, of course, is that if you're scouting, you can't build because you wouldn't be near the mill. You can't attack on your own, either. This keeps you from rushing or spawning tons of machine-gun-toting squirrels near your foes' farms and claiming victory. You can, however, burrow back at any time to queue up more soldiers before heading out again. This guides a core pace to the game--rush out and study before retreating to build. It's a simple pattern that's welcoming to new players.

Strategy veterans may balk and think that this takes streamlining a step too far. After all, without unit upgrades and heavy micromanagement, it would seem that there's not much else you can do, leaving skilled folks idle and bored. That issue doesn't come up much in play, though. Because maps are random, and you never know which six units other players will bring, most start off with similar levels of knowledge. Advanced players will, of course, have a deeper understanding of which units can cover for what weaknesses, but they won't be able to use that to counter pick either the roster or the map. Instead, their play becomes much more reactive. They have to scout like anyone else, and they have to adapt to whichever assortment of woodland animals hit the map.

All this does not make expertise meaningless. When the only thing under your control are which parts of the map you can see, what you're building, and whether or not you're advancing or retreating, each of those choices carries much more weight. Food also isn't unlimited, and unless you were nabbing territory in the early game, you'll run dry (and starve) in short order. This keeps the pace brisk, and, when combined with the limitations inherent in controlling one commander vs. having a nigh-omniscient view of the map means that the action almost always hits at the edge of what feels manageable. Tooth and Tail supports up to four players, and when everyone's in, things get chaotic. With all four of you fielding armies of tiny, skittering squirrels and badgers or hawks and owls, things get messy fast. And, this is where Tooth and Tail begins to shine.

Short, mediocre campaign aside, there's little here to muck with the essential beauty of this streamlined RTS.

As mentioned, at any point there could be 20 different units on the field. Unlike your StarCrafts or your Sins of a Solar Empires, though, your arrangement of units are unique each round. You pick your commander--who will hail from one of four factions--and then you select your roster. Neither option has any impact on the other, but which critters you pick will have a huge impact on strategy.

Unit types range from defensive artillery to flamethrowers and run the gamut of classic military roles. Medics, transports, gun nests, heavies, engineers, etc. get their due. But big decisions hinge on being able to read the lay of a battle in an instant. You only have a couple of buttons with which to command your troops. One order will have them pressing forward, another will pull them back. The ability to understand, at a glance, which armies have what units and who has the advantage is essential. Lacking the simple visual cues of a uniting theme or aesthetic as in other strategy games, Tooth and Tail has to make each of these figures clear and recognizable in the heat of battle. And, thanks to stellar art and crisp animations, that's never an issue. Each unit has its own heft--or lack thereof--and they're all recognizable by silhouette with the possible exception of a handful of the smaller scrappers. All you need do, then, is worry about a small band of critical choices.

Because of that purity, playing with a controller feels as tight if not better than a standard mouse and keyboard. The analogue stick is a touch more responsive than otherwise limiting WASD keys. This also makes it one of the few games to nail real-time strategy on the console. And, like with Pikmin, the relative straightforward approach to tactical challenges doesn't come with any costs.

Tooth and Tail picks the right premise, with the right pacing, and the right amount of streamlining to keep every second of a match feeling heated. Games run their course in 10 minutes or less, and that brevity feels revolutionary. Matches in most other RTS games run half-an-hour or longer, limiting who can pick up and play a round here and there. That doesn't need to be, though. Tooth and Tail shows that you can have a zippy, engaging strategy game that's satisfying, nuanced, and accessible.

My only real complaint is that, while the game is deep, you'll want to play with friends. A single-player campaign gives you a basic introduction to the world through a tongue-in-cheek presentation of different political factions. There's a civil war on, and the throngs of fluffy animals are all fighting to be the one who doesn't get chomped by the rest. Each loosely aligns to a real-world political philosophy, but they are all pushed so far into the realm of the ridiculous that none of them come as either mean-spirited or pointed critiques of anything tangible. These characters are fodder for the game's morose sense of humor, and it works. It is not, however, as groundbreaking as the bulk of play, and it doesn't amount to much beyond progressive, contextualized challenges.

Campaign maps are procedural, which keeps things from getting stale but, given the more specific mission objectives for the campaign, it also isn't as balanced as its free-for-all multiplayer counterpart. You will, at some point, end up with a map that feels stacked against you. And, luck of the draw though it may have been, it still frustrates. Then again, all you need do is wait out the 5-8 minute match and you'll get a new map to try again.

Short, mediocre campaign aside, there's little here to muck with the essential beauty of this streamlined RTS. Nothing else in recent memory offers quite the same white-knuckle thrills. Scouting and modifying your unit composition with up-to-the-minute info on enemy forces, rallying them into battle, continuing to grab up new farmland to fuel your fluffy hordes, and switching between them every fifteen seconds is divine.

Rotating through the band of 20 fighters will offer plenty of depth on its own, too. There's plenty of room to fake out foes by overbuilding one type and feinting a foe into countering that so you can sweep them with your own reserves. If you don't have quite the squads you need to deal with enemies in the best way, you'll have to adapt -- and strong variety will give you the tools to come up with unique combinations and tactics on the fly.

When all of that comes together in a tight, four-player battle royale, it is a thing of beauty.

FIFA 18 Review

Fri, 09/22/2017 - 01:38

In the Age of the Internet, where we demand everything faster and our attention spans shrink to that of a goldfish, it's interesting that both PES and FIFA are slowing down. It's a trend aimed at making soccer games more realistic, but upto and including FIFA 17, it had caused EA's series to suffer, with every title since FIFA 15 feeling less responsive than its predecessor. Finally, with FIFA 18, the franchise has managed to arrest its decline, and while the series' latest entry still feels slow, it at least feels a little more responsive, and less frustrating as a result. Combined with outstanding presentation and more ways to play than ever, FIFA 18's on-pitch improvements represent the beginnings of a recovery for the series.

FIFA 17's problem, I realized after far too many sleepless nights, was that it slowed players' turning speeds to Titanic levels but left much of the rest of the game at a higher velocity. That meant you could sprint pretty quickly, but would take an age to accelerate or change direction. This is still a problem in FIFA 18, where players' continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there's a split-second of input lag--but their slower sprinting does mean the game's speed as a whole feels more consistent.

This results in a more thoughtful game that's less concerned with beating defenders using trickery or pace and more about--as your youth coach probably told you every week--letting the ball do the work. AI teammates now make more frequent and intelligent runs to give you greater options when you're on the ball, and players' first touches keep the ball closer to their body, finally making driven passes a viable option in the attacking third. Unfortunately, however, non-driven passes remain as limp as before: long passes and chipped through balls still slowly float towards their target before inevitably getting cut out, and ground passes are similarly weak, rarely possessing enough zip to carve a defense open.

Many attacks end in your wingers or full backs crossing the ball into the area or an attacking midfielder having a pop from the edge of the box. It's a good job, then, that these are the areas that have seen most improvement. Shots carry a little more weight than before and are responsible for the game's most satisfying moments--seeing a volley fly into the top corner is a great feeling, and it happens far more frequently in FIFA 18 than last year. Crosses, meanwhile, have been reworked, dropping the old low cross in favor of a new three height system: holding R1 / RB while crossing produces a driven, ground cross; L1 / LB creates a floaty ball similar to FIFA 17's efforts; and just the standard X / Square input whips the ball behind the defenders with pace. Crucially, unlike last year, it is now actually possible to score by crossing it into a target man or poacher, and doing so feels better than it has in any FIFA to date.

Players' continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there's a split-second of input lag

That doesn't translate to set pieces, however, which are still useless--even if penalties are slightly less complicated than FIFA 17's approach, which felt like trying to solve a Rubik's cube with your hands tied. They're still unnecessarily obtuse, requiring you to be mindful of shot power, direction, and height, as well as your run-up, all at the same time, but at least you now have time to think about your approach, rather than the run-up being mapped to the same stick as shot direction.

Elsewhere, EA has finally got the balance of individuals' pace just right--slow players feel slow and fast players feel fast, and utilizing the latter no longer feels over- or under-powered. However, despite the numerous small-but-important enhancements, there a number of lingering flaws holding FIFA back. Different players still don't feel unique enough: other than Ronaldo and a handful more of the world's elite, every footballer in the game feels roughly the same, the vast majority of them displaying the same animations and only feeling different in their heights and speed stats. This year's gimmick, quick subs--which allow you to press R2 / RT during stoppages in play to substitute a player without having to pause the game--are a nice touch that is limited by the fact you can only apply it to three pre-planned changes organized before the match or go with the game's suggestion. That suggestion is rarely a good fit for the situation at hand, and mapping it to the same button as sprint meant I was constantly activating it by mistake.

If FIFA 18's on-the-pitch showing is inconsistent, its presentation--the area in which the series has progressed most over the past few seasons--continues to set the standard for sports games as a whole. While it may sound like a boring, granular change, the prettier and more versatile lighting really helps make each match feel unique. It's aided by more realistic and enthusiastic crowd reactions, and different kinds of atmosphere depending on where in the world you're playing. Spanish matches are scored with the distant beat of drums and constant, partisan noise, whereas English crowds are more likely to taunt the away team over their lack of support. Club-specific chants are common for the bigger sides, though Liverpool fans may tire after Anfield's 200th rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.

In addition there's official league-specific branding and graphics, lineups being read out by stadium announcers (even in the lower leagues with less well-known players), and largely excellent commentators discussing real-life transfers and results. Together they make a game that replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport--the media, the fan adoration and anguish, and the obsession with following your team--more immaculately than ever.

FIFA 18 replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport more immaculately than ever

As FIFA continues to almost become a sports channel in itself, it also expands its repertoire of game modes every year. This year sees the narrative-driven Journey mode return for a second season, with Alex Hunter now a world-famous prodigy. The Journey sees few improvements over Season 1 beyond some greater customisation options (you can now change Hunter’s apparel and hairstyle, among other minor tweaks), and its cast produces the same mixed performances as last year. It remains a unique mode, but think of FIFA 18's Journey more similar to the second run of a middling TV show than anything else: it's the same, just more of it.

Elsewhere, Pro Clubs remains largely untouched--save for a Journey-style skill tree in which you need to acquire certain traits before others are unlocked--and Ultimate Team's winning formula has also been left mostly alone. The few new additions include Squad Battles, where you play a number of matches against other Ultimate Team clubs controlled by AI, before being ranked against other real-world players for the amount of wins you manage. They're a perfect alternative to the online FUT Champions for those who don't want to brave the wastelands of online multiplayer, or for those who don't have the time to commit to the latter's grueling schedule of qualification rounds and weekend tournaments. Meanwhile Daily Objectives, in which you're rewarded with coins or packs for, say, winning by over two goals or for scoring with a Serie A player (among other challenges) offer welcome new bonuses, particularly for Seasons players who have traditionally been subject to meagre rewards.

Finally, The Journey's influence has spread beyond Pro Clubs and into Career Mode, whose transfer negotiations have been overhauled--aesthetically at least. Instead of submitting your offer as an email, transfer talks are now conducted in real-time through interactive cutscenes. It's a largely superficial change since the only actual new feature is the ability to add release clauses and sell-on percentages to signings' contracts--the rest of the process is exactly the same, except with a human face rather than an inbox in front of you--but it's at least more exciting than seeing the same offer letter template written down for the hundredth time. Otherwise Career Mode is the same as ever, with the player conversation system feeling most stale--the emails players send to you are identical to the ones they've been sending for years now, and there's still no way to reply. It would've been nice to be able to speak with your team in a similar vein to the transfer negotiation cutscenes, though maybe that's a feature for next year.

Career Mode, Pro Clubs, and Ultimate Team's new features are undoubtedly incremental, but that's largely because what was already there was excellent. They each offer an entirely different way to play, with Career Mode offering the chance to control your favorite team, Pro Clubs being a great way to play with friends, and FUT being by far the most addictive and fun--especially for those who collected football cards as a kid.

It's off the pitch that EA excels. From the variety of game modes on offer and how everything's presented, to the constant updates in FUT's Team of the Week, Daily Objectives, and discussion of real-world happenings in commentary, FIFA 18 captures the world of football and confidently translates it into a video game. On the pitch, however, EA's soccer series is still lagging far behind PES 2018's more fluid, satisfying football. This year's improvements are welcome, but more needs to be done in the coming years if FIFA is to be a world-beater once again.

NHL 18 Review

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:06

After stumbling on current gen consoles starting with NHL 15, the NHL series is starting to hit its stride, with a wide variety of improvements and additions to the core game in recent iterations. In NHL 18, most of these improvements are aimed at new or casual players, but hardcore hockey heads haven't been forgotten. From its generous list of modes ranging from full-season to the exciting NHL Threes, to how the action on the ice feels smooth and deliberate, NHL 18 is a fun yet accessible sports game.

When you're out on the ice, NHL 18 feels fantastic. There's a feeling of weight to the players crashing into each other, making each check feel satisfying. Passing and controlling the puck is smooth and fast, and when you outsmart the defense and score a goal, it's a genuine fist-pumping moment. The new dekes open up fresh possibilities of outsmarting your defenders. Passing the puck around the ice, screening the goalie, and then putting a wrister into the goal always feels purposeful and satisfying. There's no button mashing here unless you want it, in which case you can set the game to NHL '94's ultra-simplified 2-button controls.

The new modes like NHL Training Camp, NHL Threes, and Expansion Draft feature in Franchise mode bring new ways to play, but returning gamers will find the core NHL experience familiar. Gameplay is largely the same as it always has been. The commentary is basic, repetitive, and the delivery and excitement don't always match the on-screen action.The soundtrack, too, is limited. There are very few songs, so they repeat on the menu screens frequently. Songs like Kaleo's Hot Blood and The North Panic's Haven't You Heard? become annoying from repetition.

Of the new mode additions, NHL Threes feels the freshest, and controls exactly the same as the rest of the game while keeping an arcade feel, slacking on penalties and rules found in the simulation modes. I enjoyed slamming other players in situations where I'd normally be penalized, particularly the opposing team's goalie for stopping play.

Despite the familiarity returning players will feel with NHL 18, the number of possibilities are impressive and each serves as a hook to get into into another mode. If you just want to smash around the ice, foregoing things like off-sides and icing, NHL Threes is perfect. You can even earn team mascots as playable characters. If you're heavy into the simulation of a season, there's a full-season mode. Hockey Ultimate Team lets you build your own fantasy team using current and past players, and is complex and feature-rich enough to practically stand on its own.

But the beauty of all this variety, besides having something for everyone, is how one mode complements another. Playing NHL Threes is a great way to get a feel for the basics of the game--skating, shooting, and hitting--without worrying too much about the rules. It makes the on-ice time in something like season play that much more dynamically, because it allows you to get a better feel for the way NHL 18 moves and plays. The MyCareer mode lets you start off with your own custom player, and play your way from amateur to professional, building exactly the type of player you want to build. It gets your foot in the door for a full season mode, controlling each team, switching between players on the fly--which hones your hockey skills, helping you dominate NHL Threes. It's cyclical. Playing any single mode makes you better at any of the other modes. It's awesome.

While Madden and NBA 2K have both taken the single-player experience and turned them into compelling story modes, NHL 18 makes no such effort. You set up your player, play in the junior leagues, and move up from there. It's generic. Building on the MyCareer mode would have made a great addition for returning players, but instead it's just more of the same we've seen in every previous sports game for years.

But NHL 18 is welcoming in every possible way to new users. One of the most difficult things about sports games is learning the vocabulary of each title. In the past, jumping back into a series, or starting for the first time, seemed overwhelming. The NHL Training Camp is great for returning users to learn some of the new moves, and invaluable for helping rookies get a feel for the game.

Visually, NHL 18 doesn't reach the same heights as other sports sims on the market right now. The crowds especially fare poorly, looking more like Sims characters than actual humans. When the camera pans the crowd, the animation looks canned and often suffers from framerate stutters. Actual gameplay is fluid, but transitional animations are non-existent. It doesn't look natural in up-close replays when a character goes from skating, to scoring, to celebrating.

New players won't feel lost, as NHL goes out of its way to make sure you get up to speed with training, tutorials, and on-screen hints.

There's still a lot to love about NHL 18, even if the core on-ice experience has only seen minor tweaks. The new modes bring variety to the gameplay, with NHL Threes standing out as a fast-paced, fun way to play hockey. No matter what the mode, gameplay is fast, responsive, and rewarding. And those fresh to the franchise won't feel lost, as NHL goes out of its way to make sure you get up to speed with training, tutorials, and on-screen hints. New players are sure to feel welcome, but for any series veterans, NHL 18 still has some room to improve.

Echo Review

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 06:42

Somewhere, in the infinite void of space, is a planet with a race of transhumans that believes they can bring the dead back to life. A being named En has come here looking for a way to resurrect a loved one currently trapped in a red cube strapped to her back. What she will find is a seemingly endless labyrinth that puts her head to head with the most dangerous enemy: herself.

More accurately, the endless labyrinth of Ultra Ultra's Echo puts you head to head with yourself.

The labyrinth, as it turns out, is a decadent but sterile mansion, reminiscent of the alien hospice where Dave Bowman lives out the rest of his days in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The place is clean, but devoid of life. En eventually gets the lights back on, but activates something else in the process. What first manifests as ugly, malignant blobs on the floor eventually takes shape. Specifically, the shape of En. A labyrinth-wide blackout triggers every few minutes, knocking everyone out for a brief moment. When power and consciousness returns, the clones--called Echoes--reboot on their own. With each reboot, the Echoes become closer to a perfect copy of En, and even more determined to murder her.

Therein lies Echo's biggest, most captivating twist: the labyrinth itself monitors En--her every movement, her every action--recording the data, and feeding it back to the Echoes. When the power reboots, the Echoes will have learned new skills directly from your actions. Use your gun to kill the Echoes, and the next reboot, all of them are suddenly trigger-happy crack shots. Sneak up behind an Echo to take them out with stealth, the next reboot, they will skulk around silently, looking for the perfect opportunity to sneak up and choke En to death. By default, the clones are afraid of water, but if they see you get in, the next reboot, that fear is gone. Echo is an intricate game of cat and mouse where the mouse keeps sharpening the cat's claws.

Fortunately for you, Echo intelligence has limits. Every system blackout wipes the progress of the previous reboot, so it's possible, with patience, for the Echoes to unlearn skills if they weren't used during the previous period of full power. Prior to a full blackout, there's a short period where the lights go out, and the labyrinth is processing the new data, i.e. not recording. These are the moments where En can act with impunity, using all the tools at her disposal to permanently put down an Echo, and traverse the environment freely without any of her movements coming back to sabotage her later.

Even then, En has her own limits. Every action, even the ammo for her gun, is tied to an energy cell system that can be refilled using "Suns" scattered around the labyrinth. But Suns aren't so ubiquitous that one can just spray-n-pray bullets, then vault over a table to hide before a full blackout. A big part of the game's challenge is tied to resource management, plotting a course which will leave En to safety, but with the means to defend herself if necessary, while also taking into account what the Echoes can currently do (and will be able to do) once you've executed your plan. Echo is the child of a little over a half dozen ex-patriates from Io Interactive of Hitman fame, and that pedigree shows itself in the amount of foresight needed to be successful in every stage.

As a whole, the game falters, but only slightly. The core story of En trying to resurrect her loved one is handled with admirable restraint. En herself is voiced by Game of Thrones' Rose Leslie, a subtle performance that has her balancing excitement and determination with just enough doubt to make Happy Ever After for this fool's errand uncertain. That doubt is further instilled by her ship’s coldly cynical A.I., London (voiced by Nick Boulton, already having a great year coming off of playing Druth in Hellblade), whose constant questioning and dialogue with En drives the story, and fills in the backstory, albeit to questionable results. The biggest problem is En and London dropping reference after reference to the history, religion, and lore of En's homeworld, but never really stopping to catch you up. It's still mostly comprehensible, but it's surprisingly dense, and much of it is spent filling in backstory, but not really pushing things forward until the end of the game is in sight.

The biggest problem is the labyrinth itself. It's a fantastic, evocative environment unlike anything one might expect to see, but the aesthetic starts to wear thin in the later hours; the only break comes from the occasional transitional maintenance area that separates major milestones. Add in the fact that, with the exception of a late level opponent, both En and her enemies are all the same model, and there's a numbness that starts to sink in after playing the game for extended periods. One type of section, where En must collect dozens of purple orbs to open an elevator to the next area, stretch out far longer than necessary. These are often the sections compounded by the game's sporadic save points, which sometimes drop En a minute or two from the next door, but sometimes don't trigger until you've been running, jumping, shooting for twenty minutes in an area, and all it takes is one Echo's lucky shot to end her, and erase all that progress.

Figuring out how to and how not to teach the game's enemies what to do is a stupendously gratifying process.

Fortunately, though often tricky and uncompromising, Echo never feels impossible, or cruel. However, it does require constant thought and consideration. Figuring out how to and how not to teach the game's enemies what to do is a stupendously gratifying process, in that same magical way a game like Portal rewires the player's brain to think in a whole other dimension than just where to insert bullets. It could benefit from variety, but it's a stellar use of A.I. programming, regardless, one that we will likely--and ironically--see imitated but never duplicated in the future.

Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider Review

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 04:20

Tying up loose ends in a series focused on political intrigue and all things metaphysical can't be easy. In Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider--a stand-alone game capping off the events of Dishonored 2--it covers the exploits of various side-characters on a more personal quest, that doesn't overstay its welcome. Arkane Studios continues its tradition of coming up with an incredibly inventive and cunning game about elusive assassins making their mark on the world around them, while choosing where and when to make the tough choices.

Set several months after Dishonored 2, Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano have since left the isle of Karnaca, leaving Billie Lurk to return to her old ways to track down her former mentor Daud. Pulling from her skills working under the master assassin, they form a plan to confront The Outsider, a deity of the Void realm and instigator of events throughout the series. Billie Lurk will use her newfound powers to sneak, loot, and track down key targets to find a way to eliminate the demigod once and for all.

Much like the previous games, Death Of The Outsider makes effective use of large, open levels. With each city block holding a number of side-opportunities and events, there is plenty to learn and uncover during your excursions. Billie's story aims to round out the narrative presented in both Dishonored games, but the general flow is somewhat lacking. While starting strong, the story eventually runs out of steam, with its final missions falling a bit flat. With that said, there are many details packed in for Dishonored fans, revealing important notes that flesh out the events since the last game.

Billie's approach is a bit different compared to the exploits of Corvo, Emily, and Daud. With no mark bestowed from the Outsider, she is free from the Demigod's watchful gaze, and isn't judged by her overall actions throughout the story. This helps to set the tone for what players can expect in Death Of The Outsider. With the lack of the Chaos System from previous games, the moral ambiguity of the story matches the gameplay, allowing her to go about missions in different and inventive ways--often going for a more improvised style that blends lethal and non-lethal moves.

I tend to be more stealth focused when playing a stealth-action games, and dread the moments when having to mash the reload save key to avoid dealing with lost resources and the bloody mess I left behind. In this game, getting caught isn't as punishing, allowing you to recover from a messy job. With your overall performance graded after each mission--judging times detected, hostiles killed, and items found--you'll be able to focus more on being an effective assassin, without the added pressure of an overarching meta system keeping you in-check.

With gear including lethal and non-lethal darts and mines, grenades, and a stealthy sword--including powers that assist with traversal and the manipulation of your enemies--how you go about your mission is up to you. As an immersive sim, each character and object in the game space can be manipulated, opening up some rather interesting gameplay opportunities--like baiting enemies with thrown bottles to walk into traps, or some more creative options like using the Semblance power to mimic the appearance of others to get the jump on targets.

In a lot of ways, this stand-alone release's more relaxed style does more to compliment the series' immersive sim design compared to its predecessors.

Billie Lurk's overall repertoire of skills are much more lean compared to the other characters. Though Corvo and Emily had a sizable pool of powers, the Captain of the Dreadful Wale has just three, along with a side ability to Rat Whisper--where she can hear the thoughts of nearby rodents to learn clues and tidbits about the characters in the area. With no mark, Billie's powers work on recharging mana, a more than welcome addition that gets rid of mana potions. Despite the smaller pool of powers, she can still acquire and craft a set of Bone Charms to amplify her various skills and attributes.

Focusing on the key areas of traversal, recon, and subterfuge--her powers cover the gamut of what players will need throughout their missions. One power in particular named Foresight, allows Billie to project herself as a spectre to scout and mark targets. This skill is a standout, proving its usefulness time and again when locating Bone Charms and key items. However, the fact that there is only three powers can make the overall gameplay potential feel limited compared to previous games. While creative players can certainly make the best of it, it was disappointing to see that these were all you get. However, completing the game once will unlock the Original Game + mode, replacing Billie's original powers with Blink, Domino, and Dark Vision from Dishonored 2--bringing back a feeling of familiarity.

Dishonored's AI systems are as sharp as ever, and will require some planning to get through unscathed--but going in at full force isn't discouraged if that's your thing. With the more lax gameplay systems on display, there's much more incentive to experiment with the tools at your disposal. During one segment, I used Foresight to mark several targets before using a combination of electric mines and the Disperse teleport ability to plant traps during their patrol routes, disabling several guards within seconds as I slipped away with valuable loot.

Only taking about 7 hours to clear on the normal setting, there are several missions that beg for a revisit, such as the mission to infiltrate Karnaca's Bank--resulting in one of the series' most finely tuned levels. One feature brought in to add more variety are the new contracts found in the Black Market, where you can also buy items and upgrade your gear. Billie can take on a selection of side-jobs from the citizens in Karnaca, ranging from the bizarre, such as killing an annoying mime and making it look like an accident, to the more morbid--like getting revenge on a sadistic doctor who experiments on his patients.

Surprisingly, Death Of The Outsider channels much more of the spirit of classic stealth-action games like the original Thief. Giving room to experiment and prod aspects of the environment to see what works, without too many distractions from the story. Along with a custom game mode, allowing you to tune the game's AI, fail-states, and add in other odd and challenging options like Ironman Mode--Death of the Outsider gives you a number of ways to define the type of stealth-action game you want to play. In a lot of ways, this stand-alone release's more relaxed style does more to compliment the series' immersive sim design compared to its predecessors.

Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider is a solid, inventive, yet somewhat subdued capper to the stories from the previous Dishonored games. While the smaller scope can be felt throughout, the approach to allowing players to express themselves as a master assassin is just as strong as ever. It's uncertain where the series can go from here, but this stand-alone release proves that Dishonored is still a remarkably designed stealth-action game with much potential, that offers players the chance to be creative in ways they'd least expect.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite Review In Progress

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 01:00

Playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite reminded me of a scene from Star Trek I saw as a child. It involved Kirk and Spock playing an intense game of chess, but on seven boards of varying sizes, all floating over each other. It was still a game of kings, queens, knights, and pawns strategically moving between colored squares, but the multi-tiered playing field unraveled my understanding of its fundamentals. What was the purpose of the smaller boards hovering off to the sides? Do the rules of movement change? How do you even get a checkmate?

The latest iteration of Capcom's star-studded crossover fighting game is much like Star Trek's three-dimensional chess. It takes familiar gameplay systems and characters but presents them in an entirely new way, demanding players re-examine their understanding of it as a whole. Infinite represents the most significant change to the Marvel Vs. Capcom formula since its creation, and the result is a game that's not only fun and rewarding to play, but also remedies some of the biggest issues with its predecessor. However, like Star Trek's three-dimensional chess boards, it's all held together by a functional but crude frame.

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The biggest shakeup in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite comes with the addition of the Infinity Stones, which, in Marvel lore, correspond to a different facet of the universe: Space, Time, Mind, Reality, Soul, and Power. One stone can be taken into battle alongside two fighters, and each of them has a unique ability called "Infinity Surge" that can be used just like any other special move. These abilities open the door to a world of creative combos, setups, and strategies that the series has never had before.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 quickly became a game about finding the best teams and optimising their damage output, but this meant everyone largely played the same way. Infinite's Infinity Stones, however, encourage players to make characters their own, and they offer the tools to forge distinct playstyles. A Hulk player is now empowered to negate his slow movement speed by using the Time Stone's teleport function, an aggressive Dante can use the Soul Stone's health-sapping capabilities to mitigate damage from risky strategies, or a Thanos can cover his lumbering approach with the Reality Stone's homing fireball. Despite the attributes the stones bestow, each character still retains what makes them distinct among the cast. So although Hulk might have a teleport, trying to play him like Strider won't work.

The Infinity Stones also have a secondary ability called "Infinity Storm," which is charged by Surge usage. When unleashed, they unlock the full potential of the stone and give its user a big short-term advantage. In the Marvel Universe, the Stones grant immense power, and in the game each one bends a fundamental rule of fighting game design to the favor of its user. Power boosts damage, Mind refills the Hyper Combo meter, Soul revives a fallen ally, Time eliminates recovery on moves so they can be chained together, Space restricts movement, and Reality gives elemental properties to attacks. The Infinity Storm is what replaces Marvel Vs. Capcom 3's X-Factor, which, while an interesting mechanic on paper, often felt like an unfair two-button death sentence. Infinity Storm briefly changes the parameters of battle in favor of the user but still gives the other player the ability to fight on through smart play and strategy. It takes X-Factor's comeback potential, but makes it a possibility instead of a foregone conclusion, and in turn the inherent tension and drama of the moment feels more authentic.

The rabbit hole goes deeper when you factor in the tagging system, and it's here where the series' other big changes lie. Capcom has simplified tagging, but done so without sacrificing depth. At the press of a button, a teammate will sprint into the fray to take over, allowing players to extend combos for greater damage or to set up tricky situations that can potentially penetrate defenses. Teammates will always enter on the ground, which means low-effort health-melting chained air combos are a thing of the past. While it's not impossible to make combos go on for absurdly long, it's hard work since the character being tagged out is slow to leave. This places high-execution demands and strict timing requirements on players, who need to keep the combo going long enough to cover the tag cooldown. It might be frustrating to find yourself on the receiving end of one of these multi-tag combo strings, but you can be sure the player on the other side is putting in the work to make it happen.

Similarly, Infinite isn't as liberal with giving characters "Off The Ground" moves (OTG). In Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, these had very simple inputs and could pop a knocked-down enemy back into the air, leaving them defenseless against a continued barrage of attacks. Fewer characters have these moves now, and those who do have a limited window of opportunity to pull them off. Again, when you see one happen, you know it was well-executed.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite's story delivers ... [It's] exactly the kind of fun, action-driven romp you'd want from a crossover of these universes.

Between the new tag system and the diminished role of OTGs, Infinite feels like a much more grounded game than its predecessors. It moves at a slower pace than series veterans may be used to, but it also feels more honest. The fighting game community referred to Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 as a game about shenanigans; utilising the idiosyncrasies of mechanics and quirks of characters to create situations that often felt unfair. While it's too early to tell whether Infinite's systems are completely free of these, as it stands, the game's mechanics feel much more open-ended. It's less about using communal knowledge to pick the best characters, do the optimised combos, and employ the ideal strategies, and more about treating the game like a blank canvas and its mechanics as the brushes for painting your unique superhero squad.

Of course, there are those that won't think about playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite with such granularity, and Capcom has implemented a one-button auto-combo system to help the casual player pick up a controller and make cool stuff happen easily. The game's control scheme features two buttons for light attacks and two for heavy, but by repeatedly pressing just the light punch button you can execute a full combo, starting on the ground, launching into the air, and finishing by knocking the target back to the ground. It's a completely frictionless way to execute a full combo loop for those that just want to enjoy the spectacle of it all and have fun. To balance this, the damage these auto-combos do is considerably less than a manual combo, so a serious player shouldn't have any trouble against someone doing auto-combos. The system is a simple and intuitive way to get people started. There were some fears that concessions for the casual player could impact the depth of Infinite, but the limitations of auto-combos and the complexities of manual ones creates a gulf between the casual and hardcore. But those that want to make the journey across are given a path to follow.

Capcom has made digging deeper easy thanks to a suite of training mode options that'll be familiar to anyone who has played a recent fighting game. Infinite features a comprehensive mission mode that will walk players through the basics of movement, attacking, how the Infinity Stones work, and how they can be incorporated into play. On top of that, each character has 10 individual missions that start with basic special moves, but escalate into high-execution combos. At the later stages, these missions can be incredibly tricky, so even veterans are likely to learn a thing or two by completing them.

Capcom's last major fighting game, Street Fighter V, was criticised for its dearth of content at launch, but this criticism can't be levelled at Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite. In addition to the training modes, there's a Vs. mode that lets you go up against another player locally or a computer-controlled opponent. There's also an Arcade mode that pits players against a series of teams before ending with a final boss, and a suite of online modes including ranked and casual matches, a beginner's league, and a lobby system. GameSpot will be testing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite's online modes post-release and updating this review with our assessment of it.

The other big draw in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is its Story mode, which follows an all-star cast of characters as they travel across around the amalgamation of universes to collect the Infinity Stones and stop the villainous Ultron Sigma, who is attempting to remake all of existence in his own image. Capcom's story modes have always been severely lacking, especially next to NetherRealm's offerings in the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series, but Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite's story delivers. It's a narrative that keeps it simple to allow characterization to shine through, and it does. Spider-Man is a wise-cracking goof, Tony Stark always thinks he knows better, Dante is a charming rogue, Hulk smashes, and Cap motivates. There's a light, humorous quality to everything and, in its more absurd moments--like when Frank West, a normal human with a camera, is put up against Thanos, the mad Titan--the story takes the opportunity to poke fun at itself.

The battles that take place within the story are also engaging, often asking players to smash through Ultron Sigma's mechanical robots, which are low in health but great in number. Fights against named characters are much trickier and the game will often layer on an objective, time limit, or have an outside party running interference. A few of the battles even serve as little puzzles, requiring the player to figure out how best to use an Infinity Stone to achieve victory. The Story mode is exactly the kind of fun, action-driven romp you'd want from a crossover of these universes. And there are a few nods for fans of the characters thrown in for good measure.

It's unfortunate, then, that Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is really let down by its presentation. Much has been made of the visuals and, while it looks much better in motion than it does in still images, overall it's inconsistent and severely lacking in pizazz. While characters like Captain Marvel, Thanos, Jedah, and Gamora look vibrant and detailed, the likes of Dante, Frank West, Ryu, and Spencer aren't exactly easy on the eyes. The faces of human characters, specifically, are very rough, ranging from vacant-looking to downright ugly in poor old Frank's case. Infinite swaps out the last game's comic book style for something a little more realistic, which only serves to make the disparity between character models more pronounced. It's a shame because the different arenas fights take place in are a very cool mashup of Marvel and Capcom locales. Capcom has put thought into how it can bring the two universes together and been successful. A.I.M has been combined with Umbrella to form A.I.M Brella, Asgard with Abel City from Mega Man to make XGard, and Monster Hunter's Val Habar and Black Panther's Wakanda for Valkanda. The games various stages carry its all-star mashup ethos through nicely.

The menus in Infinite also leave a lot to be desired. They're a very workmanlike implementation of dreary-looking text on plain backgrounds, jarringly transitioning between each other, so moving around the game's user interface feels dull and lifeless. This might seem like nitpicking at something that, within the larger context of Infinite's experience, is insignificant, but as a fan, it was a letdown. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 felt like a celebration of the two universes; it's a game bursting with reverence for source material. Its start screen literally screams the name of the game at you like that kid opening a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning, it plays bouncing beats in the background, its character select is a comic book that you flip through, and everyone makes references to existing relationships or obscure storylines before battle. By comparison, Infinite is bereft of enthusiasm. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is that person at a convention wearing an elaborate Dormammu outfit complete with a flaming head. Infinite is that person wearing a plain t-shirt with the Marvel logo on it.

Nevertheless, the mechanics underlying Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite make it an outstanding fighting game. Capcom has understood what caused the stagnation of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3's competitive scene and, to some extent, the issues Street Fighter V currently faces. In response it has created a fighting game focused on individuality and expression, with deep systems that reward studious players but also accommodate casuals. As someone who both plays and watches fighting games, I am excited to see what the future holds for Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite.

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Don't Knock Twice Review

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 03:00

The elevator pitch for Don't Knock Twice could be applied to dozens of games. You are faced with a door leading to a house in unsettling, chilling neglect, and proceed to explore its spooky, dim-lit hallways to discover a hidden truth about its former inhabitants. However, where the fine details clearly delineate, say, Gone Home from Resident Evil 7, the details of Don't Knock Twice are almost non-existent.

Surprisingly, Don't Knock Twice is based on a movie, a low-budget 2016 British horror flick starring Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff. Sakhoff's Jess is a recovered drug addict whose estranged daughter, Chloe, returns to live with her. This is all complicated by the fact that Chloe has recently disturbed the house of a dead witch, and has brought her tortured soul to Jess's home. The movie itself isn't that notable, but gets brownie points for two things: one of the grossest dinner scenes since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and intriguing subtext involving the intersection of parenthood and addiction.

The game hints to that plot here and there. Jess receives frequent, accusatory, and frightened text messages from Chloe throughout the game, and the occasional random document to read fills in some of the backstory. But Don't Knock Twice mostly settles for being a low-key adventure with light puzzle-solving. You spend most of your time trying to figure out which objects open various doors around the house, and solving basic riddles--all while an unseen force slams doors behind you, throws books off shelves, writes messages in blood on the walls, and generally makes life annoying while Jess tries to get stuff done.

Admirably, the house is an accurately moody recreation of the film's sets in virtual space. The soundscape drops thunder and lightning in as punctuation, and random effects like knocking doors, whispers, and screams fill in any empty aural space. But Don't Knock Twice isn't an intimidating experience, aside from the occasional well-executed jump scare. The supernatural stuff is cliche: a pentagram in the basement, a child's ball falling down a set of stairs, an unknown figure in a window upstairs. The entire game breeds a sense of “been there, done that," and is over in around an hour, well before any tension has a chance to build.

The one element that helps is the game being playable in VR, but even this has tradeoffs. Naturally, VR instantly helps with immersion, but Don't Knock Twice ties mobility to short-range teleportation: pointing at a spot in the room with a motion controller to avoid walking, and potentially VR sickness. This process is marred by collision detection almost from the beginning, where the mere act of lighting a candle feels like a wrestling match. You can switch to a regular controller, but there, the controls feel needlessly cluttered, with just about everything tied to trigger buttons.

Don't Knock Twice doesn't share company with the likes of Layers of Fear so much as it does with the large number of “VR Experiences” flooding digital storefronts: quick and dirty cash-ins that feel more like tech demos than full-fledged games. Don't Knock Twice is more solidly constructed than some, but it's largely unambitious and forgettable. It seems content to be a ground-level thriller at a time and on a platform with plenty of hungry competition.

Destiny 2 Review

Sat, 09/16/2017 - 13:00

Destiny 2 is a lot more Destiny. The structure is largely the same, as is the mechanically excellent shooting and satisfying loot grind. But there are a variety of changes both under the hood and throughout your activities that make it a significant improvement over the original and a better experience for more than just the most hardcore players.

From the onset, there's an overwhelming amount of stuff to do. The Red War story funnels you through the four areas you can explore, introducing you to each one as you go. At each destination, there's a bunch of optional activities to choose from, including story-like Adventure missions, simple loot dungeons called Lost Sectors that lead to hidden areas of the map, and public events and patrols, which return from Destiny 1. Then, as you progress through the story, you'll unlock the strike playlist and PvP in the Crucible. For a newcomer to Destiny, it can be hard to decide what to do and when.

The Red War story missions are less about plot and more about acclimating you to everything there is to see. You'll level up at a pretty steady pace, but there are two level-gated missions that essentially force you to complete Adventures and other activities for XP before you can move on. There's no actual reason for the missions to have level requirements, which can be annoying, but having direction is welcome after Destiny 1's lack thereof. And aside from netting you XP and loot, the semi-hidden Lost Sectors reward exploration while Adventures are filled with lore and interesting details about the world that fall outside of the scope of the main story. Plus, if you're burnt out on standard PvE, you can switch to PvP to level up, which requires different gear and skills.

The story is enough to serve its main purpose, which is to contextualize the shooting and looting you're doing through it all. Its villain is a derivative conqueror figure with a hunger for power and destruction, and the save-the-world plot is tired. But you don't need to know much to get going except that humanity is in danger, and you of all people have the power to help. The story's strengths lie in atmosphere and side details, like the endearing craziness of the deranged AI Failsafe or the mysteries of the Vex machine race, and that should be fine for the majority of players who see the story as something to rush through in order to reach the high-level "endgame." The mournful soundtrack in particular is fantastic, and it carried me through the most basic story beats, even on repeat playthroughs.

Like Destiny 1, there's a lot of grinding to be done between finishing the story and moving onto the high-level endgame activities like the Nightfall strike and the Raid. And again like in Destiny 1, the shoot-and-loot feedback loop feels fantastic. The gunplay is still excellent, and being rewarded for your efforts with an even better gun is something worth celebrating. The biggest change is how much quicker it is to increase your Light level--now called Power--with minimal grinding early on. The combat isn't any easier because of it, though, so it simply takes away the Destiny 1-era frustration of running the same few strikes a dozen times before you can move on to literally anything else. Plus, knowing you might get a slightly more fashionable pair of gauntlets from a five-minute public event gives you the kind of instant gratification that will sustain you through to the endgame.

There's a decent variety of weapons and gear to find, mostly in random drops. And once you know what gear is desirable, it becomes a fun metagame to hope you'll find it. A favorite around the GameSpot office has been the exotic auto rifle Sweet Business, and though no one has been using it, we had a lot of fun embarking on the quest to get Rat King. You might get lucky and get what you want right away, but for most people, finding a combination of great weapons for both PvE and PvP and gear with abilities that complement them takes some time. As far as customization goes, the Eververse and its microtransactions return, though leveling up after the official level cap grants you the new Bright Engrams that can be redeemed for consumable shaders, emotes, and more (for free). The change to shaders wasn't popular among fans at first, but making them consumable allows for a greater range of customization on different pieces of armor as well as weapons.

Some activities and areas are more cleanly or interestingly designed than others, and after a handful of hours, you'll start to identify the ones you love to play again and again and the ones you aren't as fond of. At least two of the Crucible maps are circular in design and essentially funnel you to your death if you aren't paying attention, which can get pretty boring; some areas require a fair amount of platforming, which can vary from tolerable to tedious depending on your class. But others are laid out in all the right ways to be memorable and fun to replay, like the Arms Dealer strike that keeps you running from room to room and preserving your heavy ammo for a series of tanks.

Though there's plenty you can do on your own, Destiny 2 is undeniably better as a shared experience. That can come on many different levels; you can work silently with complete strangers to trigger a heroic public event that gets you all better loot, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, you can coordinate with five friends for hours on end to tackle the Raid. You can also join a Clan, which can grant you a number of passive benefits, like legendary gear, as long as someone in your Clan is meeting certain milestones. On top of that, Destiny 2 also introduces Guided Games, where solo players can search for groups who are short one person and willing to help them through difficult endgame activities like the Nightfall or Raid.

Success through strong teamwork is absolutely the best part of Destiny 2.

Success through strong teamwork is absolutely the best part of Destiny, and the top-to-bottom tweaks and additions in Destiny 2 make it more accessible without dampening your sense of accomplishment. Meeting the level requirement for the Nightfall or Raid and actually completing it are two very different things, and getting in sync with your Fireteam and flawlessly executing a strategy takes a lot of work. The first two Nightfall strikes, for example, both introduced a modifier to the original strike that forces you and your team to coordinate loadouts and stay in constant communication about which weapons and subclasses you're using. You have to figure that out while also shooting waves of enemies and trying not to die. You'll most likely fail, but each failure helps you perfect your strategy incrementally, and the process of collectively achieving that goal is immensely satisfying.

At the highest level, the vast and visually striking Raid combines the need for top-tier weapons and gear, picking the correct subclass and loadout based on what your team needs, strong combat skills, and problem-solving as a group. Destiny 2's first Raid, Leviathan, is very, very difficult, and solving its often obscure puzzles can be both rewarding and frustrating. For the most part, each failure teaches you something new, and the GameSpot Raid team actually cheered when we came up with a solid strategy after going in blind. But there was one section in the middle that we struggled to complete even after we figured out what to do conceptually. Of course, this was after about five straight hours of raiding, so fatigue was definitely a factor--but it didn't blend the puzzle-solving part with actual execution as well as the previous sections of the Raid.

In true Destiny fashion, if you do something once, you'll probably end up doing it many more times. The difference with Destiny 2 is in the variety and accessibility of what's available, which cuts down on a lot of the frustration associated with grinding. And even after you've leveled up, there's still more you can do, from keeping up with daily and weekly challenges to just hanging out with friends. It's a much stronger foundation than the original had and one that's enough on its own to keep people coming back week after week.

PES 2018 Review

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 21:06

Developing a series for a yearly release must be a tricky business. In the space of just a few months, you need to make everything look nicer and produce meaningful gameplay strides (and even think of some new buzzwords to put on the back of the box). With PES 2018, Konami's annual soccer game looks and sounds a little too similar to last year's edition--the presentation is flat and its lack of licenses is an ongoing problem--but some excellent on-pitch tweaks are enough to make PES 2018 the most satisfying football game ever made.

The most noticeable change is a distinct reduction in the game's speed. That applies to both the ball and player movement, meaning matches have an altogether more methodical pace to them. Players sprint and turn more slowly, and therefore do so far more realistically. Crucially, however, everything feels just as responsive as before.

Combined with a number of new animations, the slower pace lends each kick a greater sense of weight. It also means, when you lose the ball, it usually takes longer to get it back, which can frustrate--especially when defending has not improved meaningfully in a couple of years now. Individual tackles can feel clunky, and opposition strikers are given too much space by their markers when receiving the ball to feet--Mourinho would be having none of it.

Despite PES shifting down a gear, however, its mechanics still allow you to pull off some spectacular maneuvers. Passes feel more satisfying than ever, rising and curling and dipping oh so beautifully. They're aided by better positioning of wide men, allowing more opportunities to pick out players with pinpoint cross-field balls--too often in PES 2017 I would try a million-dollar pass to a winger that would inevitably get cut out by the full back. Now, rather than being a delightful shortcut to losing possession, these Hollywood balls are a legitimate tactic. Ground passes are now executed with greater variety, meanwhile: your players will contextually change from spraying the ball with the outside of the boot to curling with the inside to punting with the toe to tapping to flicking to threading.

Passing's versatility allows you to produce some beautiful football: play with Barcelona and you can actually play like Barcelona--but it also means you can lump it to the big man up top or play it wide and get crosses in if a particular match or situation demands it. Changes to your attacking intent level, for example, affect how deep your team sit more than ever--set it to maximum and your biggest defender will act as an emergency striker. This then allows you to play direct if you're losing in the final stages of an important match.

This is especially helpful from set pieces, which have been reworked to allow you to pick different tactics depending on the situation. You can now choose to send your center backs forward for long free kicks, for example, and hope for a knock down. Or, from corner kicks, you can ask for two players to come short or for your entire team to line up on the edge of the box before making a late dash to the back post. Direct free kicks have been improved, too, and they now feel more intuitive and more fluid--and I'm finally able to score from them.

Players also shield the ball and stumble past opponents more realistically, not only helping you hold on to the ball but also making them feel more like players, not just dots on a screen. This makes it all the more disappointing, then, that goalkeepers still act like robots: their static animations and inconsistent saves might be a little better than last year, but they still shatter the illusion that you're controlling a real-life team and serve as a reminder that you're playing a video game.

However, that's a minor sticking point compared to the licenses--or lack thereof. Of the world's major leagues, only the French and Italian leagues are licensed in PES, with the Premier League, EFL, and the Spanish leagues only included in make-believe form. As is traditional with Pro Evo, teams are replicated with fake kits and pretend team names like Man Blue (Manchester City), London FC (Chelsea), and MD White (Real Madrid), while the German league is not present in any form. Worse, the kits are often wildly different to the real-life versions they're meant to be imitating. The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you're actually controlling Man Red--playing in black. Thankfully, it's relatively easy, with the help of the community and a USB stick, to mod in authentic kits on PS4 and PC--and this can help mitigate many of PES's gripes as it appears when you insert the disc for the first time. Xbox One users, however, are stuck with the likes of West Glamorgan City and Merseyside Blue for good.

The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you're actually controlling Man Red.

The lack of attention paid to how kits look is reflected in the game's presentation as a whole. While PES's main rival, FIFA, replicates the experience of watching soccer on TV pretty closely, Pro Evo 2018 looks somewhat flat by comparison. Player models look largely fine (and some obscure players have surprisingly accurate faces), but crowds appear like cardboard cut-outs and sound almost as fake as they look--cheers when you score and moans when you miss sound muted, while chants are just a cacophony of noise with no discernible tunes or words. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin's awful, stilted, disjointed commentary returns, with a cliche-ridden dialogue library that contains few new lines and zero extra excitement. (On more than one occasion I was hit with a bug that removed all the commentary, and let's just say I've had worse glitches.) These complaints are not new to PES 2018 of course, but as EA continues to make strides in these areas with FIFA, PES's continued poor sights and sounds are put in starker contrast with every passing year.

The same is, to an extent, true of PES's online offering. MyClub is Konami's answer to FIFA Ultimate Team, and this year its big new feature is 3v3 co-op online play, a mode in which you sacrifice most of the control in return for some laughs with your friends. You and your teammates each contribute a few players to a combined squad, which the three of you then control in the match, sharing the rewards at the end. However, far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby, meaning rather than simply giving me full control or searching again, I was dumped into the worst-of-both-worlds option of controlling one third of an otherwise AI-controlled team. It's not quite the fun addition it should be, especially when I was occasionally subject to some egregious input lag when playing online.

Far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby.

The offline, single-player-focused Master League, meanwhile, makes strides in some areas while remaining infuriating in others. The new menu layout is a welcome change that makes the mode easier to navigate, but Master League as a whole still contains a number of glaring oddities that need to be addressed next year. Youth teams are still littered with unknown players whose names were seemingly assembled by a monkey on a typewriter (those well-known Liverpool prodigies Fighejlani and Tzarqamilov are my favorites); wage budgets and salaries are still displayed in yearly terms rather than weekly; and transfer budgets are still criminally low--while PSG were out spending £150m / $200m on Mbappe and £200m / $270m on Neymar in real life this summer, I was restricted to just £50m / $67m in total with them in PES 2018. Thankfully, a couple of neat touches such as customizable training regimes and release clauses in players' contracts do add some depth, and the new Challenge Mode keeps things interesting with unexpected scenarios like players wanting to leave.

Thankfully, I think I have a new favorite way to play PES. Random Selection Mode returns from Pro Evo 6, and if--like me--you can't remember all the way back to 2006, it shakes things up wonderfully. You and a friend (who has to be in the same room, as the mode is local only) are each handed a squad of random players from a selection of leagues or countries you choose, so you might end up with a weird hybrid team of players from across the world of varying standards. What follows is a psychological battle of attempting to steal your opponent's star players while protecting your own. Up to three trade rounds allow you and your friend to pick a player from the other person's team who you want to pinch. You then pick a player from your own squad who you want to protect, and one you want to get rid of. Crucially, at no point until after all three are chosen do either of you know who the other person has picked, leading to a tense moment at the end of the round where it's revealed if you've successfully robbed that 92-rated striker your lucky friend got dealt. Manage to steal their top player and the bragging rights are all yours--at least until they manage to win the following match against the odds, that is.

It's a small addition that some people may never even see, let alone try, but it's the best silly party mode I've seen in a soccer game since FIFA 12 unceremoniously ditched Lounge Mode. Along with (slightly) improved player stamina and (also slightly) improved goalkeeper animations, it's one of a few unglamourous but nonetheless important changes Konami has made this year. Another of these, a simple gray marker that shows which player you'll switch to next when you press L1 / LB, is a tiny masterstroke, and one that seems so obvious I'm now kind of annoyed I didn't think of it sooner myself.

When you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018.

PES 2018, then, is the proverbial game of two halves. Off the field, it's sorely lacking; online modes and server issues leave much to be desired, and the game's presentation as a whole is lagging behind the competition--even if the PES community produces some sterling work in recreating the unlicensed kits every year.

And yet, when you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018. The slower pace is a definite improvement, helping tread the line between realism and fun near-perfectly. There's just something about the players' movement and the kinds of arcs the ball makes in the air that's just so pleasant to control--every pass, header, and shot just feels right. And when it clicks, and you score a thunderous strike from the edge of the area or finish off a slick passing move or even when you launch an ugly long ball forward to grab a last-gasp winner, it's the closest feeling you'll get to being out there scoring yourself.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa Of Dana Review

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 07:36

The long-running Ys series of action-RPGs grew to fame thanks to engrossing cinematic storytelling and fantastic music. Almost thirty years after it debuted, Ys continues to thrive thanks to the series’ willingness to dramatically evolve its gameplay while still delivering engaging drama and fascinating worlds. Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is the newest--and biggest--entry in the series yet, and it delivers an immensely fun and memorable experience.

Ys VIII begins with longtime hero Adol and his friend Dogi on a huge passenger ship when, out of nowhere, the vessel is attacked by a gargantuan sea monster and destroyed. Adol wakes up to find himself on the mythical island of Seiren, a supposedly cursed land from which no person has ever returned. He soon bands together with a few other survivors of the wreck, and decides to help them explore the island to rescue other passengers and build a makeshift community while figuring out a means to escape. All the while, however, the ancient beasts that live on the island are not pleased with the human intrusion, and a deeper secret behind the island’s curse lies waiting to be uncovered.

Finding survivors and building a village on a deserted island is a pretty unique concept for an action-RPG, and the story does a good job of driving you to explore the island to seek out others. The eclectic cast of characters who come to live in the island village make for an interesting mix of talents and personalities, and it’s very satisfying to watch the capabilities of your island base grow as more people join and you help them out through questing. Ys VIII conveys camaraderie through hardship, making you feel happy when the village accomplishes a new milestone, sad when tragedy strikes, and fearful when a new threat emerges.

But even if you weren’t out rescuing other shipwreck survivors, you’d likely still feel compelled to explore the beautiful landscapes of Seiren Island. Ys VIII is a gorgeous game, filled with immensely colorful landscapes, dangerous yet captivating dungeons, and plenty of unique scenery to discover. Serene ocean vistas, fascinating geological formations, immense rainbow-casting waterfalls, and mysterious plant life are among the many scenic spots you’ll encounter in your travels. You even have the option to explore some areas at either daytime or nighttime, and the latter casts some familiar locales in an entirely new light. It’s easy to get caught up in a spirit of wanderlust and meander into areas that aren’t essential to the current story, but you want to explore just because you can. The kickin’, energy-infused progressive-rock soundtrack--an Ys series staple--helps a lot in driving you to explore further as well.

Of course, exploring the dangerous parts of Seiren wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if the core action-RPG gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. But Ys VIII delivers wonderfully in this aspect, giving players fast-paced, easy-to-learn combat with a surprising amount of depth. Chaining together basic strikes and special attacks while using your teammates’ weapons to exploit enemy weaknesses quickly becomes second nature. As you become more comfortable with fighting, you’ll learn to utilize skills like the Flash Move and Flash Guard: special dodges and blocks executed with precise timing that give you a huge advantage over the enemy. These skills come in especially handy during the game’s boss encounters, which have you battling against some truly strange and unusual island creatures. The smooth flow of fighting and ease of play makes the combat one of Ys VIII’s high points. Perhaps the only knock against the battle system is that the default controls are a little odd--but, thankfully, the combat controls are completely remappable to your liking.

From action to exploration, Ys VIII has a lot going for it--which, unfortunately, makes the times when it stumbles more obvious. The pacing is inconsistent, sometimes interrupting exploration for long stretches of plot development--and, occasionally, swapping the protagonist of the game entirely for extended stretches of story. The game also has an annoying tendency to deliver “interception” missions while you’re knee-deep in dungeon crawling, asking you to go back to town and play an annoying tower-defense style minigame where you guard the village against waves of monsters. While most interception missions are optional, you’ll feel compelled to do them anyway; they yield very useful rewards and raise the approval of Adol among the commune’s residents, which becomes key in the endgame.

The English localization also leaves a lot to be desired. While it’s certainly not the worst translation I’ve ever seen, it feels like a tremendous missed opportunity. Dialogue is often dry and uninteresting, or awkwardly stilted, robbing characters and story moments of some of their impact. With such a ragtag bunch of interesting castaways on display, it feels like these characters should have a lot more personality in their speech. Ys VIII’s localization also makes some very odd choices with terminology and phrasing, leading to strange moments like a companion shouting “somebody’s here!” in areas where the only things around are trees, rocks, and bloodthirsty monsters.

But even when it falters, it’s hard to hate Ys VIII for long. The feel of fighting your way through a big, beautiful island of untamed wilderness to save a group of people brought together by circumstance while uncovering an ancient mystery is an absolute delight, and will compel you to keep exploring for hours on end. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the exploits of Adol Christin, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in the exotic world of Ys VIII.

ARK: Survival Evolved Review

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 08:05

After a couple of dozen hours exploring the dinosaur survival simulation from developer Studio Wildcard, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is both an impressive achievement and a deeply frustrating experience. One moment I was beaming over how I was able to slap together a hut on the beach and start a fire to keep warm during a long and spooky prehistoric night. The next I was swearing until I was out of breath after being killed yet again by a Dilophosaurus or a pack of Compys or a Titanoboa or whatever else decided to roar out of the jungle for a snack.

This is a pure, hardcore survival game where you’re dropped in your tighty whities on a beach by beings unknown (UFO-like monoliths float in the sky) with the sole goal of figuring out how to stay alive. Land and sea are populated with all sorts of dinosaurs and other assorted prehistoric creatures, ranging from the milquetoast Dodos and Moschops to aggressive predators like the Spinosaurus, the Megapiranha, the Troodon, the Raptor, and much, much more. So not only are you stuck essentially naked with nothing other than your wits to keep you breathing, just about everything stuck here with you has big pointy teeth and zero qualms about using them to rip you to pieces.

That said, there isn’t much of a learning curve. Everything is based on a hunter-gatherer system where you collect resources by killing animals for their hides and meat and other goodies, and by chopping down trees, smashing up rocks, and scavenging in the jungle for wood, stone, flint, berries, fiber, and more. Leveling up--which happens fast and frequently throughout the game to keep things interesting--provides points used to purchase engrams that serve as plans for all of the survival gear that you can make. You start with caveman stuff like stone axes, thatch huts, ragged clothing, and campfires, but soon progress to compasses, spyglasses, bows and arrows, wood structures, gunpowder, and more. Stick with things long enough and you move into the modern era with rifles and radios.

Another major component of Ark is the ability to train dinos. Carefully combining knocking out your prey with feeding them results in tame creatures that can be ridden around the landscape and even bred. It’s something of a tedious affair involving a fair bit of gathering different types of food and waiting around, but it's well worth it in the end as you can wind up with mounts far better at fighting other dinosaurs than you can with your puny fists and weapons. Toss in a wide range of crafting and that steadily increasing engram tech, and you’ve got an impressive sandbox in which to play.

All of this can be experienced either solo or together with other players on multiplayer servers that can be designated either PVE, where players cannot kill one another, and PVP, where they can, and there are basically no rules at all. Ark has been built around a tribal model, though, where playing cooperatively feels generally like the prescribed way to go.

Single-player does have its benefits, namely in that you avoid messy interactions with fellow human players. But going solo comes at the cost of cranking difficulty through the roof and forcing you to do everything for yourself. You have to become a one-man tribe to get anything done, and I found the process of chopping trees, hacking stone, and gathering assorted things in the brush to be a repetitive process. While you level up fairly quickly and add new engrams on a regular basis, it’s not exactly thrilling to spend all of your time mindlessly pushing buttons to accumulate one stockpile after another.

Of course, playing alone also means that you have to fight dinosaurs mano-a-mano. This means that you die. A lot. The game thankfully stocks the default areas where you spawn (generally coastal beach regions) with wussier, almost cattle-like creatures that can be farmed to get you started collecting meat and skins. But aggressive carnivores are never far away. The landscape is dotted with creatures that you have almost zero chance at killing or escaping, especially in the early hours.

This outstanding sense of place and mood is offset by the sheer difficulty of everything that you have to do, the spectacular amounts of time necessary to experience even a tenth of what the game has to offer, and the randomness of death constantly destroying everything that you have built.

As a result, Ark does not make a great first impression. I was routinely slaughtered by Dilophosauruses on the beaches, gangs of Compys in the jungle, random Trodoons nearly everywhere, and even a positively brutal Spinosaurus that somehow managed to spawn in not far from where I began my game. Whenever I thought I was making progress, wham, along came a Raptor or something equally frightening to remind me of my place in the food chain. Even the water offered me no respite, as every little stream seemed to be well stocked with Megapiranhas and Sabertooth Salmon. These killer fish actually gave me my first wake-up call as to how brutal Ark was going to be. I finished my first thatch house and decided to start really exploring territory, starting with a quick swim across the bay. I didn’t get halfway across before I was eaten alive.

The only good thing being killed is that your stuff gets packed into a bag and left at the point of your demise, ready to be picked up by your respawned self. This is easier said than done, however, as the early-game's random respawns generally place you a long way from where you died. And you have a limited amount of time to grab everything before it vanishes forever. Even worse, whatever killed you often hangs around the pack, as if it’s guarding the treasure trove in the knowledge that somebody is coming back for it. Other times, your gear is simply inaccessible. I don’t think I ever reclaimed my gear after being killed in the water, as those packs always wound up in the midst of schools of fish with steak-knife teeth.

In a perfect world, playing the multiplayer version of Ark would solve the above problems. It doesn’t. All of these issues remain present when playing on servers with other people, and other, potentially even more serious annoyances, are introduced. Playing on an established public server means that you’re the new guy, so it doesn’t seem entirely easy to join a tribe. On the PVP servers, you can be an easy target for the more experienced players who enjoy playing serial killer. PVE servers let you relax and work cooperatively, but I saw a lot of people there doing their own thing exactly as they would have in the solo game. So aside from the social aspect of trying to stay alive in dino-land with the help of fellow human beings, I didn’t really see the point.

There is something majestic about Ark's addictive and incredibly atmospheric design. I’ve never been so invested in the protagonist’s predicament, especially when huddling around a fire in the middle of the night or when facing off with a dinosaur that was stalking me, and the sense of being so utterly alone really sank in.

Still, this outstanding sense of place and mood is offset by the sheer difficulty of everything that you have to do, the spectacular amounts of time necessary to experience even a tenth of what the game has to offer, and the randomness of death constantly destroying everything that you have built. None of these things can exactly be considered flaws, as the designers surely intended the game to play like this, at least for the most part. But all of these factors also make Ark an acquired taste that requires a strong level of commitment that is not for everyone, probably myself included.

Metroid: Samus Returns Review

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 22:00

Metroid is a Nintendo institution, one that dates almost as far back as the company's console business. The series includes phenomenal games like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, two games that frequently appear on "best of" lists. But Metroid has been in a funk for the past decade and losing favor along the way. Fans don't want experimental spin-offs like Metroid Prime: Federation Force; they want to explore alien worlds as Samus Aran, hunt for high-tech equipment, and use it to dig even deeper into the unknown. Finally, with Metroid: Samus Returns, that call has been answered.

Why it took Nintendo so long to get to this point is anyone's guess, but Samus Returns is so good that it almost doesn't matter. A reimagining of the oft-maligned GameBoy game, Metroid II: The Return of Samus, Samus Returns is classic Metroid at heart.

As in the 1991 monochromatic classic, you hunt down dozens of powerful Metroids on planet SR 388 in an effort to eradicate the bioweapon species and keep them out of evil's hands. However, two key changes have occurred: the map has been greatly expanded and reshaped to more closely resemble what you might find in Super Metroid, and combat is more of a priority than ever. The latter is an effect of Nintendo bringing on Mercury Steam--the most recent developer to work on Castlevania--to develop the game. Thankfully (and most importantly), Samus Returns feels like a Nintendo-made Metroid, but it's still easy to spot Mercury Steam's influence--for the better.

The most immediate contribution that you see is Samus' new parry action, a first for the series that allows you to counterattack and stun a rushing opponent. In turn, common enemies are more aggressive than usual, more liable to seek you out then wait for you to make the first move. Though parrying feels a bit strange at first as it brings your momentum to a temporary halt, you quickly learn the proper timing and understand how it fits into your repertoire, and when to rely on it.

You can also fire in any direction now thanks to the 3DS' analog stick. The same input is used for movement, which means you can really only fire at a few angles while running forward, but all you need to do when surrounded by enemies is hold another button to stand your ground and aim freely. Samus' newfound flexibility and physicality makes her feel like an even more capable hero, and makes the moment-to-moment exploration more lively than usual.

Considering that Metroid is more or less the foundation of so-called "Metroidvanias," games where you wander massive environments, poking and prodding walls and ceilings to reveal secret chambers and items, it's both curious and exciting when you unlock Samus' Scan Pulse ability. Triggering a pulse both reveals map layouts and information (including hidden passages) and temporarily highlights breakable objects in your environment. On one hand, this capability robs you of the unique joy that comes from isolating the one false brick in a wall, but it also means that you no longer need to waste time looking for secrets that may not exist.

To account for the bit of old-school joy that's now taken away (unless you opt not to scan your environment), Samus Returns makes the process of acquiring items you've located more difficult than usual. You're now often challenged to quickly juggle weapons, abilities, and maneuvers, without faltering, to reach items picked up during scans. This may involve slowing down time and activating Samus' Lightning Armor to negate damage while moving along a wall with electrified plants (two abilities that share a resource meter), morphing into a ball and laying bombs to destroy a brick, and finally sliding through the gap before it regenerates. There's a healthy balance between easy pickups and these puzzling scenarios, and compared to other 2D Metroids, it's far more fulfilling to work smarter, rather than harder, to reach 100% item completion--the real Metroid endgame.

For much of Samus Returns, that goal feels attainable thanks to your scanner. Sometimes you need to obtain a new piece of equipment or two before you can solve an item-related puzzle, but that's to be expected, and a handy multicolor marking system allows you to note where a specific weapon may be useful down the road. And by and large the game does a great job of providing insight into Samus' ever-growing capabilities, giving you the information you need to overcome specific obstacles. There is, however, one isolated blemish in this regard: a traversal maneuver with inconsistent behavior, depending on a very specific circumstance that's never mentioned or hinted at. Whether by design or by accident, this exception flies in the face of the game's otherwise clear and informative nature, and proves frustrating in a few specific and punishing locations.

Upgrades aside, the all-important Metroid battles are the other star of the show, and you will encounter over 40 of them during your mission at varying stages of the species' evolution. You initially battle with Alpha Metroids, the first step beyond the familiar jellyfish form. Without advanced weapons and defenses at the start, you will struggle a little while they dive bomb you from overhead, but their always-exposed weak points make them easy targets. The next few evolutions are notably more powerful, but ultimately pale in comparison to Omega Metroids, towering quadrupedal beasts that can quickly climb walls and spew damaging fireballs. More than simply for the sake of personal gratification, hunting for hidden items in your environment feels necessary to survive some of your first encounters with the more advanced Metroid evolutions.

Granted, while these boss battles are more involved and enjoyable than fighting common enemies, there comes a time when facing even Omegas stops being exciting. But Samus Returns has some tricks up its sleeve, introducing a few surprise battles that help break up the action overall, and subtly reinforce Metroid II's critical link to the rest of the series.

However subtle it may be, told only through an expository intro, an unlockable gallery, and to a small degree through SR 388's environments, Samus Returns' story and lore will resonate with anyone who's familiar with Chozo, the origin of Metroids, and Samus' role in their future. For anyone else, the implications therein will likely fly over their heads. Smartly, Mercury Steam and Nintendo have elegantly incorporated these details so as to not distract an uninterested player. Samus Returns is at its best when you are engaged in exploration and combat, and thus sink deeper into the planet and into isolation. These are things anyone can enjoy, and the game never lets teasing and pleasing fans get in the way.

As the first 2D Metroid game in over a decade, Samus Returns faces unfairly high expectations. Mercury Steam's involvement, a team known to play fast and loose with classic game traditions, was also a potential red flag for some. In hindsight, there was never anything to worry about, and a lot to look forward to. Samus Returns is both a return to form and a look to the potential future for 2D Metroid games, where combat plays a bigger role and exploration involves clever thinking rather than persistent guessing. Fans get more than they bargained (and hoped) for, and everyone else gets an excellent 2D action game with one of the most captivating and capable video game heroes around.

Knack 2 Review

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 10:00

PlayStation 4 launch game Knack was most memorable for its impressive use of particles; it used lots of tiny floating cubes, spheres, and pyramids to make up its main character. But beyond that, it was a throwback to PlayStation 2-era of linear 3D action games. As it turns out, not a lot has changed in the sequel, but as far as cooperative-centric action games go, Knack 2 ends up being a more enjoyable romp than the original.

Several years have passed since the events of the previous game, where the titular Knack and his friends stopped a rampaging goblin army from overtaking civilization. Knack 2 starts right in the midst of a fresh attack on the city of Newhaven, and over the course of 15 multi-stage chapters, the story takes some odd twists and turns for a game that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. There are bigger enemies than goblins afoot and the solid if cartoonish at times story includes some surprisingly not subtle parallels to real-world dictators and extremists.

Admittedly, things start off pretty slow, and for the first several chapters Knack 2 is a linear experience with basic combat and straightforward puzzles. As the game moves along, however, Knack’s moveset opens up thanks to an expansive upgrade tree and regular new move updates acquired during cinematic sequences.

Once you've gotten past the initial stages, Knack 2 throws a good variety of different-sized foes at its hero, from human-sized soldiers to giant robotic menaces. As Knack grows in power, he can string together powerful combos, and you begin to feel the heft and power behind his attacks. The upgrade system is such that he’ll essentially earn new moves right up until the end, so there’s always something new to try, which adds appreciable variety to the game's numerous battles.

Where things get really interesting is when Knack's ability to shrink and grow is called upon with greater frequency. Knack can grown from an adorable pint-sized doll to a 30-foot-tall hulk--the more artifact parts he finds during a level, the bigger he becomes, although the truly giant-sized Knack is sadly reserved for only a few spots.

One sequence in particular has giant Knack rampaging through a goblin city, for instance, and the sense of power and scale is exceptional. Knack can run over enemies that were previously challenging foes like they were speed bumps and it’s a thoroughly entertaining power trip. The way Knack changes his stance and demeanor as he grows--from adorable to athletically lean to outright massive--also adds a lot of personality to his character.

Even more intriguing is how the game uses little Knack. Every level contains at least a few secret areas only accessible while he's in his tiny form, but many of the puzzles and platforming sections require switching from big Knack to little Knack regularly. Since you can easily drop (and attract) his built-up parts with the press of a button, this size shifting mechanic gets a lot of mileage.

So, while giant Knack feels nearly invulnerable, tiny Knack’s ability to deftly flip from one small platform to the next gives the game an almost side-scrolling platformer appeal. He’s deadly fragile when small, so avoiding enemies is frequently necessary, often by finding side routes (such as small ledges and air ducts) that would be impossible for larger-sized creatures to pass. It’s a refreshing interchange of gaming styles within the levels that gives Knack 2 a surprising extra layer of depth. There are even vehicle segments, where you take control of a goblin tank, and, in one of the most entertaining sequences in the game, rampage through a city in a giant robot capable of crushing enemy tanks under foot.

All this action is aided greatly by terrific graphics and notably wonderful character animation. Knack looks amazing, the giant robots seem to have stepped straight out of an epic anime, and many of the locations are gorgeous, ranging from rocking deserts and snow-covered mountains to beautiful gardens and ancient temples and urban sprawls. Unfortunately, Knack 2 uses a set camera, and it can be terrible at times. It sometimes presents issues with enemies attacking from positions you can't see or reach, and during some platforming sequences, the camera can be more dangerous than any physical obstacle. Knack 2 is also really meant for cooperative play. It’s fully playable for one, but some of the puzzles and fights are much more frustrating without a partner.

At around seven to ten hours, Knack 2 is longer than you might expect. The issue with this is that there's obvious artificial padding afoot. One glaring example is how the game starts off in the story’s present day, then flashes back. When you actually get back to the starting point again, it actually makes you replay that exact same level. Other times, platforming and combat sections dragged on a bit too long, but at least in those case you’re still earning more treasure and skill points for upgrading.

Knack 2 is definitely a holdover from the past, but it manages to surprise with varied combat and the pleasing back and forth between big and little Knack. Where the original game felt, frankly, like a launch title meant to show off the power of a new system, Knack 2 is a more realized version of Knack as a character, and the wonderfully weird world he inhabits.

Everybody's Golf Review

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 08:00

The Everybody's Golf series has consistently hit that sweet spot in providing arcade-inspired accessibility while preserving the unique challenges that make the sport of golf riveting. As its first foray on the PlayStation 4, the simply titled Everybody's Golf not only continues this tradition but also expands the franchise's specific brand of golf culture. This is embodied in an involving hub world and the new option to freely roam courses to pursue leisure activities beyond actual competition, shaking up the franchise into a fresh golfing experience.

Everybody's Golf--which is a reversion to the Japanese series' name 20 years after it was named Hot Shots Golf in the West--effectively captures the strategic demands of the sport and the myriad variables that professionals consider when planning a shot. Choice of club, wind speed and direction, and yardage are the commonly known factors, but there's also the lie of the ball, the surface that the ball is projected to land on, the part of the ball you choose to make contact with, and so on. Hitting a great shot as a result of considering all these ingredients is the beauty and attraction of this series. Having this substantive sense of control never gets old, especially when you have slightly less control over the precise act of hitting your ball.

Thankfully, developer Clap Hanz has never strayed from the classic video game three-click swing mechanic: click to start, click to set power, and a final click to determine accuracy. The trick is in matching your desired meter length with what your reflexes can pull off, and attempting to tighten that gap swing after swing is one of the most involving aspects of Everybody's Golf. Moreover, this control method has always been more sensible than the less predictable back-and-forth motions of swinging with the analog stick, a feature common in other contemporary golf games.

Your career in Everybody's Golf grows on a swift RPG-inspired progression path, where nearly every good shot yields minor performance bonuses affecting both your stats and the clubs you use. In other words, you and your equipment earn experience points. Over the course of several rounds of golf, those upgrades from hundreds of shots add up. It's both rewarding and motivating to see stat meters grow in areas like power and backspin. Adding to these dopamine hits are the awards and unlocks for ranking up and placing in the top three in tournaments against the CPU, which include items such as specialized clubs and balls. Like building an armory of weapons, you feel accomplished when amassing a range of diverse equipment to suit both your play style and the unique layouts of each course. It's especially gratifying to replay the earlier, simpler holes with new gear and increased stats, allowing you to score eagles with regularity instead of pars.

The player's modest beginnings and basic gear also serve to make Everybody's Golf immensely accessible to newcomers. Your starter clubs and balls suit the friendly layout of the first course, Eagle City Golf Club, where--like real golf--making par is the yardstick that competence and skill should be measured. Averaging par in the first half dozen rounds is cause for celebration and sets you on the very long road to pulling off feats that would rank you in the top 10 of the PGA Tour. Naturally, this can make the initial hours a cakewalk for Everybody's Golf veterans, which is why a well-implemented "Serious Mode" option--where the AI-controlled field posts better-than-usual scores--can be toggled on and off before any tournament.

The career matches against the CPU are not without their difficulties, but the truly humbling competitions are against your peers online. While its asynchronous multiplayer--where you play at your own pace and compete on daily leaderboards--has been one of the series' main draws, the new Turf War mode is an even more engrossing format. Two teams of up to 10 per side compete in a timed match where you attempt to play as many holes as possible. Since this mode uses the free-roam version of the courses, half the rush is effectively managing your time when travelling from hole to hole, whether it means running, driving, or spending a limited-use fast travel teleporter. It's a balancing act of playing quick and playing well, and if you pull off both, you have a chance at winning the MVP award. In a match of 20 competitors, that prize is a well-earned badge of honor, reflected as a number next to your username that shows other players how many MVP awards you've won.

Whether you're primarily an online competitor or someone who prefers to face AI opponents, your time in between matches is spent in the hub world or roaming freely in the courses you've unlocked. Both types of areas encourage exploration since there's a scattering of consumable items like speciality golf balls and extra warp privileges for Turf War. The most appealing features of the hub are rewards you earn as you surmount hurdles in your career. Defeating a boss who is also a race car driver, for instance, grants you cart privileges, while outplaying a fisherman in a round of golf unlocks fishing mode. The button-mash mechanic of fishing can prove monotonous over time, but it doesn't completely diminish the appeal of casting a rod next to the courses' ponds and lakes. Not only is it a challenge to collect dozens of fish varieties, but many of these specimens carry the same aforementioned consumables.

The new multi-course golfing paradise filled with NPCs does add charm to an already endearing series. Where it goes one step too far is during the single-player tournaments. Three of the 15 CPU competitors you face in these contests are part of your foursome, NPCs who play at the own pace and are visible as you play the same hole. It's not so much a distraction as it is a mild annoyance to see fast-moving golfers clutter your screen as you're focusing on your own shot. It's not uncommon for them to obscure the camera during your birdie or par celebrations. At least there's no AI ball or character collision that would affect your round.

Ultimately, these bothersome NPCs are the only notable blemishes in an otherwise splendid and activity-loaded sequel, which also happens to be the best golf game on the PlayStation 4. Longtime fans will find comfort in the familiar controls and deep progression system, while newcomers will find the on-boarding experience easy and welcoming. Between the lengthy career mode and online play, you are never short of competition to test your nerves. And no matter how ridiculously superhuman your linksman skills become--there are awards for getting a hole in one on a par-5, after all--Everybody's Golf's strict adherence to the sport's strategic underpinnings is never compromised.

XCOM 2: War Of The Chosen Review

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 03:00

XCOM games are about staring down the impossible and choosing to fight on anyway. The premise of the franchise is that Earth is under siege by immeasurably more advanced alien swarms. XCOM 2 posits that we, as players, can't be victorious. Where its predecessor had you marshal your best defense to repel the invasion, XCOM 2 opens on a occupied, defeated Earth. Twenty years after their defeat, the governments of the world have all but given up, opting to negotiate with their tormentors instead of fighting back. Instead, you take the reins and gather up what resistance you can to keep the war--and hope--alive, and try to liberate Terra from the three-toed grasp of hyper-advanced psychic space monsters.

The new XCOM 2 expansion, War of the Chosen, expounds upon that foundation in every way. The baddies are tougher and your own troops have more strategic and tactical counters, but they're also more human and, in some ways, more fragile. Together, these feed into not just the complexity of XCOM's already robust chess-like play but the human edge as well.

XCOM has always found its grounding in its characters. You, as a player, are encouraged to name the members of your resistance after your friends and family. After some time on the battlefield, they grow more experienced and versatile, developing new skills and finding their own, ad-hoc narrative slices.

During my first run, I remember one of my high-school friends, Ben, grew to become my top soldier. A pinpoint sniper, Ben could deadeye any foe from 100 yards--easy. But the long slog of the war with the aliens left him traumatized. And, over time, he became a glass cannon. His mind was rattled by intimidation, and his frail body ached. On his 60th mission, he was brainwashed and slaughtered by his captors.

These sorts of vignettes flow organically in XCOM 2, but War of the Chosen explores them more fully. First, soldiers that spend lots of time together form close relationships, conferring battlefield stat bonuses as well as fodder for whatever backstory you choose to conjure. War of the Chosen encourages you to create inspirational posters for your warriors, too, to post around your base. Between missions, you'll see the beaming faces of your finest dole out propagandic slogans. It doesn't affect anything outside of aesthetics, but it's a tacit acknowledgement that your team and their connections matter, and it's a simple way to reinforce the desperation at play. Each of these soldiers, though they march into battle, often without ever questioning their commander, are still human. They need faith, and they need symbols of victory that encourage them to press on.

Of course, this is something of a red herring. War of the Chosen wants you to use these features--kindling relationships with characters like Ben and leaning on them for your own sort of moral support--so that it can bludgeon you with hopelessness down the line.

For every fun little addition War of the Chosen slots into XCOM 2, it also adds something more sinister. The eponymous "Chosen," for example, are an elite trio of champions that are hell-bent on capturing and torturing your soldiers, picking their minds clean so they can take aim at you.

That places a grim and sobering filter over everything else. You send these people out to fight and die, and you have to carry the knowledge that if they suffer, it's because you failed. And, what's worse, if they're captured, they'll face far more pain and anguish not because of anything they did, but because your resistance continues to frustrate your presumed overlords.

To balance the scales a little, you'll also be able to tap three new factions for your burgeoning Squad. The Templars, for example, are powerful mind-wizards who loosely counter the Warlock, one of the Chosen and a psychic warrior whose mind has been twisted by obscene power. The Reapers and Skirmishers round out your ranks with stealthy-snipers and gruff, short-range assault troops, respectively. Each of them comes with special skills so as not to overlap with your more basic, rank-and-file soldiers.

Each of these add-ons might be a solid inclusion on their own (who wouldn't want cadres of super-soldiers to shore up the ranks?), but War of the Chosen wouldn't work without all of them.

The new factions are introduced early, so players who finished the base game have some new meat to sink their teeth into. Everyone else? They get a straightforward introduction and continue on as normal. The key, though, is that a Reaper can help you expand your tactical options early on, where stages--bereft of the reverse-engineered laser cannons that show up dozens of hours later--could use a little more excitement.

This makes the first few hours a bit easier than the rest, but this affords you room to experiment before the truly punishing moments appear. After all, characters who aren't watched have a tendency to be ripped apart or shot to bits. Having a souped-up fighter in the field affords you some flexibility: As with a queen in chess, you can adjust your plans on the fly, leveraging that additional power at key moments--either for offense or defense. But, as with the queen, losing such a valuable soldier can hurt doubly so.

The Chosen play a similar role, dropping into missions and harassing your teams whenever possible. They learn and grow from battle to battle, too. It's not quite as robust as the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor, but they will adapt to your tactics, covering their weaknesses over time. That makes them exceptional foes down the line. In essence, they become bosses that dog you and wear you down, an omnipresent threat that could hit at any time.

As the game marches on, you are beset on all sides by powerful foes that force you to adapt. Your own soldiers might grow as well, but when your elite squads are picked off, or they've grown weary and fatigued, or when they lose their best friend or lover, that loss is palpable.

War of the Chosen packs in appreciable new layers of tactical and strategic depth that breathe new life into what was already one of the genre's best. But it is, once again, the humanity of the fight that binds it all together. New factions wouldn't work without new challenges, and new bonds are strained by foes that seek to quash opposition not with overwhelming force, but by cracking your will. If one mission goes particularly south, you may be forced to bury far more well-trained fighters than you can replace. And when you can't quite field the strength you once did, you might not have the drive to keep going. You share not only in new powers, but in the pervasive defeat felt when they are taken from you.

Everything that Chosen brings--from the elite soldiers to the deeper connections between your squads--feels like a living part of the XCOM universe. If you like your deep strategy and brutal turn-based tactics alongside brilliant interplay between camp and emergent drama, there is none better.

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm - Episode 1 - Awake Review

Sat, 09/02/2017 - 03:00

Life Is Strange has never been subtle about its symbolism. We're regularly reminded of the tornado that threatens the tiny town of Arcadia Bay in the very first scene of the 2015 game, and how it's meant to mirror Chloe Price's chaotic presence threatening everything safe and stable about protagonist Max Caulfield. In the new prequel series, Before the Storm, there's no image that represents Chloe Price's journey better than a black hole.

Set three years before the events of the original game, Before the Storm is a story of absences, painful wounds in Chloe Price's life that she has neither the ability or interest in healing. Most are recognizable if you played the first game: Max fading into the background of Chloe's life after she moves to Seattle, Chloe's father dying in a car crash, and her mom's new redneck boyfriend (who will, eventually, become Chloe's stepfather.) What we've yet to see is the cumulative effect these events on Chloe when no one's around. It was always up in the air just how much of Chloe's angst was performative, a shield to keep anyone from hurting her.

Before the Storm lets you step into Chloe's shoes for the much more complicated and painful truth. There is a lot of legitimate 16-year-old angst, and the game's more cringeworthy, trying-too-hard moments stem from the attempt to portray that. It quickly becomes obvious, however, just how casually cruel Arcadia Bay can be towards a relative outsider like Chloe. She needs more than her mother, her town, her life, can offer, and so far, Before the Storm makes an earnest go at navigating the oppressive weight of that harsh reality.

Unlike the original game, however, Before the Storm doesn't rely on a supernatural phenomenon to get its points across. This means no time travel, no rewinding and replaying moments, and no bunny-hopping between alternate timelines. Chloe's big gimmick is a Backtalk system, allowing you to start a timed dialogue tree based around finding the sharpest retort in any given situation. It's a creative twist, but this is also where Chloe's portrayal wavers between between believable and miscalculated.

Aesthetically, Before the Storm doesn't stray far from the original game, aside from trading a lot of its depth-of-field trickery for more evocative lighting. The aural landscape is right in line with the previous game's peaceful, lighter-than-air post-rock soundtrack, though a smattering of edgier songs grounds you in Chloe's--rather than Max's--reality. Gameplay is also familiar: walk around, interact or speak with everything you can, and make choices that dictate how Chloe speaks to others and interprets their interactions in the long run. Once again, it's striking just how many of those tiny interactions there are, and how many you can miss entirely, even if you're thorough.

The lack of a supernatural gimmick or a central mystery forces Before the Storm to find a new focus for the narrative, and it does, in the form of Chloe's burgeoning relationship with Rachel Amber. We finally meet this girl who so drastically changed who Chloe Price is, to the point where Max almost doesn't recognize Chloe the first time they meet in the original game, and whose disappearance sends Chloe's life into a tailspin.

Here, we see Rachel Amber as she was: A model student, beloved by everyone, undoubtedly ready to achieve her dreams, but whose sunny facade obscures serious damage, the extent of which Episode 1 of Before the Storm barely touches on. The second half of Before the Storm has Rachel and Chloe ditching school on a pure whim, and their day together is a whirlwind of new emotions, surprising vulnerability, and deep-seated resentments bubbling to the surface.

What ends up being the narrative thrust of Before the Storm is the attempt by the physically and emotionally scarred Chloe to let someone into her life after literally everyone who needed and deserved to be has vanished. Where Life Is Strange is a game of uncertainty and naivete blossoming into maturity, Before the Storm is a game of emotional Breakout, figuring out which walls to lower, when, and how to do so. There's nothing here to solve, no lives to save, just the challenging work of choosing to trust, even love, another human being.

Despite using the same graphical engine, the same gameplay elements, and some shared, familiar locations, the experience of inhabiting Chloe in Before the Storm is a completely new experience. Episode 1 promises a series that uses love and empathy as a sword and shield, the only way to either stay safe or strike back at a harsh life, harsher still by nature of being a teenager. That's a special ability we are so seldom asked to employ in games and it's so heartening to know there's at least two more episodes of Before the Storm where we get to do it again.

Warriors All-Stars Review

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 23:00

In yet another attempt to wring some more cash out of its famous Musou series (or Dynasty Warriors and its spin-offs, to you and I), Tecmo-Koei have had the bright idea of releasing a game in the Musou mould that throws together a bunch of characters from its various IPs.

Series fans might initially raise an eyebrow at this, as the Warriors Orochi games have combined Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors characters for some time now, and more recently characters from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden. But if Warriors All-Stars demonstrates anything, it's that Tecmo-Koei's back-catalogue is perhaps a little more varied than you thought.

The game plays out in typical Musou fashion, with you taking control of a general and proceeding to slash your way through literally hundreds of hapless enemies in each battle, and occasionally going toe-to-toe with an enemy general with similar abilities to your own. Charging up gauges by dealing or receiving damage allows you to unleash powerful attacks, and there are some light strategic elements at play as each battle features constantly shifting objectives that force you to make decisions about where to position yourself, which enemy generals to target, which allies to support, which bases to take control of, and so on.

This core loop of near-effortless wading through hordes of enemies with the occasional urgent objective or battle with another general, remains as compelling as ever. The series has a reputation as a mindless button-masher, not least because standard enemies seldom even attempt to attack you, but there's an alluring serenity to it at times, a satisfaction in neatly mopping up every last bit of red on the map before bringing the battle to a close. Moreover, while mastery of your chosen character's moveset doesn't initially seem a huge concern, it becomes essential as the difficulty ramps up and you're forced to juggle more and more time-sensitive objectives. Dealing with hordes of enemies is easy, but you really have to learn to do it as efficiently as possible.

All-Stars mostly sticks to this formula, but it does have a few ideas of its own. As well as picking the character you'll play as for each battle, you can also pick up to four other characters to accompany you. For the most part they'll simply follow you around and help you defeat enemies as you go, but they also each have a specific supporting move that can be triggered at will. These range from status effects, such as putting enemies to sleep, to creating a vortex that sucks all enemies in its range into a small area, allowing you to more easily dispatch them with a single combo. In addition to this, each of these characters can be called up to stand side-by-side with your character and mimic their actions, essentially forming a ludicrous wall of death for a limited time.

Chief among the new additions, though, is Musou Rush. You start each battle with the ability to perform one Rush, and once used you can recharge it by fulfilling certain objectives. When activated, some chirpy trumpets kick in and you become incredibly overpowered for a short period of time, as your chosen allies appear on-screen to cheer you on as if they're your biggest fans.

The best part of all is that it doesn't even matter if there aren't hundreds of enemies around to begin with--once you activate a Rush, the game just starts spawning them in front of you as fast as you can take them down. It makes absolutely no sense, but as a concession to the joys of player empowerment and the general idiotic brilliance of the Musou games, it's a wonderful thing to behold.

The diverse array of characters is an absolute joy ... Anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that’ll bring a smile to their face

The diverse array of characters in the game is also an absolute joy. When viewing the initial set of available warriors, it's easy to scoff at some of the more leftfield choices the developers have made; Sophie from Atelier, Arnice from Nights of Azure, Laegrinna from Deception… but it's fair to say that anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games (and you're reading a review of a Musou game, so: hi!) will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that'll bring a smile to their face, if only due to the sheer peculiarity of it. The inclusion of William Adams from this year's surprise hit Nioh is a fitting one; the inclusion of Opoona from the 2007 Wii RPG of the same name is less understandable, and all the more brilliant for it.

Easily the best character in the game is Oda Nobunyaga, from the Samurai Cats series that never made it to the West. Modelled mostly on the famous Japanese warlord with almost the same name, Nobunyaga differs slightly in that he is a tiny cat equipped with a rifle and a magnificent baritone voice. His attack combos repeatedly summon groups of his tiny gun-toting cat-soldiers to blast anyone in the vicinity, and he might actually be the best character to ever appear in a Musou game.

That said, players might be a little disappointed by the paucity of game modes on offer. While previous iterations have included story modes, free battles, multiplayer, and the superb Empires mode that sees players conquering their way across a map by strategically picking battles to take part in, All-Stars has a story mode, and nothing else.

People hardly flock to Musou games for their labyrinthine narrative, and All-Stars certainly isn't bucking the trend here. Of course, a game that pulls together dozens of characters from different franchises was never going to be massively coherent, but suffice it to say it's the usual guff about a royal family performing a hero-summoning magic ritual so they can get some help defeating evil incarnate and heal the land. Still, skipping the cutscenes is easy enough, and if nothing else the knowing-ridiculous premise combined with the boldly-coloured menus and upbeat soundtrack give the game a strong Saturday-morning cartoon vibe.

The aforementioned royal family has also helpfully split into three warring factions, each with their own storyline as well as unique playable characters and missions. So, even if you're not fussed about the story, there are plenty of excuses for multiple playthroughs and the option to take on non-essential missions throughout to strengthen your characters means there's certainly no shortage of things to do.

The trouble is that All-Stars has the misfortune of being released as the Dynasty Warriors 9 hype train is gathering speed, and Tecmo-Koei have made it quite clear that they're on the cusp of bringing substantial changes to the admittedly formulaic series. While it might seem unfair to judge All-Stars against a game that doesn't even have a release date yet, it's hard to see it as something more than a stopgap to keep fans happy while the promised headline act is still in development.

That doesn't stop Warriors All-Stars from being a lot of fun in its own right, though. Series newcomers might be better served by the likes of Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends or Hyrule Warriors--equally enjoyable games that can now be found at much lower prices--but All-Stars' twist on the standard Musou mechanics and the delightful whimsy of its whole premise certainly elevates it enough to make it an easy recommendation for veterans.

And once again, to be clear: you can play as a talking warlord cat with a gun.

Absolver Review

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 23:00

There's no other game quite like Absolver. Parisian indie developer, Sloclap, has defined it as an online melee action game, which is appropriate but doesn't quite tell the whole story. Dig a little deeper and you'll uncover an intriguing marriage between 3D fighting games, deck builders, and online open-world RPGs, with a broad spectrum of influences ranging from Tekken, to Dark Souls, God Hand, and even Journey. It's a curious transmogrification of contrasting genres, yet it's Absolver's third-person brawling, and the unique Combat Deck, that form the game's beating heart.

Your journey in Absolver begins when you arrive in the collapsed empire of Adal. Despite its modest size, this once thriving civilization is impressively varied. Whether it's the vibrant colours of the verdant Hunter's Path, the orange hues cast by the setting sun at Bird Callers Outpost, or the muted tinge that envelops the swamplands of the Forgotten Temple. Its cities and townships, too, are refreshingly diverse: the architecture is inspired by ancient cultures like the Vikings and Greeks, with large wooden halls sitting in stark contrast to the opulent white marble of the Tower of Adal. The clean, delightful simplicity of Absolver's art design--and its use of eye-catching colour--establishes cohesion between these distinct locales that gives Adal a crucial sense of place.

Yet the beauty of Absolver's lush greenery and glistening waterfalls belies the weary souls left behind in Adal's crumbling ruins. These solemn warriors failed on their search for absolution, and you'll hope not to succumb to the same fate.

[Absolver has] an unparalleled combat system that's immensely deep and provides a wonderful sense of ownership over your character

As a fresh-faced Prospect, your goal in Absolver is simple: defeat a series of mini-bosses known as the Marked Ones to gain entry into the Tower of Adal. Once there, you must fight your way to its summit, and face off against one final boss to prove your worth and earn the right to join the vaunted ranks of the Absolvers. This expedition isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds, of course, especially with so many battle-hardened warriors standing in your way. But the story in Absolver doesn't stretch itself much beyond this singular quest. There are some sprinklings of lore imparted by the few friendly NPCs you encounter on your travels, but the narrative is relatively minimalist. In truth, Absolver's tales will permeate from those who play it, manifested in the fighting styles they build themselves.

You see, combat in Absolver is fully customisable. As you explore the open-world of Adal, you'll wander into skirmishes and accrue attribute points that can be spent on levelling up familiar stats like strength, dexterity, vitality, and so on. As you engage in combat, however, you'll also gradually learn new moves by blocking, dodging, or parrying unknown attacks from your opponents. You start off with only a handful of moves, but there are 180 in total, and the only way to learn them all is by fighting enemies and other players that use them, or by joining a school where a highly ranked player can take you under their tutelage. It's a curious system that in some ways apes real life, as you learn new techniques simply by observing others. It also guarantees that even if you're fighting with no real objective in mind, there's a high chance you're going to make some progress towards unlocking new moves that can then be incorporated into your ever-growing arsenal.

This assortment of moves is displayed in Absolver's Combat Deck. Although you pick a fighting style at the game's outset that comes complete with its own defensive maneuvers and preset combos, you can go into the Combat Deck at any time and build your own moveset to completely alter the way you fight. In practice, there are four different combat stances that represent your orientation relative to your opponent: front left, front right, back left, and back right. Each move begins and ends in one of these stances, so if you map out a sequence of moves correctly, you can chain together long strings of combinations that elegantly flow from one stance to the next. You might begin a combo in the front left stance, throwing a couple of quick jabs that end in a guardbreaking palm strike and shift into the bottom right stance, enabling you to unleash a flurry of powerful kicks on a staggered foe. With various properties applied to some moves, and power, range, and speed benefits to consider, there's a lot to sink your teeth into. It's an unparalleled combat system that's immensely deep and provides a wonderful sense of ownership over your character.

There's a rhythmic beauty to the way the action flows that's entirely predicated on your timing. Button mashing is out of the question here; this is a graceful dance to the death, with thunderous uppercuts and balletic roundhouse kicks taking the place of pirouettes and allegros. When you perfect the timing of a sequence, it almost feels too good to be true, like you're part of an elaborately choreographed fight scene. You start mixing in deceptive feints to throw off your opponent's timing before striking back with brutal counter-attacks, and using dodges or parries to swiftly keep out of harm's way, while always being mindful of an ever-depleting stamina bar that governs every action. There's a palpable sense of weight to each sundering blow, too, so it feels satisfying when a forceful attack connects with a bone-shattering impact. Not to mention how rewarding it feels to put away an opponent with a sequence of attacks that's wholly your own.

And that last point is especially pertinent when it comes to fighting other players. Going mano-a-mano in competitive 1v1 duels regularly conjures Absolver's most thrilling moments. The combat really springs to life when you're staring down another player, wondering what surprises they have lurking within their Combat Deck. And it's here where Absolver most closely resembles a traditional fighting game. Matches are decided by whoever's first to three wins, with bespoke battle arenas disconnecting these brawls from the open-world. There's an exciting back-and-forth to these encounters as you get a feel for one another's movesets. And the dynamic of the fight often evolves over time, as you attempt to get a handle on your opponent's strategies and look for ways to counteract them or fail in the process. It's engaging stuff, but there is a downside.

While the combat in Absolver is predominantly fought hand-to-hand, weapons do make occasional appearances. Their inclusion in these 1v1 duels, however temporary, is unfortunate, as they feel overpowered and can hastily flip the landscape of a fight on its head. There's a risk and reward aspect at play, as weapons can be dropped and snatched up by your opponent, but at launch, a player brandishing a sword doesn't seem particularly balanced, and diminishes some of the enjoyment of these otherwise tense bouts.

The clean, delightful simplicity of Absolver's art design--and its use of eye-catching colour--establishes cohesion between these distinct locales that gives Adal a crucial sense of place.

Elsewhere, the rest of Absolver's multiplayer is seamless, with up to three players able to passively enter your game at any given time. You can choose to ignore them (and Absolver can be played offline), team up for cooperative PvE, or fight against each other in friendly sparring sessions. There's no real punishment for dying, which grants any player-on-player fisticuffs an air of lightheartedness. And with no text or voice chat to dilute the experience, it's easy to develop an unspoken bond with those you meet on your travels.

Cooperative play is spoiled somewhat by the messy nature of Absolver's multi-person brawls, however. When you're in a group, most fights are trivialised as you simply gank your targets into submission. And when you're on your own, their chaotic and defensive nature is a disappointing far cry from the finesse and purity of its one-on-one battles.

Absolver has a few problems, then, yet they're not impactful enough to take away from its unique strengths. There's a significant challenge involved in learning Absolver's combat intricacies, but it's the kind of struggle that rarely frustrates. Defeat is part and parcel of the experience, but your demise always teaches you something new that you can take with you into the next battle--and Absolver's deep, nuanced combat always finds ways of enticing you back for one more fight.

Last Day Of June Review

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 23:00

When tragedy strikes, we crave the ability to go back and change things. We grieve and yearn for a real-life rewind button that gives us a do-over. We often assume that future events are delicately determined based on every little decision that we make. Of course, in reality, events don't work like that--there's probably no one flashpoint that could be prevented to stop something from happening in the future. Last Day of June deals with the frustration, anger, grief, and hope that comes from this belief that changing one little thing could reverse a tragedy--perhaps save a person from death.

In Last Day of June, Carl and June, deeply and happily in love, have taken a day to go on an outing to one of their favorite places. They spend the day relaxing and simply enjoying each other's company. A thunderstorm cuts the day short, however, and on the way back home, the couple experiences a horrific tragedy. Suffering a car accident, June is killed and Carl is paralyzed from the waist down.

You take control of Carl years after the event, alone and still bearing the injuries of that day. Carl is presented with the opportunity to relive--over and over--the short time before June's death, from the perspectives of every other character who lives in their small community. You can change the outcomes of each character's story, slowly modifying the events of that day in a desperate attempt to somehow save June.

Throughout the story, Carl's grief is palpable. Although the story unfolds with no real dialogue or words, the game's beautiful art style and animations effectively convey his emotions--you're drawn into the desperation that Carl feels, and the faint hope that the portals to the past give him. This is true of all the characters; the love, loss, fear, and joy of all of them are made real. At first, it's confusing to follow the language of the characters, which is composed of nothing but indecipherable grunts and muttering. But after growing accustomed to it, verbal intonation and subtle body language sufficiently communicate the shape of conversations and the color of the characters' emotions, if not specific content.

This is made possible through Last Day of June's gorgeous art style. The entire world is rendered as if was a watercolor painting, with soft pastels, blended colors, and visible brushstrokes. Character models are Tim Burton-esque, with unnatural proportions and few defined features. But they fit the painterly environments, moving and interacting as if in a storybook. It's Last Day of June's best quality, and the story wouldn't have nearly the emotional impact without it. The likely narrative wouldn't even make sense without it, as the storybook quality provides the encouragement you need to fill in gaps (especially with the characters' communication) with your own imagination.

It's disappointing, then, that the core gameplay--reliving these moments again and again to try to change them--results in frustration. In Last Day of June, you do nothing but move around and complete quicktime events, which isn't inherently a problem if it's done effectively and paced well. But Last Day of June is based on performing repetitive actions--move down the road, press X, move, press X, complete the day, see what unfolds--while also watching the exact same scenes. Last Day of June's formula sounds interesting and engrossing in theory. In practice, it presents you with moments that feel little different than being forced to watch an unskippable cutscene.

This is particularly damaging in a game that relies so strongly on its emotional impact. The first time June died was heartbreaking. The eighth, ninth, and tenth times were just annoying. It's potentially a fatal flaw, because replaying the past is the entire conceit of the game. If it can't hold your concentration, or if you're desensitized to a critical event, then the resolution won't have any impact. There is something novel about simply inhabiting Last Day of June's world and trying to figure out what you need to do to change a character's outcome, but scenes are repeated too often for the positive moments to overcome the annoyance.

Further, the puzzle elements of the game--trying to figure out how to change the course of events--are themselves affected because, to succeed, you actually have to go back and redo characters' arcs that you've already completed previously. In a way, it's similar to the Tower of Hanoi: you can see exactly what you need to do to get a desired outcome, but the mechanics of the game force you to play through scenes multiple times to get the right combination of outcomes that you've already witnessed.

There is something novel about simply inhabiting Last Day of June's world and trying to figure out what you need to do to change a character's outcome, but scenes are repeated too often for the positive moments to overcome the annoyance.

The game's final moments are robbed of some of their potential because of just how many times you sit through the same events. Last Day of June does compress events to a certain extent, accelerating you to a point where you take control of the character at an important choice. But it never abridges the cutscenes enough, especially when it comes time to "end the day" and see how your choices had affected things. The day's conclusion changes slightly as you progress, but it would've been vastly improved had the game returned to its gameplay sooner.

Moreover, the Groundhog Day-esque nature of Last Day of June is even more frustrating because of loading times that are long enough to break immersion in the narrative. When each day concludes, you must load back into the game. Any time you jump into another character's perspective, you'll have to stare at a loading screen for about 30 seconds. It's worse on a PS4 than a PS4 Pro, but either way it's an issue. Traveling through a portal is far less exciting when you have to look at a white screen for several seconds.

It's a testament to the game's writing that many story moments still shine in spite of the frustrating mechanics and loading times. The small community of characters feels alive with a deep familial history and personal flourishes that made these characters believable. For example, you may empathize with the young boy who has no other child to play with and resorts to begging adults for companionship, and feel the weight of June's best friend's struggle with her own secret infatuation with Carl. The vignettes of the side characters give the game's story richness and flavor; you end up knowing them much better than you know Carl and June. Although that may also limit how invested you are in Carl and June's romance at any given moment, you appreciate the gravity and importance of the unintentional role each of these characters played in June's demise.

Last Day of June's brevity is its saving grace, buoying up a story that isn't done any favors by its gameplay loop. There is undoubtedly potential in a game that allows you to alter past events to reshape the present, and Last Day of June shows glimmers of promise; however, it also ruins the emotional impact of its most important event by forcing you to repeat it so many times. It's a big problem when players grow irritated with the story arc of the character that the game is named after. But this repetitiveness is mitigated in part because of touching, relatable side characters and because Last Day of June explores the philosophical struggle between determinism and free will in a way that's fairly rare in video games. Last Day of June succeeds when it doesn't focus specifically on the love story of Carl and June, but rather on their entire community and the way they confront mortality and fate.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:00

How Ubisoft's Rabbids become intertwined with Nintendo's Mushroom Kingdom, featuring Mario and friends, is unimportant. Ambivalence towards Rabbid-style toilet humor might cause you to question this dubious marriage, but there's an admirable and wholehearted commitment in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle that triumphs in creating a magical game world that is undeniably delightful, and within it, houses a deep, challenging turn-based tactical combat system.

The invasion of the dimwitted Rabbids brings out the sillier side of the Mushroom Kingdom, reminiscent of the Mario & Luigi RPG series, but with some interesting oddities. The humor is self-aware, a little more twisted, and conscious of the real world. This is likely the first time we've seen Mario's email get hacked, or heard antagonists threaten the plumber with actual death, for instance. But there's so much charm packed into every cartoony crevice of Mario + Rabbids--everything from the vibrant world, the incredibly expressive enemy animations, right down to the chuckle-worthy text descriptions of every item--that it's hard not to find something that makes you smile. But the most significant and strangest disruption to the lives of the Mario Bros. (aside from their new, creepy, Rabbid doppelganger allies) are guns, explosives, and an imperative to use them.

Those familiar with Firaxis Games' reboot of the XCOM series will know what to expect: Turn-based conflicts take place on a gridded, isometric battlefield where projectile weapons, cover, and flanking are a major focus. However, Kingdom Battle twists that design heavily by introducing abilities and options which encourage a more aggressive style of fighting, as well as situational urgencies to create a faster-paced, more exciting ebb and flow to battle compared to its influences.

Unlike other tactical games, combatants are allowed to perform movement, attacks, and special abilities in a single turn and in any order. This means using a special ability doesn't stop you from attacking during that same turn, movement doesn't need to be your first consideration, and you don't need to finish performing all actions with one character before using another. Characters also can use their movement phase to attack, by selecting enemies to "dash" into on the way to an end point, and reach out-of-range locations by moving into allies and getting a boost, a technique called 'team jump'. A variety of special abilities across characters allow you to perform actions such as increase weapon damage, scare enemies away from a location, and attack on enemy movement--a parallel to XCOM's Overwatch ability. Altogether, the flexibility of how these abilities can be used and how they can be combined, as well as the reward incentive for exceptional performance, means that you're pushed to perform elaborate team maneuvers every turn and take big, satisfying risks.

You might use Rabbid Luigi to dash through an enemy and into cover (stealing health at the same time), finish them off with a shot from his Bworb weapon, and send Mario in to use Rabbid Luigi as a springboard to execute a team jump and stomp on the head of another enemy hiding behind cover, softening them up for a finisher with Mario's hammer. Or, you could use Rabbid Mario's Magnet Dance ability to draw three enemies closer together, use his movement ability to Boom Dash through them all before returning to safety, before switching over to Luigi and activating his Steely Stare ability to attack enemies on movement. Then, you can send in an explosive Sentry drone which bounces the group of enemies up into the air, whereby Steely Stare is activated and Luigi snipes--and eliminates--each enemy like a clay pigeon, proving himself as the cold-blooded deadshot he has always been. Finding opportunities to perform complex action strings like these and having them pay off is incredibly exhilarating, and it's in these moments where Kingdom Battle is its best.

But these moments don't happen all the time, and they're not always worth the risk. Reaching these highs in battle is all the more sweeter since the combat design incorporates factors that constantly keeps you on your toes. Most cover is easily destroyed, for example, and a firing position you set yourself up in at the end of your last turn can just as easily be vapourised by the first enemy to act, leaving you completely exposed to follow-up attacks. Similarly, you could be hit by a weapon with a super effect, potentially setting you on fire and causing you to run out of cover like a maniac, or blocking your ability to perform certain actions.

Enemy Rabbids can be highly aggressive and cunning, especially in later stages. Rabbid Smashers gain free movement and can potentially hurt your team with devastating attacks if you hit them during your turn. Rabbid Shield Bucklers can only be hurt from the side or from behind, but also pack a powerful weapons that shred through destructible cover and can bounce your team around the map, making it hard to get the upper hand. You could also be the cause of your own demise, since friendly fire is a factor, and powerful characters like Peach, Rabbid Mario, and Yoshi specialise in area-of-effect damage. Escort and traversal missions, as well as the handful of boss battles, introduce additional objectives to chase. On top of that, you'll have to keep in mind the long cooldowns on secondary weapons and special abilities, as well as your party's health status, which persists within a chapter--a close victory might mean using the same team members in the next fight puts you at a disadvantage. Kingdom Battle's combat will have you agonising over every facet of every possible action during each of your turns, hoping you make it out okay enough to keep fighting, and well enough for a 'Perfect' grade to earn more coins and Power Orbs needed for upgrades.

Thankfully, agonizing is made easy because of the game's clean combat interface and the clear communication of pertinent information. At a glance, you're able to see the kinds of actions your team members still have available to perform in a turn. Full and half cover is clearly marked, and the visual design of the arenas makes it obvious what is and isn't destructible. Kingdom Battle uses a numerical percentage system to denote the chance for an attack to make contact, but unlike its clearest inspiration, XCOM, the only numbers you'll see are 0%, 50%, and 100%. This means you know what the hit outcome of your attack will be with confidence--including how much health you'll take off and whether your attack will eliminate the enemy--or you'll be completely certain that the outcome will be uncertain. There's a larger variety of chance when it comes to inflicting status effects, but at no point will you throw your hands up in frustration because Princess Peach missed a 90% probability shotgun blast to a Rabbid's stupid face.

Kingdom Battle also features an incredibly useful tactical camera view, which can be used both before and during battle. Here, the camera pulls back and gives you an opportunity to better survey the landscape freely, and get precise information on the movement, abilities, and attack ranges of your foes. The game also gives you the option to completely redistribute character skill points on a whim, and restart a skirmish at any time--both without punishment. You might find yourself fighting a losing battle due to completely unsuitable team composition, but Kingdom Battle encourages you to experiment with different strategies by restarting the mission, re-surveying the battlefield, swapping out team members, and changing their strengths in order to suit the situation. The game offers an easy mode option that boosts your team's health, but still demands the same tactical thinking. The result is that, despite its difficulty, Kingdom Battle radiates a feeling of encouragement much more than it does frustration in its mechanical design alone.

There's another layer on top of that, though. Outside of the battles, you run Mario and friends through the silly, lighthearted world of a Mushroom Kingdom that's been invaded by butt-scratching Rabbids and their slapstick antics, and spending time in this world is the perfect dose of positivity to keep you going after a tough fight. It's the seamlessness of the world which gives Kingdom Battle its greatest feeling of character and place--exploration and puzzle segments blend into battle arenas, and a small checkpoint banner is the only distinction between stages. Each world feels like a huge, tangible location as a result. Mildly challenging environmental puzzles occasionally gate the way forward, but never halt the pace of events, and mainstays of Mario platforming games, such as red rings and coin rooms, provide the odd distraction every once in awhile. There are compelling reasons to go back and revisit worlds, too. Upon the completion of an area for the first time, you'll unlock a new exploration ability and are invited to search previously inaccessible areas for chests and secret stages, as well as take on new challenge battles for additional rewards.

There were some slight technical imperfections that occurred during our playthrough. Clipping would occasionally occur during scene transitions, and framerates would sometimes drop visibly in combat during cinematic action shots, especially those with a large amount of particle effects. On rare occasions, characters and enemies would become stuck, meaning we were forced to load from checkpoints and restart battles. But the sting of these problems was quickly forgotten, washed away by the attractive world, absorbing battles, and lovely orchestral reinterpretations of classic Mario themes.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle exudes off-beat optimism that never dissolves. It's a consistent delight, no matter how challenging the road becomes, because Kingdom Battle's unique turn-based tactics system is in every way a pleasure to engage with. Coupled with the annoyingly infectious allure of Rabbids, and the always delightful, colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an implausibly engrossing formula that is positively challenging and endlessly charming.

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