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Everything posted by Saricino

  1. The police procedural is a wildly popular literary, television, and film genre, but relatively few game developers have successfully captured the thrill of cracking a case. Of the few interactive experiences that have tried to match the intrigue of classic detective stories like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, the Rockstar Games and Team Bondi collaboration L.A. Noire stands out most clearly in the lineup. Six years after its original release, the heady crime drama surprisingly arrives on Switch. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, L.A. Noire puts you in the fedora of war-hero-turned-detective Cole Phelps, an ambitious LAPD officer still struggling with the trauma of his war memories. Along the course of Phelps’ rise up the ranks, you tackle cases that expose the seedy underbelly of the City of Angels, ranging from crimes of passion to full-scale government corruption. All of the original cases plus the DLC additions are included in the Switch version. Though it’s set in an open world, the heart of the L.A. Noire experience is arriving at a crime scene, gathering clues, and interrogating witnesses and suspects. These conversations serve as a showcase for the impressive MotionScan technology, which still delivers some of the most believable facial expressions we’ve seen in interactive entertainment to date. Each person of interest’s shifty glances or lack of eye contact fuels the intrigue as you try to discern whether they are coming clean or hiding something. The original game’s Truth/Doubt/Lie conversation options often resulted in unpredictable, over-the-top responses from Phelps (played by Mad Men actor Aaron Staton). For the Switch and remastered versions, Rockstar changed these options to Good Cop/Bad Cop/Accuse, which delivers responses more in line with expectations. Phelps’ strong-arm tactics are still chuckle-worthy sometimes, but they no longer feel misaligned. I still wish you had more variable responses based on the circumstances, but these options generally work well. (Please visit the site to view this media) The minute-to-minute casework keeps L.A. Noire thrilling from beginning to end, but it’s also a game of missed opportunities, the primary culprit being the underused open world. Rockstar and Team Bondi painstakingly recreated 1940s Los Angeles, which is a treat to drive around. However, outside of some limited sightseeing and bevy of collectibles, it doesn’t take advantage of this setting the way most other Rockstar Games do. The only meaningful side activities to pursue are the random street crimes. The transition to the Switch also brings along some technological shortcomings. Pop-up is pervasive both in handheld and docked modes, with trees, pedestrians, and full buildings springing up right in front of your eyes only a few blocks ahead. A lack of anti-aliasing also results in a lot of jaggy edges along buildings, telephone wires, and vehicles. These issues are most noticeable when playing in the docked mode, but I still noticed them in the handheld mode as well. Rockstar parent company Take-Two has repeatedly said it considers L.A. Noire a candidate for becoming a recurring franchise, and replaying the game six years after its initial launch proves its crime-solving formula holds up. The Switch version may suffer visually, but the modular nature of this narrative makes it a perfect companion for gaming on the go. View the full article
  2. Battle Chef Brigade is a weird, delightful, and intense match-three cooking game that also pushes players to hunt for ingredients through fervent hack-and-slash combat. This strange hybrid of genres works surprisingly well, as both push for speed and precision. One botched combat encounter or poorly placed ingredient could spell disaster. Obvious inspiration is drawn from the Iron Chef cooking show, complete with an animated host who reveals the competition’s primary ingredient, and an array of snooty judges who demand different things from your cooking. The game is also wildly imaginative; it’s set in a kingdom called Victusia where monsters are kept at bay by a legion of magic-wielding cooks. Again, this strange union of ideas works, and is used to create an engaging backdrop for players. Our guide through Victusia is a young, aspiring cook named Mina, who is upbeat and joyous, and doesn’t seem like she’s done anything bad in her life. When we first meet Mina, she’s trapped as a cook at her family’s restaurant, forced to make the same dishes day-in and day-out. She knows she has talent, and is destined for something far greater, so she runs away to Brigade Town to enter a cooking competition to become the next Brigadier and protector of the world. This story is narrow in scope and you know exactly how it’s going to conclude, but is fun to follow thanks a wild ensemble of supporting characters, including a two-headed Cyclops and a rival cook who uses the undead to help him gather ingredients. Brigade Town has all of the makings of a hub in an RPG, allowing Mina to purchase new cooking wares from shops, take on side jobs to make more money, and interact with the locals to learn more about the world. While the side activities give the game a bit of character, they don’t last long, and all funnel into the big cooking competitions, in which Mina squares off against an opponent. When the secret ingredient is revealed, the two contestants run in different directions, past their kitchens, and into the wilderness where they must hunt. The combat mechanics have depth – such as punching combos, aerial maneuvers, ground bounces, projectiles, and magic – but don’t offer much in terms of challenge or strategy. A dragon may have more hit points than a bird, but can be exploited just as easily. While I felt the stress of the clock pushing me to perform as flawlessly as possible, I felt like I was going through the same motions for all encounters. The only moments of intrigue come from a creature grabbing a slab of meat before Mina can, which leads to a chase, or waiting for a bird to lay an egg – which is a nice ingredient to add, but takes time to produce. With a satchel full of supplies, Mina races back to the kitchen to prepare them. At first, you are just working with one dish, but she eventually needs to cook for three judges at once. The pans she uses are like weapons in traditional RPGs, and embrace player choice. For a certain judge that likes watery dishes, she may want to use a pan in which she only has to match two water gems instead of three. She may also want to use a slow cooker that increases the taste of a gem over time. Plenty of variety is offered in the utensils and sauces to enhance taste and add even more variety to the cooking. (Please visit the site to view this media) The matching gameplay takes place on a small 4x4 grid, yet offers plenty of variety, strategy, and chaos. Matching three in such a confined area can be tricky, especially since some gems are too fragile to be moved, or may pollute others. Mina may also need to bring out specific flavors, as each ingredient contains different elements (water, earth, fire, bones, poisons, and delicate materials). If a dish is missing something, a frantic race back into the wilderness is likely in the cards. As a dish is prepared, it takes shape and is shown a rating, giving the player an idea of whether it’s good or not. Even if you are happy with a meal, the judge may have other things to say and lower the score if it doesn’t hit the right notes. Battle Chef Bridge is breezy and fun, offering roughly 8 to 10 hours of stressful cooking with a decent narrative and beautiful pastel visuals to pull it along. It may seem lighthearted and innocent, but it succeeds more in being overly chaotic in its match-three gameplay. View the full article
  3. Steven Universe is a show that has cultivated a strong following thanks to its Venn-diagram overlap of immortal aliens and frequent lessons on the importance of empathy. It’s a strange combination that works surprisingly well, and though it has seen a few video game adaptions, Save the Light has been particularly exciting because it’s Steven’s first full-scale console RPG. Save the Light is a sequel to the 2015 mobile game, Attack the Light, but it’s worth noting that playing that game is not a requirement for this follow-up. Being familiar with the show is helpful, but Save the Light stands on its own as an RPG inspired by games like Paper Mario. Unfortunately, it is held back by myriad technical issues that bring down the experience. Save the Light is written by Rebecca Sugar, the show’s creator, and it is apparent throughout. The characters, lore, and world are consistent, and the narrative arc feels like it could be a lost episode. It also introduces a new villain, Hessonite. She doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have liked, but she has a backstory that is as interesting as the villains that appear in the show. Hessonite comes to Earth in order to recover her thought-lost evil sentient weapon, the Light Prism, that Steven and pals were able to turn good in the first game. She makes her presence known by landing her ship on top of Steven’s dad’s car wash, effectively destroying it, which sends Steven off on his adventure. Steven and three other party members of your choice make their way through an assortment of locations in search of Hessonite. Steven’s home town, Beach City, serves as a sort of central hub and is particularly thrilling to explore as a fan since it is home to many familiar characters and locations. Overall, the story is light and satisfying in its finale, but the commentary from your party is really the highlight. I would especially recommend placing Peridot in your party when she becomes available as she offers up some of the best lines in the game. While the writing captures the essence of the show, the visuals do not – but that’s okay. Save the Light has its own visual identity, but its elements are all instantly recognizable as belonging to the same franchise and it looks great. Moving the 2D character sprites through the assorted 3D environments looks especially cool. (Please visit the site to view this media) Combat is turn-based, with the option to augment your moves with timed-button presses. Your party performs attacks based on a shared pool of recharging points, which opens up interesting combat options, like saving all your points for a single powerful attack versus using the points to execute a weaker attack multiple times in the same turn. You can also team up characters to make their attacks more powerful. It leaves a lot of room for experimentation in the combat, and it helps that each of the optional party members are distinct. The system is functional, but unremarkable, doing little to separate itself from its Paper Mario inspiration. The bosses do stand out, however, as each requires a different approach. They’re not stronger versions of familiar enemy types, and they have unique tactics like relying on underlings to power them up, or using a powerful wind ability to push you out of the combat space. As fun as Save the Light can be, enjoying it is difficult due to numerous technical performance issues. Even after a post-release patch, I constantly ran into problems. They ranged from minor hiccups (like getting temporarily stuck on environmental geometry) to major infractions (like fully restarting the game after attack options disappeared in the middle of battle). Perhaps the most damning bug was after I beat the game and watched the final cutscene, the game hard crashed to the PlayStation 4’s home screen as the end credits scrolled, robbing me of a fully satisfying conclusion. A number of quality-of-life issues also hinder the experience. Your inventory is difficult to navigate, and you have a lot of different items to collect. I instinctively moved the right control stick to adjust the poor camera angles, but the game does not give you a way to adjust your view. The circular menus used to select attacks and even selecting characters mid-fight is also inconsistent. The cursor is erratic, forcing far more accuracy than should be necessary to simply select something. These are smaller qualms that don’t hold the game back significantly, but those frustrations placed alongside the frequent bugs lead to the game feeling like a chore. Without its many technical issues, Save the Light could have been a good video game adaptation of an excellent show. The involvement of its creator is apparent and the voice cast gave the game the same consideration they do the source material. I even liked the combat and storytelling, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the frustrations of having to frequently restart the game or watch helplessly as Steven’s run animation looped while he stood next to a rock. View the full article
  4. Sometimes being a WWE fan is hard. Keeping up with the weekly shows requires a massive time commitment. Your favorite wrestlers are constantly getting hurt or thrown into terrible storylines. Even friends and family sometimes roll their eyes at your Austin 3:16 shirts. But one of the most tiring aspects of being a WWE fan is putting up with the lackluster wrestling in 2K’s WWE series every year. One of the biggest changes to this year’s gameplay is a new Carry and Drag system, which factors in the size and weight of your wrestler and then lets you pick up your opponent into one of four different positions. Manhandling your foes this way provides more freedom to move the action anywhere in the ring, and makes it easier to set up spectacular finishers where you throw someone through a table or body slam them onto the announcer’s table. Unfortunately, this new system doesn’t make up for WWE 2K18’s larger mechanical problems. The action remains sluggish, and wrestlers run across the ring like they’re wading through molasses. Controlling the action is difficult because the timing window on reversals feels like its constantly shifting. Matches are a race to see who can build up and unleash their finisher first, but pulling off a single finisher rarely ends the match because the A.I. can withstand a massive beating before submitting to a pin. These are just a few of the moment-to-moment problems that killed any excitement I might have had going into a match. Controlling these titans of the ring should be a fan dream, but I often felt like I was wrestling with my controller more than I was wrestling my opponent. (Please visit the site to view this media) If you can put up with WWE’s in-ring action long enough, you can take your own created player through the ranks of the WWE in My Career mode. This mode has been expanded to include some light RPG elements, and you can now freely roam the WWE Performance Center, talk to the staff, and pick up quests. Unfortunately, exploring the performance center is a chore thanks to your wrestler’s painfully slow run speed, and the side quests feel like tedious errands with minimal rewards. The writing in My Career mode is also laughably bad, with stilted dialogue and lame side characters. Plus, the lack of VO makes it feel like an afterthought. Fortunately, the online mode Road to Glory is a little bit better. This mode follows the WWE’s real-life calendar as you compete in a series of online matches to earn stars and hopefully qualify to participate in pay-per-view events that net you some nifty cosmetic rewards. Online matchmaking is quick, and I didn’t experience any slowdown during online play. This mode is no-frills, but I liked seeing the exploits of my fictional wrestler line-up with real-world events. WWE’s creation suite remains one of the series’ most robust feature sets, since you can create everything from wrestlers to entrances to arenas. You can create everything from classic wrestlers to reasonable facsimiles of pop culture icons. Making your own WWE dioramas is neat, but it’s a shame that none of these things are fun to play with once they’re in motion. WWE 2K18 features some incremental additions, but the action is largely similar to last year’s game. In fact, there were moments where I worried that I’d accidentally booted up 2K17. As it stands, 2K needs to do more to expand its reach beyond the hardcore audience that comes back year after year. View the full article
  5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim released on two new platforms this year. The Switch version has been a nice surprise, performing better than expected and proving Skyrim is a great game to play on the go. The other new platform, PlayStation VR, does not fare as well. The entire, unabridged Skyrim experience (along with all the post-release DLC) is included here and that’s impressive, but Skyrim was not designed for virtual reality and it doesn’t take long to come to that conclusion. Simply put, I don’t like it. I don’t know how my ranking would pan out if I ordered the different versions of Skyrim, but whatever the list would ultimately look like, the PlayStation VR version would sit at the bottom. From a distance, Skyrim VR is a gorgeous game with impressive vistas. The best moments in Skyrim VR were the ones where I sat there doing nothing and just looked around. Being in the middle of a vast, virtual outdoor environment is undeniably charming. Making an impressive climb to the peak of a snowy mountain and taking a moment to just look around is where the game shines strongest. In one instance, I ended up getting carried down a river by its current. I jokingly put my hands behind my head like I was floating down a lazy river, which was a surprisingly relaxing experience. Virtual reality is all about letting you get as close to the action as possible, but up close, Skyrim shows its age thanks to rough animations and clunky, unattractive character models. It doesn’t help that the visuals have been scaled back to run on PlayStation VR and the visor’s mediocre in-headset screen gives the whole game a blurry look throughout. Skyrim also continues to be an unstable game, and the shortcomings are more pronounced in virtual reality. The opening sequence featuring the dragon stuttered with its fire-breathing audio cues, and it only took a visit to a single cave to accidentally break out of the game’s boundaries and float above the world. In virtual reality, this sort of phenomenon feels exceptionally strange. You feel like you've suddenly become a ghost seeing into the matrix as you float above all of creation. And then it all falls apart as reality corrects itself and you fall back down into the real (i.e. virtual) world. Bethesda offers two control options for playing Skyrim VR – a standard DualShock 4 controller, or two PlayStation Move controllers. I preferred using the DualShock, even though having full control of movement on analog sticks made me extra motion sick. It feels closest to the original Skyrim experience this way, and as an added bonus my bow and magic attacks were far more accurate thanks being able to use my head as an aiming reticle. Using two PlayStation Move controllers leads to a more immersive experience, but it breaks the balance of the game in some meaningful ways. With no control stick, you can either warp around Skyrim with a teleportation mechanic to travel, or you can change the settings so that holding down a button will make you move forward. Using the first option, navigation is easier because you can instantly warp to any nearby location, and things like traps in the dungeons become meaningless barriers because you can just warp right past them. The only downside of being over-encumbered is your warp distance is shorter, but you can warp so fast that you really aren’t held back in a significant way. Stealth is also easier when you can warp around, but you are more likely to accidentally alert those you are trying to sneak past because your arm movements become unpredictable. (Please visit the site to view this media) The one-to-one motion-controlled combat turns every encounter into a bizarre arm-flailing experience. When using a bow and arrow you actually go through the process of placing an arrow in the bow, pulling back and releasing, and it works properly about half the time. Magic is a matter of pointing and shooting. Using a sword and shield, you grip the Move controllers as if you were holding the items, raising your left hand to block and swinging your right hand as if you were holding a sword. I suppose you could pantomime a real sword fight, but I had way more success (and comedy!) by violently waggling my hand, to resurrect an old gaming term we haven’t had the opportunity to use since the Wii. It also just generally makes combat easier, even against multiple enemies, because you can just flail your way to victory. I also tried swimming using the Move controllers, but couldn't get it to work well. The swimming tutorial directed me to place my head below the water and move my arms as though I was swimming, but whenever I tried to dip my head below the water, the game would either auto-correct itself to keep my head above water, or I would move so low that I was out of the range of the PlayStation VR camera. Ultimately, I don’t really mind that using the Move control options breaks the game balance. I like the novelty of playing Skyrim as a sort of gesticulating goofball wizard, but those who want a truer Skyrim experience will either have to play with a controller, or approach the experience like a method actor with the role of a lifetime. Leveling up your character, rooting through your inventory, and talking to villagers is no different than it is in the other versions. You walk up to villagers to engage them and then pick from a series of dialogue options that appear on-screen. It's harder to navigate menus using Move controllers, but you organize your inventory and access the skill trees the same way you did in past versions. (Please visit the site to view this media) Skyrim VR also made me sick, but I attribute this more to PlayStation VR than to the game itself. Every PlayStation VR game makes me a little ill, but Skyrim sits on the higher end of the nausea spectrum. The head bob that accompanies walking down stairs was particularly dreadful, as was jumping from high cliffs to my death. But to be fair, the latter was the result of admittedly masochistic curiosity. Whatever the reason, I won’t return to Skyrim VR because I generally prefer not having a headache. Despite all my pessimism about this port, I am glad Skyrim VR exists. I have had good and bad experiences in virtual reality, but just about all of them have revolved around gimmicky toys designed to show off the potential of VR, without ever actually going the distance to being a fully fleshed out game. I like that Bethesda swung for the fences to try and deliver a full game in virtual reality. That is admirable, even if playing the game did give me a headache. I would love to see more experiments like Skyrim VR and Resident Evil 7 in virtual reality, where fully featured games get ported to this still-young medium. This port is rough, but I’m still hopeful that there is a game out there that works both ways. For now, if you want to revisit Skyrim, your best bet is to boot up one of the editions you already own or grab it on Switch. View the full article
  6. For more than six years, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has captured the imaginations of countless gamers, with its beautiful and snowy fantastical trappings, seemingly endless side quests, and massive modding community. The Switch port of Skyrim is an exciting prospect because it makes an enticing promise that the other console versions don’t: being able to play on the go. I was impressed with how the Switch handles this massive (and infamously glitchy) RPG, resulting in a competent port that transitions wonderfully to portable play. For those who haven’t played Skyrim yet, the game takes place on the fantastical continent of Tamriel, where humans walk alongside talking lizards and feline merchants. The world is filled with various factions, guilds, and kingdoms vying for control. On paper, that sounds generic, but Skyrim’s open-ended design is anything but commonplace. Players explore the world at their own pace, uncovering secret treasures in tombs hidden in mountains or plotting with children to kill an evil orphanage owner. Even a walk through a forest might suddenly be interrupted by a giant spider fighting a dragon. You’re given the freedom to do what you want and develop a play style that interests you. If you’d rather focus on guild quests instead of the main storyline, that’s a valid choice. This flexibility results in a world that you can actively inhabit, not just wait to be shuttled to the next big story beat. Bethesda has done a stellar job packing the lion’s share of the experience onto Switch. The biggest question on many fans’ minds is whether or not the Switch can handle Skyrim’s massive size and propensity for loading those spaces with numerous foes. During my 35-plus hours with the game, my framerate was constantly above 30 FPS and I never encountered a single dip or stutter. Load times were also surprisingly brief in comparison to the original PS3/360 versions, with a one-minute initial load time from main menu to game world, and then brief transitions taking from 4 to 10 seconds. Everything ran smoothly no matter what area I was in, how populated it is, or what activity I was doing. Control functionality is also satisfying, with a pleasant rumble in the Joy-Cons helping capture the pleasurable thunk of combat when you drive an axe into a foe’s head or whip them off a mountainside with a brush of your sword. Bethesda didn’t have to make any huge sacrifices to achieve this performance, either. Outside of textures and rough character models (we’re talking about a game from 2011), the world of Skyrim looks as stunning as ever. I noticed no fuzziness in either portable mode or on three different HD televisions of various sizes during my playtime. The draw distance is equally impressive; I could make out distant mountains, cities, and landmasses without any fog enshrouding them. A slight motion blur occurs when you’re turning, but I hardly noticed it all except in dark spaces like caverns. It might not look quite as pretty as the PC version running at ultra-high settings, but it doesn’t settle for adequacy either, resulting in a world that’s constantly nice to look at as long as you don’t examine textures too closely. (Please visit the site to view this media) While the lack of mod support for this version is disappointing (its PS4/Xbox One siblings have barebones mod support), the amount of worthwhile content in the core Skyrim experience more than makes up for it. This version also packages all the expansions for the game, including two separate and lengthy quests involving vampires and a rival Dragonborn, as well as the addition that lets you build houses and adopt children. The variety of potential activities in Skyrim is maddening and delightful; this game easily has at least a hundred hours of content, plus countless more if you want to do and see everything. And the novelty of doing all of this while sitting in a coffee shop or riding to work still hasn’t worn off. My only substantial criticism about this version is the optional console-specific functions feel like gimmicks. You can use motion controls for combat and lockpicking, but both are too unwieldy to be enjoyable. Amiibo functionality rewards you with treasure chests filled with weapons and ingredients for cooking, but you can also get the best Amiibo gear without using the functionality, so it also feels superficial. Ultimately these are optional niggles you don’t have to bother with, so feel free to turn them off and forget about them. The problems inherent in the original version of Skyrim are still here, too, including wonky enemy AI, stiff animations, and bad voice-acting. Some of these issues are part of the game’s charm at this point, so being able to play it on the go essentially made those non-issues for me. This is especially true since so many of the bigger problems that plagued earlier releases, like uneven framerate and glitches, are not present in this version. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best games ever made. Years later, that continues to be the case. This adventure offers a rich world, densely packed with exciting things to do, as well as many occasions for creating lasting memories. I jotted down exciting things that happened during this particular playthrough so many times I lost count. I imagine that Skyrim will become a mainstay on my Switch, with multiple playthroughs and characters filling up the save slots before I’m done with it. If you haven’t played Skyrim, or you’re just looking to return and don’t mind exchanging the mods for convenient portability, the Switch version offers up everything that makes this game a stone-cold classic. View the full article
  7. Starting with Pokémon Yellow in 1999, Game Freak has been revisiting its core Pokémon games for follow-ups that tweak the original releases in subtle but interesting ways. Excluding remakes, every generation until Pokémon Black & White received some kind of secondary release. Game Freak seemed to be moving away from this practice, but after Pokémon Sun and Moon became one of the most commercially successful entries in the franchise, it was no surprise to see the developer resurrect the concept. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are not new Pokémon games, making them a difficult recommendation to those who already played the 2016 titles, but if you skipped Sun and Moon, this is a fantastic place to jump on. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon may not be a sequel to Sun and Moon, but it is more than a straight re-release. The things I liked about Sun and Moon are thankfully all here. The improved controls and animation, the new Trial system that replaces gym-badge collecting, and using Pokémon mounts instead of HMs. The things that are new make Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon feel like a director’s cut; entire storylines and characters that did not make it into the original release appear here, and the editing makes certain elements flow differently (and often better). One example is your starter Pokémon – you get it much faster here than you did previously, with less pomp and circumstance to the whole affair. It means you can get to training and fighting faster, with less dialogue setting up the story and world. Other changes include the new Alola Photo Club mode, which is surprisingly shallow. The mode is discovered about five hours in, and lets you take photos of yourself and a Pokémon of your choice in assorted poses and cover that photo in stamps. It’s cute, and not worth complaining about, but it adds nothing significant to the experience. Mantine surfing lets you travel between islands by surfing on the back of a Mantine, another addition I enjoyed. Again, it’s not an explicit reason to play Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, but this mode is unlike anything that has appeared in a core Pokémon game before, and I liked pulling off stunts and riding the waves on my way to new islands. (Please visit the site to view this media) The other changes are not presented as new standalone modes, but are instead integrated into the total experience. Plenty of new and familiar Pokémon which did not appear in Sun and Moon make an appearance, and your Rotom Pokédex (which is itself a Pokémon capable of speaking) quickly calls out the new creatures he has never seen before when you encounter them. I appreciated these callouts from Rotom, because it made all of those new encounters just a little bit more exciting. You also meet the new Ultra Recon Squad on your journey. This robotic pair pops up frequently to comment on your journey, fight, and learn about Pokémon from you, a trainer they have decided is an expert. The Ultra Recon Squad represent the biggest change to the story, so I was always excited to see them. They don’t improve or diminish the story in any radical ways, but they do change it up a little. With Pokémon’s confirmed Switch future, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon could be Pokémon’s final core installment on a dedicated handheld system. As a revisiting of the excellent Sun and Moon, it feels like a good note to close the generation on, but if you had your fill with Sun and Moon, don’t worry – you aren’t missing anything important. View the full article
  8. A Marvelous Mess

    The pieces of a great game are here, but they’re shattered by near-constant bugs, glitches, and technical issues. ...(read more)View the full article
  9. 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. 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. (Please visit the site to view this media) 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. (Please visit the site to view this media) 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. View the full article
  10. 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. (Please visit the site to view this media) 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. View the full article
  11. A Risky Bet

    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. (Please visit the site to view this media) 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. View the full article
  12. Craft a deck of weapons, armor, trinkets, and encounters and play through a variety of role-playing experiences served up by a mysterious dealer. Don’t be fooled – Hand of Fate 2 is not a collectible card game, but rather a distinctive take on the core tabletop experience mixed with a smattering of real-time action battles. The conceit of maneuvering around a tabletop dungeon crafted by cards is a strong, unique twist on the classic action/RPG, and this sequel improves upon almost every feature found in the first game. Low-impact additions like rolling dice or spinning wheels to determine the outcome of a story are interesting, but Hand of Fate 2 also makes big changes, like companion characters that join you in battle and offer their skills and expertise off the battlefield. Hand of Fate 2 is almost two different games that combine to form a singular experience. In one, you’re traveling around a dungeon made up of cards, which could be traps, treasure, tests of character, caves to explore, and more. The other is combat-centric action sequences, which you stumble upon based on your board-game excursions. (Please visit the site to view this media) Combat is the weakest element in Hand of Fate 2. While it doesn’t stray into rote button-mashing madness, elements are flighty and imprecise at times, and the camera often feels like it’s working against you. Weapon selection and timing defensive abilities add some nuance, but battle is often boring or laborious. The enemy variety also gets stale around halfway through, so battles take a backseat to the more fun parts, like cobbling together the perfect deck and discovering ways to handle encounters on the card map. The ever-shifting map of cards steals the show. These travels task you with maneuvering dangerous precipices, participating in a town fair, rescuing (or abandoning!) those in need, discovering hidden treasure, or negotiating a longstanding feud. Myriad scenarios and ways to approach them exist, and tackling the mysteries in different ways gives you incentive to replay areas – or something else to do if you fail a challenge and need to repeat it several times. Making your own choices and facing the consequences during these often-dire decisions is enjoyable and you feel like you are plotting your own personal course to victory. Perhaps you missed a die roll in trying to pick a lock or you decided to get a bit too greedy with a suspicious pile of treasure; you can make a different choice, pick a different card, or roll differently your next time through the area, and maybe even score some new options to include in your deck. Hand of Fate 2’s tabletop dungeon crawling is immersive and engaging, and I found myself replaying missions just to check out some of the choices I may have missed. These Dungeons & Dragons-style encounters combined with the baubles, trinkets, and clinking pieces strewn about the card-infused table create a cozy RPG atmosphere that’s difficult to match. Companion characters are awesome, even if they don’t fundamentally change the core gameplay. Tap into the barbarian’s strength to crush some foes on the battlefield or manipulate perks to subtly influence your experiences during narrative encounters, such as duplicating cards or throwing an extra die to give you an edge against the odds. With four different companions to travel with that range from brute melee assistants to spell-flinging mages, they add plenty of flavor to combat and crawling. You may even find your story (or theirs) being altered by the choices you make along the way. Hand of Fate was a hidden gem, a Kickstarter surprise that showed us that there was a cool way to mix up an action-RPG with tabletop conventions. The sequel polishes and preens itself into a much more efficient and entertaining entity, and if you can handle some less-than-stellar combat, you find yourself immersed in a spectacular world. View the full article
  13. Whether you're talking about a television series or an episodic adventure video game like Minecraft: Story Mode, a season's penultimate episode best serves the story when it raises the stakes of ongoing narrative and sets the table for a thrilling finale. While a single final shot accomplishes the latter, the former is conspicuously absent from the fourth episode of season two. Throughout much of season two, the stakes have remained high as Jesse and friends have fought directly against the all-powerful Admin in climactic battles that feel increasingly personal. Rather than continuing to build that tension en route to the finale, this episode has Jesse wading through the past by exploring a subterranean world where The Admin once lived and thrived in with his friends. Now, it's been left to become a wasteland as the season's big bad eyes bigger prizes. I do like how this episode features a larger focus on my two favorite parts of Minecraft: Story Mode's gameplay mechanics: free builds and action scenes. Though the novelty is beginning to fade, I still enjoy being able to place blocks on a grid however I see fit to accomplish what I'm supposed to do. This episode features two such sequences: one where I'm asked to build a structure that looks like a specific character, and another that's supposed to look scary. Unfortunately, these prompts only highlight how limited the building tools are, but I still have fun each time these moments present themselves in an episode. (Please visit the site to view this media) The action sequences are also fun. One scene in particular sticks out as perhaps the most involved the series has seen to date. Sadly, even as I'm guiding Jesse forward, avoiding fireballs as I try and bait a massive creature to hit a switch and bring about its own destruction, I can't help but think that this standout moment in the series would be nothing more than a standard action scene in nearly any other franchise. The rest of the action is fun, but with my success or failure determined by easy-to-hit quick-time events, the excitement is capped. While the final shot does give me a sense of intrigue about the finale, the rest of the episode does very little to excite me. Telltale addressed its main issues with the last episode by doubling down on action and providing more meaningful interactions, but with such a detour from the main conflict right before the final episode, much of the tension was let out of the balloon. I'm still curious to see how this all plays out, but Below the Bedrock did little to fuel my interest. View the full article
  14. When The Sims 4 launched in 2014, it omitted some seemingly standard components (like toddlers and swimming pools) in favor of running better on inexpensive PCs. Despite introducing the alluring feature of sims with more diverse moods and emotions, the new entry felt like a stripped down version of The Sims 3, failing to move the series forward in a promising way. Now, three years after launch, The Sims 4 has come to consoles. Although it doesn’t control as well outside of its native PC environment, I still found enjoyment in this version. The series has always been about controlling the daily lives of your created sims. You can help them climb the career ladder towards success, or impede their happiness by introducing struggles and challenges. Their fates are in your hands, and leading a different life (or playing god) in this virtual world is compelling. Emotions play a big part in this latest entry, and seeing the unpredictability of how your sim reacts to certain situations is always engaging. Personality traits, ranging from evil to snobby, also bring diversity to how your sim reacts to different scenarios. Everything you could do in The Sims 4 on PC is also possible on the console version. You are presented with a nearly identical interface along with the ability to enable cheats. Using them disables trophies and achievements, but it’s a fair trade-off. On the surface, The Sims 4 seems to transition smoothly to consoles, but poor controls and skin-deep mechanics hold it back. In the console interface, certain commands are mapped in confusing and obtuse ways. In build mode, I couldn’t adjust the camera view of the environment until I purchased an item in the catalog, which made the process feel restrictive. Other times, I accidentally opened the wrong menu or was unable to view information I wanted to see. For example, I encountered a bug where I had to restart the game because it wouldn’t let me open a panel to see my sims’ needs. (Please visit the site to view this media) Additional Content The Sims 4 console edition launches with the option to pay for additional content. For now, these are limited to the City Living Expansion Pack, the Vampires Pack, Vintage Glamour Stuff, and Perfect Patio Stuff. If you pre-order the Deluxe Party Edition, some additional packs are included, such as Life of the Party Pack, Up All Night Pack, and Awesome Animal Hats Pack. In comparison, the PC version has over 20 available add-on packs available, ranging from full on expansions to “stuff packs” that add content to the furniture catalog. The console version is launching with a limited amount of DLC, and it may take time for consoles to catch up to how much is available on PC. Aside from some bugs and control issues, the rest of my experience was smooth. I could easily flip through dialogue options and actions, or change the speed of time when needed. I enjoyed watching my sims interact with one another in unique ways thanks to diverse emotions, such as two sims becoming embarrassed after one confessed an attraction to the other. Emergent moments like these are part of the core appeal of The Sims, and it remains intact here. Unfortunately, while these moments are entertaining, your sims’ emotions change too quickly, not giving you enough time to capitalize on them. Tasks that are simple and easy to do on PC feel longer and more laborious on console. Because of the poor controls, furnishing my home took twice as long as it did on PC. Even the create-a-sim mode is cumbersome – especially when I wanted to make detailed changes such as adjusting chin or eye size. Since this process requires dragging the cursor back and forth, it feels awkward to do with a controller. Despite the controls, much has improved in the base game since its original release, and these additions are also available in the console edition. With post-launch patches, The Sims 4 has brought back components that were available in prior entries, such as swimming pools, toddlers, basements, and ghosts. It also introduced expanded gender customization options for the first time, giving you more freedom in the creation process. However, the console edition currently features less content than what's offered on PC, meaning the furniture catalogue and create-a-sim mode look much more barren, which is unfortunate for players who already own The Sims 4 on PC. The Sims 4 is a beefier and better game with its diverse expansion packs and added content since release, but without much of that being available on console just yet, this feels like a step back from the PC version. Nonetheless, this is essentially the same core experience as the base game on PC, and it’s worth checking out if you don’t already own the game. Although the console version features some dodgy controls, it largely delivers on its promise of bringing a faithful port to the console audience. View the full article
  15. In Sonic Forces, Dr. Eggman remedies his decades of disappointment by aligning with Infinite, a being who can replicate Sonic's greatest enemies to have them all gang up on him at once. Similarly, Sonic Team has remedied its recent struggles by piecing together things that have worked in the past to create a better 3D Sonic the Hedgehog game. Unfortunately for both Eggman and Sonic Team, despite this being their best effort in a long time, the flaws are still evident. Sonic Forces puts you in control of modern Sonic, classic Sonic, and a custom hero as you speed through more than 30 stages to take down the maniacal doctor. Rather than delivering jarringly disparate pacing, Sonic Team made all three playable characters focus on speedy gameplay. The main differentiating factors between these characters is their movesets. Modern Sonic has his signature homing attack that lets him lock onto enemies in mid-air, as well as slide, stomp, and boost abilities, while classic Sonic is limited to his spin dash. Beyond two versions of Sonic, Forces also features a custom character you take control of in dedicated stages. The creation suite allows you to choose from several anthropomorphic animal species, and equip them with cosmetic clothes and accessories. While you can easily create an abomination that sticks out in cutscenes like a sore thumb, making a hero that feels at home in the world is just as simple. Your custom character shares most of its moves with modern Sonic, but you can also swing from grapple points and equip a Wispon weapon. Wispons range from an electric whip to a device that traps enemies in cubes, but the most effective is the flamethrower you start with. Each Wispon also carries a traversal mechanic - the flamethrower allows you to burst upward to reach higher levels, while the cube device can spawn platforms. I like how you can reach different items if you have a particular ability at your disposal, but a few extra rings are usually all that's at stake when choosing your route. (Please visit the site to view this media) Modern Sonic's 3D stages are better than they've ever been, and deliver a terrific sense of speed without making you feel like you're out of control. My favorite 3D sequences come when you're rushing down a straightaway, relying on your reflexes to sidestep enemies and obstacles. However, Sonic Team has yet to fully crack the code of how to make Sonic feel great in motion when not on rails, and the slippery controls feel like he's skating through the world. Classic Sonic's 2D gameplay is surprisingly the worst part of the trio of characters, as his side-scrolling portions don't control nearly as well as the classic games, and precise platforming is unnecessarily frustrating. In addition, classic Sonic inexplicably loses momentum at a rapid rate, slowing down too quickly after hitting a booster, and often struggling to make it up ramps seemingly placed for him to easily blast over. With many recent Sonic games, level design has been a sore spot. Sonic Forces largely fixes the series' longstanding problem with random pitfalls; I trained myself to let Sonic speed forward with little fear of my character falling to his death thanks to the better designed stages. Unfortunately, Forces' attempts to create branching paths falls mostly flat, giving you little incentive to explore the alternate routes when they do pop up. Instead, Sonic Forces is mostly about blasting through the stage as quick as possible while scooping up tons of rings and taking out some enemies along the way. Sonic Forces encourages you to revisit stages with the promise of new customization items for your created character. SOS missions pop up at random on previously beaten stages, but the missions are poorly defined. Despite making it through the stage again during these SOS missions, I sometimes received an ambiguous "Mission Failed" screen with no explanation as to why. In addition, daily missions give you simple goals like clearing a Sonic stage, while other challenges focus on tasks like using specific weapons. While I like the added emphasis put on replaying older levels, I am frustrated and baffled that the action-stopping tutorials from the earlier levels persist on repeated playthroughs. Despite my multiple gripes with Sonic Forces, I still enjoyed the adventure. 3D Sonic games still aren't to where they should be after such a long time of iteration and experimentation, but through improved gameplay and level design, Sonic Forces continues the series' evolution in the right direction. View the full article
  16. Horizon Zero Dawn is already one of the best games of 2017 thanks to a gorgeous open world, pitch-perfect combat (against robot dinosaurs!), and an enticing mystery. Even though Horizon's ending answered all the questions surrounding Aloy's past, players still want more of the intriguing post-apocalyptic world she inhabits – and Guerrilla is all too happy to oblige. Just in time for winter, The Frozen Wilds adds a large snowy region, along with new secrets to uncover and mechanical beasts to slay. While not a massive or vital expansion, The Frozen Wilds provides a welcome reason to delve back into the hunt. The Frozen Wilds seamlessly slots into Aloy's journey, opening up a sizable new region in the northeast corner of the map. This area is home to the Banuk, the isolated and nomadic tribe that strikes a balance between hunting the world's robotic animals (like everyone else in the game) and revering them. The Banuk didn't get a lot of screen time in the base game, and The Frozen Wilds shines a spotlight on what turns out to be the most interesting faction in the series. Upon entering the region, Aloy is immediately ensnared in the Banuk's plight; new breeds of stronger machines are emanating from an ominous mountain known as Thunder's Drum, and the tribe's attempt to take it back has ended in heavy losses. Aloy takes it upon herself to find out what's happening inside the mountain (the Banuk don't care much for help from outsiders), a quest that also promises more information on her shady business partner, Sylens. While it has some loose ties to the main narrative, The Frozen Wilds mostly contains its own mysteries and lore. The core story missions aren't particularly long (you embark on about a half-dozen missions), but they take you on a well-paced narrative, and new acquaintances like the tribal chieftain Aratak and the machine-communing shaman Ourea defy common character tropes. Aloy's allies are also better integrated into the gameplay, accompanying her on several missions and evolving with the story. The Frozen Wilds' side missions and errands are also worth undertaking, and offer better rewards than in the main game. By helping various Banuk tribe members, you can attain new outfits and weapons, including the flamethrower-like forgefire and electricity-spewing stormslinger. A separate side-quest chain allows you to upgrade these new weapons into formidable tools of destruction; the forgefire in particular can quickly melt through the HP bars of enemies if you're brave enough to stand toe-to-toe with them, and an alternate attack allows you to lob fireballs from a distance. You're still limited to four slots on your weapon wheel, but I happily made room for the new arsenal, even if arrows are still your main attack method. Even without the rewards, I was once again compelled to track down and read all the new collectible data files that The Frozen Wilds adds, a testament to Guerrilla's expertise in world-building. Guerrilla also succeeds in creating a visually stunning locale to explore. What The Frozen Wilds lacks in environmental variety (I hope you like snow) it makes up for in focus. You can practically feel the chill of the inhospitable snowscapes Aloy explores, which reverberates in the Banuk's culture and their struggle for survival. You can also discover a few more geographic landmarks which root Horizon in the real world, another fun aspect that drove exploration in the main game. Unfortunately, you mostly face familiar foes in The Frozen Wilds' new environment. The expansion only introduces two new mechanical beasts: the canine-like scorcher and the bearlike frostclaw (plus a fireclaw variant). A new enemy-buffing tower is also added to the mix, along with tougher "daemonic" versions of the main creatures. The scorcher and frostclaw are formidable additions to the food chain, and offer some great, end-game-worthy showdowns during The Frozen Wilds' story missions. In contrast, the other battles in Horizon's new region feel like more of the same. The new skill tree is also disappointing. Most of the new abilities are focused on allied machines, which were underused in the main game. However, boring abilities like scavenging supplies while riding a mount and three(!) skills devoted to machine repair aren't going to change that. A few other skills offer quality-of-life upgrades like more inventory space or the ability to break down mods and resources for cash, but they are all largely inconsequential. Ultimately, The Frozen Wilds is a welcome addition to Horizon. The mysteries residing in Thunder's Drum may not reach the same heights as the main game, but they are a great reminder of how wonderful and compelling Horizon is. The Frozen Wilds doesn't reinvent Guerrilla's new hit game, but I'll gladly accept the excuse to jump back into Aloy's world. (Please visit the site to view this media) View the full article
  17. Arcade sports titles were a dime a dozen back in the ‘90s. Classics like NFL Blitz, Base Wars, and the Mutant League games took a lighthearted approach to athletic competition, using comic book violence and humorous hijinks to keep players coming back. Over time, more realistic sims based on professional leagues became the fan favorites and the zanier titles all but disappeared into the annals of history. With Mutant Football League, original creator Michael Mendheim makes a defiant goal-line stand against the idea that arcade sports games are dead. A spiritual successor to the infamous EA series Mutant League Football, MFL faithfully preserves the elements that made the original a best seller. The favored bloodsport of a post-apocalyptic culture pits ragtag groups of trolls, aliens, robots, mutants, and skeletons against each other on a hazard-filled gridiron with the goal of outscoring (or outkilling) each other. Ref bribery, late hits, quarterback dismemberment, and even ref executions are all fair game. Teams and players have Garbage Pail Kids-style parody names like the Nuked London Hatriots (New England Patriots) and Bomb Shady (Tom Brady). Some of the cleverer names elicit a chuckle, but the majority produce groans. The groans continue past kickoff thanks to Mutant Football League’s intentionally juvenile commentary, led by NBA Jam legend Tim Kitzrow. Jokes range from boilerplate one-liners about kickers and performance-enhancing drugs to more bawdy sex and drug references. The blue humor is a curious decision that shrinks the potential player pool considering the art style and gameplay could extend the game’s appeal beyond those nostalgic for Mutant League to a much younger demographic. Digital Dreams could have the best of both worlds if they tuned a T-rated version of the game as well. Underneath the player fatalities and sarcastic one-liners, Mutant Football League uses a control scheme that retains the conventions of modern football games. Basic playbooks, audibles, and right-analog stick jukes should make longtime Madden (or Blitz) players feel right at home. You don’t need to be a master of adjustments at the line of scrimmage to stay competitive; simply snap the ball, find the open target (or running lane) and go for it. Just make sure you avoid the acid baths, mines, and giant carnivorous worms popping out from the ground on the way to the end zone. Quarterbacks don’t get passes off as quickly as they should in some circumstances, and guiding defenders through high-traffic areas is almost always a losing affair, but overall the play is competent. (Please visit the site to view this media) MFL’s true separation of competition comes with how teams deploy the four dirty tricks they can use each half. These tide-changers are as effective as they are laughable, with running backs literally cutting through defenders with chainsaws, lightning bolts causing fumbles, and pass rushers turning into monolithic giants capable of killing quarterbacks with one pancaking blow. Bribing the ref at the right time gives your defense a get-out-of-jail-free card after being burned by an opponent’s game-breaking play. Savvy opponents immediately take out the crooked ref, setting the offense back even further. Smartly timing your usage of these game-changers and planning counters to your opposition’s arsenal more often than not determines the victor – this is the game within the game. MFL scores with this extra layer of tactics, but fumbles an easy opportunity to let players customize their approach. Each team in the game has unalterable dirty plays preassigned, so you can’t mix-and-match favorites. That short-sighted approach to player agency continues into the game modes. The only options MFL offers are exhibition games, a season mode, playoff mode, and a scarcely populated online play that never produced a match for me. Each of these is as bare-boned as they sound. Season mode merely asks you to win your way through a 13-game season and compete for the Mayhem Bowl. With no meaningful off-field player management, forget about signing new players, upgrading pre-existing ones, or drafting new players. The only task you need to worry about is resurrecting your dead players before the next kickoff, a disappointing decision that sacks MFL’s replay value. I don't expect a budget-priced arcade game to match modern sports games feature for feature, but it needs some sort of hook to bring me back. MFL has none other than forcing you to play particular modes or win a certain number of games to unlock more teams. Mutant Football League brings back visions of the over-the-top arcade sports games of yesteryear, but its lack of mode depth makes it tough to recommend to anyone beyond nostalgia seekers. Should Digital Dreams build a more engaging infrastructure around the bloody gridiron action in subsequent updates, the game could deserve a second drive, but after reading the field of play on this fourth down I advise you to punt. View the full article
  18. Every year, Call of Duty presents a multifaceted package catering to every possible playstyle. That wealth of content continues with Call of Duty: WWII, which features a historically-focused campaign, a zombie mode designed to puzzle and scare, and classic multiplayer combat rooted in class-based playstyles and a brand new social hub. Of the many features on deck, only the campaign falters. The rest of the package is as solid as ever, and for old-school fans of the franchise tired of laser beams and jetpacks, the title provides an epic return to form to classic warfare. Through the eyes of a Texan kid out for glory, you land on the beaches of Normandy, battle through occupied France, and eventually bring the fight into the heart of Germany. While the experiences you face are huge WWII battles captured with appropriate grandiose backdrops, the only chapter that truly stands out is one where you don’t fire your weapon at all – an infiltration mission that takes you deep into the heart of Gestapo HQ. The characters in your squad are forgettable cardboard cutouts, a throwaway cast that seems like a slipshod assemblage of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Platoon. The people you meet from British and French factions are far more interesting, and steal the show when they are around. The campaign captures Call of Duty’s signature explosive feel through various adrenaline-fueled moments like chases, a tank vs tank segment, and firing AA guns. However, the standard gunplay and endless killing fields often feel like a slog, taking down hundreds of enemies and moving to the next defensive position. Counting on your squad for ammo, enemy positions, health packs, grenades, and strikes offers some novelty near the beginning of the game, but once you settle in, these elements display no important differentiation from classic hide-until-your-health-returns gameplay. (Please visit the site to view this media) Traditional multiplayer is the shining star of the three modes. The new objective-oriented War mode includes all kinds of various activities such as moving a tank, building a bridge, and capturing point after point, so traditional gunning for a big kill-death-assist ratio is a thing of the past. If you’re looking for something that has established front lines and rewards for working as a team (and where you won’t get gunned down in the back less than a second after you spawn) War is worth a look. The class-centric division system combined with 20th century weaponry feels wonderful. Selecting your division and its focus on various weapons and playstyles is meaningful and enjoyable to explore. While perks are gone, you still have tons of customization available, and the slower speeds make the gameplay more compelling than attempting to abuse wall-running and power-sliding. Sneaking and sniping with the Lee-Enfield in the Mountain division or unloading a bucket of incendiary shotgun shells into the enemy as Expeditionary is exhilarating. If you just want to get those crisp shots off with the Garand and execute an occasional bayonet charge on an opportune target, you can. By eliminating the standard lobby and giving you a place to play in between games, Headquarters is a fun and lightweight experience. You can watch 1v1s, test guns at the shooting range, prestige, and pick up missions. You can even go play a fairly extensive list of ancient Activision games like Pitfall II. This social space is an awesome inclusion that makes your downtime interesting, and I can’t see going away now that the door is open. Supply drops earned through gameplay are opened in this social space, hooking up any onlookers with bonuses from time to time. All drops are cosmetic and it’s a lot of fun cracking crates and outfitting your character with new uniforms, emotes, pistol grips, and more. Nazi Zombies is the scariest iteration of the mode that has graced a Call of Duty title, boasting some jump scares and an absolutely occult vision of the Final Reich. Casual players coming over from other modes should have no problem surviving for much longer than they have in previous entries. However, the focus remains on discovery; players must do much more than slaughter legions of zombies, such as enabling an escape-tube network, powering up generators, unlocking a weapon power-up station, finding clues hidden in paintings, and more. Nazi Zombies plays more like a structured story than previous versions, with themed encounters hitting alongside the standard wave-based fare. Permanent progression aspects give a continuing sense of advancement as they unlock tokens from playthrough to playthrough, which you can spend on new mods to enhance your characters and loadouts, giving meaning to even the most bitter defeats. Discovering just a bit more each time heading underneath the snow-packed earth of Mittelburg is a grisly, enjoyable experience. While the campaign fails to provide a compelling tale and is often bogged down in uninteresting large-scale slaughter, Call of Duty:WWII nails its multiplayer, new social hub, and zombie modes to provide the back to boot-on-the-ground experience fans have clamored for since the first foray into space. This review pertains to the PlayStation 4 version of the game. Call of Duty: WWII is also available on Xbox One and PC. View the full article
  19. After years of plunking down change for Zen Studios' endless stream of licensed and original DLC table packs, pinball fans finally have a proper sequel to get excited about. Not only does Pinball FX 3 unify all of Zen's platforms under one umbrella, it offers a host of new modes and progression systems to keep players busy. While I have quibbles with how the competitive side of Pinball FX 3 is handled, it is still an easy upgrade to recommend to pinball fans. Like Zen's previous offerings, Pinball FX 3 isn't so much a standalone game as it is a platform. Aside from the one free table included in the download (Sorcerer's Lair), players build up their collection by purchasing DLC packs of tables based on various themes and licenses. Whichever ones you choose, Zen still reigns supreme in the pinball sim space, offering up realistic physics, superb visuals, and intricate table designs that can take hours to master. It's an admittedly niche itch that Zen has been scratching for years, and Pinball FX 3 makes it all the more satisfying. To say that Zen Studios has gone above and beyond to do right by its returning fanbase is an understatement. Not only is the base game a free download, but Zen is also allowing players to transfer their Pinball FX 2/Zen Pinball 2 tables over to Pinball FX 3 free of charge. While a few tables have hit the cutting room floor due to licensing issues (most notably the recent South Park and Plants vs. Zombies tables), returning players won't have to spend a dime to get their existing collections up and running in Pinball FX 3 and reap the improvements. That said, you should plan to set aside of good chunk of time for the clunky import process, which queues up all of your tables as individual downloads through your console's digital store, but all in all it's a small price to pay. The massive library of tables may be daunting to newcomers, but they all offer free demos, so you know what you're getting before you break out your credit card. Pinball FX 3 features numerous quality-of-life improvements like better collection sorting and visual upgrades to your existing tables, but the biggest and most exciting shake-up is the new progression-based challenge mode. This allows players to tackle single-ball, five-minute, and escalating score-attack challenges, all of which are designed to keep play sessions brisk and bite-sized. Achieving milestones in these challenges unlocks and upgrades three wizard powers that can be used to slow down time, rewind ball drains, or drastically boost scoring for a short period. You also unlock a variety of passive perks just by playing, like bumper-score bonuses and increased combo timers. Challenge mode is an exciting new way to revisit your collection, offering a string of quick-but-demanding goals to shoot for, while also mitigating the tedium of full-length matches and the frustration of drains (because the five-minute and score-attack challenges have unlimited balls). Pinball purists can always stick to classic mode for their ongoing score rivalries, but the sense of long-term progress that challenge mode offers is hard to say no to. Pinball FX 3 also offers a couple of new avenues for competitive play. Players can now create custom tournaments on their table of choice for friends or the greater public. The result is a long list of ongoing tournaments at any given time. Players can also participate in leagues, which provide more specific seasonal challenges as well as another seemingly endless ladder to climb. The XP rewards for both tournaments and leagues are unfortunately underwhelming, but overtaking someone else's high score always offers a satisfying payoff. That brings me to my biggest knock against Pinball FX 3: The friendly rivalries that Zen's pinball games have fueled for years aren't as pronounced as in previous games. Sure, each table still offers up a host of leaderboards, but the automated messaging system that taunts your friends is gone, and the game doesn't notify you which tables you've lost top honors on. As such you have to manually check the leaderboards of every table to find out, then contact your friends through your console's messaging system if you want to fan the flames of competition. Pinball FX 3 still pops up a notification when you're approaching a friend's score during play, but it shows up so close to the goal that you probably have already beaten it by the time it registers. The post-match screen also no longer lauds your victories over your friends, which diminishes the sense of achievement. These omissions are a surprising and confusing step backward compared to Zen's previous games, where your competing scores and rivalries were always front and center. The rivalries are certainly still there, but the game does not encourage them enough. Pinball FX 3's table guides are also due for a redesign. A new general tutorial does a good job coaching players on a few basic pinball principles on an actual table. However, the table guides are still relegated to the pause menu, and remain text-heavy and tedious to parse. As such learning the ins and outs of a table is still a time-consuming process, as is refreshing your memory of how to score big on old favorites. I'd love to see future table guides take the teaching to the table like the general tutorial. All in all, Pinball FX 3 contains a number of welcome additions and improvements, and gives pinball fans what they need most: an excuse to return to and keep replaying all of their favorite tables. Hopefully the studio can also shore up and heighten the sense of rivalries again, but either way, it's a great time for pinball wizards to dive back in. (Please visit the site to view this media) View the full article
  20. A New Frontier

    Bringing a game to a new platform with a different control scheme comes with a host of challenges. That’s especially true if a central feature of the original design is the moment-to-moment feel of weapons, movement, and abilities. Working in partnership, Bungie and Vicarious Visions have tackled the delicate balancing act of making Destiny 2 shine on PC. The resulting release is a superb way to play one of this year’s most popular games. Is it the definitive Destiny 2 experience? That’s a more complicated question. This is many PC players’ first exposure to the Destiny universe, and to some degree, you can’t avoid the sensation that you’re hopping into a theater presentation after the curtain has closed on the first act. To offset confusion, Destiny 2 does an excellent job onboarding newcomers to its story and systems. You are a deathless Guardian, tasked with defending humanity in the wake of a devastating alien attack. By tapping into the magic of fantasy and the tech trappings of science fiction, the setting adopts the best tropes of each and merges into something fresh. As players in that world, you play solo or join friends in a host of cooperative or competitive challenges like in an MMO, growing in power as you progress the story like in an RPG, and mastering gunplay and a variety of weapons like in a finely tuned first-person shooter. The melding of loot acquisition, taut action, and social experiences is immediately alluring. Destiny 2 can be played with either a keyboard/mouse setup or a gamepad. After many hours spent with both, I’m happy to report that either option is a ton of fun. On a controller, players can expect the same stellar control and gun variety that has always made Bungie’s first-person games sing; individual weapons feel distinct from one another, and great fun can be found in learning the way each handles on the thumbsticks. If you want gameplay to feel just like it is on console, this is the style of play for you. The majority of players on PC will probably embrace the more familiar mouse/keyboard setup, and the feel of gameplay has been dramatically overhauled to excel with this option. The speed and precision of mouse aiming allows for rapid 180-degree turns, or quick flick aim adjustments to new targets. Fully customizable key-mapping supports any setup you prefer, though I’ll admit to some difficulty in finding any single setup that is completely comfortable in an action game that has this many core input commands. The exactitude available on keyboard and mouse is balanced by a minor diminishment of the uniqueness of each weapon in handling, recoil, and drift (with automatics). That’s ultimately a good thing, as some of those elements would feel terrible in this scheme. But when using mouse and keyboard, I missed some of the minute control adjustments and mastery of the sticks that characterizes and defines Bungie’s approach to guns. I also found that I used iron sights far less, aiming from the hip on a regular basis. That’s neither good or bad, but it certainly feels different. In the visual sphere, there is no contest. Destiny 2 looks amazing on even a mid-range gaming rig, and if you can boost the settings up on a high-end machine, the game looks astounding. Heat waves shimmer as they rise through a grate from a fiery reactor. Grenade effects splash across the screen in brilliant color displays of particle brilliance. The fabric of a cloak ripples with texture detail and light shading that brings out its wear and tear. Uncapped frame rates mean everything moves with an almost eerie smoothness. Ships and enemies that I’ve stared at for hundreds of hours on console reveal new details at higher resolution. And the breathtaking alien landscapes take on new life, as distant vistas shimmer like a masterfully crafted painting. (Please visit the site to view this media) Beyond control, customization, and visual fidelity, PC players should expect an experience very similar to console. Destiny 2 has a straightforward narrative with clear beats, fun character development of a few leads, and climactic final missions, but the broader storytelling lacks some of the magic and mysticism promised by the first game and its expansions. I appreciate the way that dialogue adjusts to an account that didn’t play the first game; several voice lines are changed to be more explanatory, and presume less about the adventures you might or might not have confronted previously. Post-campaign, numerous activities open up, including cooperative strikes, additional narrative-fueled adventures, and exotic weapon quests, but some of these activities aren’t incentivized as well as they should be. I’m also disappointed that story missions are largely locked after completion, except for a few developer-selected options each week. Planetary destinations are thoughtfully structured and interesting to explore, with plenty of interesting nooks and crannies, and several public events and hidden caches to uncover. The just-launched Leviathan raid and the competitive Trials of the Nine game mode are the first steps to lining up with the existing content, rapidly accelerating the PC version toward total parity of release schedules with the console versions and its events, and that trend should continue into the foreseeable future. The competitive Crucible is the space that things feel the most different from console. Here, players with aim-assisted controllers are fighting side-by-side and against players flitting about with mouse and keyboard. I played with both control schemes, and found I could hit a roughly similar efficiency rating using each. With that said, the meta that emerges may be quite different on PC – precision weapons like hand cannons and scout rifles already seem to be finding more success than they have thus-far on console. Like in the console version, I’m a bit mystified by the limited playlist PvP playlist options, which filter everyone into one of two broad matchmaking pools – quickplay and competitive – each with a few different modes, but with little say about which of those modes you might prefer at any one time. Destiny 2 offers several dozen hours of exciting exploration, collecting, leveling, and storytelling. It’s a thrilling ride, and for many players, it will be the sum-total of their experience, at least until the expansions begin rolling out. For other more dedicated players, the picture is much more nuanced, with an incentivization and endgame experience that struggles to maintain momentum after many hours. Likewise, a sometimes frustrating and disorganized approach to vault and inventory management needs work, especially compared to other games in the PC space that have solved similar problems years ago. Time with the PC game also reinforced my dislike of the extensive rewards locked away in the Eververse, an in-game store primarily fueled by microtransactions. Even if many of the rewards there are cosmetic, they would do far more for the game’s longevity if integrated more fully into the endgame loop. With the availability of multiple control schemes, top-notch visuals, and more extensive customization of your play and control experience, the PC version of Destiny 2 is an excellent way to play the game, especially if you have yet to try Destiny 2. I’d personally stop short of recommending players jump ship from an existing console account, but if you do, you certainly won’t be disappointed in how it looks or plays. From a content perspective, Sony still has a minor edge thanks to a PS4 version with several exclusive content pieces, including an exotic weapon, strike, PvP map, and armor sets. The deciding factor for where to play continues to be wherever most of your friends are; Destiny 2 is undoubtedly enjoyed best with companions (and a clan) to share it with. While it does have the potential to further fragment the community, Destiny’s entry into the PC sphere has a much more important and beneficial effect – spreading the fun and thrill of this game universe to a new segment of players, and adding fuel to the desire many harbor for this franchise to continue to gain steam. For more on Destiny 2, check out my original review of the console version. For more on how Destiny 2 develops after several hundreds of hours of play, you can read our extensive evaluation of the endgame and Destiny 2’s events in our Season One report card. View the full article
  21. In the world of mascot platforming franchises, everyone knows the heavy hitters like Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot. Bubsy isn't nearly as well-known as those mainstays, and his last game released in 1996. However, for some inexplicable reason, this dormant hero has emerged from his 21-year hiatus. Bubsy: The Woolies Strikes Back attempts to deliver a retro experience, but the adventure underwhelms and frustrates from start to finish, and left me wishing the franchise would have stayed buried. Much like the original games, The Woolies Strike Back is a 2D platformer starring the titular anthropomorphic bobcat. Though it has vibrant colors and a shiny coat of paint, the gameplay feels very much trapped in the '90s. Nostalgia-charged homages are fine, but that mission statement isn't a free pass for bad design. The platforming is functional, but Bubsy's basic moveset never grows beyond jumping and gliding, and his sole attack is an unreliable pounce that hurtles him forward. That means you're better off avoiding enemies or jumping on their heads rather than risk pouncing. A small number of unique enemies are awkwardly placed throughout the vacuous platforming segments, and with seemingly inconsistent hitboxes and a one-hit KO (unless you have the black t-shirt power-up), encounters with these mindless enemies often becomes needlessly frustrating. The 11 platforming stages increase in difficulty as you go, but they aren't memorable or distinct. Though the backdrops change as you progress, the enemy types rarely do, and the design conventions remain the same. Each stage is a smattering of forgettable segments featuring raising and lowering platforms and an occasional block to break with Bubsy's pounce attack. Everything about Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back has been done better elsewhere and long ago. (Please visit the site to view this media) Scattered throughout the map are standalone boss fights, which initially do a good job of shaking up the action. However, these giant UFOs are essentially copied and pasted from the encounter before it; the only differences lie in added attacks and a few new stage elements in the arena. These encounters seem like a refreshing change of pace at first, but the attack patterns go on for so long that they end up a tedious exercise in patience as you wait for the window to attack the glass dome weak point. Once you push through the Bubsy's meager offerings, the only replay value lies in returning to stages to collect the thousands upon thousands of wool balls scattered throughout the worlds, as well as a few t-shirts in each stage. This only further accentuates the uninspired design of these stages, as you are forced to examine the levels under a microscope (and they do not get more entertaining upon closer inspection). The archaic limited-lives approach doesn't hinder the game when you're simply playing through it, but it's a recipe for frustration if you run out of lives during this, causing you to lose all progress on your collection for that level. Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back underwhelms and disappoints at every turn. Bland level design never improves, and tedious boss battles are unrewarding and unsatisfying. Bubsy's return 21 years later could have reminded us why he was once considered a potential peer to the likes of Mario and Sonic. Instead, The Woolies Strike Back only serves to remind us why the mascot hasn't seen a new adventure in over two decades. View the full article
  22. Presenting itself as a cross between Journey and Shadow Of The Colossus, Oure is an indie adventure that pursues those influences doggedly, often at its own peril. While its watercolor visuals make a strong first impression, broken controls and sparse, boring gameplay result in a journey that feels aimless and dull. You enter Oure under mysterious circumstances. As a boy or girl capable of transforming into a dragon, your parents spur you on to save the world (no pressure, mom and pops). From there, you’re soaring among the clouds, collecting blue orbs to turn on light towers, which then summon massive titans that you must take on in order to restore the post-apocalyptic world beneath you. Half of your time is spent meandering around the clouds, and the lack of environmental variety gets old fast. While freeform exploration segments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, constantly staring at misty whiteness makes the world of Oure dull to explore. The other half of the game has you saving titans, and doesn’t fare much better. You return the titans to their former senses by solving line puzzles on their backs, which have you navigating a diagram with a limited number of moves. These puzzles range from incredibly easy to unfairly cryptic; Oure doesn’t adequately explain the rules of the more complex puzzles, as certain line paths become unallowed in the graphs for no discernible reason, so it ultimately comes down to trial and error in later segments of the game. While most of these sequences give you unlimited time to solve them, some of the latter ones are timed, giving you precious few seconds to work with. I never felt some great sense of victory or pride in solving the most difficult puzzles, only mild relief that I had finally overcome an obstacle through mindless repetition and luck. Compounding the problems with these sections is the floaty nightmare of a control scheme. Your dragon never stops moving. Even when you need it to be in one space, you’re constantly moving the sticks around, so bosses that require you to hit some levers before you can even activate the line puzzles are frustrating since movement response is sluggish and you can’t hover in one spot. Glitches make these sections even more aggravating; my dragon often clipped into the bosses and then flung out wildly thanks to a physics bug. I even lost substantial progress during a titan battle because the game crashed. In spite of the numerous flaws, it’s hard to deny that Oure occasionally looks stunning, especially when it comes to your dragon and the various titans. The design of every living being is imbued with watercolor art style reminiscent of Abzu and Journey but even a gorgeous visual style can’t support Oure’s lack of engaging gameplay and sparse storytelling, since annoyance quickly outweighs awe. Even as a brief five-hour adventure, Oure is thoroughly unpleasant. Even if the control scheme was better and everything was more polished, nothing beyond its distinct visuals makes Oure stand out or provide consistent entertainment. The concept of saving the world as a dragon taking on monsters in the skies is exciting, but the final experience falls far short of that vision. View the full article
  23. The Etrian Odyssey series can best be described as a proving ground. How well can you outsmart the competition and rise to a harrowing challenge? Not many turn-based games test your skills like these do, embracing old-school RPG design and even making you map out your dungeons. The series knows what it is, and even after five entries and a few spin-offs, hasn’t drastically changed its formula. On the one hand, you know what to expect from Etrian Odyssey game. On the other hand, if you’ve been following the series, it feels like a game you’ve played many times before. The lack of creativity and evolution is disappointing, but what the series has always done well is still there: providing an adrenaline rush from strategizing and surviving a harsh world. As a first-person dungeon-crawler, Etrian Odyssey V still has you using cartography skills via the stylus to navigate dungeons, taking on punishing bosses, and upgrading your characters to match your play style. A few new additions liven things up, including new classes and skills. The Rover and Harbinger quickly became my favorites. The Rover class allows you to summon hounds and hawks into battle for extra damage and its passive healing abilities are a godsend for survival. The Harbinger is deadly at inflicting status elements and debuffs, becoming especially useful in boss battles. Creating your party and deciding how to build their skills is a highlight, especially when characters’ skills complement each other. I had a mage who would cast fire magic, which allowed my fencer to follow-up with a fire-based chain attack. The new union attacks are also game-changers. You must fill a gauge by executing your moves, and once you do, you can activate these abilities, which range from restoring mana to blocking an enemy’s next attack on the whole party. Some skills are specific to certain races, allowing you to unlock unique union attacks and field skills, like hunting and gathering bonuses. Getting the most out of your characters’ skills and having that harmonious feeling on the battlefield is great, but it’s a slow grind to get to the fun customization. Once you can select a mastery for your characters (which you’ll need to pass the first two big areas to do, taking upwards of 15 hours), things get more interesting with better skill combinations. Making the most out of how to upgrade each character and their class is essential, but unfortunately, the game throws you in blind when building your party. I wish the game suggested some sample parties, because you only get a brief explanation of each class and race. You can always change a character’s class (but not their race), but you get a five-level penalty for doing so. In the harsh climate of Etrian Odyssey V, that’s a big downgrade, requiring even more grinding. (Please visit the site to view this media) Taking down the bigger bosses is a rush, as they force you to use everything in your arsenal. One wrong move can be deadly, and these quickly become battles of attrition. One boss I faced restored 1,500 HP every few turns, and if I didn’t block before his big attack, he could wipe out my entire front line. Challenging fights have always been the better part of Etrian games, because there’s satisfaction in surviving and knowing you outsmarted the toughest of foes. Sadly, the exploration leaves much to be desired. I felt the Etrian series was at its best with spin-off Persona Q, where it interjected creative puzzles and fun themes into dungeons, like Japanese horror and Alice and Wonderland. One dungeon even paired characters together romantically by asking you questions. But Etrian Odyssey V doesn’t have much personality to its dungeons. You start in the typical bland forest section, move on to a rocky mountain area, and then to a spookier graveyard, and so forth. Usually, I find the FOE puzzles where you must watch their patterns to get around them exciting, but even these feel dumbed down and tedious. As you explore, you come across certain events where you must decide if you want to take a risk or not. These leave so much up to chance that even selecting the best course of action can blow up in your face and cause your party to take damage, but you can also get some sweet perks like items, additional experience, or your party’s health restored. These are about as far as any story elements go; your main job is just to explore this large labyrinth and report your progress. I don’t mind the game being focused purely on gameplay, but I wish more interesting interactions happened during your exploration. Occasionally, you bump into to certain recurring characters, but they’re not anything to write home about. Etrian Odyssey V feels close to what the series has done before, but the new classes and skills keep things from getting too dull. For those who enjoy retro RPGs, love building characters, and don't mind grinding for victory, that’s certainly all here. Still, the tedium and slow-paced nature of the game leave a lot to be desired, and the feeling of déjà vu left me wanting more. View the full article
  24. Wolfenstein: The New Order was a bold, flawed attempt to reinvent the first-person shooter that kickstarted the genre. Taking place in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war, long-time protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz tried to take back the world with the help of resistance fighters hiding in the sewers of Berlin. Though the run-and-gun gameplay was satisfying, The New Order shined through its story, focusing on a diverse cast of people trying to hold on to scraps of hope and love. The sequel, The New Colossus, trades the somber tone to become a tale of fury and uprising, and in doing so emerges as both one of the best first-person shooters and narrative-driven games I’ve ever played. The New Colossus kicks off on a grim note, with B.J. awaking crippled after the events of the first game. You are in the middle of the action almost immediately, roaming around a U-boat in a wheelchair and blasting Nazis as you go. From there, the game gets zanier and more ambitious. I rode a giant mechanical fire-breathing dog of death chasing armored troops down the streets of New Orleans. I infiltrated an airship with the power to level a city. The New Colossus is constantly upping the ante and making the most of the locations you visit, like Reich-occupied Roswell, where the Ku Klux Klan walk arm-in-arm with Nazis and talk about the importance of Americans taking their German lessons. These sequences create a compelling world, going to great lengths to sell the horrifying nature of the Nazi regime’s iron-like grip on America. From detailed and beautiful propaganda adoring walls to background sequences with characters talking amongst themselves about their struggles and secrets, Wolfenstein II goes all-in on making its terrifying world a breathing place filled with atrocities and towering, architectural wonders. The levels range from satisfying to astounding, requiring you to constantly change tactics. The long, winding tunnels and catacombs of fallout-laden New York allow you to sneak with ease as you take down hazmat-suit wearing Nazis, but the open streets of New Orleans require more thought. You can still sneak if you want, and I often ducked through entire areas without killing a Nazi, but explosive environmental traps and hollowed out buildings also give you great offensive tactical options to work with if you want blazing firefights. The more impressive, standout levels I won’t discuss for spoiler reasons, but I will say that one of them clearly draws inspiration from The Wizard of Oz and is something that has to be experienced to be believed. The New Colossus matches the variety of its settings with frenzied and flexible action. The gunplay is satisfying, and all the weapons – from your handy Maschinepistole to large laser canons – have their own distinct personality and feel powerful. Both the perks system and the dual-wielding mechanic return from The New Order, but they’ve been expanded. You are awarded more perks (like increasing the number of hatchets you can carry) as you kill Nazis in various creative ways. Constantly seeing my progression go up for each perk was nice, helping build a sense that I was becoming more powerful bit by bit. The dual-wielding mechanic now lets you use any two weapons together. During one level, I managed to sneak through it efficiently with a silenced machinegun in one hand and a pistol in the other, mowing down foes like a stealthy madman. In another, I cleared out an entire hallway with a shotgun in one hand and then picked off the enemies at the far end with a sniper rifle. In the end, I was impressed with how the dual-wielding functioned as more than just an homage to ludicrous ‘80s action movies, but also as something with tactical merit. (Please visit the site to view this media) The biggest addition to the gunplay is the upgrade system. Weapon kits are scattered throughout all the levels of the campaign, with each one letting you access one of three upgrades on every weapon in your arsenal. The system has no restriction, so you can put your kits toward putting silencers on your guns if you want to focus more on stealth gameplay, or increasing rate of fire if you want to go loud from the get-go. While you can’t sneak through the entirety of the game, you can through the majority of it if you want. I loved every moment of the campaign as I blew through Nazis and robots with shotgun blasts and quietly lopped off heads from the shadows. You also get to choose between three superpowers halfway through the game, each of them with their own advantages. I won’t go into too much detail about them since that’s getting into spoiler territory, but they’re all fun to use and also give you an emergency exit in most situations should you find yourself overwhelmed. This wealth of upgrades and unlockables are fun to use and gives you surprisingly flexibility. The New Colossus is intense and adaptable no matter which playstyle you choose, which puts it above the vast majority of other first-person shooters, contemporary and classic. Wolfenstein II constantly finds ways to turn things up to 11, but that is only half of its magic. The other half is rooted in its storytelling. The New Order presented a memorable cast of characters, then gave them time to shine between missions as you roamed a small hub world. The New Colossus has the same setup, with you and your crew aboard the U-boat that functions as your base, but also devotes more time to letting you chat with allies or do missions for them that reward you with perks. Returning characters, like Scottish pilot Fergus and mystic scientist Set Roth, are made even more interesting as they take on traumas and forge new relationships. Newcomers, like charismatic leader Grace and Nazi turncoat Sigrun (who desperately tries to win the approval of her new community), leave a lasting impression with their arcs. Even the villain, nefarious and evil-to-the-core Frau Engel is so terrifying and deliciously cruel that her thin characterization doesn’t distract too much. The U-boat quickly became one of my favorite hub worlds in the entirety of games, with the ship feeling more like a home filled with a family of lovable characters leaning on each other while facing life’s hardships than a base. And let there be no mistake: These are people who have had their souls forced through the grinder. The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole. When I finished my playthrough, I sat watching the credits roll with a huge grin on my face, quite convinced I hadn’t played a better first-person shooter in years. I’ll keep coming back for a long time thanks to bountiful epilogue missions, plus an alternate-timeline playthrough that grants access to another side character, scenes, and weapons. But these things are just gravy. On its own merits the campaign is unbeatable, packed to the gills with unforgettable story moments and fantastic combat sequences. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a bold game that rages and soars, deftly balancing pulp sci-fi with deadly seriousness, and one that should not be missed by anyone interested in the power of storytelling in video games. View the full article
  25. When it comes to Nintendo’s stable of iconic characters, the Switch is off to an amazing start. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched to a chorus of “best ever” proclamations, and similar sentiment will undoubtedly (and rightfully) be showered upon Super Mario Odyssey. Where Breath of the Wild reinvented the Zelda experience, Odyssey is more of a structural sequel, reacquainting gamers with the rambunctious, free-form 3D play coined in Super Mario 64, but in a much bigger way than we’ve seen before. Odyssey is a love letter to that Nintendo 64 classic, with tips of the hat and references littered liberally throughout. It also brings back the look and play of Mario's first 8-bit adventure for a variety of wonderful challenges. These connections to the past produce a nostalgic charm that is always present and worthy of a smile, but Mario’s history doesn’t dominate this experience – it just makes it more meaningful for longtime fans. A number of the callbacks are clever, fun, and bigger than you’d expect. Mario can transform into most enemies he comes across. When you spot one… …throw your hat at it… …and put its unique abilities to good use! Performing a triple-jump maneuver is a clear reference to the 64-bit heritage, as the animations and timing are nearly identical, but the historical elements are just the tip of the iceberg in what is easily Mario’s biggest and most adventurous game to date. I’d argue that the former plumber isn’t even the star of this game; that honor goes to Cappy, his new symbiotic hat that does most of the work for combat and exploration. Cappy is a ghostly entity gifted with the power of possession. When he latches onto an enemy’s head, Mario becomes that foe, and the player controls it. This strange idea pays off handsomely in all avenues of play, allowing Mario to transform into more than 50 different beings, each offering unique abilities and traversal moves. Whether I was charging ahead confidently as a full-sized Tyrannosaurs rex to smash boulders or stretching dangerously across lava fields as an expanding caterpillar (named Tropical Wiggler), I enjoyed each transformation almost equally – a testament to Odyssey delivering on design, functionality, and variety. Some of the transformations are well-hidden, and a few are even peculiar one-offs that are there for a laugh or to guard a secret. Awesome little touches like this are everywhere in this game. The entire experience centers on the concept of discovery. Mario is typically known for platforming, but Odyssey is more about the freedom of exploration, and letting players plot their own course through over a dozen sizeable worlds. The open-ended design works well, as destinations and secrets are almost always just a jump away. To reach one area, you may need to chain together a specific series of moves with perfect timing, whereas another area may be reachable from numerous vectors. In embracing player ingenuity, Odyssey makes you feel clever – an empowering part of the experience that doesn’t diminish at any point during play. Journeying through this game is a string of “I can’t believe that worked” and “That’s how you get up there!” moments. Mario is still fleet of foot and challenged to a variety of linear platforming exercises along the way, but the bulk of the experience is becoming a treasure hunter to find over 800 moons – a staggering number of collectibles. A few of these moons are easy to find, such as butt-slamming a glowing clump of land to dislodge it, but most are hidden or delivered as a reward at the end of a challenge or puzzle sequence. Even if your exploration doesn’t produce a moon, you may find a different object of desire, such as a purple coin or a unique transformation. The reward loop is extravagant, and continues well after the credits roll. A wealth of post-game content appears in each world, including a boss rush and more challenging platforming sequences. If you pride yourself as a completionist, you have your work cut out for you. A number of challenge types are repeated throughout each world, but Nintendo does a nice job of changing up their dynamics or elevating their difficulty. Each environment’s visual style is a refreshing change from the last, ranging from element-based regions to a kingdom made almost entirely out of food. I enjoyed exploring these creative places, but found the water-based areas to be the weakest of the bunch. Swimming has always been a little unwieldy in Mario games, and this aspect of Odyssey lags behind the rest of the experience, feeling somewhat archaic. Even by the time I collected my last moon, I felt like I was still getting better at controlling Mario and discovering new techniques. His moveset is deeper than we’ve seen before, allowing for a high level of nuance. Adding a perfectly timed curve to a hat throw, running and lunging into a roll to achieve greater speed, and hopping gently to bounce off of your cap and onto a wall are just a few of the maneuvers that are beautifully sewn into the mix. Every move feels fantastic, but some are easier to perform with motion controls. A spinning hat throw requires just a flick of the wrist, which is better than rotating the analog stick to make Mario spin – a feat that is not as easy or consistent in execution. For specific challenges, I periodically removed the Joy-Cons from the Switch for more consistent input. (Please visit the site to view this media) I was floored by the creativity accompanying most of Odyssey. A lot of iteration and thought clearly went into some of the secrets and platforming exercises. I enjoyed each challenge type except the Roving Races, on-foot sprints against Koopa Troopers where every second counts. I was irked by the racers walking through enemies and walls without penalty – almost appearing to be a bug or a cheap way of intensifying the competition in a game that is otherwise nearly flawless in its execution. Quibbles aside, Super Mario Odyssey is an absolute delight, and another Switch release that will have Nintendo fans debating which 3D Mario game is the best of them all. I still hang my hat on Super Mario Galaxy as the pinnacle of the series, but Odyssey and its wealth of gameplay styles and moons make it a close second. View the full article