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Life Is Strange: Before The Storm Review - Keep the Good Times Rolling

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 06:00

It's rare that a prequel truly works, where a story can captivate despite the audience knowing what's coming and where the path will lead. Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is one of those exceptional stories because it draws you in on its own terms. The only problem: You know it's building you up just to break your heart.

As we know, the original Life Is Strange is steeped in tragedy. Maxine Caulfield's estranged friend Chloe Price comes riding back into her hometown, hoping to find her missing friend, Rachel Amber. The search brings Chloe and Max close again after years apart, but it also illustrates a vast gulf in their life experience, which never fully closes. Max's life is defined by good fortune and privilege. Chloe, as seen through Before The Storm, is defined by loss.

When Episode 1 starts, Chloe is forced to finagle her way into an underground metal concert with nothing but street smarts and her own awkward sense of sass. She's not yet as sharp and hardened as the girl we meet in the original game, but she has it in her to become stronger as life gets tough. That girl's outlook on life is everywhere in Before The Storm: the greyer, evocative, post-rock soundtrack compared to the sunny lilt of the original game, the sneering commentary of the information in the menus. The Backtalk system—a stand-in for Life Is Strange's time travel mechanic—gives you even more control over the flow of a conversation to get what you want. It's a way to portray Chloe's very human strengths that sadly doesn't get implemented often enough in the latter two episodes.

Whoever you choose to make Chloe become, meeting Rachel shifts her focus. In the original game, Rachel is to Arcadia Bay what Laura Palmer is to Twin Peaks: a bonafide popular girl whose absence seems to mean everything to everyone, but who no one seems to really know on a personal level. Chloe Price, however, did know her, and Before The Storm gives you the chance to find out what was so special about Rachel in Chloe's eyes.

On the surface, the answer seems to be nothing. Episode 1 has Chloe and Rachel playing hooky, and trying to suss each other out, which doesn't tell you anything you couldn't guess on your own. It's only after Rachel catches her District Attorney father in a compromising act that she metaphorically bares everything, revealing she and Chloe aren't as different as they seem.

Before The Storm's three episodes are roughly two hours each, depending on how compulsive you are about exploring every nook and cranny. Compared to the original game, which leaned heavy on the implications of Max's time travel, Before the Storm has no real supernatural crutch to lean on to solve the world's problems. What few flights of fancy there are--aside from a heartwarming impromptu Shakespeare performance in Episode 2--manifest as occasional dream sequences, more for Chloe to sort through her own grief than to affect the world around her. The real world around Chloe continues to crumble, and your choices tend to fall on the side of figuring out how to sort the remains. It's choices like figuring out how best to deal with being kicked out of school, whether it's worth upsetting Chloe's mother to clap back at her trashy gun-nut stepfather, or parse out how much basic respect to give the gossip girls on Blackwell Academy's campus.

The heart of it all remains Chloe's relationship with Rachel. It's a textbook case of two people finding someone worth clinging to, and taking it on good will that their faith in each other isn't misplaced at best or going to get them killed at worst. Episode 3 veers ever slightly off into low-grade cable-TV drama, but even that's played earnestly, with Chloe and Rachel's mistakes having tangible, believable consequences, and choosing how Chloe deals with her failings is endlessly captivating to play through.

That captivation is, of course, the problem, if you can call it that. It's a game that so admirably and genuinely builds a relationship between two girls who absolutely need and deserve each other; when it gets to the ugly business of reminding you where it ends, it sours and saddens every moment. You could use your choices to keep Rachel at a bit of distance, but even that distance feels unfair, because why wouldn't both girls deserve their momentary bliss?

Still, Before The Storm's main three episodes largely play out as though the future isn't set in stone, allowing you to craft something resembling a momentary win for an ill-fated relationship, entertaining the notions of coping and vulnerability in ways very few games typically have time or inclination to. The bittersweet cherry on top, however, is contained in the game's Deluxe Edition, a final episode that allows you to play through Max and Chloe's last beautiful day together before Max leaves for Seattle. It's light, whimsical, often funny, and bathed in a gentle golden nostalgia. And once again, its final moments bring truth rushing in, and it's a stab in the heart.

This, apparently, is the heartbreaking joy that is Life Is Strange: the inevitability that life will do terrible, unexpected things to people whose presence we love, and people who absolutely deserve better. Developer Deck Nine's contribution through Before the Storm posits that the pain is still worth it; just to have the time at all is enough. A storm is still coming to Arcadia Bay, and Rachel will still disappear one day, and it doesn't matter. Being able to spend time with Chloe when her heart is at its lightest, and putting in the work to keep it going, is powerful and worthwhile.

Penny-Punching Princess Review: In For A Pound

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 00:00

Penny-Punching Princess opens by declaring that, in the age of capitalism, money is where real power comes from. This is a game about a princess who needs to accumulate wealth to get revenge on the Dragaloan Family, who sent her father into poverty and death with their harsh interest rates. It's an intriguing, startling note for a cutesy beat-em-up game to open on. This isn't a 'message' game--don't go in expecting a searing critique of capitalism, as it's largely played for laughs--but this framing device immediately makes it clear that this brawler is going to be different. It might not be in the top-tier of its genre, but at the very least Penny-Punching Princess is unique.

The game is an isometric beat-em-up, in which fighting is your main form of interaction with the world. There are no puzzles to solve, and the level design is extremely simple, to the point of being universally uninteresting, designed just to funnel you between fights--the extent of permissive exploration is simply a matter of going left when your compass is telling you to go right. When a fight starts, the Princess (or Isabella, a zombified second playable character that you unlock a few hours in) can perform quick punches, use a stronger charge attack, or roll to safety. It's not the deepest system, and your defensive options are limited.

Most fights involve a few waves of enemies, usually of increasing danger, and generally, there will be traps, like buzzsaws, giant rolling balls, and fields of poison, to avoid too. The Princess and Isabella play very differently, although most players will likely attach themselves to a favourite rather than swapping between them--I stopped using the Princess almost entirely after unlocking Isabella. Unfortunately, there's not much variety in the game beyond this choice between the two. The arenas you fight in throw more and more traps at you as the difficulty ramps up towards the end of a chapter, but no specific encounter every really stands out.

When you beat enemies to a certain point, the word 'break' appears over them, and if you rotate the right stick, coins will spill out of them. Coins are important during a fight, as they can be used to bribe both enemies and traps. Enemies vary in price depending on their power, but if you bribe an enemy not only will it disappear from the battlefield, but you'll be able to summon it to fight for you. You can bribe traps too, meaning that they'll stop hurting you and can be turned onto enemies. Traps are more cost-effective--they're cheaper and tend to do a lot of damage--but using them properly also means that you need to lure your enemies into range. Leading a powerful enemy right into a trap and doing massive damage is extremely satisfying, even if most of the game's boss fights come down to you leading a huge enemy from trap to trap. During hectic battles, it's hard to know exactly what you're about to bribe--the Princess can be more exact, but in the heat of the moment you're more likely to just nab whatever is directly in front of you--which can get frustrating.

Every enemy and object you bribe gets added to your collection, which can be cashed in to build new armour and Zenigami Statues (which are effectively the currency used for stat upgrades). A piece of armour, for instance, might require you to have previously bribed five of a specific minor enemy, two of a stronger, more expensive enemy, and two buzzsaw traps. Each piece carries a price like this, and if you're missing something the level select screen handily highlights four enemies and traps you'll encounter in each individual level. Upgrading your armour is essential--occasionally you'll hit enormous difficulty spikes and realise that you're under-equipped, at which point you'll typically need to jump back into earlier levels and grind to collect specific bribe targets (and search for treasure chests, many of which contain additional Zenigami statues).

The grind is rarely too severe if you're being mindful and upgrading as you go, but the difficulty spikes can hit hard. It's frustrating when you reach the end of a level only to find that the final boss is far too powerful for you to take on, and the checkpointing, which can be somewhat capricious, means that you'll often have to redo easier fights just to reach the more difficult ones again. My frustration only occasionally boiled over to the point where I had to step away for a moment, but there was also rarely a real sense of reward for having beaten a difficult level, because you know the next level is just going to involve doing the same thing again.

All of this is presented without too much flourish. The sprite-based character designs are occasionally charming (Sebastian, a stag-beetle who acts as the princess' butler and appears in pre-and-post-level interstitials, is pretty funny), and the weird script plays up the game's irreverence to good effect, but it's difficult to really get invested in Penny-Punching Princess' cycle of punching and spending. While the game is moderately entertaining and has its moments it just doesn't offer lasting satisfaction. Penny-Punching Princess doesn't set its sights particularly high, and while it feels like it's achieving what it intended, it's hard not to wish there was a little more to it.

God Of War Review: Divine Bloodshed

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 17:01

The God of War series has, until now, stuck very close to the standards set in the original 2005 game. More than a decade (and many games) later, it makes sense that Sony would want to mix things up for the aged hack-and-slash series. Like so many popular franchises that have reinvented themselves in recent years, the new God of War dips into the well of open-world RPG tropes. It also shifts its focus to Norse mythology, casting off the iconic Greek gods and legends that provided the basis for every previous game.

These major shifts don't signal the end of God of War as we know it, rather they allow the series' DNA to express itself in new ways. There are many reasons why the structural transformations are a good thing, but it's what's become of Kratos, the hulking death machine, that leaves a lasting impression. A furious, bloodthirsty icon has transformed into a sensitive father figure. Part of him retains the old violent tendencies that made him a star long ago. However, with his young son Atreus to protect and guide, we also see Kratos take a deep breath and bury his savage instincts in order to set a positive example.

Watching Kratos take care in nurturing his child's sensibilities does feel a bit jarring at the start, but thanks to the natural writing, fitting voice actors, and flawless animation, it's easy to get sucked into the duo's journey and buy into their mutual growth. Though he is a teacher, Kratos carries a mountain of grief and self pity that only the innocence of his son can help him overcome. And Atreus experiences his own ups and downs that might have set him down a very different path if not for Kratos' guiding hand.

Atreus was raised in isolation from the dangers of the wild world around him, and rightfully fails to grasp his place in it when confronted with the realities of a land protected by and under siege from gods. It's the death of his mother prior to the start of the game that thrusts Atreus and Kratos outward; her dying wish was to have her ashes spread atop the highest peak in the land. As if wild predators and ghastly fiends weren't obstacles enough, representatives from the pantheon of Norse mythology arise in an attempt to disrupt their mission, establishing the amplified stakes and the clash of impressive forces that you expect from God of War.

And like its predecessors, God of War is a technical and artistic showcase. It is without a doubt one of the best-looking console games ever released, with every breathtaking environment and mythical character exhibiting impressive attention to detail and beautifying flourishes aplenty. The vision behind all of this is evident in Kratos' meticulously grizzled physique and weathered equipment, in the atmospheric effects that transform believably rustic environments into the stuff of dreams, and in the overall design and structure of the world itself.

The majority of the journey is set in the realm of Midgard. At its heart lies a wide lake that you can explore by canoe, with a coastline dotted by optional puzzles, formidable opponents, and entrances to the map's primary regions. Your mission will carry you through to most of these places, and along the way you'll likely take note of inaccessible pathways and glimpses of sealed treasures. There's always ample room to explore off the main path and good reasons to give into curiosity regardless, but these teases in particular spur you to re-examine previously visited areas as your capabilities expand.

With the boy fighting by your side, firing arrows or choking unsuspecting enemies, you will team up against corrupted cave trolls, face towering beasts, and fight hundreds of intelligent supernatural warriors during your travels. Kratos prefers to use an axe these days, which functions very differently than the chained Blades of Chaos he's known for. This comes with the very satisfying and cool ability to magically summon your weapon to your hand (like Thor and his hammer), a move that never gets old.

And really, neither does combat in general. The new over-the-shoulder camera brings you directly into the fray, and consequently limits your view. You can't see enemies from all angles at once and must be on guard at all times. By default the game provides proximity icons to alert you of incoming attacks, but it's worth tinkering with the UI for a more immersive experience as you get the hang of how fights flow.

It's rare that you can actually spam combos without putting yourself at risk, and this emphasis on mindfulness solidifies God of War's graduation from the traditional hack-and-slash doldrums. The realities of fighting with an axe also makes skirting away from harm an exacting process. But when variables align and you get to lay into an enemy, Kratos' dexterous axe handling allow him to hit hard, and give you the opportunity to flex his might with a bit of style.

The basic set of close-range combos and weapon behaviors can be expanded by pouring experience points into a skill tree and by activating magical rune abilities that bind to your two attack inputs. There are a lot of options to consider and tactics to learn, including skill trees for fighting empty-handed. There's a wonderful rhythm to be found when switching from axe to fists, and then into Kratos' satisfyingly brutal execution moves, all the while ducking and rolling out of harm's way.

God of War's combat is already great at the start, but it gets better as it steadily introduces one new layer after another. You can absolutely stumble into incredibly punishing enemies that are made easier with adept timing and mastery of every available skill, but you can also succeed at any level so long as you've mastered the art of parrying and dodging incoming attacks.

Atreus can't be configured to the same extent that Kratos can, but there are still a lot of ways to tailor his capabilities to your liking. The arrows he fires can be laced with different types of magic, with multiple elemental and functionality upgrades, and he eventually gains the ability to summon spectral animals that can harm and distract enemies, or collect items. Thanks to the smart button layout, it's actually very easy to both attack and defend as Kratos while also commanding Atreus. God of War gives you plenty to do in any given moment and makes you feel like an experienced warrior in the process.

The armor that Kratos and Atreus wear can influence a range of character stats, elemental affinities, and may include slots for enchantments that grant further bonuses. Armor can be purchased or crafted using the few resources scattered about the world, and can be upgraded by the game's two blacksmiths: two dwarven brothers constantly at odds with each other. There's Brok, the foul-mouthed blue dwarf, and Sindri, a far more gentle yet tragically germophobic fellow--a gag that is usually funny, though occasionally pushed a bit too hard.

As enjoyable as those two can be, it's Mimir that ultimately steals the show. The horned, one-eyed sage accompanies you and Atreus for the majority of the game, serving as your guide to Midgard, and an inside source into the ins and outs of Norse politics. Mimir and the blacksmiths have strong individual personalities, as with every other character you meet during the course of the game. We're keeping other identities vague in general to avoid spoilers, but regardless of who you bump into, God of War's cast is strong, convincing, and oddly enchanting. But the real accomplishment is how, even though there are just a handful of characters to interact with, their big personalities color your adventure with tantalizing anecdotes that draw you into the world and imbue the land with a tangible sense of history.

If there's any piece of the overarching mission that feels like a letdown, it's the final battle against the primary antagonist. He's great from a narrative standpoint, unraveling in a manner that changes your perspective, but it's the fight itself that leaves you wanting. There are plenty of big boss battles and tests of skill throughout the course of the game, yet this fight doesn't reach the same heights, and feels like it was played a little safe. It could be an effect of configuring Kratos and Atreus just so, or it may just be too easy to begin with. Thankfully, that's not all the game has up its sleeve.

Two optional areas in particular seem designed with the endgame in mind. The first, Muspelheim, offers a series of battles in arenas surrounded by lava flows and scorched earth. Some trials are merely fights against strong enemies, while others require you to defeat waves in quick succession--if even one enemy remains alive, it only takes a few seconds for others to resurrect automatically. The other realm, Niflheim, is randomly generated every time you visit, but it's always filled with poisonous gas. The goal there is to survive for as long as possible while racking up kills and collecting treasure, and escape before the poison takes hold. Both locations offer tense and rewarding pursuits that are only accessible if you play at your best.

And odds are that you'll be so hooked by the story's pacing and procession of events that there will be plenty of other side activities left in Midgard after the credits roll. God of War isn't set in a massive open world, but it is stuffed with secrets and quests. Where most games with long and diverse quest opportunities tend to run a bit stale by the end, God of War has the opposite effect. It's far longer than it needs to be, though you hope you never run out of things to do.

In many ways God of War is what the series has always been. It's a spectacular action game with epic set pieces, big-budget production values, and hard-hitting combat that grows more feverish and impressive as you progress. What may surprise you is how mature its storytelling has become. Like Kratos, God of War recalls the past while acknowledging the need to improve. Everything new it does is for the better, and everything it holds onto benefits as a result. Kratos is no longer a predictable brute. God of War is no longer an old-fashioned action series. With this reboot, it confidently walks a new path that will hopefully lead to more exciting adventures to come.

Extinction Review - A Giant Mess

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 14:00

Don't let the AAA price tag fool you into thinking Extinction is a high-end product. It ain't, and there's nothing in the game--not even cutscenes--that come close to approaching the level of quality seen in its lavish, pre-launch cinematic trailer.

Discovering Extinction's sub-standard quality is frustrating because its premise is very enticing, and there are moments early on when it feels like it's primed to deliver. As a warrior who's capable of sprinting up walls, soaring through the air, and channeling sacred energy to tap into supernatural strength, you go toe-to-toe against incredibly tall and powerful giants. Taking them down requires you to lop off limbs and dismantle armor, building up enough energy to deliver a killing blow: a whirlwind slice through the back of their neck. Yes, it's obviously inspired by Attack on Titan--you even have a whip that can be used to latch onto hook points and pull yourself through the air.

Zipping across a city to reach a faraway objective, with your character effortlessly scaling walls and bouncing off treetops and canopies to avoid touching the ground altogether, can be enjoyable. And the early battles against the first few giants definitely strike a chord, with their impressive scale and intricately textured body parts giving their artificial bodies a dash of realism. It's all well and good while you're learning the ropes, but these initial thrills fade fast. Extinction quickly transitions into an incredibly repetitive game that fails to build upon its promising foundation.

The excitement of battling giants--easily the game's most admirable piece--wanes quickly. Despite the variations that appear over time, their behavior barely deviates from the standards set early on. Most often, you're merely challenged to target different types of vulnerable objects that bind their armor together, but as you pour points into the upgrade tree to unlock things like extended slow-motion attacks, your character's abilities scale quickly enough that these added steps are no more than inconvenient speed bumps in practice.

In order to get to the back of a giant's neck to take it out for good, you will most often need to cut off one of its legs to make it fall to the ground. Alternatively, some giants have bits and pieces that you can latch onto with your whip, though this system is largely too cumbersome to rely upon. It's very easy for the game to misinterpret its auto targeting and send you flying in the opposite-than-intended direction. Rather than a fun and reliable mainstay, your grapple ability is relegated to Plan-B status.

Nine times out of ten, a hit from a giant means instant death. Your only defensive options are to keep your distance--not always easy, given how close you need to be to cut off their limbs off--or to dodge out of harm's way before an incoming strike. Giants are so big that these attacks often come without warning, save for small red icons that appear near your character's head that are easy to miss while scrambling to simultaneously attack and stay alive.

Should you die, you respawn back into the stage with all your progress intact, but being brought back to life in this way sometimes puts you at an unreasonable disadvantage. Each stage is filled with buildings that giants will gradually destroy until interrupted; when the city is totally leveled, you fail the mission. Many times you respawn at the entry point of a location, which forces you to sprint back all the way back to the fight while a giant whittles away at the remaining buildings in your absence. In light of the great potential for one-hit deaths, being sent back to the beginning of the stage doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Extinction is made by Iron Galaxy, a studio with experience making fighting games. There are reminders of fighting game mechanics within but any depth hinted at by the presence of super-armor and invincibility frames is shot down when you get a glimpse at the three combo lists. Practically every combo is executed with a single button and is only mixed up depending on when you decide to hold it down or delay the next input. Not that you need to master these skills in the first place. You can't damage giants with basic attacks, and smaller enemies are too dumb to put up a good fight.

And if you thought your sword, which is capable of slicing a giant's arm off, would be able to make quick work of an enemy 10 times smaller, you'd be wrong. The same attack you use to slice through bone a meter thick will only kill the most basic type of enemy, leaving others with plenty of health left over to keep fighting.

During missions where your only goal is to rescue citizens, the game arbitrarily changes the rules of engagement, but even then, not consistently. Most stages allow you to activate rescue towers at a normal rate regardless of the number of low-level enemies in the area. But in some rescue missions, suddenly it's "too dangerous" to attempt to activate a tower with nearby monsters, a proclamation from your partner that causes the charge rate to drop to unreasonably slow levels. But in later instances this is no longer the case, and rescue missions can be completed in two minutes or less as a result. Whether by design or by accident, there's a fundamental lack of consistency; some stages change the primary objective after you complete the task presented to you at the start, which, given the destructibility of cities, can put you in an unexpectedly frustrating position.

Perhaps the game's most damning quality is the fact that its story missions are often set in procedurally generated environments. That isn't bad in theory, but Extinction's random stages are typically flat and incredibly similar, and they aren't even in predetermined locations, which completely nullifies any chance of connecting with the story at hand. If giants level a city in one mission, how is it suddenly rebuilt in the next? Your guess is as good as mine. Likewise, the random generation of locations and giants (and their arrangement) can change the difficulty of a particular level from one playthrough to the next. You never quite know if you should press on during a challenging run, or just re-roll and try out a different permutation from scratch.

The story driving you through all of this is told primarily through conversations at the start and the end of a mission. In both cases, the in-game world freezes and static portraits pop up, along with a frustratingly small text box that can only fit two lines of text at a time, even when far more is usually said. While you watch text scroll through this box, dialogue is read aloud at a snail's pace by decent voice actors trapped behind hackneyed writing. The skip button quickly becomes your best friend.

You do get 2D cutscenes between missions on very rare occasions, but the hand drawn art is rough. The fact that only some cutscenes are properly animated while others are storyboard-grade stop-motion is guaranteed to cause concern. Even the game's ending, arguably a pivotal moment deserving of some investment in cinematic flair, is of the stop-motion variety, no more impressive than dressed-up placeholder art.

Extinction shoots itself in the foot time and time again. It's so frustrating to see its good ideas buried under repetitive missions, a forgettable story, and embarrassing production values for its AAA price. Play one hour of it and you've basically done a bit of everything it has to offer; then it's rinse and repeat for as long as you can bear to stick with it. It's a frail and monotonous game destined for the bargain bin.

Fortnite: Battle Royale Review - Laying The Foundation

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 02:00

For a game that was long in development as a cooperative horde-based shooter, the conspicuous and relatively quick addition of battle royale to Fortnite seemed to be a move to capitalize on a trend. However, its seemingly simple building system and loose shooting mechanics not only set it apart from other games built on the same premise, but work extremely well to make a uniquely chaotic and surprisingly deep deathmatch experience.

Everything about Fortnite's presentation emits a lighthearted tone. You start a match by jumping out of a party bus held up by balloons that flies across the game's massive map. Weapons, ammo, and health items litter its silly-named cities, all using alliteration--Tomato Town, Moisty Mire, Tilted Towers, to name a few. Even enemies don't really die; they're teleported away after getting knocked out. Valuable loot is found inside pinatas called supply llamas, for crying out loud. Players throw up basic structures formed out of thin air and firearms brightly express their trajectory. But don't let that first impression fool you; the further you get into a match, the more you see how Fortnite's gameplay elements have to be used in clever and complex ways to emerge victorious.

Unique to Fortnite is a streamlined building system comprised of four components: walls, ramps, floors, and roofs. These are constructed with three different types of materials that you either mine with a pickaxe or scavenge across the map; wood, stone, and metal each have their own properties in terms of durability and build speed. You can further modify structures to have windows and doors. It seems convoluted, but thanks to snappy grid-based layouts and the intuitive control scheme, getting the hang of building isn't much of a hurdle.

At first glance, it's as if Fortnite's original Save The World mode had its mechanics haphazardly dropped into the 100-player last-person-standing premise. But this is the foundation that makes for a myriad of tactical possibilities, like creating a sky-high staircase to climb a mountain to get the higher ground or swiftly fabricating your own cover as you run across an open field to close in on opponents. Literally, bridging the gap between mountains can turn long-range shootouts into close-quarters brawls. Fortnite's dynamic building system always gives you the opportunity to improvise, even when you think your back is against the wall.

For example, players will often shield themselves with structures that act as makeshift bunkers. To undercut that, you could put the pressure on them by constructing your own set of ramps leading into their territory to force a fair fight and eliminate an otherwise well-protected enemy. In these moments, the intrinsically rewarding nature of Fortnite shines through. Conflict isn't just about landing a precise shot or spotting the enemy first; quick wit and improvisation with the given toolset put you in a position to create your own path to success. Eliminations and victories feel very much earned, especially because the late-game often consists of which player or squad has the best architectural acumen in the ever-changing safe zones.

While construction is imperative for victory, so is destruction. Every object in the world of Fortnite can be destroyed. Even as players create their own formidable defense, no one is ever safe for long in battle. A well-placed rocket or remote explosive can quickly dismantle a large, complex fort; if a multi-story tower doesn't have a strong foundation, blasting it from underneath will bring those up high back down to earth. Even a subtle tactic like breaking down a single wall and throwing up a ramp to infiltrate in an imposing fort can prove just as effective.

Approaches to combat also rely on the weapons you scavenge. A typical arsenal made up of rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, and pistols have colored tiers to indicate varying levels of power and rarity. Each gun has a sensible use-case, however, traps and explosives mix things up a bit. This is another aspect in which Fortnite diverges from many other battle royale games; shooting is fast and loose, akin to an arena shooter. Mid-range firefights and close-quarters combat feel more like a fatal dance in and around the structures plopped into the environment. Bunnyhopping with a tactical shotgun is common at close range and spraying assault rifles is standard operation. Fortnite isn't a tactical shooter in the traditional sense, but offers its own bevy of strategic options to keep players on their toes.

Enemy engagement still carries the risk you expect from games of this ilk by nature of having one life per match and the relatively quick time-to-kill. Even after downing a Chug Jug for full health and shield, well-placed shots from a legendary or epic weapon will make short work of anyone. However, the brisk pace at which matches move trades unnerving tension for a higher frequency of action. Yet, as with any battle royale game, looting for resources sits at the core of matches and eats up much of your time. The system in place for loot and resource gathering is efficient, but it grows tiresome after consecutive matches as swinging the pickaxe at trees and houses for necessary materials grows increasingly repetitive.

Another area in which Fortnite is a bit thin is in its map design, a shortcoming that's twofold. The sprawling lone map features a variety of cute, thematic areas: Its metropolis of Tilted Towers and suburbs of Pleasant Park contrast the swamps of Moisty Mire and the countryside of Anarchy Acres. Regardless, there's a feeling many of the map's landmarks lack sophistication in physical layouts and density in loot placement. To its credit, the map's verticality brings the best out in your construction abilities, but city centers like Tomato Town have little to work with when two squads land in the area. A slightly more intricate town like Snobby Shores is sometimes devoid of useful items. It'd be easier to overlook this if you didn't have to trek across to a nearby town on foot that's likely to have been looted, but such is the case.

In just about half a year, Epic has demonstrated strong support with a consistent rollout of new content. Those who have been playing the game are aware of the limited-time modes that put a slight twist on the standard mode. Snipers-only or explosives-only matches have added a neat touch, but past modes like 50v50 or Teams of 20 do much more to change Fortnite's pace and open up new ways to play the game. If that's any indication, Fortnite could have plenty more to offer as it evolves further.

This is a free-to-play game, so you should be aware that it sustains itself through microtransactions. A $10 Battle Pass opens a slew of skins to earn and provides new goals to work towards. It's a reasonable system in that these objectives reward you with cosmetic items that visibly pop within Fortnite's bright art style. There's nothing to infringe on how the game plays, thankfully. If you wish to engage in making your pickaxe to look like a toy, don seasonal outfits, or get the latest viral dance as an emote, you either put in the time to earn it or shell out money for the game's V-Bucks.

While there are several moving parts in the game's ecosystem, Fortnite's biggest accomplishment is in how it seamlessly merges a number of simple mechanics to create a distinguishable battle royale game. What looks to be a straightforward building system steadily escalates to an elaborate display of tactical prowess. As the saying goes: It's easy to learn, hard to master. Although a few shortcomings in the map design eventually surface and fatigue in looting can set in, Fortnite rarely fails at challenging you in unexpected ways, resulting in something more than just another typical last-person-standing shooter.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review

Sat, 04/07/2018 - 03:12

In Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, the struggle of coming to terms with past trauma and guilt comes out in a number of surprising ways. Developer Ninja Theory channels its talents for narrative and presentation to tell a personal story that has more to say than it initially lets on, and will likely leave you wondering what's real, and what is a part of an elaborate hallucination.

In a far-off land covered in mist and fog, a traumatized celtic warrior named Senua embarks on a spiritual vision quest to suppress her inner demons, and come to grips with the death of her family. Plagued with severe psychosis, Senua's past trauma manifests itself through duelling inner voices and visual hallucinations that compromise her emotional and mental state. On this journey, she'll face abstract and reality-defying puzzles, and battle a seemingly endless horde of adversaries that aim to put a stop to her quest.

Pulling from Nordic and Celtic lore, the fiction of Hellblade evokes a dire and somewhat bleak atmosphere, making it seem like the world had already ended, leaving Senua with only the company of her memories. Hellblade is an introspective experience, albeit with several combat and interactive story beats scattered throughout. While the story and world are presented through cutscenes and stone glyphs depicting the history of the land, Hellblade also makes clever use of live-action cutscenes. These cinematic moments are blended into in-game graphics, giving each occurrence a somewhat surreal feeling, as if you're watching a live playback of an altered memory.

On her journey through the cursed lands, Senua will come into conflict with the Northmen, an army of berserkers that appear out of thin air. These moments are when the combat comes into play, and it offers some of the most intense and thrilling moments of the game. Despite her illness weighing on her, Senua is still quite adept at fighting and is able to take on a number of foes at once. With fast, heavy sword swings, as well as up-close hand-to-hand strikes, you can use some light combos to hack away at the Northmen, while using dodges and parrying their strikes to get the upper hand.

Though combat is one of the core pillars in Hellblade, the game doesn't concern itself with offering numerous weapons or complex skill-trees to work through. Aside from some new combat abilities unlocked at key story milestones, Senua's arsenal of skills and weapons is kept light till the end. The true challenge and satisfaction comes from mastering the base combat mechanics, which is responsive, and fluid--allowing you to bounce between multiple foes easily, with her inner voices warning you of incoming strikes based on the position they're coming from.

When it comes to portraying mental illness, Hellblade takes a sympathetic approach and isn't at all interested in showing the differences between reality and imagination. It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same. One of the more oppressive aspects of her psychosis are the inner-voices, who quarrel with one another while commenting on the wandering warrior's present state. Using binaural audio--which makes wearing headphones a must for the full effect--you'll get to experience a taste of what it's like to have several voices in your head.

In many ways, it feels like a subversive take on the common video game trope of the bodiless companion offering help via radio, making them a somewhat distressing presence you desperately wanted to keep at arm's length. The effectiveness of the inner voices in making you uncomfortable is a testament to the stellar presentation of the game, which uses some rather inventive tricks to play with perspective and audio-sensory manipulation. It does well to make you feel on edge and in a state of confusion, while simultaneously getting you to focus on the more tangible and true elements of her surroundings--even if they are still hallucinations.

There are times where the voices become a boon to your survival--such as the rather tricky boss battles that force you change up your usual strategies--but the most useful instances come deeper in the game, when you're able to clear through more than 20 foes consecutively, a far cry from the struggles of fighting only two to three foes. Many of these battles serve as the capper for narrative arcs in the story, making it feel like a cathartic emotional purge where you vanquish a construct of Senua's past.

"It's all about Senua's perspective; with her visions and what's truly real being presented as one in the same."

While some characters from Senua's past treated her mental state as a danger, she's able to use it to her advantage to see the order in the chaos of her surroundings--finding patterns and solutions in ways that others wouldn't have the presence of mind to see. Despite how terrifying and draining her psychosis can be, Senua is able navigate the various trials thanks to her unusually heightened perception, which comes out in a number of unique puzzle solving moments.

For the most part, puzzles revolve around unlocking doors by finding glyphs hidden in plain sight or in alternate perspectives that require manipulating Senua's focus, illustrating her abstract attention to detail. While these puzzles can be clever, the same style occurs far too often, making some of the more drawn out sequences a chore. On the inverse, the moments where Senua is stripped of her senses and gear, forcing her to take a more subdued approach to avoid her enemies, felt far more engaging and interesting.

In one of the game's best moments, the shadows themselves serve to be a real danger as Senua rushes from one light source to another in a dark cavern, all the while memories of her torment and anguish come flooding in--obscuring your vision while she's making a dash to safety. These moments are a real highlight, channeling the same pulse-pounding sense of urgency found from set-piece moments in Resident Evil 4, making a seemingly simple objective into an unnerving experience--which in a way truly sums up what Hellblade is about. While these moments serve to be some of Hellblade's most profound and affecting moments, it uses them sparingly to help break-up general puzzle solving and obstacles, which feel somewhat bland by comparison.

While Senua experiences many dangers, such as the horrific hallucinations of the dead, immolation by a mad fire god, and ravenous beasts that hide in the shadows--there is one threat that constantly looms over her that can result in dire consequences. Early on, Senua is infected with a corruption known as The Dark Rot, which continues to spread after she 'dies' or fails a set-piece event. She passes failure and death off as another hallucination, but with every failure the infection spreads, and after multiple deaths it reaches her head. The result of this is Senua succumbing to her illness, forcing you to restart from the beginning of her journey.

Despite the inclusion of a permadeath mechanic, Hellblade is still a largely fair game. Taking around eight hours to clear on the hardest difficulty, and experiencing only a handful of deaths--mostly on account of some overly vague and awkward objectives coming off as obtuse, breaking the flow of traversal--the game is largely balanced with its pacing and difficulty. It even goes as far as to offer an auto-scaling difficulty system that adjusts based on how you're playing. Interestingly, there's no tutorial whatsoever in Hellblade, prompting you to learn the system by doing and listening to prompts from your inner voices.

Over the course of its journey, Hellblade keeps its gameplay lean in order to not overstay its welcome. Despite the complexity of the narrative and its presentation, combat only happens when it needs to, and puzzle solving and set-piece moments often drive the story forward to reveal more about Senua's motivations. Which in turn reveals the struggles that torment her, preventing her from moving on.

Hellblade's most notable achievement is the handling of an incredibly sensitive subject matter within an engaging and well-crafted action/adventure game. At its heart, the story is about Senua's struggle to come to terms with her illness. In the process, she learns to find the strength within herself to endure, and to make peace with her past. And in a profound and physical way, we go through those same struggles with her, and come away with a better understanding of a piece of something that many people in the world struggle with.

Editor's note: We have updated this review to reflect our time with the Xbox One version of Hellblade. We tested the game on an Xbox One X. -- April 6, 2018

Minit Review - Gone In 60 Seconds

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 23:00

Time is not often a resource that you need to think about when going on an adventure. Zelda patiently waits in Hyrule Castle while Link finishes up shrines in Breath of the Wild, the religious zealots in Far Cry 5 let you fish in peace, and even the merry band of travelling friends in Final Fantasy XV find downtime during crisis. Minit doesn’t subscribe to such design, and instead puts emphasis on the need to hurry. Its strict 60-second time limit is an ever-present threat as you dig up the world’s secrets around you, dispel a cruel curse, and attempt to bring peace to the land.

Minit begins with your unnamed hero happening upon a cursed sword, plunging you into a cycle of infinite minute-long sessions that always end with your death. Each time you respawn, the counter restarts, and you’re transported back to your last resting place. New resting places can be unlocked by walking into them throughout the map, but simply finding them in time is a task. You’ll need to uncover routes with your sword, chopping down shrubs to find new pathways to new areas on the edges of your 4:3 screen. Building a mental map of the world around you is paramount next to your ability to both avoid threats and find the shortest path to an objective, and it can feel like a punishing exercise at first.

But it doesn’t take long for Minit to find a rhythm that’s intoxicating. Each new character you meet bears a personality that can be equally inviting or aggressive, some wanting to help you along your journey and others just wanting to be left alone. Shopkeepers offer bite-sized quests for you to try and complete in the limited time you have, tempting you with rewards on completion. Clearing out an area of crabs or gathering a certain number of hidden coins can reward you with seemingly non-descript items like gardening gloves and watering cans. But these tools open the rest of Minit’s world to you, letting you move large blocks obscuring paths or chopping down trees that would otherwise act as a dead-end.

Just like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (which also worked around the idea of limited time runs), certain objects and effects you've made on Minit’s world persist between run-throughs. For example, obtaining an item will store it permanently in your inventory or make it available to pick up at your last resting place. While some objects will return to their default position and block paths you may have already traversed, more story-centric events will remain in the state you left them in. A wandering spirit in the endless desert will stay dead after you’ve defeated it, and the lost guests of a strange hotel won’t wander off again after you’ve found them. These act as milestones to your progress through Minit, always giving you something on the horizon to chase down.

Chasing these leads requires both experimentation and exploration. Very often you’ll come across a perplexing area with new objects that seem static and immune to any of your efforts. Sometimes all an area’s mysteries seem obvious in hindsight, and yet Minit’s minimalistic yet emotive art does well to hide secrets in plain sight. It was nearly an hour into my first run until I realized I should be looking for coins in pots scattered around the world, or that my attacks on nearby characters could trigger new dialogue options. Poking and prodding Minit’s world is intrinsic to your progress, and it’s easy to find yourself lost in loops of deaths simply trying to figure out the next step forward. These instances might be frustrating, but they never go unrewarded. Minit is bursting at the seams with secrecy and mystery, so much so that it’s hard to soak in all at once. A generous New Game+ mode ups the ante with a shorter lifespan and new challenges but entices you to dive back in as soon as the credits roll to lap up any remaining secrets.

Movement and some incredibly simplistic combat are your only other concerns, both of which see slight enhancements near the end of the two-or-so-hour adventure. Minit is clearly designed to be easy to pick up and play, allowing its world and riddles to provide the challenge. It’s easy to avoid combat entirely unless specified by a task, for example. Movement, in turn, is more focused on puzzle-solving than dexterity and skill. A maze in a mysterious tomb in the desert requires you to run faster than you might envision possible, while another experiments with your perception of how you’re able to move boxes around a series of conveyor belts to disrupt a production line. Minit never feels unforgiving, instead giving you reason to give pause and think about how you’re moving around its world.

It’s almost unbelievable how much character Minit packs into its monochromatic world, too. Despite adapting the style of old Game Boy titles, Minit’s range of animations and neat pixel-based touches root it firmly in modern design. Little dust trails that kick off your boots in a sprint and the blinding flashes of white and black streaks when you find a new item offer contrasting senses of style; Minit is delicate when it needs to be and bombastic elsewhere, but it uses all these elements to deliver important feedback to you. It’s perhaps why it’s hard to get entirely lost at any point, because there’s always a cleverly placed marker sitting in plain sight just edging you towards the next solution. Design like that is hard to come by, so it’s refreshing to see Minit pull it off so effortlessly.

Minit’s soundtrack is also rousingly enthralling, instilling each of its distinct regions with a sense of place and sound. There’s catchy chiptunes for a seaside town that makes up most of the game’s opening and appropriate silence in the ominous, depressing tunnels of a dangerous mine. Sound effects are used sparingly but to equal effect. The chimes build with a delightful track when you acquire a new item and come crashing down with a thud every time you miss an objective with a second to spare. It’s delightful, and just wraps the entire presentation of Minit up with a neat little bow.

Minit’s lives might only last 60 seconds, but its extremely well-thought-out world design and engrossing loop of progress make it a curse-filled adventure that is worth dying the world over for. Its throwback to classic visuals aren’t done for aesthetic alone, as none of its gameplay systems scream antiquity. It’s a slickly presented adventure that continually manages to surprise you with every new area you uncover or item you procure, pushing you to pick away at its seams to uncover every drop of what it has to offer. With a delightful ending and more promised after its first run of credits, Minit is far more than just a collection of seconds.

Kerbal Space Program: Making History Review - Shoot For The Mun

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 06:00

The famous Einstein quote that "science is never finished" has never been more perfectly exemplified in a video game than in Kerbal Space Program. After four years in official release, and what felt like a lifetime in early access, the game has provided a deeply impressive set of tools to experiment with, explore, and imagine the possibilities of space travel. In fact, that toolset is so deep, and the game's enraptured fanbase so committed, that it's hard to not see the first official expansion, Making History, as being behind the curve.

The biggest thing Making History adds to the game is a set of missions branded as milestone events in Kerbal astronautical history. Most are modeled after real-world space excursions like the Apollo and Soyuz missions, and there are a few less-realistic scenarios thrown in for good measure, including one that essentially feels like an official Kerbal remake of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. It feels like a deliberate, well-curated collection of content that introduces a slew of new parts and vehicles to tinker with. Your performance during these missions are also scored and can be compared to how the rest of the community fared, which is a nice little plus. There's tons of value to be had trying to figure out how best to execute the mission, how best to deploy a ship's resources and crew, or how to efficiently manage an emergency, and there are certainly plenty of those moments to be expected.

These missions are only the beginning, though, as the expansion also brings an official mission editor to the game. Given the aforementioned variables that go into every mission, as you might expect, the tool allowing you to create new missions is just as astoundingly complex. You design new aspects for a mission using a series of linked windows, telling the editor where you want players to start, which craft they'll start with, what the end goal is, what the flight conditions will be, any environmental hazards you wish to add, and what the win state will be.

It's a bit of a mess, though. You can't just click through a menu, choose specific variables for each section and move on. Most of the more elaborate scenarios you could think up involve multiple aspects that need to be linked together using a strange, unwieldy process between option boxes. For my part, all I wanted was to try out the Armageddon scenario of taking off from Earth and slingshotting around the moon (or, rather, the Kerbals' Mun) to land on an asteroid, and I could barely get the mission editor to register the correct flight trajectory. There's a tutorial in the mode that runs you through the basics of using the editor, but just like the tutorial in the core game, it fails to adequately explain the minutiae. Much of what the average player will create (without hours of practice, at least) is the result of trial and error more than actual vision. For what it's worth, this is generally the way everything in Kerbal Space Program works.

The overarching irony of the expansion, however, is that while new players may be stymied by the editor for hours on end, veterans will have likely already taken full advantage of the legion of mods floating out there for the game, already accessible through the main menu. Aside from the specialized winning and scoring parameters, the official editor seems almost redundant.

There are very dedicated players and creators out there, however, and the expansion most definitely gives those folks more to play with, which has led to some wondrous, fascinating and, yes, absolutely frustrating new player-made missions. Disaster scenarios seem to be a particular specialty, and it has honestly been more captivating to put out situational fires--rescuing a stranded Kerbal, stopping a space station's spin in close to low orbit--than to make things fly on a straight path. Making History certainly adds more to Kerbal Space Program, and those who've already poured hundreds of hours into the game may be grateful for the tiny cache of new supplies it introduces. But in this particular space race, players have already been to the Moon (sorry, Mun) and back long before developer Squad unveiled its new rockets.

Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength Review - Staunch Surveillance

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 01:00

2016’s Orwell tapped into our collective fears about online surveillance, the manipulation of information, and our fast-eroding sense of personal privacy in the digital age. In 2018, these problems are more pronounced and have manifested in new ways. Orwell: Ignorance is Strength has launched upon a world where the term "fake news" carries very specific connotations, and where political divisiveness is, in many parts of the world, leading to mass-protests and widespread unease, a lot of which is being channelled through the internet. The Orwell games are very much a product of their time, but unfortunately Ignorance is Strength does not resonate as hard as its predecessor did.

The events of Ignorance is Strength occur concurrently with the first three episodes of the original game, but while there's some occasional overlap you're primarily focused on an entirely separate case. Barring one new element, the gameplay is mostly identical to the first game, which you should play first if you have any interest in this follow-up--some knowledge about the "The Nation" (the fictional country the game is set in) and the technology you're in charge of is assumed. You play as an investigator, charged with digging through the internet for information that will serve the interests of the country's corrupt government.

Initially you're searching for details about Oleg Bakay, a missing military officer from neighboring country Parges. Soon--and for the remainder of the game--your focus shifts to Raban Vhart, a blogger whose anti-government sentiments and campaign against the leadership of The Nation (which is, yes, run by a man who looks a bit like Trump) must be thwarted. You are, essentially, the bad guy, running surveillance for a dictatorship that demands absolute fealty from the citizens it so closely monitors, but Ignorance is Strength is less explicit about the meaning behind all of this than the first game was. While Orwell stretched across five episodic instalments, Ignorance is Strength runs for just three, which winds up being too little time to build upon the previously established mythology of the game's world. The broader political climate of The Nation, the appropriately Orwellian setting for both games, isn't expanded upon much by Raban's war against it, and while a conflict with Parges is discussed it's never quite explored enough to feel like a proper plot point.

Your job is to find chunks of data online using the computer interface of the Orwell surveillance system, then throw as much dirt as you can at Raban. If a piece of information on a page can be collected, it will be highlighted, and you can drag it to their profile on your screen. You find this information by scouring websites (although annoyingly you can't "search" for sites; you either find links on sites you have already accessed or gain a new site for your database after grabbing a data chunk), and when you manage to find someone's phone or computer details you can snoop through their private screens too. Pages that haven't been fully explored, or which have data chunks you haven't lifted, are highlighted on your list of pages visited. Each piece of information you collect will eat up ten minutes on your in-game clock, and in each of the game's three episodes you're working towards a specific time limit, so you want to focus on the important information and skip over any data that does not add to the case you're building.

Sometimes data will contradict with other chunks, and as the Investigator it's up to you to choose which one to submit. The "Ethical Codex" mandate means that your supervisor is only privy to information you submit, and will make informed decisions based on that. The way the plot progresses will be influenced by which statements you decide are more valid, as you can't submit two contradictory pieces. It's an implausible system, but from a game design perspective it's a clever one, forcing you into regular moral dilemmas.

The stakes feel muted this time, though. In episode 2, for example, if you gather too much useless information without finding a specific important detail, Raban will publish an anti-government blog post before you can stop him. Raban isn't a talented writer, and while he has a following, his posts largely read as hysterical, which is a strange tone to hit. He drops a genuine revelation in the first episode, but for the remainder of the game Raban seems like someone who is fast unravelling, and who the leaders of The Nation could probably comfortably ignore, having successfully implemented a surveillance state and perfected the dissemination of propaganda in ways that make Raban's stand largely ineffective. It also doesn't help that the game, which is so text-heavy, has several issues with grammar, punctuation and sentence syntax, at least some of which seem unintentional. They're minor problems, but over time they become distracting.

It's up to you to discredit Raban by investigating his personal life and past, which becomes the driving force of the second and third episodes. You're essentially asked to destroy a man's life, and it can be distressingly satisfying when you dig up the appropriate dirt on him. The human drama at the game's heart is the most compelling aspect of its plot, especially once you start to investigate Raban's wife and brother. A few twists in the story are telegraphed too heavily to have an impact, but the experience of taking available information about a man's life and using it to destroy him--by any means necessary--is just the right level of disturbing.

The third and final episode introduces a new wrinkle: the Influencer Tool, which lets you gather information and broadcast to the world, obscuring the truth by cherry-picking certain information to reach conclusions that ignore specific inconvenient details. The Influencer Tool taps into our worst fears--our secrets and our private conversations being exposed against our will, and our moments of weakness being read as our true selves coming out. The balance between your personal satisfaction over achieving in-game goals and the horror of what you're doing, coupled with the plausibility of these tools being used against someone, can lead to serious self-reflection, even if the man you're taking apart isn't the most compelling figure. It's a shame that these moments are fairly fleeting--Ignorance is Strength would have benefited greatly from a few extra chapters to really emphasize the tragedy of what is happening.

Orwell: Ignorance is Strength does not leave as strong an impression as the first game did, even if the central mechanics are still inherently compelling. There's not quite enough space for the game to breathe, and the interesting ideas, like the Influencer Tool, could be taken further. As a series, Orwell is brimming with potential, but it feels like the sequel was rushed to ensure that it could comment on the state of the world in early 2018. But extensive private data collection, political turmoil, and pervasive surveillance aren't going anywhere, which is why the game's namesake, George Orwell, has remained so perpetually relevant. If there's a third Orwell game, hopefully Osmotic Studios will find more to say about it.

MLB The Show 18 Review: A Home Run

Wed, 03/28/2018 - 03:00

This year's MLB The Show pushes the franchise's visuals, mechanics, and authenticity to new heights. Marginal updates to the Franchise mode and some of the same quirks in Road to the Show persist, but overall this is a shining baseball game that's worthy of attention.

America's pastime is all about the details, and MLB The Show 18 proves to be an authentic sim thanks to small but impactful touches throughout. There are new crowd animations like the "Judge's Chambers" cheer at Yankee Stadium. Spectator logic is also updated so that fewer people show up for a Tuesday game or when one or both of the teams is out of the postseason hunt. One of the better and more notable aesthetic additions this year are situation-specific home run animations. If you hit a dinger in an important spot, the player will celebrate accordingly instead of just jogging around the bases like it was an inconsequential home run during a blowout.

Batting stances are also customizable now, giving you options to tweak things like the positioning of your hands and elbows. Want a little more bat-wiggle? You got it. It's fun to tweak a stance and find something that is aesthetically pleasing and uniquely yours, even if it doesn't have an impact on your overall attributes. What's more, the crowds for the most part are no longer just bland, boring background elements, and the stadiums are replicated with an incredible attention to detail. From top to bottom, MLB The Show is a gorgeous-looking baseball game.

All the core mechanics and fundamentals of baseball--hitting, fielding, catching, throwing, and pitching--give you the kind of control that you would expect from an advanced sports sim. Mechanically, Sony San Diego's commitment to refining and improving mechanics continues this year. In particular, hitting remains a challenging thrill. The hitting mechanics never feel unfair, as you only have yourself to blame if you're going for a power swing when you should be protecting the plate. It takes some work to get the hang of hitting--and you'll want to try the three available control options to find the one that works best for you. Connecting with a pitch and sending it ripping through the gap or over the fence--or even picking up a single in the clutch--remains one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.

In the field, particularly the outfield, players move like actual humans with inertia, so if you don't get a jump on a fly ball or take the wrong path when playing a ball off the wall, you might find yourself giving the baserunner extra time or even make a costly error. Like the hitting mechanics, this never feels unfair or overly difficult, thanks in part to controls that reward practice and responsiveness.

The commentary team this year adds MLB Network analyst and former player Mark DeRosa--and he is a very welcome addition. DeRosa takes the place of Harold Reynolds, who is out after just one year, and the broadcasts feel more informative and entertaining as a result. DeRosa does color alongside Dan Plesac, and they're joined by play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian. The three recorded lines in the same studio space this year, and this pays dividends; the back-and-forth conversations feel more natural and organic. Baseball commentary is never going to be exciting in a way that it is for other, faster sports, but these three do a good job. That being said, after only a few games, you'll begin to hear the same lines again and again.

The returning RPG-like Road to the Show mode builds on the narrative, documentary-style "Pave Your Path" from last year's game. You can import a character from MLB The Show 17 or start anew on a fresh journey from AA to the big leagues. Notably, you aren't a top prospect this time around, but rather a dark horse. You're not on scouts' radar to begin with, so it's imperative you perform well from the start if you want to get called up to the bigs--and it can be a struggle. You start by creating a character (you can customise loads of things, down to the number of pimples on your face or creases on your forehead). But new for MLB The Show 18 is that choosing an archetype for your character that has pros and cons. I went with "Good Hands," which meant my path was more focused on fielding and making contact at the plate with speed as my weakness. Once you get started, RTTS plays out in the familiar fashion: with scenes narrated by a Sam Elliott sound-a-like and narrative sequences that are quite cheesy and overly dramatic.

In previous years, you assigned training points to level up your character that you could purchase with real money through Stubs. But training points and Stubs are completely gone from RTTS (and so are microtransactions), and instead attribute points are automatically added--or subtracted--based on your performance during AA and AAA seasons. Make an error in the field or fail to make solid contact at the plate and your related skills will fall. You'll even have points subtracted if you swing at a pitch way outside of the zone. You do still have some amount of manual control of your character's progress, as "Focus Training" opportunities will pop up throughout the season to improve your skills of choice. MLB The Show 18's overall drive to be an authentic baseball sim extends to RTTS. It shouldn't be easy to go pro--and it isn't. It took me four seasons of AA and three of AAA before I eventually got the call.

At various stages you'll have sit-downs with your manager to talk about your progress. You can make light dialogue choices, and these serve to flesh out your character's personality. Generally speaking, you can choose to be brash or reserved. In one case, I was asked to switch from shortstop to left field. I was told it would be good for my professional development and to show I was a team player, but I refused--and was benched as a result. Actions have consequences (you might even get traded if you push back hard enough). If you want to make it to the big leagues, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities, but also to listen to advice and make reasoned choices about your future.

One change I appreciated is the inability to max out your character to level 99 in all areas. In the past, you could essentially create a super-player if you worked hard enough (or spent enough on microtransactions). But now you can't, and it feels more realistic as a result. Some players will never be big-hitters or the best fielders. Ultimately, it was rewarding to see my character grow and evolve, and by the end of my journey I felt satisfied to have brought my guy to the league. RTTS lacks the kind of overall polish and refinement of similar modes in other sports games such as The Journey (FIFA) and Longshot (Madden), but it is still an engaging, challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience when you get through it. Given how many different archetypes there are to choose from and positions to play, it's exciting to think about starting over again and again to see the story play out in different ways.

MLB The Show 18's Franchise mode, which lets you run as team as its GM and control all organisational decisions over a 162-game season, doesn't add much to the well-established formula from previous years, and in fact it removes something--online play. One of the only notable new additions is the ability to play through a Franchise season in Retro mode, which is the 8-bit mini-game mode that was added last year. Beyond streamlined and more aesthetically pleasing menus, one of the only other other new feature is "phases," which is a system that allows you to track specific points in a season like Draft Day, Spring Training, All-Star Race, and the Postseason. It's a nice addition that gives you yet another way to manage your team and follow their progress on a more granular level. Overall, MLB The Show 18's franchise mode remains a deep experience that gives aspiring managers a lot to work with and enjoy, even if they can't take things online.

The card-collecting Diamond Dynasty mode adds new reasons to keep you coming back. There are more legendary players this year such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Nolan Ryan, and Chipper Jones, among others. Elsewhere, Diamond Dynasty has more missions you can complete to earn extra items, while the head-to-head online mode is a fun way to test your squad. Diamond Dynasty doesn't add much new or particularly interestin, but it remains a unique thrill to put together a fantasy team with players from past and present on the same roster. Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr. were never even alive at the same time, but in MLB The Show 18 they can be teammates, and the sheer number of dream combinations provides a reason to keep playing and keep collecting.

Sony's flagship baseball franchise has never been better. With its best-in-class controls and visuals, and impeccable attention to detail for the small stuff, MLB The Show 18 is worth catching for any baseball fan.

Sea Of Thieves Review: Set Sail With Trepidation

Wed, 03/28/2018 - 02:00

Sea of Thieves conveys nature's beauty and wrath with aplomb, and sailing across the open ocean in a creaky vessel can make you fall in love with its impressive presentation. This romantic connection can be felt most when sailing alone, but Sea of Thieves is primarily designed to be played with a trusty crew. Doing so allows you to revel in buffoonery and appreciate the value of teamwork, delivering an entirely different perspective on what it means to be a pirate.

These awesome moments make the initial hours of the game feel like you're embarking on a special journey, but this love affair is quickly tested both by the game itself and other players, some of whom on PC are already employing hacks to put your interactions on uneven footing. Sea of Thieves is just that: a game that belongs to conniving robbers, who see fit to disrupt well-meaning players despite gaining no prize other than gold for purchasing cosmetic items. This is to be expected to a degree, and I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments when I screwed over someone else for the sheer delight of asserting power and punishing another player's naivety.

Even so, sabotaging others didn't make me happy for long, and certainly didn't provide me with anything meaningful enough to warrant developing my underhanded side. To that end, playing as a trusting do-gooder is often more fulfilling, though the aforementioned aggressors and a surprising lack of depth to missions curtailed this approach, too. After 30 hours, I'm left wondering when I'll jump back into the game again. A part of me feels like I've seen it all; another part of me knows I'm using that as an excuse to take a break from grinding through another shallow quest in search of gold.

The ostensibly ultimate goal is to become a legendary pirate captain, a prestige that comes with a supposedly notorious-looking ship meant to instill awe. To reach that level of notoriety, you have to increase your reputation with the game's three factions, each to the maximum level, by completing a series of quests. These include defeating reanimated skeletons of fallen pirate captains, digging up buried treasure, and capturing very specifically colored pigs and chickens. If hunting small animals sounds boring, you're right on the money; the fact that it's a dominant activity in the game is mildly baffling. The other two pursuits have their charms at first, but once you realize that the basic requirements of each faction's quests are forever the same, monotony quickly sets in. Given that, maybe it's not surprising that people opt to rob others of their treasures as a means to impress factions.

Again, the only reward for earning reputation--even for sticking it out and becoming a legendary pirate--is looking fancy. New guns are always only as good as the ones you started out with, and expensive attire is designed to impress, not to protect you from harm any better than a basic set of rags. This might be enough for some people to stick it out through the repetitive quests and often frustrating engagements with other players, but I can't imagine why a dash of color here and a new collar there would inspire the ardent perseverance required.

All that said, I can still appreciate the dynamics of working with a friendly crew, and if I ever return to Sea of Thieves in the near future it will be to recapture those special moments. There's almost no better way to kill time during a voyage than to act like an idiot on deck. Chugging grog to the point of vomiting is a regular occurance, as is catching it in a bucket to toss on a crewmate, clouding their vision with bile and booze. The drunker you get, the less stable you are, and the higher the chance that you'll accidentally stumble overboard, much to the delight of everyone.

Coordinating with a team of three other sailors to properly stock your vessel and manage its equipment is the most immediate venue for skill development. The only time you're truly tested is when engaging in battle against another ship, where you're required to manage the speed and orientation of your boat, load and fire cannons on deck, and patch up holes from enemy fire before your ship fills with water and sinks. It's great when you can fend off an attacker, but conversely demoralizing when stripped of your riches. Just because you sign up for that risk when you dedicate yourself to the game doesn't mean losing all your treasure is any less of a hit to your enthusiasm when another crew takes over your ship.

Sea of Thieves offers other notable surprises, such as the appearance of a cloud-skull in the sky with glowing eyes, signaling a "raid" consisting of waves of enemies nearby. You can tackle these well enough with a four-person crew, but you are free to team up with others as well; just be prepared for them to turn on you when it comes time to collect the bounty of treasure.

You may also run into the infamous, massive Kraken mid-voyage, a moment that is exciting the first time around, but subsequently one worth avoiding. The Kraken's gigantic octopus arms writhe out of stained black water--really, a trick to prevent you seeing that the kraken is just a group of disconnected arms without a body in the middle. Its arms can either grab your ship or pluck sailors from the deck, and you've got a limited amount of time to pummel it with cannon fire to free would-be victims. In the end, all you can do is damage it enough so that it slinks away--a deflating discovery that makes you think twice about future engagements, especially given that there's no tangible reward for your victory.

There may come a time when Sea of Thieves is able to entice me back, and I imagine that will be with a mix of new mission types and hopefully the promise of rewards that allow for new types of interactions, if not improve my character's capabilities. For now, it's a somewhat hollow game that can be fun for a handful of hours when played with friends, and something worth trying out if you happen to be an Xbox Game Pass subscriber. Even though it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend, I like enough of what I see to hold out hope that things will eventually improve as the game continues to be patched and updated with new content.

Batman: The Enemy Within Episode 5 Review - No More Joking Around

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 01:00

In the season finale for The Enemy Within, an exhausted, bloody, and beaten Joker asks Batman a question: "Did you ever think of me as your friend?" It's a spark of vulnerability in a character that is typically sowing discontent and wreaking havoc. Unlike many of the other decision-making points, there's no timer pressuring you to respond, and in that moment I reflected on the choices I had made up until then. I asked myself whether I feigned friendship with him in the pursuit of justice, or if it was genuine.

Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within convincingly presented me with the idea that I could find salvation for the Joker. That I could use the Dark Knight's unwavering sense of justice as a guiding hand, hopefully to shape him into something other than the maniacal Clown Prince of Crime. I was wrong, and I failed.

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In the end, events played out as they always do: A cackling clown and a man dressed as a bat standing on different sides of the law. This is a disappointing bait and switch, but only because I let myself think things could be different--I saw hope where there was none. The fact that I bought into the idea speaks to the strength of the writing and performances throughout the series. Despite this letdown, Episode 5 remains a compelling end to a story in which Batman becomes a participant in the creation his greatest adversary.

While that's not a unique concept, 'Same Stitch' takes the idea that Joker exists because of Batman and explores it more directly. Where comics allow subtlety and subtext to suggest the symbiotic nature between the two characters, Telltale's take is more overt, and makes a stronger, clearer statement because of it: Maybe Batman is the reason villains exist in Gotham, and maybe his crusade is doing as much harm as it is good.

In possession of a deadly virus and being hunted by an out-of-control Amanda Waller, John Doe comes out of hiding as a vigilante calling himself Joker. That's the person I shaped though my actions as Batman. Wherever possible, I put my faith in him, trusted him to do the right thing, and gave him the benefit of the doubt, hoping it would have a positive impact. In response Doe modeled himself after Batman, complete with Jokerangs, a grapnel gun with chattering teeth, and the overwhelming compulsion to see justice served.

But, despite my intentions, I had unwittingly placed Joker on the path to realising his villainous destiny, albeit with a short detour through vigilantism. The episode begins with Batman trying to recover the deadly virus in Doe's possession and stop him from doing harm. Amanda Waller, meanwhile, wants to capture Doe and Batman, and resorts to using villains to get the job done, putting together a Suicide Squad of sorts.

Events quickly spiral out of control. Having been blamed for killing The Riddler, Joker becomes focused on proving that Waller is the real villain in Gotham. His morality becomes black and white, and Telltale does a great job of forcing Batman to admit there are shades of grey. As Waller argues her case, it's hard not agree with her that Batman has taken similar measures in his crusade. This showing of sympathy, and Batman's insistence that she face trial instead of suffering a more immediate fate frustrates Joker, making him lash out.

[Joker's] morality becomes black and white, and Telltale does a great job of forcing Batman to admit there are shades of grey

Batman's rigid code of conduct and unwavering morality erodes Joker's sense of what it means to be a hero and conflicts with his need for reparations. The result is is a mentally unstable figure that acts on violent impulses and lives by a twisted sense of self-serving principles. Instead of dropping John Doe into a vat of green chemicals to create Joker, Episode 5 presents your influence as Batman to be one of the reasons Joker is born.

Same Stitch manages to be introspective and thoughtful, while also providing plenty of levity. Joker's stint as Batman's sidekick is incredibly memorable, thanks to excellent voice acting and more than a few funny lines. Joker behaves as you'd imagine any Batman fanboy would if given the opportunity to go on a mission with the Dark Knight, revelling in going back to back with his idol, running through the ridiculous superhero names he considered before arriving at Joker, joyfully riding in the Batmobile, and taking pleasure in being mended by Alfred. Sadly, the fun and games are short-lived, as before long he's on the warpath.

Episode 5 also gives Alfred a more prominent and meaningful role. Having been there for every step of Bruce's journey, from orphaned child to vigilante superhero, he's begins to realise that perhaps he's also been a negative influence, enabling Bruce's destructive lifestyle and failing in his job as a surrogate father. Telltale takes some bold steps to change the dynamic between the two characters, and it will be interesting to see how this carries over into future seasons, if they happen.

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Overall, Episode 5 of Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within provides plenty of thrills and is a satisfying conclusion to the story. Although there are a few set-piece fights that are dynamic to watch, much of the actual gameplay remains focused on walking around environments and interacting with points of interest. It's a shame that the series as a whole didn't offer more opportunities to solve puzzles, as it did in the earlier in the series, but given the satisfying story payoff that's easy to forgive.

Over the course of five episodes, the Batman: The Enemy Within has delicately developed John Doe and pulled strings to position Batman as a key player in his transition into Joker. While Telltale's first Batman season stuck a bit too close to established mythos and delivered an underwhelming ending, the second is a memorable Joker origin story that Bat-fans should make a point of playing.

Far Cry 5: Review In Progress

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 21:01

If you're familiar with the premise of Far Cry--the idea of a one-person army taking on overwhelming hostile forces in large, unpredictable surroundings--then you know exactly what Far Cry 5 feels like. You'll engage in different styles of offensive conflict; attempt to tame the wild, natural environment to your advantage; and slowly build a guerilla resistance in the background. But for its fifth mainline entry, the series formula has undergone some very positive refinements, which make its core hook of exploring and engaging with its volatile setting a more free-flowing and pleasant experience. It lets you fully enjoy the sights and activities of its beautiful and interesting open-world without too many overt distractions.

The biggest change is that the series is finally confident enough to put you in charge of your own progression. After a brief orientation, the entire region of Hope County, Montana USA is immediately open for exploration. Three intimidatingly large regions surround your starting point, and you're given only a gentle suggestion of a good first destination. The moment when you're shown all the equally accessible possibilities and the furthest reaches of the map feels liberating--you may even be crippled by the choice, and that's a good problem to have.

To accompany this decision, Far Cry 5 now handles its story progression in a more freeform manner. The goal in each of the three regions is to earn enough Resistance Points to hit three milestones, and subsequently have three encounters with three lieutenants of the Eden's Gate cult, with the ultimate goal of reaching their leader, Joseph Seed, "The Father". Each of these individuals runs a different facet of the God-fearing group, but their role in the story ultimately isn't as interesting as you might think, despite Far Cry 5's potential for a controversial and politically charged narrative. Earning Resistance Points--an abstract indication of the growing opposition to Eden's Gate--can be achieved in a number of different ways. Completing story missions and side missions for resistance members is the most efficient way to do so, but you can also viably achieve your goal by performing smaller tasks that you might stumble across during your journeys through the county: rescuing civilians in random encounters, finding and destroying cult structures or supply vehicles, and liberating occupied compounds, seized as cult outposts.

Mechanically, it's a great, player-friendly system that rewards you no matter what activities you decide to undertake or avoid. But the reason why it feels so good in execution is due to a change regarding how you discover these opportunities in the first place. With the exception of the locations of each region's hub area and the whereabouts of Specialists (support characters who provide unique abilities), no points of interest are marked on your world map, and the traditional Far Cry (and Ubisoft game) practice of finding and scaling key structures to populate the world with icons has been removed.

Discovering points of interest can be achieved in a few ways. Physically stumbling upon a significant area will mark it on your map. Actively looking at wildlife road signs inform you of the fauna in that region. Finding notes, maps, and magazines located in homes and other buildings can point you to a number of different things, including Prepper Stashes, which involve solving obscure environmental puzzles that can lead to money and gear. Simply encountering a civilian might give you the opportunity to talk to them about the latest word on the grapevine about an outpost, side quest, or even the location of a story quest giver.

All these elements work wonderfully together to create a style of larger progression that feels mostly organic. I began my time with the game knowing I would be pursuing stealth tactics, so I immediately set off toward the given location of a Specialist who would complement that playstyle. Along the way, I encountered a civilian being led down the road at gunpoint. After saving him, he told me about a nearby pumpkin farm which had been seized by Eden's Gate. As a vegetable lover, I made it my personal duty to free the oppressed squashes from their gun-toting captors. I happened to find a map marking fishing spots while I was sneaking around the compound, and once I had liberated the farm, one of the farmers I had freed flagged me down to offer a side mission. While the initial expanse of the open world might cripple you with choice, the discovery system dishes out distinct options in small doses, encouraging you to follow and explore the small distractions you might find with genuine curiosity, as opposed to because it was one of a dozen icons you arbitrarily picked as they stared at you from a minimap.

In fact, there is no minimap, and it's one of the best things to happen to the series (as was also the case in Far Cry 2). There's a compass that helps you track your direction and will narrow down the general location of enemies and marked objectives, but there's nothing telling you about the specifics of the area. You'll still need to navigate to the menu to see the world map (the in-world physical map from Far Cry 2 was sadly not reimplemented), but it's a welcome change nonetheless. The absence of the minimap allows you to see the trees in the forest, so to speak. You can focus on details in the world without distraction, and can actively appreciate the stunning beauty of the natural environment you inhabit--the tall Douglas firs among the craggy hills, the serene fields and farms, the lively rivers teeming with fish--and pay full attention to intricate interior details in the homes and businesses you visit, each with distinct, lived-in personality.

The new freeform flow sits comfortably well with the most celebrated aspect of the Far Cry series: the capacity for you to engage with the game's conflicts in your own way, seeing what kinds of chance scenarios you stumble into, and attaining those watercooler tales about what happened next. There are still numerous ways to approach tasks like liberating outposts--go in sight unseen with stealthy movement and silent weapons, lure predatory animals into the compound to do the dirty work for you, take advantage of the propagating fire system and set the place alight with flamethrowers and explosives, or just be traditional and go in guns blazing.

Far Cry 5's altered upgrade system helps you make these modes of play more viable from the get-go. Perks are grouped into disciplines but aren't arranged in any kind of tree, meaning prerequisites aren't necessarily needed to unlock particular skills, and almost nothing is progress-locked. So if you begin the game and prefer stealthy approaches, you can unlock perks that let you run silently, move faster while crouched, and perform multiple takedowns (all previously higher-level skills, typically) as your very first unlocks. Points to spend on perks are tied to an item you'll likely find often during your regular travels in the world, as well as a laundry list of very achievable challenges that correlate to every weapon, personal action, and support character in the game. You can go out of your way to vary your approaches and maximise perk points, but if you tend to stick to a specific kind of playstyle, it's unlikely that you'll need to. There's also, thankfully, less of an emphasis on hunting. Selling animal skins is the most lucrative way to earn money for purchasing weapons and vehicles, but the series is finally past the point of needing to hunt specific creatures for the purposes of crafting upgrades.

Another fantastic change (again revived from Far Cry 2) involves the aforementioned Specialists and their more generic relative, the Guns for Hire. They allow you to utilise and command the unique skills of one of many support buddies, adding another fun and dynamic element to your toolkit. Specialists provide a variety of options, from the humans that lay down covering fire with different weapons and vehicles to the animals who can assist you in marking enemies and stealth takedowns. They're fantastic assets who can complement your skillset or fill in a necessary gap. You might recruit tortured archer Jess to give you a silent attack option, or order helicopter pilot Adelaide to fly in and provide suppressing fire and a distraction.

The AI that drives support characters sometimes makes poor decisions that puts them in harm's way, but in lieu of a co-op partner, Specialists help bolster the series propensity for emergent, fist-pumping "hell yeah" moments. You could be crossing a bridge and find that an enemy SUV has surprised you by driving up onto it from behind, completely blocking your escape. You could dart into the forest ahead for cover and inadvertently disturb a cougar, who starts by chasing you, but turns and decides one of your aggressors is an easier catch. You might then find yourself in a high-speed car chase, and call Specialist Nick to fly in with his armed seaplane to attack the pursuing vehicles. And as you hear him hooting and hollering over the radio, you look out the rear window to see his airstrike completely annihilate the convoy in a fiery explosion, right before you turn back around and find yourself driving off a cliff.

That's what Far Cry 5 is all about--fluid and dynamic engagements that act as different canvases and let you use the game's variety of tools to finish the picture. At least, that's the case most of the time. While many story and side missions also incorporate secondary activities like outpost takeovers, many hone in on single-style experiences which can be hit or miss depending on your preferences, and are less open to experimentation.

There are a number which can be, depending on your patience, intolerable. Once you've hit one of the three milestones in liberating a region, the Eden's Gate lieutenant in charge will capture you, whisking you away from the world, no matter what you're doing, with an insta-kill macguffin. You'll escape each time, of course, and in doing so, typically plow through single-style corridor affairs until you escape or reach an opportunity to kill the lieutenant. These missions showcase some of the game's most stunning setpieces, but mechanically they're bland at best, featuring elementary stealth challenges, on-rails turret sequences, and monotonous platforming among other scenarios. These missions are relatively brief, but they're semi-regular occurrences that pull you away from the world that makes Far Cry 5 great, and it's easy to hold that against them.

What makes these missions more egregious are the prolonged, close-up encounters with the Seed family members upon capture. Joseph Seed and his lieutenants are nothing if not charismatic villains, and their performances are impressive. But every encounter with them is the same--you're restrained in some manner and can do nothing but watch them get all up in your face, preaching about topics that make sure you know just how evil they are, which becomes tiresome very quickly. Far Cry 5 devotes too much time in belabouring the point here, and the few attempts to try and capture your sympathy for their cause feel cheap. Part of their plan in making sure you really, really, really hate them is capturing and hurting major allies. Scenes of violence against them will make you wince and are supposed to be motivators, but the reality is that you'll likely only have spoken to these people once or twice before, if at all, and won't have formed any real attachment.

The other quest giver characters are mostly extreme caricatures you'll either love or hate, but you're not asked to put much investment in their livelihood outside of the outrageous quests they give you. They'll send you on adventures that show you the goofy side of Far Cry, from hunting down alien turkeys for a mad scientist or watching bovine mate as Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing plays. These missions feel more in line with the freewheeling spirit of Far Cry than anything that directly involves the Seed family.

The Seed family missions ultimately aren't an enormous detraction, but there are additional gripes. Weapons and vehicles that have the capacity to be purchased with real-world money take prominent positions in every shop menu, and their connection to an online storefront also seems to increase the loading time of these menus, which is annoying if all you want to do is swap weapons. And, despite Far Cry 5's unquestionably relevant, religiously and politically volatile setting, the game doesn't do or say anything interesting with it beyond a few hammy jabs here and there. It's unchallenging satire, and for all the attention paid to the Seed family, you would expect there to be something more.

But there are so many more simple, experiential joys to be found in Far Cry 5. The exhilarating feel of jumping off a mountain and flying through the skies in a wingsuit. The idle chit-chat between your Specialists. Fishing in one of the many rivers or lakes for hours on end. Petting your animal companions. Flying a plane for the first time in the series. The taut and precise gunplay. The relaxing feeling of cruising down a picturesque highway in a 70s muscle car, listening to the great selection of classic American (and one Australian) rock and country tunes on the radio.

If you'd rather experience this with someone who is a little more autonomous, or you prefer your worlds to be a little more bonkers, Far Cry 5 also includes two major features: full online co-op for the campaign (with few restrictions, thanks to the game's completely accessible map) and Far Cry Arcade. Arcade houses the game's custom map editor, allowing you to build your own single-player, co-op, or competitive multiplayer maps, or play those uploaded by the rest of the community. While the process of jumping into custom maps requires some patience to cater for potentially lengthy load times, and the Hope County denizen that pimps Far Cry Arcade deserves a mention as the most irritating character in the game, Arcade provides the enticing potential for a diverse array of ideas that are far removed from the tone and rules of the main game.

Despite some brief irritations and missed opportunities with its narrative, spending time in the world of Hope County remains absolutely delightful. Far Cry 5 boasts a wonderfully harmonious flow to its adventure, with its smart changes to exploration, discovery, and progression distinctly bolstering the enjoyment of creatively engaging and experimenting with its spectacular open world.

Far Cry 5 has a number of network features, and while we've played some campaign co-op and a number of cool levels in Arcade, we want a chance to witness how Far Cry Arcade and online multiplayer perform following the game's public launch. We'll be classifying the above opinions as a review in progress until then, and will be updating the text over the coming days with our definitive conclusions.

H1Z1 Review: Still On The Ground Floor

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 08:29

Battle royale games have evolved rapidly in the past year with the likes of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite, but H1Z1's early access version captured the magic of the last-person-standing shooter well before the genre's current front-runners. With the official full release of H1Z1, however, it's apparent that not enough has been done to help it stay in the larger conversation.

H1Z1 drops up to 150 players (solo, duos, or squads of five) on a sprawling rural map where small towns, gas stations, and campsites act as points of interest for loot. In traditional battle royale style, everyone starts with only the clothes on their backs and rushes to find the best weapons and gear. Naturally, the fact that you have one life per match makes this type of deathmatch thrilling and rewarding when you find success, especially when coordinating tactics with a squad.

A number of gameplay elements factor into succeeding, like scavenging for the right materials to craft useful items. Among the essential items to craft are makeshift armor for much needed protection, ointment to stop bleeding, and explosive arrows that can really throw a curve-ball at enemy squads. Crafting feels more like a carry-over mechanic from early H1Z1 models, but it's a key component to winning, and thankfully it isn't very deep considering the fast pace of matches.

There isn't much time between each phase of the shrinking safe zone, and matches move quickly because of it. When employing the strategy of skirting along border of the deadly circle, there's a strong sense of urgency; if you don't find a vehicle or start running towards the new safe zone soon enough, your fate may have been decided well before the toxic gas envelops you. H1Z1 does incorporate a significant amount of predictability, which offers a different dynamic for players who want to jump straight into conflict. During the pre-match warm-up phase, you choose which grid of the map you want to drop in to start--this is called tactical deployment. A heat-map will also provide a general indication of how many others are planning to drop into each grid. Combine those elements with the fact that H1Z1 unveils the first safe zone in the pre-match phase, and you can essentially choose something that's more action oriented.

The fast-and-loose rules of H1Z1 shine through when you're shotgunned by an enemy that hopped out of a jeep going 100 miles-per-hour, made possible by the fact that you don't take damage when jumping out of fast-moving vehicles. Pulling off combat maneuvers like this are actually quite rewarding when you use them strategically. But by leaning into more outlandish action and a faster pace highlights a sort of dissonance in H1Z1, primarily because it retains the survival and simulation elements from its progenitors. Aside from crafting, players have to manage continuous health loss (with varying degrees of severity) after taking damage. This is complicated by the fact that first aid kits only replenish health gradually. Assault rifles also fire with such significant recoil that you'd think H1Z1 taps into realism or military sim roots. These mechanics aren't necessarily bad on their own, but they are at odds with the core of how the game is played.

A lack of variety also hurts H1Z1's longevity. One map would have been just fine if it wasn't for the emptiness of the fields between the plainly designed city centers. A few locations, like Runamok Lake's cabins and camping grounds, add some flavor, but overall you can expect little in terms of verticality or intricate structure layouts. This extends to the available arsenal; a shotgun, magnum, and two assault rifles are useful in the proper scenarios. Crossbows with exploding arrows come in handy although they aren't practical given that the arrows need to be crafted. A sniper rifle provides a long-range option, however, it's only available through randomized supply drops. There are no attachments or scopes to change up the limited set of firearms, and the excitement of putting a good weapon to use is hard to come by. Going into a first-person view on the fly allows you to use iron sights to get better shots in tight corridors, but there isn't much to use for long-range combat. It's an absence of parity in weaponry that's very apparent when battling it out in the map's open areas. Firefights still carry the intensity you'd expect from battle royale game, but lose some of steam when the available arsenal limits the depth of enemy engagement.

To shift gears from the standard last-person-standing concept, H1Z1 has a separate mode called Auto Royale. The mode itself is in beta, but it serves as an admirable change of pace. This team-based car combat pits 30 teams of four against each other by putting one player in the driver's seat and three others as passengers who shoot from their seats in an effort to destroy enemy cars. No one can leave the car, and it's absolute chaos. The battle royale structure is still in tact with a progressively shrinking safe zone, but teams sink or swim as one unit. Players can revive themselves if they get knocked out, so teams are eliminated once the vehicle is destroyed. This mode trades uneasy tension for carefree off-roading action.

Akin to Twisted Metal or Mario Kart's Battle Mode, item pickups litter the map, including weapons and ammo for teammates, diversions like smoke screens and oil slicks, or car repair kits to help stay in the fight. Ramps are also tacked onto the map for high-flying stunts in the middle of high-speed chases. Auto Royale is as absurd as it is fun, albeit only enjoyable in short bursts.

By nature of being free-to-play, H1Z1 unsurprisingly features microtransactions, which are thankfully limited to cosmetic items. Colorful skins for everything from vehicles and parachutes to guns and helmets leave a lot of room for customization. You're allowed to trade items with other players as well, so if there's a skin you really want, you don't have to rely entirely on the loot box system. Timed challenges give you something to work towards and serve as a means to acquire in-game currency, though there is a separate paid-for currency available.

H1Z1 predicates itself on eliminating the more random factors seen in other battle royale games, and it remains a competent execution of the genre. The game has its intense moments and exhilarating firefights; the thrill of besting 100+ players is very much present. However, the incoherent gameplay elements overshadow the better moments, and the lack of variety in both map design and weapon selection makes H1Z1 lose its appeal rather quick, especially in the genre it spearheaded.

Detective Pikachu Review: Elementary, My Dear Watt-son

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 07:55

Pikachu is normally very cute and a little bit sassy, but its Detective variety is unlike any Pikachu you've ever seen. Detective Pikachu plays with your expectations of what Pikachu should be, and the game has a lot of fun reveling in the weirdness of a small, adorable creature talking and acting like a human man. It's campy and self-aware, showing a different side to Pokemon and Pikachu with an infectiously rambunctious attitude. Detective Pikachu--the character and the game--is full of personality, and as a result an otherwise standard mystery-solving game is far more fun and entertaining than you might expect.

You play as Tim Goodman, who has arrived in Ryme City in search of his father, Harry, who went missing in an accident. Of course, the real star is Detective Pikachu--you meet him almost immediately, and you're the only human who can understand him. Like a grizzled detective out of a '50s noir, he sounds like a middle-aged man and gestures like a caricature of a New Yorker, and his voice acting and animation captures that character perfectly. He'll occasionally get your attention with a cute jump and a gruff "Hey!"; sometimes he'll give you hints, which are entertaining even if you didn't need them, while other times he'll just chatter away about something random or interact with a nearby Pokemon. His streetwise attitude and campy quips never get old, adding a delightful (if weird) charm to every scene.

You soon learn that Pikachu was your father's partner Pokemon and lost his memories after the accident, though he can still lend you his detective skills to solve mysteries. Those mysteries largely involve misbehaving or even violent Pokemon, most of which have been exposed to a chemical called R. The cases start out with simple mischief, but as you investigate, you'll solve bigger ones--including actual white-collar crimes--and find clues about Harry's disappearance. The game follows a basic detective story structure overall, but the pulpy tone can make it feel less derivative, and the conspiracies around R and Harry are intriguing enough to keep the pace up.

Cases consist of everything from finding missing Pokemon to whodunnits with dramatic reveals. Your job is to talk to people--Pikachu will translate for Pokemon witnesses--and gather evidence that you can then use to solve each case. You talk to people, get more information, and use that information to unlock follow-up questions until you have everything you need to start the deduction process. Pikachu guides you through most of this, framing the questions you need to answer and later prompting you to pick the evidence that best supports your theories. There's no real way to fail; as long as you talk to everyone and search the environment thoroughly, you'll get everything you need to piece things together. That on its own is disappointing if you're hoping for compelling mysteries and puzzles.

Finding all the clues is fun, however, especially with Pikachu wisecracking as you go. Getting one solution will open up a new question or pose another problem to solve, and while they all follow the same gameplay structure, each case is deeper than it seems at first. For the most part, I was never so far ahead of the game's pace that I was still gathering evidence long after I'd figured everything out--while nothing shocked me, there were times when I wasn't entirely sure how a culprit had done it until I was choosing what evidence matched Pikachu's hints. But there were also a few frustrating times when I'd figured out the solution but couldn't find the last piece of evidence to back it up. In one chapter, for example, you have to gather a half dozen or so alibis, then use witness testimony to deduce which alibi is a lie. It involves a lot of talking, and I ended up running around for 15 minutes re-interrogating everyone until I finally found the person I'd missed (despite knowing who was responsible and why the entire time).

It's hard to stay annoyed for long, though, because Detective Pikachu is brimming with personality. Pikachu himself is a total goofball, but the other Pokemon are also entertaining in their own right. Each one gets its own special subtitle (Garbodor is the "connoisseur of trash," for example), and they typically have interesting things to say, even if those things aren't useful as evidence. The world of Pokemon is cleverly incorporated into different parts of the New York-inspired city, from flying Yanma that work as news camera operators to the Trubbish that occupy the subway entrances. You don't need to know anything about Pokemon to solve Detective Pikachu's cases, but being familiar with Pokemon and appreciating all those details enriches the simple gameplay and story.

And Detective Pikachu is a simple game. There's not much variety to the way you solve cases; the story follows a standard detective formula, and as long as you're thorough, you won't have too much trouble connecting the dots. But it's full of heart, and its silly characters and intentionally campy tone are what make it fun.

A Way Out Review: A Tale Of Two Prisoners

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 03:00

A Way Out is not really the hard-hitting, serious, emotional tale of two convicts escaping prison it appears to be. At times, it successfully strikes those notes, but extreme tonal shifts, gimmicky QTEs, and a terrible finale kill almost any emotion or tension contained in the game. In the end, entertaining environments and some inventive set pieces prove to be its saving grace.

Like director Josef Fares' last game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out contains two protagonists who experience the game's story together. Unlike Brothers, however, you'll need a friend to play with this time round; A Way Out is only playable in co-op, either locally or online. Whichever you choose, you'll always be playing in a split-screen that dynamically shifts between the respective views of Leo--a reckless, aggressive gangster cliche--and Vincent--a more cool-headed family man.

Click image to view in full-screen gallery

Sometimes the screen will be split vertically, sometimes horizontally; sometimes evenly, sometimes unevenly; and sometimes not at all. This framing device is mostly used in interesting ways, such as giving more screen space to whoever's performing a more important action, or splitting the TV in three to also dedicate real estate to an attacking NPC. However, it can be a source of irritation, such as when I was talking to a friendly character, only for my partner to trigger a cutscene and for the screen to shift entirely to his view, ending my conversation prematurely.

This is a problem faced outside of cutscenes, too. A Way Out's small explorable environments often contain multiple characters to chat with, but if you and your co-op buddy both engage in different conversations at the same time, the game has no better answer than to play all the audio in parallel, meaning you struggle to hear either of the conversations happening in front of you. The problem is alleviated slightly if you turn subtitles on, as each side of the screen contains its own set, but the overlapping sound is still distracting.

Such issues do irritate, but they are more of a footnote than a major strike against A Way Out's co-op-only nature. Without a partner in crime, some of the game's standout moments wouldn't feel nearly as impactful. In one early scene, Leo and Vincent are attempting to hack away at their respective jail cells using a screwdriver. While your partner stabs the wall behind his toilet, you must keep watch from your adjacent cell for patrolling guards, occupying them when they get too close and warning the other player to look natural when your distraction fails.

This is when A Way Out is at its best: communicating with (and relying on) your partner both in-game and in real life makes these moments of tension consistently thrilling. There are a handful of these set pieces throughout the 7-8 hour campaign that feel unique and justify the decision of forcing you to play with another person.

The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas

But while those moments do carry some tension, it's because you're sat next (or talking) to someone you care about and never because you're playing as someone you care for. The protagonists and their motivations are the most generic B-movie fodder--gangsters with escape and revenge on their minds, but with the hackneyed added layer of troubled families. To make matters worse, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural. Conversations often end abruptly (regardless of whether your partner triggers a cutscene), and entire scenes go by without adding anything in terms of plot or characterization. Some lines in particular are cringeworthy--during one sequence in which a couple are interrupted while having sex, a female extra instructs her male partner to shut the door by saying, "I'm gettin' cold in my lady parts."

The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas, complete with overextended sideburns and an assassination across the border in a villain's remote Mexican lair. In one scene, A Way Out nails the feel of punishing prison life, and in another it lets you act like children on a playground swing. Sometimes those conflicting tones even crop up in parallel. One poignant late-game moment--where my character learned some surprising and emotional news on one side of the screen--was ruined by my partner interacting with a bicycle bell on the other side that caused his character to exclaim, "Ring ring, motherf***er!"

If it's not the dialogue dampening moments of tension, it's the game's numerous QTEs. While A Way Out does use timed button-tapping well in some instances, such as when our characters must time their pushes up a vent shaft while standing back-to-back, it also wastes scenes with gimmicky implementations. The final playable section of the game--the crux of this entire plot and hours of journeying and escaping and chasing--boils down to mashing Square / X. A Way Out's third and fourth acts are by far its weakest: save for one inventive story beat, all creativity is lost and the game turns into a mediocre action romp with anemic shooting and little else to do or care about.

Luckily, the rest of the game (which is much longer than the mercifully contracted finale) contains more interesting and varied environments. Throughout your journey, you'll travel from the prison to a forest, a farm, a cinema, a trailer park, and more, and each is filled with objects to interact with, puzzles to solve, and people to talk to. These diverse areas are small but dense, and they add color to what could otherwise be a monochrome world of good and bad. The trailer park was a personal favorite, offering a chance to pause and play some baseball or chat to secondary characters. There's even a Trophy / Achievement for exposing the aforementioned couple to the man's jilted wife. That this captivating space comes during what should be a time-sensitive moment, when playing baseball or exposing adulterous men would be the last things on anyone's mind, says everything about A Way Out's story and tone, however.

A Way Out has problems. By the time the credits rolled, my partner and I didn't really feel like we'd been on much of a journey with Leo and Vincent. We'd been on a geographical tour, sure--one that was often trite, gimmicky, or cringeworthy--but we didn't feel the pair had learned anything or grown in any meaningful way. I did, however, enjoy the journey I'd been on with my friend sat next to me. We had to look out for each other while escaping prison, work together to solve puzzles, and save each other's life on multiple occasions. Our characters might not have grown closer together, but A Way Out's forced co-op is worth it for the few standout moments it provides.

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom Review - An Adventure Fit For A King

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 01:00

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is ambitious. It's a character-driven RPG that doubles as a kingdom simulator and even occasionally becomes a real-time strategy game. Though these components don't always feel like parts of the same whole, Ni No Kuni 2 compels you to care and put your best foot forward. It's the whimsical setting; it's the demanding combat; it's the tangible feeling of growth that comes from being a well-rounded ruler. There's something worthwhile around every corner, and usually something pretty to admire along the way.

You can concisely summarize Ni No Kuni 2 as the wholesome story of Evan, a boy prince ousted by traitors on the day of his coronation who wishes to unite warring nations under a banner of peace. Rather than resort to revenge, he admirably believes that cooperation is a more important goal than domination and sets out to build a new, united kingdom. Evan's charge and passion for peace subsequently carries him from one dangerous doorstep to another. Armed with steadfast ideals, he repeatedly dismantles sinister adversaries because they, too, are actually good at heart; they've merely been corrupted by powerful, dark forces.

It's familiar fantasy fare and a bit safe at times, but Ni No Kuni 2 bears no shortage of interesting moments. For example, Evan's adult consul Roland is a dimension-tripping president from the modern day, cast into a strange time and place in the aftermath of a catastrophic military assault. While this intriguing origin story is rarely referenced after the fact, the kingdoms he and Evan visit offer up interesting qualities of their own. There's Goldpaw, a society that worships lady luck. Her divine power is channeled through a giant multi-armed statue that rolls a six-sided die to decide everything from criminal prosecution to raising or lowering taxes. You'll also have to navigate a kingdom where love in all forms is considered a criminal offense, and every interaction is monitored by an enormous, all-seeing eye. Ni No Kuni 2 dedicates itself to exploring these unusual societies, elevating the otherwise standard RPG tale to something far more interesting that you'd initially expect.

To do this, however, the game is forced to concede that even a king as peaceful as Evan will have to bear arms. And despite his small stature and cuddly kitten ears, Evan is a lion when backed into a corner. Considering his impassioned pleas for a world without war, the game's simple and infrequent RTS skirmishes--large scale, rock-paper-scissor battles that require basic resource management--feel notably contradictory, but standard battles are so flashy and exciting that you'll never think twice about the peace-loving king being in constant battle.

Ni No Kuni 2's traditional combat takes place entirely in real time apart from pausing to consume items, and despite the game's childish airs, fights are surprisingly demanding. Your party consists of three allies and four Higgledies--collectable miniature, goofy familiars that randomly offer buffs and attacks during battle. You only control a single person at a time, but that alone gives you three melee weapons to manage, a ranged weapon, magic skills to consider, and interlinked meters to monitor, on top of defensive concerns. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all times in order to block or dodge incoming attacks--a far cry from the first Ni No Kuni's turn-based battles. Needless to say it can take a few hours to grow comfortable managing all of these systems at once, but you're rarely put at a disadvantage. Your AI-controlled allies are good at self-preservation and dishing out damage, and your Higgledy friends regularly offer up a burst of healing magic or a powerful attack to keep things moving.

Ni No Kuni 2 also does a great job of simplifying things around combat to let you focus on the action at hand. While you can use gear to influence an individual character's strengths and weaknesses, you also earn a secondary type of experience that gets funneled into the Tactics Tweaker, a tool that lets you adjust team-wide attributes and how the game rewards your victories. You have plenty of opportunities to take on quests under-leveled, and being able to slightly dial up your effectiveness against a particular element or enemy type is a valuable means of punching above your weight. When pushing yourself against an enemy 10 to 20 levels higher than you, eking out a victory through clever preparation and a masterful performance can feel downright incredible. The game also smartly limits your inventory during battle, which means you can't rely on spamming restorative items. Only skill (or a leveled-up party) can carry you through a fight.

Given that you can find ways to overcome seemingly impossible odds, you can actually get by without intentionally grinding for experience points. To that end, the game is also designed to keep you from dulling your enthusiasm in unnecessary battles while moving about the world. Enemies appear in plain sight before an encounter with a level marker overhead, and a color denoting their threat level helps you easily discern their relative strength. Red and white labelled enemies will attack you on sight, but low-level enemies will simply ignore you unless you run into them first. Knowing you can bypass trivial fights makes the prospect of exploring the world for elusive treasure and difficult "tainted" enemies more enticing as the story carries on, and ensures that you're only focused on things worthy of your attention.

It's easy to imagine how Ni No Kuni 2 could get by on its quirky characters, engaging story, and real-time combat alone, but Evan isn't just trying to unite other nations; he's got a kingdom of his own to build. From a humble castle nestled between mountains and shore, your parcel of land will grow to contain dozens of buildings and facilities. You'll likely have smiths who craft weapons and armor, farmers that harvest meat, dairy, and produce, and institutions that develop techniques for being a more efficient ruler and a more effective fighter. If resource management and cooldown timers aren't your idea of fun, the good news is that there are only a few instances when the game forces you to reach certain architectural and population thresholds. And while not the most complex management sim out there, anyone who wants to push the limits of their kingdom can easily pour a dozen hours into forging new developments and reaping greater financial and practical rewards.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture.

Everything in your kingdom takes money to fund and time to develop, but more than just investing in these services, you need to staff them with citizens from across the world. This means tackling a lot of sidequests, acquired either by mingling with the populace or by completing tasks for the taskmaster. By and large, sidequests are either a fetch quest or a kill-x-number-of-enemy bounty. These are common fare for RPGs, but nevertheless frustrating to see relied upon so heavily here. On the other hand, Ni No Kuni 2's humorous writing and endearing NPCs shine through, lending something worthwhile to even the most common interactions. They aren't all winners, to be certain, but the distinct accents and colloquialisms spread throughout the world play nicely into the visual variety on display.

In fact, many of the people you meet in passing are actually far more interesting than the four human characters that ultimately join Evan and Roland on the road: a sky-pirate father and his daughter, the former advisor to a queen, and an engineer from the one technologically advanced kingdom on the map. For whatever reason, very little time is spent developing their stories after they join your cause, but even if they offer little more than one-liners during most important events, they are at least invaluable allies in battle that introduce a wide range of skills.

Then there's the small creature Lofty, who while not a deep character, is the game's comic relief and an endless source of amusement. With yellow skin, a pointy head, and a red torso, he's what you might imagine Lisa Simpson looks like if someone described her but forgot to mention she's human. In almost every scene, be it serious or inconsequential, he often lingers just off-center with a dim-witted stare, mouth agape in blind amusement. And when he speaks, he cuts through scenes with wry wit, and even regularly calls out the team for repeatedly taking on errands and doing strangers favors. He is a massive benefit to the overall experience, even within battle. He primarily wanders aimlessly during a fight, but on rare occasions offers a ball of light that causes a character to enter a temporary state where magic can be used freely. Ni No Kuni 2 wouldn't feel the same without him.

Despite the fact that famed Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli isn't directly involved this time around, veteran artists from the studio have injected the sights and sounds of Ni No Kuni 2 with distinctly recognizable whimsy, of which Lofty is but one example. You see it in the characters and environments at large, and you hear it in the soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi, a veteran of numerous Ghibli films and the original Ni No Kuni. The feeling is often upheld by a clean and colorful cartoon aesthetic, but there are also plenty of times when Ni No Kuni 2 shifts into a different and far-less appealing style.

When exploring the world map, managing your kingdom, and diving into RTS skirmishes, the camera pulls back and everything is given a rough-hewn, super-deformed appearance. Though you can bend over backwards and call it a potentially necessary evil, that doesn't excuse the sinking feeling that there must have been a better way, one that doesn't require the game to hide its lovely, cel-shaded face. Near the end of your journey, this shift rears its head during a battle that's intended to feel epic and intimidating, but is ultimately deflated by the simple presentation and impersonal perspective; one last reminder that Ni No Kuni 2, despite its outstanding qualities, bears obvious flaws.

Ni No Kuni 2 is a robust game that offers ample ways to spend your time, and even if they aren't all up to the same level of quality, it's easy to appreciate how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture. It's chock full of excellent battles and surprising moments that make for a far more memorable experience than you initially expect and leaves you impressed by your own accomplishments. If you didn't play the first game, don't let this one pass you by too.

Attack on Titan 2 Review: Colossal Action

Sat, 03/17/2018 - 10:31

Far from being a mere video game adaptation of the anime, Attack on Titan 2 stands strongly as a character-driven action-RPG in its own right, with rewarding combat that feels fluid and fast and a story that's equal parts charming and shocking. While it shares many similarities with the first game in the series, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, the sequel feels like a better package overall with a cleaner visual style and tighter combat. Despite its story taking some time to really dig its anchors in, it gets there and then some, entrancing you all the way until the closing of the final chapter.

Based on the second season of the popular anime series, the story puts you at the center of the conflict between humanity and Titans--a race of giant, people-eating humanoids that one day appeared out of thin air, wiping out a large percentage of the population. Forced to seek a new life behind three huge walls built to keep the Titans out, humanity tried to rebuild, but the Titans managed to find a way through. Faced with extinction, it's up to you and the rest of the military to stop them.

After creating a character--who, if you choose a woman, will still be weirdly referred to as "our man" by the game's narrator--the game opens with you joining the military cadets and becoming a part of the 104th Cadet Corps. The first few hours cover the same ground as Wings of Freedom, putting you through military training and effectively re-living the events of the first game, albeit in a more condensed setting. Also, each character is voiced in Japanese, so you'll rely on subtitles to keep on top of things.

The plot closely follows the anime, so fans are already familiar with what's going on. But it's a story that will pull you in, hard, though not without its fair share of melodrama. While much of the early game feels a little dragged down by some excessive exposition, you come to appreciate those sequences later on, particularly as characters you grow to like face death in shocking ways. Not that the game is overly violent--although the Bloodborne-esque spatter from killing a Titan is pretty messy--it's more that the characters grow on you over time. Watching them struggle through the Titan invasion becomes less of a drudge and more an emotional rollercoaster.

The game is made up of numerous large combat areas and some smaller, peaceful hubs where you can go about your daily life: upgrading weapons, buying materials, and maintaining friendships that grant you different equippable skills that can upgrade your stats. While not all that interesting visually, the hub areas serve as a good bookend between each battle, as well as a chance to debrief with the other characters about the last mission and your next moves.

The larger, more-open combat zones, which vary from green valleys and large towns to snowy, abandoned villages and giant forests, are far more interesting to move through. A big part of what makes the movement so vital and exciting is your omni-directional mobility gear, or ODM for short. The ODM gear fires anchors into a distant object like a house, a tree or even a Titan, and with the help of two side-loaded gas canisters, thrusts you along the ground and up into the air. It can get a little janky; sometimes you’ll catch the underside of a roof or hit a cliff face that’ll halt your momentum. But more often than not, gliding through buildings or between giant trees feels effortlessly satisfying.

Similarly great is the combat, which manages to feel faster and better paced than it did in Wings of Freedom. Titans can only be taken down by slicing out the nape of their necks. You have to fire your anchors into any one of five spots on a Titan you can lock onto, circle around it in mid-air, and then launch at it, swinging your blades wildly. It can feel a little clumsy at first, but within an hour I was dodging attacks in the air and flinging between Titans like it was nothing. The rapid switching of targets and close calls while maneuvering between enemies during a fight never loses its allure, only getting more intense as the story builds.

The Titans themselves are the true stars here. With their ridiculous grins, ambling movements and saggy butts, they look amazingly creepy. On higher difficulty levels, the Titans become faster and more aggressive. Their limbs flail impishly as they freely counter your attacks, flick off ODM anchors like they're swatting flies, and pick fellow Scouts out of the air. Moments like this amp up the intensity tenfold, especially when you're caught between responding to an urgent request for help or going to the aid of someone who's been grabbed by a Titan. It's hard not to feel the pressure in the moment, and it's great.

Despite its slow start, Attack on Titan 2 offers exciting gameplay along with a deep and intriguing plot that, melodrama aside, tugs on the heart strings. It's well-paced and offers some impressive spaces to move through. The unique combination of the movement and combat mechanics combines with a gripping story to make Attack on Titan 2 one of the more surprising releases of the year.

Surviving Mars Review: Building The Final Frontier

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 10:25

It's been said that city simulators are best thought of as a series of stocks and flows. You have essential buildings that supply resources, which are then distributed in a grand pattern etched by your design. Your success, then, depends on how artfully and effectively you've crafted your settlement. If that is the measure by which we are to judge city simulators, nowhere is that more beautifully or essentially or thematically distilled than in Surviving Mars.

Space is hard, and Mars isn't any more forgiving; your goal is to command a mission that can endure the punishing conditions of the Red Planet. You can take the reigns of an international consortium, a major private enterprise, or any number of real-world space-capable nations here on Earth. From there, you choose how to guide your Martian colony. Insofar as many simulators allow a degree of role-playing, your time on Mars is yours to do with how you will. But your progress is constantly evaluated by your sponsor country or organization, offering some very loose targets like "get colonists" and "keep them alive for a while." Beyond that, the direction is yours.

Your first forays on the planet are drone-based; RC rovers and semi-autonomous bots are your essential tools. They help you probe the surface of Mars and get your basics going. You have a bevy of options for obtaining vital resources--with each creating a slightly different relationship between your settlement and the planet. That's because everything here degrades. Ground down by the perpetual dust storms, punishing cold, and meteor strikes, nothing lasts and everything comes with a cost. Whether it's by extracting from rock, or sucking what little can be from the scant Martian atmosphere, even something as basic as how you obtain water influences countless other decisions down the line.

Choose the extractor, and then you need to design your outpost around the fact that it'll kick up far more corrosive dust into the air (among a half-dozen other considerations). The extractor's cousin, the vaporator, is a more environmentally friendly option...but at the cost of comparably low output, and requiring broad spacing between structures to be effective. The brilliance of Surviving Mars, then, is in forcing you to think systemically. Each choice is a commitment, a statement of how you think it best to run humanity's excursion to the new frontier.

Surviving Mars gets a lot of narrative mileage from this. As you progress, you're always fighting the exaggerated elements and forces of nature. Your structures are always degrading, and help of any sort is often months away--meaning that you either have strong supply lines for the necessary materials, or you're prepared to work around the long delays in resupply missions from Earth. Because your colony's development is connected to these choices, it also creates a powerful emergent narrative throughout, not unlike ones found in The Sims, for instance.

Those decisions might feel like setting up a trap down the line, but Surviving Mars' other stroke of genius is how permissive it can be. Instead of locking you into a given play style, the emphasis is on consequences and teaching you how to manage them. Your colony, at its most basic level, is governed by a set of rules. If you have X building, every so often you'll need Y resource to maintain it, and that resource comes from Z building, and so on.

The brilliance here is that all of these systems work and are responsive to how you play. Every choice matters, but none rule your destiny. Even if you can't get what you need from a Martian mine just yet, you can order it from Earth. Each of those choices, too, have consequences, though. And that means that at some point, you either fail to meet a condition and the system starts falling apart, or you keep going and surviving.

What helps here is that Surviving Mars may be delicate, but it isn't punishing. Sure, the in-game consequences of failure are...a little extreme (like watching your colonists suffocate, should you fail to keep oxygen flowing). But you'll often have plenty of time to fix them, and a series of warnings that encourage you to change course. How you do so, again, comes down to which consequences you want to take on, and how long you can keep paying those costs--at least, at the most basic level. At times, Surviving Mars may underemphasize some key parts--namely just how important supply chain management is--but it's delightful and elegant, tasking you with just enough management and planning to keep your role engaging. As you progress, drones can take on more, leaving you to handle larger-scale plans for the settlement.

That allows you to graduate to managing the lives of the colonists, your relationship with Earth, the fineries of your supply chains, and new expansions and additions to your colony (which follow their own systems and sets of rules). What makes all of this work is precisely that it is so scalably complex, gives generally great feedback on how well your choices are working, and giving you progressively larger goals to chip away at. It's a strong set of basic ideas that keep the game consistently engaging, and allows you to open up new fronts and address new challenges--like getting another adjacent settlement going--as you build the confidence to work through them.

Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul.

A more traditional, optional narrative is available as well. Each time you play, you'll eventually discover some sort of mystery, be it colonists with weird visions, disturbing black cubes, or legit aliens. These will nudge your colony in more specific directions, if you decide that it's something you want to explore. Often, these mysteries require you to do something specific, like construct a special building to start a sequence of narrative vignettes. While the core play of "maintain and survive against all odds on the Martian surface" should be a big enough hook for many players, it's nice to have an optional story that addresses the mythology of the planet throughout our real-world history and pop culture.

And that's just it. Mars is more than a planet--it's the next big goal for a healthy portion of people here on Earth. Surviving Mars nods to that with a pursuit of real-world influences and designs, plus as many plausible technologies as it can pack in. While the game definitely takes some liberties, most of the structures, ships, and technologies will be familiar to fans of spaceflight. The basic supply and passenger ships, for instance, are modeled after SpaceX's forthcoming BFR ships.

Surviving Mars, above else, is about hope. So many strategy games hold to their gameplay, eschewing any overarching themes or messages. But, as corny as it sounds, for those who believe in the majesty of spaceflight, for those who are keen to marvel at how pernicious our plucky little species can be, Surviving Mars is SimCity with soul. It shows the challenges that come along with planetary migration, but it also shows that they are solvable. With the right planning, drive, and ingenuity, we can do great things together.

Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life Review: Tokyo Drifter

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 18:00

The Yakuza franchise is over a decade old, and in that time, its feature set has predictably grown. Over six mainline entries, free-roam areas became more substantial, additional playable protagonists were introduced, combat mechanics were expanded to incorporate multiple fighting styles, and more and more minigames were steadily piled on. Surprisingly, the latest installment goes the other way, discarding components that certainly won't go unnoticed by series devotees. But that doesn't end up being a bad thing, because Yakuza 6: The Song of Life successfully uses its smaller footprint to create a deeper, more meaningful impression.

The final installment in Kazuma Kiryu's story focuses on him alone, with the plot seeing the large cast of series-significant characters like Majima, Saejima, Daigo, and the children of Sunflower Orphanage make only the briefest of appearances before being tidied away. Adopted daughter Haruka, sympathetic detective Date, and hobo-turned-loan broker Akiyama play important parts, but exist on the fringes. The Song of Life centers on Kiryu as he returns from another long stint in prison, separated from the Tojo Clan, and unravels the mystery of an infant who's suddenly come into his care. The setup distinctly echoes the events of the first game, a seemingly purposeful decision which lets The Song Of Life act as a fitting refrain, giving Kiryu's final sojourn a roundness that brings a nice sense of closure to his series arc.

His investigations bring him to the port town of Onomichi, Hiroshima, where he encounters a lowly blue-collar crime family led by an aging, but supposedly legendary yakuza portrayed by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano (a yakuza film icon in his own right, though his subtle mannerisms don't completely survive the transition). While the game unsurprisingly spirals into a complex and dramatic story involving underworld political alliances, age-old conspiracies, and a healthy dose of deception, what's ultimately memorable are the threads and character developments that explore what becomes a very significant, widespread theme: family. Kiryu's time meeting new people from different walks of life in a closely-knit small town has him reflecting on remarkably ordinary ideas as they exist in different facets of society--bonds of friendship in the face of adversity, loyalty in times of uncertainty, and caring for your ward as a parental figure.

These themes resonate consistently throughout the better part of Yakuza 6's narrative, and this includes the numerous, optional substories. You'll help children and parents resolve conflicts and try to understand each other's point of view. You'll see Kiryu finding true strength and loyalty in the smallest of gestures, along with the different ways friends and strangers can support one another. The writing in these stories is often corny, but that doesn't mean there isn't an endearing sincerity that regularly shines through. When the sentimental piano melody kicks in during pivotal scenes of moralistic resolution, it's hard not to be swept up by it all. The series' penchant for goofiness still exists, though it doesn't return to Yakuza 0's ludicrous levels of absurdity. Particularly memorable substories are ones which humorously explore Kiryu's unfamiliarity and disdain towards modern technology like drones, robot vacuums, and YouTubers. But even the game's most comedic series of quests, which involve Kiryu dressing up as Onomichi's adorable character mascot (who has an orange for a head and a fish for a purse) ends up becoming a touching reflection about having loyalty in town pride.

These heartwarming stories are also a key component of Yakuza 6's new minigames. There are less of these side activities than previous entries, but much of what's included is more robust than usual, and in many cases, the substories attached to them are enjoyable enough to stop the simple mechanics from wearing thin too quickly. Spear Fishing is a score-based on-rails shooter that finds Kiryu helping an injured fisherman and orphaned fishmonger track down the shark that ruined their lives. The Onomichi Baseball League involves some light team management, pinch-hitting, and player scouting, but the story of Kiryu rallying a team of no-hopers is what really makes the whole affair great. The Snack Bar minigame stands out as a real highlight in this regard. It involves attempting to become a regular in a small, Cheers-style local's bar where Kiryu tries to forge personal relationships with a group of relatively unextraordinary, blue-collar folk. Its key mechanic is participating in group conversations where one patron has a vent about their woes, and Kiryu's role is to help provide supportive dialogue and refrain from saying anything selfish or dumb. It's lovely to see Kiryu try to resolve everyday, down-to-earth dilemmas and provide genuine acceptance and friendship.

Conversely, there's the incredibly involved Clan Creator Mode, which sees Kiryu unwittingly intervening in a war between youth gangs (whose leaders include real-world New Japan Pro Wrestlers, because why not). Taking leadership of one of these groups, you'll help Kiryu scout for soldiers, organize hierarchy, and participate in simple, real-time strategy-style street battles. You'll take a bird's eye view in skirmishes, where you can dispatch autonomous grunts as well as a limited number of leader characters with special abilities. Clan Creator is Yakuza 6's most substantial minigame, boasting online network functions that let you compete against other players, tackle daily missions and participate in a ranked ladder. Unfortunately, it's also the most tedious to play. Victory strategies stem entirely from massing as many troops as possible and grinding missions to keep your leaders at a capable level. Battles don't really become challenging until the many substory missions are already done, and even then, the strategy more or less stays identical. For a mode with such ambitious scope, its mechanics and relatively uninspired plot--which mainly seems concerned with spotlighting its celebrity guests--aren't satisfying enough to make the long ride enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the Club Sega arcade once again offers playable classics like Super Hang-On and Outrun, but there's also complete, multiplayer-capable versions of puzzle action favorite Puyo Puyo, and the seminal Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, both robust offerings in their own right. Mahjong is back, a gym offers track-and-field-style minigames for above average experience gains, karaoke and a cat cafe provide enjoyable distractions, and a simple-to-master darts minigame features a substory that lets you take on a real-world darts legend.

Yakuza 6 also maintains the series convention of including more titillating pursuits. Cabaret clubs return, with a choice of six hostesses for Kiryu to woo through conversation minigames. Also notable is the particularly risque Live Chat, a minigame which sees you pay money to watch live-action webcam shows (featuring real-world AV idols, no less), while hitting button prompts to progress to the point where you can watch the models strip their clothes off and moan suggestively. The unambiguous objectification of women in these minigames continues to make their inclusion uncomfortable in their own right. Their presence does truthfully reflect prominent parts of the real-world Japanese nightlife and adult industries, but these kinds of minigames have always perpetuated an unbelievable inconsistency of character for Kiryu. There's a conflict between the canonical depiction of him as a strong, stoic, honorable saint, and a version who is a creepy, bumbling pervert. After ten years, it's still hard to believe Kiryu is someone looking to build a harem as big as the orphanage he owns, who madly exclaims "BOOOBS" and "IT'S GROWING" when a woman takes her top off. These activities do have their moments, though--the text-based quips of Live Chat participants can sometimes be laugh-out-loud funny, and courting hostesses mean you get to see additional, phenomenally good karaoke videos. But in the grand scheme of Yakuza 6, where heartfelt themes pervade all of Kiryu's character interactions, these minigames feel like distant outliers.

The iconic red-light district of Kamurocho still plays a big part in the story, though it has a noticeably smaller area size this time around. You'll still feel at home if you've visited the area before, but there is a significantly disappointing lack of access to the Champion District and Park Boulevard areas. However, the distinct sense of a vibrant, bustling city still remains, and that's amplified by what feels like a more detailed and densely populated world. Walking around in the first-person mode is enough for you to appreciate all the surface level intricacies and changes, and there's a new element of verticality with increased rooftop access. But there are also some great advancements in the way the city invites you to engage with it.

Yakuza 6 now rewards you for interacting with the world in a way that previous games didn't. Eating at the game's many restaurants, which was previously really only worth doing if you needed a health boost, is now the most convenient way to rack up experience points to spend in the game's extensive upgrade system, though you're limited by a new stomach capacity meter. Purchasing and drinking beverages from one of the numerous vending machines around the world will give you cheap, temporary combat buffs. Every mini-game, from the batting cages to playing a round of Space Harrier will also earn you experience. The result is that slowing down and taking your time to soak in the atmosphere of the city will benefit you, and the world is no longer just a pretty path for you to run down to get to your next objective. Now, you don't necessarily have to feel guilty for letting yourself be distracted by Mahjong for hours.

Onomichi, Hiroshima is a region that is larger than previous accompanying locales have been, although the sleepy port town is a much quieter, more unassuming area than Kamurocho. Situated by the seaside, cute greenery arrangements line its single-story businesses, an above-ground train splits the area, and narrow pedestrian walkways snake up the steep hills, leading to an impressive temple with spectacular views. It's a charming, authentic-feeling recreation of the more tranquil parts of Japan, which both you and Kiryu learn to cherish. The town's relaxed atmosphere and characters exemplify the Song of Life's wholehearted themes.

Of course, in order to keep that tranquillity, sometimes you need to pound a few dirtbags into the ground, and the game's updated combat system follows its philosophy of slimming and focussing. Gone are the variable fighting disciplines introduced in Yakuza 0--the Kiryu of Yakuza 6 is equipped only with an expanded version of his signature brawling style, perhaps another refrain to the series' beginnings. It still maintains its characteristic weight and rigidity, but there are additional factors that make the act of fighting feel more fluid than it's been in the past, turning encounters as a whole into more dynamic and exciting experiences.

Enemy mobs are larger in The Song of Life, and crowd control takes a more prominent focus because of that. Set-piece fights that make up central story moments regularly see Kiryu and his companions go up against dozens upon dozens of enemies at once--a ratio that is frequently amusing. As a result, the properties of Kiryu's attacks have been altered. His throwing maneuver swings a victim around before letting them fly. Each combo string now allows him to execute two finishing blows as a default, and the second typically lunges forward with a wide attack radius. Starting a hard-hitting combo with some wise positioning means that Kiryu can feel like a human wrecking ball as he cleaves and plows through a group of assailants. You can frequently create domino effects that send enemies crashing into each other, and thanks to the game's new physics engine, into environmental objects like rows of bicycles, through glass windows, and potentially, into stores and restaurants.

That's the most significant change to combat--it now benefits from seamless transitions between world exploration and battles. Getting into a fight on the street no longer means coming to a jarring halt for a few seconds while a splash screen pops and civilians gather to restrict you to a small area. Fights now have the potential to move through the city and into areas like stairwells, rooftops, convenience stores, restaurants, and a handful of other accessible building interiors. It also means you have the opportunity to make a break for it if you're not in the mood to throw down. The dynamism and uninterrupted flow this gives to Yakuza's combat is a real wonder, and means that random battles are less likely to eventually devolve into monotony, as they could in past games. You could be strolling down the street, leisurely drinking a can of Boss coffee or taking a selfie in front of the cat cafe, and a gang of thugs can suddenly interrupt you, forcing you into a tight stairway brawl that eventually spills out onto a rooftop. Or, you might try to run and hide in a convenience store, unsuccessfully, and find yourself destroying shelves and sending snacks flying until you put an end to the chaos by slamming a thug's head into a microwave--just don't expect the clerk to serve you afterward. Combat in Yakuza 6 is exciting, and the situations you might find yourself in positively echo the kinds of scrappy, tense struggles you see so commonly in East Asian gangster films.

Another sticking point is one that's been present in all of the game's iterations--the inconsistent visual presentation. While the scenes that deliver pivotal plot events are absolutely spectacular--with uncannily lifelike character models, dramatic cinematography, and exceptional Japanese language performances--scenes that present lesser moments, like substories, are a dramatic drop in quality. As in previous games, they feature far less detailed character models and wooden, sometimes non-existent animation. Static camera angles also play a big part in aggravating their dullness. Substories make up a significant part of Yakuza games, so the low-end visuals continue to be an unfortunate blemish. Yakuza 6 is also entirely voice-acted for the first time in the series, and because the performances go a long way in enhancing the humorous and earnest moments these missions can contain, it's a shame that the presentation doesn't go to the same efforts.

Yakuza 6 reins in its scope, but doubles down on what has made the series great. It's a unique and fascinating representation of the modern Japanese experience, worth playing even if you're a newcomer. The narrative is dramatic and sincere, and the game's endearing characters--coming from all walks of life--are interesting studies. The world is dense and rewarding to exist in, the dynamic combat system stays exciting even after you've kicked the crap out of five thousand enemies, and perhaps most importantly, Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life serves as a fulfilling conclusion to the turbulent, decade-long saga of its beloved icon, Kazuma Kiryu.

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