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Destructoid's award for Best PC Game of 2015 goes to...

Dec 22 // Steven Hansen
[Incomplete products like Steam Early Access titles and episodic games that are not fair to assess as stand alone experiences, without a full episode count, were not eligible for this year's awards. The cutoff for entry into Destructoid's 2015's Game of the Year awards is December 4, 2015.]
GOTY 2015 photo
Undertale
This quirky, JRPG-inspired lovefest has been the unexpected smash hit of 2015, resonating strongly with a legion of fans that helped propel it to victory in a large "Best. Game. Ever." poll against some of the indelible class...

Review: King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause

Dec 17 // Chris Carter
King’s Quest: Rubble Without a Cause (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The Odd GentlemenPublisher: Sierra EntertainmentReleased: December 16, 2015MSRP: $9.99 per episode / $40 for the "Complete Collection" [No major spoilers are mentioned for the current episode, although events of previous episodes will inevitably be discussed.] Rubble picks up some time after the first tale, after Graham has become king. He's still the same lovable old rascal, but right from the get-go you can see the toll that his new responsibility has taken on him. Graham is chipper and the tone is still light starting out, but you can tell that the developers are slowly easing us into a more serious method of storytelling. Without spoiling too much, Graham and a few members of his kingdom have been taken hostage by goblins, who reside in an underground kingdom. Given his height, he's been tasked with a few daily chores, which allows him access to the tunnels, while the others are forced to rot in prison cells. As you can imagine, a few familiar faces return, but you'll get to meet a few new characters as well. What I love about this setup is that it feels connected to the first episode, but also maintains its own identity. You get to see Graham's relationship with other characters grow in a meaningful way -- even with many of his adversaries. While the goblins can't talk, the animations are incredibly expressive (just like Graham) and full of life. For example, upon entering the dungeon, Graham is exhausted, walking around in a hilariously lethargic manner. After gaining his strength back his state will alter, as will the captives over time. The animation team really deserves a shoutout here, as they deserve to have a long career ahead of them. [embed]326509:61517:0[/embed] In a stark contrast to the first episode, Rubble takes a decidedly more old school approach. You're basically given a giant playground to roam around in, which is gated off by Graham's own "strength meter." It's here that the aforementioned kingly choices will come in, as you'll need to juggle the needs of three prisoners in addition to your own. If you eat -- you can explore more of the cave -- but you'll risk having a member of your kingdom starve. It's such a small, almost gamey thing (it even has heart meters), but since I already had an emotional attachment with these characters, it worked. I was legitimately stressed out (in a good way) trying to keep everyone happy, while constantly divining solutions to secrets in my head. You'll need to keep your wits about you too, as a few puzzles even had me writing down a few in-game events on paper. Again, it's far more detailed than any Telltale game, without getting resorting to "pixel-hunting" and overly frustrating cryptic solutions. Also, if you didn't enjoy the action sequences in the last episode, they're basically non-existent here. The art style is still stunning, and that Don Bluth feel is intact. The goblin's caves also feel unique compared to the mostly above-ground setting of the first episode, and the scale is grand without being too overwhelming. Layout-wise, there's basically a few giant wheels with several spokes -- it's enough where it will be helpful to remember rooms off-hand. In terms of quality of life updates, the entire package gained a skip button in this latest update, which is incredibly useful for repeating dialogue or events. I haven't really noticed much carry-over from the previous tale, but choices made in Rubble that will impact future episodes are somewhat evident -- plus, there's a meta-narrative teased at the end. Second parts tend to be troublesome for episodic series, as they often feel like transitional stories that merely set the table for what's to come. But with King's Quest: Rubble Without a Cause, characters are growing right before our eyes with a subtle and effective tonal shift. The Odd Gentlemen also nailed the script, as it feels like a standalone episode that's also connected to the episodic format as a whole. We still have three tales to go, but for now, I'm feeling pretty good about King's Quest. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
King's Quest review photo
I really can wait to be king
The first episode of the newly minted King's Quest series really took me by surprise. While I had been loosely following it for years, I never expected it to be one of my favorite games of the year. The cast, the animati...

First hands-on with Crytek's newest game The Climb

Dec 15 // Steven Hansen
The Climb is simple. Once you strap into an Oculus virtual reality headset, two disembodied hands appear in front of you. Pulling the left or right triggers on the Xbox controller clenches the respective fist. "Aiming" the hand at a divot in the cliff, by way of moving your head towards where you're trying to grab, prompts the hand to appear as if it's reaching a bit more urgently, signalling to you it's ready to grab. And that's it, hand over hand, you're climbing rock. I played a course in south east Asia on easy difficulty, which only necessitates two types of grips. The most technical thing I had to do was let go with one hand and quickly grasp the same hold with the other. That and you'll want to occasionally hold the bumpers to chalk your hands so they don't start bleeding down your players' hip fitness wristband. I might be stereotyping, but I'm pretty sure it read, "YOLO" at some point. But that was it. There was some hand over hand lateral movement across a plank and a jump or two to otherwise out of reach handholds, but it's mostly about the physical intimacy of climbing up a giant rock and occasionally physically turning your head around to soak in the beautiful vista. Miles of CryEngine rendered landscape juxtaposed against surrogate fingertips. "The engine gives us that ability to do the distance, the scale, the largeness and intimacy," Crytek's Director of Production David Bowman said. Crytek came out hot in 2013 with three big releases: Crysis 3, Warface (hah!), and Ryse: Son of Rome. The first and third were sales letdowns. The second has a name that gave me immense pleasure for a year or so and might have made money in Asian and European markets where is launched sexy female soldiers. Its 2014 announcements -- a Johnny Come Lately MOBA Arena of Fate and Darksiders follow up from former Vigil employees Hunt -- have been radio silent in 2015. Its other known project is a VR game with dinosaurs. Bowman noted that Crytek is, "going to continue to make traditional great, fantastic games," but said that, "VR gives us a new toolset, a new platform, a new media that plays to our strengths. It plays right into what we do better than anybody. This is our chance to really shine." Virtual reality is an important part of Crytek's future. Where Ryse was basically an Xbox One tech demo, a piece of impressive "next gen" looks, The Climb is something like that for VR, albeit with a lot more substance than the QTE-heavy movie knockoff. Bowman calls it, "one of the premier Oculus content experiences," and says it will be released "early" in the Oculus' life cycle. "They love it," Bowman said. Oculus made a smart decision pairing its still-not-dated, still-not-priced Rift VR headset with a strong piece of software in EVE: Valkyrie. The Climb may not have that pack-in position, but Bowman says the simplicity is what will sell VR to a wider audience. "The approachability of this, we have really high hopes for it as far as bringing in people who might not consider themselves gamers. And if you are a gamer, there's a lot of sport here. It's free climb solo. That level of danger in real life means you're not going to go out and do it probably yourself, but here you have this extreme sport that's now accessible to you. "What every hardware platform needs is that application that you can say, 'Hey, I bought this, I have fun with it, and now I'm sharing it with my friends and family, and I feel good about it because they're able to appreciate it.' And now all of a sudden they're going, 'I had fun doing that, so I'm going to buy one,' and it tends to snowball. That's how hardware adoption happens." And while Bowman maintains Crytek will continue to make "traditional" games, the company has, "probably the largest VR team, the largest that I'm aware of anyway." "We're trying to position Cryengine to be the best toolchain to work in VR," Technical Director Rok Erjavec added. More people using the engine for good VR experiences increases the likelihood of VR somehow catching on where something like 3D has failed. "2016: Early adopters. 2017: Friends and family of those early adopters going, 'I want one too,'" Bowman said. "By 2019, I'm saying this is going to be one of those ways you access all sorts of experiences, not just games, but data in general. We want to be riding that curve, that wave." It starts with The Climb. "When we started doing climbing originally during our tech demos...we realized, 'Hey, this is fun. This a fun thing to do, just inherently." It took some time to get there, of course. The Climb started with a full pair of disembodied arms, but testers of different size felt out of sorts with the one-size-fits-all proportions, so the team lopped the arms off and reduce the interface to floating hands.  "We thought it'd be really fun to fall and hit the rocks and bounce and stuff. Man that makes you so sick. Don't do that." The sweet spot for falling -- to put that knot in players' stomachs without leaving them retching -- turned out to be 2.3 seconds of freefall and then a fade to black. "A lot of our developers and our QA team, god bless them, they have had to endure some really fun experimentation," Bowman said. He was cagey on how many staffers puked, but noted that during early prototyping, the team had to account for the fact that a developer might have to get out of the thing after about an hour of work due to nausea. Now, level designers work in the visor all day. "We had people run to the bathroom, though." Well, if anyone did puke during those early phases of prototyping, it's between them and their porcelain god. Bowman was cagey on just how much stuff would appear in The Climb, too. "We have a set amount of content and we're well under control as far as delivering that...and we're going to be expanding that content hopefully in the future as well," is all I got when I asked about different regions, or weather conditions. As for changes to the time of day, "absolutely." Beyond the physical interaction and varying locales, the team seems excited for the latent speed run and otherwise competitive angle to satiate the hardcore or give greener climbers something to keep them coming back.  To that end, VR does offer technically bombastic experiences pared down in a way that "non-gamers" might find appealing without being patronizing -- like I said, The Climb was simple, but plenty of fun. "When I put a strange controller in your hand and say, 'Okay, I need you to press this combination of buttons,' you've instantly alienated a lot of people," Bowman said. The Climb also supports touch controllers and features a, "solution set that works for a variety of different input devices," so hopefully we'll be bringing you Donkey Konga free climb speed run videos next year. As for other simple experiences that turned out to be "inherently fun" in VR that Crytek might want to explore? "Can't talk about them yet because we're going to use them."
Preview: The Climb photo
Crytek goes in with engaging VR
Is free solo climbing cool? I'm sure there's been some virality in its danger in the YouTube era, but we've had, what, Cliffhanger, which was more about guns and biceps than cliff hanging, and then the arbitrary opening Missi...

Very Quick Tips: MechWarrior Online

Dec 14 // Nic Rowen
Movement: Mechs are large, clumsy machines that move at a deliberate pace. There is no strafing side-to-side for these beasts and accelerating or coming to a stop takes a moment, so you really need to think about where you are going before you commit yourself to a course. If you’re piloting anything heavier than a light mech, always plan your actions out instead of moving willy nilly, or you might get caught in a crossfire with no way to retreat. Remember that you will always move in the direction your legs are pointed, not necessarily where you are looking. A mech's torso can swivel like a turret while its legs take it in a different direction. It may be helpful (and hilarious) to picture them as tanks on stilts. The C and F buttons will center your aim in the forward direction of your mech, or bring your legs to the same bearing as where you are aiming. Being able to center your view or movement after a disorienting fight can be a lifesaver. Try the tutorial and some of the newbie UI options if you have trouble getting the hang of it. Aiming and locking:  One of the odd things about MWO is that there are two different aiming reticles on the HUD representing weapons mounted on the arms and legs. The arm-lock feature will be enabled by default on new accounts, which means the arm and torso weapons will move and aim in sync. Turn that crap off right away. Learning to aim independently with the arms and torso is a crucial skill that you should start developing sooner rather than later. The torso crosshairs' range of motion is limited by a mech's ability to bend and pivot. Considering we're talking about robots the size of small apartment buildings, they're typically not very agile. Being able to independently aim with the arms allows you to strike at more angles. But it also means you need to be careful when firing weapons from both groups as once -- it can be easy to take your arms way off target while trying to make a slight adjustment with your torso. Coordinate your firing groups accordingly. Pressing R will lock on to the nearest enemy mech you can see, or indirectly if a teammate has a lock on someone. They cover this in the tutorial, but I want to stress it: PRESS R. The number one thing you can do to improve your play as a new player is to be constantly acquire locks. Locking onto a mech not only shows you where they are and the range they are from you (important since every weapon has a maximum range) but their status information and armor condition, absolutely essential for knowing what you are up against and where you should aim. Pressing R is love. Pressing R is life. People who don't press R are bad people. They don’t have souls. Don’t be one of those people. Heat:  Mechs build up heat as they fire weapons and shut down if you push it too far. If you're desperate to get off one more shot while riding the line, you can override the automatic shutdown by pressing the O key by default. This is some risky business though as every moment you spend past the heat threshold will cook the internals of your mech. Make sure that shot is worth gambling against an embarrassing suicide. When building a mech, you need to find a balance between firepower and the cooling required to use it. Having a huge arsenal of weapons won't do much good if you can only fire them every 30 seconds or so. At the same time, being able to repeatedly fire a single laser till the end of time is just going to tickle the enemy. Generally, it’s better to run a little hotter and practice good fire discipline than to run super cool, but keep it sane. There are some byzantine rules about linking too many of the same weapons together commonly referred to as “ghost heat.” In an effort to combat front-loaded boat builds that pack all their offensive punch into a single mech annihilating strike, a balance change was made a long time ago that punishes mechs with exponential amounts of heat for firing several of the same weapon in one salvo. For example, firing three PPCs at once builds a toasty four PPC blasts worth of heat while firing four at once is all but guaranteed to crash a mech into an insta-shutdown. You can get around this by staggering your fire, but it's still something to watch out for (the mechlab will warn you when building a mech that runs this risk). Combat:  Mechs are designed to take a beating, especially if you know how to roll with the punches. Instead of having a pool of HP that is depleted until death, damage in MWO is handled on a component-by-component basis. Mechs are made up of several parts with a layer of armor on each and an internal health value underneath. Knowing where to shoot (and where to take shots) is essential. You can shamble around like some horrible 90-foot-tall Frankenstein's monster after losing your arms, side-torsos, and even a leg. But if the internals of your center core are destroyed, the cockpit in the head gets melted, or both legs are disabled, you're done. Knowing how to tank damage by intentionally exposing expendable parts of your mech to cover vulnerable ones is probably the single biggest dividing line between ace pilots and average players. Twisting your torso to spread damage evenly between components when under fire will sustain you where others fall. It's better to lose half your armor over all your arms and torso pieces than to have an exposed chunk where your internals are vulnerable and full armor everywhere else. Don't get tunnel vision while fighting. Mechs are slow and move in predictable directions. You can afford to take your eyes off an enemy for a second to twist and take a shot in the shoulder instead of the chest. The dark side to this knowledge is that it can also be exploited. Weapons that do all of their damage in one front-loaded burst (PPCs, IS auto-cannons, etc.) can do full damage on a single component and there is little an opponent can do about it. Some mechs are intentionally built with an asymmetric design that puts most of the firepower on one side of the mech. This is a blessing and a curse. When riding these, you can use the entire other side to soak up damage, making your mech's arm a ghetto shield and that entire side torso a wall of meat for enemies to chew through. When a side torso is destroyed, damage done to it will bleed over into the center core, but only at a 50% rate, so it's better to take shots to a damaged side than straight on. The downside is that it puts all your eggs in one basket. Lose the side of your mech with all the guns and you might as well call it “GG.” Along with the different limbs and sections of a mech, individual pieces of equipment like weapons can also be destroyed once a mech loses its armor. Occasionally, it can be a good idea to try and disarm an opponent before going for the kill (the Hunchback with its huge shoulder cannon is the classic example). Gauss rifles explode when destroyed and often rip an entire side of a mech apart when they go, so pay attention to what your enemy is packing and where. Contrary to what some people may tell you, there is no way to specifically target a weapon (shooting the barrel of a gun is no better than shooting the area right beside it, and no, heating up the area with lasers before shooting it with ballistics does nothing. I can't believe some of these rumors are still around). The game rolls an RNG when an exposed area is hit to see what, if any, piece of equipment in a component is damaged. Machine guns and the shotgun like LBX cannons have an increased chance to damage equipment and Clan targeting computers can improve those odds as well. When building a mech, it's a good idea to pad a sensitive piece of equipment if possible by stacking expendable things like heat sinks and electronics to better your odds. Oh yeah, there is a chance that ammo can explode if hit by enemy fire, so keep that extra ammo in the knees where it will do the least harm. Building your mech:  Despite several redesigns over the years, customizing a mech in the mechlab is still a Kafka-esque nightmare of menus, drop-down lists, and microscopic fine print. I guess building robots is going to be complicated no matter how you try and slice it. Being effective in the mechlab is just as important as being effective in the battlefield though, so you're going to have to learn its quirks sooner or later. I recommend tinkering around with your builds in a third-party mech builder like Smurfy when trying to plan out your changes. It's a cleaner interface that's easier to use and you won't be risking thousands of your space-dollars on an accidental mis-click. Always invest in the double-heatsink upgrade if a mech doesn't come with it. Despite more than a few attempts at balancing it out, double-heatsinks are ALWAYS worth taking, and mechs that don't run them are obsolete out of the garage. Endo-steel always saves more weight than the ferro-fibrous upgrade and takes up the same number of critical slots, so always go for that one first between the two. Your first robots (hopefully on the cheap):  Building a garage of personalized killer robots is one of the best parts of MechWarrior. However, mechs are expensive, C-bills don’t grow on trees, and garage space is at a premium, so you want to make the best purchasing decisions you can. Accounts start with four mech bays (essentially character slots) for you to fill in with your own mechs by default. Seems like plenty, but they fill up fast. Progression in the mech skill trees depends on owning three chassis of the same kind of mech, so four bays will limit you to one particular brand of ride, or require some extremely tedious re-selling and re-buying. Mech bays can only be purchased with real money unfortunately, but diligent spendthrifts can earn free ones by participating in fairly regular weekend events and dipping their toes into the various faction play options (you unlock a free mechbay fairly early in the progression for each house or clan and are free to bounce between them after fleecing them for the reward). When buying a mech, you have to consider the cost of equipping it as well as the flat cost of the mech. Upgrades like endo-steel frames and double heat sinks are essential and bloat the sticker price of a mech. XL engines are used in several popular Inner Sphere mechs and cost millions of C-Bills on their own. Again, pre-planning your builds in a third-party builder is a smart move. You can move engines around between mechs, so try and purchase ones that you can reuse in several mechs (my single XL 255 engine is swapped between basically half of my medium and light mechs). The XL 300 is also used in many popular builds and might be a wise investment. You’ll notice when buying mechs that there is a divide between Inner Sphere tech and Clan tech. For folks unfamiliar with BattleTech lore, these basically represent two different sides of a galactic conflict. Clan mechs cost more than their IS equivalents, but you get what you pay for -- and here is the part of the guide where I make a lot of enemies -- because Clan stuff is generally better. Outside of any lore affiliations, in-game, the choice between Clan and IS represents a difference in power and playstyle. Clan mechs come equipped with XL engines (that don’t explode when you lose a side compared to the fragile IS equivalent), double heat sinks are standard, and many come with upgrades like endo-steel pre-installed. So while the sticker price is higher, it’s also a little closer to what you actually pay in the long run. By and large, Clan tech is lighter, hits harder, and has greater range than IS tech. On the downside, Clan weapons tend to fire in volleys or bursts and their lasers take longer to do full damage (all the more reason to twist and spread the damage). The potential to do A LOT more damage than IS mechs exists, but you need a steady hand to really take advantage of it. Clan weapons also generate more heat on average. In default game modes, you aren't locked into either side and are free to fill your garage with whatever mechs you want. If you plan on getting deep into the Community Warfare aspect of the game though, you will naturally want to focus on one team eventually. On the bright side for the IS, several mechs have positive “quirks” that let them leverage unique attributes with certain weapons, or give them a little more durability than their armor rating may imply. If you pay attention and build towards them, some IS mechs can be just as powerful (or more) than Clan mechs and cheaper if you can swap around parts. On the IS side, the Blackjack line of mechs are relatively cheap, has great high-mounted weapon hardpoints (they can peek over a ridge and fire without exposing too much of themselves) and thanks to a few quirks, can do surprising damage (the 1X with six medium lasers in the arms is a beast). You can also look into the heavier Thunderbolts with laser quirks if you want to make an impression, or the nimble Firestarter if the idea of backstabbing larger mechs appeals to you. For the Clans, the medium weight Stormcrow packs all the firepower of a heavy (and maybe some assaults) while staying incredibly mobile. Lovely hardpoint placements high on the torso and nose of the mech make it easy to use. The Timberwolf heavy is also a great (if expensive) choice with a ton of build flexibility -- it’s the poster child of the franchise for a reason. Good luck! For a “very quick tips” post this guide went on, didn’t it? There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of in MWO and it can seem bewildering when starting out, but with a little practice and some patience, you’ll be reducing giant robots to scrap heaps in no time.
MWO tips photo
All systems nominal
With MechWarrior Online hitting Steam, there are bound to be a lot of new pilots climbing into the cockpit for the very first time. But getting started might not be the easiest thing in the world. MechWarrior is a little more...

Review: Hearthstone: League of Explorers

Dec 10 // Chris Carter
Hearthstone: League of Explorers (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentReleased: November 12, 2015 to December 10, 2015 MSRP: $19.99 for all four wings The basic setup has been pared down a bit, and I'm mostly fine with it. Instead of focusing on five wings, League has four, strewn about over the course of four weeks (skipping an additional week for the Thanksgiving holiday). It's maddening sometimes to have to wait to access another wing that you paid for, but that's mostly because Hearthstone constantly leaves me wanting more. This expansion really delivers with its single-player scenarios, topping any other fight before it. That's primarily due to the "choose your own adventure" sections, where players will have to deal with an event rather than face a specific enemy. You'll be able to play the odds by taking a high-risk, high-reward option or play it safe, and in the end, strategy usually wills out. Other fights involve mechanics like a staff that makes you invulnerable, and a boss that persistently fills your side with useless minions that explode over time. From a lore perspective, there's a decent amount of references here for fans, from a duel with Lady Naz'jar in the ruined city, to a showdown with Archaedas in Uldaman. I never thought Blizzard would one day make a card game and base it on the rich Warcraft world that it's spent decades developing, but I'm glad it did. As for the other bits, Heroic (hard) versions are still in, and although Hero challenges are a little too easy and straightforward this time around, each one rewards you with one card, so they're still worth playing. [embed]324539:61475:0[/embed] The new cards are also rather disruptive, in a good way. The main characters (pictured above) drastically alter some decks, and a few even allow for completely new deck themes. My personal favorite is Sir Finley Mrrgglton (love that name), a 1-mana 1/3 card that allows players to swap their hero power. It's such a tiny thing, but the ability to use hero powers interchangeably can alter the course of a match. I've also been using the Summing Stone in a few of my decks, which summons a random minion based on the cost of any spell used while it's active. Other cards like Tomb Spiders and Jeweled Scarabs "discover" new minions. Like the themes before it, the types of cards in League are cohesive, and fun to use. Murloc decks in general also got a huge buff, with "Anyfin can Happen" (a 10-mana card that summons seven dead Murlocs), and the Tinyfin (a 0-cost 1/1 card that essentially buffs other Murlocs). Hearthstone: League of Explorers is probably my favorite expansion yet for the game. I feel like Blizzard iterates for every release, and I hope this isn't the end of the adventures to come, as I vastly prefer them to card-only expansions. Maybe next time we'll see even crazier mechanics, like the co-op fight that was only used once in a Tavern Brawl. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hearthstone review photo
Cheerio
Blizzard is doing a great job of keeping Hearthstone players invested. In addition to the typical daily quest, weekly Tavern Brawl, and Arena schemes invented to reward people with new decks on a constant basis, it has a...

Review: SteamWorld Heist

Dec 09 // Chris Carter
SteamWorld Heist (3DS [reviewed], PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)Developer: Image & FormPublisher: Image & FormMSRP: $19.99 ($16.99 until December 31, with a 3DS theme)Released: December 10, 2015 (3DS), TBA (PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One) Although Heist is confirmed to take place in the same universe as Dig, the only thing that's remotely similar is the art style. Set in the future after the presumed fictional wild west period, the cast of the game is now spacebound, complete with more advanced weaponry at their disposal. The star of the narrative is Piper, captain of a smuggling ship who gets wrapped up in the ongoing conflict with pirates. Along the way you'll pick up more cast members to add to your home ship, Mass Effect style, all of whom boast unique abilities and statlines. The presentation is just as charming as Dig to boot, with gibberish dialogue (outside of the announcer), memorable characters, and some awesome vocal music tracks. One thing I wasn't too keen on though was the lack of character development, despite the fast-moving plot that gives you plenty of excuses to blow stuff up. While I felt very connected to Dig due to the smaller scale of its world that left me wanting more, the galactic conflict of Heist wasn't quite as compelling. Gameplay-wise, gone is the action platformer conceit, as things are now at a more deliberate pace. Think of how Valkyria Chronicles works -- players get a limited amount of movement, and can perform one action, including a skill or an attack, before their turn ends. You'll get to aim manually, and target any body part or object you wish. You can also opt to sprint further than your allotted movement, though it will immediately end your turn. Many strategy RPGs have used this same system, but I was surprised at how well it works in Heist's 2D space. [embed]324048:61439:0[/embed] Action is relatively fast-going, and there are a ton of nuances built into the combat system to constantly keep things interesting. For instance, weapon loadouts drastically change the way one approaches a situation, as some guns have laser sights, different rates of fire, or new ammo types altogether. When you add in the fact that headshots increase the chance for a critical hit, and that you can knock off enemy hats to add to your collection (of which there are nearly 100), it gets even more interesting. The whole equipment system alone is well crafted, from the way it starts off manageable and eventually ramps up, to the utility of the items in general. Players will have to choose two items per character, shifting their builds significantly and essentially turning them into new playstyles. Selling items is as easy as pressing a button, which makes inventory management effortless and fun without being too streamlined for its own good. Items like extra movement shoes, armor that restricts movement, and healing packs all come into play, and can be used in a static manner or more dynamically as a reaction to each scenario. It's deep without being too overwhelming, so newcomers shouldn't have any issues acclimating to it -- especially since you can alter the difficulty setting on every mission. It helps that maps are always interesting as well, providing multiple paths of entry even earlier into the experience. Because of how open each arena is, placement of your party is important, and finding cover can be relatively difficult when nearly all of it can be destroyed or blown up depending on the situation. There are so many variables involved in every level that missions never truly felt the same, even if I was repeating them to pick up some loot I missed, or clear an objective I previously failed. SteamWorld Heist is both a great entry point for people who normally shy away from strategy games and a good recommendation for veterans. With a deep combat system and a sliding difficulty scale, pretty much everyone can find something they'll like. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
SteamWorld Heist review photo
Smugglers with hearts of gold
SteamWorld Dig is a criminally underrated game. Although some were quick to judge its short length, it's the perfect thing to pick up and play at the drop of a hat, and the pacing is basically perfect. Heist is a co...

PC Port Report: Helldivers

Dec 07 // Nic Rowen
Helldivers (PC)Developer: Arrowhead Game StudiosPublisher: PlayStation Mobile Inc.Released: December 7, 2015MSRP: $19.99 If you were foolish like me and never played Helldivers on the PS4 when it came out, it's a top down four-player co-op shooter with an emphasis on teamwork and coordination. You play as a squad of Helldivers, a group of all-purpose space-marines, representing the peaceful (and not at all totalitarian, xenophobic, or belligerent) world of Super Earth as they “defend” their sovereign nation-planet against the scum of the galaxy. Cyborgs, giant bugs, and robots all threaten the future well-being of Super Earth (by not giving up their resources and getting in line fast enough), and it's your squad's job to either bring them democracy or hot death (note: there is no “democracy” button on your controller, just a trigger). The titular Helldivers have access to all the typical space-marine gear: machine guns, flamethrowers, miniature walking mechas, as well as specialized “stratagems” that can be called in from headquarters to be airdropped into the field. Stratagems range from supply drops and reinforcement respawns, to orbital bombardments and quick-deploying auto-turrets. All you have to do is stop firing, take a knee, tap out a quick series of directional movements (think the Konami code, but for strafing runs instead of 30 extra lives) and toss out a drop beacon. A total snap while fending off never-ending hordes of flesh-devouring bugs the size of school buses, right? Of course, being the biggest badasses Super Earth has to offer, the Helldivers are the most lethal thing on the battlefield -- even to each other. If you're not accidentally clipping a buddy with a spray of machine gun fire, or (oops) crushing half of your squad underneath a poorly placed supply drop, you're not bringing democracy to the front lines hard enough. Helldivers plays collateral damage for laughs, and stacks the deck in favor of hilarious live-fire "happy accidents." Mostly, these quirks add to the charm of Helldivers and only get frustrating if you happen to be playing with a madman who can't keep his grenades to himself or seems to be executing squad members on purpose. [embed]324957:61443:0[/embed] Thankfully, multiplayer support on the PC version is every bit as smooth and easy as the PS4 version. Hosting a game or joining one in progress is effortless and linking up with friends or kicking a toxic player is just as simple as it should be. Helldivers features built-in VOIP (which is actually enabled as an open mic by default as I found out accidentally to my teammates delight and my embarrassment. You can, of course, set it to push-to-talk if you prefer) but there are also quick-response radio options ("roger," "negative," etc.) if you're the type that doesn't like to talk into a mic, but still wants to coordinate with the rest of the team. The game has a very breezy, low-commitment feel. Unlike other multiplayer games where you can get roped into long, shitty matches, it's easy to pull up stakes and move on to greener pastures in Helldivers. Loading screens are mercifully short, inventory management and menu dithering is curtailed by a brisk timer that starts to count down as soon as one person readies up (so you're not stuck waiting on that one guy who wants to try out every cape option he has before dropping), and the actual missions are fast paced, "get in and get out" affairs. After spending a lot of time with MOBAs and games like Evolve this year, where a bad match can handily flush a half hour of precious quality game time away, I've really enjoyed the speed and ease of Helldivers lobby system. To top it off, every round I've played in the pre-release beta has been nice and stable with nary a hiccup. As always, the full release will put the game to the real test, but I'm optimistic that it will do just fine from what I've seen so far. In addition to the standard PC release, there is also a Digital Deluxe version available for $39.99 if you want to go wild. It comes stuffed with a boatload of DLC weapons, stratagems, vehicles, and extra swanky capes if you want your Helldiver to look his or her best. Personally, I feel like the regular game has enough content to unlock and play around with that you probably don't need to jump into the deep end right off the start. Small DLC packs of specific weapons and items just like the PS4 version are on the way, so you can probably wait and just cherry pick your favorites for a couple of bucks if you really want a particular outfit (or personal mecha, you know, just as an example and not something I plan on picking up as soon as its available). This is a great version of a great game. Pick it up, get some friends together, and do your part to keep Super Earth free, happy, and secure (by making every other planet broken, miserable, and reduced to a pile of ashes). [This PC Port Report is based on a press beta build of the game which was provided by the publisher.]
Helldivers PC photo
Airdropped into my heart
Earlier in the year, Conrad Zimmerman gave the PS4 version of Helldivers his highest recommendation. He praised it for its brutal and unrelenting action, and its dedication to pitch-black humor and decidedly laissez-faire att...

PC Port Report: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below

Dec 05 // 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 up, the options available leave a lot to be desired. Initially even finding some of them was a challenge, as while the basic settings like resolution and some limited graphics quality settings are available both in-game and in an external application, other settings like camera sensitivity are nestled within a maze of menu screens found once you’ve loaded up your game. While Heroes has settings for some less familiar settings like ambient occlusion and even what languages character speak in, it manages to entirely miss some of the more crucial and needed options. The two largest offenses are there being no way to control vsync, and anti-aliasing seems to be completely absent. The result is that while on a TV, the game looks perfect, but when you look at it up-close on a computer monitor, the jaggedness of the characters and environments is incredibly noticeable. Other than the anti-aliasing problem, it's gorgeous: great lighting effects, a fantastic art style, and high-quality textures. The game otherwise being so pretty makes the masses of jagged edges all the more disappointing. Framerates above 60 appear to be impossible. You’re given the option of locking the game at 60, 30, or strangely 20 FPS, but there's no option for a truly unlocked framerate. While on most configurations locking the framerate to 60 will achieve the same effect vsync would, good luck getting anything out of your expensive monitors with a higher refresh rate. In other words, if you want more control over the graphics, you’ll want to see what settings your video card’s control panel has available. While Heroes’ options aren’t exactly lacking, they aren’t comprehensive and often aren't the settings you'd most like to have control over.  As a positive, the game does have key remapping, which is nice. There’s also the ability to bind some of the usual keyboard functions to mouse buttons instead, which for some people would make things a lot easier.  [embed]324536:61395:0[/embed] Despite the generous remapping capabilities, I heavily, heavily recommend you use a controller if at all possible, because the controls are by far the biggest issue with the port. Playing it with a mouse and keyboard is uncomfortable at best, and almost impossible at worst. For starters, none of the menus can be controlled using the mouse, but require you to use the keyboard instead. It’s a massive pain considering just how many menus, maps, and dialogue sequences there are. The map even relies on you positioning a cursor over the location you want, so no mouse control just feels lazy. A bigger problem is that all the input icons show the Xbox controller buttons as opposed to keys -- even when you don't have a controller plugged into your PC. Last time I checked, my keyboard doesn’t have a right bumper, so the tutorial telling me to dash using it is a total waste of time. The only way you’ll have any luck playing Heroes with a keyboard and mouse is if you memorise the big list of key bindings. I haven't even mentioned how awful the game feels playing with a keyboard and mouse. The camera doesn’t stay rigidly locked to the character, so moving side-to-side will make them slowly drift to the sides of the screen, which means mouse control for the camera feels disjointed and fiddly and when in a hectic encounter, it can make you flat-out lose your character on the busy, cluttered screen. Even once I’d played with the settings, the mouse sensitivity feels completely off. I found it would pick up even the slightest movements and judder all over the place, and eventually it made me feel slightly sick. It wasn’t a fun experience trying not to vomit, and I found myself fighting with them more than the masses of monsters I was meant to be focusing on. After about two hours of trying to fight with the mouse, I gave up and used my Xbox 360 controller instead. The controller works far, far better and my queasiness instantly went away, so if you do decide to pick up the game, make sure you plug in a controller too. As far as optimisation and performance go, Dragon Quest Heroes ran incredibly well for me. It’s worth noting that my rig is getting on a bit now, so I’m only slightly above the recommended settings. Even then with all the settings at the highest possible, I consistently had around 45-50 FPS. Everything ran smoothly even in busy and detailed environments with tons of enemies. However, there is a huge caveat here. I’ve been playing on a system with an AMD card, but there have been complaints from some players that the game has much worse performance on Nvidia cards, especially in laptops. I’m unable to confirm this for myself as I don’t have the hardware to test the game on, but there are enough comments mentioning Nvidia performance problems for me to suggest being cautious when buying the game. Overall, while the port for Dragon Quest Heroes leaves a lot to be desired, it definitely didn't verge into unplayable territory for me. The biggest problem I found was the keyboard and mouse controls being pretty awful, but once I swapped over to playing on a controller, I found the port fine. For those who don’t like playing on a controller under any circumstances, the problems with Heroes will get very annoying very quickly. I have a slight confession to make: this is my first ever Dragon Quest game, and I only have a little experience with Dynasty Warriors. I’m by no means an expert in either series, so I won't be able to really assess how it stands up in comparison to its parents. Despite that, I did genuinely enjoy my time with Heroes. You don’t need to have ever played a Dragon Quest game to understand the story, but those who are familiar with the series will probably get more pleasure out of seeing characters from totally unconnected games meet at last. I have no idea who characters like Yangus, Nera, or Alena are in their original games, but I don't need to know to like their inclusion in Heroes. Going into it blind, I was struck by just how charming the entire thing is. Heroes is at its core about a lovely cast of characters who are all voice-acted incredibly well, going on an adventure in a very traditional, colourful and beautifully realised JRPG world. Compared to the few Warriors games I’ve played, Heroes appears to have a lot of influence from Dragon Quest’s JRPG foundations, insofar as you have to gather your party and manage their skills and equipment as they level up. Sometimes I felt like having to return to the base between every mission got in the way of the combat at the heart of the game, but ultimately it wasn’t too bad. The combat is utterly fantastic, as I would expect from a Warriors game. Mowing down dozens of enemies in flashy combos and watching as the damage counters filled the screen was brilliant. The large roster of characters all play very differently to each other, so the combat never felt repetitive or boring to me. One really neat feature is the monster coin system. Sometimes when you kill an enemy, they’ll be converted into a coin that, once used, can summon them to fight with you. Strategically collecting the stronger monster coins and redeploying them to get the tactical advantage over a wave of enemies gave the combat a bit more depth than just mashing the controller until everything died. Unfortunately while the combat never gets old, the mission structure certainly does. Sometimes you’ll get a cool mission where you have to fight your way through a level, and the boss fights are absolutely awesome. They’re often huge, and require you to think about the encounter in a new and interesting way. But after a couple of hours, you’ve more or less seen every type of mission the game has to offer, and most of them are simply variations on tower defence-plus-Dynasty Warriors. Even the progression through the chapters is often the same: head to a town in peril, fight your way through some enemies, protect a thing, and then fight the boss When the missions are good, they’re really good and a hell of a lot of fun. So it’s a huge shame that the remaining missions that pad those awesome moments are often just keeping enemies away from that level’s MacGuffin until you win. Considering how many optional side-missions there are, I would’ve hoped there was a bit more variation in what it was I was actually doing. I really like Dragon Quest Heroes. It’s colourful, cheerful, and is suitably camp for a Warriors game, and it also has genuinely involving yet accessible combat. It’s just a shame that after a few hours the missions began to feel repetitive, making playing for longer periods of time drag on a bit. Either way, as a total newcomer to Dragon Quest, it’s definitely got me interested in trying out some of the other entries in the franchise, and for long-time fans of the series there’s bound to be enough to keep you entertained for a while.  [This PC Port Report is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] [This PC Port Report is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Dragon Quest Heroes photo
A great game with some big port problems
Hot on the heels of Hyrule Warriors, Koei Tecmo released Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. It takes the long-running and well-loved Dragon Quest series of JRPGs and throws them straigh...

Dragon's Dogma runs wonderfully on PC

Dec 03 // Patrick Hancock
Tested on: Intel i7-4770k 3.50 GHz, 8GB of RAM, Geforce GTX 970, Windows 10 Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen is officially releasing on PC on January 15, so there will still be optimizations and tweaks between now and then. Honestly, though? I've encountered no technical issues whatsoever.  Here are the options included in the PC version: [embed]323834:61344:0[/embed] As you can see, the graphics menu has just about all the options players should expect, including a field-of-view setting. Playing with everything cranked up, I was able to run the game at a consistent 60 frames per second, including during the in-game cutscenes. As I mentioned, I'm only a couple of hours in, and nothing has gotten too crazy yet. Playing on a keyboard and mouse feels rather comfortable, and I'm generally not happy with third-person action games using this control scheme. The keyboard keys can be remapped, so if the defaults don't tickle your fancy, change them! The individual controller buttons cannot be changed, but there are six different control schemes provided. The game also automatically detects the controller (in my case, an Xbox One gamepad) immediately and even adjusts the button prompts. A small, but dedicated detail involves the screenshot feature. Players can pause the action and go into a specific "Share" menu option to get a screenshot (as I have done, above) to move the camera about and get a nice image. The PC version will automatically take a Steam screenshot when the Take Photo button is pressed. I expected the game to save it to some random location in My Pictures, but the developers went so far as to program Steam screenshots into this feature -- awesome! We'll have a full PC Port Report on Dark Arisen's official Steam release in January, but as of now, the outlook is very good!
Dragons Dogma PC photo
Smooth like butta
At some point, I downloaded Dragon's Dogma onto my PS3, but never got around to playing it. I'd scroll through and tell myself "some other day." Well, apparently that other day is the day it comes to PC. I hear tell that...

Review: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege

Dec 02 // Chris Carter
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015  First and foremost, let me make it clear that Siege is still very much a strategic game, despite an increased emphasis on action. The crux is engrossed in the "siege" concept, where two teams of players are placed on opposing sides of offense and defense. The former is tasked with infiltrating a specific area, usually a building of some sort, and the latter will put up barricades and properly booby-trap the zone to protect an objective. Defensive capabilities are quite versatile beyond placing traps, with the ability to patch up windows à la Call of Duty's zombies mode, or deploy items for the rest of your team. The sheer entropy that comes out of this simple premise is lovely. There are so many options for breaching and a litany of defensive options that no one game is the same. Players can rappel up almost any window and break in, sneak around and breach doors with charges or a good old fashioned sledgehammer, or blow up walls and create new entrances. The concept of a destructible environment is not new (games like the original Red Faction have been doing it for ages), but the development team really follows through here, with a good balance of destruction to keep things tense. Part of the variety comes from the 20 Operators, which are essentially the classes of Siege. Archetypes range from a bruiser, to a "brainy" tech girl, to a medic, but all of them have a unique twist gameplay-wise that sets them apart from one another. It's also imperative that your team works together, choosing combinations that complement each ability -- this is partially forced by the fact that the game doesn't allow two people on a team to pick the same Operator. In the end though, any combo works relatively well as long as the team is on top of things, and players don't run blindly into rooms without thinking of all of the options available. [embed]323032:61291:0[/embed] While the 5v5 asymmetrical game type is the core mode, there are also two more facets at play -- Terrorist Hunt (PVE) and Situations (single player). The former is a lot like horde mode with a twist, as players will be dropped into levels with randomized objectives and enemy placement, with three varying levels of difficulty to choose from. While I prefer the insanity of playing human opponents given the open-ended nature of the game, I really enjoyed taking breaks with the PVE mode, as it really does provide a ton of different scenarios across its 11 maps. It's tough, too, as one bad move can result in a near-death experience, requiring others to rally around your low health pool, and bust out tactics like going in a vanguard formation with a shield-wielding Operator. From what I've seen people really attempt to use a mic, and if you strive for a shooter that transcends the "point and shoot" mentality, you'll find solace with Siege. If desired, players can also go at it solo, which is a nice option for those of you who don't love being online all the time. Having said that, there is no campaign whatsoever. Instead, you'll have your pick of 11 Situations, which are very similar to Terrorist Hunt, but with their own set of challenges. For instance, finishing a level with a certain amount of health or completing specific tasks will net you instant renown. I actually really like this mode, as objectives can be completed individually, even if you fail a mission -- so there's incentive to come back over time and eventually "three-star" each Situation. It's absolutely not a substitute for a full-on story mode, but it's one of my favorite non-campaign additions in a while, in a sea of multiplayer-only shooters. As previously stated, the way these characters are unlocked will likely turn off some, but it's very much par for the course for the genre, and even ahead of the curve in many ways, actually. In fact, I'm sitting here, having only played the game for a few days, with 10 of the 20 Operators, which isn't bad at all. If you hate the idea of microtransactions on principle you'll likely be angry here, but on my end, I was easily able to ignore them and still enjoy Siege. As for server issues, I've heard reports of other platforms' lack of stability, but Siege has been very reliable for me on Xbox One in the past 48 hours. While there are occasional bouts of connection problems after booting up the game, the issue is resolved in seconds, and I've played hours-long sessions with no problems. Rainbow Six Siege has a lot going for it when it comes to the long haul. While three modes doesn't sound like a lot, the sheer volume of variables involved will result in an experience that constantly stays fresh, even with the current pool of 11 maps. While a few other major shooters have let me down this year, I think Siege is one of the games I'll be playing the most going forward.
Rainbow Six Siege photo
A new taste of Rainbow
The original Rainbow Six was one of the first squad shooters I ever played, outside of the Delta Force series (both debuted in the same year). I still remember hanging out at my friend's house with his dad, who also...

Review: Just Cause 3

Nov 30 // Patrick Hancock
Just Cause 3 (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)Developer: Avalanche StudiosPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $59.99Release Date: December 1, 2015 Reviewed on: Intel i7-4770k 3.50 GHz, 8GB of RAM, Geforce GTX 970, Windows 10.  Just Cause 3 once again follows the exploits of Rico Rodriguez on a quest to liberate a region from a corrupt dictator, settlement by settlement. This time Rico has access to Medici, a nation under the control of Sebastiano Di Ravello. Medici is about the same size of Just Cause 2's Panau, which is to say it is huge. One big reason why Medici is a sought-after nation is due to its resource of Bavarium, a super-resource that allows for all sorts of militaristic applications. While I'm sure most players are not coming for the plot, the writers do a great job to keep the player entertained with the cast of characters involved. Rico has a handful of allies that aid him and the rebels throughout the campaign, and each character is great. Sure, they're essentially B-movie caricatures, but they're lovable caricatures. Despite the urgency and political turmoil constantly woven into each action Rico undertakes, his allies always seemed to put a big grin on my face. A lot of this comes down to two three things: the writing, voice acting, and animations. Again, the overarching narrative isn't going to blow any minds, but the moment-to-moment dialogue between the few important characters is consistently wonderful. Best of all, each voice actor delivers lines in a casual and believable way, something that is helped by realistic accompanying animations. No, there's no Bolo Santosi, but not every game is perfect. [embed]322878:61303:0[/embed] The bulk of the experience involves blowing the shit out of anything and everything. In order to take down Di Ravello, Rico must go from location to location, destroying everything owned by the evil dictator. It just so happens that about 95 percent of those items are highly explosive! When entering an area, whether it be a military base or a settlement, a list of destructible objects appear on the left side of the screen and it is the player's job to take them out. As less and less objects remain, they become more and more visible on the game's map, preventing the player from searching forever for that one last thing. The most useful tools at Rico's disposal are his grappling hooks. Not only is it possible to grapple onto a surface and travel straight to it, but Rico can use it to attach two separate items and pull them together. In Just Cause 3, it is possible to have up to six grappling hooks at a time. Six! This means twelve items can be linked to each other in a number of ways, and they can all converge on each other at once. Anyone who has played the previous game knows just how ridiculous that sounds. Okay, so there's explosives and grappling, but those aren't even the best mechanics, all things told. Movement in Just Cause 3 is easily the most fluid and beautiful system I've ever used. Seriously, I have never enjoyed moving around an open world as much as I have in Just Cause 3. There are three systems that mesh together: the grappling hook, the parachute, and, most importantly, the newly-acquired wing suit.  There's a lot of verticality to Medici, which makes flying around with the wing suit an absolute thrill. Plus, with the grappling hook available, it's possible to glide almost indefinitely at high speeds. I rarely used a vehicle to get around at all, since it was often slower and way less entertaining. The exception is when traveling over a large amount of water, since there is nothing to grapple onto and pull Rico along. Other than the campaign missions and settlements to liberate, Medici has random events, challenges, and collectibles. The random events might be to help tow someone's car to a gas station, or to prevent a group of friendly rebels from suffering the fate of a firing squad. There aren't too many varieties, but the distractions are quick and the rewards can easily be worth it. Some of the challenges are the standard "maneuvering a vehicle through rings," but others perfectly show off the game's mechanics and carefree attitude. Perhaps my favorite is a very Burnout-esque challenge that has players drive a car with a bomb strapped to it to a desired location only to jump out at the last moment to create chaos. The twist here is that, like Keanu Reeves in Speed, if the car goes below a certain speed, the bomb will explode. It's not as strict as the movie, but if a player goes too slow for too long, the challenge is failed. Others, like the wing suit courses, are also great and help hone specific skills. Players are awarded up to five "gears," depending on performance. Think of them like star ratings. Acquiring gears in certain challenge categories go towards unlocking new upgrades in those areas. For example, performing well in the Speed challenges gives Rico more upgrades for his explosives. Many of the upgrades make things simply better or more useful, like adding explosive charges, but some are more play-style driven. Players can turn these upgrades on and off at will once they are unlocked. For those looking to get more gears in challenges, keep this in mind; it is way easier to get a high score at the end of the game than it is at the beginning due to upgrades. Since this is an open world game in 2015, there's a smattering of collectibles strewn throughout Medici. I'm not one to care about them, but for those who do, Just Cause 3 has your back. If anything collectible is nearby, a small radar blip appears on the bottom of the screen that increases in signal strength as the item draws near. In addition, liberating a province (usually made of three to seven settlements) pinpoints the locations of these hidden items on the map. The biggest thing to realize while playing Just Cause 3 is it is mostly up to the player to keep things interesting. Liberating settlement after settlement does get stale, especially because they're essentially identical to one other, just with different layouts. Always using the same weapons to destroy the same objects gets old quickly. If players aren't inspired to get creative with their destruction, it's easy to get bored. The game gives the players all the tools needed to keep things fresh, but provides no tangible incentive to do so, therefore any such incentive must be intrinsically motivated. My recommendation is to keep doing challenges. By completing challenges and unlocking new upgrades, players will naturally want to play around with those upgrades. Well, what better way to test them out then when liberating a settlement? It would have been appreciated if various weapons had their own challenges, which would push players into switching it up more often. The story missions spice things up with some different objectives, but even those tend to repeat and feel "samey" after a while. Occasionally story missions will be locked, forcing the player to liberate more provinces or specific settlements before progressing. There's usually a canonical reason given for this, but it can easily lead to the player feeling burnt out. Liberating two or three provinces means going through about 15 settlements in a row. That's....a lot, especially considering how similar each one is to any other. Again, I'll offer some advice. Liberate settlements as you travel around. See a settlement? Blow the shit out of it and free those people! This will leave random settlements already completed, which means when you are forced to do so, it's much less tedious. Another way to help break the monotony is to call in Rebel Drops. These allow Rico to ask for some presents like vehicles, weapons, and explosives, to be dropped right in front of him. They are limited, but the system is much easier to understand and operate than the previous game's black market. If the feeling of staleness is creeping up, call in a rebel drop containing any assortment of items, and find the best way to use them in tandem! Visually, Just Cause 3 looks great, especially in motion on PC. The visuals are highly customizable with the standard graphical options expected on the platform. I ran everything at "Very High" and got a constant 60 frames-per-second... once I turned the motion blur off. I experimented with many different settings, and the lack of motion blur easily yielded the best performance. I did have some rare instances of artifacting, but was never able to actually reproduce them intentionally. I also ran in to a terrible glitch where Rico was performing the "dammit I got hit" animation every three-seconds, preventing me from doing, well, anything. A quick restart fixed the issue and I never saw it again, fortunately enough. Then, there's the issue with signing in to the Square Enix servers. The first thing the game does upon booting it up is to log in to the servers. The game is not always-online, but wants to connect to show players leaderboards for a variety of categories. These are things like longest time in a wing suit or most consecutive headshots. If a player loses connection, it pauses the game immediately and tries to reconnect. If it can't, the player can elect to go into offline mode. Great! Offline mode sounds wonderful. Except it tries to reconnect all the damn time. After a short while of being in offline mode, whenever the player checks the map, pauses the game, or initiates a challenge, the game will try to reconnect to the servers. The result is a constant view of the connection screen - either disconnecting or attempting to reconnect. This makes the game nigh unplayable with a spotty Internet connection. If that worries you, a solution on PC is to play the game through Steam's "offline mode." I can only hope there's an easier solution down the road. The enjoyment players get from Just Cause 3 will come from exactly how they approach the game. Those looking to fly around and blow up just about everything in sight will be elated with one of the most fluid movement systems in any game and the gorgeous explosion visuals that really pack a punch. As bizarre as it sounds though, blowing everything sky high can start to feel tedious after a while without proper motivation.  I'm sure you'll be seeing a ton of animated GIFs of Just Cause 3 for a while to come, due to all of the wacky things that can happen within the game. It truly is an insane, explosion-filled romp through a beautiful nation chock-full of cheeky humor. It provides some of the best open-world tools ever. This is definitely a case of "it is what you make of it," and for those with intrinsic motivation to make it the best will be greeted with just that. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Just Cause 3 Review! photo
The best Spider-Man game yet
While driving down the New Jersey parkway for Thanksgiving, I began to notice a lot of water and radio towers perched high above the trees. "Wow, I could easily blow them up or tether them to the ground and bring them down," ...

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.] Update: Since writing this PC Port Report, I have upgraded to an Nvidia GTX 980. I can now confirm (albeit only anecdotally) that people with Nvidia cards may struggle with getting acceptable performance out of the game. The GTX 980 is a high-end card in Nvidia’s range, and can easily get a steady 60FPS in every other game I’ve tried so far with it. However, when setting Syndicate to max settings (which is what it recommended for me), I rarely hit 60FPS, and instead generally hovered somewhere around 45-55FPS. For my old card, I considered this acceptable because of its age and mid-range status, but for something like the GTX 980 I would really be expecting better performance. One thing that weirdly became more noticeable once I’d upgraded were the cloth physics, which are for some weird reason locked to 30FPS. Even if you’ve somehow got the game running at a smooth 60, Jacob and Evie’s capes will look incredibly jerky. Fortunately,PCGamingWiki has a simple .ini tweak that will uncap the cloth’s framerate. Overall, I’d say that the previous reports of Nvidia kind of struggling with this game are accurate. It still plays at a framerate I’m personally happy with, but I would’ve expected more out of my sparkly new card. Optimisation seems to be somewhat worse, and I noticed graphical glitches were a bit more frequent than before. It’s still by no means a broken port on Nvidia-powered PCs, but it’s something to keep in mind. --
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...

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...

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: 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: 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...

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,...

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: 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...

Review: Metal Gear Online

Oct 09 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)MSRP: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV As previously mentioned, Metal Gear Online only has three modes currently. There's a decent amount of variety within those gametypes, but the issue is how everything is playing out right now in the game's meta. In essence, players often aren't using any form of stealth (outside of Cloak and Dagger, which forces one team to do it), or aren't going for the objectives in general. Instead, most games end up being slugfests and devolve into team deathmatch situations. That's not to say that these basic strategies aren't handily countered by players who have the know-how, it's just what's happening. While it's not wholly the fault of the designers, Metal Gear Online doesn't do a great job of facilitating objective play, as the whole thing is kind of a laissez faire situation. That both excites and concerns me. On one hand, I love that MGO is just as vague as Phantom Pain. Instead of spelling out every facet for players, you'll have to just figure out everything on your own, from advanced tactics to the best way to counter enemies. On the other, I'm not confident in Konami's ability to effectively police and update the game in the slightest. It's very possible that there could be a ton of content from Kojima's team waiting to be pushed out in waves over the course of the next year. But since this is all speculation, we only have what's currently in MGO to assess, and it's lacking in areas, chiefly how servers are handled -- or, I should actually note, a lack of servers. It seems as if the game is P2P based, which creates all sorts of issues for players. First off, hosts can remove people from the game, and if they disconnect, everyone gets booted with no XP or rewards. It's egregious to say the least, and not something you really see in a major shooter in 2015. [embed]314621:60673:0[/embed] Then you have issues like the party system not actually placing you on the same team as your party constantly, or the basic inability to join a friend's game in progress through a quick menu option. Thankfully the microtransaction element hasn't bled through for MGO (yet?), but cosmetic equipment is too expensive currently, as it would take hundreds of games to earn some of the higher-up rewards. I would be more okay with the expensive price of gear if the aforementioned booting issues were rectified with dedicated servers. Now, the gameplay is still superb. That's due in part to the fact that it's literally Phantom Pain, online, which is completely fine by me. Every movement is fluid, gunplay handles like a dream, and the sheer flexibility of the engine makes for some breathtaking moments. Aiming, running, and dolphin diving feels better than pretty much every shooter on the market right now. It's crazy how it feels like a natural extension of my adventures with Venom Snake, and how all of my training instantly pays off online. When you distill it down to individual matches, Metal Gear Online is just fun to play. You can boot up a session, and provided that you don't have any connection issues, generally enjoy yourself, even if a lot of people are ignoring objectives. It's a rush to use stealth effectively and have an enemy run by your prone body completely, then dash up to them, choke them out, and Fulton them. Getting to use the Snake and Ocelot special loadouts from time to time is a joy as well, as are all of the little Easter eggs and details locked within MGO. I've seen a lot of complaints that the Walkers are overpowered, but I've found them easy to deal with. Not only are they incredibly easy to spot (and show up on the radar), but they can be swiftly taken out with a quick sniper shot or a few well-placed bullets. Plus, both sides get them, so it's not like one team is at a disadvantage -- people just need to learn how to counter them. For the most part I don't think balance is an issue for MGO -- it's the technical side that drags things down. Even though we don't review what might be (could you imagine how cool it would be to see co-op Metal Gear missions? Now we may never see the day), I'm still torn with the current state of Metal Gear Online. I wouldn't necessarily recommend picking up the entire Metal Gear Solid V package just for online play, as it still has a lot to prove. I'm pulling for it to get better, but I don't trust Konami. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
I've spent a considerable amount of time this week with Metal Gear Online, and despite my initial positive impressions, I'm having some big-picture issues. In short, I'm not sure how long this train is going to be chugging along, especially when you take Konami's recent history into account.

Review in Progress: Metal Gear Online

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Online (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: October 6, 2015 (Consoles), TBA 2016 (PC)MSRP: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) / Included with MGSV After downloading the free add-on (if you own the original game), players will be greeted with a whole new main menu. That's because it's a completely new title, and in no way feels tacked-on to the core Phantom Pain experience. In fact, there's very little in the way of interaction between the campaign and MGO. You'll start off within the character creation module, which takes the shape of your avatar from the core game, and a choice -- players can adopt the scout, enforcer, or infiltrator class (standard, heavy, and light, essentially). Your first character is locked in after your choice, but after a few hours of play you'll unlock two new loadout slots and plenty of cosmetic pieces of gear, including goofy hats. There's also a really cool freeplay mode that allows you to try out your loadout and equipment at will, which has plenty of ground to cover, featuring a diverse jungle location. I wish more games had this feature, as it's incredibly easy to tweak a loadout, go into freeplay, try it out, and tweak it some more. Online play itself provides you with a few options, including automatch (traditional matchmaking), "select" (filter any map or mode), and "create" (complete with a password feature for private games). It's a pretty open-ended system with plenty of choice, but it seems to be P2P-based, so expect online issues depending on the connection on top of any problems Konami has with the servers. For the most part, my time with the game in the past day or so has been rather smooth. You're only getting three gametypes currently, including a ticket-based mode (read: lives), a data theft variant, and capture the point. It's all stuff you've seen before, but the deciding difference is the Metal Gear charm that injects itself throughout MGO. For instance, killing enemies will reduce the opposing team's ticket count, but Fultoning them after using non-lethal force will net you more points. Making lots of noise will also show up on the radar, so it's up to players to use stealth as much as possible to maximize their kills. [embed]314102:60630:0[/embed] After a few hours, I really started to pick up on quite a few new tactics, which is very similar to how Phantom Pain plays out. MGO really is a skill-based game, with plenty of nuances to learn, and an emphasis on stealth prowess. Bounties for more points even show up on players who do well, and I've seen many matches where top people complete entire rounds with no deaths -- hell, without even being seen, really. There's also a lot of little touches, like the "Team Liquid" and "Team Solid" monikers, and the power to change the soundtrack to legacy Metal Gear music.  But there's one major shortcoming that I can see rather clearly right now -- a lack of diverse modes. It's very easy to feel isolated after going back into freeplay mode, and the three gametypes do tend to blend together at times. In short, you're really going to get as much out of MGO as you put in, and the skill of the enemy team definitely plays a factor in terms of how much fun you're going to have -- think of them almost as mini-Metal Gear boss fights. I need some more time, but my initial impressions of Metal Gear Online are positive. It really feels like a Metal Gear game...online. Without the complete mess of the Guns of the Patriots Konami login scheme, of course, and with its own issues to boot. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Metal Gear Online photo
It's not over yet, Snake
Kojima's departure from Konami has left me all sorts of worried for the future of Metal Gear Solid -- a series that I've enjoyed ever since I laid eyes on the first NES game over 20 years ago. For now though his legacy i...

I'm not too impressed by the Star Wars Battlefront beta

Oct 06 // Chris Carter
Today, I had the chance to play the beta on PS4, and I came away with some mixed thoughts. Right now in the beta there are three modes available: Drop Zone, which supports 16 players, Walker Assault, which supports 40, and Survival (a two-player gametype that can be played offline or online). The former is a gametype that sees two teams of eight battling it out for pods, which randomly drop from the sky and inhabit the battlefield one at a time. It's up to each side to locate the pod, capture it, and maintain ownership until a timer runs out. Once it's done, power-ups will pop out, and it's onto the next one. I actually liked the objective-based feel of Drop Zone quite a bit, and the timers feel spot-on to add some form of tactical depth to each match without feeling like a slog. Walker Assault might be 40 players, but it will allow 10 in a lobby to initiate a match. It's here that I witnessed a fairly keen matchmaking system, which drew in players gradually and located games that were mostly full first before dropping me into an empty lobby. This asymmetrical mode sees rebels defending Uplink objectives to call in Y-Bombers from imperials. It has more of a classic Star Wars feel to it, most notably due to the inclusion of AT-ATs, AT-STs, and Tie Fighters (which are essentially killstreak power-ups now, picked up on the battlefield) into the proceedings. Although we only started with 10, it gradually escalated to a crazy 20-on-20 match, and that glorious Battlefront entropy was in full force. As for the gameplay, again, there are no microtransactions, and you'll have to unlock everything through credits. There is some rank-gating involved, but not nearly as bad as other online shooters (at least, so far), and the credit system allows you to buy, for the most part, the exact equipment you want -- from rifles, to thermal detonators. The game uses a card system for equipment (which isn't nearly as kooky as Titanfall's Burn Cards) that lets you customize which slot each piece of gear falls into (L1/LB or R1/RB, with an additional slot for Triangle/Y). I really dig the option to default to first- or third-person at any point as well. I don't miss classes or squads. [embed]314178:60645:0[/embed] The game feels...a bit cheap at times in terms of its gunplay. It looks beautiful (it can go 4K on PC) and runs smoothly, especially when you're gazing up at the sky and watching ship battles take place before your eyes, but there's a certain clunky feel to combat. Weapons really lack impact or "oomph" all around, and I experienced a bit of lag at times. You can chalk part of that up to being a beta, but the game is right around the corner after all. Survival mode lists four potential locations on the menu (Hoth, Sullust, Endor, and Tatooine), but only the latter is playable the moment. AI battles are also shown, but aren't active in the beta as well. It's horde mode, in essence, with a gradual ramping up in difficulty with each wave. It's here that I was able to experience most of the perks (which are unlocked from the start), such as a vertical jetpack boost, grenade launcher, and a temporary boost for your primary, all of which have cooldowns involved. To be blunt, without a second player, this mode gets old quick. After just three waves I wasn't really feeling it, as there isn't a whole lot of deviation from the horde formula, and the fact that you're a grunt rather than a hero character really puts a damper on things. I don't expect to get much play out of this outside of the occasional session with a friend or my wife by way of local co-op. For diehards, though, you'll probably enjoy tackling the various challenges like "no death" runs. So there's the Star Wars: Battlefront beta so far. It's not bad by any means, but I'm not sure it's worth the full asking price. When the actual game launches next month we'll have a better idea of all of the different modes involved, but again, solo players will probably want to wait for a price cut straight out of the gate.
Star Wars Battlefront photo
But I'm not disappointed either
There seems to be a healthy amount of skepticism surrounding the upcoming release of Star Wars Battlefront, and I don't blame people. After all, EA is involved -- always lurking in the shadows, ready to strike at consumers. T...

Review: Read Only Memories

Oct 02 // Ben Davis
Read Only Memories (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: MidBossPublisher: MidBossReleased: October 6, 2015MSRP: $9.99 The story of Read Only Memories begins with the appearance of a peculiar robot named Turing, who breaks into the player character's apartment after their creator, Hayden, was mysteriously kidnapped. Turing decides that the player character, who is a journalist and a friend of Hayden's, is the most statistically likely to be able to help them. Thus begins the search for Hayden in the technologically advanced, cyberpunk-inspired city of Neo-San Francisco in 2064. In this futuristic setting, scientists have discovered many new ways of enhancing the human body through cybernetics as well as genetic modification, meaning it's common to see people with robotic limbs, blue skin, rabbit ears, and other such bizarre enhancements walking around as if it's completely normal. Not to mention the ROMs, robots like Turing, which are just as commonplace and are on the verge of becoming sapient, able to think and feel as humans do. As expected, anti-hybrid and -cybernetic groups such as the Human Revolution have begun to pop up warning people of the dangers of such technologies. [embed]313479:60589:0[/embed] During the player's search for Hayden, they will meet a colorful cast of strange and interesting characters and be asked to participate in some rather shady activities, sneaking around the law in an attempt to learn secrets and uncover truths. Some characters can be trusted while other cannot, but they're all able to provide leads, information, and other helpful things if the player can successfully persuade them. The gameplay largely consists of your typical point-and-click adventure mechanics, nothing really new here but it works just fine. People and objects can be interacted with by looking, touching, talking, or using an item. Interacting with the same thing multiple times might yield different results, so sometimes it's a good idea to look at, touch, or talk to someone or something more than once. There's also a wide variety of items at the player's disposal, which can be picked up and used in certain situations. There is no item combining to be done, however, and pixel hunting is not a problem since anything that can be interacted with will be highlighted by mousing over it, so many of the more annoying adventure game elements were left alone. Much of the gameplay centers around conversations and choosing dialogue options, but there are plenty of puzzle-solving sections as well. These include direct puzzles, such as looking at a map and closing off intersections in order to divert a cab back to the player, as well as more indirect puzzles like trying to find the right item to gain access to a house or figuring out how to coerce someone into giving up information. None of the puzzles are too obtuse, and some of them are rather forgiving if the player messes up at first. The story features several branching paths and alternate endings, depending on how the player chooses to interact with characters and how successful they are at figuring out puzzles. It's possible to befriend or make enemies with several of the characters, so try and decide who will be the most helpful and choose the appropriate responses. Breaking the law and causing mischief seem to be unavoidable, but how it's done is up to the player. As most of Read Only Memories involves reading text, I found the writing to be entertaining and engaging, if overly-technical at times. They did a great job of giving every character a thorough backstory, making each of them interesting and relatable with their own quirks and behaviors. I particularly enjoyed Turing's fondness for painting and the player character's strange obsession with plants. There were, however, a few groan-worthy references and an occasionally disappointing lack of variety in dialogue options. Read Only Memories originally set out to do one thing: foster the inclusion of diverse characters, especially those of the LGBT persuasion. Thankfully, the end product is much more than just that. The characters' sexualities and gender identities, which include plenty of gay and straight, trans- and cis-gendered individuals, are revealed in a natural way or left up to the player's imagination. Meanwhile, we have a story built around mystery and intrigue, with topics of crime, technology, and politics taking the forefront of the discussion in the lives of these characters who just happen to be a certain way. Personally, I felt the LGBT themes were handled appropriately and naturally without being too heavy-handed, but I'm sure some will disagree with me. I would recommend Read Only Memories to anyone who enjoys point-and-click adventure games, as it's an excellent addition to the genre, borrowing many of its key elements while ditching some of the more obnoxious ones. It's also a great choice for anyone who is looking for more diversity in their video games, as it does a wonderful job of promoting inclusion without making it the sole focus. Plus, there's an awesome, adorable little robot friend to hang out with, and who doesn't want that? [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Read Only Memories review photo
Cyberpunk chic
MidBoss, the team behind the LGBT-centric gaming convention, GaymerX, has been having quite a successful time lately. After reaching its Kickstarter funding goals at the end of 2013, the team has been hard at work creating it...

Review: The Beginner's Guide

Oct 01 // Darren Nakamura
The Beginner's Guide (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Everything Unlimited LtdPublisher: Everything Unlimited LtdReleased: October 1, 2015MSRP: $9.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit The Beginner's Guide opens on a de_dust-like Counter-Strike map with Wreden narrating. It isn't Wreden narrating to save money on a voice actor or Wreden narrating the in-game story. Davey Wreden is narrating as Davey Wreden, telling a story about his personal life. He was once friends with another game designer named Coda. Ever since meeting at a game jam, he had been fascinated with Coda's work. Most of the games are short, five to ten-minute affairs involving walking and philosophical musing. All were built in Source, but the art styles vary. Coda never released his games publicly, but Wreden hounded him to play each one upon completion. What we play through is Coda's entire body of work, presented chronologically. All the while, Wreden offers insight about game design, from the nuts and bolts of the tools used to the deeper symbolism of a particular segment, whether it was intentional or unintentional. [embed]313130:60582:0[/embed] Unlike a lot of these narrative-focused games, which allow the player to passively experience the story, absorbing or ignoring as much as desired, it's the kind of experience that demands intellectual engagement. I mean that literally; Wreden explicitly asks the player to send him critical analysis, providing an email address toward that end. There is exactly one puzzle in The Beginner's Guide, and it is repeated a few times. It involves two doors and solving it requires an irreversible step. When solved, the entrance is sealed and the exit is open, providing only one possible path: forward. Wreden's interpretation of this puzzle involves a symbolic closure of the past, marking something as "complete" and putting it out of mind. While I was playing through, my mind went to thoughts about having to take risks in order to progress and the idea of finding comfort in familiar things.  The structure provides a strange sense of immersion only a few games can manage. I am not the avatar of the character in these environments navigating through them; I am the guy sitting at his computer, playing a game while another guy talks to me about it. The story being told is a history that took place in the real world, and together we are piecing together the deeper meaning behind these weird art games. The roundabout immersion is ironic in a way. Normally making it clear the player is just someone playing a game adds a layer of disconnect. Since the reality matches with the premise in The Beginner's Guide, it actually drew me into the meta-narrative even more closely. I realized about halfway through just how emotionally invested I had become. I found myself marveling at Coda's creations just as Wreden had done before me. I spent time reading every note posted in one section even after being told I didn't have to. I wanted to understand the person who made these just as much as Wreden. I was grateful for his aid when it came to surpassing the intentionally frustrating or impossible barriers. I had to see it through to the end. And then, just as my emotional investment hit its peak, the revelatory climax rolls in. Maybe Coda isn't the enigma Wreden paints him as. Maybe he just wants to be left alone. Wait, maybe he wouldn't want me playing his games. Maybe I'm violating his personal space by participating. Maybe I'm an asshole for doing things against someone else's wishes. Maybe I'm a bigger asshole for writing a whole review about it. My involvement as just the guy sitting at his computer playing a game is non-negligible at this point. I've been thinking about this game a lot for the past 36 hours. It demanded I think about it, at first only superficially, but later more substantively. I mulled over a lot of questions when I should have been sleeping. I continued thinking right when I woke up. I think I dreamed about it in between. I won't spoil with the explicit questions here, but I'm sure we will be talking more frankly soon. On the surface, The Beginner's Guide is a game about game design and critical analysis. Digging deeper, it provides a window into the mind of a man I might not have fully understood otherwise. It does all of this in a way only a video game could. More than anything else, it has caused me a lot of introspection, a feat few games ever achieve. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Beginner's Guide review photo
Start here
The Stanley Parable is famous for its fourth wall-breaking narrative, taking the maligned "walking simulator" genre and showing how effective it can be in the hands of a capable designer. When writer Davey Wreden surprise-ann...

Review: Laserlife

Sep 29 // Ben Davis
Laserlife (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsReleased: September 22, 2015 (PC, PS4), TBA (Xbox One)MSRP: $14.99 Laserlife tells the story of an astronaut who died out in space, whose body drifts aimlessly along with the wreckage of a space ship. The body is discovered by "future intelligences who have no concept of humankind" as they delve into the astronaut's subconscious to extract memories in an attempt to learn of the skeleton's history and how this human ended up dead in outer space. Players control the future extraterrestrial entity in the form of two lasers. Each laser is controlled separately with the analog sticks, and they can both reach any part of the screen. Movement is very fluid and the lasers feel great to control as they spin and dance effortlessly around the screen. Each level consists of four stages. During the first stage, Memory Molecule Collection, players must move into position and press the trigger buttons at the right moment to collect memory molecules. Later levels introduce molecules which must be held in position as well as ones which must be moved to a new position. An insufficient amount of molecules collected during the first stage will reset the level, but this was never a problem for me while playing on normal difficulty. [embed]313018:60553:0[/embed] The second stage, Memory Harmonization, involves moving into position in order to hit targets. The hit boxes for the targets seem to be smaller than they are for memory molecules, so movements need to be slightly more precise, although the targets turn green once the lasers are in the correct position. These were the most difficult stages for me personally, even though they just involve moving around without having to time button presses. The final two stages are the easiest. During the Warp Phase, players must avoid colliding with red barriers, or mental blocks, by moving towards the openings. Finally, the Memory Materialization stage finishes out the level with the player moving the analog sticks as quickly as possible until the bar at the top of the screen has depleted. Once all of this has been completed, the memory will be fully extracted and appear as a physical manifestation of a significant object from the astronaut's life. If players find that the game is too challenging, or too easy, there are a few difficulty settings to choose from which will increase or decrease the amount of obstacles to deal with. There are also leaderboards to browse, with separate leaderboards for each difficulty, if that's something that interests you. Music is obviously a huge part of any rhythm game, and the soundtrack could easily make or break the game. Laserlife's soundtrack is very chill and atmospheric, which fits perfectly with the outer space setting. It's best to play this game with headphones in order to really focus on the music. I felt the soundtrack could have been a bit more varied at times, however, since all of the songs are very spacey and sometimes started to sound a bit similar after a while. Maybe they could have had some tracks that fit more with the theme of some of the memories, like a lullaby for the childhood memories, or even mixed in more spoken parts. One of my favorite tracks was used towards the end of the game, which had mission control voices being played over the music. I felt that was an idea they could have experimented with a bit more, because it worked really well for that one level. Unlike the Bit.Trip games, the sound effects from collecting memories and hitting targets don't really add much to the music itself, which was slightly disappointing. Obstacles are arranged so that they match up to the music of course, but interacting with them merely makes a dull sound which is often barely audible against the soundtrack. Having more robust sound effects might have helped make the soundtrack pop a bit more, and it would also be easier for the player to tell when they missed something. Laserlife has a lot of big ideas and an interesting premise. I love the concept of extraterrestrial life coming into contact with a human skeleton adrift in space, and trying to learn something about the strange creature's origins. The grand themes of human existence and the persistence of memory are ideas that I would like to see more games try to tackle. In this case, however, I found the overall experience to be a little underwhelming. It's fun for a short rhythm game, but with only 12 levels, it felt like Laserlife never really got a chance to fully explore the broad topics it brought to the table. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Laserlife review photo
Drifting through space
Choice Provisions is best known for the excellent rhythm-based series, Bit.Trip, a saga spanning six games (and one spin-off) which abstractly dealt with themes about a man's journey through life. The studio has been toying w...


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