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Street Fighter 5: Arcade Edition Review

Sat, 01/20/2018 - 16:00

The first rule of fighting games is to make sure your fundamentals are rock solid. If the foundation of your play isn't on point, you'll never be considered a viable competitor. The whiffed launch of Street Fighter V showed that this mantra is as applicable to the game as it is to the people playing it. When it launched in 2016 Street Fighter V had a strong gameplay core, but the emaciated frame containing it couldn't stand up to its contemporaries.

A lack of modes that are considered staples for the series and the absence of tools to teach newcomers how to play left all but the most experienced fighting game aficionados out in the cold. This, unfortunately, came to define the discussion surrounding Street Fighter V, and although Capcom introduced offline modes and a suite of training options in the following months, that grey cloud has continued to linger over it.

Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, however, represents a new beginning. Arriving two years after the game's initial launch, it is a content-rich, well-rounded experience that pays homage to the series' legacy while also revitalising its finely tuned gameplay. For newcomers or those put off by the paltry offerings of the original game, it's the ideal entry point, and for those that have stuck with it since day one, it's a free update that brings the fresh injection of ideas needed to reignite their fighting spirit.

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The most significant new addition is a single-player Arcade mode, which leverages nostalgia to great effect. It's made up of six paths, each corresponding to a different entry in the franchise: Street Fighter, Street Fighter II, Street Fighter III, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter IV, and Street Fighter V. While the progression through these is straightforward, with the player picking a character and battling through a series of opponents to face an end boss and receive an ending, thoughtful presentation elevates it.

The choice of characters for each path is limited to just the fighters who were available in those games when they first launched, with Street Fighter V equivalents thrown in to fill out the numbers. Costumes can be picked to reflect their classic design, so if you select Ryu in the first Street Fighter campaign you can opt for the floppy-haired version of the series' iconic mascot. A new selection of musical themes and stings also evoke sentimentality; jump into the Street Fighter III campaign, for example, and the character select theme is a saxophone-infused jazzy number that'll spark memories of playing it on a Dreamcast back in 2000. Go for Street Fighter Alpha and an energetic versus screen jingle channels the youthful motif of that spin-off series. As opponents are lined up, a little airplane moves across the screen to the location of your next bout as the announcer shouts the name of the country, harkening back to Street Fighter II. There are Bonus Stages, too, such as Street Fighter II's barrel-busting mini-game and even a special brawl with the fighter formerly known as Shen Long.

It's all really small, novel touches that land just that little bit harder in the year Street Fighter celebrates its 30th anniversary. The gameplay and character models are still the ones created for Street Fighter V, but this doesn't dilute the nostalgia and, in fact, gives everything a charming high school reunion vibe.

Each character's ending is a comic book-like page of art that summarizes their story for that incarnation, and if you meet certain conditions during a playthrough, more unique pieces of artwork can be unlocked. This might seem like an insignificant reward, but Capcom has brought in well-known artists with close relationships to the Street Fighter franchise such as Bengus, Akiman, and Ikeno to create these. Not only does this provide longevity to those that aren't up for fighting online, but it also gives fans of Street Fighter's art something to chase. These unlocks can be viewed in the new gallery, which also houses a sound-select mode that lets you listen to music from the game whenever you please. Again, another simple addition that reminds you of Street Fighters from yesteryear.

[Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition] is a content-rich, well-rounded experience that pays homage to the series' legacy while also revitalising its finely tuned gameplay

The other big addition is Team Battle mode, which can be used to set up offline skirmishes between multiple combatants, human or AI. It's very versatile, offering the options to tweak the number of participants, match format, and whether health is recovered in between battles and if Critical Gauge carries over, among other parameters. This is sure be a hit for tournament organizers, both professional and casual. It's a quick and easy way to settle rivalries or just have some fun in a party environment.

For the solitary Street Fighter V player, these marquee new features provide plenty to do. However, there are also things like the Extra Battle Mode and Special Challenges, which are time-exclusive fights that dangle the promise of in-game currency or exclusive rewards such as titles and costumes to those who best them. The first of these is a series of fights across a prolonged period that unlocks a Viewtiful Joe outfit for Rashid. This is also where Street Fighter V's ruthless Fight Money economy rears its head.

Fight Money, in addition to real money, can be used to purchase stages and costumes, but everything still feels unreasonably expensive. Although completing challenges and grinding out online battles are consistent ways of adding to your balance, you earn tiny amounts and not everyone wants to venture into the cutthroat world of online Street Fighter. As a result, the economy feels geared towards pushing players into spending real money, which is a shame. For anyone buying the game for the first time Arcade Edition is a way to get up to date on content. It is intended encapsulate everything released in Season 1 and 2 of Street Fighter V, and as far as characters go this is true. However, it would have been nice to also get the extra stages, if not the costumes. Admittedly, this is a greater concern for those that want everything; if you're just after a specific item here and there, the Fight Money mountain isn't as daunting.

Anyone who does feel inclined to purchase costumes with real money should take note of the new model viewer, which lets you preview how an outfit will look before you drop the cold hard cash on it. This is a quality-of-life improvement in Arcade Edition that at least provides the opportunity to make informed purchasing decisions from within the game, instead of being forced to resort to YouTube videos.

Outside of gameplay modes, Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition's big gameplay shakeup comes in the form of a second V-Trigger for every character. For those that need a refresher, V-Trigger is a unique move that can completely change a character's capabilities. It becomes accessible when a meter is filled by taking damage, landing well-timed crush counters, or using V-Skills. Arcade Edition's selection of new V-Triggers are an antidote to stagnation felt by veteran players of Street Fighter V. Two years into the game's life, characters have largely reached the point where they're played in a specific, optimised way, and for the most part this means everyone employs the same styles, strategies, and combos. Alternative V-Triggers open up each fighter in the roster to re-examination, and also creates just enough room for creativity and expression without sacrificing what originally made them distinct.

Ken is still a quick-footed powerhouse but now has the option to use his new Shinryuken to stand his ground and up his damage output. M. Bison players can swap the extra mobility of his original V-Trigger to gain access to a command grab and a Psycho Crusher with V-Trigger II. Laura's Matsuda Sway, meanwhile, helps her get out of high-pressure situations or make reads that lead to further damage. V-Trigger II is an additional wrinkle on a fighting framework that has already proven itself to be deep and rewarding. Street Fighter V emphasized clean play, measured strategy, and consistent execution, and with these new moves, each character feels fresh and unpredictable again.

The final notable improvement in Arcade Edition is in Training mode, which now displays detailed frame data, so students of the game can be fully informed on the technicalities of moves, the knowledge of which can be employed in high-level competitive play. If that's a bit too far down the rabbit hole, there's also a toggle that will just show you when you're safe and unsafe after executing an attack, which is something that's easy to understand and factor into play.

With a slick new interface, fully featured online and offline modes, and every character released thus far--plus Sakura, the first fighter from Season 3 of its DLC--Street Fighter V feels like a complete package. It has always been a strong fighting game that continues to get better over time, but it remained a game for genre enthusiasts. Arcade Edition, however, is a game that you can confidently recommend to anyone. Two years after its launch, Street Fighter V is finally fighting fit.

Categories: Games

Spellforce 3 Review

Sun, 12/31/2017 - 18:00

Some cross-genre games are blended like ingredients in a mixing bowl, while others let their two halves live side-by-side. SpellForce III fits into the latter category, pairing role-playing and real-time-strategy elements. Though the end result is anything but unified, such a contrasting design keeps you from falling into a consistent routine. It also broadens the outlook of the stereotypical fantasy RPG, expanding the limited worldview of a handful of adventurers into the more expansive perspective of a general controlling an army.

Opening missions serve as an extended tutorial, first giving you the basics on how role-playing works, then moving into base-building strategizing where you take the fight to foes on a larger scale. You may start off exploring a map as part of a small party of heroes, slaying the odd gang of goblins or undead or giant spiders and cracking open chests stuffed with weapons, armor, and the usual assortment of magical goodies. You may finish off by taking all that you learned about the landscape while exploring, and build a base, constructing facilities to gather resources, and then whip up an army to hurl at foes who have been doing the same thing.

The baroque plot carrying you through it all assumes some familiarity with the SpellForce franchise, as you are dropped right into the aftermath of the Mage Wars on the Dungeons & Dragons-ish world of Eo. Events here serve as a prequel to the earlier SpellForce games, so it is tough to get up to speed initially. Main plot points feel like typical fantasy fare, though, as they revolve around your semi-chosen one status as the child of a treasonous mage. But there is a lot of depth and background information to absorb. Thankfully, everything eventually rounds into a compelling story. You just need some time to figure out your place amidst all the initially bewildering references if this is your first visit to Eo.

Plot is further developed through dialogue that includes quiet, character-building moments alongside stereotypically epic conversations about gods and magic. But as far as your involvement is concerned, there aren't a lot of meaningful choices to make. There are also strange shifts in tone, like some of the dialogue was written and recorded before any decision was made on what sort of age rating the game would aim for. So you get lengthy stretches where characters clearly go out of their way to avoid swearing, using awkward words like “heck” and “crap,” and others where characters let loose with incessant f-bombs.

Impressive presentation gives the game real visual impact whether you are playing adventurer or general. Maps are extremely detailed, with lots of little touches and great variety in background scenery. There is a very good balance here between trudging through murky caverns and wandering through forests and plains. The one drawback is that the settings can be too detailed at times, and things like chests and other points of interest are not all that easy to notice. You need to swivel the camera a lot to ensure that you don't miss anything. And all of this fidelity comes with the price of lengthy loading times, too. Venturing into any new locale drops you to a screen that gives you percentages on loading things like “Initializing Creature Resources,” which pulls you right out of the moment.

Character progression involves few surprises compared to other D&D-inspired games, and each character has access to just a few main skill classes and branching abilities. And since you gain experience fairly quickly, you can ultimately sample a lot of what's on offer. There are various schools of magic, combat skills like brutality and archery, and all-around categories such as leadership, with branching talents that include the usual range of attacks, buffs, and spells.

Combat is equally forthright. It's all real-time and rather chaotic, without a tremendous amount of thinking required in a given moment. Consider it a blend between the tactical battles of traditional RPGs and the more frenetic hack-and-slash of action-first RPGs. Combat is never so incessant as to grow tedious, and individual battles seem to fly by. The pacing of these sections is spot-on, with one distinct map after another pulling you into ever-more exciting bouts.

A similar story can be told when it comes to the RTS side of SpellForce III. Whenever a mission gets to the point where more is required than a party of adventurers, the game switches to an RTS mode and unlocks a construction menu where those adventurers lead the way as heroes in the army. From there, you build a town center and begin gathering the wood, stone, and food that form the game's staples. There are three building tiers, which means you start with expected basics such as the logging cabin, hunting cabin, stone works, and barracks, move on to a second level of iron smelters, forges, and farms, and then into a third that lets you exploit magical Arya water, train elite units, and build stone watchtowers.

Population caps regularly get in the way of fully manning facilities. This forces you to quickly expand territory and earn more population by setting up new outposts (peasants are locked to their regions, too, which also makes it imperative to keep pressing forward), but manpower always seems to lag behind. Needing to wait for carriages to ship resources to new outposts causes further delays, and you can't wait around to let stockpiles grow because enemy AI is on the attack almost immediately. Resources are also extremely limited, which also keeps you pushing onward so that you can keep the goods flowing to keep cranking out troops.

While both the RPG and RTS elements presented here stay true to form, the overall game is more than the sum of its parts because of how it makes such disparate concepts serve the goal of creating a militaristic role-playing epic. Incorporating base- and army-building into a traditional role-playing formula adds a scope and weight that would not be present if the game never went beyond three or four guys swinging swords and slinging spells. The end result may not be innovative, but it is an interesting and entertaining tweak of RPG conventions offering a lot to anyone looking for something offbeat and engaging.

Categories: Games

Tiny Metal Review

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 20:00

With no sign of Nintendo's Advance Wars strategy series returning any time soon, a game that attempts to fill the void like Tiny Metal is easy to get excited about. Thankfully, developer Area 35 has delivered a game that captures the spirit of the works that inspired it, and one that feels right at home on PC and on the go with Switch.

By and large, this is simply a game where adorably rendered soldiers with little armored vehicles take turns moving across a gridded map to fight their enemies one turn at a time. A unit represents a small squad, and when two units meet, the squads exchange blows while you pray some of your soldiers and vehicles survive the shootout.

Though Tiny Metal props up dire circumstances as the backbone of its campaign, it's also a game with a shady arms dealer dressed as a circus clown, so you know it doesn't take itself too seriously at all times. Average soldiers are expressively animated, and every unit type has their own personality, accent, and enthusiasm for destruction. This silliness is at odds with the dialogue-heavy and po-faced cutscenes, yes, but it also grows into the defining attitude of the game as you become more entrenched in combat. That said, don't feel too bad for turning off the in-battle emotes, which quickly grow repetitive.

You're given plenty of options to consider during combat, with a range of ground troops and military vehicles that grows steadily from the start, each offering distinct capabilities. Average, run-of-the-mill riflemen can only survive encounters with similar troops, but they're also the best at capturing city buildings and military facilities in pursuit of resources. A squad of rocket-launcher-equipped Lancers can't travel very far per turn, or capture as quickly as infantry soldiers, but they're the only units on foot that can put a dent in armored machines, known as Metals. Metals are probably the most all-around useful unit to place on the board, but they're not as mobile as some of the recon vehicles that help unveil the fog of war, like Scouts, Radar units, or Fighter jets.

Most of this should be familiar to anyone who's put more than a few rounds into an Advance Wars game, but Tiny Metal also has some new tricks up its sleeve to keep battles interesting for veterans. Focus Fire is a maneuver that allows multiple units to combo attack a single target. The benefits are twofold: the enemy can only retaliate against one unit per attack, and your combined attack gives you a better chance of wiping the target out before they get the chance to fire back at all. The riskier move, Assault, allows you push enemies off of a specific square, but at the cost of the enemy being able to fire first. Tiny Metal also has a Hero unit system where a super-powerful version of a specific unit type can be summoned to wreak havoc, but only once per match. These tactical considerations keep matches lively and unpredictable, and help distinguish Tiny Metal from being a mere Advance Wars copycat.

Following the tutorial battles at the start, the difficulty gradually increases as tactical options grow more diverse, with new units and commands appearing at a steady rate throughout the six-hour campaign. With multiplayer on hold until next year, one-off skirmishes are the current best way to keep playing after the credits roll, though they take some getting used to. Skirmish mode offers over 50 challenging battles, often in either inordinately small playing fields, groupings of rough terrain, or situations where you are grossly outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy. These fights will definitely keep you busy, but the jump in difficulty from the last mission of the campaign to even just the first few skirmishes is a big one that's initially off-putting.

The PC version of Tiny Metal is notably better looking and allows you to use a mouse, but fans of Advance Wars will find that playing on the go with Switch completes the nostalgic experience. The only major flaws in portable mode are the tiny fonts used in some menus, and a marked decrease in resolution when the camera zooms in to watch two units attack each other. The PC version gets more graphical options, and an unlocked framerate, but Tiny Metal's throwback action feels at home on Nintendo's portable.

Newcomers to the turn-based strategy genre are likely to have a blast with Tiny Metal all the way through its campaign, though the endgame is no doubt a little restrictive. Old hands to this type of strategy game will find a campaign that wears its influences on its sleeve, but still admirably and respectfully fits right in with them. It’s the kind of game where you jump in just to take two or three more turns and suddenly an hour has passed, and you can’t rest until that pesky enemy gunship or tank fleet is down for good. Hopefully that can continue next year if the multiplayer patch comes as promised.

Categories: Games

Brawlout Review

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 16:00

The Switch has had a fantastic first year, but one of the big Nintendo franchises the console is still missing is the much-beloved Super Smash Bros.. While rumors are swirling about some sort Super Smash Bros. 4 port to Switch, a few enterprising indie developers are looking to fill the void with Smash-inspired fighters of their own. One such effort is Angry Mob Games' Brawlout. While it makes a valiant attempt to put its own spin on the Smash style of platform fighting gameplay, Brawlout has some notable issues that aren't easily overlooked.

It's worth noting from the outset that the game is designed for competitive Smash fans. If you're looking for a goofy free-for-all with zany items and copious stage hazards, this isn't the game you want. What's here is a very basic selection of fighting arenas with restrained gimmickry, no items, and a handful of game modes that are focused specifically on pure fighting.

If you're familiar with Smash, the controls in Brawlout will feel like second nature. You have a regular attack button and a special attack button, and pressing these in combination with a directional input will change your attacks. Jumping and running also change your attack properties, and you can charge certain attacks for more power. The goal is to damage your opponent, then hit them hard enough to send them flying off the field. Sounds exactly like Smash so far, right? The big difference is that Brawlout doesn't offer shielding or grab maneuvers. Instead, the buttons you would normally associate with these moves are re-assigned to a dodge move with an invincibility window that can be executed on the ground or in the air.

While dodging is a mechanic that veteran Smash players will no doubt feel familiar with, the removal of shielding and grabs is quite puzzling. The lack of guard and throw mechanics, which are are nearly universal across all kinds of fighting games, limits your options in frustrating ways. The loss of shielding, for example, makes certain attacks a lot safer than they would be in other games of this sort, and puts a lot of power in the hands of someone going all-in on aggression. It doesn't necessarily result in a more aggressive game; it just gives someone on the defending side fewer options and leads to more frustration.

Brawlout attempts to cover for the loss of these options with an upgraded Rage mechanic. Rage was something of a hidden mechanic in Smash 4 that would increase a character’s damage output when they had taken a lot of damage. In Brawlout, Rage is very clearly visible through a meter shown underneath a character’s damage readout. As a character takes damage, their meter increases. They can use the meter to power up their special attacks, utilize a combo-escaping burst when the meter’s at least half full, or enter full-on Rage Mode (indicated by a large burning flame graphic on the character’s damage indicator) when it’s at max. Special moves have different properties when used with and without Rage meter to fuel them, so keeping tabs on your meter becomes a big part of the game at higher levels of play.

Brawlout presents its comic combatants and arenas with confidence and style, but even the game's relatively bland-looking characters prove useful during battle. Joining the cast of original fighters are two guests from other indie games: Juan from Guacamelee and the Drifter from Hyper Light Drifter. They both feel at home in the game, but as of this writing, Drifter is somewhat overpowered compared to the rest of the cast.

However, in order to access the full selection of characters and stages, you have to unlock them. And there is a lot of unlocking to do. Fighting on- and offline, completing the tutorials and arcade modes, leveling up characters, and fulfilling daily objectives will all earn you currency you can spend on "pinatas" (read: loot boxes) to earn characters, skins, and other goodies. To unlock more than three initial stages, you have to level up specific characters across numerous fights. No, you can't just find one fighter you really click with and play with them; you need to play each character until you reach a specific level for them to unlock one stage apiece. And that's a separate grind from the two different in-game currencies.

With the game being so slanted towards competitive play, Brawlout does its best to push you towards playing online. The problem is that, in its current state, online play is a mess. I had a handful of good sessions in my attempts to play online. By and large, my online bouts were defined by stuttering, clunky-feeling movement and laggy slideshows--issues echoed online by other players. It's hard to recommend a competition-focused game like this when part of its foundation is so flawed.

Brawlout is clearly trying its best to create a unique identity from the game that inspired it. However, the ways in which it's trying to do this--by removing key mechanics and putting an emphasis on grindy unlocks--don't work in its favor. Combine this with an online mode that just doesn't seem to function correctly most of the time and you've got a game that's disappointing in its current form. Keep the Wii U or GameCube hooked up to get your Smash fix for now.

Categories: Games

L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files Review

Tue, 12/26/2017 - 16:00

To refer to L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files simply as a VR port does it a disservice. In many ways, the game feels like a fresh experience with its new first-person perspective coupled with interactive environments. Despite its truncated length, you get the sense that Rockstar put a lot of work into The VR Case Files. It certainly has flaws, but raises the bar for what a good VR port should look like.

You play as the familiar detective Cole Phelps as he tries to solve several, mostly unrelated crimes within 1940s Los Angeles. Perhaps the biggest difference between The VR Case Files is that it only features seven missions, which provide roughly six to eight hours of gameplay. This is down from 21 cases in the original game and means that you lose the nuances from LA Noire's overarching narrative. If you've never before experienced it in its entirety, it will be confusing seeing a new partner for each mission without any added context. Due to the missions' very episodic nature, however, it largely still works.

Talking with other characters makes up the bulk of the experience, but you still need to move around the city. The most straightforward method is to hold down the right trackpad and alternatively swing your arms side to side to virtually walk in the direction you're facing. It can feel a little janky at times as some slight unwanted drifting may occur, but it gets the job done. The second, perhaps more nausea-free way to move, is to gaze at highlighted areas of interest and then press down on the trackpad to teleport.

The VR Case Files has been completely overhauled so that you can pick up a wide variety of highlighted objects in the world. It's not quite up to the level of Job Simulator in interactivity, but Rockstar does a good job of convincing you that LA Noire was built from the ground up for VR. You can pick up plates, cups, and more and just toss them around as you see fit. Where this added interactivity becomes really impactful is when, for instance, you're standing over a lifeless corpse examining how the person died. In general, the new first-person perspective bolsters the illusion that you're a detective by allowing you to pick up and examine clues like you might in real life. It makes you think about evidence in a new light.

Not all these interactions are positive, however. For instance, you may have to hold a match book with one hand and then use your other hand to flip it open to look for additional clues inside. While these occurrences might not be a big deal in the base game where the solution is simply a button press away, the answer isn't as obvious in VR when you don't know what objects might have a second layer of interactivity using your free hand. Luckily, these instances are pretty rare.

One the bright side, the new fist fighting mechanics feel like a surprisingly fun boxing minigame. Using room scale, you can get out of the way of punches and throw your own back at opponents. Characters react appropriately when hit, and punches feel very satisfying to land.

In general, the The VR Case Files has a lot of nice little VR touches. When you're interrogating suspects, for instance, you hold a little detective booklet with all your clues in one hand, and you've got a pen in the other, which you use to select your line of questioning. You can even use the pen to write in the notebook. There's really no meaningful benefit to the added mechanic, but it's fun drawing silly pictures while you're interrogating a suspect.

Driving has also been completely revamped. Since the game now takes place in first-person, car cabins are now meticulously detailed. To drive, you use the Vive controller to place your hands on the virtual steering wheel, but before you zip around town, you'll need to start the engine by turning the key in the ignition. There are a bunch of nice little touches here that really make you feel like you're sitting in a real car. For instance, you can use your palm to press down on the horn to honk, and you can even manually roll down the windows. The trigger on the right controller allows you to accelerate, and the trigger on the left allows you to break. Driving works as well as you'd hope given this control scheme, and it's fun trying to weave through traffic as you chase runaway vehicles. You can also drive around the city at your leisure. While there really isn't anything to do on the road other than to engage in some virtual tourism, it's nice just driving through a realistically rendered rendition of 1940s LA.

Visually, the graphics and artstyle work wonderfully in VR. While the unique motion captured performances look fantastic in the base game, I had some concern that they might take you out of the experience in VR, considering it's a new first-person perspective that gives you more movement agency to disrupt the pre-captured performances. Surprisingly, however, Rockstar employs head tracking, so characters will often look your way, even when you're moving around them.

The VR version isn't without its flaws, however. While the few shooting sequences are often exciting, and the gun models look and feel accurate based on how you reload them, aiming is often imprecise. Furthermore, even though 99 percent of the game takes place in first-person, there are brief moments when the game switches to a more traditional third-person perspective, which can be a little jarring.

While the game encourages you to physically sit in a chair when the situation calls for it, there's the occasional bug that makes it look like you're a super small person with tiny hands when you're playing seated.

While L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files has its flaws, it excels at making you feel and think like a detective in a way that the base game can't. The VR version isn't a replacement for the full game, but it's a great companion that allows you to play the greatest hit moments from Rockstar's noire opus in a welcomed new way.

Categories: Games

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Review

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 17:00

You know what's a great idea? Stuffing 100 players into a plane to parachute down onto a desolate island to scavenge for weapons, armor, and supplies in hopes of surviving a bloody deathmatch. And to keep things interesting as numbers dwindle, throw in the impending doom of an electric field that forces players into an ever-shrinking warzone. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds turns this foreboding gameplay concept into an exhilarating multiplayer shooter. With several randomized variables that challenge you to adapt, no two matches are the same, and it's what keeps you coming back for more. It's not the first of its kind, and despite glaring flaws, PUBG emerges as the most accessible, mechanically refined battle royale game to date.

PUBG stands above its forebears by streamlining systems and mechanics to let you focus on gearing up, devising tactics on the fly, and executing them to the best of your ability. Gone are granular gameplay elements like crafting, bleeding, and the arduous navigation from games of this lineage. Jumping into a match is less daunting and faster paced than something like H1Z1: King of the Kill or earlier Arma II mods that Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene himself helped create.

Whether solo or with a squad of other players, the early phase of a match is filled with tense anticipation. Dropping out of an aircraft with just the clothes on your back, you're expected to loot for weapons, ammo, armor, and health packs. These critical items litter the city centers, towns, and abandoned structures across the game's two different maps. You have to account for the plane's flight path and determine if you want to pick a fight as soon as possible; if so, it's a race to find the first gun or immediately throw hands in a hilariously janky boxing match. On the flip side, parachuting to a more distant town results in a less stressful hunt for items; either way, you won't always get the gear you want. In squads, sharing an abundance of ammo and health packs or helping scout for a vehicle highlights the tactical advantage of team play in the opening minutes.

It's absolutely necessary to juggle all of these factors in the early phase of a match, and by the same token, this can prove to be exhausting and repetitive. Despite having relatively smooth inventory management, it's demoralizing to spend a majority of a match gearing up only to lose in the first firefight or die unceremoniously by distant gunfire coming from an undetermined direction. The harsh reality is part and parcel of the give-and-take you have to accept in PUBG for the more rewarding moments to surface.

After working through the hectic opening of a match, you then have to face the dread of engaging others while also keeping an eye on the slow yet ominous "blue circle of death" that forces players into an increasingly smaller zone. It gives you time to scavenge regardless of the area you land in, but the random nature of where the circle converges within a huge map ensures that no one strategy can be employed repeatedly. Whereas capture zones and specific choke points dictate the action in many shooters, PUBG leverages simple variables to stave off monotony.

You never know where the final firefight will take place, or which position will be most advantageous when things heat up, until the blue zone comes into view. One match could have the last 10 players fighting on the open shores and in between rock formations, and the next one could turn into a stalemate between squads holed up in buildings. Miramar, the newer desert map, showcases the evolution of PUBG with its more varied terrain, newfound verticality, and quirky touches to city interiors (like a luchador wrestling ring and a casino floor). Regardless of the map, the same rules and tactics apply, and it's up to you to adapt to the given environment.

Positioning, scouting, and knowing when to engage are vital to success; these are tenets that feed into the emergent tactics formed in the matter of seconds that separate life and death, especially when playing in groups. Imagine a skirmish against another squad across a crowded city. Spotting enemy movement presents an opening for a kill that'll turn the tide, but taking action puts you in potential danger. So do you pursue the enemy and brace for bullets raining down on you, or fire from afar and give your position away? If you take enough damage and get knocked down, teammates can revive you before you bleed out, but they'd be defenseless as the revive countdown ticks. PUBG is a series of calculated risks in the form of a shooter, and the unpredictability of where or when these moments happen keeps the game fresh.

As you inch toward becoming the last combatant standing, the tension ramps up exponentially. The risk-reward nature of PUBG is compounded by the fact that matches become more of an investment as they go on. But because of how much you have to work to achieve victory, winning is intrinsically rewarding, even without a tangible prize at the end. Whatever your style, there's a way to survive if you play smart. That's not to say the only triumph comes from winning, though. Survival itself is an achievement, every kill feels earned, and recognizing mistakes in a heated battle is a lesson learned.

PUBG retains some of the military-sim roots of its predecessors and is ultimately better for it; it's another layer of forethought required during confrontations. You'll find that guns aren't easy to wield, as recoil is a major factor that negates the effectiveness of full-auto firing modes outside of close-quarters encounters. Bullet drop makes sniping much more challenging than lining up crosshairs while health packs take time to be applied, which makes you think twice about healing under pressure. PUBG's learning process involves going through a lot of trial and error, but this is key in reaching the most satisfying parts of the game.

As of now, there aren't any in-game tutorials to lay out the basics or jumpstart newcomers. Even after several hours, you may still not realize that you can hold the ctrl key and right-click items in the inventory to drop a specific quantity for squadmates, for example. Although it's one of the more accessible games of this type, there's a lot to learn and nothing to show you the ropes if you're on your own.

While PUBG focuses on executing the core mechanics that make battle royale-like games great, it lacks technical refinement. At launch, PUBG is noticeably improved from its early access days, but frame rates can still fluctuate inexplicably. Even a high-end PC can have trouble maintaining a consistent framerate with relatively modest graphics settings, evidence of PUBG's ongoing optimization struggles.

Likewise, the familiar fear of seemingly random crashes and connection difficulties remains, and it's sometimes almost as unnerving as an opposing squad converging on your location. (If it's any consolation, you can pick up where you left off if you relaunch the game before your character dies.) You may also experience character models clipping through the environment and getting stuck inside objects. If and when these problems strike, an otherwise good match can be ruined in an instant.

PUBG's technical shortcomings can undermine its broader achievements on rare occasions, but they don't override your desire to continue playing. Each phase of a match presents a different type of tension that is equal parts thrilling and terrifying, driven by the insatiable desire to be the last person (or squad) standing. Whether you play solo or in a group, successfully executing adaptive tactics to win intense, high-stakes firefights makes for an incredibly rewarding experience. Every player has unique stories of their most memorable matches, and even after hundreds of hours, PUBG continues to inspire rousing tales of victory and defeat.

Categories: Games

Hello Neighbor Review

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 18:00

Imagine you're a small child in a quiet suburb, playing in the street on an idyllic afternoon. Suddenly, there's a terrible shrieking from your neighbor's house across the road. You run over and peek in the neighbor's window just in time to see him barricading the basement door. What is he hiding down there? A prisoner? A nightmarish genetic abomination? Hello Neighbor has answers to that question, but not only is getting to those answers an enormously frustrating experience, but the answers themselves aren't worth the effort.

Hello Neighbor is based around a stellar idea: In the game's first act, you are that aforementioned child, who has taken it upon himself to sneak into his neighbor's house any way he can and get into the basement. The neighbor--a gruff gentleman with an all-time great mustache--doesn't take kindly to intrusions, though, and each time the child gets caught trying to sneak in, the neighbor sets new traps, locks doors, and patrols that area more often. Conceptually, it's a promising twist on the usual neck-snapping military shenanigans of the average stealth game. The aesthetics are also a bit unusual, with a sort of warped 1950s retro design to everything that truly stands out. Unfortunately, that's where the coolness ends.

In practice, even with the game spending significant time in Early Access, it feels unfinished at launch. While it's commendable that there's so much leeway in how you can approach the neighbor's house, Hello Neighbor tips the balance from player freedom to player neglect. The controls are bizarrely unintuitive, with an unusual and confusing button layout that can't be remapped. But the further you progress in the house, the more convoluted the neighbor's security system turns out to be.

Hello Neighbor hearkens back to the dark ages of point-and-click adventure games in terms of nonsensical solutions to simple problems. A complex magnet device, which you use to activate switches from afar in a couple of puzzles, is lying around in a place obvious enough to stumble on it by accident. Meanwhile, for some reason, something as useful as a simple wrench is lying in the neighbor's fridge, where you would never think to look. All the while, the game itself offers zero insight into what a given item can or cannot be used for, with many items' functions flying in the face of basic reason.

The game's complete disregard for logic or consistency shows itself when the neighbor is factored in as well. Left to his own devices, he just wanders his home aimlessly, with no discernible pattern. However, no matter how softly you sneak around, no matter how carefully you evade, the neighbor's ability to hear, see, and find you seems to be wholly unaffected by anything you do. In one of my earliest playthroughs, I had managed to sneak up behind the guy, trying to see if I could pick his pockets, and he never moved. Later, I was two rooms away from him, having snuck into an open window, and somehow, he went on high alert and found me. That level of unpredictability works when it's a xenomorph in Alien Isolation, but not when it's a guy dressed like Ned Flanders. The sole blessing here is that getting caught, despite being an experience entirely without tension since all the guy does is get up in your face, immediately drops you back at your house, typically with any items you've picked up along the way still in your inventory.

Eventually, with saint-like patience and persistence, you can grab the key to get to the basement. The game gets surreal from here, but with little payoff. Hello Neighbor limps into a second act, involving you as a full-grown adult moving back into your childhood home, while hinting at surprising revelations. Even then, that idea is executed in such a threadbare, half-baked, interpretive way that it doesn't land with any sort of impact. Act 2 and the wholly offbeat finale are at least easier to navigate than the rest of the game, but even that just ends up exposing just how little there is to grapple with after the fact.

Hello Neighbor is a game you persevere in due to sheer luck rather than any sort of actual skill, foresight, or cleverness. There's no catharsis, insight, or revelations waiting at the end of the ordeal, just a sort of uneasy malaise over what the images and environments near the end are meant to represent. As such, a simple, appealing concept is rendered inert. There's a wonderful game to be mined out of what Hello Neighbor wants to be, but there's nothing to be gained from experiencing what it currently is.

Categories: Games

Gorogoa Review

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 00:00

Few games take the concept of altering reality to as artistic a level as Gorogoa. This labor of love made chiefly by one developer is a gorgeous and intriguing puzzle game that works because of its stunning art and intelligent puzzle design. Far from a traditional game, Gorogoa is a slow and methodical trip into the surreal.

Gorogoa is a compact game with a minimalist design that works exceptionally well. The entire story of two young men researching the lore of gods and monsters in their world is told through the striking visuals and musical score. The focus of the game as a whole is on the puzzle mechanics, which are more than up to the task of making this two-to-three-hour excursion worth taking.

A simplified version of classic point and click adventure games, you tap on interactive elements within Gorogoa's artwork to trigger a mini-event. There are four panels on the main screen, each of which can hold a square-shaped picture. You can slide any picture into any of the panels and many of the puzzles require manipulating the pictures so they connect with each other.

Tapping on specific areas in a picture will usually zoom in on that element, and often if the element is a window or door, it will zoom right into a new location. Using beautifully detailed pictures, Gorogoa creates puzzles that work by altering the perception of the game’s own reality. Sometimes, for instance, a lamp in one picture is dark and you’ll have to find a lightsource within one of the other pictures.

To do this, you’ll have to find something glowing within another image, zoom in on the light source and then the lamp, and then move the circular hole of the lamp over the lightsource. This combines the two images to create something new. It also alters the remaining image(s) and usually leads to completely new paintings to explore.

Using simple touch controls, Gorogoa unveils surprisingly layered puzzles that can be confounding but that never feel illogical. It can be a challenge to figure out how all the images you’re provided at any given time interact with one another, but once you do, it all makes sense. Nothing feels random or contrived, which was a significant issue in classic adventure games.

This sense of order to the game’s world also leads to a palpable sense of accomplishment when you sort everything out. The first few puzzles ease you into the mechanics of Gorogoa, then the game throws you into an incredibly complex maze of clockwork-like machinations that require manipulating multiple panels in quick succession. The idea of moving a falling object from one aspect of a picture down into others in order to cause something to break is genius and extremely satisfying when you get it right.

The art is stunning, the atmosphere fascinating, and the puzzles are incredibly devious and clever. Gorogoa might not be a long game, but it is easily one of the most engaging puzzle games in recent memory.

Categories: Games

The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild - The Champions' Ballad Review

Sat, 12/16/2017 - 16:00

Slipping back into Breath of the Wild is typically a painless process; spirited moments are never far away, and tranquil scenery makes the time between finding treasure and hard-fought battles consistently captivating. With so many things vying for your attention, it's fair to say that the game doesn't need to be expanded. But as the Master Trials DLC showed us earlier this year, there are still pieces of this lost chapter in Hyrule's history to uncover.

For the game's final act, The Champions' Ballad, Link's ancient allies (Revali, Daruk, Mipha, and Urbosa) get their chance to retake the spotlight. The result is less impactful to the overall story that we're already familiar with, but the accompanying quests and new gear do a lot of heavy lifting, delivering over a dozen new stages to test your problem-solving skills in ever more interesting ways. They alone make a return trip to Hyrule worth getting excited about.

A big part of this new journey involves walking in the champions' footsteps, re-enacting feats they performed prior to the fall of Hyrule, to unlock long-forgotten memories--but you must first prove yourself worthy of the opportunity. Upon returning to the Resurrection Chamber, the cave where Link awoke from his 100-year slumber, you're given a weapon known as the One-Hit Obliterator. As the name implies, this short-range weapon allows you to kill an enemy in a single blow; but with your health consequently whittled down to a quarter heart, you're also more vulnerable than ever.

Similar to how you may have felt when tackling Eventide Island or the Trials of the Sword, the threat of an easy death when wielding the Obliterator is stressful, and it takes time to acclimate to being such a fragile warrior. You may have shrugged off an occasional bee sting before, but it's little incidents like these that teach you to think twice about every move during this phase of The Champions' Ballad. Sadly, it's a great setup that ends too soon. After clearing out four small enemy camps and the shrines that emerge from their defeat, the weapon returns to the resurrection chamber having "fulfilled its duty." Even after completing everything the DLC has to offer, the weapon remains unusable, which feels like a missed opportunity.

With this stage of the new journey complete, you're sent to the four corners of Hyrule on a glorified scavenger hunt. The accordion-playing Kass regales you with songs that hint at your objectives without completely spelling out the steps involved. Adding to the mystery are the visual hints that reference a specific part of Hyrule, but these pictures are limited, forcing you to pore over the map in search of your destinations.

In a very pleasing way, the goals set for you take great advantage of Breath of the Wild's numerous mechanics. You will take on a snowboarding challenge that tasks you to pass through rings in a limited amount of time, hunt Hyrule's elusive dragons, and re-engage the banana-loving Yiga clan, among other missions that test the breadth of your capabilities. And for each task you complete, a new shrine surfaces from underground.

The Champions' shrines force you to engage in mindfulness and critical thought. They typically involve a lot of moving pieces, veering away from combat in favor of puzzle-solving. So far removed from a life of shrine-hunting in the main game, returning to these creatively built challenges takes you back to a time when Breath of the Wild was this new and mysterious thing, an experience filled with surprises.

Upon completing the three shrines in a given set, you're able to tap into the memories of the relevant champion. You don't get the opportunity to directly control Hyrule's famous defenders, but as Link, you re-enact their battles against Ganon's four blights--the same four bosses you fight at the end of each of the game's Divine Beast dungeons. The difference this time around is that you are limited to a small selection of gear based on what each champion would have carried into battle. Oddly, you retain access to the powers bestowed to you by the champions' spirits in the past, which give you incredible advantages and somewhat negate what would otherwise be difficult battles. You can always turn off these powers if you choose, but given the context of exploring someone else's memories, it would have made more sense had they been disabled by default.

Your immediate reward for beating each blight is the ability to recharge Champion abilities in less time, and new cutscenes for each champion; each one shows a recollection of when they were recruited to join Zelda's anti-Ganon squad 100 years in the past. These vignettes are more playful than serious, which is a little disappointing considering the gravity of the calamity they're up against.

Thankfully, there's a bigger and better reward waiting for you once you've resolved every champion's quests: a new Divine Beast dungeon, complete with a totally surprising boss fight. In a similar fashion to other Divine Beasts, the final station requires you to manipulate the entire structure, rotating major components this way and that, as you work to resolve the four puzzles locking away the final area. It's another reminder of how clever, if non-traditional, Breath of the Wild's dungeons are. While shrines ask you to solve puzzles comprised of compact devices and easily conceivable constraints, the scope of the final Divine Beast (like the ones before it) is delightfully difficult to wrap your head around both for how big it is and how intricate its solutions are.

The parting gift for your efforts is one of the unlikeliest additions to The Legend of Zelda: an ancient motorcycle. Loosely modeled to resemble a unicorn, Link's new bike fits thematically if not logically into Breath of the Wild's mythical tapestry. On one hand, having a bike at the ready overshadows your stable of horses. On the other, tearing through Hyrule on a motorcycle is as ridiculously playful as it sounds. It even makes for a fun snowboard replacement on snowy hills, which helps escalate the sense of speed as you rocket down mountains and look for ramps to catch a bit of air. The only real disappointment: you can't summon the motorcycle in the desert nor travel there if you're already on the go. Attempt the latter, and an invisible wall prevents you from proceeding, exactly the same as if you tried to enter on horseback.

Who knows if Nintendo will continue to surprise us with fanciful new additions to Breath of the Wild down the road, but considering that The Champions' Ballad is likely the final world on this chapter in The Legend of Zelda, it's a bittersweet goodbye. There are so many wonderful quests and beautiful, tiny moments that make revisiting Hyrule's past feel like reliving your own memories, when Breath of the Wild was truly new and surprising. Nintendo certainly could have extended some of the aspects within The Champions' Ballad, such as giving you access to the Obliterator at anytime, and letting you ride your new motorcycle over sandy dunes, but these are minor blemishes on an otherwise great trip down memory lane.

Categories: Games

Rumu Review

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 01:08

The moral and ethical dilemmas of engaging with ever-evolving technology isn't a new thing for video games. But in combining these weighty themes with a heartfelt story about family, loss, and love, Rumu brings a fresh and heart-wrenching perspective to some well-trodden thematic ground.

You play as Rumu, a tiny vacuum-cleaning robot who is as adorable as it is curious. Its one and only duty is to clean the futuristic house of its owners, David and Cecily. Said owners are nowhere to be found but the all-seeing sentient house AI, Sabrina, promises that they will be home soon. In the meantime, the only thing left to do is to clean and explore. Aided by Sabrina, as well as an eclectic mix of semi-intelligent home appliances and a house cat named Ada, everything starts off innocently enough. As you partake in chores, cleaning up some spilled tea here and some dropped toast there, Rumu slowly begins to grow self-aware. What starts off as a cute, whimsical adventure involving cleaning up spills soon gives way to a thought-provoking sci-fi tale.

Rumu is an isometric point-and-click puzzle game on the surface, but its strength doesn't lie in mechanics or aesthetics. Its puzzles are unchallenging and unexciting, and the discoveries that come from exploration play out in a linear fashion. The game instead anchors itself on Rumu and Sabrina's relationship and the underlying mystery of what happened to David and Cecily. Though the game is short--a full playthrough will last 2-3 hours--Rumu and Sabrina's complex dynamic and the central mystery is borne out in an engrossing manner from start to finish.

Rumu communicates with binary dialogue choices, while Sabrina is a fully coherent character. The little vacuum robot almost always "speaks" in variations of "I love you," and subtext is imbued into every line. Telling Sabrina "I love David, Cecily, and Sabrina" instead of "I love Sabrina, David, and Cecily" provokes contrasting reactions, and Sabrina possesses a sinister streak when provoked. She's surprisingly flawed for an AI character and prone to emotional vulnerability. Allegra Clark's excellent voice-acting gives extra weight to an already well-written character; little details like subtle breaks between words and slight pitch changes during heated conversations give the character a surprising degree of emotion and sympathy, and it's these finely-crafted moments that inject intriguing nuance into Rumu and Sabrina's relationship.

As pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, conversations with Sabrina take on a markedly more antagonistic tone. The I love yous become less frequent and more direct lines of questioning become the norm. The result is a fascinating look into emotional manipulation, familial relationships, and ultimately, loneliness. It's risky to focus an entire game around a single relationship since everything hinges on the strength of the characters, especially when both aren't even human. But both Rumu and Sabrina are well-written and surprisingly relatable during certain climactic moments. The experience is heightened by Rumu's beautifully poignant soundtrack, which perfectly evokes the game's futuristic setting and familial themes.

Events happen at a breakneck pace, and it doesn't take long for the story's conclusion to sneak up on you, but when you finally uncover the central mystery behind David and Cecily's absence, the emotional payoff feels well-earned thanks to strong character work and an impactful ending. It may be short and unchallenging, but Rumu's strong antagonist and its ultimately heart-wrenching journey make it one worth taking.

Categories: Games

Steep: Road To The Olympics Review

Sat, 12/09/2017 - 16:00

When Ubisoft Annecy's extreme sports game Steep launched last year, it sold itself on the promise of big mountain exploration. In light of this, Steep's newest expansion, Road to the Olympics, feels somewhat incongruous with the rest of the game. Something as regimented, restricted, and well-defined as the Olympics does not fit well with a game that challenges you to break all restrictions and find every nook and cranny hidden in the mountains. However, despite its name, Road to the Olympics includes much more than just the Olympics; it adds a huge swath of beautiful and brutal terrain, as well as new events that are surprisingly entertaining.

Those parts of the DLC are hidden behind the story mode, however, which is not much more than a classic longshot narrative: You are an aspiring freestyle Olympian, and you have to complete a series of events in order to make it onto the Olympic team. Your ultimate goal is to become the first freestyle athlete to win the gold medal in all three freestyle disciplines: Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe.

As you progress through training and the various pre-Olympic competitions, the story is interspersed with actual video interviews with famous winter athletes. These are probably the best moments in the mode, as it's fascinating to hear Lindsey Vonn or Gus Kenworthy talk about their training regimen, what their anxieties are, or how it feels to win a competition. Generally, Olympic athletes only ever get visibility when they are actually participating in the Olympics, so it's easy to only think of them in the context of their sports. To see highly successful athletes sitting down in street clothes and talking about their experiences with obvious passion instills a sense of humanity and relatability that we rarely otherwise get.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn't match the interviews in quality. Each event feels bizarrely disconnected from the interviews, and the mode's narrator treats your character as a nameless, faceless competitor who is supposed to be taking snowboarding by storm. In addition, the actual competitions are frustratingly easy if you've played the base game. During my playthrough of the story, I never once came close to falling out of first place, and I'd routinely score two or three times higher than the other competitors. During some events, where the total score is the sum of the scores of three runs, my two-run score would be significantly higher than the competitors' three-run scores. Although its in-depth tutorial make it a great mode for newcomers, veterans of the game won't find anything particularly exciting or intriguing. Thankfully, it only takes three hours to complete, so you can quickly get through it and turn your attention to the much more rewarding parts of the expansion: the new open world and the various challenges contained within.

For all its problems, Steep does one thing particularly well: it imparts a sense of scale that's unmatched by any other winter sports game. The mountains you ski on feel immense, varied, and full of secrets--in other words, they actually feel like real mountains. They draw you in and make you want to traverse their entire breadth. Additionally, each mountain is distinct and has its own character; Steep's Denali map features massive, wide-open slopes, while the Alps are filled with craggy peaks, glacier fields, and Swiss villages. Road to the Olympics adds a Japan location, which is just as varied and, it turns out, is my favorite map in the game.

Japan's skiing is unique and very different from Western ski areas. The new map is filled with huge, sheer cliffs that bottom out into narrow ravines, glades full of small, scraggly trees as opposed to the tall evergreens of the West, and pillow fields of natural jumps and kickers that make you feel both exhilarated and slightly out of control. Steep's character models and small details have never looked good, but its scenery is gorgeous, and Japan is no exception. I found myself frequently stopping and staring out over the mountain range, or seeking out the small temples and villages that dot the mountainside.

It's also just an incredibly fun map to ski down. Steep has arguably the best video-game skiing ever made, from the sense of speed to the ease of pulling off tricks to the smoothness of the mechanics. And Japan encourages you to experiment with those mechanics and push the game to its limits. No other map in the game has rock faces as sheer, chutes as steep, or glades as dense, and you'll have to really work to keep yourself from crashing. But unlike the Alps and Alaska, I never felt like I was fighting the game itself or going out of my way to avoid particularly nasty terrain. The new mountain wants you to throw yourself down chasms and cliffs.

Of course, free-roaming around the mountain isn't the only thing you can do in Steep--it also has a Trials-like challenge system that encourages you to perfect your runs to increase your score. I've found Japan's normal challenges to be fine, but unmemorable; there's no challenge that stands out like the Cliff Jump events in the base game. It also has a distinct lack of freestyle events, which are by far the best challenges in the game.

However, Road to the Olympics also contains about a dozen different Olympic challenges that are a lot more satisfying than their story mode counterparts. Competing against yourself and the global leaderboards is more difficult and more interesting than competing against computer-controlled characters. These events do feature a commentator, though, whose lines are extremely repetitive and often unrelated to what you're doing.

The events themselves are novel and rewarding, featuring mechanics and terrain found nowhere else in the game. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new ski racing events actually work pretty well in a game that focuses so clearly on freestyle. In fact, the Downhill ski challenge has become one of my favorites of all the activities in Steep.

Struggling to control your character while going at extremely high speeds is satisfying and entertaining, especially when you nail a difficult turn while maintaining your velocity. Also, these ski race events finally justify the existence of Steep's first-person view. Although it's impossible to ski in first person while doing jumps and flips, ski racing is perfect for it: the smooth, open tracks keep the camera stable, and it's actually helpful to see the track from a closer, less obscured perspective. In addition, hitting a jump or carving a hard turn in first person felt way more real than I was expecting. For a few moments at least, I experienced the same stomach lurches that I do when skiing in real life.

The ski races provide some much-needed novelty to Steep's core gameplay, but most of Road to the Olympics is simply more Steep. That's both good and bad; the new playground in Japan is huge, varied, and enticing, it provides a wealth of opportunities to explore and try new tricks, and there are enough challenges to keep you occupied trying to beat your own and friends' scores. However, Steep does can get repetitive; a freestyle challenge is a freestyle challenge, after all, and eventually Japan's novelty does wear off. The ski races actually present new mechanics to master, but the expansion doesn't lean into these events hard enough. Even having just a few more Downhill courses would have gone a long way toward making Road to the Olympics better.

As it is, the moments where Road to the Olympics shines are when you're shredding through waist-deep powder at breakneck speeds through a picturesque glade, or careening from the very peak of a mountain down through ravines and all the way to the base far below. The new mountain is beautiful and features a good number of opportunities, and it's a welcome expansion of Steep's playable territory. The Olympic events, meanwhile, provide nice diversions when you really want to compete against yourself. The DLC's main feature--the narrative journey to the Olympics--is flawed, unfulfilling, and frustrating, but thankfully there's enough to do elsewhere that Road to the Olympics still helps bolster and revitalize Steep's main appeal. It's good to have a new mountain to throw yourself down.

Categories: Games

Destiny 2: Curse Of Osiris Review In Progress

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 00:18

If you simply ran out of things to do in vanilla Destiny 2, its first DLC expansion, Curse of Osiris, adds a few new activities for you to take on. For the most part, though, there isn't enough to the expansion yet to justify coming back. My opinion is still in flux since I haven't played the Raid Lair yet, but so far, the story missions, Strikes, new Crucible maps, and Adventures feel like more of the same, despite the DLC's new settings and stories.

Curse of Osiris picks up right after the end of the base game's campaign, as far as your level goes. You could go directly from the end of the Red War story to Curse of Osiris' campaign, which requires a power level of 200 to 220, without having to grind much in between. For newcomers or PC players who've had less time with the game, it's a comfortable bridge for leveling up between the lower-level vanilla content and the high-level endgame activities like the Nightfall. (Those endgame activities are a different story, though. We'll get to that in a bit.)

As a result, though, Curse of Osiris' story missions feel like filler. The campaign sets up an enormous undertaking against the Vex, with infinite timelines and computer simulations and the mysterious Warlock Osiris mixed up in it all. But with a two-or-so-hour runtime, the missions rush through the interesting concepts and usher you into a simple final battle that is essentially scripted. It's also not enough time to fully understand Osiris as a character, which is disappointing considering he's only ever been mentioned in Destiny lore before now. The beautifully designed and varied Infinite Forest, a Vex creation designed to simulate timelines and their infinite permutations, is the most interesting addition in the expansion--but even then, the story doesn't task you with exploring it, instead shepherding you through areas to find codes and things that smarter NPCs can use to pinpoint your next destination for you.

Other than the Infinite Forest, the new destination, Mercury, is simply uninteresting to explore. It's a small circular map with one new Public Event to try out, a new vendor, and a handful of chests and Lost Sectors. The foundation of exploration established in the base game is still good here--having a variety of options to choose from does make things feel less repetitive--but it feels like busywork with little to do at the highest level. That extends to the new Strikes, which are almost direct copies of two of the story missions, nothing more than another way to kill time.

The biggest problem with Curse of Osiris is that it locks the hardest activities, including the Prestige Nightfall and the Prestige Raid, behind its new power level cap of 335. The recommended power for those activities is 330, which you can't reach if you don't have the Curse of Osiris DLC. So if you don't get the DLC, you suddenly don't have access to something you used to be able to do. It's also frustrating if you do get Curse of Osiris, because the higher level requirement doesn't fundamentally change these activities.

New Heroic Adventures add Nightfall-style modifiers to the Adventures on Mercury, but those missions aren't begging to be replayed. The main incentive to do it at all is to unlock the Lost Prophecy quest from the NPC Brother Vance, which eventually unlocks the Forge. From there, you can craft Legendary Vex weapons. But for anyone besides the most dedicated players, there's no compelling reason to do all this unless you want to redo old missions on harder difficulties in order to get loot to use when you do them again.

Excellent gunplay isn't enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside of busywork.

While some of the new loot is worth collecting--my favorite of the ones I've found is a Legendary automatic scout rifle--you'll likely get a lot of duplicates before you get anything you actually want to use. Because the main reward for everything you do is shiny new loot, the frustratingly high drop rate of duplicates makes grinding more disappointing than satisfying. The gunplay feels as great as ever, though, so it can be fun to experiment with new weapons, but it's not enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside of extra ways to occupy your time.

That being said, I still need more time to try out Lost Prophecies and the Forge as well as the Raid Lair when it launches. If they provide more of an endgame and have more of a purpose than just padding out the same kind of stuff, I'll be more inclined to return to Destiny 2 than I am currently.

Categories: Games

Doom VFR Review

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 23:00

It’s one thing to step into 2016's Doom and witness its version of hell in all its modern, HD glory. It’s another thing entirely to step out of a portal in the new Doom VFR and suddenly find yourself inescapably surrounded by fire and death. Hell has been made more harrowing and real than ever before, and Doom VFR leverages this to present a new tale. But a big issue is that compared to last year's hit, Doom VFR is more conservative with its action, stingier with the bloody, brutal joys that were part and parcel of Doom's successful return to the stage.

Doom VFR is a pseudo-sequel set one year after the events of the last game, where a milquetoast UAC employee, Adams, finds himself knocked out after a face-to-face encounter with a demon after a portal to Hell opens. When he wakes up, he's connected to a virtual reality rig, allowing him to pilot a holographic representation of his body around the facility to try and shut the portal to Hell for good. Right off the bat, the priorities are different than before. Adams is a generic cypher whose voice is present only to tell us what piece of expensive tech is broken in the Mars facility and how to fix it. That meticulous fawning over UAC equipment is the kind of legwork that the Doomslayer--the series’ faceless Marine protagonist--never had a whole lot of time for. The guy who cocked his shotgun to the chugging beat of his own theme song has been replaced by a guy who's essentially reading a UAC instruction manual at the beginning of each stage, robbing the game of its familiar brutal charm.

Thankfully, when it's demon killing time, Adams knows to shut his mouth and let the guns and Mick Gordon's metal soundtrack do the talking. There're three ways to play on PSVR: with a DualShock 4, with two Playstation Move controllers, or with the gun-shaped Aim controller. The Dualshock 4 handles like the non-VR Doom, just with a Teleport button, which has become the standard mode of movement in VR shooters. There’s also a new Shield Burst ability, a crowd-control function allowing you to repulse all enemies halfway across the room with an overloaded electrical shield. The Dualshock 4 is certainly functional for the game, but it’s also the least immersive option available.

Playing with Move controllers fares the worst. Aiming with the right controller feels natural, but actual movement is handled by a quick dash function using the left controller's buttons as directional inputs, which leaves absolutely zero room for the kind of precision you need to survive.

The Aim controller is the ideal. It's not perfect either--for some reason, the PSVR's camera tracking on the Aim seems to drift more than normal, which is a problem if you're trying to use one of the larger weapons, like the Gauss Cannon--but it is by far the most gratifying way to play, using the same mix of movement controls as the DualShock 4 but with a prop in your hand that feels more inline with your actions. White knuckle clutching a physical rifle while the forces of Hell charge ahead puts you into the right mode to slay demons, and feels exactly like the kind of experience the Aim was made for.

For the most part, shooting your way through Hell's armies feels just as brutal as it does in the 2016 game. Demons explode into bloody, fleshy messes. Arenas are wide open, encouraging constant awareness of your surroundings, something made much more efficient with the Teleport function. The entirety of the enemy roster returns here, from the nimble, annoying Imps to the towering Barons, but VR puts them right in your face, making the physical act of pulling the trigger point blank all the more satisfying. The big missing element here is the Glory Kill system, where hitting the melee button on a blinking enemy let you demolish them with a quick, gruesome fatality. The replacement in Doom VFR is the ability to teleport into a blinking enemy and explode them from the inside. It mechanically gets the job done, but it's less impactful than it sounds, and pales in comparison to tearing enemies limb from limb.

Perhaps the ultimate complaint is that for a game that's so good at delivering fast-paced combat, it's strangely shy about letting you do so for extended periods of time. The campaign itself is only about 4 hours long, minus extra time spent exploring for collectibles and power-ups, with only the added bonus of playing some old-school Doom maps in VR--admittedly, a ridiculously fun, nostalgic bonus--to pad things out. Much of your time in the game is spent wandering the UAC facility, waiting for the chance to unleash wrath on Hell's inner circle. When you do, it can feel great, but Doom VFR feels like a game unsure of whether that's the case. The result is a game that feels tentative about its own considerable power.

Categories: Games

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 13:00

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is every bit as fantastical as you'd hope, an RPG set in a massive world where man and animal live on the backs of tremendous beasts in a sea of clouds. The world of Alrest, simultaneously Earthly and alien, with a mysterious history that even its major players fail to truly understand, is a magical place to inhabit. It appropriately sets the stage for an epic adventure that gets more interesting as it develops, but this greatness comes after dozens of hours filled with eye rolls and bewilderment. For all the good things Xenoblade 2 eventually introduces, the 80-plus hours it takes to complete the story won't feel like time wasted, but the bad taste of the its lesser qualities is never completely washed away.

The cliched hero Rex is a naive and upbeat salvager who gets wrapped up in contract work with the game's soon-to-be villains at the start. They seek a legendary sword, which in this case is the weapon-manifestation of a human-like being known as a Blade. When a human resonates with a Blade, as Rex does with his objective, Pyra, a lifelong partnership forms. Though sentimental to a point, these bonds are also a bit lopsided as Blades are forever bound to serve their masters. Xenoblade 2 does address this as the story unravels, one of the few smart instances when the game puts itself to task. Rex doesn't quite enjoy the same full-circle maturation, sadly, though his positivity at least grows more welcome as stakes rise and other characters' outlooks sour.

Anyone familiar with Xenoblade Chronicles will rightfully recognize the way Xenoblade 2 sets you up to be surprised in the end, as characters gradually reveal secret thoughts, unveil unexpected backstories, and make moves that catch you off guard. These thought-provoking revelations reshape your understanding of the world and the point of your participation. But long before the story delivers these compelling beats, you are thrust into predictable scenarios and presented with poorly voiced characters from one scene to the next. Once again, the stout and furry Nopon creatures are an annoyance on par with Jar Jar Binks, harming would-be dramatic scenes the moment they open their mouths.

Rex and Pyra seek Elysium, a sort of paradise atop a towering tree running through the center of Alrest. They partner with a small selection of comrades from different walks of life who surprisingly have more in common than they initially realize. You can only ever travel as a party of three, but with a Blade standing behind each character, or Driver, battles are frenzied displays. Still, Xenoblade 2 gives you a chance to breathe and strategize during its real-time bouts. Every character will dish out basic attacks automatically, which in turn fuel more advanced skills. You only ever have complete control over one character, but your allies will chime in with requests to perform certain moves. How you manage this process, and the numerous other battle mechanics, can make or break your success against the game's tougher enemies.

One of the major issues with Xenoblade 2 is that it fails to adequately educate you, with fly-by tutorials introducing cascading mechanics and terminology that's easy to mix up. The flow of combat works as follows: your auto attacks fill up a meter tied to abilities known as arts, arts fuel another meter for special attacks, special attacks can be linked from one character to the next to build up a Blade combo, Blade combos seal away certain enemy abilities, and team chain attacks--based on a meter that is also used to revive fallen teammates--can break these seals to create an elemental explosion that deals hefty damage, which successfully extends the chain attack for another round. Enemies can also be forced into tiers of vulnerability by breaking their defense, toppling them to the ground, launching them into the air, and smashing them back down, provided you execute these moves with abilities linked to cooldowns that you've hopefully kept track of, all before countdown timers close your window of opportunity. There are other systems that exist on a per-character basis, but those exclusions notwithstanding, there's already a lot to keep track of. Success comes from managing timers and meter charges and firmly grasping your available options, the latter of which is more demanding than the game initially lets on.

Thankfully Xenoblade 2 feels appropriately balanced to account for its learning curve. It's not until later in the game that mastery becomes paramount. The frustration arises, however, from the lack of reference material, which makes your desire to improve, or your ability to chase hidden paths with dangerous enemies and great rewards, difficult to realize at first. Take screenshots when the game presents you with a tutorial, because once you move to the next text bubble, that info is otherwise lost. The only other recourse is to purchase bite-sized tips from informants throughout the game, though linking partial tutorials to a merchant is hardly user-friendly, and they don't adequately cover the breadth of Xenoblade 2's mechanics.

Merchants in general even manage to be confusing at first, as one location will cram as many as a dozen in a small area. Characters can carry items in special pouches that buff certain stats, such as meter generation, and while some are incredibly useful to the point of eliminating the need to grind, it's a slow process to familiarize yourself with the dozens of options available to you, and the numerous merchants that specialize in one category apiece. This also extends to a vast selection of accessories for characters and Blades, which are difficult to keep track of and compare given the game's mediocre item-management interface. Variety is good, but Xenoblade 2 throws you into the deep end a bit too early for you to appreciate the value of everything at your disposal.

To build a formidable team, you're encouraged to regularly acquire new Blades by collecting and bonding with Core Crystals, which are found in chests and dropped by defeated enemies. Despite three tiers of crystals--normal, rare, and legendary--you're never guaranteed to get one of the game's elusive rare Blades from crystals you find in the field. Save for a few varying body types, the vast majority of Blades you acquire also look nearly identical.

Looks obviously aren't everything, and even common Blades are useful as they each come with randomized buffs and stat bonuses that can make a big difference in battle. But rare Blades have unique designs, their own side quests, and a larger selection of skills and stat bonuses than common Blades. It's easy enough over time to fill out your party with rares, but opening Core Crystals becomes less attractive as diminishing returns set in. Opening 50 towards the end of the game yielded zero rare Blades, despite having unlocked only half of the rare roster.

To combat the randomness of Core Crystals, you are joined by a Blade early on named Poppi, an artificial lifeform that you can customize to your liking. The concept sounds great, but unlocking parts to modify Poppi requires you to play a shallow retro game called Tiger Tiger, where you move a chunky character through a slow-scrolling stage while picking up collectables. More annoyingly, you can't play this game freely, and must return to an early-game location and likely play a couple hundred rounds to earn enough resources for desirable upgrades. This long-winded process isn't enjoyable enough to see through, and not worth sidelining your efforts elsewhere with Blades that you can raise organically through combat.

Blades outside of your core party can also be trained via asynchronous mercenary missions, and they return after a fixed amount of time with rewards and experience that goes towards developing their secondary abilities. Field skills, for example--traits such as lockpicking, focus, and leaping power--will allow you to access elite treasure chests and shortcuts. There are very rare instances when the game will gate you with a door that requires mastery of certain field skills, though these are exclusively linked to abilities shared among story-based Blades.

Even in these situations, you're never truly stuck. Xenoblade 2 lets you fast travel, instantly, to any major location in the game, regardless of the context in the story. This is great in a pinch, but it's also incredibly illogical. You shouldn't be able to warp out of a location to buy equipment across the world during a mission where your main objective is to escape imprisonment, but Xenoblade 2 affords you that option. No matter how silly it seems in practice, fast travelling makes it easy to hop back and forth from one incredible environment to the next. Alrest is gigantic, and following the story will only reveal a small part of what there is to see. Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X both set a high bar for world design, and developer Monolith Soft. has once again delivered a robust collection of dazzling environments.

On this and many other levels, Xenoblade 2 exhibits admirable depth. Adventurous types that enjoy complex combat systems can easily spend more than 100 hours uncovering Alrest's secrets and developing their team of Blades, provided they can come to terms with a handful of unavoidable shortcomings. It's equal parts pleasing and frustrating, but the struggle to keep up with everything thrown your way is more of a hurdle than a roadblock. It will be a tough pill to swallow for people who aren't accustomed to the typical cliches found in many Japanese RPGs, and its often clumsy nature keeps it from being the next groundbreaking Switch game, but Xenoblade 2 is worth pursuing if you've got enough patience to let it blossom.

Categories: Games

Rive Review

Sat, 11/25/2017 - 15:00

Backed into a corner by curtains of laser fire, I hop and twist, curling my shots and grinding foes into nuts and bolts. After hacking a support drone to bring in some extra muscle to the fight, I battle my way out and continue my maelstrom of destruction. These moments are common in Rive, and they're emblematic of how the game melds sharp design and challenging encounters to reinvigorate the shoot-em-up genre. It's a chaotic game backed by explosive action, snarky cracks, and an affection for the ridiculous.

You play as a no-name, space-salvaging badass in a robust spider tank. It’s an armored, all-terrain machine with a giant machine gun for its basic weapon. As you progress, you’ll earn more upgrades like new weapons and armor, plus some gadgets that let you take control of everything from turrets to trains.

In the beginning, you stumble across a gargantuan derelict vessel ready for plunder. But, of course, there's a catch: As you explore, you’re accosted by countless drones and bots programmed to put you down. You'll learn to shoot, move, and use some other basic skills, but then Rive situationally limits how can use your newfound abilities by forcing you into a corner or into a zero-g bubble. These moments are as tense as boss battles, asking you to utilize your skills in novel ways, all while under the duress of constant, high-energy action.

Despite that, Rive rarely feels overwhelming. It's intense and taxing, but it doesn't often feel like it's asking too much. It's common nowadays to herald difficult games as intrinsically “good,” but that trend belies that fact that there's a tenuous balance between difficulty and frustration. Rive is challenging, but even if you die, you can instantly jump back into the action. You never lose more than about 30 seconds of progress, and death doesn't drain resources or knock down your overall score. The game includes plenty of tough spots, but it doesn’t take too long to acclimate to the challenge and wriggle through.

Along the way, you'll find some rather strange locales, given that the majority of the game takes place on a spaceship. Between giant lava lakes, oceans, zero-G bubbles, and the like, Rive gives you plenty of playgrounds to explore. Each area is bright, colorful and gorgeously animated. Creatures skitter along the floor while lights and backgrounds hum with life. That's all window dressing, sure, but each level is also distinct, presenting new sets of challenges every few minutes.

One of the few solid knocks against Rive comes from its protagonist. He's got all the corn and cheese of classics like Duke Nukem (without the crass misogyny). He has all the personality of a brick, and only a couple of his jokes hit their mark. It's a strange addition that doesn't seem necessary given the game's focus on action over storytelling, and is borderline cringeworthy.

Rive is demanding, but it pushes the kind of near-thoughtless play that shoot-em-ups strive to achieve. When faced with an onslaught of enemies and environmental hazards, you'll have to think fast or die. Rive also doesn't run all that long, but what's here is excellent, top-notch action, and the game delivers some of the most memorable moments in a shoot-em-up in years.

Editor's note: After a few additional hours of testing Rive: Ultimate Edition, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Switch version of the game. - Nov. 25, 2017, 7:00 AM PT

Categories: Games

Batman: The Enemy Within - Episode 3: Fractured Mask Review

Fri, 11/24/2017 - 12:12

This review will contain spoilers for previous episodes of Batman: The Enemy Within.

In Episode 2 of Batman: The Enemy Within, Bruce Wayne found himself behind enemy lines working as a member of The Pact, a coalition of villains hatching a plan to wreak havoc in Gotham City. In Episode 3, Fractured Mask, developer Telltale pumps the brakes on high-stakes schemes in favour of something a little more intimate. The result is an episode that only inches the overarching narrative forward, but takes a big leap in exploring the fragile nature of Bruce Wayne's duality.

At the end of the last episode, Catwoman--who has been absent since Season 1--made a surprise return, and in Episode 3 it's revealed she's in league with Harley, Bane, Mr. Freeze, and John "Not The Joker Yet" Doe. But Catwoman is also driven to take revenge against The Pact--and the mysterious forces they represent--for the death of Riddler. Through her, Fractured Mask recontextualizes Riddler's actions somewhat by indicating that his plans may not have aligned completely with his villainous compatriots. The Riddler that Catwoman knew was a different, better person than the one Batman faced, and ultimately the one The Pact killed. With this in mind, she takes it into her own hands to seek retribution.

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Naturally, this places Bruce in a tricky spot. Since Catwoman's plans threaten to undermine his own efforts as an undercover operative for Amanda Waller, the two find themselves at odds professionally. Complicating matters even further is the burgeoning romance between them which, amongst the deception and subterfuge, allows them to find some comfort in each other and not completely descend into darkness. This dynamic is at the core of Episode 3 and, for the most part, it is depicted well. Although there are a couple of scenes where Catwoman's attitude pivots jarringly, these eventually culminate in a moment of genuine emotional payoff where the player can choose to develop their relationship in a meaningful way.

Bruce Wayne and Batman's other ties become equally messy in Episode 3. Most impactfully, his friendship with Jim Gordon takes a serious turn for the worse. Since Batman is playing nice with Amanda Waller, who is wrestling control of Gotham's law enforcement operations away from Gordon, the two begin to drift apart. Episode 3 presents a Gordon who has his back against the wall and is desperately trying to remain relevant. He clutches at straws hoping to grasp something significant and, unfortunately, this results in Bruce finding himself in Gordon's crosshairs. It's actually quite sad to see Batman's staunchest ally slowly becoming his demise. Although there is an opportunity to begin repairing this fracturing friendship, taking this step will damage another important one. There aren't very many big decision-making moments in Episode 3, but the few that are there carry enough consequence to make the player pause and think.

Episode 3 also sees old wounds reopened, with Lucius Fox's daughter, Tiffany, becoming embroiled in Batman and Bruce Wayne's activities. As a character, Tiffany hasn't had much screen time but the events of the episode raise her profile considerably. Without spoiling the story, Telltale seems to be motioning towards something that, if it happens, could be very exciting for fans of Batman and for this series.

And then, throughout it all is John Doe, the man being positioned to become Joker. He's a lingering presence that is both charming and unsettling, and Episode 3 hops back and forth between those two personas expertly. Doe continues to be a fascinating take on the character; unsure of who he is but very slowly dipping into the madness that will inevitably consume him. His need to find acceptance sees him craving Harley Quinn's attention, to the point where he puts both himself and his "best friend" Bruce in danger. As with the previous two episodes, John Doe is a standout character, providing levity with some excellently delivered one-liners, throwaway quips, and one hilarious sequence involving shadow puppets.

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While Episode 3 has strong characterization, its gameplay feels rather shallow. Outside of the fight sequences, which are well choreographed but a little trite, there's one big puzzle for players to solve. It takes place in Riddler's hideout and, given his love of flaunting his intelligence, you'd think it would be elaborate and challenging. However, it's actually trivial to solve, making Riddler seem a bit dull--talk about kicking someone when he's already down.

Nevertheless, Episode 3 of Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within is well thought out and strongly written. Telltale has weaved together a complicated web of relationships that's becoming strained by the people tangled in it. After two relatively straightforward episodes, this is exactly what the series needed to carry it forward and ensure players are compelled to see it through.

Categories: Games

LA Noire Switch Review

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 06:00

When it first released in 2011, L.A. Noire was an anomaly; its facial capture tech was an innovative showcase of animation, and it's focus on slower-paced interrogation puzzles widely contrasted the big-budget shooters of the time. Six years later, the game has surprisingly managed to make its way onto Switch. While a few sacrifices were made in performance and graphical fidelity to get L.A. Noire running, the ambitious spirit of this stylistic 1940s-era detective adventure remains.

L.A. Noire's principal 21 cases are all present, including all of its DLC cases. As budding LAPD detective Cole Phelps, you spend the bulk of your time gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, and making accusations. Phelps is a fascinating, yet morally flawed, character whose checkered past is compelling to see unfold as the story goes on. The cases you solve remain interesting and well-paced, balancing slower, more meticulous investigative moments with brief shootouts and vehicular/on-foot chases. On Switch, the game controls as well as it did on previous generation consoles, especially when playing docked with a Pro Controller. It also offers motion and touch controls, which are welcome additions that make L.A. Noire feel more involved. Motion controls allow you to use the right Joy-Con to control the camera and physically manipulate objects you pick up, while touch controls command Phelps where to go and what investigate by simply tapping the screen. However, both control schemes don't feel as functional as playing with a traditional gamepad setup.

Interrogations often lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments.

While L.A. Noire's story and varied pacing are some of its most exceptional aspects, where it truly shines is in its interrogation sequences. Armed with your intellect and the wealth of evidence you collect during your investigations, questioning suspects and seeing through their facial ticks to expose their secrets lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments. The facial animations hold up well, displaying a level of realism that's still impressive. And with top-notch performances from its facial capture actors, interrogations are just as absorbing and believable.

In a subtle change from the original, interrogation options have been changed from "Truth," "Doubt," and "Lie" to "Good Cop," "Bad Cop," and "Accuse." The new naming scheme helps to give you a better understanding of Cole's behavior towards a suspect's testimony, which was difficult to gauge in the original. The renewed context is particularly useful when a suspect is playing coy, where it makes sense that using the more forceful "Bad Cop" approach would root out more information. However, the new terminology isn't perfect. There are situations where it isn't specific enough; this is apparent when responding with "Good Cop", where the option seems to lean more towards believing the suspect rather than following proper police protocol. Despite this occasional issue, interrogations are consistently rewarding, often requiring critical thinking and sharp judgment to complete perfectly.

There still isn't much to do in the game's faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.

L.A. Noire's finer qualities are maintained, but its notable shortcomings also persist. Movement is a bit clunky during shootouts, and there are plenty of useless filler objects to sift through during crime scene investigations. But the most glaring issue lies in the game's recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles, which is authentic but doesn't offer much to do outside of main missions and random street crime activities. New hidden collectables in the form of books and records have been added to the Switch version to encourage exploration, but it's not made clear that these items exist nor does the game encourage you to seek them out.

These issues don't do much to detract from the experience at large, especially considering how well the game runs. Visuals have taken a slight downgrade compared the original version, sporting new jagged edges, fluctuating textures, and noticeably weaker draw distances and dynamic lighting effects. However, these issues are less apparent when playing the game undocked, where it runs and looks the best.

Even considering L.A. Noire's age, it's a wonder that the game can be played on Switch.

On the other hand, frame rate maintains a steady 30 frames per second, only drastically dipping when surrounded by multiple NPCs or vehicles while on foot. Though, it's not a deal breaker, seeing as the game consistently performs well during the moments where it matters, like during investigations, interrogations, and car chases.

Even considering L.A. Noire's age, it's a wonder that the game can be played on Switch. While nowhere near as technically striking as seeing Doom run on the console, there's still something special about playing what was once such an ambitious game on last-generation consoles in the palm of your hand. And the game lends itself well to the platform; the bite-sized length of missions makes it a great fit for playing on the go.

If sharp visuals and higher frame rate are huge factors in your enjoyment, then you're better off playing L.A. Noire on PS4 and Xbox One, which sport added bells and whistles that elevate the game's performance. But if you're charmed by the idea of experiencing it portably, then L.A. Noire on Switch comes recommended. It may not work the best under pressure, but it's well worth replaying or experiencing for the first time on Nintendo's convertible console.

Categories: Games

Football Manager 2018 Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 14:00

With each passing year, Sports Interactive iterates on the long-standing fundamentals of its Football Manager series. A slight tweak here and there: applying some ease of use adjustments, or tinkering with the 3D match engine--like a manager moving pieces around a whiteboard. Some of these tweaks might not become evident until you've spent hundreds of hours entrenched in the virtual dugout, while others may only affect those eccentric enough to deploy a tactic featuring a Raumdeuter. In Football Manager 2018, minor refinements are similarly sprinkled throughout; but, crucially, there's also a significant new addition, and other impactful overhauls, that are palpable from the get-go, profoundly changing the way you manage and interact with your team on a daily basis.

The first of these is a new module called Dynamics that focuses on the topsy-turvy world of player morale. The concept of squad happiness has existed in Football Manager since the early days, but the cause and effect of your actions was previously hidden behind an algorithm we weren't privy to, which made managing your player's mood a case of pure guesswork and gradually learning through repetition. That all changes in FM 2018, as each interaction with your squad now has a clear, defined outcome that helps keep your chosen group of expensive primadonnas in check. A detailed hierarchy displaying your team leaders and most influential players advises you on who not to annoy; social groups determine which individuals sit around the breakfast table with each other based on parameters like their shared nationality and how long they've been at the club; and myriad other menus track your player's individual mood, their confidence in you, and the consequences all of these variables has on team chemistry.

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A harmonious squad generally leads to better results on the pitch, with the team's collective mental state contributing to the quality of their positioning, vision, and reactions during the course of a match--making it imperative for you to maintain your team's high spirits if you have any notions of success. Football is a results-based business after all, and player power is definitely a factor in FM 2018. If the squad is displeased with how you're doing on match days, or how you're handling their various personalities off the pitch, you're liable to find yourself unemployed. Thankfully, with the addition of a hierarchy and social groups, there's a surfeit of valuable information guiding your decision making that helps you understand how to handle different types of player.

If a rugged team leader comes into your office complaining about a lack of playing time, you're going to have to weigh up the risks of introducing him to the starting line-up when he might be off form, or face incurring a potential player revolt if you turn him down and piss him off. Conversely, if a player on the lower rungs of the hierarchy comes to see you with the same issue, telling him he'll have to remain patient is less likely to upset even a small portion of the dressing room, and may not bother anyone at all. Admittedly, conversing with players in FM still lacks the subtlety of believable human interactions, but with all of this new information on hand, player reactions appear more logical than ever, and keeping influential players onside will ensure there are fewer unhappy players knocking on your door. It's a fun, personable new module to toy with, and it emboldens Football Manager's recent focus on the human side of the beautiful game.

Meanwhile, an overhauled medical centre places an increased emphasis on Sports Scientists, with each one providing you with crucial information on how and why your players are suffering from injuries, and how you can counteract their pulled hamstrings and twisted ankles from occurring too frequently. If there's a busy period coming up where you've got, say, three matches in seven days, you'll be advised on which players are most at risk of sustaining injuries from the wear and tear of successive action. It forces you to be more proactive with your training schedules and player selection, as you're encouraged to adjust the intensity of training sessions on a week-by-week basis, and intelligently rotate your team in an attempt to keep your squad healthy without sacrificing results, (which also ties into Dynamics and how you can maintain squad harmony through frugal management of your team's playing time).

The 3D match engine does continue its steady progression after a poor showing in FM 2016--and the same can be said of this series as a whole.

Dynamics also factors into FM 2018's improved scouting system. When it comes to finding new players, you're now able to set a scouting budget: spend more and you'll cast your net wider; spend less and you can rely purely on the existing knowledge of your scouts. However much you spend, the process of unearthing new talent is slow. Your scouts will gradually build a picture of the type of player you're looking at, represented by a rating out of 100 that covers their attributes and also the type of personality they are. A player might be good enough from the statistical side of things, but will they gel with your squad? Maybe they don't fit into any social groups, or maybe they carry too much influence and will risk upsetting the balance of your dressing room. These are the types of things you have to consider when signing a new player, and it makes each transfer window much more engaging.

AI logic has been modified, too, ensuring other teams are smarter at handing their transfer business. You're unlikely to see the likes of PSG spending ludicrous amounts of money to stockpile talent they're only going to leave rotting on the bench--as has been the case in previous years. Transfer fees and budgets have also skyrocketed to reflect these astronomical times, with teams (particularly in the Premier League) holding out for more money for even the most marginal of talents.

When it comes to assembling your team on the pitch, the tactical interface is relatively unchanged. There are new player roles like the Carrilero and Mezzala, and more player instructions--such as the opportunity to direct your central midfielders into wider areas--that give you more options when it comes to establishing your team's playing style. But it's disappointing that this aspect of Football Manager hasn't seen any substantial developments. Building your tactical plan is still far too rigid and restrictive, and would benefit from giving you more control over how your team functions, particularly during specific phases of play. The current tactical interface is serviceable, and there's now a plethora of useful analysis that pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of your setup, but a more robust system would elevate this aspect of the series in a crucial way.

Once you emerge out of the tunnel, the 3D match engine is at least better at demonstrating how each team follows your tactical setup. Any adjustments you make mid-match are immediately tangible, and players have enhanced intelligence all over the pitch. You'll see strikers timing their runs behind the defensive line, players opening up their bodies to curl Thierry Henry-esque finishes into the bottom corner, and midfielders will generally play a more expansive brand of football--if you let them. There are still baffling moments where players will inexplicably stop dead in their tracks, which is particularly troublesome in defence. And goalkeepers are still inconsistent--one moment they're saving everything that's thrown at them, the next they're palming a daisycutter into their own net. It's certainly not perfect, then, but the 3D match engine does continue its steady progression after a poor showing in FM 2016--and the same can be said of this series as a whole.

For a game that's so consuming you might not even realise the sun's gone down, it feels almost irresponsible to proclaim that giving you more things to do is a resounding positive. Yet the way these new and overhauled systems coalesce with Football Manager's deep and emotional fundamentals is fantastic. The series' propensity for telling emergent stories has only increased with this emphasis on player personalities and morale, and it bleeds into every other facet of Football Manager 2018's design, from transfers and injuries, to team selection and tactical considerations. These are changes that tilt the simulation closer to reality with captivating aplomb, and ensure that the armchair managers among us are kept busy for another whirlwind 12 months of 40-yard screamers and cup final heartbreak.

Categories: Games

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Switch Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 11:01

Six years after its release, Skyrim still manages to be relevant. Between the 2016 remaster, the upcoming VR version, and now a Switch port, it's hard to forget about The Elder Scrolls V, and that's a testament to how absorbing an RPG it is. With the addition of instant portability on Switch, it's even harder to put this high quality port down.

Skyrim is one of the best Switch ports currently available, though it's not too surprising considering the game's age. It runs smoothly with a rock-solid frame rate both in smaller spaces and in the overworld. Text can be a little small when playing in handheld mode, though it still performs and plays as well as it does docked and with a Pro Controller. The newly introduced motion controls are all optional as well; wagging a Joy-Con will swing melee weapons, and you can use motion to fine-tune your aim with your bow. Skyrim does retain the glitches it has always been known (and loved) for, though, including bizarre NPC pathing problems. In our 10 hours testing the game, we didn't find any new bugs, so it's just the silly weirdness you might remember.

The main addition on Switch is Amiibo compatibility, which nets you extra treasure and works well within the existing game. Amiibo use is nested in the magic menu under powers, and you have to cast it the way you would any other power before tapping the Amiibo to the NFC reader. Like in Breath of the Wild, using an Amiibo isn't a guarantee of good loot--in this case, Zelda Amiibo give you a chance to get Link's Breath of the Wild tunic, the Master Sword, and the Hylian Shield, though you might get a chest filled with arrows, random weapons and armor, or an assortment of meats instead. You can use each Amiibo once per day, but we were able to get all the cool gear in one day using a few Zelda Amiibo around the office. As a bonus, the gear is better than any of the early-game weapons and armor you can get, and you can easily sell off the other loot you don't want.

The quality of the port aside, Skyrim has certainly aged since it first released in 2011. On top of the jankiness of movement and NPC interaction, there are a few outdated things that might be hard to contend with. Most glaringly, the oft-maligned sword-and-shield combat is still underwhelming, since it never felt great to clumsily swing a sword around to begin with. Certain recurring dialogue that has ascended to meme status can be grating, too, provided you've heard it enough. There's also no mod support currently, so if you're used to the user-created quality-of-life mods available on PC and other console versions, it can be weird to go back to regular old Skyrim, even if you still find its quirks and more old-fashioned aspects charming.

Skyrim is one of the best Switch ports currently available.

But everything great about Skyrim is preserved here as well. Pursue whatever it is you want to--whether it's just completing the main story or stealing as much cheese as you can carry--and you're all but guaranteed to find interesting stories along the way. Progressing through its still very deep skill tree is a huge but satisfying endeavor in figuring out exactly how you want to play (though magic- and archery-based combat specializations are preferable). There’s so much to do in Skyrim that it’s likely you haven’t done it all yet, and because it's now portable, you can pick it up and play for shorter bursts that can easily turn into hours.

The original version of Skyrim is still an immense, engrossing RPG, and the quality, number, and variety of its quests makes it as easy to become lost in its world as ever. With the addition of Zelda-themed gear that's actually useful--and the fact that you can play anywhere--the Switch version of Skyrim is a great excuse to revisit a much-loved RPG.

Categories: Games

Ashes Cricket Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 02:00

Very few sports struggle to survive the transition from real-life to video game like cricket does. Cricket is perceived as slow and long; some might even call it a little bit boring. Cricket video games have often suffered similar problems, often weighed down by cumbersome, complex controls and glacial pacing when compared to the likes of a FIFA or a Madden. Ashes Cricket suffers some of these inherent problems as well as a few of its own making, but also manages to capture the heart of the game in a way that few have achieved before. Despite some poor presentation and a handful of bugs, fans of the sport will find Ashes Cricket a good way to enjoy the virtual sound of leather on willow.

For those of you not from Commonwealth nations, The Ashes is the name of a series of five, day-long matches held between Australia and England that has been going on for well over a hundred years, and serves as this game's flagship mode, with fully licenced men’s and women’s squads from both nations. If a full test series seems a little intimidating, there’s no shortage of other variants to play. Casual matches are quick and easy to set up, allowing you to get into a Test, 50 over, or 20 over match with total ease. You can go online and play a match with some mates, jump into the nets for some training, or if you want something completely different, you can create your own match type in the match editor, which lets you change up almost every facet of the game to your heart's content. You can even create your own stadium, defining everything from the grandstands and the pavilion, down to the individual roads that lead into the grounds. While I can’t imagine everyone getting a kick out of being able to make their own stadium, it’s great to see this level of customisation offered out of the box.

But when it comes to playing the Ashes series, the emphasis is on the licensed Australian and English teams, who all match their real world likenesses. However, it's on this visual level where Ashes Cricket's flaws start to show. Players lack any kind of nuanced facial animations, so they tend to maintain a steely, thousand-yard stare at all times. Animation quality varies throughout; while core actions like batting, bowling, and some field movements look top notch and smooth, transitions between animations can be problematic. On more than one occasion I had a batsman run out because they took too long to turn around and get their bat back over the crease, something which I had no control over at the time because they were on the opposite end of the wicket. Losing a key player in a moment like this can be not only hugely frustrating, but it can change the face of a match as well. This can also be a problem in the field, where slow animations when chasing down the ball can leave you begging for a little more effort from your players.

Lack of a full license means all the other national teams--any country that’s not Australia or England--as well as club and state teams are sadly filled up with fantasy players instead of their real-life counterparts. However, through the player and team editor modes, the community is encouraged to create their own squads, and this is backed up by the inclusion of a Get Best button which automatically downloads all the highest rated community made players for that team. It’s not as ideal as having fully licensed squads, but it’s one way to creatively circumvent the problem.

The worst part of the lacklustre presentation is the in-game commentary. It is irredeemably bad, to the point where I can only recommend turning it off and saving yourself the pain. When they aren’t busy making incomplete calls, they are making entirely incorrect ones, all while sounding bored out of their minds. What makes everything even worse is the fact that the team is voiced by professional, real-world commentators.

Thankfully, the act of playing the sport in Ashes Cricket is enjoyable. The full career mode lets you create a brand new player and skill them up through the ranks, from club and state/county level cricket all the way up to fighting for international selection. Playing and performing well in matches will reward you with SP, which is spent on raising your player’s skills, and in turn, helps raise your player’s profile and chances of selection for the national team. It’s one of the most engaging game modes thanks to its depth, modelling the full, real-world club/county cricket structure.

How you engage with career matches is also completely up to you. You can choose to take control of the full squad or just your player for each match, which significantly changes how a match plays out based on whether you’re a batter, bowler, or an all-rounder. While controlling a full squad gives you complete control, playing as a single player feels much more focused. A batter will rarely, if ever, have to worry about bowling, so you can elect to skip the fielding portion of the game entirely, taking control only when your player comes onto the pitch to bat their innings. Letting players focus on specific parts of the game works well as a way of keeping play progression moving along steadily, without getting bogged down by the sport's arduous match lengths.

And while the game’s worst moments make an appearance on the field, the parts that do work both feel good and capture the moment-to-moment nature of the sport that makes it so alluring. Controls for batting, bowling, and fielding feel intuitive, save some slight inconsistencies, with two distinct control variations available to pick from: standard or classic. While the standard controls rely more on timing your button presses when batting and bowling, the classic variety instead relies on use of the two thumbsticks to control the action. Classic controls feel just right for batting, giving you the most flexibility, whereas for bowling the standard controls felt more intuitive. You can mix up control styles however you please, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which you choose, because smashing a bowler to the boundary or taking a batsman’s stumps out of the ground with a swinging fastball feels nothing short of fantastic in either mode. Appealing for a wicket is left to the player to handle, though, and the game doesn’t do a great job of communicating this. Caught behinds, lbw’s and run outs all require an appeal and while I enjoyed being able to control this, more automated help could be offered for novice players in this regard.

A lot of the field work is handled semi-automatically, with the closest fielder chasing down the ball on their own, and the player then choosing which end of the wicket to throw the ball too. But the speed and trajectory with which the ball is flung back to the wicket feels inconsistent as sometimes the ball will come back hard and fast, other times it’ll be a harmless lob, despite nailing similar timings on the throw.

But the most enjoyable part of Ashes Cricket is when the ball is smashed towards one of your fielders and time slows down to a crawl, triggering a sequence where you need to quickly move a cursor into a circle then hit the corresponding button to safely take the catch. It puts the emphasis on the tension of the moment instead of relying on an automated fielder. Get it right and you’ll take the catch, but get it wrong and it could cost you dearly. It’s a shame this mechanic doesn’t trigger for catches that go straight down the fielder’s throats, as I like the idea of the player being responsible for the outcomes, but mostly because it looks and feels really good when you get it right.

Ashes Cricket has definitely got its issues; bad commentary, some rough presentation, only two licensed teams and a few bugs. But ultimately they can be shaken off, because the feeling of enjoyment I get when I’m playing Ashes Cricket is palpable. I haven’t played or watched the sport in over 10 years, but sitting down to play here feels intuitive and familiar in a way that’s surprisingly comforting. The batting, bowling and fielding all feel better than they have in any other cricket game before, and the sheer variety of game types and customisation offered makes Ashes Cricket, in spite of its issues, a sports game worthy of your time.


Categories: Games

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