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    The Dark Side Of Gaming

    Saricino
    By Saricino,

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    Sirens roar ominously within the mangled remains of a Rebel frigate, warning all to escape. The clanking of hurried footsteps echoes through the halls before being replaced by a series of ghastly screams, loud enough to drown out the alarm. A door slides open to reveal the glow of a red lightsaber backed by the silhouette of Darth Vader. I fire my blaster, and he nonchalantly takes a shot to the chest. He raises his hand and I levitate with it, my throat closing as I inch upward. This spectacle of power is impressive, but as my life fades away, the only thing I can think is “How much did that player spend to unlock the third level of Punishing Grip?”

    Star Wars Battlefront II is big, bombastic, and fun. It is also diseased by an insidious microtransaction model that creates an uneven battlefield, favoring those who are willing to spend real money to gain an edge over players who are just here to enjoy the Star Wars experience. Given just how slowly in-game currency is doled out, the notion of keeping up through extensive grinding isn’t realistic. This is especially true of Star Cards, which unlock new abilities, boosts, and upgrades for each class and hero, since they are tucked away in expensive loot crates or eat up rare crafting materials (which you mostly get in crates).

    The benefits from the Star Cards range from slight bumps like explosive-damage protection increasing from 15 percent to 17.5 percent, to game-changers like a boost that increases the rate Battle Points are earned by 20 percent. This is a huge deal, as Battle Points allow players to control vehicles and heroes that rack up kills and turn the tide of war. With each death on the battlefield, players see which cards their opponent is using – a design that plants the seed of “I need those cards.”

    Even if a player spends a day playing the game to earn credits to buy a couple of crates, they may walk away with unwanted things like emotes or victory poses rather than cards that help their cause. The same currency is also used to unlock heroes like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker – a frustrating conflict of goods that makes progress feel endless and hopeless. The most damning show of the game basically saying “We want you to pay to win” is a limit being put on the number of credits a player can earn in Arcade mode. After finishing five Arcade challenges, the player is told to come back in 14 hours to earn more. This is the kind of gating that makes certain free-to-play games nearly unplayable, yet here it is in a $60 game.

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    If all of this microtransaction nonsense were stripped away, Battlefront II has all of the makings of a great multiplayer experience. Spanning 40 years of the Star Wars saga, I had a blast suiting up as a stormtrooper on Tatooine, piloting an X-Wing in the debris of a Death Star, and marching defiantly into Theed’s palace as Darth Maul. The 40-player Galactic Conquest matches are a bombardment of spectacle and awe, delivering a true Star Wars experience backed by excellent gunplay and photo-realistic imagery.

    These battles are brilliantly devised, making most matches feel like the team is functioning as a united front, all while allowing each player to approach the battle with whatever class, vehicle, or hero they want. The maps funnel the action nicely, offering a nice variety in objectives, and chokepoints where glorious chaos ensues. The last Battlefront’s problem of not having enough maps is not an issue here. Battlefront II has plenty, but I’m not a fan of back-to-back matches taking place on the same map, even if you do get to experience it from the other side.

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    I enjoyed all of the maps almost equally, another testament to the game’s potential for greatness. The tall grass affecting sight lines on Kashyyyk is quite cool, and I also love the how the wars clash against Kamino’s muted colors. The same praise of how the maps can elevate the wars extends to the other avenues of play like Strikes and Heroes vs. Villains.

    As enthralling as the gunplay is (and boy do these weapons pack a punch), my favorite part of the game is Starfighter Assault. The excitement of Star Wars dogfighting is captured beautifully here, allowing players to weave dangerously in and out of debris, skim along the surface of star destroyers, and lock-on to a foe to unleash a satisfying torpedo strike. Again, the visualization of these battles is nothing short of breathtaking – Battlefront II is easily one of the best-looking games out there.

    The single-player campaign is the one area where the Star Wars fantasy falls flat. The story starts off on a strong note, giving players a taste of what it’s like to be an Imperial officer (I had to train myself not to instinctively shoot the stormtroopers). This dark perspective unfolds through Iden Versio, a skilled pilot who is immediately likeable and different, and appears to be a great guide into the unknown for Star Wars fans.

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    Just when it seems the story is going to embrace the darkness, it alters course completely and loses its pulse, becoming both predicable and sloppy. Iden’s tale is upended even further by levels that play out as like a greatest hits of Star Wars heroes. Slashing giant bugs as Luke is good fun, but Iden’s tale suffers from it. The highlight of the story is a tease in the final seconds that establishes a legitimate villain (something that is oddly missing up to that point).

    The dark side courses through Star Wars Battlefront II, playing mind tricks on gamers to spend more money to become stronger. By the time you read this review, there’s a chance EA may change how the Star Cards or loot crates work, but at this point in time, this predatory microtransaction model Force-chokes Battlefront II’s experience. It’s a shame to see a game with such clear greatness get pulled down to these depths. Star Wars deserves better. We deserve better.

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    Rip And Tear To Go

    Saricino
    By Saricino,

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    One of the internet’s many running jokes is seeing how many devices people can get to run the original Doom. We’ve seen intrepid coders port the world’s first blockbuster first-person shooter to iPods, printers, and even ATMs. While most any modern device can be jerry-rigged to run that 1993 classic, the fantastic 2016 reboot takes considerably more horsepower. That didn’t stop developers id Software and Panic Button from creating a surprisingly competent port for Nintendo’s console/handheld hybrid, though the Switch’s limited technical capabilities make this version of Doom the least impressive of the bunch. 

    To get this game up and running, the teams had to make some clear performance concessions. The framerate is 30 frames per second (compared to 60 in other versions), and the resolution supposedly tops out at 720p, though I have a hard time believing the game even reaches that modest crest. Textures are noticeably muddy nearly everywhere you go, and though motion blur while traversing attempts to mask these shoddy graphics, they stand out like demon blood splattered against the sterile science lab walls. The drop in graphical fidelity becomes even more pronounced when playing on your TV while the Switch is docked, but this is the understandable price you pay for getting a cutting-edge game on a portable console. 

    If you can look past the technical inferiorities, Doom offers the same great single-player campaign that came to the PS4, Xbox One, and PC last year. Keeping to the form of the original, this action-focused romp is light on narrative beats and heavy on bloodshed. All you need to know is demons have overrun a Mars research facility, and it’s your job to paint the walls red with their guts. The combat eschews many of the recent FPS conventions, with no cover mechanic, ammo reloads, or speed burst button. Instead, Doomguy must move at breakneck speeds, vaulting and dodging to avoid incoming fire. The best way to survive when your health or ammo is low isn’t to hide behind pillars, but instead charge head-first into the ballet of death, ripping through enemies with your chainsaw to create an explosion of firepower and health packs. 

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    The frantic combat demands deft controls, and the Switch isn’t always up to the task. In handheld mode, I find the placement of the right analog stick to be an ergonomic problem. The strange angle I have to bend my thumb to control the stick takes a toll on responsiveness to the point that I wouldn’t dare venture into multiplayer matches with this configuration. If you have a Pro Controller, it is the unquestioned way to go. The developers wisely avoided integrating a comprehensive motion control scheme for a game that demands precision; you can shake the right Joy-con to perform a Glory Kill, but that’s it. 

    If you’ve already played the single-player campaign on another platform, the arcade mode lets you test your skills to see where you rank among the best Doom players. Selecting any level to play, you can choose from the full assortment of weapon mods and ability-enhancing runes before taking to the killing field. Each kill adds to your score tally, with multiplier bonuses and feats of skill earning you extra points. Having run through the campaign twice already, this was my preferred method of play. 

    Doom includes a fully featured multiplayer mode, including all of the downloadable updates Bethesda added version post-release. The speed of play and variety of modes bring to mind classic arena shooters, but none of the expanded content helps the game rise above my original complaint of it feeling generic and dated. The SnapMap user creation tools that shipped with the other versions of the game didn’t make the jump to Switch. The mode never became the mod haven id envisioned (most likely due to the design constraints placed on creators), so this isn’t a big loss.

    Technical limitations make the Switch version the worst way to experience id’s fantastic Doom reboot, but the stellar campaign is still there underneath the layers of muddy textures and resolution dips. Despite its less attractive veneer, being able to play such a demanding game on the go is still a strong selling point.

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    A Risky Bet

    Saricino
    By Saricino,

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    Need For Speed has repeatedly attempted to reinvent itself, trying out new twists within the arcade racing milieu to stay fresh after 20 years of releases. In pursuit of that novelty, Payback throws an enormous array of activities at the wall to see what might stick, including car customization, police chases, drifting, collectibles, offroad jumps, blink-and-you-miss-them drag races, and supercar highway sprints. The sheer scope of activities is impressive at first, but consistent technical problems, hackneyed storytelling, uneven balancing, and a wildly frustrating progression system all combine to sap the fun. Payback is like being behind the wheel of a riding mower as you cut the lawn of a beautiful estate; it may be pretty and have lots to look at, but it’s still a tedious chore. 

    Tyler and his crew have been betrayed, and they’re out for revenge against the nebulous threat of “The House,” a shady organization that runs the Need For Speed analog of Las Vegas. With each new stereotypical character intro, plot beat, and dialogue line, the vapid storytelling made me wince a little more, right up until the unfulfilling and anticlimactic ending. After “crushing it” and “doing it for the streets” with “drifting anarchist hackers” for several dozen hours, I found myself longing for the nuanced scripting of a Jason Statham film. 

    On the bright side, the open world of Payback captures the stark beauty of the southwest United States, with the glitzy trash of Vegas, the sprawling deserts of Nevada, and the jagged rocks of southern Utah. The open world has plenty of billboards to smash through, switchback roads to drift along, and secret collectibles to track down. Tons of events, races, and activities can be tackled around the map, and I appreciate the breadth of content, even if some of the races feel like copies of events I already completed. 

    The cars you drive through these attractive settings are varied and cool to look at. Modding your car’s visual style is versatile, but never feels especially meaningful or worth the time and money. It’s too bad that the derelict car system is so tiresome. Ostensibly, it’s built to let you find the parts to an old car and rebuild it into a monster. In practice, between collecting parts from cryptic road maps, rebuilding the vehicles, and upgrading them, these versatile rides end up feeling like they’re simply not worth the ample effort required to make them viable competitors.

    No matter the vehicle, I struggled to enjoy the feel of the rubber against the road, or to really recognize how any one car in a given class was different from another. Handling across all the car types is often loose and vaguely out of my control. Drifting is oversimplified and imprecise. Police chases don’t have the urgency and challenge of earlier franchise entries. Until the late game, street races lack the speed and control that can make a game like this feel tense.

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    Payback’s greatest sin is its infuriating progression mechanics. In what I can only presume is an effort to extend the life of the game and encourage engagement with the microtransaction system, improving the performance of your rides is a slow and poorly paced process. Instead of giving you clear control over how to make a car better, you’re forced into a strange confluence of currencies, speed cards, spare parts, and numerical values. Growth is tied to random improvements on sale at any given time at the tune-up shop, along with a literal slot machine mechanic – all of which tie back to currencies obtainable through real-world purchases. 

    The further into the game you go, the longer it takes to reach the next story event’s power threshold. The result is you either invest time grinding or spend real money multiple times to get up to snuff, or alternately feel consistently underpowered in every race you enter. And this must be done with multiple car types, not just one, since offroad, drift, drag, race, and runner vehicles all have separate upgrade paths. The problem is exacerbated by wildly uneven balancing and rubber banding during events, teetering back and forth from too easy to too hard, so you never really know when you’re ready to move on and tackle a task.

    Technical problems also crater the game’s potential. U.I. fails to load immediately after an in-race cinematic sequence or crash, leaving you facing crucial seconds with no navigational aid. Distant objects (like turn warnings and enemy racers) have occasional pop-in problems. Load times are weirdly long. Opponent A.I. acts wonky, sometimes veering into siderails for no reason. Mini-map navigation often sends you along unnecessarily complex routes, rather than recognizing simpler paths to an objective.

    Multiplayer lets you take on opponents in ranked or unranked playlists. The online battles are passable, but opponent cars regularly fail to load in at race start, leading to a bumper-car-like scrum with invisible foes in the opening frantic seconds. After that, the online races can be enjoyable, but marred by matchmaking that struggles to find a good match of players. And when I ran up against a particularly tricked-out competitor, I couldn’t escape the suspicion that someone had simply paid their way into a winning position.

    Scattered across its unnaturally lengthy campaign, Payback has several fun event sequences that blend cinematic action with rousing racing. And as players begin to control more sophisticated cars, the sense of excitement and speed can be engaging. Unfortunately, too much of the rest of the game feels lackluster, unpolished, and catered to other priorities besides fun. Payback hits a lot of the checkpoints on a bullet list for a big modern racing adventure, but lacks the discipline and execution to come in for anything but a disappointing finish. 

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