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Review: Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon

Nov 27 // Ben Davis
Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon (3DS)Developer: Spike ChunsoftPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: November 20, 2015 To start things off in Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, the player will take a short personality test. The test determines which of the 20 starter Pokémon they will become; it also chooses their partner. However, the results can be overruled if the player is unhappy with their chosen 'mon. The game picked Mudkip for me, with Torchic as my parter, so I just went with it. The story of Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon revolves around a human who has been turned into a Pokémon and has lost their memory. The Pokéhuman wakes up in confusion to find that they're being attacked by a group of Beheeyem, but they're quickly led to safety by a kind Nuzleaf with a southern accent who shows them the ropes and brings them into town. Once in town, the player will make some new friends, meet up with their destined partner, and begin going on expeditions into mystery dungeons. From here, the main storyline will begin to reveal itself in bits and pieces. There are whispers of Pokémon around the world mysteriously being turned to stone, the Beheeyem are still following the player, and their memory of being a human refuses to return to them. Eventually, everything will start to fall into place and a grand adventure of world-ending proportions will unfold. But before all of that happens, there are dungeons to explore. These make up the core gameplay, of course. Mystery dungeons are made up of randomly generated grid-based floors filled with enemy Pokémon, items, and traps. Enemies only move when the player moves, so sometimes it's best to take things one step at a time so as to avoid suddenly becoming overwhelmed with foes. [embed]322769:61271:0[/embed] To attack, just hold down the left bumper to open up a menu of four possible moves, then select an action. It's also possible to combo moves with other team members by tapping the right bumper, which activates an "Alliance" to hit an enemy with multiple moves at once. Strategy is key to winning battles. Sometimes the best course of action is to waste a turn so that the enemy might move closer, opening up the possibility to land the first strike. Or, maybe it would be safer to switch positions with another teammate so they can take a blow and allow others to heal. Perhaps a liberal use of items will get the player out of a jam. A lot of planning and foresight is necessary in order to survive most confrontations, so simply spamming attacks is not going to cut it for the most part. Moving around dungeons will slowly heal injured Pokémon, but it will also decrease a hunger gauge as well, and if hunger reaches zero then the Pokémon's health will slowly begin to deplete. On top of that, there are status effects to worry about, such as poison or burns, which will stop Pokémon from regenerating health and will hurt them. Other effects, like confusion, can mess with a Pokémon's movement or ability to act. This can prove to be very annoying and potentially dangerous, so it's always a good idea to have the proper items available. Actually, a big part of mystery dungeon navigation involves managing items effectively. Only a certain amount can be held at once, but items will be scattered about all over the place and will quickly fill up the bag. It's a good idea to figure out which are the most important and plan accordingly. Some of the more important ones are oran berries and reviver seeds which are necessary for healing, elixirs which replenish the PP of moves, apples which stave off hunger, and wands and orbs that keep enemies at bay or help with dungeon navigation. There are also "Looplets" which act as the sole source of accessory. These can be upgraded with "Emeras" or gems which provide a wide array of different effects to help with combat and navigation (some may even cause a Mega Evolution!), but the Emeras will disappear upon exiting a dungeon. If the player fails a dungeon, they will lose all the items and money currently being held, unless they opt to wait for a rescue mission. These can be arranged on Pelipper Island, where the player can request help from other players via passwords, QR codes, local wireless, or IR connection. Alternatively, the player can simply return to their old save in order to retain items and money, but of course progress might be lost. Helper Pokémon can also be sent out from Pelipper Island for streetpass purposes, although I haven't encountered any yet. While story dungeons will force the player to use specific teams of Pokémon, normal dungeons will allow the player to choose any three Pokémon they wish to use. More Pokémon can be recruited by completing expeditions or simply chatting with folks around town, so the pool of possible allies will continue to grow larger and larger. All 720 Pokémon are available to be recruited, including legendaries, gender variations, all forms of Unown, and more. Using Pokémon in dungeons will allow them to level up and and learn new moves. I don't believe they can evolve, but since their evolutions can also be recruited, it doesn't really matter too much. Normal expeditions are where Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon really shines, but unfortunately they are few and far between until the main story has been completed. Free play finally opens up in the epilogue, but players are looking at about 20+ hours of gameplay and cutscenes before that happens. Aside from that, my only real complaints are the lack of skippable cutscenes and the fact that some story missions don't provide much opportunity for preparation. Even though it often allows the player to choose the items they want to take along and check out the shops beforehand, I still occasionally found myself woefully unprepared for story missions and ended up getting stuck with lousy equipment. The game also tends to save before long cutscenes right before boss fights, so I was forced to rewatch the same scenes over and over again whenever I died. The one before the final boss was particularly frustrating; it was so long! I'd have to say my favorite part of Super Mystery Dungeon is the way the Pokémon are portrayed. In most games and in the anime, the Pokémon simply say their own names and their personalities, if they have one at all, can only be implied. The main cast of characters in Super Mystery Dungeon consists of a good mix of Pokémon from each generation, and they're all given their own voice, each with different quirks, opinions, personalities, and sometimes even accents. It's really fun to learn about these guys in a new light. Some that I liked before I ended up hating this time around (like Pancham and Shelmet, those jerks!), while others that I may have ignored in previous games quickly became some of my favorites (like Espurr!). The cutscenes may have been long and the story may have been a little over-the-top, but I'd say it was worth it in the end just to get to know some of the Pokémon a bit better. Having never played any of the previous entries in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, I can't really compare it to the earlier games. However, for my first foray into Pokémon roguelikes, I had a great time! The difficulty seemed to ramp up considerably in some places, but between items, Emeras, and the random elements, I was generally able to figure out a strategy that worked well enough for me to just barely make it through. But if that doesn't work for some players, there are always the rescue missions to fall back on in case of an emergency. If you're like me and you haven't tried a Mystery Dungeon game yet, this one comes highly recommended. I'm fairly confident fans of the series will not be disappointed either. On its own, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is a quirky, light-hearted spin-off with well-developed dungeon crawling gameplay that provides a satisfying level of difficulty and gives the player plenty of room to develop their own strategies, all the while offering tons of customization options with a huge roster of potential allies and moves. It's a solid entry in the Pokémon franchise. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Super Mystery Dungeon photo
Like Magic(karp)
The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spin-off series transports the colorful cast of pocket monsters from the role-playing games into the challenging world of a roguelike dungeon crawler. Super Mystery Dungeon retains the charm...

PC Port Report: Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Nov 27 // Joe Parlock
Rig: AMD FX-8320 3.50GHz Eight-Core processor, 12GB of RAM, AMD HD 7970, Windows 10 64-Bit. Framerate measured with Raptr. Game played at the “High” graphics preset. First things first, as a technical product Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is definitely one of the best of the series on PC. The graphics options are incredibly descriptive, so those who may not quite understand which ambient occlusion or anti-aliasing settings would be best for them aren’t left in the dark. I particularly like the little bar in the top-right corner that shows just how much of your video memory is being used, letting you tweak the game to be as high quality as your card will allow. The game supports 4K resolutions for people with absolutely monster rigs and big enough screens to run them on, as well as widescreen resolutions (up to 2560x1080) and borderless windowed mode for easy swapping between applications. However, there are also some important options missing, such as the ability to change the FOV. This is a third person game though, so it probably isn’t as big of a problem for the majority of people as it would be in a first person ganme. Some people do still suffer from motion sickness when playing third person games though, so the option to change it could have been beneficial. Also worth noting is that Syndicate features full and complete key remapping, adjustable mouse acceleration, and full controller support for Xbox 360, Xbox One and PS4 controllers. Disappointingly, the menus suggest there is a way to remap controller inputs, but this doesn't actually appear to be possible. After spending so long playing Assassin’s Creed on PC, trying to play it with an Xbox 360 controller felt unnatural to me. The ability to tweak which button does what thing would’ve been nice. As I mentioned, Assassin’s Creed has never been known for its stellar PC ports. Assassin’s Creed III and Unity in particular suffered from poor optimisation, and I struggled to hit even a steady 30FPS on them with the rig described above. I’m not a framerate perfectionist who demands 60+ FPS in all things (even though I also understand people wanting to get what they’ve paid for out of their expensive hardware), but even then being able to get solidly 40+ FPS in Syndicate on the high preset felt like a breath of fresh air. Even in the most expansive or detailed areas I noticed very little drop in my framerate and considering how big the game is, that is a massive achievement. [embed]322674:61263:0[/embed] The only times there was a notable drop was on initially loading into the game (which is somewhat expected), and unfortunately during the carriage portions. Syndicate reintroduces drivable vehicles to the series, but whenever I picked up the pace or caused some carnage, the game would drop to around 20-25 FPS. This may be due to moving quicker through the world than it could load, but it was a bit of a disappointment none the less. Overall, I would have to say I’ve had a better time with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s port than with Unity or AC3, and it’s even arguably running better than the better games in the series like Rogue or Black Flag. When I played the demo at EGX, I came away feeling incredibly disappointed. At the time, it was just as buggy as Unity, without building on any of the mechanics introduced. It felt like one big rehash, and it left me worried for the future of the series. Now that I’ve been let loose on the final version, I can safely say that I was totally wrong. Syndicate is right up there as being one of my favourites in the entire series. It has its problems, but I can confidently place it alongside Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed 2 as being one of the series high points. Victorian London is recreated beautifully. The detailed streets, the steam trains barging down the tracks, the Thames chock-full of boats…the entire game feels like you’ve stepped into a Charles Dickens novel. One that involves lots of stabbing and the threat of naked hologram aliens, but a Charles Dickens novel none the less. Weirdly, I’d argue Syndicate borrows and improves on a lot from Watch_Dogs too with just how many moving parts the city has. Carriages, trains and boats make London feels a lot more dynamic than previous cities in the series, and at times can allow for some really cool getaways. A big problem I had with combat in Unity was how effective ranged weapons were against you. Almost every enemy carried a gun, and there was no way to counter against them, meaning armed enemies at range had a massive, massive advantage and frequently proved fatal. This problem was elegantly solved in Syndicate, where now you can simply dodge shots at any time. You don’t even need a human shield anymore. To balance it, melee combat is a lot trickier now. Gone are the days of simply countering everything and killing everyone all in one combo. Now you have to be smart, do damage when you can, and often running away to get an advantage later on is the better solution. It really helps encourage stealthier play, while also not being an instant death sentence should you decide to be a bit noisy. Speaking of stealth, Syndicate takes a lot of emphases away from the series’ cornerstone of “social stealth”. Instead, you now have a stealth button that will cause Jacob and Evie to crouch down and pull their hoods up. A lot of the creeping is based more around hiding behind walls and staying out of sight, rather than hiding in plain view as has always been the core of the series up to now.  Blending into crowds just doesn’t feel all that important anymore, and at times I actually found it almost impossible to do. For example, bumping into other people can cause crowds to break up just enough to leave you exposed, but when you want to close the gap on an enemy using the crowd as cover you’ll be bumping into people a whole lot more. I’m still not sure whether this change is good or not, as when you’re placed into environments designed for it the new stealth system feels involving and effective, but it does make the game feel a bit less Assassin’s Creed to me as well. The changes to player movement in Syndicate can be a bit of a mixed bag. I love the new line launcher that lets you quickly scale buildings, across entire streets, and opens up lots of new tactical possibilities in dealing with enemies. Being able to jump in, cause some damage, and then zip away again really made me rethink how to handle enemy encounters, as now the strategies I’d learned from the earlier games simply wasn’t the best way of dealing with things. On the other hand, the parkour system does frequently suffer from weird pathfinding issues.Syndicate adopts Unity’s system of having one button to move up and another to move down, but moving down often resulted in me getting caught up on bits of scenery and winding up heading in a totally different direction than what I was intending. While it’s certainly nowhere near the broken state of Unity, Syndicate does still suffer from some bugs. Aside from the pathfinding issue I’ve already mentioned, I’ve notice plenty of people teleporting around in crowded areas, random deaths when pinned against stationary trains, and enemies running around in tiny circles. It’s by no means a bug-free game, but they’re minor hitches in a massive game, so I personally could look past them. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does have problems, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most enjoyable, interesting and different entry since Black Flag. The setting is great, and the changes to combat, movement and stealth mean you can’t play it the same way as every other game in the series. It’s a bit buggy, and there are some minor performance issues, but please don’t let that stop you from picking up Syndicate. For both ardent fans and those who are a bit tired of the formula, chances are Syndicate is what you were hoping for. [This PC Port Report is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assassin's Creed Syndicat photo
Let's 'ave a butcher's at the PC version
Assassin’s Creed has had a rough time on PC. Not only did the very first game control poorly, but later both the third game and the infamous Unity both had a glut of technical issues, bugs, and suffered with very p...

Very Quick Tips: Bloodborne: The Old Hunters

Nov 24 // Chris Carter
[embed]322164:61224:0[/embed] General tips (contains light, general spoilers): For a quick rundown of how to access the DLC, check out the video above. To locate the object to fight the optional boss, get to the point where you raise the giant elevator after the first boss fight (the room with the two human hunters). Step on and then step off to raise another platform. Grab that item and return to the main room in the Cathedral near the start of the DLC. Note that this one seems to be paced to fight after the first. If you're struggling with the DLC, try to at least have a Soul Level of 100 before attempting it. As always, it's possible to beat it no matter what your current level is, just keep that in mind. To obtain the Holy Moonlight Sword, talk to the head that appears after the first boss battle. If that doesn't work, equip the rune you obtained after beating him (Rally Bonus) and try again. If that fails, kill the head and take the weapon. For the boss that has multiple enemies, try to focus in on one at a time and quickly take them out. If you wait too long and don't keep track of the ones you've damaged, they will overwhelm you. When they summon the meteor attack, try to sprint around the arena clockwise. If you roll, you might get stunlocked. Alternatively, the Old Hunter's Bone spell is a great thing to trigger and use when the meteor chant is initiated. This one took me a while. After defeating the third boss (the humanoid opponent inside the clock room, pictured above), to get to the final area, you'll need to use the item you get from that fight on the giant window. At first I wasn't positioned correctly and nothing came up, so try to move around a bit if it doesn't trigger.
Bloodborne DLC tips photo
Wake up from the nightmare
When Bloodborne launched, I provided a series of tips for newcomers. They're still very much relevant for the dawn of the Old Hunters DLC pack, which debuts today, but I figured I'd provide a few add-on specific pieces of info. Note that there are light non-specific spoilers involved.

Review: Bloodborne: The Old Hunters

Nov 23 // Chris Carter
Bloodborne: The Old Hunters (PS4)Developer: From SoftwarePublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: November 24, 2015MSRP: $19.99 (requires core game) Throughout my complete five hour playthrough of The Old Hunters, I couldn't help but think that most of it could have just been in the full game. In fact, a lot of layouts are straight-up reused, not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but in a literal sense. The grand cathedral steps are recreated and only slightly altered, and roughly half of the DLC feels like it could have just been an extension of Yharnam. In some ways that's perfectly fine as it matches up with the rest of the experience, but in others, it's underwhelming. The enemies in particular are new, but a chunk of them aren't as memorable as the foes from other Souls DLCs, in the sense that I didn't really have to alter my tactics to confront them -- a large reason why I love add-ons for previous iterations. The biggest draw of course is the abundance of the titular Hunters, humanoid enemies that operate similarly to the player character. Sure there were a handful of them in the base game, but here, they're front and center, ready to flip some of your own tactics on you. Other enemies aren't as iconic, as there's a decent amount of repeats, from werewolves, to the Cthulu-esque giants, to standard infected townsfolk. The zones are a mixed bag as well. It wasn't until the last stretch of the DLC that I really saw something unique, even if everything up to that point was well designed. Most areas are open, and in the latter half, there's a decent amount of exploration and puzzle solving required. There's also a few mysterious NPCs to deal with, which is a Souls tradition, and I'm happy it was carried over here. [embed]320746:61140:0[/embed] So how are the boss fights? Par for the course, really. While I won't spoil anything, the first major encounter is heavily entwined in the game's lore, and this hulking monstrosity is a sufficient challenge if you're going at it solo. The rest of the boss fights are down down to earth, featuring smaller enemies that mirror the encounters with the aforementioned Hunters. I wasn't blown away by any of them, but I enjoyed the fights all the same, mostly because of the fact that I'm a sucker for smaller scale battles. In all, you're getting roughly five hours worth of content for the core story (about 10 if you do everything), 10 weapons (including a new, good shield), and five bosses. The new "League" update is available to everyone, and augments the overall package quite well. I might sound down on a lot of aspects of The Old Hunters, but ultimately, it will satiate most fans out there. The fact that it was supposed to be two DLCs that were merged into one makes sense, as part of it feels like cut content, and the other half seems like wholly original work. While I'm glad I had an excuse to drop into the world of Yharnam once again, there's a part of me that feels disappointed that this will be the last, and only add-on for Bloodborne. If you're curious as to how to access the DLC, check out the video above. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Bloodborne DLC review photo
All Nightmare Long
While many gamers out there are fighting the good fight against DLC, From Software is certainly making the case for it. Dark Souls had one of the most fantastic add-ons of all time in the form of Artorias of the Abyss, w...

Review: Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash

Nov 18 // Chris Carter
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (Wii U)Developer: Camelot SoftwarePublisher: NintendoMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 20, 2015 There's no two ways about it -- Ultra Smash  is a bare-bones game. If you came to this court expecting anything other than basic tennis, you will walk away disappointed. And even then, it doesn't handle the basics as well as its predecessors. There is a degree of strategy at work in Ultra Smash, just like in the past games in the series. Serves can be timed for greater effect, specific hits can be returned as direct counters (such as returning a topspin with a slice), while twitch movement and the ability to predict your opponent's moves are still paramount to your success. In that regard, nothing really has changed. You do have a few extra control options as the GamePad can mirror the TV (and I do mean "mirror," as perspectives aren't shifted for same-screen play, sadly) or function as a scoreboard. The Wii U Pro Controller and the Wii mote can also be used, though the latter does not feature motion support. The core modes are Classic or Mega Battle, the latter of which just throws in a Mega Mushroom occasionally to allow your characters to grow larger for a limited time, with enhanced stats to boot. Yep, the big gimmick this time is a power-up, and only one of them, on top of the fact that only one player per side can get it at a time. There's no story mode and no real experience to gain outside of coins (which unlock a mere four characters and courts paved with new material, like carpet) -- what you see is what you get. [embed]320462:61082:0[/embed] Other modes are just as paltry. There's the Mega Ball Rally, which tasks players with slicing a ball back and forth until someone (either another person or the CPU) screws up. It's literally one round and then it's over. It's almost indistinguishable from the other modes. Then there's the amiibo-based Knockout Challenge, which is the closest you're going to get to a progression-based system. In short, you'll be pitted against a crescendoing circuit of matches one after another, earning some bonus rewards (which again, can just be bought with coins) along the way. It's basically Classic mode with the ability to play with an amiibo partner, without any of the amiibo depth from other games like Smash Bros. I had a chance to try out online play before launch, and things seemed rather smooth, even if there are no lobbies or extras of any kind. It's probably the only real shining light of this package, but even then, it feels odd that it's a surprise for a Nintendo game to feature it in 2015. Of course there's a caveat -- you cannot play directly with friends. And... that's all you're getting. If you can stomach playing classic mode for hours on end with someone local, you'll probably find something to love here. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash feels like it was rushed into the holiday season to mask the absence of Star Fox. You're better off just playing any other previous game in the series, which is particularly easy to do since the first game is on the Wii U Virtual Console for just 10 bucks. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mario Tennis review photo
Swing low
Once upon a time, Mario Tennis was a national pastime at pretty much every household I visited. Back in the year 2000 there weren't a whole lot of alternative sports games outside of a few gems (I miss EA Sports Big), an...

Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Nov 17 // Chris Carter
Star Wars Battlefront (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE)Publisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 My main problem with Star Wars Battlefront is how arcadey the game feels, when it's very clear DICE is trying to push a fully-fledged shooter on you. The end result is a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, with a lot of fun bits, and some elements of overproduction and bloat fixed in to boot. Let's start with how the game handles class creation. "Cards" are basically uninspired loadout options, with the tired gating process to boot. Why does the game feature a "credits" system on top of ranked level gating? Call of Duty solved this conundrum ages ago with tokens, which simplify everything with a singular in-game currency that you can use to unlock things. With Battlefront, it feels like DICE is actively gating you at every turn, and willingly deterring you from experimentation. Once you actually open up your options they aren't exactly mind-blowing either, with generic powers like "focus fire" (more temporary accuracy), or Thermal Detonators, which are just grenades. The only standout is the jump pack. All of the aesthetic options lack personality as well, and beyond the token gender and race choices, everything looks the same. Whereas previous titles would allow players to choose between multiple races with drastically different abilities (read: droids), every Battlefront player is humanoid in nature, whether they're a Twi'lek rebel or a Stormtrooper, they all operate the same. [embed]320463:61122:0[/embed] That isn't to say that the game isn't fun. Locations are sprawling and full of life, even if the character models aren't nearly as vibrant. Every single environment is detailed to the point where it looks like it was taken directly from the films, and most of the time, there's a gigantic battle playing out in the skies above, adding a dire feel to every match. I really like most of the modes, particularly Supremacy, Fighter Squadron, and Hero Hunt. There are nine in all, and all of them are fine in their own way. Supremacy is basically the new core mode of the game, featuring a "capture the point" tug of war system. It fits with Star Wars' high-octane action, as tons of different vehicles are scattered about at a frantic pace, to the point where every spawn is interesting. This game type is pretty much always fun when it's featured in a Battlefront game, and I haven't had a bad experience yet. Fighter Squadron, while rudimentary, is also a go-to of mine. Across several landscapes two teams will battle it out in the sky, solely in vehicles. It's not even close to the thrill of a proper X-Wing or Tie Fighter game, but again, as an arcade-like experience, it does the trick. Barrel rolls, quick turns, shields, and missile locks are all in, and it feels unique enough to set itself apart from other similar titles. My other standout favorite is Hero Hunt. This one basically teeters from a team-based mode to a free-for-all in an instant, placing a collective of soldiers against one named character -- the person to score the killing blow gets to play as that hero. It's a rush due to the fact that heroes cycle after every death, and fighting the jet-pack wielding Boba Fett is a completely different experience than taking on a Force user. You're constantly forced to change up how you approach any given situation (and learn all of their abilities, and how they impact the flow of a match), and the recognizable characters elevate the mode. Playing online is the gift that keeps on giving with Battlefront. There's a wide variety of game types to choose from without having so many that the community feels segmented. Even in EA Access there are plenty of people online, and games fill rather quickly. Then you have the mission mode, which is separate from everything else. I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fleeting fancy, even with an online or offline co-op partner. The first half consists of basic "versus" battles with or without placing players in the shoes of heroes and villains, and survival essentially amounts to another horde mode. What's weird about the former is that it's so incredibly limited, almost for no reason. The game forces you to play with "tokens," similar to Call of Duty's "Kill Confirmed," and with just four maps, it gets old in an afternoon. Why did it have to be like this? Why aren't there more maps, and better bots available? It feels rushed, almost like EA had to add in a token offline game type just to have it in there. The same goes for survival, because while I do like that the wave-based mode has an "end," unlike many other boring infinite horde modes, there isn't much to it. Occasionally waves will throw an AT-ST or Tie Fighter at you, and all players have to do is blast it into oblivion with environmental weapons or their normal gear. They have a lot of health even on normal, so it can get incredibly tedious. In short, do not count on a reliable single player component. Star Wars Battlefront feels authentic in many ways, but that authenticity is aggressively pursued at the cost of gameplay, and is often tacked-on. If you're in the mood for a relatively shallow shooter with caveats you likely won't be disappointed, but I wish that DICE had a little more time to polish it and add more substance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, as well as time spent online with the EA Access program on Xbox One, purchased by the reviewer.]
Star Wars review photo
Ready are you? What know you of ready?
Star Wars has been a part of my reality ever since my parents showed me the first film on VHS. From there I attended the release of every movie in the series, including the re-releases of the original trilogy -- if you'r...

Review: Stella Glow

Nov 13 // Chris Carter
Stella Glow (3DS)Developer: ImageepochPublisher: AtlusMSRP: $49.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 Our journey begins with Alto, a young man who (surprise) has amnesia, and is found by a girl named Risette, who takes him into her mother's house. Three years later Alto encounters Hilda, a "sort of good sort of bad" witch, who is commonly referred to as "The Witch of Disaster" -- with a name like that, who wouldn't be inclined to be bad sometimes? Risette then unlocks an ancient power from one of Alto's artifacts, and becomes a witch herself -- then it's off to the royal palace, where they are tasked with hunting Hilda by recruiting more witches. You can probably guess where it goes from here. Alto is a country boy of sorts, but accepts to call to become a reluctant "aw shucks" shonen sword master. The rest of the party runs the gamut of anime tropes, and while they can occasionally get annoying, the cast is memorable enough and all sport a great set of designs. There are a few nuanced storylines peppered in, like the tale of a misunderstood witch who was doomed to live as an outcast. Another character hides her face in a cardboard box because she's shy, but wears revealing clothing. The cast is massive, and since there's no "job" switching in Stella Glow, all of them act unique both in and out of combat. Speaking of combat, much like the Arc series, it's still a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics. Utilizing chibi characters on a grid-like format, players can move about the battlefield, use items or skills, and choose to "wait" in a specific direction to guard against directional attacks. A lot of games still use the grid style because it works, even to this day. There's a certain order to it that warrants a respect beyond relegating it to "old school nostalgia," and planning out party movements and attacks is never a chore. When you're actually engaged with an enemy an Advanced Wars style miniature cutscene will play, and as expected, some characters have counter-attacks available. As previously stated, the cast really makes a different here, as some party members have access to special abilities like guarding characters they're adjacent to, which makes placement paramount. Don't expect a whole lot of depth and customization though (stats are applied instantly, and equipment management isn't all that difficult, even accounting for the materia-like socket system). [embed]320467:61085:0[/embed] Really, the game isn't all that tough in general. I feel like it will be challenging enough for those of you who don't keep up with the genre, but for veterans, you'll rarely find a taxing quest until later in the storyline. This is partially due to the fact that the AI isn't overly aggressive, and tends to hang back more, waiting for a better opportunity to strike. On the flipside, that means that there's no frustrating fake difficulty spikes for the sake of it. Like most SRPGs, Stella is hella long. There's at least 40 hours of gameplay here if you only opt for the story, and leveling up characters, locating the additional endings (over 10), completing sidequests and sidestories will likely elevate it to double that. Like most games with a billion endings, your mileage may vary depending on your affinity towards a specific character, but the ones I saw ranged from unsatisfying to sufficient. For those you are wondering, the voicework is in English, and the songs, which are heavily woven into the game's narrative, are performed in Japanese. In many ways, Stella Glow is a by-the-numbers strategy RPG, but it does have a partially interesting cast, some unique storylines, and a working combat system. Imageepoch has had some ups and downs in their lengthy career, but thankfully they can at least end on somewhat of a high note. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Stella Glow photo
Imageepoch's swan song
That's all she wrote for Imageepoch. The developer responsible for the Luminos Arc series and Arc Rise Fantasia filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and it seems like they're out of the industry entirely with the laun...

Review: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Released: November 10, 2015 The rest of the story missions are on par with the initial set, as players delve deeper into the story of the Protoss and their attempt to reclaim their homeworld and save the galaxy. I was surprised, though, to see that the narrative not only seeks to wrap up the fate of Auir and the Protoss race, but the rest of the core cast as well. Call it cheesy, but Blizzard actually wraps up things nicely here, and doesn't leave fans wanting. Yes, there will be Ghost missions as DLC down the line, but the story of StarCraft truly feels complete, partially due to the assistance of a tri-mission epilogue. That's not to say that things are executed flawlessly, of course. There are still some odd storylines, weird choices from characters, and absolutely ridiculous phrases uttered throughout. But all told, things are far more focused. The camera is off the struggle of Raynor and Kerrigan's relationship, and more on the survival of the entire galaxy. I fully expect a lot of fans to dislike the finale for various reasons we'll be discussing for years on end once people have had a chance to finish it. Elements of customization also appear like never before in the series, with the power to change up your home ship (The Spear of Adun), and the heroes themselves. These are augmented by sidequests, which actively encourages players to reach out and do everything there is to do in each mission. While a few levels did tend to blend together (craft a base and army, and smash into another one), the story and carried progress keep things going, and I didn't find myself getting bored like I did with Wings of Liberty. [embed]319826:61049:0[/embed] Co-op allows you to select between six heroes (Raynor, Kerrigan, Artanis, Swann, Zagara, and Vorazun), all of whom carry over their experience to subsequent playthroughs. It's a lot like Heroes of the Storm in a way, where you can work your way toward new bonuses, level-ups, and upgrades over time with each character. Objectives include tasks like destroying vehicles or other units, and are rather menial in nature. It's important to note though that you don't play as these heroes -- they just provided bonuses and alter the style of your army. Also, leveling up allows you to access some of the more advanced units, like the Terran Battlecruiser. There's matchmaking support, and given the simplicity of the mode, it works well even with random players. Although I would have preferred a full-on mode with playable heroes, co-op really does the trick, and I wish it had been implemented sooner. I had a blast getting to know other players I was matched up with, trading strategies, and just talking about the game. It's a relaxed mode that will scratch that itch if you find yourself plummeting on the ladder, or failing in the new tournament system. So how is multiplayer? Relatively the same, with the addition of two new units per army. Actually, I should say the gameplay is the same, but the added bonus of all of these units seeks to change up the meta considerably. The return of the Lurkers for the Zerg is a standout unit, and memories of Brood War came rushing back within seconds. The Disruptor is probably the most unique unit in Void, as it shoots a ball of pure energy that can hit both friends and foes. While casting, it's immobile and vulnerable, so players will have to treat it as a priority target. The thing oozes Protoss inside and out. As for the other units, the Liberator is basically like an aerial Siege Tank, the Cyclone is an early-game harassment vehicle, the Adept not only looks badass but it also teleports around like a more mobile late-game Zealot option, and Ravagers are like mobile artillery, eating through force fields. As you can clearly see, all of them bring something new to the table and are welcome in their own right. The meta will no doubt drastically shift in the months to come, but as of now, I'm having the same amount of fun online as I always have. Archon Mode is another welcome addition, and while I can see people skipping out on it entirely, it will likely draw in a niche crowd. The gist is that two people will control one base, which can lead to some interesting playstyles, like one player micromanaging air units while the other hits foes from the ground. Where its potential really lies is a tool for teaching, so friends can walk newcomers through the basics of base building and combat. If you're invested in StarCraft II's story already, you likely won't be disappointed by Legacy of the Void's tale. If you haven't played any form of StarCraft II yet and are intrigued by the prospect of another RTS, this is probably the strongest the game has ever been. It's a perfect time to jump in. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
When I last left StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, I had completed most of the story. Having now played it all, I've walked away satisfied, not only from this expansion, but from the series as a whole. Decades after its inception, Blizzard is still at the top of its class in terms of cinematic storytelling, and the new game modes don't hurt the appeal of the overall package in the slightest.

Star Wars Battlefront's full version hasn't really swayed me

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
Firstly, I have to say I'm surprised at how smooth the EA Access build has been. I've had no issues connecting to any matches, and online play has been very smooth. There's also plenty of people in the program, and nearly every match I've played has filled up immediately. Additionally, nine modes in all is enough to keep people interested without having the unfortunate effect of splitting the community. In addition to the modes I already covered, another addition really stood out -- Hero Hunt. It's a 1v7 mode essentially, where one player takes the place of an iconic hero, and defends themselves against a group of standard soldiers. Whoever kills said character becomes one next. It's pretty fun, mostly because of how formidable each hero is. I love that it's constantly changing up the hero after each kill, as it forces players to adjust their tactics The other breakout mode is Fighter Squadron, which is an entirely vehicular based affair, similar to a Star Fox skirmish. It's a far better way to handle ships than the lame "power-up" style pickups in the core modes, and there are even hero ships like the Falcon involved. AI is also built in to make it feel more full and "epic," which I'm mostly okay with since it feels more arcadey than anything. As for the rest of the modes they're pretty standard fare (team deathmatch, escort), and across all of them I noticed the same stilted animations from the beta. It feels cheap, even in comparison to DICE's recent efforts like Battlefield 4. Voicework for standard grunts and heroes alike also feels rush and hastily injected. Pop-in is a major issue, and one of my soldiers even grew hair in the intro -- it was hilarious, but when it happens in-game it's just annoying. [embed]320256:61076:0[/embed] Thankfully the offline modes have been fully unlocked as well, allowing me a much bigger taste in comparison to the one horde mode mission in the beta. As a note, all of the following supports online and split-screen play, the latter of which sees a small drop in quality as well as the framerate, but is still presented in a very much playable state. The first of the two modes is "Battles," which are essentially team deathmatch confrontations with AI built in. There are only four maps to choose from (Hoth, Tatooine, Endor, and Sullust), and both support regular or hero battles -- the latter of which allows players to control a named character (Luke, Han, Leia, Vader, Palpatine, or Boba). It's...straight-up Kill Confirmed from Call of Duty. After downing a foe they'll drop tokens, which you'll have to collect to score points. Do that 100 times and the match is over. If you want you can turn off your AI support, which makes the gametype even more like a horde mode than it already is. Sadly, the AI is a bit dull even on the "master" difficulty, so they never really take the gameplay to the next level. The same exact four maps are available in Survival mode, which delivers enemies in waves like a traditional horde experience. It's a fun distraction, but it doesn't ever go the full mile, heavily relying on nostalgia, like the classic soundtrack from the original trilogy. Ultimately, both modes feel the same. The former is framed more as a versus match, but still places multiple AI opponents in each arena with you -- it just isn't presented in a wave-based format. For those of you who were holding out hope for a more involved single-player component in lieu of a campaign, prepare to be disappointed. I obviously need more time to deliver a final verdict, so stay tuned for a full review sometime next week. In the meantime, you can download the game now if you're in the EA Early Access program or you happened to get a free token recently.
Star Wars Battlefront photo
EA Access impressions
I wasn't all that smitten with the Star Wars Battlefront beta, but today the full game launches for EA Early Access members, with a 10-hour time limit caveat. Now the game is free of content locks, with all modes available for play in addition to the offline component, which features split-screen support and bots. The final build hasn't really changed my mind all that much.

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (Patch 3.1)

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 23, 2015 Whereas past patches tended to lead towards an epic conclusion with a pesky Primal, 3.1, As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness in many ways is a table-setting diversion. The brand new trial encounter (Knights of the Round EX) is not gated by the main story questline -- players can just pick that up from the Mor Dhona bar -- and the tale essentially consists of a series of errands and cutscenes, with only one instanced mission at the end. All said, it will take you roughly an hour to complete. It basically deals with locating missing comrades after the events of the story and has no real payoff other than furthering the Warrior of Darkness arc, which will likely slowly play out throughout the entire course of Heavensward, until another expansion comes around. That said, it still has a lot of personality. I enjoyed seeing the new cast interact with one another. The real star of this patch though is the new exploratory mission mode. Billed as an open-world sandbox, you're thrown into a randomly generated high-level zone with various objectives, including combat challenges and gathering activities. In a Guild Wars 2-like twist, players will share rewards and XP if they fight named creatures in this mode while encountering other parties, and everyone can contribute to objectives as a party.  The rewards are excellent, and the entire affair plays out like a giant randomized hunt. It's a rush to fly around with a bunch of strangers and locate targets, and killing a bunch of high-priority enemies will spawn newer, tougher bosses. While it's meant to be played as a group you can still solo queue for it, as long as you're okay with rolling greed for everything against everyone else. I played this more than anything else this patch and don't see myself getting tired of it. [embed]320086:61066:0[/embed] Players can also head into two new dungeons and the 24-person Void Ark raid, meant to mirror the Crystal Tower casual activities in vanilla Realm Reborn. I'm happy with how the two dungeons (Saint Mocianne's Arboretum and Pharos Sirius Hard) turned out. The developers have it down to a science now (the same goes for the new EX encounter, King Thordan, which is just as fun as every EX in the past, and perfectly tuned in terms of difficulty). Bosses are fun without being too tough for people just passing through in matchmaking, and the locations, although heavily gated to prevent speedrunning, are full of detail. While patches typically provide three new dungeons, I'm actually fine with a pair of them, and the trend of one new location and one remake is something I can get behind. The Void Ark is very similar in that regard, but it also provides a brand new arc, which I personally feel is stronger than Crystal Tower's. The encounters are a tad easier than the previous casual raids, which I'm starting to have mixed feelings about. I get that the philosophy is accessibility, but at the same time, I feel like the developers aren't preparing the player base for tougher activities, some of which support matchmaking tools. On the flipside, I'm a bit more invested in the story this time around, as they've weaved Diabolos into it, as well as another fan-favorite character from the series that I won't spoil here. So what else does 3.1 entail? A bunch of ancillary stuff. For one, you have the Vanu Vanu beast tribe quests, which will provide hardcore players with another faction to grind for. I was never big on the tribes as they felt far too repetitive for menial rewards, and only adding one tribe feels like a half-measure -- people will just grind it out in a few minutes and move on daily. The Gold Saucer also got a small update in the form of a new wing, two new mini-games, and the Lord of Verminion strategy game, as well as some new Triple Triad cards. I'm really glad the team is still pushing this zone, as it's the perfect place to go while you're waiting for queue times, or if you want to spend a few minutes in the game without doing anything important. No, Verminion isn't quite Pokémon, but it adds in another use for minions, and it's definitely fun enough to play a few times on a weekly basis. Other quality-of-life fixes are in, like the fact that the DualShock 4 is now plug and play on PC. There are new camera options, enhanced companion functionality like full support for other mounts, a small Ninja buff to bring them in line with other DPS, more flying mounts, and the ability to ride in Idyllshire. Another controversial change is the "solution" to the housing market -- demolition -- or as other MMOs call it, "decay." After 45 days, your house will be demolished, unless you log in and prevent it. It's...a very typical strategy for more hardcore games, but for a casual MMO like Final Fantasy, it feels out of place. I wish Square Enix would just fix the housing issue with bigger wards and more of them, but the developers haven't actually addressed it in months. All in all, I'm a bit conflicted on 3.1 I adore the exploratory missions, and find them to be one of my favorite gametypes in an MMO to date. The new dungeons (as well as the Void Ark) are strong, and the story, while brief, is engaging. But at the same time, this is clearly a catch-up patch, with the typical loop consisting of players grinding for Poetic Tomes to better face the existing Alexander Savage raid. Sadly, there's no new wing for Alexander, and most disappointing of all, the anticipated continuation of the Zodiac weapon questline is nowhere to be found, as it has been pushed to a later patch I'm not sure if As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness is enough to really pull anyone back in if they quit recently, but I'm having fun with it regardless. I can see myself doing the Void Ark weekly for the foreseeable future, and logging in regularly to do more exploratory missions. I just hope the team has more up its sleeve sooner than later. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV photo
As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward was a tremendous expansion, all things considered. It brought in a whole new storyline that was worth getting invested in, new classes, and tons of additional activities including a raid. B...

Review in Progress: StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

Nov 10 // Chris Carter
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (PC)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentMSRP: $39.99 (Standard), $59.99 (Digital Deluxe)Release Date: November 10, 2015 For those who aren't aware, Legacy of the Void is a standalone release -- it does not require the first or second modules to function. Since it has a nifty "story so far" video built-in, you don't even need to play the previous two games to have a sense of what's going on, though you'll obviously benefit from having done so. If you haven't been following along at all, Void picks up with all three armies (Terran, Zerg, and Protoss) facing Amon, an evil xel'naga (read: powerful being) hell bent on destroying all life in the galaxy. There's a prologue built in with three missions in tow that set up this struggle, and for the most part, you're going to be controlling various factions of the Protoss army on Artanis' quest to unite the clans, and actually pose a threat to Amon. Blizzard pretty much has the formula down pat at this point when it comes to mission types. Every level I've played so far strikes a good balance between action and strategy, and the orchestral score sufficiently pumps you up even if all you're doing at the moment is building troops. Micro-managing one's army is a cinch with hotkeys, double-clicking to select groups, and pressing F2 to instantly command every unit -- but that's just it, you'll need to micro somewhat, especially on higher difficulties to succeed (Brutal has been greatly altered for the best to provide a real challenge). [embed]319814:61047:0[/embed] There isn't really a whole lot of room for nuance here with this black and white conflict, which is mostly a good thing as the story never really takes any turns down pointless avenues, nor does it set up new plotlines so much as it aims to close them. Instead, Void seeks to provide action-packed setpieces one after another, teeming with personality and dread, and a campaign that moves rather quickly. With all that said, having played through a good deal of the story, I think I'm comfortable stating that I enjoyed Swarm more overall, as it was more of a personal tale. It dialed back the stakes a bit to really dig deep into some characters who needed some love, and as a result, it felt very different. Void tries to balance the fate of the galaxy with Artanis' role in the narrative, and it mostly succeeds, but some personal touches get lost in the fold. The cinematics, as always, are top-notch. Without spoiling anything there's a few particularly tense moments with damn good choreography and actual consequences that span the StarCraft lore. Blizzard once again proves that it's the master of its craft here, and fans will no doubt be sharing a few "holy crap!" moments across various channels for the weeks to come. While there is some form of closure the story of StarCraft isn't completely done just yet though, as more DLC is coming down the line. I'm only early on into my time with StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, and I still need more time to finish the story, and test the game's co-op and multiplayer components before I provide a full review. Right now though, I'd probably recommend it if you're already invested and want to see how the story concludes. No, it probably won't surprise you, but it's worth playing.
StarCraft II review photo
My life for Aiur
Although I had played countless RTS games before it (Command & Conquer, rest in peace), StarCraft grabbed me like no other in 1998. Part of it was because a large group of my friends, even those who had no prior affinity ...

Very Quick Tips: Fallout 4

Nov 10 // Chris Carter
General tips: It helps to research the perk chart first before you start putting points into anything. That way you can attain your desired choices right away without having to grind out stats. Consult the below video for some help. If anything "big" happens that seems monumental in terms of the story, check that room far and wide for bobble heads and comic books -- that's often when they show up. Don't forget to level up! That sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget when you're in the heat of battle. Check your Pip-Boy and look at the bottom of the screen to see if you have any points to spend. [from Dtoid's Jordan Devore] Get the perk Lead Belly (2 END) as soon as you can. Drinking water without repurcussions will help conserve simpaks. That way when you get into the thick of it without anything to drink, you'll have plenty of healing power. [embed]318561:61034:0[/embed] Lock picking is the same it's always been, but it's important to know the basics. If you hear or feel a vibration in any way, ease off. Tilt the sticks ever so slightly and gently try to get as far as you can with the tumbler before you commit. Confused with hacking still? Note that when choosing a password, common letters in the real answer will show up on screen. For example, if you choose CAT, and the answer is DOG, you will have zero likenesses, which will help clue you in and eliminate similar phrases. Take your time with these sections -- there's no need to rush. When you're engaged in combat and you're out of Action Points, initiate V.A.T.S. anyway, cancel, and then start shooting -- your sights should be mostly lined up with the target. It's also a good idea to regularly press the V.A.T.S. button if you are entering an unfamiliar area and you aren't sure where enemies might be. [from Dtoid's Jordan Devore] Advanced tips (light mission spoilers but nothing major): If you're turning in a Minutemen mission to Preston Garvey and he's chilling at one of your settlements, make sure to sleep on one of your beds for the "well-rested" XP boost before talking to him [from Dtoid's Jordan Devore] If you're on the "Freedom Trail" mission, look for the red markings on the ground, not the lanterns. Walk around the perimeter of the park the mission starts you off at, and follow the red lines on the ground to the north. If you get lost and lose a line, just backtrack and try your best to follow the cracks. Have you broken down yet and thrown your controller against a wall? Here's the solution. Not long into helping the Brotherhood of Steel, you'll acquire smoke grenades that you can use to call in a Vertibird to your current position. Once it lands, you can hop in the vehicle and travel to a different location or, better yet, just sit inside the Vertibird while it remains stationary and use its turret to cheese fights against giant enemies. This method requires some planning, but it works particularly well against super mutant behemoths and a specific mirelurk in one of the side missions. [from Dtoid's Jordan Devore]
Fallout 4 photo
Boston cream tips
Fallout 4, like its predecessors, is a lot to take in from start to finish. The open world and leveling mechanics can seem daunting, as any wrong move can leave you without proper equipment to take on particular tasks. Here's some tips to help you along the way.

Review: Rodea the Sky Soldier

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Rodea the Sky Soldier (3DS, Wii, Wii U [reviewed])Developer: Kadokawa Games, PropePublisher: Kadokawa Shoten, NISMSRP: $39.99 (3DS) / $59.99 (Wii U with Wii edition for first-print copies)Released: April 2, 2015 (Japan), November 10, 2015 (US) Rodea is a strange, strange game. While the Wii version uses IR movement and is more in line with the creator's original vision, and the 3DS edition has even more differences, this assessment deals directly with the Wii U. This is a traditional single-player action game with RPG elements, most of which remind me of the golden age of JRPGs. You have your shonen hero (Rodea), a robot who has been stricken with amnesia at the start of the game, and must stop the evil Naga empire from taking over. Oh, there's one catch: his princess gave him an actual heart, so he's not a soulless machine. If you end up choosing the Japanese audio option, the narrative, while cheesy, is watchable. Where Rodea really spreads its wings is the open-ended flight gameplay, similar to Nights into Dreams. Within the confines of each semi-open level, Rodea can move around on foot, jump, hover, boost attack enemies, and blast off into the sky. The gist is that he has a limited flight time (it's actually rather generous), and once his meter is expended, he must either pivot off of a solid object, or land on the ground and start a new flight pattern. It's jarring at first, but it's easy to get the hang of after about 30 minutes, and you have a huge degree of freedom. Some of it is even automated (grabbing pickups, grinding wires), but never to the extreme degree of the 3D Sonic titles. Although the GamePad does support off-screen play, there's no need to even look at it, as the controls are entirely traditional on Wii U. The open design works both for and against Rodea. While it's amazing to look into the horizon at times and see areas you can readily explore, the draw distance is often so poor that it's tough to plot out a full course. Additionally, a lot of zones tend to blend together, with entire areas that have nothing more than empty plains seemingly unfinished. Rodea also starts to falter when it adds more elements to the mix beyond its core conceit. While the boost attack is fairly foolproof (it's a lot like the 3D Sonic games' homing attack), gunplay is shoehorned in. It isn't fun at all. The fact that the controls feel dated isn't entirely the player's fault, as the entire game feels like something out of last generation, and possibly even a generation before that. That's not to say Rodea doesn't sport a beautiful art style -- because it does -- just that occurrences like slowdown, pop-in, and occasional glitches are present more than they should be. Individual missions can get boring, but flying is always a joy, and bosses are often the highlight. They'll range from humanoid fights to giant hulking monstrosities, and both varieties are a blast while they last. This is a decently long affair, with over 25 levels, upgrades to purchase, and even a secret shop with extras like an additional mode. You can expect anywhere from 15-30 hours once everything is said and done. You rarely see things like this outside of DLC, so it's refreshing that the game feels so feature complete, even if it technically has three different versions in the end. Rodea the Sky Soldier really hits that sweet spot when it comes to evoking the wonder of flight, but the troubled developmental process is tangible in the final build. For those of you who can stomach older experiences however, you'll likely overlook some of its issues and find a lot to love. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rodea review photo
A rusted robot with a heart
The history of Rodea the Sky Soldier is one muddled with platform changes and developmental issues galore. Originally slated as a Wii game in 2010, producer Yuji Naka ran into publishing troubles, and the project was ess...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Nov 09 // Steven Hansen
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 (Xbox One, Xbox 360); Q1 2016 (PC); Q4 2016 (PS4) Having previously glimpsed the supernatural, Rise of the Tomb Raider's Lara is open to the wild theories of ancient immortality that consumed her father. A brief trip into Syria introduces the new enemy, a highly-funded, obviously evil group called Trinity led by Konstantin, a religious zealot and less comic book version of Uncharted 2's Lazarević. Lara then tries to beat the stonejaw-led shadowy entity to the Siberian wilderness, where most of the game takes place. The first thing I noticed in Syria was its rich orange sands, a strong contrast to the last Tomb Raider's much more muted palette. Then it was Lara's powerful blue glow stick as she began navigating tombs, providing the same orange/cyan look you find in most Hollywood movie color grading. Naturally, when Lara goes to off to Russia and the blue-white snow and ice, she's suddenly packing orange glow sticks. It's not a bad thing, though. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not shy about using unrealistic lighting to set a mood and it works, like when the blizzarding night sky is illuminated with an eerie deep red light thanks to Trinity flares. It's one of the best-looking games this year, but it also goes beyond stylish at times and helps set the mood. Coupled with a camera that occasionally, but never annoyingly, takes control from you to frame the next impressive mountain establishment or some such thing you have to climb. [embed]319740:61038:0[/embed] The combination of framing, use of color, and lighting are welcomed Hollywood cribbing. Most of the additions since the last entry are welcomed, too. The stealth options make more sense in a supposedly serious game hellbent on showing the brutality Lara deals with (gruesome death close-ups are still plentiful), rather than the more discordant Lara-as-Terminator that doesn't jive with the story being told. That said, you can still mostly do that. Even when the game hinted I could stealth through an environment, unless I saw an obvious path, it was easy to loose bows from afar into enemies' heads. Rise also touted the tombs pre-release, which are peppered throughout the world. They're probably the highlight. I think Tomb Raider is a better platformer than shooter and working out these beautiful, often complex environmental puzzles had me yearning for a more ICO-like distribution of puzzle/platforming versus murder. The stealth, too, kind of hints at a game that could've made death and killing meaningful in line with the narrative, but instead we're left with a refinement of the Uncharted series sans one-liners.  Except for the bloat, which kind of flies in the face of the snappy movie cues and Uncharted's beats. Rise borrows slightly from the Legend of Zelda formula in that there are distinct areas ("hubs") organically woven together, but requiring back-tracking with new gear and items. It's a very game-y conceit. In the cinematics I asked why Lara hadn't a camera (or even a cell phone) to prove (evidence!) the things her father died over, but she didn't even slip an iPhone out of her pocket. At the same, coming across a rope and being told I can't cut it until I find a knife, well, why the hell does Lara not have a knife? People who like busywork will probably appreciate the hub areas replete with open-world style challenges (burn all 10 communist propaganda posters, cut down all the snared rabbits, etc.), but it kind of grated on me. I didn't open the map until a few hours in and I immediately wanted to slam it shut after seeing the Assassin's Creed-style unreadable mess of icons. And while these tasks often yield rewards, including XP, it just feels to unnecessary. Which is kind of true, given that I got through the game fine without doing anything but the most convenient extras, and didn't find a +2 damage Polished Barrel to affect my capacity to kill folks all that much. So why's any of it there at all? Rise has a very pressing, dire narrative, and is a joy when you're moving around and exploring the gorgeous environments. Constant IU flashes (10XP!!!) only serve as an intrusion and gum up the works. Having to pause the game and look at a static menu screen to hear picked-up audio logs (already a bit of a lazy, all too convenient way to shove more story into your game) kills momentum, tension, excitement. You just have to stare at a render of a tape recorder if you want to know why the big bad bleeds from his hands. The story handles the necessary, telegraphed third act turn to the supernatural well, but generally suffers from a glossing over. The Burberry-clade arm of Trinity trying to beat Lara to the punch are well-acted, but pretty one-dimensional (even with everything wrapped up in explanatory audio logs). An entire society isolated in the Siberian wilderness speaks perfect English. It's perfunctory Hollywood boilerplate, down to the set up for the sequel, but competently done. Worth noting: I ran into an odd problem late in the game where enemies would disappear. First right before me when I was swinging an ice axe at them as if Lara did so with enough force to banish them from this plane of existence, but then sometimes they'd vanish completely on their own. Once this locked me in a room because whatever needed to trigger to open the door couldn't and I had to restart (not losing much progress), while it also happened during the game's final boss fight, which was anticlimactic. The loss of XP from these tactical Houdinis might impact games on harder difficulty settings where the leveling and crafting system could prove more necessary, though on normal I got to a point where I didn't even care to spend my skill points. That excess is a problem shared with the last Tomb Raider, which bills itself (and thematically tries to be) a survivalist game, but simply isn't. It's a bit goofy ruining the beautiful colors of the world by constantly jamming down the "survival instincts" button to light up objects of interest and clambering around to strip trees of their boughs. Eventually I stopped going out of my way to pick up trash, yet I still always had ammo and arrows. Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat. Busy work. And it isn't consistent with the story. Moving around, on the other hand, is sublime. It is odd, though. There's an animation for when Lara is pushed up against a short, maybe knee-high lip; pressing the jump button has her labor up it a bit. Yet if you push the jump button otherwise, she will leap clean four feet into the air like a cat. That amusing inconsistency aside, Lara's movement animations are all so fluid and impressive. If she barely makes a jump, she can slip and fall if you don't press a button. But rather than her needing to get a grip be a recurring quick-time event, it organically happens every time you barely snag a ledge. This means you can tell if that prompt is about to come up and can preemptively push it, and Lara will secure her grip and you can continue about fluidly climbing around. It's a good bit of adding interaction to the platforming without having to pre-plan bits of structure that will start to crumble when you grab them. Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than its predecessor, but only because of its additions; it doesn't fix any of the things that were wrong with Tomb Raider (2013). The story is smoothed down, much of it hidden away in dull audio logs. It's not about "survival" as billed, given the ease of mowing down dozens of folks and plenty of resources. But finding tombs wherein to clamber about ancient Rube Goldberg machines, coupled with the gorgeous visual flair and diverse environments, make Rise's wilderness one worth exploring and elevate Tomb Raider's otherwise perfunctory take on the third-person action platformer. I still get a strong sinking feeling in my stomach when I've misjudged a jump and watch Lara careening towards a splat. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tomb Raider review photo
Get to know 'er
I sometimes forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981. Its breezy pulp adventure quality carries only obvious signifiers of its era (like, Nazis), and the repetition of these tropes act as enough hand waving to the...

Review: Fallout 4

Nov 09 // Chris Carter
Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksMSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 [Light spoilers below in the first two paragraphs for the first 30 minutes of the game] With Fallout 4, Bethesda returns to the "where is my family member" storyline that began with the great search for Liam Neeson back in 2008. You'll have a brief opportunity to take in pre-apocalypse life with your family (the day the bombs dropped, on October 23, 2077), then it's off to the Vault, where you will stay, frozen in hyper-sleep, for 200 years. Upon waking up, you're off on a Mel Gibson Ransom-esque quest to find your son. The slight twist of unloading your character 200 years into the future makes for an interesting premise, but it never really fully commits. Often times you'll encounter residents who are confused and "can't believe" that you're from the old world, but those conversations quickly devolve into the matter at hand or another questline. On the other side of the coin, since the world your avatar (male or female) experiences is new, there is no need to play past games in the series outside of knowing the ins and outs of a few bits of lore fluff here and there. Even then, concepts are reexplained with reckless abandon. [End intro spoilers] Without spoiling anything further, the main narrative is generally weaker than most of the side storylines, which isn't anything particularly new with Fallout. Players will start off doing odd jobs for various wastelanders, recruiting new companions and making enemies along the way, with a few twists and turns at the tale's midpoint. Eventually, you'll come across forms of synthetic life, which serves as the crux of a core piece of the story. Again, Bethesda's writing team never fully commits to this concept, and it's kind of just there, with a few "gotcha" moments meant to elicit a response with mixed results. For those who are curious, yes, faction-divergent storylines and endings are possible. Just like in the past, most of your excitement will come from roaming around the wasteland on your own, discovering new abodes and secrets, which is far easier to do in Fallout 4. Small additions like playable retro games make discovery that much more meaningful, along with all of the coveted bobbleheads and comic books strewn about the overworld. The map is so huge and so diverse that there's a new secret boss or location waiting at every turn, and the addition of 12 total companions helps mix things up a bit. [embed]318096:60994:0[/embed] The companion system has been enhanced slightly, as it is now possible to issue basic fetch or interaction commands by clicking on their person, and clicking on an object -- you can also send them to a desired location after parting instead of leaving them to their own devices. It's very rudimentary, but it's a marked improvement. The main narrative clocks in at roughly 15 hours, but players could likely spend well over 100 in a single playthrough and still not find everything. Despite the puffing up of id Software's involvement with the combat systems though, it's relatively the same song and dance. While it is still possible to engage in active combat with an ADS mechanic, the V.A.T.S. aiming system, which pauses your game and allows players to target specific body parts, is still king. Often times I'd waste ammo shooting directly at a foe's head doing little damage, only to switch back to V.A.T.S. and score a one-hit kill headshot. Bethesda has tried to make it a tad more action-oriented with "critical shots" that can be used every so often, but it feels like a half-measure. The good news is if you loved Fallout's combat before, you'll feel right at home. Speaking of homes, housing situations are enhanced thanks to the new home building mechanic. Now instead of finding makeshift diners to camp out at, and storing knick-knacks in random drawers, players can hold a button to bring up a Sims-style crafting system, complete with furniture, power grids, and practical elements like workstations. Even if you're not all that into creating things, it's still quite useful for small quality-of-life additions, like an extra bed to recover life in, and so on. Having said that, there is a caveat -- inventory management is still a pain using the Pip-Boy. To build objects, you'll need to acquire individual elements such as "ceramics," which can be a coffee cup for instance, or "glass," such as a Nuka Cola bottle. The Pip-Boy UI still displays things like an unmanageable list, so it's really tough to see what you have on hand without spending tons of time in menu screens. The same principle goes for weapons and armor. It's doable, but it's annoying. Power armor is also completely revamped, and I'm torn as to its implementation. For one, you can't just "equip" power armor pieces and call it a day. It's now an item or a power-up of sorts that you actually get into, and need to constantly fuel with a specific power source. If you're out of fuel, the suit walks slowly and it's nigh impossible to actually get anywhere. In theory, the idea of building and using your own armor sounds cool, but it's very limited, and there were very few occasions where I'd actively want to go back to a location, grab my suit, and venture out. In fact I'd burn through fuel so quickly that I just said "screw it" most of the time, as it actively stifles exploration. The perk system is probably one of the biggest changes, all said. Perks are now acquired by way of a huge grid with lovable Vault Boy animations, and the possibilities allow for an essentially unlimited amount of leveling. Players can also put points directly into SPECIAL stats (which impact things like conversational ability and carrying capacity) if they wish. It's such a small thing, to make everything so visual, but it actively fueled my quest to acquire more experience and attain more perks, some of which drastically alter gameplay -- like the power to swim openly without gaining radiation sickness. At this point, you're probably aware of Bethesda's history with shipping buggy open-world games by now. If you were hoping that somehow a generational leap would magically buck that trend, prepare to be disappointed. Nearly every classic glitch is accounted for, including occasional save data issues, repeated dialogue, frameskipping, severe frame-rate drops, pop-in, falling through the floor, and so on. For those of you who are used to this with the past work, it's par for the course -- for everyone else who doesn't put up with it, nothing has changed. I should also note that while visual issues were persistently present in the Xbox One edition (reviewed here), I only ran into full-on game crashing twice during my travels. Given how glitchy it is, I can only speculate as to whether or not there will be any game-breaking bugs that completely halt progress, but it seems very likely. After spending over 40 hours with the game, I can safely place it somewhere in the middle of Fallout 3 and New Vegas in terms of quality. A lot of the franchise's signature problems have carried over directly into Fallout 4, but all of its charms have come along for the ride as well. It manages to do a whole lot right, but the story drags at times, and glitches...glitches never change. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Fallout 4 review photo
Like war, Fallout games never change
My first introduction to the Fallout series was in 1997, with Interplay's wonderfully open and unique strategy RPG titles. So when Fallout 3 first dropped from Bethesda years later, I was taken aback by a lot of the concessio...

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Nov 06 // Nic Rowen
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (PC)Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillenPublisher: NicalisMSRP: $9.99 (DLC),  $24.99 (Bundle with Rebirth)Released: November 4, 2015 Afterbirth's “back of the box” bullet points are impressive – 120 new items, new level variations for every floor, a pack of new bosses and enemies, a new character, and an entirely new game mode to round it off - but those numbers only tell half of the story (maybe only a quarter). Any game can just add a bunch of new stuff, a crate of duplicate items, a pack of palette-swap enemies, a few coats of paint on some old levels, whatever. What makes Afterbirth so special isn't just how many new little doodads have been dropped into the game, but how perfectly the new additions entwine themselves into the experience. How they fit right in, but at the same time dramatically warp and twist the classic Isaac experience into an entirely new entity. Afterbirth takes a lot of risks to introduce new wrinkles and mechanics. Almost every new item does something wild, or weird, or aggravating. The Glass Cannon lets you fire a powerful mega shot every few seconds, at the cost of depleting your health down to a perilous single half-heart. The Fruitcake randomly changes the type of tears you fire with every shot, constantly shuffling between spread shots, homing tears, holy bolts, and the occasional randomly exploding fire shot (always a treat when you’re not expecting it). Items like the Scalpel, an infinite use ability that lets you make portal style tunnels between two points (either in the same room or different ones) complete changes the way you approach room exploration and some boss fights. Things like the occasional “Item Recycler” in an item room that will let you pay coins to change the offered item to another random selection, lets you make smarter, more interesting choices about how you play. This isn’t just “more stuff;” it’s all different, surprising, and exciting stuff. As someone who spent an ungodly amount of time with the original game, one of the things I've enjoyed the most about Afterbirth is finding new combinations and synergies with old items. There is more of an emphasis on layering and blending items rather than just replacing them in this expansion. An old standby like Mom's Knife can now be combined with the laser beam spewing classic Brimstone to create a spray of butcher knives that will travel across the screen. Or a mix of old and new, like the freshly introduced Incubus pet, a little demon that will mirror Isaac's tear effects, combined with a traditionally poor item like Soy Milk to scrub a room clean with hundreds of tiny, but rapid, tears. Further encouraging fresh experimentation with old items are a slew of new transformation effects. Collecting certain items that belong in the same set will result in a character-changing new look and a bonus ability or two. Rebirth only had two transformations (including the much beloved Guppy transformation that would change Isaac into brokenly powerful manifestation of his dead cat). Afterbirth comes correct with nine entirely new transformations to mutate poor Isaac. The effects of these transformations are weaker on average than the Guppy buff, but are sourced from item pools that are far more common, including several junky items. It's a smart change, instead of being monomaniacally focused on becoming Guppy, there are now potential advantages to picking up so-called dud items, encouraging smart play with a long-term vision. Or they can just serve as a consolation prize for a few limp item rolls. The new boss enemies follow the same philosophy, not just “new,” but “new and different.” Some of them are entirely fresh Afterbirth originals, while others are revamps of classic monsters. All of them are humongous jerks (often to the point of feeling overly difficult and imbalanced compared to the original cast of bosses) and they're all pitching curve balls. Even lightweights like Little Horn, a mere first floor boss, introduce crazy new tricks. He's a diminutive imp who spontaneously creates cartoon black holes for you to fall in which he'll try to herd you towards with slow moving tracking shots like a devilish sheep dog. Bigger bosses (telling would be spoiling) get even crazier, assaulting Isaac with entirely new mechanics as well as blatantly unfair levels of firepower. One particularly crazy fight involves a boss that will buff himself and summon allies if you don't destroy the icons he is constantly spiting out, making it a frantic race to stay on top of them before things gets out of hand. The new fights are wacky, crazy, and occasionally frustrating, but most of all, they're all fresh. Greed Mode, introduced in Afterbirth, turns the traditional Isaac dungeon exploration experience into a much more tightly focused, wave-based horde mode. I like to think of it as Isaac for the person who only has 15 minutes. Get in, kill a few waves, get some money, try to cobble together a build, and get out (by death or by victory) before your lunch break is over. I don't know if it will have a ton of staying power, but it is a fun alternative to getting deep and dirty in the basement. New floor variants and room layouts keep things fresh. Themed floors like the Burning Basement or Dank Depths have their own flavor, unique obstacles, enemies, and (universally killer) soundtracks. There are plenty of new room types, varying in all manner of size, shape, and hazard, making the dungeon crawl feel more natural and less like moving through a grid. Many of these layouts introduce new trap and puzzle elements, confronting players with spike floors that rise and lower in alternating patterns and need to be shut down by pressing different buttons, or explosive TNT chambers that need to be set off in the right order to avoid damage. Again, smart and exciting. There are also innumerable smaller changes to go into, some of which are obvious niceties (like expanded HUD options to display collected items without pausing) while others you can't discuss without sounding like a crazy person to non-Isaac nuts. Little things like “Devil Deal rooms will convert to soul heart prices automatically if you sell your last red heart!” or “the co-op baby can place bombs again, hallelujah!” I know, it sounds like gibberish, but to the diehard Isaac fanbase, these are big deals and welcome changes. Like many roguelikes, Isaac has always had a slightly masochistic bent. I've always said that the unforgiving and random nature of the game is something you have to lean into, have to embrace to really enjoy Isaac. Sadly, Afterbirth takes that bent and presses on it until it breaks, reaching a peak of difficulty that has even an roguelike-apologist like me throwing up my hands in frustration on a regular basis. For every clever, interesting, and fresh idea Afterbirth has, it also has some dickish, spiteful, little aggravation to throw at you as well. Those handy item room recyclers I mentioned earlier? Sure, you could get one of those in an item room, or you could get an item surrounded by spikes, or a “bonus” room infested with monsters, what a cute joke! Those new rooms and traps? Neat, until you wind up in a boss room the size of a closet with TNT barrels or spike blocks in all four corners, have fun with that! The new bosses? Sure, they all have new and clever mechanics, but many of them also flood the screen with nearly unavoidable shots and a legion of minions in addition to whatever fresh hell they're also bringing. I imagine the idea was to challenge seasoned players with this expansion, to push the skills of hardcore Isaac players to their upper limits. But the difficulty in Afterbirth goes so far it loops back around on itself, ending up with a game that feels more luck based than ever. In Rebirth, I used to feel that any run, no matter how unlucky, could be saved by smart play and excellent dodging. In Afterbirth, I’ve had several rounds that felt so hopelessly stacked against me that instead of galvanizing me to play better, they just demoralized me into throwing in the towel, hoping for better items in the next run. That's not a great way to feel after 200 hours of experience in a game. The nastiness of the difficulty spike leaves me in an uncomfortable position with this review. I think that the vast majority of changes made in Afterbirth are superb. The astounding creativity of the new items, modes, and rooms is flat out inspiring, as is the sheer amount of new additions. Afterbirth has found ways to significantly add to and improved on a game that I already considered to be a nearly flawless. I don't want to diminish that accomplishment at all - in a perfect world, this is what all DLC would be like. I'm still having tons of fun with the game and I'll probably be playing it for another hundred hours or so, but I'd be lying if I said I was having as much fun with Afterbirth as I did with Rebirth. It found my limit. You should absolutely play Afterbirth. If you're already an Isaac diehard, or someone fresh to the genre, Afterbirth has hours upon hours of genuine joy in store for you. But you should know it will also have moments of soul-annihilating frustration. Maybe that's the price for flying so close to perfection. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Afterbirth review photo
Deal with the Devil
The Binding of Isaac has always been a game of contradictions to me. It's both a game that embraces the fickleness of chance and the purity of skill. That encourages you to play around, explore, and experiment, but also rewar...

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Nov 06 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Treyarch (PC, PS4, Xbox One), Beenox/Mercenary Technology (PS3, Xbox 360)Publisher: ActivisionMSRP: $59.99Released: November 6, 2015 I'm just going to get right into it -- this is the weakest campaign yet from Treyarch. Right from the start you can see what it's going for, and things get way too heavy-handed and exposition-laden without actually saying anything. There's lots of talk about a "new Cold War" in the future, and after rescuing an Egyptian minister after an uprising in Cairo, it's off to the races. There's plenty of Terminator-esque "Man vs. Machine" going on with the 2065 backdrop and a touch of surrealism, but all of it has been seen before and done better. To boot, none of the characters are memorable or compelling in any way, and the dialogue is the most generic it's ever been. Part of it is because you're now "The Player" (male or female) instead of someone like Modern Warfare's Soap MacTavish, a character you can somewhat connect with while you're playing. You're kind of just there, and the relationships with each cast member never really have a chance to flourish across all 11 missions. Treyarch seems to have a knack for historical narratives, but I'm not really buying its grimdark sales pitch here. Now, that doesn't mean that the campaign is all bad. The powers that be have now implemented a system where you can choose any mission you want, right from the start, without having played any prior stages. That way if you get bored and want to see the ending, you can skip right to the end. Additionally, the hub center where you can switch your abilities, weapons, and loadout around is convenient, as is the progression system with full XP rewards to encourage multiplayer playthroughs. There's also an arena-based "combat immersion" center to test weapons out in, which looks a lot like Metal Gear's VR missions. [embed]318891:61008:0[/embed] Split-screen play (for two players) is also in, as is online play for the story, on top of a "Nightmare mode" that remixes every level with undead foes. With the recent removal of split-screen from Halo 5, support for multiple players on the same console is a breath of fresh air. Yes, the framerate does suffer as a result of playing couch co-op, but I'm very glad it's there, and that Treyarch is still actively pushing for it. Hell, LAN play is even supported on consoles -- in 2015, that's pretty damn rare. Now, we get to the good stuff -- all the other modes besides the campaign. Although light, the Freerun gametype is a cool way to show off all of the new mechanics (wallrunning and the toned-down jetpack). It's only playable solo and has a scant four maps, but it's really reminiscent of Mirror's Edge's abstract DLC packs, which were my favorite part of the game. Plus, it has leaderboards, which are a major plus for a mode like this. I don't want to spoil much, but the Smash TV-like Dead Ops Arcade is back, and it's better than it was before. Of course, it wouldn't be a Treyarch game without zombies, and I think it's assembled the best cast, alongside of the most interesting setting to date. I'm talking Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough in a Lovecraftian noir city unique. Seeing Goldblum play a washed-up scumbag magician is a treat, and the actors really give it their all for this new chapter of the zombie saga, "Shadows of Evil." While I did appreciate the campaign tie-in for Advanced Warfare's zombie mode, I like where this particular setting is going, and I hope it can keep this same cast going forward. It's also the most fully-featured from a gameplay perspective, with customizable weapon loadouts, individual upgrades, and a leveling system. You can also change up your "Gobblegum Gumballs," which are like miniature $500 soda machines that grant temporary perks. It's a tiny little thing, but it really helps you play the way you want, which is only a recent concept for zombies. In terms of secrets I think this is going to be the most challenging one yet for the community, as a lot of it hinges on changing into the "beast" (read: a Cthulian creature) to unlock specific areas and bonuses. I've spent nearly 15 hours in Shadows of Evil alone and I feel like I've only scratched the surface. What the campaign lacks in personality, zombies makes up for in spades, and that principle also goes for multiplayer. Now players will choose a "specialist," when playing traditional multiplayer, which operates a lot like a unique character skin, with an added ability in tow. For instance, the robot "Reaper" has access to a minigun power-up that comes out of his arm, or a skill that creates non-lethal clones of himself to run around the battlefield. One dude even looks like The Fury from Snake Eater, complete with a flamethrower special. They clearly had a lot of fun designing these creations, and it plays that way. Most of the powers feel balanced, especially when you consider the fact that they can only be used once you earn enough meter for them, which is typically only one or two times per match. This is on top of the classic scorestreak rewards -- but since those reset your meter upon death and the specialist powers don't, it's a way for casual players to engage without feeling like they're never earning anything. Wallrunning also adds a new depth to arenas (of which there are 12 at launch), where specific chokepoints can be circumvented by traversing raised platforms on the sides of some bases. Likewise, swimming, as simple of a mechanic as it is, bids a welcome return from Advanced Warfare, with a lot more freedom in terms of movement and combat. Those of you who found Advanced's crazy twitch movement system to be too frenetic will be pleased to hear that it's been toned down for Black Ops III, as the jetpack is now essentially a double jump, or a slide boost, and that's it. While I did like airdashing and all of the craziness that the last iteration entailed, I'm happy that each game has a distinctly different feel to it. Multiplayer has been overhauled from a features standpoint too, as there's now full support for streaming (including a cavalcade of spectator options), arena ranked playlists with seasons, and an even more convenient instant menu option for perma-muting anyone outside of your party. There have been hundreds of people populating Black Ops III's servers during this testing period without issues, but if anything changes we'll provide updates as needed on the front page. At this point, at least two of the Call of Duty developers (Treyarch and Sledgehammer), have it figured out. They now have a three-year development cycle, which means that technically, each individual game is not a rushed "annual" iteration. While the campaign could certainly be a lot stronger, Black Ops III is living proof of that concept. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty review photo
Zombies...uh...zombies, find a way
Call of Duty campaigns are some of the most inconsistent storylines in all of gaming. While some entries are content with wowing you on a constant basis with new setpieces and unique sequences, a number of them (Ghosts&n...

Review: Yo-Kai Watch

Nov 04 // Chris Carter
Yo-Kai Watch (3DS)Developer: Level-5Publisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: July 11, 2013 (Japan), November 6, 2015 (US), TBA 2016 (EU) For those of you who have never heard of Yo-Kai Watch, its premise is actually quite easy to explain. The gist is that a boy named Nate (or a girl named Katie, if you opt for the female lead), unleashes a mysterious Yo-Kai butler out into the world (Whisper) after an innocent stroll in the woods. As a result, Nate gains access to a special watch that allows him to interact with other Yo-Kai, which are part of actual Japanese folklore, and are a mix of sorts between a spirit and a gremlin. From there, you'll embark upon a "catch 'em all" style journey with a loose storyline woven in for good measure. Everything, from the tone down to the gameplay, is a lot more lighthearted than your average RPG. Instead of catching characters and forcing them into tiny living spaces, you'll obtain "friendship tokens," which allow you to summon them at a moment's notice. They still lead their own lives, and you'll often find them roaming around town at their leisure. The fact that the voice cast consists of the same talent from the TV show really adds to the game's charm, and I adore the dynamic between the protagonist and Whisper -- it makes for some surprisingly funny dialogue. Yo-Kai Watch doesn't technically take place in Japan (it's even called Springdale in the international version), but said country's personality is most definitely a core element of the adventure. Even little things like shoes being left at the door of every house you enter, temples and shrines with stray cats, and vending machines on every street corner constantly remind you of Japanese culture. Having visited Tokyo recently for the first time, I really resonated with it, and I was surprised at how alive Level-5's rendition felt. It's done in such a way where anyone can pick up the game and not get confused, and the localization did a great job of not neutering the content for a western audience. It's one of the best balancing acts I've seen as of late, actually -- when a team keeps in dancing toweled men in a bathhouse boss fight, you know they did the right thing. [embed]317946:60945:0[/embed] Do note that this is a game from 2013 however, so while the art still holds up, the engine is very dated, and despite the spot-on 3D, it looks like a DS game. You'll quickly get over that fact as the presentation as a whole is delightful, with bright, vivid colors galore and a catchy soundtrack. I also started to get attached to a lot of the characters in a way that I haven't before in similar games, mostly due to their infectious personalities and engaging personal storylines -- like Jibanyan, a cat that was ran over by a car and is constantly trying to prove his worth to his former master in death. As for combat itself, it's a very odd mix of classic JRPG tendencies and touchscreen-based minigames. The operative word here is "odd," because while combat is real-time, your party members will attack automatically. Players can control item management, choose targets, and queue up occasional special abilities (by tapping balls on the screen or tracing specific patterns), but your party members will still attack at their own leisure. It sounds overly simplistic, but there's a lot of nuance to it particularly when it comes to party management. For starters, you can have six Yo-Kai in your active team, but only three can fight at a time. As a result, you'll have access to a wheel of sorts where players can cycle new combatants in, and spin old ones out. Since each character has a type (similar to Pokémon's fire and grass elements, for example), and similar types power each other up when they're in combat together, this mechanic can get really tricky both in and out of fights. Also, a lot of character's specials (which again, you can engage manually) have unique status effects, like poison, so choosing when to act is key. Where I got most of my enjoyment out of Yo-Kai Watch however is exploration. It really reminds me of the best parts of Mega Man Battle Network when it comes to roaming around town, and it's so easy to just walk around and hunt Yo-Kai at any time. To find them, you don't need to walk around in grass patches, as they're openly located around the world. There's a perpetual "hot and cold" radar up on the screen at all times, leading you to locations like trees and underneath cars where you can search for companions or battles. Additionally, dungeons display enemies front and center on the screen -- yep, there's no random battles to sift through. There's no barriers to entry for recruiting party members either, as you don't need a specific capture item, though there is still a random chance of befriending them after the battle is concluded, so success isn't always guaranteed. There's also tons of fun, rewarding sidequests to participate in (that often bestow good rewards like new characters or shops), secret areas, fishing and bug catching minigames, special Yo-Kai to catch, post-game quests, and hidden items. There is a multiplayer battle component but it's very limited, and doesn't feature online play (that ability is reserved for the sequel and beyond). Yo-Kai Watch isn't the second coming of Pokémon, and that's perfectly okay. If you love to sit by the fire and train your Pokémon for hours, perfecting their EV and IV levels so you can be the very best, you likely won't find the same depth in Yo-Kai. Its world and philosophy is much simpler than that. But as a result, none of it feels frustrating or like work, and I'm constantly tempted to jump back into my adventures with Nate and Whisper. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Yo-Kai Watch review photo
Gera Gera Po
Over the course of the last month, I've gone from knowing next to nothing about Yo-Kai Watch to falling in love with it. My wife and I watch the localized version of the show, I have the theme song stuck in my head perpe...

Review: Need for Speed

Nov 03 // Chris Carter
Need for Speed (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ghost GamesPublisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Released: November 3, 2015 As you may have heard, Need for Speed is an online-centric game, and jumping in from the title screen will place you into a multiplayer lobby, similar to GTA Online. Thankfully, you can play fully solo if you want. For the most part, online play has been rather sound (with a large pool of EA Access players available), minus a few small hiccups like another person spawning on top of my car and some minor frame-skipping when players are connecting. Most of them are amusing, and not really game-breaking in any way. The story this time is...a bit like a Fast & Furious movie, before they turned into the entertaining heists they are today. Speed utilizes an age-old technique of live-action FMVs to progress its narrative, with real actors playing both the digitized and cinematic renditions of themselves. Now, I like silly popcorn storylines as much as the next guy, but this one is a lot of white noise. Said FMVs also aren't integrated directly into gameplay in a unique way -- they're just cutscenes, and don't segue seamlessly into the in-game engine. You play the part of a young kid who has just been invited to a local street racing event. Much like Paul Walker in the first Fast film, you'll join a crew, and slowly work your way up the ranks to earn REP (experience) and progress through the storyline. Said crew involves a female mechanic with an attitude, a fast and loose crew leader, and your personal best friend, Spike, a trust-fund kid who lives for danger. Uh, yeah. Need for Speed tries to introduce "memorable" characters by having them all do quirky things after meeting them, but the performances never really sell it. It's cool that they periodically call you up, and you can place a name to their face (plus, a lot of effort went into the FMVs themselves in terms of locations and extras), but I've already forgotten who most of them are as I type out this review. The heavy emphasis on tweets, hashtags, and social media doesn't help elevate the tone, either.  [embed]318070:60920:0[/embed] When it comes to the in-game visuals on the other hand, I'm torn. The actual street and cars look great, but structures don't have a lot of detail. Ghost Games boasts that the map is twice as big as Rivals, but I didn't really notice since a lot of locales looked the exact same. The game is locked in at 30 frames per second on consoles, which is disappointing (as is the lack of split-screen support), but like past titles I didn't have any issues acclimating. For those who are interested in what type of music plays on the radio, here's an example of the musical stylings you can expect from Speed -- again, like the engine, it's hit or miss. Gameplay-wise, Speed does a great job of accommodating both veterans and casual fans alike. It's mostly an arcade-style racer, with tight handling and simplistic driving conditions, but players can tweak cars individually to their liking, as well as customize loadouts. You can go as far as swapping out your hood, lights, mirrors, fenders, trunk, exhaust, license plate, wheels, side skirts, and more. What's great about Speed out of the gate is that there are apparently no plans for paid DLC or microtransactions, and every car is unlocked from the start -- provided you have the cash to buy them. Starting off, players can choose between a Honda Civic, a Ford Mustang, and a Subaru BRZ. From there, you'll work from $8,000 Volvos all the way up to $200,000 Ferraris. Cash is earned at a rather generous rate, so you can keep filling up your garage and customizing at will. It's sad that it's weird to see a AAA game these days without double XP Red Bull bonuses and microtransactions, but here you go. As you tear through the core story, you'll have plenty of activities to choose from, which is great news for when you start nodding off after the FMVs. There's daily challenges, a fully featured one-button snapshot and share mechanic, and hundreds of events to find all over the world. It's also really fun to just drive around aimlessly, as the game uses a Tony Hawk-like combo system that constantly earns you REP (along with multipliers) for doing dangerous things like reaching top speed, driving into incoming traffic, and triggering near misses. The longer your combo, the more REP you earn, so it gives you an incentive to play the way you want. Autolog, which shares your scores and allows you to compete with your friends constantly, is still a thing. When you factor in Need for Speed's forgettable story, you're left with a slightly above average racing game that's not as enjoyable as past series entries. From a pure gameplay perspective, it works, but it never manages to elevate itself. If you're in the mood for a new cinematic racer though, you could do a whole lot worse. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Need for Speed photo
Neither first, nor last
I can't believe Need for Speed has been around for over 20 years. I remember playing the initial entry on my PC for the first time, and I spent many an hour escaping cops in the first Hot Pursuit. But as the years went on, the Speed series had a bunch of ups and downs, with odd side stories alongside of core titles. The latest game falls somewhere in-between.

Here's a big list of 2016 video game release dates

Nov 03 // Chris Carter
January:   Darkest Dungeon - 1/19 Hyrule Warriors Legends - 1/21 Yakuza Kiwami - 1/21 Resident Evil Remaster + Resident Evil Zero Remaster - 1/22 Final Fantasy Explorers - 1/26 Lego Marvel's Avengers - 1/26 The Witness - 1/26 Dragon Quest Builders - 1/28 This War of Mine: The Little Ones - 1/29 Amplitude - TBA January Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen PC port - TBA January The King of Fighters XIV - TBA January February: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - 2/2 XCOM 2 - 2/5 Arslan: The Warriors of Legend - 2/9 Firewatch - 2/9 Gravity Rush Remastered 2/9 Mighty No. 9 - 2/9 Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 - 2/9 Project X Zone 2 - 2/16 Street Fighter V - 2/16 Fire Emblem Fates - 2/19 Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - 2/23 Far Cry Primal - 2/23 March: Tom Clancy's The Division - 3/8 The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD - 3/4 Hitman - 3/11 Uncharted 4: A Thief's End 3/18 Killer Instinct: Season 3 - 3/24 April: Quantum Break - 4/5 Total War: Warhammer - 4/28 Dark Souls III -- TBA April May: Battleborn - 5/3 Mirror's Edge Catalyst - 5/24 June: No Man's Sky - TBA June We Happy Few - TBA June October: Yooka-Laylee - TBA October TBA: Allison Road Attack on Titan Crackdown 3 Cuphead Day of the Tentacle Remastered DayZ Dishonored 2 Doom Enter the Gungeon Final Fantasy XV Gears of War 4 Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem Gravity Rush 2 Hellblade Homefront: The Revolution Horizon Zero Dawn Hyper Light Drifter Mafia III Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Nier: Automata Odin Sphere Leifthrasir One Piece: Burning Blood Persona 5 Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 Pokken Tournament Ratchet & Clank Resident Evil Zero HD Scalebound Shadow Warrior 2 Star Fox Zero Star Ocean: Integrity of Faithlessness The Legend of Zelda Wii U Zero Time Dilemma
Video games photo
Updated as needed
A lot of readers have asked us about compiling a list of games that are being released each year. It's a massive task, but I'm going to try to keep one updated for 2016. If you see something that isn't on the list, feel free to chime in, and we'll update it. Also, bookmark it and come back at some point!

Review: Mushihimesama

Nov 02 // Chris Carter
Mushihimesama (Arcade, PC [reviewed], PS3, iOS, Xbox 360)Developer: CavePublisher: Degica (PC)MSRP: $19.99Released: October 12, 2004 (Arcade), December 15, 2011 (iOS), November 5, 2015 (PC) Mushihimesama is translated to "Bug Princess" in English, which is an apt name as an insectoid theme permeates the shooter. You may play the role of a human girl, but you'll ride on a bug, blast other bugs, and take on gigantic, intimidating bug bosses. This unconventional theme (shmups usually feature traditional spaceships) helps set Mushihimesama apart from the pack immediately. Don't expect anything in the way of a narrative, though -- the story is once again rather throwaway in favor of focusing on the action (a princess races to find a cure for her village). Bug Princess was crafted after cave had nearly 10 years of development experience under its belt, and the enemy and bullet designs really reflect that. You may have seen this infamous video from the game's Xbox 360 sequel (Mushihimesama Futari). While players won't be taking on that exact same encounter, the game's harder difficulties can get similarly insane. For those of you who opt for lower settings however, the game plays out more like a bullet purgatory, with deliberate patterns that are manageable and direct across all five stages. Because ultimately, great shmups aren't just action games, they have elements of puzzle titles peppered in as well. While blowing things up and earning a high score is paramount, the way that Cave and its competitors design enemy patterns indicates a huge attention to detail, as they're not just strewn about for good measure, and always have a counter to them with specific degrees of movement. This is especially true for Mushihimesama, and I enjoyed relearning some patterns as well as giving my twitch skills a test with the PC release. Thankfully, this edition also features full two-player co-op (with drop-in support) if you want to bring another friend into the mix. [embed]318273:60921:0[/embed] As a port, Mushihimesama far exceeds the amount of effort that went into Playism's localization of Touhou 14. It's fully translated, there's options for 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, full screen mode, screen rotation (for vertical monitors), fully customizable controls (for keyboards and controllers), and allowances for UI additions like arcade joysticks and buttons. Players can also tweak the difficulty before each session (original, maniac, and ultra), including the total ship count and the points required to earn an extra life. It's a limitation of the first game, but I wish there were more characters, and not just three variations of the same princess. The difficulty curve is perfect, as original is manageable even by casual fans, maniac significantly steps things up a bit in a way veterans will appreciate, and maniac, for once, earns the moniker. Almost immediately with the latter difficulty, you'll see regular enemies fill up the entire screen with giant bullet-curtain mazes, forcing players to use everything they've picked up from the genre to survive. Although it wasn't factored into this assessment, there's a V1.5 "Matsuri" DLC available for $4.99 at launch that essentially adds in a new arranged mode with a remixed soundtrack. It's a bit redundant to say as nearly every Cave shooter is a "must play" title, but Mushihimesama is required reading for shmup fans. Whether you're going at it solo or with a friend, on the highest difficulty setting or the lowest, Mushihimesama is incredibly easy to spend an afternoon with for years to come. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mushihimesama photo
Bug Princess finally hits PC
I was lucky to have been introduced to Cave shooters at a young age. I had a friend who lived in Japan and had family there, so he'd just bring games back over and we'd play them. Most were ported from the arcades to the PS2,...

If Tales from the Borderlands characters were Vault Hunters in Borderlands 3

Oct 27 // Darren Nakamura
Character: Fiona Possible Action Skill: Hidden Gun. Though it isn't exactly intimidating, especially considering the vast arsenal a typical Vault Hunter carries around, Fiona's single-shot pistol could be buffed for enormous damage, like a Destiny Gunslinger's Golden Gun. If nothing else, the ability to add any of three types of elemental damage could be useful. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: High. The latter half of the season details Fiona's training to take care of herself in a fight. Those who visit Felix in the final chapter learn of his desire for her to give up the con game and find a new life. All signs point to Fiona as the most likely candidate to be a Vault Hunter. Character: Rhys Possible Action Skill: Echo Eye. Most Action Skills are used solely for combat, but this could be employed during exploration to find hidden caches and shortcuts. Additionally, it can be used during combat to highlight weak points and hack electronics-based enemies into fighting for Rhys. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: Low. Though Rhys did a bit of fighting throughout the series, he was never proficient with it. After stealing the rights to and revitalizing the Atlas corporation, it sounds like he is best set up as a supporting character for the future instances of Borderlands. Character: Sasha Possible Action Skill: Swindle. Sasha uses her feminine charms to stupefy enemies into inaction. Enemies defeated while Swindle is active have a greater chance of dropping valuable loot. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: Medium. Sasha has demonstrated basic weapon proficiency, and like her sister, could stand to drop the life of a con artist. She didn't receive combat training from Athena, so she might not quite be suited to the life of a Vault Hunter just yet. Character: Vaughn Possible Action Skill: Fudge the Numbers. Borderlands is about making bigger and bigger numbers pop out of enemies, so who better to manipulate that than an accountant? Activating Fudge the Numbers would grant huge boosts to Vaughn's attack and defense, and can be powered up later to add a confusion effect on bandits. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: Medium-low. Vaughn took to the wastes of Pandora well, and he has the rock-hard abs of a Vault Hunter, but he is probably too busy as the leader of the Children of Helios, who have a penchant for pacifism. Character: Gortys Possible Action Skill: Mech Mode. Normally Gortys scoots around in her cute ball form, but upon activating Mech Mode, she digistructs her arms and legs and becomes a brawler. Not only that, but she can adopt the abilities of nearby teammates, a little like Claptrap's ability from The Pre-Sequel, only less random and more useful. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: God I hope so. Gortys is the best new character and I would play as her in a heartbeat. Not only that, but she has shown she can fight and has the heart to protect her friends. She has also demonstrated having no qualms with bad people dying. Character: Loader Bot Possible Action Skill: Bulldoze. Loader Bot equips a BUL Loader arm and charges forward, pushing enemies together for area-of-effect damage or off cliffs for instant kills. This may be difficult given Loader Bot has lost most of his original body over the course of the series. Likelihood of becoming a Vault Hunter: "Hi." Loader Bot does what is necessary to get the job done, and his new body seems more than capable of handling the dangers of being a Vault Hunter. However, his main motivation seems to be protecting Gortys, so he might not have the desire to become a Vault Hunter unless she does it first.
Borderlands photo
Dibs on Fiona
Tales From the Borderlands (Season One?) wrapped up last week, and it was fantastic. One of the coolest things about Telltale's effort is how it will have an indelible impact on the main series. Once Borderlands 3 comes aroun...

Ex Quantica photo
New game from Heavy Rain dev
The robot learns the world fucking sucks. Emotions! David Cage has finally figured out what happens to his android, Kara, who started life as a short story/tech demo years ago. And it turns out she's in Detroit! Sorry, lady. But a fun play on the motor city once so prized for its vehicle manufacturing, now just sad about its sports teams and public officials cutting off water to residents.

Review: The Park

Oct 27 // Chris Carter
The Park (PC)Developer: FuncomPublisher: FuncomRelease:  October 27, 2015MSRP: $12.99 At a base level, The Park seems to be about a mother and her lost child, but it crescendos into much more than that. Yes, this is a walking simulator alright, with limited amounts of items to inspect, and no inventory management. You'll traipse around, hear some monologues, learn more about the characters and the park itself, and essentially watch a film play out with some degree of interactivity. It's more involved than your average title, as you can ride the rides in the park (a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and the like), and look around at your surroundings while doing so. There's also a decent amount of lore-building involved, and not just because of the Lovecraftian themes that are intertwined with the Funcom-verse. I actually enjoyed reading tidbits about various incidents at the park, and how they involve the cast. While the park itself is cool, the exposition starts off a little stilted. The script is incredibly flowery with its opening monologues, and doesn't give you any real reason to care about the cast. It's almost like watching an amateur poetry hour at times, and there was a point where I rolled my mind's eye at some of the lines. Slowly but surely though, The Park spirals into a tale of depression, with some light adult themes. It gets better, darker, and examines mental illness in a rather unique way. [embed]317523:60854:0[/embed] As far as the presentation goes, in some ways, it would have been better as a short film. The Park might feature a sprawling setting, but a lot of it consists of filler. There are long paths that essentially function as loading screens. The Park isn't going to wow anyone from a visual standpoint, but the effects involved are cool-looking, invoking a perspective that is slowly losing grip on reality. Without spoiling anything, it kind of reminded me of the film The Babadook. If you're looking for pure horror, maybe go elsewhere. The Park isn't a "survival" game nor is it going for scares -- there's only one portion that provides that feeling, in fact. Instead, the narrative attempts a more disturbing tone, with realistic and relatable problems told through the veil of a creepy theme park. I don't want to give away too much as The Park is only an hour long, but I admire Funcom's effort with this experimental take on the genre. It really does try something different, even if you can feel the core themes sneaking up on you a mile away.
The Park review photo
Dunwich horror
The "walking simulator" genre has thrived in recent years. With titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home hitting it off with audiences, it's no wonder the "adventure lite" (as I call it) market is influencing new exper...

Review: Halo 5: Guardians

Oct 26 // Chris Carter
Halo 5: Guardians (Xbox One)Developer: 343 IndustriesPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: October 27, 2015MSRP: $59.99 While Guardians may have a no-nonsense intro that places you immediately into the fray, it already assumes that you know a ton of the franchise's backstory. There's so much lore at this point, spanning comics, web series, and other shows, that it's hard to keep up. The basic gist this time around is Master Chief is missing, Jameson Locke is sent to find him, and the Forerunners are still the big bad of the franchise. Everything else in-between is kind of a blur. The campaign features 15 missions in all, and is heavily built around the concept of fireteams -- which means you'll have three other characters following you around at all times, ready to take orders by way of AI constructs, or as player characters. If you're going the solo route, you can order your team to move to certain locations, or attack specific targets. It's rudimentary at best, as the only command you have is a single d-pad stroke that does either of those two options, but it's very cool to see your team banter and blow enemies away by your side. Your teammates can also revive you if you're down (though there are still insta-kill mechanics and pitfall deaths), getting you back into the action faster. [embed]315608:60816:0[/embed] Halo 5 features linear, more Call of Duty-style levels, with the occasional miniature sandbox or mid-sized arenas distractions. What I like about the campaign mechanically is it's always forcing you to switch weapons (between the human, Covenant, and Forerunner variety), which constantly puts you out of your comfort zone. There are a ton of weapons in the franchise at this point, and it feels like 343 didn't skimp out or remove any -- so you expect somewhat of a learning curve. When it comes to the campaign though, nothing blew me away outside of a few select missions. The first five are table-setting affairs, as it stands, but even after you progress through those, the narrative  never really goes anywhere. The story is rather annoying in a way, as it relies heavily on past games to a fault. I really enjoyed the original tale of Halo: Combat Evolved, with the simplistic story of the conflict between Covenant and humans, with the Flood in the middle, but this "new" trilogy isn't really doing it for me. Sure, the action is spot-on, but the Forerunners aren't a compelling enemy, as far too much of their history is billed with mystique, and I couldn't be bothered to care about any of the cast members outside of a light amount of nostalgia for Chief.  I also had a few technical issues during my playthrough. There were some weird instances where progression didn't trigger and a door didn't open because there was an enemy stuck in a far corner somewhere. Also, on a few occasions my team didn't revive me even though they were right there, or outright refused to move or take orders. Guardians features drop-in drop-out multiplayer, which is great because the four-person campaign component never feels forced, but the lack of split-screen is an utter shame. For reference, it took me roughly six hours to finish the story on the standard difficulty setting. How does it play? So well that you'll often forget about how mediocre the campaign is. The gameplay has changed significantly, mostly due to new mobility options and the power to aim down the sights of your gun (also known as ADS or Iron Sights). Players can also press a button to boost, which works both on land and in the air, and hold the melee button to slam down to the ground, or press it while running to trigger a dash attack. It feels like a quicker, hybrid arena shooter now with all these changes. Warzone, however, is leaps and bounds more fun than the story. It's billed as a 12v12 mode that features a massive base tug-of-war, with enemy AI meddling on the side. In short, it feels like a bite-sized story mixed with multiplayer, and accomplishes most of the goals it sets out to achieve. For example, at the start of a match, you'll have to clear out your own base -- there's no downtime involved. From there, Warzone constantly throws things at you, from sub-objectives to boss fights, with plenty of PVP action injected for good measure. 12v12 is by no means a massive amount of players, but it gets the job done, especially when coupled with the aforementioned PVE mechanics. There's always something to do, and always players to kill. The large map size also brings something to Halo that really hasn't been done before, as they're roughly three times bigger than past locations in the series. Because of my time with Warzone, I've felt inspired to find a group of people to play with down the line. I think this mode has potential for some really memorable matches. There's a straight non-AI variation available as well, if you prefer that. So that's Warzone. On the other end of Halo 5's PVP component, you have Arena -- traditional deathmatch game-types across a handful of different modes. There's Team Arena (with CTF, deathmatch, and Stronghold variants), Slayer (FFA), Breakout (one life), free-for-all, and the classic SWAT mode (no shields, no radar), with promises of more playlists post launch. You can also create custom games online if you wish, with specific rule sets. Once you acclimate to ADS, it's basically the same Halo you've played many times before, for better or worse. The levels in Guardians are decently balanced, though. There's 15 at launch, and the pool is admirable, consisting of several different locations and layouts. "Plaza" is one of my standout favorites, as it's an entropic map that's vertically inclined, and both stylish and practical. There isn't one map that I've groaned at (outside of the Midship remake, which is a good arena, but one I've played constantly for over a decade), and if I was ever bored of the small to mid-sized layouts, I just went back to Warzone. As for the multiplayer experience as a whole, there's a strong emphasis on dedicated servers, which the game prominently informs you it's using during every matchmaking sequence. It's been smooth sailing so far, but if there's any changes we'll provide an update after launch. This doesn't factor into the review, but all Halo 5: Guardians maps (15 planned so far) will also be provided for free, presumably due to the sustainable funds generated from the microtransactions. Additionally, Forge mode will be released sometime in December. So how about those "REQ" microtransactions? They're pretty painless, actually. While they provide power-ups, such as single-use vehicles or weapons for Warzone play, they're entirely optional in Arena, and provide cosmetic upgrades (skins, and animations) or experience boosts -- think Mass Effect 3. You can basically choose to ignore the system entirely and still excel, or slowly accrue in-game currency to buy them. Either way, it doesn't really impact the experience as a whole. If it weren't for Warzone, Halo 5: Guardians would probably be somewhere on the lower end of the franchise spectrum for me. It's still a fantastic and well-oiled machine, but the story falls flat, and the shift in gameplay mechanics result in the loss of some elements that made the series so unique in the first place. Still, if you're looking to shoot some dudes online, Guardians is your huckleberry. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Halo 5 review photo
Master Chef vs. Locke from Lost
Halo really grabbed me back in 2001. I had just won an Xbox from a Taco Bell contest (no joke), and I was getting ready to sell it when a friend told me about a little old sci-fi shooter from Bungie. After playing H...

Review: Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller

Oct 22 // Chris Carter
$150? What is this, the controller for the original Steel Battalion? Well, not quite, as the Elite will work with every game on the Xbox One (and on PC), but it's still one hell of an expensive proposition.  For the most part though, I can easily recommend it to those of you who game on your Xbox One or PC more than any other platform. For starters, it feels like a quality piece of hardware just putting it in your hands. The make is sturdy, the rubber grips are comfortable, and the entire build all the way down to each individual pad and button is higher in quality than any other competitor on the market. Everything feels like it was built for the long haul, but then again, my original Xbox One controllers have been rock solid for nearly two years now without any issues; meanwhile, two of my DualShock 4s have had their analog stick rubber completely deteriorate, and another one of my Glacier White models is starting to show wear. So what makes the Elite so special? Well, you have the interchangeable parts (six sticks, two d-pads, and four paddles), hair triggers, multiple profiles, and completely customizable buttons and sensitivity settings. The latter feature is actually coming to every controller "soon," but the rest are exclusive to the Elite. It also comes with a nifty carrying case, which is crafted to perfectly fit each piece without having anything roll around. Just be sure you keep it in a safe place. [embed]316388:60809:0[/embed] The amazing thing about said swappable parts is how easily they switch out. They were snug enough to never come off during my 50+ hours of testing, but if you grip them and pull ever so slightly upwards, they'll come right off -- they're magnetized. You don't need any tools. I wasn't a fan of the other four analog sticks (they're too high up for my tastes), but the two d-pads are both excellent, as are the paddles (more on that later). That "discus" d-pad? It works way better than you'd think. I tested it on nearly 30 games, and although I didn't notice the benefits immediately from a lot of titles, it worked perfectly with all of them. For shooters like Destiny, being able to switch between the hair trigger mechanic at will depending on my gun was a great feature. In Killer Instinct, I noticed a stark surge in performance, mostly based off of the enhanced d-pad. Likewise, the d-pad comes in handy for retro games like Mega Man Legacy Collection and Shovel Knight. Where it really shines however is shooters. I had the chance to play tons of Halo 5: Guardians with the Elite controller, and the paddles are a game-changer. Initially mapped to the face buttons, they allow you to instantly jump, reload, melee, or switch weapons without having to take your fingers off the thumbsticks. I quickly got used to them after about 30 minutes of play, and going back to shooters without them feels jarring. This principle of added control also applies to racing games, and I could really feel the difference when using the paddles to shift gears for manual cars. While I would normally spring for a wheel, the Elite does make these titles feel better if you're going for a standard controller setup. The only hangup I had with the paddles is that if you don't rest your Elite on a flat surface, the paddles will constantly trigger, causing your game to unpause. The Xbox Accessories App that hit the marketplace this week allows players to fine-tune multiple setups, which is useful if multiple members of a household are using the same Elite. Here you'll be able to switch up all of your settings and save any number of profiles -- two of which can be mapped and synced to the controller itself, accessed by way of a toggle in the center. So for instance, I created a more sensitive aiming profile for Destiny's gunplay, and a custom style for when I'm using the melee sword weapon. The app also works for the PC, but it isn't getting a Windows 10-centric version until October 27. If you primarily game on the Xbox One or PC and experience a lot of different genres, I'd recommend picking up an Elite controller. Heck, even if you just play lots of shooters on the Xbox platform, you'll notice a difference in quality in the first day of play. For those of you who split your time between multiple systems though, $150 is probably going to be too rich for what you get. [This review is based on a retail build of the unit provided by the publisher.]
Xbox One Elite photo
You have a pricey decision to make
At this point in time, I've had a full week to experiment with the Xbox One Elite controller, and I'm still at a crossroads. On one hand, it's likely the best controller of this generation, and one of the best of all time. On the other, it's $150.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

Oct 21 // Chris Carter
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (3DS)Developer: Nintendo EPD, GrezzoPublisher: NintendoMSRP: $39.99Released: October 23, 2015 This time around, Tri Force takes place in the kingdom of Hytopia, bordering the desolate Drablands, home of an evil witch. Said witch is jealous of the princess' beauty, so she casts a spell on her to hide it forever, with a skin-tight suit that won't come off. Only chosen heroes can enter the Drablands and break the curse, which is obviously where you come in. It's not the most original setup, but I like it. The new setting and cast of characters (including the depressed king) help make Tri Force more interesting. Although the general setup of the game involves level-based dungeon crawling for loot, there is a hub world, and bits of story woven in along the way. The town hosts a costume shop (more on that later), a daily chest-picking minigame, a Miiverse gallery, and a few extra NPCs to talk to as well as several secrets. It will only take you a few minutes to trod through, but it has enough character to get by. Link (or more appropriately, the "hero") has a few abilities at his disposal right away -- dashing, swordplay, and picking up items. The rest will have to be acquired by way of dungeon items (such as traditional arrows and bombs) or costumes. The latter will grant you special abilities, mostly in the form of boosting items or powers, and can be crafted at the aforementioned shop. It's important to note that this is the basis for the entire game, which is provided in a Skinner box fashion similar to MMOs or other dungeon crawlers. The multiplayer element adds new mechanics entirely, most notably the "totem" system. Here, you'll be able to pick up one or two Links (or in turn, get picked up), which will allow players to access greater heights, or slash their sword and use items at the top. Often times you'll have to create a stack of just two Links while the other player hits a switch, and so on, leading to some interesting puzzles that have the mark of a classic Zelda game, with the obvious Tri Force teamwork twist. [embed]315403:60732:0[/embed] Your loop will consist of entering dungeons, besting them, and then choosing from a selection of chests at the end. You'll be granted materials, which can be pieced together to create new costumes, and thus, a new strategy with which to approach each level. You can of course "beat the game" straight through and not experiment, but the spirit of Tri Force is decidedly Diablo-like in nature, leading players to return to levels constantly -- if you dislike that type of gameplay, I'm warning you now. Strangely, the online component is very advanced for a Nintendo game. Online play is available with full matchmaking capabilities, as well as friend-specific lobbies, and a robust offline component that allows for download play. Hell, there's even a blacklist function so you can block people online who ruin games. There's no voice chat of course, but the emote system and intuitive nature of the dungeons don't require it in the slightest. In fact I actually prefer some of the cuter emotes, like the cheerleader dance that gets progressively larger on-screen the faster you tap it. I had the chance to play online numerous times with strangers, and it was a pleasurable experience to say the least. The game often allows players to shine individually, but divvies out unique items to everyone, forcing all members to work in tandem. For instance, one game I was the only person with a bow, so I had to hit far away switches and enemies while my teammates carried me to the appropriate height. Meanwhile, they had to clear blocks with bombs so I could reach those switches and back them up with my sword. It was a rush, and that feeling didn't really let up through the entire campaign as I played through it with teammates. Bosses are even more fun, as they provide for an array of different strategies that involve anything from splitting up to working as a totemic unit. Each zone mixes up the theme and new mechanics just enough to keep you interested, especially if you're learning all of these concepts for the very first time with two other people. Plus, it feels good to save the day with a new costume you just picked up earlier that afternoon. Solo play however isn't nearly as fun. Whereas Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures had plenty of concessions for those who decided to play by themselves, Tri Force Heroes is the exact opposite. Here, you'll have to deal with "Doppels," which are copies of your character -- they emulate the other two players. To transfer your essence into another Doppel, you'll have to tap their portrait on the touch screen. It's not only a pain to have to do this manually without a button shortcut, but it essentially amounts to doing each level three times over as you'll have to get to a location, select another Doppel, and repeat. Very early on you'll learn that picking up Doppels in a totem formation and moving as a group is a way to go, but puzzles are often so complex that you need to break up frequently, and thus, control the Doppels individually again. It's puzzling why Nintendo didn't create a new campaign just for single-player folk. I mean, to play by yourself you have to enter a completely different room in the castle, so it already had the groundwork to be its own game type. I would outright suggest that you avoid Tri Force Heroes if you plan on going at it alone. The good news is that the online portion works wonderfully, and with download play, you can get a local three-person game running up in no time. If you don't fit that criteria though, you can probably pass on Link's newest adventure. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Zelda review photo
It's dangerous to go alone
People often say Zelda never innovates, but I'd argue that they haven't been paying attention to the many unique games in the series. Titles like Minish Cap feel completely different while maintaining the class...

Review: Downwell

Oct 20 // Steven Hansen
Downwell (PC [reviewed], Android, iOS)Developer: MoppinPublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $2.99 Downwell asks you to learn with it, explaining nothing outside of the control scheme (move with directional pad or analog, jump and shoot with one button) and the upgrades between levels. Initial expeditions down the well are clumsy. Your Gunboots start with limited charge (think: ammo) and you have to refill them by touching solid ground. Or -- wait, they refill when you stomp on an enemies' head, too? -- and, oh no, don't try and stomp on an enemy that is an angry bright red. These are the kind of things you learn as you delve deeper and deeper into Downwell's four worlds (three levels each) and they are presented intelligently. For example, the first spat of blood red enemies that you shouldn't be jumping on all have spikes, video game shorthand for danger. Later ones won't warn you so nicely. And of course there's trial and error, too, like touching a hot stove, for those who don't get it. Level randomization requires you stay engaged. Different power up offerings between levels will change how you play. Dimension-shattering time voids are occasionally cut into the well walls and host a treasure trove of gems or different ammunition. The latter is where the Super Crate Box comparison is obvious. [embed]316411:60790:0[/embed] Changing ammo isn't a strict necessity, but it practically is, given that picking up a new ammo types will often come with a heart or some battery charge for the Gunboots (more ammunition between reloads), but different ammo types function in drastically different ways. Shooting is actually more useful in fighting gravity and keeping yourself from falling too quickly into unseen trouble than it is for killing enemies; they should typically be bopped. Especially since bopping enemies fills your Gunboots and stringing together kills without touching down gives you rewards. It's best to stomp out enemies, using your ammo stores to occasionally slow your descent or send you across the screen to stomp something else. Aside from the constantly changing levels, ammo types, and upgrades, new "styles" are unlocked over time, like the "Boulder style," which features a much fatter boy who starts with six HP instead of four, but only gets to choose from two between-level upgrades instead of three. Then of course there are dozens of Palette options that change the colors of the game, though I have only found a handful I like as much as the default black, white and red. The variety makes the frequent deaths more palatable and I would probably buy a custom dedicated handheld that just played this game. Because death comes so quickly, health is at a premium. If you slowly inch your way down the well, stopping at every platform and dutifully eliminating enemies, you'll take forever and likely not rack up enough gems to clear out shops, which are operated by the the most adorable timeline version of a snowman (who gives a good disapproving face when you jump behind the counter). But as you get better and can chain combos, netting gem, battery (ammo) and health bonuses, you can stay in the black, even increase your max HP. It's all about building a better, more equipped you while you play. It's always fraught, mind. You are working against gravity and your stabilizing shots will sometimes rip the ground from under you as you destroy blocks on the way down that might have offered reprieve. Or you accidentally shoot an enemy you're coming up on, losing a chance to replenish your ammo, and end up in a dangerous free fall. My 15-hour transition from inelegant tank (Boulder style) laboring down the well to eyes-closed, 25-kill-combo (Levitate) falling with style has been a flurry of close calls, of "one more run," of consistently dying to the boss despite doubling my starting health. The knees-braced bullet pounding side winding across the screen to slow my descent, the meaty pop of brain stomping and the brief upward moment it grants before gravity yanks me down again. And for such a noble reason. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Downwell review photo
Falling with style
Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling down wells. Downwell is a game about getting down a well, but the only way to get down the well is to learn how to get down the well well. Because this Game Boy thr...

Review: Pulse

Oct 20 // Jed Whitaker
Pulse (PC)Developer: Pixel Pi GamesPublisher: Pixel Pi GamesReleased: October 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Eva's story isn't exactly original as it is essentially a mashup of a Disney cartoon and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Pulse centers around Eva, a girl blinded at a young age, who defies her parents and attempts a dangerous pilgrimage using only echolocation and her imagination to visualize the world around her. What motivated Eva to embark on this journey is never explained, though the results of her actions are evident by the time credits roll in around an hour and a half later. That's right, an hour and a half for a penny shy of 15 dollars, which means you're paying over 16 cents per minute of gameplay. On top of that, there is a Steam achievement for beating the game under 30 minutes, so it clearly can be done faster. Whether or not the cost of entry is worth it depends on how much you value the artistic style of Pulse, because the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. That isn't to say that it's bad, just that it doesn't really go anywhere. From the moment the game starts and you take your first few steps, you'll have grasped everything it has to offer. [embed]316434:60795:0[/embed] Walking causes colorful rippling sound waves to trace the world hidden within the black void that is Eva's vision. Following the paths as they are revealed in the darkness, you'll come across Mokos, which are round, Furby-like critters with giant puppy dog eyes. Mokos can be picked up and thrown to cause sound in the distance -- giving Eva a brief glimpse at the level ahead -- and can be placed in giant hamster wheels to open closed doors.  The only area where Pulse really deviates the gameplay is one requiring Eva to walk slowly across a frozen lake, taking care to pay attention to where the ice is cracking beneath her feet thus allowing a safe passage. Aside from that, you'll come across a couple of areas of simple platforming, and not much more, which is honestly a shame for how great the game looks. Unity isn't exactly known for having the best-looking games, but Pulse proves that the engine isn't the problem by having one of the most gorgeous presentations this year; from a vibrant forest, to a tundra, to a living cave, Pulse is stunning. Due to the way Eva is imagining how the world around her looks, the world is brightly colored in a minimalist way, meaning each level only has a few colors total. One level is mostly blue, while another is mostly shades of orange, which sounds like it would hard to navigate, but the creators made it work and I never found myself lost a single time.  Pixel Pi Games managed to take the concept of a blind heroine and create something beautiful around it, but considering the game took less time to complete than this review and costs 15 dollars, it is hard to recommend to anyone but those thirsty for an artistic game or a unique character. If Pulse had a longer, more in-depth story with evolving gameplay, it would be easily recommendable. As it stands now, it feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Pulse photo
Expensive art without vision
While having a blind protagonist isn't exactly a brand new idea, Pulse tackles the subject in a unique way that proves that video games are indeed art by being one of the most colorful experiences I've played to date.  Unfortunately art sometimes comes with a high price and ends up not only lacking vision, but being a bit short-sighted.

Review: Tales of Zestiria

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Tales of Zestiria (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-CrescendoPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentMSRP: $49.99 (PC, PS3), $59.99 (PS4)Released: January 22, 2015 (JP), October 16, 2015 (EU) October 20, 2015 (US) If you've played a Tales game before, you pretty much know what to expect. This is still very much a hero's journey affair, with the main character Sorey embarking upon an epic quest to become a Shepard and save the world. This is complicated by two warring nations, the evil Heldaf, and the Hellion -- monsters created out of pure evil energy. Along the way Sorey will conscript new companions into his crew, including his childhood friend Mikleo. For the most part, the story stays on point and doesn't stray from its primary goal of a fantasy epic. Just when you think it's starting to get crazy with the juxtaposition of humans and the heavenly Seraphim race, Zestiria quickly grounds things with Sorey as a tether, who was raised by the latter but is still a human. It's all very straight-forward, partially to a fault, and is easy to follow. Zestiria houses a stable of interesting, memorable characters, but they don't necessarily grow over time. Sorey also sports a bit of a drab persona, but again, it helps that he's at least likable. As you may have heard, Zestiria has generated a fair bit of controversy over in Japan when it was released earlier this year. The crux of the issue stems from a character named Alisha, who was heavily promoted before the game's release, and then relegated to a side character that wasn't in most of the game -- and later sold as DLC. The games producer even apologized for it. This in no way effects the review, but it's something to be aware of in case you might have heard something negative about Zestiria in the past. Ultimately, I'm ok with this being Sorey's tale. When it comes to exploration, Zestiria walks a fine line between open environments and too many linear dungeon-like settings. It's actually more open than both Xillia games, but don't get the impression that they're as sprawling as say, Xenoblade Chronicles. I'm ok with this compromise though, as the developers have stuffed a ton of secrets into the game's universe, including monoliths that grant you information, and cute hidden creatures called Normin that grant you rewards the the effort of finding them. The concise focus also helps make the dungeons less of a slog, and allows them focus more on a centralized theme or puzzle element. [embed]316377:60788:0[/embed] Combat is easily the most meaningful advancement Zestiria has made, however. It's now a lot more action-oriented, and relies on SC (spirit chain) energy, which adds a new strategic element to the mix. At first players will start off with just 4-hit combos, which are essentially a mash session, but the game quickly ramps up into something much more interesting. For starters, your attacks get stronger as you expend SC, but unloading all of it will leave you vulnerable. To recharge SC you'll have to guard or stay idle, leaving you open to attack. It's interesting, as sometimes you'll want to go all out on a foe if they're stunned or if you're attempting to finish them off, but it can completely backfire. It's a nice risk-reward system that's present in every fight, not just boss encounters. Other advanced arts like quickstepping (dodging) come into play on a constant basis. Oh, and certain characters can actually fuse, Dragon Ball style, with Seraphim companions to supercharge their abilities, which is just as fun as it sounds. Everything having to do with character customization is supercharged this time around, actually. Players can stack skills for each party member to make them stronger, or diversify their elemental loadouts to create new skills. There's also a host of meta-abilities like snack preparation and discovery, which recharge party member's health bars and present icons on the minimap respectively. You can even further augment characters with abilities like auto-guard, and alter your AI's strategic tendencies when you're not in control. They really went all-out when it comes to the game's core mechanics. Like most Tales games, Zestiria has a beautiful art style in tow, with plenty of bright colors and endearing character designs. It has its limitations however, as it is a PS3 game at heart, and longshots typically don't have the same impact. Also, the camera angle is insufferable at times, especially indoors, and can't be easily manipulated. Thankfully dual audio comes standard with the western release, and both the dub and sub are well done. You can also alter the battle difficulty at any time, lengthy combo input windows, utilize fast-travel, skip cutscenes, and even skip individual lines of dialogue. Oh, and players can save anywhere with a quick save system, which is convenient. Tales of Zestiria plays by the book in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its cast and narrative. But it's still a great entry into the series, and a welcome return for old fans, especially as far as the battle system is concerned. In fact, it's even inspired me to go back and finish both Xillia titles -- that's the magic of the Tales series at work. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tales of Zestiria review photo
A tale of two Shepherds
My history with the Tales series is sort of akin to an on again, off again relationship. I was introduced to Phantasia by way of a friend's import copy, and immediately fell in love. After that I only dabbled in a f...

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