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Yes, please photo
Action Iron Chef
I love cooking, as you hopefully well know. The initial inspiration for A la cartridge was Iron Chef, though it ended up something completely different. And so here is a game that speaks tenderly to my soul. Battle Chef...

BioWare photo
Wizards with skinny ties
BioWare had my attention with those live-action teasers building up to Shadow Realms, but I've not kept up with the four-versus-one "modern" fantasy role-playing game since it was proper unveiled. If you're in a similar boat...

Shadow Realms, the new BioWare RPG, has a lot of strong and unique ideas

Aug 25 // Brett Makedonski
The initial pitch for Shadow Realms is a videogame adaption of pen and paper RPGs. The developers cited their love for an experience where you never know what's going to happen and is completely unique every time as the reasoning behind this. They're porting this sort of dynamic feel to Shadow Realms by letting a human mastermind the dangers that the team of heroes will have to face. Teams of four will be pitted against one overpowered opponent called the Shadowlord. These four players (made up of Warrior, Wizard, Assassin, and Cleric classes) fight through arenas as the Shadowlord throws enemies, traps, and challenges at them -- much like a Dungeon Master would. The Shadowlord can also opt to join the fray himself by possessing one of the baddies; this is indicated to the team by casting a glow around that particular enemy, letting them know that it should probably be their main priority. Throughout the course of battle, both sides get increasingly more powerful. Being god-like in nature, a well-played Shadowlord inherently has the advantage. To (somewhat) counter this, the team is given the ability to change their loadouts at checkpoints so that they can tailor their approach to combat. This also serves as a way for BioWare to let players play however they want. Cognizant of the tendency to get pigeonholed into traits of a particular class, the developers insisted that it's okay to play as a "uzi-toting Wizard." We didn't have the chance to go hands-on with Shadow Realms, so it was tough to get a feel for how the action played out. The modern gothic setting looked interesting enough and the ordinary person character models were welcomed, but beyond that, we don't know how it controls. Of the people that did play in our demo, the Shadowlord was victorious. We asked a developer how this might bar off progress if the heroes are continually unable to beat a Shadowlord, and were cryptically told that "Even when you're defeated in Shadow Realms, you won't be upset." That's where there's potential for the largest disconnect in the game. BioWare's touting that Shadow Realms will have a deep and unique story where players experience their own tales of humor, betrayal, and romance. It seems as if much of this will take place in an overworld setting, with players popping into battle to further the narrative. It's unclear if this will come off as seamlessly interwoven with combat leading to bigger plot points, or if the two will be disjointed. For all of the unusual approaches that BioWare's taking with Shadow Realms, possibly the most drastic is that the game will be released episodically. Truthfully, it sounds as if the studio's are trying to capture some of Telltale's lightning. With all of the purported branching moral choices and cliffhangers that were said to be found throughout, BioWare seems focused on offering a new gameplay take on the style that Telltale recently popularized. The developers so much as stated that their intention is for players to have a "watercooler" mentality with Shadow Realms where they can't wait to talk to their friends about the game's most recent happenings. They also thought that some would "binge play" as if it were a show on Netflix to get caught up on the releases. Something that BioWare wasn't too eager to talk about is their monetization plans for Shadow Realms. One developer expressed the studio's caution by simply saying "We want to be the good guys," as far as pricing models go. He offered that the game will initially be released with a lot of content, which will probably pave the way for smaller chunks. However, no one would give suggestions as to how long each episode will be or how often content will be released. All-in-all, BioWare has a lot of strong individual ideas for Shadow Realms. The asynchronous multiplayer could be a hit for both sides -- the heroes motivated by teamwork and enhancing their character, the Shadowlord motivated by an obvious god-complex and some narrative elements unique to him. The modern fantasy setting is one that's not overdone and could offer something beyond the tropes that define the genre. And, the episodic release model could do wonders for the plot of an RPG. But, we'll have to wait until 2015 to see if BioWare can make all of these strong ideas gel into a cohesive experience.
Shadow Realms preview photo
How will they all come together?
Anytime you sit in on an early look at a new videogame, the presentation's sort of structured the same. Throughout the introduction to the title, the developers always -- always -- pepper the speech with catchy phrases a...

EverQuest II photo
EverQuest II

EverQuest II's 11th expansion, Altar of Malice, brings new playable race


Also, giant bunny mounts
Aug 15
// Steven Hansen
EverQuest II is approaching its 10th anniversary. It originally released in 2004, the same year that Kanye West's genius debut College Dropout dropped. Altar of Malice brings with it a new playable race, the Areakyn. They off...
EverQuest photo
EverQuest

EverQuest's 21st expansion is The Darkened Sea


Dinosaurs, player robes, level cap increase
Aug 15
// Steven Hansen
EverQuest has been going strong since 1999. That's when the Slim Shady LP and "Thong Song" released. Or, much better, Black on Both Sides. It will be getting its 21st expansion, The Darkened Sea, on October 28 for All-Access ...
Shadow Realms photo
Inspired by pen and paper RPGs
At the EA press conference today, BioWare announced its next project, Shadow Realms. Jeff Hickman, the Studio General Manager discussed its inspiration in old school pen and paper role-playing games, before elaborating on how...

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See all the cool things users have made in Everquest Next Landmark


ANTI-VOXELS!
May 04
// Hamza CTZ Aziz
Sony Online Entertainment has shared a video highlighting some of the cool things users have made in Everquest Next Landmark. On top of cool looking structures, users have been bending the rules by creating micro-voxels and ...
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Bound By Flame

This Bound By Flame combat overview is pretty damn informative


Everything you want to know about basic combat
Apr 14
// Chris Carter
I'm not completely sold on Bound By Flame yet, but this video is doing a pretty decent job of showing off the variety of locales, enemies, and combat situations the game has to offer. The basic gimmick is that you'...
Middle-earth photo
Middle-earth

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor set for release on October 7


New trailer and pre-order bonuses revealed
Apr 02
// Alessandro Fillari
It's been awhile since we last heard from Monolith's new action-adventure title set in Tolkien's fantasy universe. Now, WB Games has revealed the release date, and fans will get to experience Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor&nb...

Review: Blackguards

Mar 24 // Patrick Hancock
Blackguards (Mac, PC[reviewed])Developer: Daedalic EntertainmentPublisher: Daedalic EntertainmentRelease Date: Jan 22, 2014MSRP: $39.99  Blackguards puts the player into a fantasy world filled with knights, mages, and a whole assortment of monsters and intrigue. The player and their motley crew of vagabonds find themselves on a quest that is seemingly much bigger than they are. It’s more or less standard fare for a fantasy world, but that didn’t stop me from constantly being excited for what was around the corner. Perhaps it’s because I’m waist-deep in the Game of Thrones novels, but the story was wholly entertaining. A large part of that is due to the game’s writing, which nails the tone of the game more often than not. Characters feel diverse and lively, even if they occasionally fall into fantasy stereotypes. The voice acting is shaky at times, but the main characters are done well enough to prevent any sort of constant cringing. [embed]272333:53090:0[/embed] The gameplay is the true star of Blackguards. This is easily one of the most satisfying and enjoyable tactics games in recent memory. A lot of it boils down to just how customizable everything is. Regardless of class, every character can be so finely tuned to the player’s preferences that everything feels personal. Stats, weapons, abilities, and gear is completely customizable for every player-controlled character. All character personalization uses AP, or Action Points. These points are acquired through battle, and can be spent on spells, stats, talents, and weapon proficiencies. Special abilities can also be learned by paying AP to various trainers interspersed throughout the game. Certain moves will only be available from certain trainers, so players will have to wait to get moves like Triple Shot and Hammer Blow, aka the best moves ever. Battles take place on a hex-based grid. Each character has a certain amount of movement tiles they can travel, after which they can perform an action like attacking, using magic, or perception checks. Characters can also move further than their base movement range by sacrificing their action. It can be a little funky when trying to select characters at times, forcing the player to fidget with the camera just to actually click on someone. Other times, I’ve selected a completely incorrect tile on accident without even knowing it. When attacking, the chance to hit will be displayed only if that character has the knowledge required for the enemy type. If a warrior doesn’t have the required skill for humans, for example, the player is in the dark as to how likely the warrior is to make contact. It’s a wonderful way to add some depth to the game while simultaneously making actual sense within the game world. In addition, ranged characters will need a line of sight in order to be able to attack, and their hit chance will go down if there is some sort of cover in the way. Interactable objects are often scattered throughout the maps and often times are required to complete an objective, though this isn’t always made clear enough. I have had to restart maps a handful of times simply because I had little to no clue how certain objects would affect the fight. This forced me to be way too behind  in the fight by the time it all became clear, so I would just restart the fight instead of wasting time and energy trying to salvage what opportunities I had left. It’s always a good idea to hold the V key as a fight begins to highlight all interactable objects. Blackguards is difficult, but not cheap or unfair. Just a heads up that players can expect to replay some battles here and there. As a reminder, it’s always good to keep a couple extra save slots when it feels like the plot is building up to something! It’s saved my butt more times than I care to admit. The visuals don’t do anything to stand out, though some of the character and monster designs are nice. That doesn’t prevent the game from throwing a lot of a single enemy type at the player at one time, though. The fights are often up and down; sometimes a fight feels very varied and interesting, while other times battles feel like a complete slog. Unfortunately, the majority seem to fall into the latter half. The arenas themselves, at least, tend to be changed up enough to keep them visually interesting. The sound effects are often another story altogether. Especially the “ueWAAAHHs’ and “URGHs” that the human enemies make after being struck. They’re awfully loud and more often than not feel disjointed from the actual screaming character. Weapon effects are standard clink and clunks that tend to lack any real weight to them. Blackguards is a wonderful tactics game with some rough edges. The core gameplay and character progression elements are easily some of the best in the genre, but as battles tend to drag on and more and more enemies scream “owAUGH,” the interest tends to fade. The story is easy enough to follow and interesting enough to keep players interested, so fantasy buffs should feel engaged the entire time. Even if the sound effects weren't satisfying, the gameplay itself more than made up for that, and it’s easy to see that Daedalic Entertainment has a bright future ahead of them in the strategy sphere.
Blackguards review photo
Fantasy + Tactics = Fantastic
In many ways, I'm very glad that Final Fantasy: Tactics had such a big influence on my tastes. It's an incredibly well made game and put me on a path towards playing more games of its ilk like Phantom Brave or the m...

Bound By Flame is richly detailed and dark

Mar 20 // Alessandro Fillari
Bound By Flame is a dark fantasy action-RPG set in a land ravaged by war and the forces of darkness. Players take on the role of Vulcan, a mercenary who must use his skills for battle to benefit his own personal agenda, or right the wrongs and save civilization. During his quest, Vulcan becomes possessed by an ancient demon who imbues him with demonic powers. These powers come at a cost, as the more Vulcan relies on these abilities and make choices that benefit his own personal standing, the more his demonic presence will be drawn out and leave a visible mark. With many different choices to make, Bound By Flame features several different endings that will reflect the influences you've had on every character you interact with. As an action-RPG, combat takes a more twitch-based and reflex approach to battles. Similar to titles like Dragon Age and The Witcher, Vulcan moves around in real-time and battles groups of foes with a variety of unique abilities. Utilizing active block and dodging along with quick attacks against foes, combat always moves at a brisk pace. At any time, players can bring up an ability menu which shows all of the skills and moves available. When the menu is up, combat slows to a crawl and players can take their time and pick their next move. Customization and choice are a key element of Bound By Flame, and players will be able to flesh out their character as they see fit. From the beginning, players can create either male or female version of Vulcan, complete with their choice of facial features. Over the course of the game, players will make important choices that will alter the look and attitude of their character. Focusing on their humanity will keep players in their human form, allowing them to use different types of armors and skills. However, making choices that bring out the demonic side of Vulcan will cause the character to take the form of the demon that possesses him. The skin color and texture turns a rough and craggy color of obsidian, their eyes begin to glow, and horns sprout from their head. While their overall attack power increases, their armor will be degraded by Vulcan’s demon form, leaving them more vulnerable to attacks. Helmets are also not an option as the demon horns sprouting from the player character will make them impossible to wear. The attention to detail in terms of design is strong and there's a purpose for everything -- it’s definitely one of Bound By Flame’s strong suits. For character growth, players can chose between different combat focuses for Vulcan. Leveling up will acquire skills points which can be spent on various skill trees. The Warrior tree focuses on wielding heavy weapons and skills related to tanking multiple foes. Ranger skills places emphasis on long-range attacks (crossbows for instance), traps, and dual-wielding weapons. Lastly, Vulcan’s demonic form unlocks the Pyromancer skill tree that opens up magic skills. The developers of Bound by Flame claimed that it was only possible to max out one skill tree in the game, but it's designed to also to allow players who wish to spread out their skill points and try out abilities and buffs from every tree. Eventually, Vulcan will come across characters that will join his quest as companions. There are a total of five companion characters to meet and interact with, and they will aid him in battle using their own special skills. As Vulcan is a combat-focused character, some companions will be vital for their support abilities, long-range attacks, magic skill, and melee prowess. Depending on how you build your character, you might be more inclined to stick with certain allies over others. I came away pretty impressed with Bound By Flame. While granted it isn’t too different from other titles, it does seem to do things pretty well. Combat looked fun, there's a lot of options to consider for your character plus it’s great to see that your choices actually have a lasting, and very noticeable impact. Bound By Flame will be seeing a release on May 9 on PC and all current consoles (except Xbox One and Wii U), so players can expect to take a trip through this intriguing action-RPG soon.
Bound By Flame photo
Developer Spiders show off new action-RPG at GDC
The fantasy genre has been a staple of the gaming scene for a long time. They go hand in hand, really. Because of this, it’s common to see titles that look to similar to each and don’t necessarily distinguish them...

Dark Souls II CE photo
Dark Souls II CE

Dark Souls II CE unboxing makes death look worth it


Just look at some of that stuff
Feb 26
// Brett Makedonski
Dark Souls II has done a pretty decent job of giving everyone the impression that they need to prepare for death again. Well, if you want to escalate things a bit and go beyond death, the Collector's Edition of Dark Sou...

Preview: South Park: The Stick of Truth is ambitious

Feb 14 // Alessandro Fillari
South Park: The Stick of Truth (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [previewed])Developer: Obsidian EntertainmentPublisher: UbisoftRelease date: March 4, 2014 (US) / March 7, 2014 (EU)Opening with a parody of Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of The Rings, in full rotoscope style, South Park: The Stick of Truth tells the tale of the war between humans and elves; both vying to claim the power of...The Stick of Truth. Of course, this is all just an exaggeration, as the war is really just a game played by the kids of the neighborhood. When a new kid moves into the town of South Park, Cartman takes him under his wing and tasks him with protecting the Stick of Truth in their 'game' against the elves. But in South Park fashion, things quickly escalate out of control and a fairly harmless rivalry is turned into an epic quest with real consequences.Now, the South Park series hasn't had much luck in the gaming department, and understandably so. It's very difficult to translate the over-the-top and comedic sensibilities to a game without making it into something that it's not. Even though I was kind of fond of the N64 title, it wasn't really a game worthy of the series. Because of this, the minds behind the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, were very adamant to be hands-on with the development.Speaking with Jordan Thomas, creative director for BioShock 2, Thief: Deadly Shadows, and serving as a creative consultant on The Stick of Truth -- he spoke about the title's development and how the theme of play is something the creators wanted to focus on when writing the game's script."If you look at South Park, there's always been a love affair with games that's evident in their storytelling...that the characters have a fetishistic mysticism regarding gaming," said Jordan Thomas, recalling the television series' use of videogames. "The creators would not have allowed the game to be just a joke vehicle, they wanted a proper game."Instead of taking on the role of one of the established characters, players will create a unique character who is the new kid on the block. As this New Kid, players will forge alliances and come into conflict with others while making a name for themselves in South Park and its surrounding areas.Of course, comedy is the backbone of South Park -- and The Stick of Truth pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to its humor. As a videogame, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the developers at Obsidian were able to craft a story that parodies many tropes and cliches of the medium, while at the same time creating something that speaks to the themes of engagement, play, and obsession in ways that could only be done in a game.Much like the television series and film, The Stick of Truth covers the whole gamut of pop culture, politics, religion, and life in an unusual small town. And the transition to a game has not neutered its humor one bit. My hour with the game made me realize that this is likely the raunchiest South Park has ever been. Swearing is uncensored, and yes there is nudity, and so much more.Over the course of your adventure, players will come across places and situations referencing abortions, race relations, anal probes, drug addiction, sex, extreme violence, and poverty, just to name a small few. It has enough satirical bite that it'll likely leave a lasting impression on many. But of course, this is South Park, and feeling uncomfortable is nothing unexpected."The way we looked at [humor] was if this moment was a hot button for the audience, should we make it worse, because they [creators of South Park] love to push boundaries and their default response was definitely not to back down, but the really healthy counterbalance was, can we make it funnier -- and the answer was often yes," said Jordan Thomas. "It was definitely the right amount of pressure. In my eyes, [South Park] explores topics that makes people uncomfortable, and it does so above all out of love and truth."The Stick of Truth incorporates many elements of fantasy fiction and RPG gameplay, while re-appropriating it for its own humor and style. When players enter the realm of 'Kupa Keep,' which is just Cartman's backyard with crude signs and dressing, they're brought into the conflict between the factions. From here, players will be able to define their character and choose their class. Despite players being able to name their character, Cartman and the others will henceforth refer to the New Kid as 'Douchebag."Character growth and evolution is conducted through a standard leveling and class system. Battles yield experience points and loot, and leveling up allows players to spend skill points across the various class trees. Though don’t expect anything extremely intricate. While you do have options, don’t go in thinking you can make rich variations of each character class. In The Stick of Truth, the classes cover the standard fantasy archetypes, but with a twist. There's the Fighter, Mage, and Thief, and last but not least, the Jew.The Jew class, which is illustrated with an evil-looking sorcerer character card, allows players to focus on long-range and sniping abilities to weaken, debilitate, and otherwise undermine your enemy's strengths from afar. Moreover, the Jew utilizes special abilities in 'Jew-Jitsu' and another skill known as the Sling of David, which allows players to cast the first stone against their enemies and stun those out of distance.Obviously, I decided to roll the Jew class for my character, Sir Douchebag (and so did everyone else at this event, by the way). From here, we learn the ins and outs of combat. On the surface, it looks to be a standard turn-based RPG game in the vein of Final Fantasy, and while that is true, the core combat takes a far more action-oriented and dynamic approach to engaging your foes. Players will be able to partner with other characters, such as Cartman, Stan, Butters, Kyle, and many others from the series in during battles, and many of them possess their own unique skills and abilities.During battles, offense and defense require timed button presses to maximize effectiveness. For instance, weapon attacks come in both basic and power versions. When attacking, your characters will ready themselves and pressing the attack buttons at the moment when the weapon flashes will enable the specified move. Basic attacks allow for combos, each hit requiring timed presses, and power attacks allow for a one-hit strong attack against enemies. Each has its uses and is required for specific enemies. Heavy armored enemies can be weakened through combo attacks, and power attacks can break through enemies carrying shields.Though be warned, enemies use the same skills as you do, and that's where blocking comes in. When enemies attack, a small shield icon will appear below your party members. This prompts you to press the action button to diminish the effectiveness of their attacks. Success also allows players to restore PP (yes, there's a joke for this), which power your special skills in battle. Blocking is especially important when facing foes who use attacks with status effects attached. For instance, bleeding drains character health over time, and cannot be healed unless you have special potions.I found myself really enjoying the combat. It's definitely a much more dynamic, but still tactical approach to turn-based combat. The action-oriented approach reminded me of combat from the games like Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga or Paper Mario, which really stressed that battles are not a spectator sport. I felt very active during every battle, and as enemies populate the environments during exploration, you can expect to see a lot of action. Battles can be pretty challenging, even early ones. I was overwhelmed by a group of elves at one point and was wiped out after missing the timing on blocks from a group of archers.Though it may all seem like fun and games when battling kids with fake elf ears, things eventually get real when you start battling other foes in South Park; such as Meth Heads looking to protect their stash, overzealous rent-a-cops who aren't afraid to use pepper-spray on children, and creepy territorial hobos. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.One feature that the creators of South Park wanted was allowing fans to explore the town freely, while meeting many of the series characters, and getting into trouble along the way.  "You're going to visit the town, properly," said Thomas as he elaborated on the exploration design. "There are few limits placed, which use Metroidvania-style unlocking, but there's a lot to explore, and around a lot more places around the town as well."Scattered around the town are NPC characters going about their business, and also a variety of shops, where you can buy new equipment, items, and special buffs for your characters. In Metroidvania style, players can explore the area at their leisure, but some areas are blocked off by obstacles and and obstructions that require special abilities. Interaction with the environment is a key part of gameplay during traversal and puzzle solving. Players will be able to uncover hidden paths and chests while examining and attacking obstacles. Moreover, new abilities open that allow players to activate switches from a distance, destroy obstacles with your farts, and use your other party members and friends to uncover clues and take out groups of enemies without even entering battle. I was pretty pleased with how detailed the settings were, but at times I had difficulty finding  certain objects for quests, as they blended in too well with other decorations in the background. Exploring the town of South Park felt surreal, and extremely authentic. In many ways, it felt like I was watching an episode of South Park showing off a really demented and comical parody of EarthBound, except I was actually playing it. The comparisons to EarthBound and other JRPG titles were no coincidence, as they were a major influence for the writers of the series and folks at Obsidian. They really nailed the look and feel of the TV series, as there were moments during cutscenes I'd stop playing, and then I'd have to remind myself that I was playing a game after some time passed.There are many incentives for taking time out from the main quests to explore and get to know the exact layout of the town, which is a first for South Park. Many familiar places, such as the South Park Elementary, South Park Mall, Bijou Cinema, City Wok, Tweek Bros. Coffehouse, and many others are available for players to come across and explore.Another reward for the exploration is meeting other characters, who friend you on the social media site, Facebook. Yes, this is a full on parody of Facebook and they don't even shy away from the absurdity of social media. Character's can even comment on your 'page' making jokes and mocking your performance. Your Facebook page also serves as your main menu, possessing journals, inventory, and acquiring more friends will gradually unlock special points which can be used to buy special perks to strengthen your character's abilities.Many of the characters and creatures you encounter during your quest are referenced throughout the television series, and even the most political and controversial of characters will likely make an appearance. In one instance, I came into contact with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore who needed help with tracking the fabled ManBearPig, as it was stalking the citizens of South Park. This scene totally came out of nowhere, I felt the sudden urge to drop whatever I was doing and do what he asked. How can you say no to Al Gore? Everyone involved with the game seemed pretty much on the same page. One of the key takeaways from both the creators of the television series and the developers at Obsidian, and Jordan Thomas, was the desire to make South Park: The Stick of Truth the definitive South Park experience, across all media.And judging from my time with the title, they certainly have made something unique to the series, that will speak to fan's love for the franchise. While there are some rather obvious bugs that will hopefully be ironed out, such my character being permanently being stuck in the aiming stance during exploration, and some issues with items not being clear enough to identify in the field, I came away pretty pleased with what I played.It's looking like the game was definitely worth the wait. While the developers certainly didn't have to worry about raising the bar for South Park games, which was pretty low as it was, they've definitely made something that speaks to fans of the show, and might even earn the attention of some RPG fans in the process.
South Park photo
One does not simply walk into South Park
So, where were you when South Park: The Stick of Truth was announced? This was all the way back in 2011, around the time another certain RPG title was on the minds of players. It was certainly a surprising reveal, don't you t...

Dark Souls II photo
Dark Souls II

Dark Souls II on PC looks set for May 31


If an Amazon listing's to be trusted
Feb 03
// Brett Makedonski
Only a bit shy of a month away from Dark Souls II's console release, many are left wondering when exactly the PC version will be unleashed upon the masses. From Software's said in the past that it would see a slight delay so...

Preview: Dark Souls II

Jan 30 // Alessandro Fillari
Dark Souls II (PC, PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360)Developer: From SoftwarePublisher: Namco Bandai Games Release Date: March 11, 2014 (PS3, Xbox 360) / (PC TBA)In a far away kingdom known as Drangelic, players take on the role of a cursed warrior looking to end their suffering. Once a mighty and prosperous land, the kingdom fell into madness and ruin for reasons yet to be discovered. Upon learning the secrets of the kingdom, which is now inhabited by powerful monsters and dragons, the player character ventures toward Drangelic in search of a cure to end their curse.For those not familiar with the series, players must explore and work their way through an environment filled with traps, monsters, and other dangers while collecting souls to level up and expand their arsenal. Death is a normal part of the game, and dying is sometimes necessary to understand the environment and for your own growth as a player. With network functionality, players can also view others online and see their progress in real-time as ghostly apparitions to learn more about the dangers ahead.As in the previous game, Dark Souls II takes place in an interconnected world that players can explore and travel across either on-foot or through fast-travel using the various bonfires, which also serve as checkpoints.These bonfires are also your only safe haven from monsters and other players looking to invade your game.After the stunning intro cinematic detailing the history of the kingdom, players find themselves in a seemingly abandoned and overgrown field known as the "Things Betwixt." Unarmed and without any supplies, players must venture forth in search of answers. Eventually, players find a small house where they get to meet the first NPCs of the game.Unlike in the previous game, the starting area for Dark Souls II is fairly open and allows for some wandering. While the beginning areas are open for exploration, trailing off the beaten path and backtracking to previous areas will reward players by essentially throwing them to the wolves. Literally. After creating my character build and receiving some gear, I decided to head back the starting place near a field of tall green grass, and I was soon ambushed by a pack of creatures that resembled a horrific mix between large rats and wolves.After barely clearing out these monsters, I went towards a small opening away from the field  and found a small path leading towards a creek. On my way, I saw a large troll with his back turned guarding a treasure on the ground. Of course, I took the opportunity to get the upper hand -- but I found myself outmatched, as my weapon barely did any damage. As he fell to the ground after attacking, which was amusing to watch, I quickly snatched the treasure and ran off to continue the story.I should mention that all this was entirely optional and was before reaching the first bonfire. If I chose to continue on forward without backtracking, I would've come across the game's tutorial sequence, where you battle more standard undead and learn the controls. A much easier option for my character.Throughout my time with the game, I never wanted to feel too comfortable and confident. All my victories were minor in the grand scheme of things, and I focused just on staying alive and in good condition. Just when you're getting confident in your skills, the game will quickly knock you down several pegs and show you who's boss. After completing the tutorial, I found myself ambushed by two massive trolls and was forced to retreat. This was still the first 15 minutes of the game.There's been much talk about how Dark Souls II has been made easier and more friendly for players. While a number of those concerns are understandable, I came away pretty pleased with the balance From Software made for the sequel. One thing I was relieved to see is how there are more options for the player to support themselves.For instance, Lifegems are a new restorative item that recover health for the players. Similar to the restorative herbs from Demon's Souls, there are different versions offering unique levels of potency, and they are also in a plentiful supply early on. Moreover, your character can actually move when recovering, though you're reduced to a slow walk.All this may sound like the Dark Souls II lost its nerve, right? From Software went and sold out to the casual audience, eh? Wrong. Lifegems heal much, much slower than the Estus Flask (found later on), which makes them a greater risk to use during battle. Even if you successfully use the item, you still have wait for your health to slowly regenerate. And if you're up against an enemy that's able to take chunks from your health, then he can easily cut through whatever health the Lifegem restored and what paltry sum you've got left. If that happens, then you've not only been killed, lost all your souls, lose more health while in hollow form, and you've just wasted a Lifegem. How’s that for a challenge?And on the subject of death, which is what the game is all about -- death now has greater consequences for players. Much like in Demon's Souls, when you are restored to life in a lesser form, your health bar suffers a penalty. Unlike the previous Dark Souls title, repeated deaths in Hollow form are penalized. The developers at From Software were aware of the fact that some players preferred to play in Hollow state, and this is to encourage people to return to their human form when they can.One reason why people preferred to stay in Hollow form was to avoid invasions from enemy players. That is now not the case. Unless players have special items or within special situations that prevent players from invading, they will always be at the risk of black phantoms.Of course, combat is one of the key aspects of the Souls series, and it's received a bit of an upgrade for Dark Souls II. In addition to the enhanced and refined inventory system, the combat mechanics have been given much more depth and feel much more tight as a whole. Dual wielding now feels much more effective and practical, and magic feels as a bit more flexible, as you can acquire staffs to use as tools for your spells. Keeping a healthy defense by utilizing parries, rolls, and your shield is vital for success. But at the same time, you must not be afraid to run in and attack when you see an opening.For the most part, the combat system has improved and feels very smooth. However, the enemies feel much more aggressive as a result. Because of this, I felt much more inclined to be on the defensive and wait for enemy attacks to pick more moment. Unless it was one of the lesser enemies, I always felt I needed to see them attack first before I could make my move.One issue with the previous Dark Souls title was the frame rate drops throughout the game, but thankfully performance for the sequel has been quite improved. During my time, the frame rate was solid. However, I still found the camera to be troublesome in spots -- specifically during cramped and tight areas. Sometimes the view would be obstructed or snagged on the wall or an object. It didn't happen often, but I felt fearful of the idea of it happening during combat, which is very possible.Visually, the game is quite an improvement from the original. While it's difficult to see in these pictures, many of the locations you see even early on are pretty stunning and take full advantage of the improved lighting engine. There will be a larger variety of environments in DSII, and these early areas, including a ruined castle on the coast populated by stone knights, make me excited to see what's next.In many ways, Dark Souls II does a better job with easing players into the experience; learning the controls, abilities, and making the acclimation period a bit easier, at your own pace, and more accessible. Yes, you just read that this game is a little more accessible. And that's OK. I died more times in the opening hour of this game than I did in the previous Souls games. And that was after going through the tutorial sequence and learning controls I'm already familiar with. It felt as though they made the opening of this game for players who wanted a challenge or were too confident in their abilities from the previous games. I felt constantly on edge, and had to think about what's going on and what to do next. While it's understandable to feel apprehensive about this game's slightly different approach to starting players off -- what Dark Souls II has essentially given players is more rope, just so they're able to climb an even steeper cliff. And it all felt pretty fair to me.Surprisingly, I felt there were many callbacks to the original Souls title, Demon's Souls. A steeper learning curve, a trial by fire scenario -- after letting my experience with the game digest, Darks Souls II seems to be a nice blend of the best qualities from both its predecessors. As there's a greater focus on putting pressure on the player, without making them feel too overwhelmed and frustrated. For the people that welcome this experience, of course.I had a good feeling about Dark Souls II and I came away pretty excited to jump into the full game once it's released in March. It's clear that they look plenty of notes from fans during the beta period, as many issues relating to the health items and combat flow have been tweaked for the better. Early 2014 is still looking pretty great, and fans should prepare to meet their maker once Dark Souls II is out in March.
Dark Souls II previewed photo
Once more unto the breach
As one of the most celebrated and admired games of the last generation, the Souls series from the developers at From Software has many admirers and critics. Many swear by its uncompromising and hardcore gameplay systems and d...

Preview: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Jan 23 // Alessandro Fillari
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC [previewed])Developer: MonolithPublisher: Warner Bros. GamesRelease Date: TBA 2014 The developers at Monolith weren't shy to talk about the reputation of movie games, and they were clear to share what their influences were, in particular Batman: Arkham Asylum. In terms of production, the Batman series served as motivation during the development of Middle-earth. "We saw Batman: Arkham City as the model," said director of design Michael De Plater, while discussing influences. "We looked at that game as the way to make licensed properties. It's best to make the best game you can first, before trying to make good movie game." Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, players take on the role of Talion. As a ranger for the kingdom of Gondor, Talion was a guard for the black gates on the eastern side of Mordor -- but on a night like any other, a massive army of Orcs siding with Sauron invaded. Killing many of his allies and loved ones, he is left for dead by the orcs. Unexpectedly, Talion is saved from death by the spirit of a Wraith and given new life and along with new powers. From here, our hero makes his way into Mordor to seek revenge, learn why the Wraith saved his life, and discover what the forces of Sauron have planned. Of course, this story may raise some eyebrows among loyal Tolkien fans. It's somewhat of a departure from the lore, and plans to stick more to the film's style, but the developers at Monolith are confident that fans will enjoy the narrative, as it's one of the bigger focuses of Middle-earth. The lead writer of Shadow of Mordor is Christian Cantamessa, who was also the lead writer of Red Dead Redemption, and he's placed a lot attention on fleshing out Talion and making sure it's in keeping with Tolkien's lore.As an open-ended sandbox action game, players will be able explore Mordor as it was before the return of Sauron. In fiction, Mordor was mostly known as a volcanic wasteland, but Middle-earth plans to show off areas that were filled with wildlife and flora untouched by the volcanic ash of Mt. Doom. Players can even interact and use items and animals from the game world for scouting and combat purposes. Large trees and bushes allow for cover during stealth, and utilizing bait can manipulate aggressive animals against the orcs. As a ranger, Talion possesses abilities that suit him for mobility, and melee and ranged combat. Batman: Arkham Asylum was a key influence and the developers took notes from the design of its action and traversal. Combat utilizes a similar free-flow fighting system from the Arkham series; specifically where players can freely move between individual enemies in a group and maintain combos to unlock special moves and power ups. To take things further, Talion has access to a series of new abilities while in his Wraith form. In this phase, he can enter the Wraith realm (in similar fashion to how Bilbo Baggins uses the One Ring) and observe enemies and points of interest in the game world. Moreover, he also moves much quicker and possesses enhanced archery and combat skills while in Wraith form. When engaging enemies, Talion can switch in and out of his Wraith form to expose weaknesses in enemies and pull off quick shots with his bow and arrow.As expected in a sandbox game, exploring and taking on new challenges will lead to great rewards, such as experience points and journal logs detailing more of the story and history of Mordor. Talion can also acquire ability points through leveling up which can be spent on unique skill trees for his Ranger and Wraith abilities. At the beginning, players will find the offerings somewhat bare, but eventually when you gain new moves and skills, such as a teleport attack called Shadow Strike, Talion becomes a force to be reckoned with. In order for our main character to exact his revenge on Sauron's army, players must create chaos in Mordor to undermine the influences of the orcs in the various zones. This is accomplished by strategically battling through the hierarchy of command by taking out enemy strongholds and camps, to draw out Sauron's Lieutenants to cripple their forces. Of course to do this, players must start at the bottom. In each zone of Mordor, there are a number of captains and war chiefs to combat with, and even pit against each other.  During our presentation, we saw Talion stalking an Orc captain by the name of Ratbag the Meathoarder. Starting with the stealthy approach, Talion takes out various orc soldiers utilizing both ranger and wraith abilities before breaking out into a full-on brawl with the entire camp. Realizing he's outmatched, Ratbag makes a run for it, but is captured when Talion uses a Wraith arrow to immobilize him.From here, players can approach the captain and interrogate him to gain Intel about the other officers in the zone. In a surprising twist, Talion can utilize his wraith abilities to take control of weak-willed captains and use them as temporary pawns in his struggle against the armies of Mordor. The player can assign tasks such as spying on other unknown officers, or assassinating other captains and war chiefs. Using his Wraith form, Talion marks Ratbag as a temporary ally and assigns him a mission to assassinate a war chief by the name of Orthog the Troll Slayer. This decision will create a brand new mission within the zone, which players can choose to accomplish at their leisure. Skipping ahead, we start the assassination mission and see that Ratbag is the second in command to Orthog. Moreover, the captain-turned-pawn has his own band of orcs at his side which will allow for Talion to gain the upper hand against Orthog, but also have a group of orcs fighting by his side under Ratbag's leadership. Surprisingly, the central enemies within Sauron's army are all procedurally generated by the game. Known as the Nemesis system, Middle-earth aims to create a greater level personality and uniqueness for each playthrough. The orc characters seen in the presentation will likely be entirely different for players. Since these characters are randomized, their knowledge and fighting abilities will be completely different for each player and for every repeated playthrough of the game. Everything from the names, fighting style, roles in Mordor, and their personality will be different for each player, according to Monolith. "We put a lot of effort into actually letting players make their own personal and unique bosses and villains in a living world, that was a big focus for us," De Plater said of the Nemesis system. These are not just for cosmetic purposes, but by design for strategic gameplay. During key moments in battle, Talion can acquire Intel from captains, such as strengths and weaknesses about other officers in Sauron's army. How deep their knowledge goes largely depends on the procedural element of the game's engine. One captain may have a deep knowledge of others in the zone, while another may be largely ignorant of who's who.The experience of death leaves a lasting impression on the game world and the morale among the forces of Sauron. Even the lowliest of grunts have potential to become a serious threat to Talion. When Talion is killed in battle, the Orc who lands the killing blow will be promoted in rank and added to the list of officers that Talion will need to take out. Even the lowliest of minions can kill Talion, and their promotion will create a new challenge for players. When revived at the various Forge Towers across the zones, they'll see that their death has motivated forces of Sauron, which will make creating chaos a bit more challenging. Moreover, enemies that escape from Talion during combat will live to see another day and alter their tactics for when players encounter them again. This creates another layer of challenge that emphasizes strategy. Some battles may not be worth running blade first into and will only result in player’s death and a new captain or war chief to eliminate. Even in this fairly short showing of the game, it's clear that the content in Shadow of Mordor is massive; and the developers plan to support players who may feel a bit lost. Warner Bros. Games and Wikia plan to release a companion app for tablets called Palantir. In real time, players can have the app on standby and learn details on the lore, locations, central characters, and other details while playing the main game. Though it's not really necessary for the game, it's a neat little app to have, if you're curious about any references or characters in Tolkien's lore. This title is quite the departure for Monolith games, as it's their first sandbox action game. This presentation of the vertical slice for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was pretty impressive, and shows the ambitious nature of the game. I left quite impressed with what Monolith has got in store for Middle-earth. The Nemesis system in particular is an inspired idea that will definitely incentivize players yearning for a deep single-player experience to revisit. While it’s still a ways off, and showed a number of graphical quirks and glitches that need to be cleared up, it's gotten me interested in what's in store.
Middle-earth preview photo
Sandbox chaos in Mordor
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