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Killing Floor 2 is hectic and gory, and will be on Early Access this month

Apr 07 // Alessandro Fillari
Killing Floor 2 (PC [previewed], PlayStation 4)Developer: Tripwire InteractivePublisher: Tripwire Interactive Release date: April 21, 2015 (Steam Early Access)MSRP: $29.99 Set sometime after the zombie pandemic that swept England, the virus has now crossed over to Europe, creating chaos and destruction in its wake. Returning from their exploits in England, the survivors travel to Europe in order to continue their fight against the swarms of the undead and the mutated scientists that gave rise to such horrid creations. As you battle waves of foes, you'll acquire the cash to expand your arsenal and skills to take on greater challenges that await. For those unfamiliar, Killing Floor 2 continues with its predecessor's focus on fast-paced cooperative action set on several maps across zombie- and monster-infested locales. Starting off with the basics -- pistols, knives, and healing and welding tools -- each kill earns you dosh (in-game currency), which can be spent at stores in between waves. As you clear waves, the challenges become far more difficult, as common zeds will be in greater numbers, and special elite monsters will also come into the mix (beware the Sirens and Flesh Pounds!). You'll have to learn the layout of the levels to know certain choke-points to take out the hoard, and which doors to keep welded shut in order to slow their movement throughout the map. With the announcement of Early Access, the devs wanted players to get their hands on KF2 to not only experience a sizable taste of the eventual final release, but to also allow for hardcore fans to give their thoughts and feedback, which they hope to implement into future updates. At launch on April 21, players will have four classes to choose from -- such as the melee-focused Berserker, the assault class Commando, the back-up unit Support class, and also the Field Medic. Each class focuses on the core functions of the team, and ranking them up will unlock special perks and upgrades that can be chosen to create builds. Though keep in mind, there will be another six classes to choose from in the final release. Many of the characters from the original game, such as Mr. Foster, DJ Skully, and Reverend Alberts have returned, along with a new set of characters joining the struggle. Not only is there a stronger focus on diverse characters of different genders and nationalities, they're each far more fleshed out and given more presence. Instead of just flavor text accompanying their character art like in the original, each character has detailed dialog in-game, which sees the survivors have banter with one another during battles. I stuck with the gas mask wearing Mr. Foster for most of my session, and I was pleased to see that there any many different clothing and accessory options for him. Which is reassuring, as he's one of the most popular characters and the different options will be sure to help players differentiate. "For the characters in this game, we wanted to give each of them their own unique personality," said art director David Hensley while discussing the roster. "We also wanted to add in female characters from the start, so every character has their own unique voice and script. We put a lot of time into concept art, developing their character and back-stories." Unfortunately the one character than many loved to hate, The Trader, didn't make it over the course of the epidemic. After realizing how reckless it was to have traders keep shops open in heavily infested battle zones, weapon manufacturers have sent several 3D printing pods down to the warzones, which allow for easy and quick access to their merchandise. The shop menu feels much more refined. Not only that, the selection of gear feels way more diverse. Of course, you have your selection of pistols, shotguns, rifles, and melee weapons. But the arms dealers have some new toys to show off to the humans battling the horde, such as a medic machine gun that will heal allies and kill zeds with the same rounds, and a heavy weapon that fires off buzzsaws. The developers took a lot of notes over the years from the KF community, which they applied to its sequel. In many ways, this is a culmination of years of work from Killing Floor and even the Red Orchestra series. Many tweaks and upgrades made to the game and its engine are from direct feedback they've gotten, and with the Early Access build, they plan on adding another layer of refinement. For instance, the difficulty modes have been tweaked. Beginner mode has been removed, placing Normal as the lowest setting, while a brand new mode called Hell on Earth is now the highest difficulty to choose from. In the latter, swarms are increased and they take more damage. While the gameplay is very much the same, it feels far more polished than in the original title. For instance, the visuals on display are a massive upgrade. Not only is combat chaotic, and incredibly gory -- seriously, the levels were caked with blood and guts during the later waves -- the pace feels much faster and to the point. No more having to travel great distances to the battles, as the layout feels tighter. Moreover, the super stylish but somewhat jarring slow-mo Zed Time (which triggers when players get a critical hit) has been slightly reworked, and only comes into effect when you trigger it or are within range. Furthermore, the melee attacks have be upgraded somewhat. Not only are there new melee weapons to use, there are also situations where your character will be grabbed by enemies, either boss characters or common zeds, and you'll have to use your melee moves to free yourself. In addition to these upgrades, server browsing has been upgraded, allowing for easier searches through the browser, and will even work with the brand-new Party feature. This was in response to the original's server listing, which the devs admittedly said wasn't all that great, and they also wanted to stick together instead of coordinating outside the game to find a place to play. With the party option, a group of six can join as a party, which will keep you together while looking for servers to play your next game. During our session, we played on several maps on a variety of different difficulties. On the Burning Paris map, we took to the streets of France's capital city to fight off zeds from a number of semi-secure locations. With the Support class, I was able to help weld doors much quicker than other players, which only served as a temporary solution to an overarching zed problem. I was cleaning house with the AA-12 shotgun, which allowed me to mow down foes quickly. And yes, activating Zed Time with it was super satisfying. After surviving the final wave, we managed to make it to the final round against the boss monster. Though the Patriarch was the recurring boss monster in the previous title, Killing Floor 2 aims to switch it up with several randomly-chosen boss characters to battle against. This new one, which unfortunately I am unable to describe specifically due to the developers wanting to keep it as a surprise, was certainly different than the Patriarch. The fight was brutal and rough, and I'm sure many fans who've longed for a new boss to fight will enjoy it. But as you could probably guess, we didn't make it. The new boss overpowered us easily, and we only got him whittled down to half health before he took us all out. We had quite a bit of time with the Early Access build, and I'm inclined to think that many fans are in for something special once this is out on the market. Thankfully, the folks at Tripwire listened to the community and didn't stray too far from what the made the original such a blast to play. And not only that, the developers have been keeping an eye on modded content from the original game, which prompted them to incorporate official Steam Workshop support for Killing Floor 2. So go nuts, modders! I've played quite a bit of the original Killing Floor, and I had a blast experiencing what the developers have in store for the next installment. Initially, I was pretty worried that it would be exactly the same game with just a fresh coat of paint, and while that's true to an extent, it truly doesn't need all that much change to make it a solid follow-up. At its core, it's a game about shooting stuff up and working with a group to take down impossible hoards in gory over-the-top fashion. And Killing Floor 2 definitely succeeds in that. With Early Access, there will be three maps, four classes, eleven unique monsters, eight playable characters, a new boss monster, and also mod support for custom levels and the like. With their "Early Access done right" mantra, Tripwire feels that giving players a good chunk of the game along with the tools to reconfigure and customize it to their liking is what fans want. I'm definitely excited to see what's next for Killing Floor 2 in the coming months.
Killing Floor 2 photo
Dosh! Grab it while it's hot!
It's been a good while since the release of the original Killing Floor back in 2008. Over the years, its been sitting on the Steam best-sellers list for quite some time, and built a loyal and dedicated following. While hoard-...

Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China gives the series a fresh perspective

Mar 31 // Alessandro Fillari
Assassin's Creed Chronicles (PC, PS4, Xbox One [previewed])Developer: Climax StudiosPublisher: Ubisoft Release date: April 21, 2015 (Episode One) / Fall 2015 (Episodes Two and Three) "It's a very exciting and very challenging project to work on," said lead game designer Xavier Penin. "[Ubisoft] had a pretty [sizable] pitch for the project and wanted them to be short, episodic, and each of the stories would have their own specific artstyles that fit the character and time period. We knew we had to focus our efforts on making something that didn't just feel like a smaller Assassin's Creed." For the first episode, Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, players take on the role of female assassin Shao Jun, who fans might recognize from the animated film Assassin's Creed Embers. Picking up some time after the events of Embers in 1526, Shao Jun returns to China after her training with Ezio Auditore and seeks revenge against Emporer Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty after the massacre of the Chinese Assassin Brotherhood. During her exploits, she'll acquire new abilities and contacts that will help in her quest, and revitalize the Assassin presence in 16th-century China. China has been a top requested location from fans, along with a playable Shao Jun, and seeing it come to pass is exciting. In the three levels I played, set in The Forbidden City and Fujian Province, we got to experience a starkly different setting and visual palette not seen from the series. Moreover, the brief taste of the India and Russia episodes we saw also feature their own art styles and aesthetic. Granted, the nature of this downloadable title allows them to try different settings, but I was blown away by the potential AC has in such lush environments. This enthusiasm was also shared by the folks behind the title. [embed]289710:57987:0[/embed] "When we were going to do this game with [Shao Jun], I was really excited about it and wanted to get all the information about background and her story, but it was actually pretty thin," said Penin. "So eventually we decided to come up with new ideas and settings, beyond Embers, and we came up with a story that AC fans will enjoy." Understandably, the switch from 3D to 2.5D has brought some changes to the action-stealth gameplay. For the most part, players will still traverse the environment with free-running maneuvers while avoiding detection, and only using combat as a last resort. Players will run and leap across obstacles in the environment and move between the foreground and background during traversal. I was impressed with the depth shown in the environments, and I was quite surprised that areas shown off were largely interactive. In one section during a prison escape, I had to find my gear before making an exit, which meant having to search for a guard's keys. After traveling through a hallway, I entered a large cavern housing dozens of prison cells. Off in the distance in the background, there were several guards making their rounds near a number of prisoners. From the foreground, I jumped onto a fallen pillar, which allowed me seamlessly run across to the background of the environment, which had its own unique layout and design. It was neat to be able to see how much depth the levels have, and the later levels show off much more intuitive and clever design. The stealth gameplay has had a bit of change, however, and the assassins now have to rely more on shadows and darkness to slip past their foes. Instead of the line-of-sight design from past titles, Chronicles utilizes a vision cone system. Similar to Mark of the Ninja's gameplay, all enemies can see and hear only a certain distance ahead of them, which gives you the means to figure out the best way around them. While it's still very much AC, the new design feels different. The lead designer elaborated a little further with how they went about re-designing AC stealth for 2.5D. "We had a lot of work to find the right recipe because this is the type of gameplay that require precise signs of feedback," said Penin. "We experimented a lot with the detection system, which focuses on cones of vision that work really well because it shows accurately in the 2D perspective. While some people initially thought [the visual representation of enemy line of sight] got in the way of the art style, ultimately the function allowed for us to design the stealth for players to be more interesting." Though you can easily avoid all conflicts by sticking in the shadows or hiding inside doorways or off the sides of ledges, there are a whole assortment of gadgets that Shao Jun has at her disposal, such as the rope dart which can sling enemies and help her traverse to new heights. The action and pace of the stealth from past games is present, though there seems to be much more thought put into it. Some sections felt like actual puzzles more than action-stealth gameplay, and I mean that as a good thing. The narrowing of the perspective put a lot more depth into this facet of gameplay, and it was refreshing to have a more refined approach to it. I'm also quite impressed with the visual aesthetic of Chronicles. The developers have stated that each episode will have a unique look to it, and China's style is stunning in its representation of perpetual autumn and uses of inkblot-style visuals and palettes. The colors are vibrant and lush, and the shadows and darkness show a certain roughness, as if it's a place that only the Assassins, history's wet-workers, can venture to. These still-images do not do this title justice -- it's quite gorgeous in action. While I was enjoying myself throughout the China setting, a part of me wished this was a fully 3D title rather than a downloadable side story. Nothing against this game, as it's really solid and makes some clever choices in regards to approach to stealth in a limited perspective, however I feel that such rich settings would be better used for full-fledged 3D Assassin's Creed titles. In any case, Assassin's Creed Chronicles is looking to be a nice surprise for the franchise. Though we can undoubtedly expect to see another main entry in the series this year, Chronicles will serve to be a nice change of pace for those looking for a different take on the series. For those who bit on the Unity season pass, you'll get the first episode on day one. The bite-sized nature of these titles will make them easy to get into, but they're sure to surprise players with how much depth is present.
2.5D Assassin's Creed photo
Stabbin' necks through history in 2.5D
It's not often we see a major player in the big leagues of yearly releases reinvent itself in a more modest and distinct way. With Assassin's Creed titles expected every year, it's been a bit of a challenge for Ubisoft to kee...

Mekazoo has a cheeky rhyme for tricky gameplay

Mar 26 // Brett Makedonski
[embed]289556:57920:0[/embed] But, where experienced platformers will find the most challenge is within the way that each animal uses its unique ability. The frog, who starts the game off, has a stretched-out tongue that can latch onto far away floating objects. The wallaby, who comes along later, has a bounce that’s particularly strong. However, the rub lies within the fact that these special abilities are designed to activate upon releasing a face button – not simply pressing it. It’s enough to initially throw you off your rhythm, that is, until you eventually fall into the groove that Mekazoo lays down. Mekazoo always takes control over which two particular animals are used at any given time. There’s no freedom of choice there. That’s because, with so many different abilities across the many creatures, granting that option would weaken level design. By creating the levels around the specific animals, Good Mood Creators gets to challenge the player in whatever way it sees fit. If there was any doubt, my 30-minute demo erased any concerns that Mekazoo wouldn’t offer a challenge. Each level is packed with collectible currency, secret pick-ups, alternate paths, and hazards at every turn – and this is a game that revels in its twists and turns. Deaths came at a constant clip, but they were less frequent once I got a feel for the mechanics. That’s where that learning curve comes in; and once overcoming it, that’s where the immensely satisfying part takes over. Eventually, I wandered  across a “race the lava” section. Slavin informed me that this is where most people gave up. I could see why. It was a stiff test for having so little time to learn Mekazoo. Still, I was determined to best it. Maybe 15 minutes (and several deaths) later, I cleared it like it was no big thing. That’s how those sections tend to go – relentless challenge until you pass it with flying colors. Really, "flying colors" describes all facets of Mekazoo. At times, everything will seem an aesthetically-pleasing blur; other times, you'll try, try, try until that aforesaid suddenly easy success comes along. But, the latter is less frustrating than you'd think, simply because Mekazoo's world is an amazing place to be immersed in.
Mekazoo preview photo
Flying colors
“When in doubt, switch them out.” Sage-like advice, really. That’s what Mekazoo’s creative director Jarrett Slavin had to tell me to do when I showed obvious struggles playing his demo. I’m no st...

Dirty Bomb aims high with its focus on hardcore FPS action

Mar 26 // Alessandro Fillari
Dirty Bomb (PC)Developer: Splash DamagePublisher: Nexon Release date: March 26th 2015 (Open Access) "For us, we were kind of accustomed to shipping packaged products and retail games, so that within itself was a different mentality to production,"said Splash Damage co-founder and chief branding officer Richard Jolly while discussing their transition to developing a free-to-play title. "So you essentially get the game to what is considered open beta, which is pretty much the final game in most cases, and then the players will play it, release a few updates and a bit of DLC, and then you walk away from it. But with Dirty Bomb, we're kind of back to mod-making. It's constantly evolving, and the game we had in the alpha with our fans is completely different than what we had now. It's interesting to have that level of transparency with our fans, and that's really helped us because we're still actively developing the game." [embed]289520:57922:0[/embed] Set in near-future London, the city had been plunged into chaos after a mysterious "dirty bomb" released toxic gases and large amounts of radiation. In the years since, London is now an abandoned husk of its former self, and the only ones willing to venture into the decaying remains of England's capital city are mercenaries who see the opportunity where others do not. With valuables and other fortunes to find in London, those crazy enough to set foot inside will have to fight for their riches in order to make it out on top. While on the surface it feels like a grittier and more mature take on Team Fortress 2, there's certainly a lot more going on with Dirty Bomb than at first glance. In total, there are several unique characters with their own arsenals and backstories. While many of them share a similar archetype, such as the sniper, medic, and assault classes, they each have access to their own particular set of skills and weapons that are specific to them. There's a lot of humor and humanity found in Dirty Bomb, and the accompanying flavor text that describes each character and their motives for merc work did a lot to bring me in. When in battle, you can select a squad of three characters. These three are the characters you can switch off from during the game, so you'll have to choose wisely. I mostly stuck with Phoenix, Vassili, and Arty, a medic, sniper, and support group. Though I initially was confused on how exactly I could switch off between the character gear, I quickly picked it up after a few minutes of play. Essentially, the members of your squad are loadouts, similar to those in Call of Duty or Battlefield, and you'll have need to switch between them in order to stay ahead of your foes. During a match in the game mode Stopwatch, a neat mix between the standard demolition and capture the flag modes, I was able to switch off between the characters when they were needed. Set on the map Terminal, the attackers have to plants charges on a wall within the quarantine zone in order to gain access to the train station that houses valuable documents that the attackers need to destroy -- but of course, the data is being protected by another group of mercs who aim to keep them intact. Playing on both sides, I found that I needed to switch up my classes more often, as when I was attacking I had to stay healed more often. While on defense, I needed to pick off the oncoming threat from afar. I was really impressed with how the flow of the game motivated me to switch things up more often, as I usually just stick with one class in other titles. I felt I experimented more often in this title than in most other shooters. This aspect of experimentation was something that the developers wished they players would explore. "Games are always an evolution, right? Especially since we were making this for ourselves, before the publisher stepped in," said lead designer Neil Alphonso. "We wanted to really bring out the characters of the mercs. They look really cool, and we wanted to reflect that in the gameplay more. So far it's worked really well, we've had players come up with combinations that we would've never expected in closed testing that we never would've expected, and of course we're gonna have to keep adjusting to that." When you win matches and collect cash, you can purchase cases that yield merc cards that offer a different variation for each character. Spanning across different rarity types, each type of card will offer that specific character a new loadout and special perks. For instance, I found a found a bronze card for Vassili, which not only gave him a new sniper rifle with higher rate of fire, but also gave him the ability to throw his melee weapon. As you find rarer cards, you'll gain access to new abilities and weapons for your characters. Though lead and bronze cards are very common, silver and gold cards really change the game for your characters, as they turn your merc into an elite badass decked out with perks and other special gear. While it's possible to the find much of the content on your own without ever spending a dime by combining junk cards and turning them into rare ones -- there are many different options to take advantage of if you feel as though you want get content quicker. As credits can be acquired pretty easily, you can always be comfortable with what you have, and the developers were clear that Dirty Bomb is a game that will not be "pay-to-win." "If you're making a competitive shooter, something that's hardcore, then the first thing people want is a fair playing field," said Alphonso. "The way I look at it, and it's a bit idealistic, but you just have to make a game that people enjoy enough, that they want to give you money. Rather than they feel like they need you to in order to compete." It's not too often that we see a F2P title with so much openness and transparency from the developers. Generally, the free-to-play genre has somewhat of a bad reputation because of poor practices from certain titles. And while it's understandable that many players feel a bit apprehensive for upcoming ones, I can say that Dirty Bomb was a pretty rad title in the hours I spent with it. Though I kinda wished that the developers stuck with Brink's traversal system, because that'd be such a welcome fit for this game, I found the action in DB to be pretty hectic, bombastic, and super satisfying to take part in. Not only did I feel like I got in some great action moments, going on a seven-kill streak was pretty damn great, but I also felt like I was a pretty integral part of the team as a healer and support unit. With the game available on Steam, now's your chance to get involved with the game that's been in the works for quite some time. And since it's still an on-going process, the developers have continued plans to roll out new features and content in the coming months, such as new maps and other cool content. I had a blast (no pun intended), and the folks from Splash Damage haven't lost their touch for fast and frenetic FPS gameplay.
Dirty Bomb photo
Rule 1: Don't be a dick
The folks at Splash Damage have been busy over the last two years. Since the release of Brink and a stint on Batman: Arkham Origins' multiplayer, they figured it was time to return to their roots with a heavy focus on PC...

Beyond Eyes abstracts the world as perceived by a blind girl

Mar 18 // Darren Nakamura
Representing blindness through a primarily visual medium is tricky. I can imagine a game that goes whole hog, only showing what a blind person skilled with echolocation can perceive, but then most players would shut down and quit. Beyond Eyes takes a more user-friendly approach; protagonist Rae can sense her immediate surroundings, which remain displayed for the player to see, leaving a painted landscape in Rae's wake. Some particularly noteworthy sounds and smells are displayed more prominently, or from further away. The PAX demo began with a church bell tolling in the distance, highlighting a sort of goal point to work toward. There were also notable aromas to follow, represented as visible gossamer wisps drawing Rae near. Even with the ability to paint her immediate surroundings, controlling Rae can be a bit jarring at times. Sometimes she'll be walking toward a brook, expecting the path to slope downward toward the water, when suddenly a huge stone bridge appears, giving an entirely new shape to the expected landscape. Other times she will be walking along a path with just empty space ahead, only to be stopped abruptly by a house that wasn't visible two steps before. More interesting is watching Rae's perceptions change as she gains new information. Early on in the demo, she interacted with some crows, and she did not like them. She curls up her arms over her body when she gets near things that frighten her, and the crows had that effect. Later on, she nears a chicken enclosure, but from far away she can only tell that there are birds inside of it. She imagines them as giant crows, and doesn't seem keen on investigating more closely. When she does near the chickens and she realizes what they are, they morph from the smooth black birds to fluffy white ones. Near the end of the playable section, there was an ominous black cloud. It clearly frightens Rae; it's loud and messy, but it isn't immediately obvious what it is. After she cautiously walks to it and interacts with a nearby object, players hear the screeching tires of a braking vehicle and the beeps of a modern crosswalk. The black cloud parts, allowing her safe passage across the street. Upon reflection, this scene was powerful in a sort of tragic way. We often take for granted something as mundane as crossing a busy street, but for Rae, all she really knew about it was that it was dangerous. She didn't even have a clear picture in her head of what the street was; all she could tell was that she could be seriously hurt if she came too close to it. The only real complaint I had with Beyond Eyes was with the controls, and even then I can't help but think that the issues are deliberate. Directing Rae is sluggish; starting to move from a standstill or changing direction take some time. Her normal walking speed is slow. Similarly, interacting with objects doesn't always seem to work, and when it does it still takes a bit of time to execute. Thematically, this could be another representation of Rae's blindness; she doesn't know exactly where she is with respect to the environment, so she needs a little bit of extra time to feel it out. Even so, as a player who wanted to paint as much of the world in color as possible, Rae's slow movement was frustrating, at least in the context of being at an appointment at PAX East and wanting to make sure I got the full experience. Perhaps at home it will be easier to play in a more relaxed state where the overall speed isn't as much of a bother. In all, the way Beyond Eyes handles its central conceit is commendable. Though representing blindness through colorful environments seems contradictory at first, it has some clever ideas in using the player's visual information as an abstraction for Rae's other senses. A few of these ideas showed up in the short PAX demo, and I am intrigued to see what else can be done with Rae and her painted world.
Beyond Eyes preview photo
Ironic beauty
I have been following Beyond Eyes since I first heard about it a year and a half ago. Videogames can be powerful tools for relating experiences that may otherwise be difficult to comprehend. Blindness both fascinates and terr...

Talk turns technical with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows' Ian Gregory

Mar 18 // Rob Morrow
[embed]289169:57825:0[/embed] While discussing these various systems, the word synergy came up many times during our brief chat. It became obvious that the team has put a lot of thought into how each classes' skills can and should complement the others, ensuring that no single character is ever considered the "best." As such, each character class has specific strengths and weaknesses, but if each are used effectively, players can manipulate the battlefield by splitting up and isolating creatures from large mobs, as well as maximize the group's damage output potential by layering the classes' complimentary spells and skills into the more lethal combined attacks. Gregory showed me several examples of how the different classes could work together to greater effect. For example, using a pull-like Void spell to gather enemies into a tight group could be combined with a well-timed use of the Sicario's Fissure ability -- a charge attack that damages all enemies in its path -- to maximize your damage output. Another method of combining the group's unique characteristics would be to leverage their elemental capabilities. An example of this would again make use of the water-based Void ability, but this time, instead of lining up enemies for an efficient physical attack, another character's lightning ability could come into play, electrocuting the drenched mob. Positioning on the battlefield also has additional importance in Masquerada. Gregory notes that "all player characters, NPCs, and enemies have armor (seen in the video above as color-coded circles surrounding each character) that must be dealt with before being able to damage them directly." For example, character's attempting to tangle with foes head-on will find themselves dealing damage only to that foe's armor until it can be destroyed. However, armor mitigates only half the damage dealt to a target when struck from the flank and attacks to the rear cause full damage to a target, rendering armor useless. A side note to armor is that the player character's armor has the capacity to regenerate unlike an enemy's, which is rendered useless after a certain number of attacks. Also, certain characters, such as the Sicario, can sacrifice armor altogether for an added boost to damage output at the risk of becoming injured in the act. Character skills are another important aspect that warrants explanation when discussing Masquerada's combat systems. As shown in the video, each character has a row of different abilities at their disposal in the action bar. Gregory notes that anyone familiar with Dota 2 or League of Legends will have a general idea of how to use them from the onset, e.g.,  after each use of a particular ability it won't be available again until its cool-down timer refreshes. One big difference in the way Masquerada handles skills is in how they evolve over time. Witching Hour Studios has chosen to eschew experience points altogether. Instead, at certain key points in the game's story each character will be issued a set amount of skill points to spend in their respective skill trees. This not only avoids tedious grinding, but it ensures that the developers have a good handle on all of the potential outcomes of character development and can tailor the game's encounter difficulty accordingly. Also, each skill can be modified as you progress further in the game, allowing you to tailor characters to your particular play style. Gregory gives a specific example of this when talking about upgrading Cicero's teleportation skill, Zephyr. In this instance, Zephyr can go two ways: offensively or defensively. The offense-oriented modification blasts out hot air when Cicero re-appears and the defensive modification blasts cold air to freeze enemies at Cicero’s original location, buying him valuable time to recover or cast other spells. As the "pause-for-tactics" descriptor indicates, all aspects of Masquerada's combat can play out in real time or the game can be paused to enter a tactical mode by hitting the spacebar for more contemplative and complex setups. You can of course use a mixture of the two if you wish. It's up to the player on how they decide to enjoy the game. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, the game's combat is designed around leveraging each of the character's special abilities in concert with the others to achieve the greatest effect, so the tactical mode will probably be necessary for the more dangerous encounters. A year seems like a long way out to be this intrigued about a game, but I must admit, after getting some quality hands-on experience coupled with Gregory's intricate and passionately detailed description of the mechanics, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has turned out to be one of my first most-anticipated games coming out next year.
Masquerada preview photo
Character synergy, combat, and skill systems detailed
While at PAX East, I was fortunate enough to schedule a chat with the co-founder and creative director of Singapore-based Witching Hour Studios, Ian Gregory, to talk about the studio's beautiful upcoming "...

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void seeks to conclude the trilogy with an exciting finale

Mar 18 // Alessandro Fillari
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (Mac, PC [previewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentRelease date: TBA 2015 "Not only is this the conclusion of the StarCraft II trilogy, but also the conclusion to the StarCraft story," said lead game producer Tim Morten. "It really ties together the storylines we've had over the years, and this particular installation will focus on the Protoss." With the previous campaigns focusing on the exploits of the Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan of the Terran and Zerg factions, Legacy of the Void shifts the point of view to the Protoss and its leader Artanis. With the looming threat of the fallen one, Amon, the Protoss and the other factions must ready for battle as the malevolent being seeks to corrupt the galaxy with its powers. As the conclusion to the StarCraft II trilogy, everything has come to this moment, and the upcoming battles will decide the fate of the entire universe. Much like the previous installments, Legacy of the Void is a standalone release that won't require the other entries to play. Though players who've invested time in everything that is StarCraft II thus far will surely have a greater experience, Legacy is a title the developers at Blizzard hope will be accessible for newcomers as well. Though rest assured, Legacy of the Void has every intention of maintaining the high-level play and nuance the series is known for. However, the developers wish to offer newcomers a way to ease into the experience rather than take the trial-by-fire approach. With the new expansion, there's a larger focus on team and cooperative play this time around. Debuting in the expansion are two new gameplay modes called Archon and Allied Commander. For the former, two players will work together to build a base and defend it against enemies. This is essentially co-op mode for the standard competitive mode. While it's exciting for high-level play -- there's twice the efficiency and output -- the developers also hope it'll prove to be an effective learning tool for new players. With an experienced player working as a helping hand alongside a newcomer, they'll be able to learn the ropes much faster. In Allied Commander, players will be able to control the various heroes of the StarCraft universe including Jim Raynor to Sarah Kerrigan. The mode, which lets you take them on a unique campaign as they level up and boost their forces, seems to pull in the best parts of the story mode with the hectic action found in multiplayer battles. Of course, with the new expansion Blizzard has added a whole slew of tweaks and additions. Given such a sizable time between releases, the team was able to gather a lot of player data and make necessary changes. For instance, each faction has new units and upgrades to existing stats and attributes. As the community manages to push the game to its limits, the developers have to try and experiment with new upgrades and tweaks to gameplay. The in-game economy has been altered to encourage expansion and movement, for example, which will yield greater rewards for your base. Moreover, attack damage and range have been tweaked a bit to allow players to use existing and new units in different ways. And speaking of the new units, the folks at Blizzard went all out with upgrades for the factions. The Terran now have access to the Cyclone tank, which can link up with other like units to deal bonus damage. The Zerg has a long-range unit called the Ravager that can deal poisonous area-of-effect damage and disable Protoss shields. And finally, the Protoss can now call forth the Adept, which focuses on close-range combat. The unique thing about the Adept is its shade ability, as it allows the unit to summon a player-controlled ghost of itself to move around the battlefield. After a set amount of time, the Adept will teleport to the position that the shade was in previously. There's impressive potential for these units, and it'll be interesting to see how players experiment with new strategies. Admittedly, I'm a novice when it comes to StarCraft, but I've been an admirer of the series for a long time. I've found a lot to like with this brief taste of the expansion, which will have some of the biggest additions the series has seen in a long time. The changes I've mentioned only scratch the surface for what's been added, such as movable Siege Tanks, new abilities for the existing units, and tweaks to movement and attack damage to name a few. With the upcoming beta, Blizzard hopes to test the waters with these new changes in order to get player feedback on what they would like to see happen in the expansion. Obviously, the series owes much to its fanbase, so it's great as always to see the developers open up with invites to the beta on March 31 to give them a deep and thorough look. Although the official release date is still unknown at this point, it'll be exciting to see how the game evolves from here.
StarCraft II finale photo
Invites for beta on March 31
Where were you when that debut trailer for StarCraft II popped up online? It made its announcement all the way back in 2007 at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in South Korea. Much has changed since then. With the release ...

RIVE was my favorite twin-stick shooter at PAX East

Mar 17 // Rob Morrow
Once safely out of the asteroid belt and into the facility, RIVE began to look a lot more familiar. My spider-like vehicle scuttled across floors, tracking baddies with its 360-degree auto-cannon and laying waste to the swarms of fast-moving enemies that attempted to impede my progress. RIVE mixes up the intensely satisfying shooting elements with a healthy dose of action platforming as you make your way deeper into the facility. Jumping is controlled with the left trigger, which at first felt awkward but, according to Ginkel, was a necessary concession to accommodate the game's right stick-controlled aiming mechanics. After a few successful hops and double-jumps, the ground-based movement began to feel natural to me again, allowing me to track enemies mid-air and deliver a hail of bullets in full 360 degrees, creating a colorful light show of explosions intermixed with charred bits of enemy debris. As I blasted my way deeper into the facility I began to pick up consumable items. Only three were available in the preview build; two offensive and one pickup that would replenish health. EMP projectiles that could freeze enemies in place with an electromagnetic pulse and homing missiles were the two offensive types on offer. Out of the two, I would always go with the missiles -- stunning your enemies is nice, but turning them into scrap is nicer. Hacks also played a big role in the game, adding some interesting tactical opportunities if used inventively. You start off picking up one that will allow you to override security systems, unlocking doors that bar your path. The next one you find allows you to hack Lifebots, floating drones that will top off the health of whomever is in control of them at the time. One really handy use I found for the Lifebot was in one of the two boss battles in the preview. By taking control of it, I could stay below the boss pouring out the damage while my floating medic topped me off with health, mitigating any damage that I took in the process. Lastly, you'll discover a hack that will allow you to take control of the pesky Kamikaze bots encountered throughout the levels. Once in control of them, a zero-g field radiates out, creating a sphere you can hop into and use for a lift to reach previously inaccessible sections in the level. Wrapping up the demonstration, I joked with Ginkel about how radically different RIVE is from Two Tribes' previous games. He nodded in agreement and grinned proudly as we watched PAX attendees blast their way through the beautiful shooter displayed on the large monitor before us. It truly is a gorgeous title, but it's got the chops to back up the good looks in spades. If RIVE's any indication of the future direction of the development studio, I think we're all in for a treat. While the puzzle platformer Toki Tori 2 is a solid title in its own regard, I'm really happy that the studio went in this new action-oriented direction. RIVE just does so many things right you'd think its creators had been designing shooters all along. RIVE is tentatively scheduled for a Q1 2015 release on PC, PS4, Wii U, and Xbox One
RIVE preview photo
Family-friendly puzzle platformer this game is not
When I learned that Netherlands-based Two Tribes Studios (Toki Tori & Toki Tori 2) was bringing its snazzy metal-wrecking, robot-hacking, twin-stick shooter RIVE to PAX East this year, I jumped at the...

Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries is a dark reinvention of classic fairytale fiction

Mar 16 // Alessandro Fillari
[embed]288994:57765:0[/embed] Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries (PC [previewed], PlayStation  4, Xbox One)Developer: GRIN Game StudioPublisher: GRIN Game StudioRelease date: March 17, 2015 (Part I)MSRP: $9.99 "It's a very exciting time," said CEO of GRIN Game Studio Wim Wouters. "Two years we've been working on this title now, and for our first big title it's certainly a crazy position to be in." In the span of six months, the developers successfully funded Woolfe through Kickstarter and is already set for release this week. Of course, GRIN already spent years developing the title on its own, but the studio needed the extra funds to push through development. With the support the team found from crowdfunding, it was able to expand its vision and create a deeper game. With this relatively quick turnaround, the CEO of Grin felt it was important to live up to the setting of its game in a timely manner. "We wanted to keep our promise [to the backers]. And even though it's a split release, the first part coming in March and the next coming later this year, the backers were very supportive of our decision," he said.  Set in a radically altered take of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, Woolfe brings players into a world filled with magic and conspiracy. Taking place in an era vaguely reminiscent of the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, you take on the role a young axe-wielding Red Riding Hood who must navigate the city and surrounding wilderness to uncover the mystery behind her parents' deaths, and how other characters from fairytale lore might be connected. Along the way, she'll come into conflict with Woolfe, the human leader (and alternate incarnation of the big bad wolf) of an army of clockwork soldiers that wishes to rule the land. Of course, many people saw instant parallels with American McGee's Alice. Which is fair, as Woolfe shares its darker aesthetic and approach to fantasy fiction. Though despite that, the two games are totally different from one another. Wouters and the developers at Grin would get the comparisons often, and while they see it as flattering to be compared to a game they admire, they also expressed that it put a lot of pressure on them to make sure they could deliver. As Red, you'll explore a variety of different environments in 2.5D fashion. Though it looks purely like a side-scroller, you're able to explore the backgrounds of the levels to uncover clues and find switches to advance your path. Along the way, you'll encounter creatures and other foes that must be dispatched with Red's axe or magical abilities. In some cases, you'll have to use stealth to maneuver past foes and other obstacles to find clues. Combat plays a large focus in Red Hood Diaries, as you'll have to battle waves of enemies often. Controls are simple for the most part, but the game feels accessible and smooth. Woolfe does a good job of handling both combat and platforming, and it's all paced pretty well. During my session, I traveled through the streets of the city while on the hunt for the Pied   Piper, who's been abducting the children of the city. Finding his trail within the sewers, Red explored the depths of the city to uncover the lair of the traveling child abductor. This interpretation of the character was a man who was gangly and disgusting in appearance. His new look matched the creepiness of his character's origins, and seeing Red track him through the sewers and confront him was big and exciting moment to take part in. By far, the most striking element of Woolfe is the visual design. The environments are stunning, both vibrant in terms of color, but also detailed enough to show that the world is filled with many denizens and lived in. Though a lot of devs are moving on to Unreal Engine 4, UE3 is still putting in a lot of work and shows off some impressive designs. It's very much a chaotic mix between the prose and detail of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, with the style and tone of the films from Tim Burton. Which is everything I'd want to see in a dark fairytale. It was certainly an intriguing title to play, though the build I was playing was slightly older than the complete one and featured some bugs and minor platforming and graphical quirks, particularly with somewhat janky animations. Still, I was totally drawn in by the world that GRIN Game Studio created. It's not that often we get such a unique reinterpretation of fairytale fiction, especially for that of Red Riding Hood. And for $9.99, it's a nice way to get a proper introduction into the world of Woolfe before venturing off into the second part of the adventure set for release later this year. If you're into grim fairy tales and want a nice little adventure title to explore, this is definitely one you'll want to keep on your radar.
Woolfe photo
My, what a big axe you have!
Over the last three years, Kickstarter has totally changed the game for many developers. With the option to crowdfund projects, cut out the middle-man (publishers), and communicate directly with fans to help create the game, ...

It's easy to zone out in the open ocean of Windward

Mar 16 // Darren Nakamura
It's easy to understand how Windward did this to me: it has a gameplay loop similar to Civilization's. Though it plays nothing like Sid Meier's strategy series, it sets the player up with an unending series of very small tasks to accomplish. Finish one, and the next seems like another quick jaunt. With few clear stopping points, this can go on ad infinitum. The most highlighted gameplay feature of Windward is its action-RPG ship combat. Ship cannons can only fire off the sides, always perpendicular to the ship's movement. It sets up a unique combat choreography where each ship vies for position to the bow or stern of its target. In the beginning, this means a lot of circle strafing until one ship sinks the other, but eventually some special abilities unlock and things get a bit more interesting. While the always-on cannon fire and the more powerful triggered volleys can only target enemies to the sides, most of the special abilities work with a full 360-degree range. These include bathing an area in burning alcohol, noxious gas, or obscuring fog. With these, hit-and-run tactics become more viable, chipping enemies down from afar before dropping anchor, taking a hard turn, and letting loose on any pursuers. [embed]289081:57795:0[/embed] Though the ship combat is the most advertised feature, it isn't what I spend most of my time doing. Underneath it are a handful of different systems that give players more to do. A campaign consists of a few dozen connected areas, each procedurally generated. Taking over all of the towns in an area will allow players to assert control, and the full campaign involves controlling as many areas as possible. Closer to the center of the world map, the the neutral pirate faction is a bigger threat, so players must grow on the way. This involves picking up new pieces of gear; there are improved hulls, sails, cannons, crews, and even captains to be found as random drops or through missions. The missions give players tasks after the pirate threat has been eliminated from an area (or before, for the daring). These often involve delivering an item between cities or neutralizing a recently spawned pirate ship. Completing a mission will level up the city where it was taken on, giving it new items to purchase. Additionally, there is an economy where cities will have surpluses and shortages of commodities, so a good chunk of cash can be earned by playing the market, buying low and selling high. This is what I spend a lot of time on. I will enter a new area, clear it of pirates as soon as I can, and then live the life of a seafaring merchant, mapping out the most efficient paths in order to maximize the return. In practice, it means I sail to a city, take on a mission or two, load up some cargo (with a destination that matches the mission), then sail to the next city. Each trip takes a minute or two, so the barrier to starting up one more trip is always low. Then before I know it, I have spent another hour and circumvented a map a few times just completing missions, leveling up cities, and collecting my rewards. It's a little strange, because I'm not entirely sure that it's fun in the classic sense. The combat is certainly the more exciting portion of Windward, and especially when resistance ramps up and it takes a fleet to drive the pirates out. Still, I more often find myself just sailing across the bright blue ocean, listening to the calm tropical music, and planning out the route to my next big score.
Windward preview photo
Avast ye salty dog
The PAX East expo floor is one of the least peaceful places to play a game. There are sweaty crowds, children who haven't learned to use their inside voices, and booths blasting dance music and/or eSports commentary. And yet,...

Gigantic made me gigantic in the pants

Mar 16 // Jed Whitaker
Gigantic centers around two teams of five players battling to kill the opposing teams guardians. Guardians are gigantic monsters that will advance to attack the enemy guardian once powered up, temporarily stunning it to allow your team to attack. Powering up guardians is achieved by capturing locations on the map or by scoring kills. Each guardian has three sections of health and whichever team can take down the opposing team's guardian first is crowned the victor. Unlike other MOBA-style games, Gigantic doesn't have waves of enemies to kill and grind, nor does it have a store to buy items. All skill management is built into a tree-like leveling system. Need more damage? Then upgrade an ability that allows 20% more damage. You can earn XP from kills, assists and helping to capture points -- basically anything that helps the team. The short amount of hands-on I had with the game had me playing as Voden, a character that looks like a combination of a fox and a gazelle. Voden bounds around the map with ease as he not only has the default sprint and dodge that all characters have, but can also a super jump off the healing pools he can drop. Bow and arrows are Voden's main weapon. He also has a decoy he can drop that attacks, a pool of acid that damages enemies and allows him to shoot poison arrows, and giant roots that hold enemies in place for a brief period so teammates can deal damage. Bouncing around the map and poking enemies for damage was a ton of fun, and had me smiling the whole match even though we lost. I seriously can't wait to play the game again. I've been obsessively checking my email hoping for a closed alpha invite (which you can sign up for here). Gigantic is free to play and expected to launch later this year exclusively on Windows 10 and Xbox One. It will feature optional crossplay between platforms as Microsoft is publishing the game. For now I'm going back to refreshing my email, hoping developer Motiga hears my prayers.
Gigantic Preview photo
It has been far over four hours; I need a doctor and an alpha invite
At PAX East this year I walked past many of the larger booths and gave them little attention, as I am typically more interested in indie games. I got invited to a press-only demo for Gigantic -- a game I only knew of by ...

Just Shapes & Beats is bullet hell without the shooter

Mar 13 // Kyle MacGregor
[embed]288716:57651:0[/embed] Just Shapes & Beats is about as simple as games get, but don't mistake its straightforward design for a lack of challenge. The "trippy space avoider" only asks players to survive, but achieving that goal is no easy feat. Berzerk's latest creation draws inspiration from shoot-'em-ups, but nixes the shooting. It's still all about dodging waves of projectiles, but without the ability to return fire. The experience seemed particularly well-suited for the show floor, with its splashy, eye-catching visuals and a pulsing chiptune soundtrack that was equally alluring. However, I think it was the crowd that first caught my attention. The congregation surrounding the Berzerk booth couldn't help but shout with a palpable passion that was as magnetic as anything happening on-screen. Just Shapes & Beats supports up to four players, who must share the void space between bullets. Upon taking too much damage, a player will begin floating helplessly toward the edge of the screen, leaving her teammates precious seconds to mount a rescue or forge ahead alone. [embed]288716:57782:0[/embed] I almost can't imagine Just Shapes & Beats sans multiplayer, considering playing with others was such a large part of my experience with the game. It was one of a couple titles I couldn't help but share with my colleagues, dragging Caitlin and Darren over to a station at an after-hours indie event, where the team showed off something I sincerely hope makes it into the final build. It's a level featuring an iconic theme song and silhouetted characters from a popular media franchise that I've been asked not to specifically name just yet. Berzerk is currently working on acquiring a license for the music and fears jail time should this cat get out of the bag too soon. The team is also experimenting with more somber jams, like the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, to contrast with the energetic techno beats. I can't wait to experience all that and everything else Just Shapes & Beats has to offer when it launches later this year.
Just Shapes & Beats photo
Δ & ♫
"Congratulations, you just survived the tutorial," Just Shapes & Beats coder Mike Ducarme teased the small crowd clustered around Berzerk Studio's PAX East booth. A quartet of us had just run the gauntlet, bobbing and wea...

Magnetic: Cage Closed let me fling myself around with physics

Mar 13 // Darren Nakamura
Like most modern first-person puzzle games, Magnetic is broken up into several discrete challenge rooms. Everything necessary to find a solution is contained within and nothing can be brought in or taken out of a room, aside from the magnet gun central to the mechanics. One of the hooks that sets Magnetic apart is that each room is a cube, part of a large facility full of others like it. The cubes can move and rotate with respect to one another, but as a spectator on the inside, it isn't obvious exactly how. So a particular exit may lead to different rooms on separate playthroughs (or even within a single playthrough in some cases), depending on choices made. In the PAX demo, one introductory choice was shown. I was ushered into a room, stripped of my magnet gun, and placed in front of a big, red button. Will I press the button or not? (I pressed the button.) Guru Games said the later choices would hold more weight, dipping into morally ambiguous territory, but none were shown. [embed]288987:57763:0[/embed] The meat of Cage Closed will feel familiar to most puzzle fans. There are pressure plates to activate, weighted boxes to manipulate, deadly traps to avoid, and exits to reach. The magnet gun does bring its own unique gameplay to the table, thanks to the realistic physics. Not only do the magnets behave like real (extremely powerful) magnets would, but the Newtonian principles are at work as well. If the player tries to attract (or repel) something with a large mass, it's the magnet gun wielder who will move. This sets up some extreme platforming, where pointing downward at a magnetic plate and repelling can set up for some huge jumps. Pointing toward a plate on the wall and hitting the attract button can keep the player suspended over a dangerous chasm. The rooms can be completed methodically, but Guru Games is also building Magnetic to encourage speed running and other high-level play. The most difficult level in the PAX demo was one with an emphasis on speed rather than thought. It took a few tries, but I eventually was able to careen through the spike-ridden corridor and make it out the other side without being impaled. It took a bit of trial and error since it required rounding a corner and seeing what traps awaited in the middle of the jump, but it was manageable. Breaking up puzzle gameplay with something more skill-based lets different parts of the brain rest, though I can imagine it being a little frustrating for players hoping for a more singular experience in either direction. Both styles of play were done adequately in the PAX demo, and I hope a good balance of the two is maintained in the final release. Magnetic: Cage Closed is bringing its magnet-based puzzle platforming to PC later this month.
Magnetic: Cage Closed photo
There were some puzzles too
"It's not a gravity gun; it's a magnet." Guru Games, developer of Magnetic: Cage Closed, stressed this to me at PAX East. It works like a real magnet, with fields radiating out in all directions, rather than affecti...

Dropsy challenges perceptions of beauty, proves that love really can conquer all

Mar 13 // Rob Morrow
[embed]289013:57770:0[/embed] Dropsy features a defined story, though it will require a little effort on the player’s part to put the pieces together to form the whole. Like most good stories, it has a beginning, middle and an end. And as such, the game can be played as a straight point-and-click adventure all the way through; but I think those doing so would be missing out on a great deal of what it has to offer. If you take the time to venture off the preset narrative path, I think you’ll be pleased to discover that the alternate objectives that may seem unrelated to the main storyline are perhaps just as much a reason to play as the objectives that move the game’s plot forward. Dropsy doesn’t waste your time if you choose to do so, though. Unlike typical side quests in games, these have a unique and satisfying quality that are not only fun to complete but offer further insight into this intriguing character in a meaningful way. The ones featured in the PAX demo that I played were what Jay calls “hug puzzles.” As you explore Dropsy’s world you’ll encounter people from all walks of life, as well as animals from time to time. Each seem to be in some form of distress and it’s up to you to discover the nature of their problems and set about to make things right. If can you deduce what’s making them unhappy, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying hug or fist bump from the NPC, and collect their picture to hang above your bed. This gallery functions as a sort of tally board for all of the good deeds you’ve done and the positive changes you’ve made in the world. It's quite addictive, and one of the most fulfilling side quests that I've seen in a game. The mechanics in Tholen's point-and-click are what you’ve become accustomed to in the genre – certain objects in environment are interactive, serving to either shed light on the broader backstory of the game, or move the narrative forward. Items that can be collected are stored in Dropsy’s pants. A drop-down menu at the top of the screen allows you to access these as needed. One of the first puzzles you’ll encounter is a large yellow bird that is blocking the exit from Dropsy’s tent. When you attempt to communicate with it, the bird screams at Dropsy, startling him, and a series of pictures appears above its head cluing you in to the nature of its distress. In this instance, the bird is hungry, and it just so happens that Dropsy has recently acquired the snack cakes the bird’s icons indicate. Bring down the menu, select the item required and offer it to the NPC. Now that the bird's no longer hungry it flies away and the path is clear. By displaying kindness and an unselfish, caring demeanor in the face of a fearful and prejudiced world, Dropsy overcomes the obstacles that are placed in his path, proving that if given the chance, perhaps love truly can conquer all. This seems to be the central theme in Jay's game and it's a beautiful one. I won't go further into detail on the particular puzzle elements or the many weird and wonderful characters you'll encounter in the strangely enchanting world of Dropsy at the risk of possibly spoiling the game for you. I'll just leave off saying that for those who are planning on picking up this exceptional title, you're in for something truly special.
Dropsy preview photo
Let's go on a hugventure
One of the highlights of my time at PAX East was sitting down and chatting with Dropsy’s creator, Jay Tholen. Jay’s a quiet, thoughtful man with what seems to be unlimited creative energy at his disposal. His some...

Amplitude's multiplayer mode has been reworked for the better

Mar 13 // Darren Nakamura
At its core, the multiplayer mode plays the same as the single player. Different tracks are set up, each representing a piece of instrumentation used to build a song. Gems are arranged on the tracks, and it's up to the players to hit the right buttons with the beats to collect the gems. Standard rhythm game fare. In multiplayer, everybody is sharing the same set of tracks, but only one person can score from a given track at one time. Whichever player has been on a track the longest is at the front of the line; those behind have to switch to a different track to collect gems. One of the great things about Amplitude is that it encourages a sort of zen state, where the player is not only focusing on the track at hand, but also dedicating some almost subconscious processing power to the periphery. Not only does a high-level player watch the track currently being played, but also the next track to jump to. Additional players and another layer to this. Now it's necessary to keep tabs on other players, predicting their movements and reacting accordingly. [embed]288465:57583:0[/embed] There are other ways to interfere with opponents. While a track is usually first come, first served, certain powerups can tip the balance. One allows the player to jump to the front of a track, essentially stealing it from another player. In my play time at PAX East, I was able to hop in behind another player, deploy a series staple Autocatcher to delete his track and claim it for my own, then zip off before he realized what had happened. Classic. Harmonix's Annette Gonzales also described a cooperative mode, though I didn't get a chance to try it out. It came from experiences similar to my own with the older titles. When there is a significant skill gap between players, competitive modes aren't really fun for anybody. Like Rock Band, Amplitude can be a place where people come together to (re)create music, not just to see who can press buttons better. Amplitude is expected to release for PlayStation consoles this summer.
Amplitude at PAX East photo
Vying for position
I have some good memories of playing single player FreQuency years ago. However, the only memories I have of the multiplayer mode are of me playing against my friends in high school and crushing them, then going off...

Let Ashes of the Singularity change your notion of large-scale RTS

Mar 13 // Brett Makedonski
[embed]288981:57764:0[/embed] While the demo we were shown wasn't playable, it was a real-time simulation of a game. The developer could pull the camera out until the various troops were nothing more than barely-visible dots. The size of everything was simply enormous. I was told that it was one of the smaller maps. If controlling 10,000 of anything sounds unwieldy to you, you're probably right. Each unit can be controlled directly, but Ashes of the Singularity gives the player to group various troops into meta-units. Meta-units are made up of any arrangement of troops the player desires. They function as a cohesive whole that are much more manageable in theory. The example given to me was that of a meta-unit consisting of tanks and artillery mortars. Without player input, that make-up will automatically put the tanks in front to provide defense, allowing the mortars to lob artillery shells from the safe cover. The player can tinker with that on an individual basis, which offers a nice sense of customization. However, it wouldn't make much sense to, given that a single unit out of thousands is the equivalent to a proverbial drop of water in a bucket. In all honesty, the demo seemed more like a boasting session for Nitrous than it did a glimpse at Ashes. Maybe, given that it's the first title on the engine, they'll become synonymous in a sense. But, it's impossible to not be impressed by the infrastructure. Thousands of units individually tracked, and creating unique shots and explosions is a solid framework for any game. However, that doesn't mean Ashes of the Singularity will necessarily be good. We have to wait a bit longer to find that out. Oxide Games and Stardock are going the Early Access route with this one, taking feedback into consideration to mold a better final product. Ashes of the Singularity will hit Early Access in the summer, and it's shooting for a proper retail release later this year. Even if we don't know how it'll ultimately turn out, we know for certain that its strength lies in its numbers.
Ashes of the Singularity photo
Strength in numbers
Real-time strategy titles often feel large-scale by design. There are a whole bunch of units on the battlefield, and the player's tasked with directing them all simultaneously. Even if there aren't that many actual parts in t...

CrossCode is a beautiful 16-bit ball-filled adventure

Mar 13 // Jed Whitaker
[embed]288984:57762:0[/embed] Balls are your weapon of choice -- that's right balls. They're useful in both combat and puzzle-solving. The balls can be charged up for a boost to damage, or they can be bounced to activate hard-to-reach switches. A melee attack can also be executed, which inflicts massive damage to an enemy crab boss. I played the demo with a mouse and keyboard, and aiming felt spot on; playing with a controller is also an option.  The story centers around Lea, an avatar in an MMO that is seemingly mixed with the real world in some fashion. The demo's mostly mum on details. Lea no memories and she's also mute -- the latter because her speech modules are having issues and her in-game designers need to fix them. Plenty of cutscenes show Lea nodding or emoting to get her point across, and the story in the demo was interesting enough to make me want to see more. Do everyone a favor and go help CrossCode get made by throwing some cash at it if you see fit. As of writing, CrossCode is just over a quarter of the way to its goal of €80,000 (just shy of $85,000), with 15 days left. A Wii U version is one of the stretch goals, a console it would surely feel at home on.
CrossCode photo
From the window to the wall, till puzzles take your balls
CrossCode is one of those games where I've heard mention of it by word of mouth, saw videos of it, but never though much of it. Then, I got bored and decided to try out the demo and boy, am I glad I did, because the game is w...

We Happy Few's bright exterior hides a dark secret

Mar 12 // Darren Nakamura
Compulsion was fairly tight-lipped on the story of We Happy Few, but did give a few details to get me started. It takes place in a dystopian city on an island, where everybody exists in a constant state of euphoria thanks to a drug called Joy. At least, everybody except the player, who finds himself to be the only lucid person among the smiling drones. The goal is to find a means and an opportunity off the island, but neither is clear from the outset. Without much obvious direction, the more immediate concern is survival. The player has a few meters to keep track of, including hunger and thirst. Eating and drinking keep those at safe levels, but finding supplies is the tricky part. Or it's one of the tricky parts. Another thing to consider is that the government laces the town's water supply with Joy. It sets up a sort of push and pull, where drinking too little causes dehydration and drinking too much will put a lot of the upper into the player's system. This has some beneficial gameplay effects like increased stamina, but comes with a hard crash after a while. Overdosing can cause the player to black out and lose a day entirely. [embed]288935:57741:0[/embed] Past basic need management, there are other supplies to be found in the world of We Happy Few, many of which can be crafted into more interesting items like lockpicks or weaponry. Fighting isn't always the best option; stealth is often preferable. The interesting thing about We Happy Few's stealth is that it isn't about skulking in the shadows, but about blending in with the population. Walking down the street in broad daylight will garner no suspicion from the locals, but loitering in one spot for too long or sprinting will. I could almost imagine my character passing others with exaggerated arm movements and a forced smile just to avoid any second glances. There is a planned day/night cycle, with different events occurring at different times throughout the day. I was not able to see that in my time with the game, because I jumped out of a third floor window and broke my legs in a botched escape attempt before the day could turn to night. It seems like it's meant to be a fairly short but replayable game, because the team at Compulsion is putting some effort into procedural generation for the city. Though the overarching story and player goals will remain the same from run to run, individual playthroughs may yield different buildings or events, and the layout of the city will always change after the player dies. Creative Dude Guillaume Provost didn't use the word "roguelike," but it did seem to lean in that direction. Combat in the preview build was mostly melee-based, with angry Joy addicts coming at me with skillets and cricket bats. Unlike the crafting and stealth systems, straight combat didn't feel particularly deep, but I didn't have enough time or resources to create any of the cool toys that were available in the menu. Compulsion has already nailed the atmosphere for We Happy Few. As it turns out, there are some cool ideas for a game under that too, and the way the gameplay and the narrative interact via the unique stealth system is a great touch. It certainly needs some more time to fully flesh out the ideas laid out, but so far this looks like one to watch.
We Happy Few photo
Happy, happy, joy, joy!
For a while, the general aesthetic in games was dark and grimy, with muted colors to convey dismal feelings. The more recent counterculture of color was welcomed, bringing happiness back to the medium. But a funny thing happe...

SMITE's Xbox One alpha is off to a great start

Mar 12 // Chris Carter
While many of you out there probably dislike the lack of ingenuity when it comes to SMITE's roster, I must admit I still love the gimmick of tapping into existing spiritual and celestial beings. SMITE has playable characters representing Norse, Greek, Roman, Hindu, Chinese, Mayan, and Egyptian mythology, and odds are you'll recognize at least a few faces in the crowd. I'm addicted to scrolling through the little bios for each character, like binge-reading a series of Wikipedia entries. Hi-Rez has done a great job making them their own aesthetically. For those who aren't familiar with SMITE, gameplay comes in three varieties currently with the Xbox One alpha -- Arena (5v5 all-out combat), Siege (4v4 with two lanes, the most traditional MOBA experience), and Joust (3v3 with just one lane). Assault and Conquest from the PC version are currently not enabled, but the three aforementioned Xbox modes have a "first win of the day" bonus that grants you extra currency. It's a smart move, as it encourages you to boot up the game, relax, play a few matches, then retire for the evening after getting your bonuses. Heroes of the Storm and many other MOBAs have similar practices, but it feels especially at home on a console for me. The alpha currently does not allow you to connect your existing PC account (although it is promised for the future) or purchase "Gems" (the premium currency), but it has a decent selection of free characters at the moment, as well as the ability to earn "Favor," which allows you to "buy" characters by playing the game. I expect Gems will be sold by way of Xbox Live, and so far, the interface isn't confusing -- all of the cost info is right up front. Currently the going rate is roughly 400 Gems for $8, and each character in the alpha costs 200. The good news is that you can earn about half of the roster by buying each character with Favor, with the earn rate working out to a little less than a week of casual play. It's a little on the high side, but I've seen worse. Plus, the free rotation has been generous so far. [embed]285826:56801:0[/embed] Surprisingly, it controls great on the Xbox One. Everything is extremely easy to pick up, including movement, aiming, and getting to know all four of your character's abilities, which are mapped to the face buttons. Line targeting and even area-of-effect (AOE) powers are easy to aim using both sticks, and I had very little problem getting my powers where they needed to go. Since basic attacks are all done manually, a controller lends itself well to the action-oriented scheme, and using some character's dodge abilities felt more natural. Having the rumble feature go off when a queue is finished pre-match is a nice touch. Currently, the user interface needs a little work. It's a bit dated, and can stand to look a lot sleeker with its console debut. There are also a few minor issues with the current build, like the lack of indication that you're holding down the left trigger to "prep" your currently equipped items. Often times I'd need to use an item like a speed boost in a sticky situation, and it wouldn't go off because I apparently wasn't holding the trigger correctly. So far the visuals are very smooth, even for an alpha, but this is a testing phase after all so everything didn't go off without a hitch. My first match was rocky and unplayable, constantly lagging and counting back the game clock -- I tried to leave, but I couldn't jump into a new game until it was completely finished, which took a fair bit of time. I must say though that nearly all of my matches were very smooth, with little lag involved at all. This bodes well for Hi-Rez considering that it's still early in the console version's life cycle. If Xbox One owners are willing to take the plunge on SMITE, Hi-Rez stands to make quite a bit of money from daily players. The studio is going to have to stay on its game this year however, as there is plenty of competition as more and more developers are jumping into the space. While SMITE still isn't quite at the top of my MOBA list, I think I'm going to make an effort to play more when it arrives on the Xbox One later this year.
SMITE on Xbox One photo
Hi-Rez's MOBA has transitioned well to consoles
There aren't a whole lot of fully featured MOBA games on consoles. While a handful of them exist, some faring better than others, there's going to be a bigger push this year with games like SMITE and Gigantic headin...

Harmonix Music VR could supplant Audiosurf for me

Mar 12 // Darren Nakamura
Harmonix had two zones on display at PAX East. One was a serene beach scene and the other was an on-rails trip through a constantly changing techno landscape. I chose the latter, and loaded up The Foo Fighters' "Everlong" for my run through. It works a bit like those old school music visualizers in that it reads the characteristics of any song and generates visual content from it. The mini environments were designed; I saw birds flying, giant structures, and other recognizable elements. However, their behaviors and appearances are determined procedurally. I actually had to ask about that last bit, because some sections of the visual content synced up so well to the audio that I wasn't sure if the transitions were built specifically for the limited library on display. During the long snare roll build up near the end of "Everlong," it kept switching between various scenes. The switching increased in frequency until the crescendo when the guitar and vocals come back in, at which point it stuck with one scene that was more colorful and alive than it had been previously. It was incredible. When it was over, it was strange to take off the VR headset. By the end, I definitely felt like I had been in another place, and removing the headset transported me back to the show floor. As a way to enjoy music, I haven't ever experienced anything else like it.
Harmonix Music VR photo
A new way to experience music
Audiosurf is more than seven years old now (wow), but it still holds a place as a desktop icon on my computer. I still play it regularly. The thing is, I almost never play it on any setting other than Casual with Mono. It is ...

Mortal Kombat X brings back some familiar faces for Story Mode

Mar 12 // Alessandro Fillari
Mortal Kombat X (PC, PS4 [previewed], PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)Developer: NetherRealm StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentRelease date: April 14, 2015 I think we were all pretty shocked by the culling of the majority of the Mortal Kombat roster in the last game. Many of the central characters that have been with the series for the long haul were killed off unceremoniously during the story, which was crazy because it was permanent. And although descendants and new variations of the characters are set to return, the cull was about giving Mortal Kombat a fresh roster for its next installment. During our hour spent with MKX, we saw quite a bit of the game's content, and even a few surprises that we can't share at this point. But I'll let Abel explain his thoughts on the future of MK. Abel: So let's get the big news out of the way: Johnny Cage is back! NetherRealm hasn't lost its touch with Story Mode. Like Mortal Kombat before it, Mortal Kombat X breaks its story into chapters, each following a specific character. It's absolutely the best storytelling in the genre, allowing you to play with most of the roster while delivering a cohesive narrative. We've come a long way from beating arcade modes with every fighter and trying to piece together the events. During our preview, we only got our hands on chapter one starring Johnny Cage. It was a great chapter though, packed with character reveals -- we got to fight against Scorpion, zombie Jax, and Sub Zero, as well as Shinnok. Oh, and Fujin is back, tearing armies up with his bestie Raiden. If I had to pick a gripe though, I was not a fan of all the choreographed fights in this chapter, some of which dragged on to the point of annoyance. I'm all for kicking back and watching Johnny Cage beat the stuffing out of Scorpion as a helicopter goes down, but there came a point where these scenes would drag on so long as to actively annoy me that the real fight hadn't started yet. The quick-time events didn't help much either, especially considering that success or failure in them had no bearing on the real fight, like they did in Injustice. Here's to hoping Johnny's chapter is the only one like this. [embed]288771:57744:0[/embed] Alessandro: I was a big fan of the previous MK's Story Mode, so it was exciting to see them continue on with that. What surprised me most was that chapter one with Johnny Cage essentially served as the epilogue for what happened in the ending with Shinnok and Quan-Chi in MK9.  It only takes place about a year or so after that story, and by the chapter's end it seemed to have the MK9 storyline wrapped up for the most part, which will lead the way for MKX's central story (which is set over the course of 25 years). But I suppose this goes along with this game being a somewhat clean break from the mythos into something new.  Abel: A new mythos will definitely be welcome, and from the recent story trailer and what we've played, it seems headed firmly in that direction. If I had one fear before playing Story Mode, it's that MKX would retread the stories of MK4 through Deception, the same way MK9 covered MK1-3. Alessandro: After Deadly Alliance, I felt that the series maybe got a bit too away from itself, and just went for a more 'kitchen-sink' approach. As in they threw in everyone from past and present into the story at once. A lot of the content and characters felt like filler, and catered more to the ridiculous side of Mortal Kombat. That's not necessarily bad, but I appreciate that the series is going for a more leaner and refined approach now. MK9 did a lot to help bring it back, and I'm really pleased with MKX following suit with its gameplay. Abel: HEY!!! I liked Chess Kombat, but you're right, combat is king in MKX. This was my third time playing MKX, and what struck me most was how comfortable the combat felt. None of the combos you spent time mastering in MK9 will translate, but familiarity with those games will be a leg up. With returning characters, a lot of the special moves either have the same input as MK9 or a similar logic. Down-back-something for a teleport, down-forward-something for a projectile, etc. What has changed the most though are projectiles and teleports, both of which feel much more punishable. Projectiles in generally all feel much slower than MK9, with lots of telegraphing to boot. Make the mistake of missing with your opponent nearby, and you're open for a big punish. Same goes for teleports which, when thrown out in a pinch, more often than not led to me and Alessandro trading hits.  Alessandro: I basically stuck with my favorites, Sub-Zero and Ermac. The variations system made them feel familiar, but still pretty fresh. I think this system will add a lot of nuance for the characters, as each style will completely change their modus operandi. Interestingly enough, the variations were locked during Story Mode, so it seems like they'll switch between the styles during the chapter's narrative for specific moments. I also really dug the fact that it's taking cues from Injustice for the meta-leveling system. You got experience and koins for completing matches in Story Mode, which could be invested towards factions and other rewards. I appreciate that it's all connected together. Abel: Speaking of connectivity (SEGUE!), NetherRealm announced a Mortal Kombat X iOS version, not unlike what was done for Injustice. By "not unlike" I really just mean "the exact same thing." Combat is the same tap for light attacks, swipe for heavy attacks, then build up meter to unleash a super move or X-Ray attack. Characters all come as cards and fight in teams of three with bronze, silver, and gold variations of each. You upgrade your cards, improve their stats, and fight your way up increasingly difficult ladders. Again, it's exactly the same. The monetization plan is the same too, offering a store to purchase new characters cards or energy to fight. The most interesting thing are the unlocks you can get by linking your WBID to your app and full game. The Batman Beyond suit in Injustice was amazing, so here's to hoping MKX will have similarly cool rewards. ----- Our time with the MKX came to a close after our hands-on with the mobile devices. We definitely wanted to give the versus mode another shot, as we obviously only scratched the surface of the game's content, but it's probably best we left at that point. Thankfully, the game is not too far off. I'm hoping that NetherRealm keeps a tight lid on what's in store for Mortal Kombat X till release. With new characters being shown off so often, I worry they're likely giving away too much. Regardless, we're plenty excited about what MKX has to offer. Abel totally geeked when Fujin appeared with Raiden to fight off Quan-Chi's forces, and I can tell that there will be plenty of those fan-service moments that diehard MK players will enjoy. For me, Story Mode in MK9 was the best the fighting game genre has ever had, and with the upcoming game pushing that even further, it's looking like we're in for something really special next month.
Mortal Kombat X photo
Heeeerrre's Johnny!
It's been less than a year since its reveal, and we're already rapidly approaching the release of Mortal Kombat X. After its predecessor essentially rebooted the franchise with a return to 2D-style combat, many fans got a new...

Sega brings back OutRun with style for the 3D Classics Series

Mar 11 // Alessandro Fillari
For those not quite familiar, OutRun is an arcade-style racing game that tasks players with racing their shiny Ferrari Testarossa across a stretch of land. At several points, you'll be able to choose which path you'd like to take, which will take you to a brand new setting that you'd likely not see in previous playthroughs. This nonlinear gameplay was rather unconventional for a racing title, which made it quite popular with arcade goers who wished for repeat plays. Over the years, it's developed quite a legacy for Sega, and it has even inspired musicians like Kavinsky for its portrayal of style in high-speed. It was a rather seminal title for Sega, earning a lot praise and finding much success in the arcades. Developed by Yu Suzuki, the creator of Shenmue, Virtua Fighter, and After Burner, it focused on fast gameplay while giving players a soothing and equally pulsing soundtrack to listen to. It even got several followups over the years. But with this remaster of OutRun, the folks at Sega had to put in extra work to retain the the original's style and feel without watering down the experience. "OutRun and After Burner II are two games that were the most important games in Sega’s history through the 1980s. However, due to a number of reasons, there was a time when there were no opportunities to port these two titles to other platforms," said producer Yosuke Okunari. "The most important thing for these kinds of games, and this is apparent from a video of the game you may have seen, is not to take these important games and try to remake them completely from scratch, but rather to recreate the playstyle as faithful to the original as you possibly can. And because the game preserves the feeling of the era it was made in, that history and the memories of those times can be communicated to everyone." During my playthrough, I immediately noticed how much smoother it felt. I played a bit of game when I younger in the arcades, so seeing this in action on a handheld was kind of a trip. And with the 3D enabled, the game doesn't lose performance one bit. It was impressive to see that a super fast racing game like OutRun would be able to make the transition so well. Honestly, it felt a bit hypnotic going over 200 km an hour. Once you're in the zone, you're kinda in a trance. Okunari-san explained that with the success of the previous titles on 3D Classics, they were able to tackle the necessary hurdles porting OutRun would take. "The 3DS is a notable piece of hardware, but it’s not a console that’s particularly well suited for creating faithful ports," he explained. "And so we were not able to include these two titles when we first began the development for the Sega 3D Classics. Only through the success of the first batch were we able to obtain the technical know-how and development budget to work on these two titles. It’s because of all the fans’ support." Often times, the 3DS tends to have some trouble with handling ports of classic or even recent titles. Which made porting the game, despite its age, somewhat of a challenge. One of the techniques that titles like After Burner and Space Harrier use is a way of presenting 2D sprites as pseudo-3D visuals, which is done with unique sprite-scaling designs. But in order to keep it consistent with other titles, the developers had to double the performance on OutRun, upgrading it from thirty frames per second to sixty. "Tying to get squeeze out more performance that the original title supported was a very difficult undertaking," said the producer. "Simply straight porting the game as is would prove to be a challenge in and of itself, but we had to optimize and improve the programming so it would run twice the speed as the original. Also, we added two new songs to the game, and made a point that they had to blend naturally and feel completely natural in the game, which was also a great challenge. Essentially using the same sound sources as the original, while ensuring that they would sound different and unique compared to the original three songs. New songs in the style and feel of the era when the game was originally released, back in the '80s." It's certainly eye-opening to see the amount of work that goes into remasters for classic titles. I supposed with the technology we have now, it's easy to think of products and software from the past as easy to make, or even easy to transition onto current hardware. Given the limitations they had and parameters they had to work within, I'm very impressed with what I played. I spent a good amount of time with OutRun on the 3DS, and it played like a dream. I highly recommend giving it a shot, especially if you're a first-timer. The sense of speed is just as sharp as it was back in the arcade days and experiencing it within the palms of your hands is real rush.
Sega 3D Classics photo
Race with flair on March 12
One of the great things about Sega's ongoing 3DS Classics series is that it allows retro games from the publisher's past to find a new audience. And given its rich and diverse history of quirky and fan-favorite titles, there'...

Tumblestone is the most intelligent 'match three' game I've ever played

Mar 11 // Patrick Hancock
Tumblestone contains both single-player and multiplayer modes. I spent most of the time in the multiplayer mode, which was the most interesting balance of speed and wits that I have seen in a long time.  The idea behind the game is to clear the board of the colored blocks. To do so, the player needs to shoot three of the same color from the bottom of the board. So far, everything is pretty straightforward. However, doing this in the wrong order will result in no possible matches after a while, which then forces the player to reset the board and try again. Yes, it is important to be fast, but it is more important to be correct! In multiplayer, everyone has the same randomly generated board. From there, it's a matter of who can clear the blocks in the right order the fastest. This is possibly the only game of its kind that made me, in a competitive multiplayer match, stop and stand back to really think about my next move. I could hear other players rushing to remove blocks while my section of the screen was motionless, yet I wasn't panicking, just concentrating. [embed]288776:57720:0[/embed] Things only get more complicated when different variants get thrown into the mix. Wildcards, for example, add in multicolored blocks that can go with any color. However, each color needs to use one Wildcard in order to clear the board, so the player must then keep track of which colors have already used Wildcards and which ones haven't. Ty Taylor, the developer, said he wants to make it more obvious to the player as to which colors the Wildcards can be used with to reduce the stress a little. Another interesting modifier was Color Lock, which restricted the same color from being matched up back to back. Though it sounds simple, the puzzle layouts make it quite complicated. The Shot Blocker modifier throws a stone in the middle column that switches on and off with each shot. Knowing this, players need to plan out their shots accordingly, since pieces in the middle will not be available every other turn. Perhaps my favorite modifier was a more complicated version of Shot Blocker, though I can't recall the specific name at the moment. The mode placed a Shot Blocker in the column the player uses for three consecutive shots. So, if a player takes a match from columns one, two, and three, those become off limits after their respective shots. However, the fourth shot will remove the first Shot Blocker placed and move it to the column the fourth shot was in. If it sounds confusing, it is! But only at first. This mode really forces players to think ahead, and "speed" almost becomes an afterthought in this mode. There were even times where I forgot I was competing against other people right next to me! Each modifier forces players to think completely differently, and aren't hard to understand. After a few failed attempts, most players will realize exactly what's up and start going very methodically. Ty also mentioned that future builds may be able to mix modifiers together, which I don't even want to think about right now. A sense of progression quickly becomes noticeable. While at first I felt a bit overwhelmed by some of the game modes, it didn't take long to become acclimated and start churning out victories. It's a pretty great feeling to know where you messed up in a puzzle, then breeze through the first half only to stop and think three moves ahead before diving into the second half.  My time with the single-player components was limited, but there are plenty of options for those who will be going it alone. A Marathon mode is an untimed, infinite mode for those who want to go for high scores. A Story Mode is also included, with 360 puzzles in 12 worlds, each world introducing a new modifier and likely pushing that modifier to the limit. Oh, and for those curious, Tumblestone is just fine for red/green colorblindies like myself. I was worried at first, but not only does each color have a specific face on it, but the reds and greens are at a very different brightness (dark red and light green) and were easy to tell apart. In addition, choosing a wrong color to match with in multiplayer will bring up arrows pointing to possible correct options. Both the single- and multiplayer offerings in Tumblestone come off as incredibly substantial modes. The competitive multiplayer got really heated on the show floor, even with occasional pauses to go into a deep, zen-like thought. This was one of my favorite games of PAX East, and luckily it's headed to just about every platform out there later this year! 
Smart puzzle photo
From the creators of The Bridge
The first impression of a game matters a lot at PAX. If people aren't intrigued almost immediately, they may never play the game at all. My first impression of Tumblestone was "oh cool another match-three game." I don't ...

Harebrained Schemes nails it once again with Necropolis

Mar 10 // Rob Morrow
Another noteworthy difference between the games is the absence of a rolling mechanic in Necropolis. The analog in Harebrained's title is the dash ability -- once tapped, your character will hop back a short distance. By limiting the character's ability to quickly roll out of the way of danger, Necropolis' combat feels riskier to me. Obviously, you can use the dash to escape from danger, but the distance you travel is much shorter, so it may take a few stamina-draining hops to get far enough away from an enemy to avoid its attacks. Before I move on to discussing the game's environments, I wanted to add one last thing about the combat systems that I found intriguing, and that's what the team refers to as its "living ecology of threats." I'd read about it before but with scant details available at the time and wasn't sure what to make of it. In the demo, however, its use was made very clear -- the Gem Eater, or as we've described him, the Shark Man -- has an insatiable appetite for (you guessed it) gems. And, as it happens, the Grine creatures mentioned before are composed of a crystalline substance that the hulking monster finds irresistible. [embed]288700:57694:0[/embed] Mike McCain, art director for the project, tipped me off on this, suggested that instead of going toe to toe with the brute that perhaps I should use him to my advantage instead. McCain pointed out a nearby mob of Grine and advised me to kite the beast in, letting him do what came naturally. As soon as he spotted his prey, he forgot about me entirely and began battling my foes for me. This opened up a wonderful tactical opportunity as I could swiftly and safely move in for a few strikes, gradually chipping away at his health before inevitably having to face off with him by myself once he was through with the Grine. Where Necropolis really sets itself apart is outside of combat, however. As you can see in MMORPG's footage of the PAX demo above, the procedurally generated environments have a stylish and clean look to them, standing in stark contrast to the oppressively gritty-looking From titles that helped inspire it. Necropolis' gorgeous low-poly environments look almost dream-like in their abstract, geometric structure and layout. It's quite impressive, really. For a title that's going for such a minimalistic design, the effect is paradoxically lavish when taken in as a whole. The game also differentiates itself from typical roguelikes in its approach to level design. Harebrained Schemes manages to trick the eye in the way that it handles the procedural elements; the end effect looks more like preplanned environments than randomly assembled rooms tacked together. If you didn't know that the levels were being procedurally generated with each new game, it would be easy to come away thinking that the layouts you'd just played were static. I'm not sure if it's the utilization of wide-open spaces where you can look out into the distance or stare down into an abyss that makes it feel so, but in any case, the effect works very well. Out of all the titles that I saw at this year’s PAX East, it was a no-brainer to choose Harebrained Schemes' stunning new action-roguelike as one of the two games that I would select for my editor’s choice awards for the show. Its elegant and thoughtful combat, both familiar and new, was an absolute pleasure to experience firsthand. For fans of third-person action games, especially those who enjoy From Software’s titles, Necropolis is one to fix firmly on your radar.
Necropolis preview photo
Murderous beauty
As I explored the opening area of Harebrained Schemes' third-person action roguelike Necropolis at PAX East 2015, I discovered an inviting treasure chest. Upon opening it, I realized too late that I wasn’t alone in that...

Heat Signature is the best game I saw at GDC

Mar 10 // Mike Cosimano
[embed]288833:57687:0[/embed] Heat Signature (PC)Developer: Suspicious DevelopmentsPublisher: Suspicious DevelopmentsRelease Date: When it "feels ready" If you look at Heat Signature, it’s not difficult to see a through-line between this game and Gunpoint. There’s a lot of opportunity for emergent gameplay in both titles, with an emphasis on improvisation. I often found myself cracking up whenever something went wrong. Rebounding from a mistake never felt impossible. Here, you play a little dude in a little ship. That’s all I know for sure; there’s currently no story attached to the game. Francis is dedicated to feature locking before he starts writing a story around the mechanics, but there will be some form of narrative component in the final product. Your ship is designed for boarding, so your only form of interacting with other ships is smashing into their airlock and hopping aboard. The build of the game I played had three different kinds of missions: steal an item, assassinate a crew member, or hijack a ship and fly it back to a certain spot. They’re simple enough on their own, but the missions take on a whole new life when things start going wrong. For example, I accidentally blew up part of a ship during a mission. I had to kill a target in a different part of the ship, but the corridor I was supposed to take was in pieces, floating through space. So I docked my ship in the blown-out part of the mining vessel, creating a new airlock, only to find a locked door. The only option? Spawn more explosives and make an even bigger mess. I never actually got to my target, but I could have hijacked a nearby ship with actual weapons and blown my target to smithereens, if I were so inclined. So many games claim to offer open problem solving, but Heat Signature actually delivers (much like Gunpoint). For example, in the build I played, it’s possible for your breaching ship to be destroyed. So, in lieu of a breaching ship, you can launch yourself out of an airlock towards another ship’s airlock, steering yourself with a gun. Even the death state feels exciting and improvisational. If you get killed while on a ship, you have to remote control your ship in your direction before you bleed to death. Since your ship has realistic thrusters (e.g: the only way to slow down is to thrust in the other direction) as opposed to being able to turn on a dime, you’re forced to master the controls if you want to keep a particularly lucrative run going. This also factors into the game’s title. Running your engines heats up your ship, which causes your *ahem* heat signature to become visible to enemies. I often ran my thrusters at full blast for a second, launching me across the galaxy but keeping my ship cold. However, this often caused me to slam against the hull of the enemy ship, causing me to careen off in the opposite direction. Closing the distance between you and your quarry -- a simple mechanical loop in any other game -- feels like an adventure unto itself. And that’s Heat Signature in a word. It feels adventurous. It feels big. It captures the imagination. Maybe it’s unprofessional to express this level of enthusiasm, but I’m not going to sit here and lie to you about how I feel. This game is awesome. I can’t wait to play the full thing.
Heat Signature GDC photo
What's cooler than being cool?
Gunpoint ultimately had very little to do with guns. It was a smartly designed puzzler with an immensely satisfying core set of mechanics and witty dialogue. But the title never came into play; pointing guns at people always ...

3D Realms: Bombshell is the only one who could kick Duke Nukem's ass

Mar 10 // Brett Makedonski
[embed]288478:57688:0[/embed] So, much like Bombshell herself, 3D Realms rebuilt the game. A lot of the grit and edge was suppressed. Her steely, crude mechanical arm was traded in for one that looked technologically useful. Her exposed midriff was exchanged for a functional suit of armor. And, what was once a half-shaved head is now a full head of hair. Most importantly, Bombshell looks like a significantly better game than we were led to believe almost a full year ago. Even if it may not seem like much variation for most studios, Interceptor and 3D Realms are spreading their wings with Bombshell. This isn't a first-person shooter. It's an action RPG with an isometric view. Again, it's an attempt to differentiate from Duke. 3D Realms acknowledged that when you specialize in a single genre, you become too comfortable. When you move outside of that comfort zone, you're able to look at everything from a different point of view. Actually, "different point of view" also extends to long-time 3D Realms fans, as it perfectly describes what they'll find most jarring about Bombshell. This has an isometric view, a top-down camera that gives a clear look at everything in the near vicinity. There's also a jump mechanic to go alongside some light platforming that may or may not prove frustrating. The role-playing aspect may be 3D Realms' greatest trick. Bombshell features two different currencies that are used for upgrading passive stats and weapons. This forces the player to figure out what they want their strengths to be, and to adjust gameplay accordingly. When you think about it, that's so wonderfully not 3D Realms. But, where 3D Realms doesn't stray too far from its tried-and-true roots is that Bombshell asks the player to kill everything in sight. It doesn't matter how it's done -- simple shooting, blowing things straight to hell, or even detaching Knuckles (her mechanical arm) to serve as a temporary turret. Just know that there will be foes, and they will ultimately die. Those enemies come in the form of three different races of aliens. In an unlikely twist, they're all working together. Predictably, 3D Realms wasn't too eager to talk about the story. What it was willing to say is that there's something valuable on Earth that the aliens want. Also, they've captured the President of the United States. Where Bombshell comes in is a "just one last job" sort of plot device. Her backstory is that she was the leader of the Global Defense Force, and her career came to an end during something called "The Washington Incident" -- a mission gone wrong in which she lost her arm and her crew. With the President abducted, they rebuilt her stronger than ever. Okay, admittedly, this story eschews all semblance of nuance or subtlety thus far. The dialogue's equally gruff, with Bombshell usually spouting off exactly what you'd expect Generic '90s Action Hero to say. Of course, 3D Realms promises that there's lots of plot to discover along the way. Hopefully it serves as a way to introduce Bombshell as a deep and interesting character -- not just a less crude, female Duke. Maybe the biggest uncertainty -- and there are a fair number -- is just how seriously 3D Realms takes itself with Bombshell. Is a lot of this tongue-in-cheek? Is it completely straight-faced and lacking self-awareness? Will it somehow shape up to be less ridiculous (and that's in no way a slight against the game) than during my 30-minute demo? The tone is a giant question mark, but then again, maybe it doesn't really matter. '90s clichés will come off as entertaining and badass, regardless of Interceptor's and 3D Realms' true intentions. Whatever the answer may be, we won't have to wait too long to find out. Bombshell has its sights set on on a summer release for PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It remains to see whether it's enjoyably explosive or a dud. But, rest assured that it's definitely not the Bombshell you knew a year ago.
Bombshell preview photo
She's got the arsenal to do it
3D Realms is keenly aware of what players know it for. Sure, there are plenty of titles in the publisher's history that should stand out, but for all intents and purposes, the company might as well re-name itself The Duke Nuk...

Severed is full of one-handed vengeance

Mar 10 // Caitlin Cooke
The colorful art style of Guacamelee! makes its return in a beautiful, dark package. In Severed you play a young heroine set out on a course of vengeance after losing her home and her arm in a brutal attack. Her dark story coupled with the deserted surroundings made for a chilling atmosphere, and etched within the demo were moments that tugged at my heart ever so slightly.   The movement style is a refreshing version of old-school first-person dungeon crawlers, allowing you to choose directional paths in a four-pointed compass-like system. Enemies spawn immediately when arriving to a location, and players swipe to attack while moving directionally to combat multiple monsters in a room. Each enemy has its own rhythm in terms of attacking, blocking, and parrying, and when various monsters start to compound together in a room it becomes advantageous to memorize their patterns.  Once enough successful attacks have been built up, players can enter a mode that slows down the monster’s movements and allows them to sever appendages to go in for the final kill. Once slayed, enemies drop various objects which can then be used to upgrade health, defense, and severed power. Health is only given from a mysterious orange fruit which hangs in solitude on a magical tree.  The final boss in the demo took me a while to master, but once I did I felt like I was on top of the world. He dropped a piece of neat-looking armor, which supposedly imbued my character with a special power for the rest of the game. I learned later that all bosses drop a piece of armor with a unique power, and that both the power and the armor can be upgraded throughout the game. At first it took me a while to adjust to the movement and touch screen-style exploration, especially when I needed to move and attack at the same time. I have such tiny hands, so having to hold the Vita while swiping and hitting the directional pad proved to be difficult at times. However, I quickly came to appreciate the interactivity of the world, especially when it came to fighting monsters.  Although the demo was pretty fleshed out, the team mentioned that it plans to make a lot of improvements before launch. Vertical elements will be added to levels, like staircases in rooms that will expand the dungeons vs. one flat area. A daytime/nighttime feature will also be included, which will enable environmental puzzles in the world. The team also plans to feature NPCs, who will introduce more dialogue to the story. Personally, I loved the quiet nature of the character and general silent plot progression, so my hope is that the team keeps it as simple as possible. Severed comes out this summer for the PS Vita, and Drinkbox also anticipates releasing it for other touch screen-friendly devices as well. I can tell that there are big things to come from this game, and can't wait to get my hands on the full release.
Severed photo
But hopefully, you'll have two to play with
There’s something serene about exploring a desolate place for the first time. Too often in games I find myself dropped into an environment, expected to pick up the pieces quickly to achieve a goal and left with little t...

Windows 10 makes it even easier for gameplay videos to go viral

Mar 09 // Brett Makedonski
In our demo, the presenter chose to record footage of Goat Simulator running on Steam. Goat Simulator was selected because "[It] shipped on Steam about this time last year. The developers haven't really touched its base functionality since it shipped. It has no knowledge of Xbox One, or Game DVR and Windows 10. But, Game DVR is a feature of the Windows 10 operating system, and it's available to any game played." After just a bit of nonsense in Goat Simulator (which isn't difficult to accomplish), he recorded the clip and showed how Windows 10 saves it. "No smoke and mirrors, no magic, no special file formats. They're just 1080p .mp4s sitting in my videos folder." From there, users can either use the Xbox app on their computer to select start and end points, or they can use any video editing software to make more nuanced edits. Once the clip's suited to their liking, it can be uploaded anywhere, just like any other video. When we asked whether users will find this feature to be resource intensive for Game DVR to always be recording in the background, Microsoft responded by saying "We're working on what the performance profiles of different hardware configurations are. You're going to have best experiences with modern GPUs, but you're still going to be able to use it if you have an older system. We're going to be very upfront about whether it's on or off by default because of the performance profile of your system." But, limitations of your system aren't the only way to turn Game DVR off if it isn't to your liking. The presenter elaborated "We want to put that flexibility in the user's hands. If they say 'frame-rate is unequivocally the most important thing; I don't care how tricked out my rig is.' If they want to turn it off because that's what they want to optimize for, they're going to be able to." A decent chunk of today's gaming space is occupied by sharing unique gameplay videos on sites like reddit. Some personalities thrive on it; others are just normal players that had something wacky happen to them. Whatever the case may be, Windows 10 will make it easier than ever to get those special moments out in front of a crowd.
Windows 10 photo
'No smoke and mirrors'
The latest generation in gaming has brought with it an emphasis on sharing. Screenshots and gameplay videos can be relatively easily captured and uploaded for anyone's audience to see. It's a smart way to drive interaction --...

Firewatch has topless teens, meaty hands, and mystery

Mar 09 // Steven Hansen
Henry clambers up rocks in the Wyoming wilderness with some effort. When I walked towards a little broken bridge, the distance between the side was so small that I felt, in other games, I might be able to walk right over it without jumping. For Henry, it required a little wind up, a jump, and a moment to steady himself on the other side. This mundane pace isn't a slog, it's an important part of Henry's characterization. And, so far, it is there without feeling "unfun," if that's a worry for you. It is restrained, but not patience taxing, and you're constantly engaged in radio dialogue while milling about (atypical in narrative/dialogue heavy games that have you focused on text or choices at the expense of movement). It is Henry's first day on the job as a park lookout. On the other end of his radio is his supervisor, Delilah. They are surprisingly glib for being recently acquainted, especially given their professional dynamic, but otherwise the dialogue felt natural. Except for Henry's bumbled, "p-p-p-p-p-p-panties." [embed]280443:55506:0[/embed] Tasked with investigating some fireworks, Henry finds an abandoned camp with fireworks and booze strewn about. I opted to hang onto the still full whisky bottle, which Henry assured me was a good brand. After kicking out the fire, you can follow a trail of undress all the way to the lake. Delilah is unfazed by reports of bras and underwear, and maybe even chastised Henry's bumbling use of the word "panties," which, c'mon, "underwear" is fine. Down at the lake the two nude swimmers in the distance are illegible against the sun and real creeped out by the weird old guy wandering around. You can yell at them (or ask nicely) to quit with the fireworks, or just throw their boombox into the lake and kill their tunes. They also issue Henry a sick burn in the form of a Sizzler buffet joke. I am pro Sizzler jokes forever. More intrigue abounds as day gives way to a brilliant blue night. A mysterious figure in the distance that Delilah assures you is just a hiker becomes more ominous when you find your lookout tower broken into. What Firewatch has done right in this piece of the game so far, removed from the overall narrative, is provide enough grounding detail to its gorgeous world. That and use the radio mechanic to weave "choose a response" style dialogue divergence a bit more neatly into walk-and-talk play.
Firewatch hands-on photo
Firewatch with me
I've been firewatching out for Campo Santo's new 'exploration mystery' since hearing about the talent behind it. Artist Olly Moss, Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson, and season one The Walking Dead ...







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