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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...

New Resident Evil is a fast-crawling, alright third-person shooter

Sep 17 // Steven Hansen
Until I actually played it, I was feeling Gears of War hints. There's the close, over-the-shoulder view (arguably equally established by Resident Evil 4, but the former gets the mental nod in the context of a third-person competitive shooter), the general griminess of the place, and the claustrophobic tightness of the map, and the "Brained," a rock climbing pick ax looking thing good for one-hit melee kills. And then I played the thing and there is none off that lumbering; it felt more like Counter-Strike speed. [embed]310837:60379:0[/embed] The regular walking speed is quick, sprint is quicker. Even the crawl is fast, which is incredibly strange looking. There's a cover system, too, which is a bit like Gears' run. If you're aiming at a structure that supports cover, it will be outlined blue. Pressing X will automatically send your character running for cover and then snap in. Zombies are kind of just milling about (I think they just kind of spawn from goopy puddles in the floor) and you do get points for killing them. They can kill you, too, but are non-threatening enough that you can run past them. I did get killed by one, though, while I was already hurt and trying to crawl-retreat from bullets. It clocked me in the face. So they add something to the matches. The one life, no respawn mode I played is "one of the main modes," which emphasizes the focus on small, quick games. We were playing 3-on-3 and the game will go up to 5-on-5 with more modes to be announced later. Umbrella Corps is a bit more fast and floaty than I expected, but that did give it a somewhat novel feel. I've always preferred smaller player count shooter multiplayer, too. The whole thing feels...fine. A bit faceless with the tactical, bug-eyed non-persons, but not completely bog standard boring, either.
TGS hands-on photo
Coming to PC, PS4 early 2016
Next year is the 20th anniversary of Resident Evil (Biohazard here in glorious Nippon) and the only Resident Evil game dated for 2016 at the moment is the newly announced Biohazard: Umbrella Corps. It is an online, competitiv...

First hands-on with Metal Gear Online had us going back for more

Sep 17 // Steven Hansen
The demo stations were set up to accommodate 16 players (8 on 8 split between teams Liquid and Solid) with four pre-fab classes. Given how much meticulous, stealthy Phantom Pain I've been playing prior to arriving in Tokyo, I immediately went non-lethal, armed with nothing but a non-suppressed sleep pistol and a grenade that identified nearby enemies. I skulked around a bunch in a wide arc across the map hardly encountering anyone, which is likely because everyone else was running around trying to kill dudes, as you wont to do in a team deathmatch setting. I died to roving D-Walkers and machine guns. I was yearning for a bit of one life, no respawns, but I adjusted, switching to a sniper class mid-game. At one point I got CQC pulled from my sniping vantage point, which stunned me. The opposing player Fulton ballooned my ass off the battlefield. [embed]284642:56558:0[/embed] BRETT: Fultons, active camouflage, D-Walkers, turret nests -- really, the list goes on and on. There are so many ways to play Metal Gear Online that it's kind of overwhelming. Like, I finished second on our team one match, but did so entirely through gun kills. It felt disingenuous. The next round, I knocked a guy out and dropped a molotov cocktail on his head. That was infinitely more satisfying. One of my early deaths came while I was trying to figure out my secondary weapon: a stuffed kitten. How does that even work? I understand AI getting distracted, but these are humans I'm playing against. I took a bullet to the head immediately after setting it down. The kill cam showed my murderer running over to the cat and enthusiastically clapping at its cuteness. Kojima, you magnificent bastard. STEVEN: Was it a stuffed puppy? There's a husky plush (assumedly inspired by the wolf-ish D-Dog buddy from The Phantom Pain) you can set down like a mine, but instead of it blowing enemies up, if they get to close they get distracted by how cute it is. In MGS4's online, it was a nudie mag you could set down to distract. It's good for getting non-lethal kills without resistance (or freezing someone up and sniping from afar), and then you could Fulton. You get extra points for the latter (and points for stuns). That first game was split one win to one win and instead of a third match it came down to total points being tallied. And yeah, my best match was the last of the four. I came in second by way of points, first by way of kills. I actually didn't pick up on it, but there are points tied to nailing "Objectives," though I wasn't sure what they were. There's also a bounty system and extra points for offing someone with a bounty on their head. I only noticed because a bounty got put on me at one point, though nothing came of it. But in that last match I basically opted for a large machine gun and brute forced people with 100-bullet clips. I was mowing down small crews in doorways, people jumping onto D-Walkers. It was a little less fun, but I assume when the game comes out and people have more of an idea what they're doing that becomes a less viable strategy (especially because you die pretty quickly if you are getting accurately shot up). BRETT: For every thing I figured out, I feel like there were three things I didn't. Metal Gear Online is obviously much more than your standard tacked-on multiplayer mode -- although it can definitely be played as such. I spent a considerable amount of time in one round just gunning people down from the relative safety of a guard's nest vantage point. Again, it felt wrong. Comeuppance was swift and just when a D-Walker figured out my strategy. Confused as I was at times, I was also undoubtedly elated. How many times in your many conventions have you found yourself going back to replay a demo? It's probably the first for me, as far as I can remember.  STEVEN: I can't think of one. I also love that the cardboard box remains an item even though players would know to be suspicious. It did have some weird utility in previous Metal Gear Online for instant ducking, but here it was just idiots (like me) running around in it upright while cycling through loadout items. Probably the best thing about The Phantom Pain's edition of Metal Gear Online is not having to deal with a fucking Konami ID/MGO ID and that whole awful log-in process that eventually locked me out of playing the damn thing when I couldn't remember all my info. That kind of bullshit is Konami. Glad we'll still be able to enjoy another phase of weird Kojima Metal Gear after he's gone.
Tokyo Game Show hands-on photo
Getting shot up trying to stealth
While Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain isn't an insignificant time sucker as is, it did launch missing its competitive online multiplayer component, Metal Gear Online, which was delayed until October 6 on consoles and January 2016 on PC. Brett and I got our hands on the thing at Tokyo Game Show and immediately ran back in line for a second go like giddy schoolchildren.

Review: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

Sep 17 // Chris Carter
Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows (3DS, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One])Developer: Yacht Club GamesPublisher: Yacht Club GamesRelease Date: September 17, 2014MSRP: Free (with $14.99 Shovel Knight purchase) The main draw here is the new campaign, with a completely playable Plague Knight. As a note, you're required to beat the original story to unlock it, but there's also a code available that will likely be widespread after the expansion's release. For the purposes of this review however I didn't use the code, as I wanted to replay the entire base campaign so I could directly compare it while it was fresh in my mind. Whereas the original story involved Shovel Knight's quest to defeat the evil Enchantress, Plague of Shadows is an alternate timeline of sorts, where our hero was bested (but not killed), and evil rules the land. Plague Knight decides to seek out his own fortune, developing a potion of unlimited power in secret. The levels are, for the most part, the same, but are reworked to cater to Plague's particular set of skills. Most, if not all stages, have completely new paths and areas as well. This remix concept paid off, because while the actual themes of the levels were familiar, it felt like I was playing a new game. Heck, he even gets his own town. Plague Knight sports a double-jump by default, as well as a charge attack that explodes and provides a triple-leap. Because of the nature of the charge, players can employ a lot of fancy maneuvers, delaying your explosion to basically go anywhere you want. Even using his potions mid-air will delay your descent. You'll basically have to relearn the game's mechanics, as Plague Knight feels utterly different. He's a bit more loose than Shovel Knight, sliding to and fro as he runs. Attacking is even more nuanced, as Plague's potions are a delayed explosion (initially), so you can hit stronger enemies with your first barrage, and aim subsequent projectiles as traps of sorts to blow up later. From there you can upgrade your standard attack to use a longer fuse, or even orbit around your character like a shield. Overall I'd say he has more options than Shovel, but is much tougher to master. As far as collectibles go, there are Green Cipher Coins to locate (which open up more shop options) as well as cash to acquire. The Ciphers remind me of the red coins in Yoshi's Island, and they're just as fun to hunt for. The fact that the number of overall coins out there is known (420) makes them more addicting to collect, and this is on top of the musical sheets to find (now scrap sheets). My favorite new element of the game is probably the tonic system, which allows you to drink an item to gain a temporary life point until death. It's a bit more strategic and deliberate system. There is one minor hangup -- don't put too much stock in the challenge mode, which is hosted by a playable Shovel Knight. Of the challenges, most are rematches (boss rushes). A few of the boss-centric challenges are pretty tough, like the one that tasks you with beating The Big Creep in under a minute, with the minimum amount of life available. The first 10 have fairly difficult bits like riding an enemy to the end of a lengthy scrolling arena. Plague of Shadows also has its own achievements (albeit 20 compared to Shovel's 45), but I'm told that he will not take on Kratos or the Battletoads, as those fights are exclusive to the core campaign. Shovel Knight already felt complete at launch, but Plague of Shadows just makes it even more enticing. The fact that it's a free update for existing (and new) owners rather than paid DLC is the cherry on top. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Shovel Knight DLC review photo
Bubonic Chronic
I can't believe it's been over a year since Shovel Knight released -- time flies, right? Over the course of that year, I've beaten it on every conceivable platform outside of the PC edition, playing it over and over...

Review: Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Sep 03 // Kyle MacGregor
Nobunaga's Amibition: Sphere of Influence (PC [reviewed], PS4, PS3)Developer: Koei TecmoPublisher: Koei TecmoRelease Date: September 1, 2015MSRP: $59.99 My journey began by acquainting myself with Sphere of Influence's comprehensive (perhaps a tad too comprehensive) tutorial, before jumping headlong into one of the title's nine historical campaigns. There, players have the opportunity to act as one of Japan's elite families during the country's "warring states" period in the 16th century. Whether you choose to recreate history as the Oda clan or blaze your own trail, the aim remains the same -- to unite the fractured nation. How you get there will require a careful synthesis of conflict, management, and diplomacy, as the path toward bringing dozens of warring territories under a common banner requires a multi-pronged approach. This begins with building up a small province, developing it into a rich, bountiful launching pad that can support a growing empire. The backbone of the realm is the labor force, which is, of course, limited in supply. Daimyos must allocate their workers to projects mindfully, whether that means paving new roads, constructing new buildings, improving fortifications, focusing on trade or food production, the list just goes on and on. Rest assured, manpower is always at a premium. That line of thought extends to the nobility as well as the commoners. With only so many officers to go around to carry out diplomatic missions, govern territories, lead military units, and oversee civic projects; managing the ruling class is of the utmost importance. Individual leaders have varying skills, and knowing how and where to employ them can make a drastic difference in how quickly and effectively a clan enacts the wide swathe of policies these officers must take charge of. [embed]305046:60241:0[/embed] If that sounds incredibly intricate and exacting, well, that's because it is. Despite being a game where the end goal is conquering (or subduing) an entire nation spanning dozens of factions and hundreds of settlements, Nobunaga's Amibition doesn't shy away form minutiae. No task, from appeasing the local hill tribes to planting an orchard or setting up a suggestion box for citizens to voice their concerns, is too small a concern to deal with. And in the aggregate these sorts of seemingly minuscule moves tend to pay dividends when clashing with neighboring daimyo or getting them to join your coalition. It isn't all about raising armies and sending them off to battle. Not that combat isn't a large part of the game, because it most certainly is. After players finish managing their towns, the experience switches from a turn-based affair to a real-time one, where armies will march off to besiege enemy villages or clash with hostile forces on the battlefield. The battles play out automatically (as depicted above), but can be controlled manually, with players taking control of each individual army as a unit on the battlefield. This facet of the experience might seem a little primitive in comparison to some of its genre peers, but it's not entirely without depth. While there isn't much in the way of unit variety, each commander has his or her (no, you needn't marry off all your daughters to forge political alliances) own abilities that buff their troops with improved defense, melee attack, and a myriad of other temporary strategic supplements. Skirmishes aren't always a numbers game, either. I've frequently found myself using guerrilla tactics, surrounding a large battalion with several smaller ones and harassing them from all sides. This negates their numerical superiority, since a block can only attack in one direction at any given time, while forces with smaller, more plentiful detachments possess the ability to be more nimble. Throughout the experience, players are treated to historical vignettes, which not only follow key events pertaining to your chosen faction, but other clans as well. If significant affairs are happening across the country, chances are you'll be given a front row seat. These aren't always assassinations and coups d'état, though, sometimes they're a tad more trivial, pertaining to the romantic lives of clan leaders or the arrival of western missionaries spreading Christianity in certain provinces. There's a lot going in Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence, to be sure, and much of it is done well. After pushing through some initial bewilderment associated with coming to grips with its mess of elaborate systems, I discovered an experience that rewarded the time I put into it in spades. Its pace may be too plodding for some and it certainly seems somewhat backwards or dated in relief with other modern strategy games, but Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence still remains an ornate and absorbing title that kept me engaged for hours on end and surely will continue to do so. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Nobunaga's Ambition photo
Sublime Sengoku-era strategy
My first experience with Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence nearly broke me. I collapsed into a heap over my keyboard, weeping softly, wondering just what I had got myself into this time. Even as a seasoned strategy gam...

Review: Mad Max

Sep 02 // Chris Carter
Mad Max (PC, PS4 [review], Xbox One)Developer: Avalanche StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: September 1, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Mad Max is, at its heart, a revenge tale. You aren't going to get much high commentary here (like Beyond Thunderdome's exemplary exploration of the power of language and speech), just a good old fashioned showdown between series protagonist Max Rockatansky, and Scabrous Scrotus (which, as silly as it is, is par for the Mad Max course), who happens to be a son of Fury Road's Immortan Joe. That's about where the link with the film series ends, though, as the game is not a direct tie-in, and mostly benefits from that fact. Max is scorned by Scrotus, who takes everything he owns and destroys his prized car. Teaming up with the psychotic, yet harmless Chumbucket, it's up to the player to hunt down Scrotus, and rebuild your ride in the form of the greatest car known to man, the Magnum Opus. What I like about this setup is that it allows Avalanche to tell a new tale of the wasteland without having to retread on certain areas. I mean yes, there are a few re-used locations like Gas Town, as well as some familiar thematic elements, but for the most part, this is an encapsulated tale. The enhanced Avalanche Engine is quite the achievement, and I can see why the developer opted to shuck the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. Screens simply don't do this game justice, especially when you're scouting out far away locations high up in a hot air balloon while the scorching sun beams down on you, or when vicious sandstorms pop up. A built-in camera capture mechanic (on top of the PS4's standard capabilities) is the cherry on top. Taking a different approach to the typical open world formula, Mad Max's core gameplay is built around driving. Any racing game fan will instantly find themselves familiar with the control scheme, and the vast majority of the vehicles operate similarly to some of the best racing titles out right now. Car combat is handled well, since your companion Chumbucket rides along with you, repairing the car and using weapons in real time -- so it's both cinematic and functional. While the "slo-mo" feature is pretty much dead at this point, it allows players to actually get some hits in while aiming vehicle-centric weaponry, and blowing out enemy tires or harpooning them right out of the driver's seat is satisfying in all the right ways. The customization aspect also feels justified here, since changing up your car will significantly alter how it functions. There's hundreds of options here, from ramming grills, to spikes that protect your car from boarders, to new paint jobs and bodies, to explosive harpoons. The way the concept of the Magnum Opus is presented actually fits inline with this bit of the game, and I never felt pressured or compelled to go out and seek other cars to use. You can basically just drive and switch up your own custom car from start to finish, and it's easy to get attached to certain elements of your ride. Where Mad Max starts to falter is the on-foot sections, or more specifically, how these areas were designed. Combat is basically a carbon copy of the Batman: Arkham games, albeit with more brutal finishers, so that works well enough, but it's the actual zones -- where you can't bring the car mind you -- that often feel uninspired and bland. Since Max can only climb on certain surfaces, and only exhibits a pathetic GTA-style "hop" when pressing the jump button, on-foot sections feel out of place and gamey. It reminds me of the Prince of Persia reboot, which gave you this awesome-looking, sprawling world, and forced you to only explore it within a rigid set of rules. There are also a few other issues I had with these sections, like collision detection problems while climbing, and annoying mechanics like the fact that Max limps for a few seconds after falling the smallest distances. Exploring these zones simply isn't as satisfying without say, the aerial prowess of Talion, or the wonderful toys of Batman, to use direct comparisons to similar open-world WB titles in recent memory. While the story is engaging enough to string you along, a lot of the other activities aren't all that intriguing. It's like the team took the typical Ubisoft blueprint and stuck with it -- radio towers (balloons), fortresses, collectibles, sidequest races, smaller towers to knock down to lower "influence" -- it's all there. That's not to say that the game is mostly boring, far from it actually, as driving around is always a joy given how great the vehicular mechanics are, and there are a lot of naturally occurring events out in the wild to keep things interesting. I went back and forth in terms of my assessment multiple times throughout my time with Mad Max. I'd be having a blast in the car, and then I'd get to a particularly samey part on foot, and so on. But ultimately, I did enjoy my time in the wasteland, even if it doesn't offer up a whole lot that we haven't seen before. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mad Max review photo
Who run Bartertown?!
I grew up with Mad Max. It was one of the first R-rated film series I viewed as a child, and naturally, I saw Fury Road, and enjoyed it like everyone else on the planet. My infatuation with the films is mostly due to George M...

Metal Gear Solid V photo
The first hit is free
Having obtained a retail copy of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I've had a chance to test out the online functionality a bit, as the servers have been switched on in preparation for the game's midnight launch. You may ...

Review: Disney Infinity 3.0

Aug 28 // Chris Carter
Disney Infinity 3.0 (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Avalance Software / Ninja Theory / Studio Gobo / Sumo Digital / United Front GamesPublisher: Disney Interactive Studios / LucasArtsRelease: August 30, 2015MSRP: $64.99 (Starter Pack) / $34.99 (Play Set) / $13.99 (Characters) As is tradition in my toy-to-life reviews, let me break down how everything works. For $64.99, you'll get the Starter Pack, which includes the Twilight of the Republic campaign Play Set, the game, Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano figures, and a USB base. You're basically getting the 10- to 15-hour Republic story on top of the creation-centric Toy Box feature that the series is now known for. Rise Against the Empire and Force Awakens Play Sets are going to arrive at a later date, and Inside Out's Play Set will be available at launch. This review is only assessing the Starter Pack, but look out for coverage of other Play Sets in the future. Phew! With that out of the way, let's move onto the content actually included with the base game. At this point, it's safe to say that the collective of developers involved with the project has figured out how to craft a meaningful combat system. To prevent people from mashing buttons, delayed combo attacks have been implemented, as well as mechanics like juggling, and a launcher that's initiated by holding down the attack button. You can also launch an enemy with a lightsaber and juggle them with a blaster, then when they land, use a combo. [embed]307321:60117:0[/embed] In other words, it's easy for kids and parents alike to both enjoy themselves -- the more skilled party will be able to dig deep enough into the ability system and customization elements, and the other party can mostly just wing it. It's a much better balance than the LEGO games, which tend to be just family-friendly. In Disney Infinity 3.0, "hard" mode is akin to a normal setting in most action games, and "Extreme" can be rather tough at points, though artificially so with gigantic life pools for regular enemies. The characters themselves feel fresh, especially the force-wielding ones like Yoda and Anakin, who have access to force push and pull maneuvers on top of their unique super abilities and powers. For instance, Yoda can knock an enemy up in the air, use his super to instantly dash to someone across the room, combo them, and then dash back to catch the other foe. It's not as advanced as other top-notch action games, but it does feel like a marked improvement. As for the story pack, Twilight of the Republic takes a more traditional turn, compared to the one-map sandboxes of past Play Sets. Here, you'll fly between different hubs with your ships, consisting of individual planets like Naboo, Tatooine, Geonisis, and Coruscant, as well as the vast expanse of space in Star Fox-esque sequences, complete with barrel rolls and quick turns. I really dig the variety on offer here, because while the current Star Wars characters can't move about as freely as say, Iron Man or Spider-Man, the hubs all feel unique in their own way. Additionally, Disney is boasting that all Star Wars characters are compatible with all Star Wars Play Sets, which helps (albeit partially) solve the issue of having a bunch of toys that don't work, similar to how the Marvel worlds functioned. You still have to earn tokens to unlock the use of other characters, but they're more easily accessible, and you only need to find one rather than a series of them. Having said that, it's a bummer that the base game didn't come with more than just Star Wars. It would have been great to see a fully fledged Disney property (like Mickey's Toontown) since 1.0 was heavily Pixar-infused, and 2.0 was a Marvel joint. If you're keen on playing with every toy though, the Toy Box is still available. Not only can you create levels on your own with various setups like racing, adventure, and arena action, but you can also easily find stages online to play with one of the best hubs in the business. What makes Disney Infinity so great is that Disney curates content for you in addition to all of the usual fixins, and provides easy access to top-rated creations -- so it takes very little effort to find the "good stuff." I had access to a limited amount of levels pre-launch, which includes a Gravity Falls level with a log ride and roller coaster, as well as a rhythm memorization minigame, a seek-and-find puzzle, a stealth sequence, and of course, classic platforming levels. If you pre-order the game, you'll also net the Toy Box Takeover Play Set, which really should have been included in the base package for everyone. It's essentially Diablo, Infinity style, and you can use every character in the game. It's far more fun than "Escape from the Kyln" in 2.0 as it contains a procedurally generated dungeon in it as well as a host of fixed story levels, and will last you roughly three hours. Some purists are probably seething at the idea of fighting Darth Maul to the tune of Gitchee Gitchee Goo, but I'm completely okay with it, and I assume your kids will be too. Just like its predecessor, Disney Infinity 3.0 feels a bit limited by the lack of variety in the Starter Pack, but the good news is that the studio is still on track with its core mission to create an action game for all ages. Twilight of the Republic is still a fun way to spend your time, and the Toy Box Mode should keep you busy even if you don't intend on buying any more pricey add-ons. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. All current Star Wars figures were provided as well for testing.]
Disney Infinity review photo
Use the toys, Luke
It's only been two years since the release of the first Disney Infinity, which managed to become a massive hit before venturing into Marvel territory in the second game. Now, Disney has tapped the Star Wars market, and i...

Review: Mega Man Legacy Collection

Aug 25 // Chris Carter
Mega Man Legacy Collection (3DS, PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Digital Eclipse, CapcomPublisher: CapcomRelease Date: August 25, 2015 (Digital - PC, PS4, Xbox One) / TBA 2016 (3DS, physical sets)MSRP: $14.99 (Digital) / $29.99 (Physical) So what exactly is the Legacy Collection? Well, it's a package that includes the six original NES games, as well as a few other extras, and a challenge mode -- it's that simple. Every game has the option of three aspect ratios (original, wide, and full), as well as two additional visual filters meant to replicate old TVs and monitors. That's basically all you get in terms of mixing up the games from the way they were originally presented. The key mantra from Digital Eclipse is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," which is going to be a polarizing choice for many gamers out there. Personally, having grown up with the NES, I'm completely okay with things like slowdown effects and choppy, warped visuals. Yep, that's right -- the developers have opted to retain the original look and feel of the games, for better or for worse. You also won't find any quality of life improvements, such as the ability to switch between subweapons with the triggers -- a feature from the PSOne Classic re-releases a few generations ago. In case you're wondering, yes, the Elec-Man subweapon pause glitch still works. There are some nice extras though, like a music player that features every original track from all six games, and a hefty database mode, which showcases artwork and concept art for every enemy in the game. It's all old archive material that exists in some artbook somewhere, but it's still nice to be able to flip through it all in one centralized location. One really cool feature of the archive is the ability to instantly fight any Robot Master at will from the menu screen, with every weapon from that game at your disposal. [embed]304980:60114:0[/embed] Ok, so onto Mega Man 1-6 -- how do they hold up? Quite well, actually, from this gamer's point of view. You can peruse through some quick thoughts here on all six games, but I really think that each title deserves a spot in the collection. The original Mega Man is a bit rough at times with some haphazard level designs, the Blue Bomber seal of quality is immediately apparently upon progressing to the second game -- and of course, the third, which is my personal favorite of the original lineup. While I did feel the burn with Mega Man 5 due to a lack of innovation (as I always do), I enjoyed it all the same, and Mega Man 6 wowed me, again, with just how clean and interesting it is. My view on the stalwart commitment to the "originals" is mixed, but ultimately positive. While it would have been nice to possibly play a remixed edition separately with more modern options, every game is a classic in its on way, even when you're looking at it years later, free of the tint of nostalgia goggles. If you're feeling finicky and want to switch between games however, it takes seconds to do so with the highly responsive menus, and save states are available for each game (as well as old school password support, of course). So onto the big daddy feature -- 50 challenges, accessible by way of a standalone mode. This is likely the deciding factor for many of you out there, since they are technically the only thing new in Legacy Collection. While I was initially worried that they wouldn't do enough, I was pleasantly surprised after working my way through them, especially with the approach that they took. In recent years, we've seen a "remix" mentality for challenge modes, spearheaded by NES Remix. It's a trend that sees developers taking locations from multiple games and mashing them up, and it's a trend that I can get on board with. While Legacy Collection features standard challenges like timed boss rush modes, they also have remixes, which function like obstacle courses of sorts. The game will task you with getting through 15-30 second bite-sized pieces of existing levels, complete with a portal at the end, which brings you to another mini-section. It's addicting, as the game forces you to constantly rethink your strategy, and sometimes hilariously drops you into a sticky situation, like the beam section in Quick Man's stage. Even better, multi-game remixes are unlocked later on, which require you to deal with taking on successive areas from multiple games. It's crazy jumping from title to title, as I would often forget that certain experiences didn't have sliding or charged shot capabilities. Getting a respectable clear time will definitely test the mettle of even the most seasoned Mega Man vets out there. Thankfully, all of this comes complete with leaderboard support, so you can see how you rank up against your friends and the world. I've already started a friendly little competition with a few members of the press, and I think I'm going to get addicted to this feature all over again, just like I did with Mega Man 9. I'm interested to see the top times from players all around the world, and this is a truly great way to unite Mega Man fans old and new. After booting the game up I was inspired to beat all six games again and work on the challenges, so the Mega Man Legacy Collection did its job. I'd really like to see more Legacy packs down the line from Capcom -- perhaps with a bit more bravado in terms of extras and alternate modes of play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Mega Man Legacy review photo
Legacy secure
If you've kept a close watch on the site for the last three years or so, you'd see that it's no secret that I love Mega Man. Despite the fact that Capcom hasn't given him any love in the past few years, it's still my favorite series, and one day, I'd like to see it return to glory. While the Mega Man Legacy Collection wasn't everything I was looking for, it'll do just fine for now.

Review: Smite (Xbox One)

Aug 19 // Chris Carter
Smite (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Hi-Rez StudiosPublisher: Hi-Rez StudiosRelease Date: March 25, 2014 (PC) / August 19, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: Free-to-play with microtransactions ($30 for all Gods until August 31) Unlike your typical MOBA experience, SMITE is framed by way of a behind-the-back camera, more akin to an action game than an RTS title. It was predicated on coming to a console day one, mostly because of how simple the control scheme was, and I'm pleased to say that the transition has been incredibly smooth, gameplay-wise. For new players looking to jump in, all you really have to do to play at a base level is understand that the right trigger initiates your auto-attack, and the face buttons correspond to specific abilities, all of which are relatively self-explanatory. Of course, there's a deeper level of understanding required when it comes to leveling up your abilities and buying items and equipment, but the former can even be implemented automatically if you wish. Where Smite really shines is with its assortment of game modes that will appeal to pretty much everyone. While MOBAs typically cycle in the same few gametypes with "guest" modes appearing sparingly, Smite goes all out with five variations available at all times. These include Arena (5v5 all-out fights without lanes), Joust (3v3 one lane), Conquest (standard MOBA 5v5 three lane), Assault (5v5 ARAM), and Siege (4v4 two lanes). You can also spring for four modes that pit you against the AI, should you need the practice. In short, the game has it all, and any one mode will keep you satisfied for quite some time. It's also great that Smite works in a lot of personality into said maps, like the fact that the final "core" is actually a boss character that players have to take down, and the last line of defense is a giant phoenix. There are 67 gods (characters) currently, all from various faiths throughout history. Characters range from well-known deities like Hades, all the way to Sun Wokong, to Guan Yu. While every god does look different enough visually, I couldn't help but realize that playing with a controller really exposes some of the monotony of Smite's gameplay. For the most part, you're going to be holding down RT, firing off a boring series of auto-attacks. Although it is easy to pickup, it's important to realize that although it may look like it, Smite isn't a full-on action game, and that abilities move rather slowly in the grand scheme of things. In a PC MOBA clicking can often keep you constantly engaged as you're always figuring out the best position possible, but Smite can feel sluggish by comparison. For those of you who don't enjoy the genre on PC, this may be the game for you. [embed]305026:59981:0[/embed] It also doesn't help that a lot of abilities tend to blend together, and in one particular session, I played three gods that basically had the exact same attacks, just with slightly different animations. Since you're leveling up the same abilities each time without an option to take new ones, you're going to want to switch gods often to keep things fresh. If you really want to go all in, you can buy the Founder's Pack for $30, which grants you access to every current and future god. It's a pretty great deal as you're essentially "buying out" the game, but unfortunately it's only available until the end of the month. Outside of that, you're left with a rather generous free rotation of 11 characters per week, and an assortment of boosters, items, skins, emotes, and icons. The game is heavily monetized and many things must be purchased with premium currency, but the Founder's Pack and most of what's on offer is fair. There's also a few issues inherent to the Xbox One version of the game. For starters, no Cross-Play capabilities with the PC edition really sucks. Also, Hi-Rez is only offering up account progress transfers for a limited time, one way to the Xbox One, and it's just that -- a progress transfer. Note that experience levels and most of your content will be ported over, but not everything (Gems, mastery levels, and any stats or activities aren't eligible). It's also unfortunate that there's no inherent keyboard support (like many PS4 games). Based on my experience, nearly every player is content on playing without any form of communication, which, as many know, can be a kiss of death in a MOBA. SMITE is a fine game and a great choice for folks who may not spend a lot of time on their PC, but there are a number of shortcomings present in both editions that prevent me from playing it as much as some of its competitors. Still, it's a perfect starting point if you're looking to get into the genre, especially with the intuitive controller scheme.
Smite Xbox One review photo
I'll be done in a minotaur two
Hi-Rez Studios has earned a rather interesting reputation in recent years. After creating Tribes: Ascend, a game heavily reliant on the free-to-play model, fans accused the studio of abandoning the game in record time (roughl...

Review: Toy Soldiers: War Chest

Aug 11 // Chris Carter
Toy Soldiers: War Chest (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Signal StudiosPublisher: UbisoftRelease Date: August 11, 2015MSRP: $14.99 (base game), $4.99 (premium armies), $14.99 (all four armies) The gist of Toy Soldiers is that it melds together elements of RTS and action gameplay, with both a top-down camera and the ability to jump into turrets and control infantry units. You'll start off with an empty battlefield and a base (much like tower defense), with specific plots in which to build turrets. These range from anti-infantry guns to satellite-based artillery, depending on which army you choose. All of them have upgradable capabilities like more range or more damage, but at a cost of cash, which you'll slowly accrue during each round. In short, there's a decent amount of strategy involved despite the fact that the flow is rather fast-paced. You can jump into any turret at any time, and easily switch between them by way of the d-pad. Once you've earned a super by killing enough enemies, you'll be able to take control of your hero unit, or do something flashy like call a bomb strike. The campaign is really fun, and that's mostly due to the amount of variety packed into it. You'll have the option of controlling four base armies -- the World War-themed Kaiser, the sci-fi Phantom, the My Little Pony-like StarBright, and the fantasy-based Dark Lord. Everyone has their own themed units, levels, and turrets, and again, they all have different functionality. It's especially fun to take control of a hero unit while your turrets do their thing automatically, sprinting about the battlefield, throwing grenades, dodging, and sniping enemies at will. While this is a timed ability, you can gather battery pickups to increase said timer, before you're taken back to the RTS and turret viewpoint. [embed]302923:59932:0[/embed] The campaign is meaty enough to justify the purchase of the base game (more on that later), but there's also two-player local co-op, and a four-player online mode, which can be both public and private. Local play was pretty flawless in my testing sessions, but online games took a little while to populate, likely due to the fact that the game only launched today. While the core experience is great, I have an issue with the way it's packaged, namely by Ubisoft. For one, the frame rate, even on a current-gen system like the Xbox One, can drop a bit during heavy waves. It's not a game-breaking drop, but it's annoying all the same, especially since Toy Soldiers isn't all that demanding visually. Another issue is the inclusion of microtransactions. Now, like most Ubisoft games, they aren't required and the game doesn't feel weighted towards them specifically, but the fact that they're there for in-game currency feels odd. To top things off, Uplay is crammed in there as well. This is further exacerbated by the premium army pricing scheme. While the base game with the four aforementioned themes is $15, you'll need to pay $15 more (or $5 per) to net all of the new armies -- you know, the exciting ones -- G.I. Joe, Cobra Commander, Ezio, and He-Man. This brings the price up to $30, which doesn't feel quite right. The good news is that these guest stars are worth it; they look and feel differently enough compared to the vanilla forces, complete with their own signature looks and sound effects. They also play in a unique way, as He-Man and Ezio focus on melee damage, and the G.I. Joe duo are ranged. While I won't begrudge the inclusion of an Assassin's Creed character (it makes perfect sense), two G.I. Joe additions feel like a wasted slot -- imagine instead if there was a Transformers army (foiled again by Activision!), or even something wild like Swat Kats. I have problems with the way Toy Soldiers: War Chest is packaged, but thankfully it does uphold the same classic focus on strategy and action. You'll have to foot the bill for those costly licenses, but it's mostly worth it, warts and all. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Toy Soldiers review photo
I...have..the power! (of DLC)
Over the years, I haven't really paid that much attention to the Toy Soldiers series. I mean, I played them a bit, but never truly gave the games their due. With War Chest however, the crazy injection of nostalgic I...

Review: Galak-Z: The Dimensional

Aug 05 // Chris Carter
Galak-Z: The Dimensional (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: 17-BitPublisher: 17-BitRelease Date: August 4, 2015 (PS4) / TBA (PC)MSRP: $19.99 The way Galak-Z presents itself is by way of "seasons," which are supposed to be set up in a way that mirrors a television show of sorts. Players must complete five missions per season without dying, otherwise they'll be forced to start over from the beginning of that season. It's a way to justify the roguelike elements of the game (notably permadeath) and provide players with some respite for failure. While the idea actually works from a narrative standpoint, I found this style to be a bit more frustrating than it should be. Rogue Legacy handled progression brilliantly, allowing players to slowly accrue upgrades and "lock" maps into place when they wished. Similarly, Spelunky's shortcuts felt organic, like you were exploring a giant labyrinthine maze that was seemingly connected. Here, seasons feel isolated and disconnected -- you're essentially just completing randomly generated levels one after another. This is easier to swallow because of the endearing anime style of the game. It's a love letter to classic franchises like Gundam, but it manages to pack in a ton of 17-bit's signature look, from the decals plastered on the ships to the delightful VCR-styled menu screens. I also love the minimalist approach to storytelling, as each level may provide you with unique tidbits on the game's world, which are remixed, so to speak, after death. Having said that, I think the voice acting is dreadful, and not in a "so bad it's good way." Thankfully there isn't a whole lot of it. In terms of gameplay, this isn't a standard twin-stick shooter -- it's much deeper than that. After a quick tutorial, it's fairly easy to get the hang of the forward and reverse thrusters, the latter of which allow you to moonwalk (moonboost?) backwards to continue engagement. Pressing both of them allows you to brake, which provides pinpoint movement, as well as the ability to thrust cancel whenever you feel like it. Oh, and you can also press square to "juke," which has a little effect of your ship coming out of the screen and dodging bullets. It's really cool. Check out the full control scheme here. [embed]297236:59841:0[/embed] Sound plays a factor in the game as well, as a blue ring around your ship displays how far enemy units can hear you. Yep, your goal is going to actually be avoiding combat as often as you can, because again, death is a big deal in Galak-Z, and it sort of plays into the Last Starfighter vibe that the story is going for. It's also good then that shields can withstand environmental impacts for the most part and regenerate after a few seconds, so you won't have too many frustrating deaths. While permadeath is hard-hitting, you can earn temporary upgrades that will help you avoid your demise, exchange "Crash Coins" for instant upgrades, and locate blueprints, which grant the in-game shop permanent fixtures for future playthroughs. Note that while that blueprints are stocked for every session, you will still have to buy them with scrap (currency you'll find in the world), so you truly are restarting with nothing to your name most of the time. That right there is probably going to scare a lot of people away. While I generally don't mind a learning curve, there is some tedium involved -- more-so than most roguelikes. While many games don't have clear "objectives," and would rather see you explore at your own pace, the chopped-up level scheme doesn't always gel in terms of pacing. For some missions, I was able to fly right into a really unique area like a lava cave, blow up some bugs, and escape with a jump point relatively close to the objective. For others, I had to fly through a long network of caverns, find a boring box, blow it up, and then fly back for upwards of five minutes just to complete that stage. But for every randomly generated disappointment, there's an array of fun moments. Since multiple factions will attack each other in-game, it's a joy to pit them against one another, and slowly reap the benefits from afar with your missiles and all of the wonderful toys you've acquired through your current season. I don't want to spoil the transforming mech bit too much, but suffice to say it adds yet another layer on top of everything, and is just as satisfying as it sounds. Getting through a season and learning all of the tricks involved over time provides a clear sense of accomplishment, and you'll need to put in some work to reap those benefits. I wish Galak-Z: The Dimensional wasn't so fragmented, because the core experience is a treat for roguelike and space combat fans alike. Even 15 hours through I was still seeing new items and upgrades, which is a testament to its lasting power, warts and all -- I just need to take breaks from the tedium every so often. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Galak-Z review photo
Amuro Blu-ray
There aren't enough mech games out there. I mean sure, I grew up with Mechwarrior, G-Nome, Armored Core, and Heavy Gear, among countless others over the years, but it's still not enough. It's never enough. While Galak-Z does have some issues, it does manage to keep the dream mostly alive.

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning

Aug 04 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning DLC (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Sledgehammer Games (Current-gen) / High Moon Studios (Last-gen) / Raven Software (Zombies)Publisher: ActivisionReleased: August 4, 2015MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) Let's kick things off with Overload, the sexiest map in Reckoning. Taking place in a giant Middle Eastern hotel complex, it has all of the pizazz you'd expect, and more. It's a great mix of indoor and outdoor environments, with a layout that keeps you in the action while allowing you to have condensed firefights. It allows the Exo movement and jetpack mechanic to really breathe without confining it like some maps in the past have. It also has these little tesla coil things littered about, which are basic in their functionality (an area-of-effect jolt when shot), but very cool aesthetically -- plus, they sound really neat. Next up is Swarm, a map set in a ruined Korean city. It's nice to see the series return to a setting like this, as I enjoyed "Magma" in Black Ops II. There's plenty of windows to boost into and buildings to hide in, and the map lends itself to vertical movement well. They really go with the destruction theme, and there's a ton of detail present that I wasn't expecting. It's another great showing for Reckoning. Fracture is an ice level that reminds me of The Thing, in a good way. The backgrounds are very detailed, and the smaller, more intimate theme works to its advantage. It's basically all outdoors, which gives it a distinct feel compared to the rest of the DLC. Although Array from the original Black Ops is probably my favorite snow map in Call of Duty history, Fracture does the frozen sub-genre proud. Quarantine, the last of the four core maps in Reckoning, gives off a distinct Walking Dead TV series vibe, which I dig. It also feels like it has a Call of Duty 4 theme with its simplicity, but it's not as vertical as I hoped it would be. The general gist is that the arena is a testing site for experiments on primates, complete with tons of banana boxes and even a room full of live test subjects. It's a rather generic theme, but it must be said that I do enjoy playing it in the rotation. I wouldn't consider it a wasted slot. [embed]297123:59780:0[/embed] Now, onto the best part -- the zombie level. Following along with the narrative that saw the demise of John Malkovich's character (and the debut of Bruce Campbell), and his ascension into zombie-hood, Descent is one of the most unique zombie stages in the entire series (the one that featured mafia ghosts withstanding). It straight-up feels like you're in a Bond villain base, which is partially true as Malkovich is there to taunt you every step of the way as you navigate your path through an underwater testing site. As you make your way through each wave, various power-ups will start to appear at the top of the deck, which you can periodically gather. These range from standard stuff like turrets, to more interesting mechanisms like defensive AI robots that float around your character. Everything feels much more action-packed and desperate, with more firepower and abilities to match the more aggressive enemies. At times, Malkovich will teleport you to a room for a boss fight session of sorts, with different hazards to avoid (like laser grids above you, preventing double-jumps) and a variety of enemies to best in close-quarters. It's a sight to behold with four players, as power-ups are constantly appearing in this secluded room while you fight for your life. Again, intensity is what they're going for here, and it really works. I'd have to think about it for a while, but it may be the most fun I've had with zombies since first playing World at War. I mean, Malkovich actually says the line "The teleporters are mine now, bitch," to give you an idea of what I'm talking about here. At the end of the day, I'm happy with what Sledgehammer Games (and Raven) brought to the table with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare as a whole. Though it'll be tough to dethrone the current kings of the franchise (Treyarch), I have more confidence in their follow-up than before, and I'm eager to see what they can come up with next. At this point Infinity Ward is a lame duck, and the odd developer out. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Did John Malkovich just call me a bitch?
So here we are with the Reckoning DLC pack, the last add-on for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare after Havoc, Ascendance, and Supremacy. All in all, it's been a great ride, and slowly but surely, each map pack has improved upon the last. It's great then that Advanced Warfare is going out with a bang with its best DLC yet.

Review: World of Tanks

Aug 03 // Brett Makedonski
World of Tanks (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WargamingPublisher: WargamingRelease Date: July 28, 2015 (Xbox One)MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions) Really, World of Tanks treads the line uneasily that all massively multiplayer online titles do: How do you make a game like this rewarding and nuanced for experienced players, yet inviting and engaging enough for a new audience? Extrapolating from that (and more importantly): How do you convert both Group A and Group B into dollar signs? Wargaming doesn't always do a great job of it, as its intentions often seem paper-thin. That aforesaid selfishness is where the moneymaking lies though, and it can come at the expense of the experience. World of Tanks on Xbox One gives people no reason to press forward except for personal gain. Being killed in a match means it's the end of that match as far as you're concerned. Sure, one could theoretically watch the rest of the round through the cameras of other players, but literally no one will do that. Instead, they'll head back to the garage, hop into another tank, and try again in a different match. This was my exact experience for much of my time with World of Tanks. After several hours of playing (but possibly more spent in loading screens), I checked my stats to see that I had a victory rate of just about 50 percent. That's not bad at all, but I had no idea. Worse yet, I didn't really care. I only cared about the currency dripfeeding into my account at the conclusion of each match. That's all World of Tanks wants us to care about. [embed]296821:59762:0[/embed] The last statement is made obvious by the way which Wargaming organically introduces players to some later-game content. During matches, it's not completely uncommon to come up against an opponent that seems literally invincible. Your ammunition will do next to nothing to it; it will dispose of you with the disdain of a Midwesterner swatting one of a thousand mosquitoes on a humid July night. That is your goal -- you want to be that guy. Make no mistake about it: World of Tanks is a continual left-to-right surge through a spiderweb of tanks you don't yet have, but might have very soon. Those first few come relatively quickly and the progression feels real. After that, everything gets slower. Each match contributes, but less so than before. Looking ahead through that web, some of it seems unattainable (or at the very least, extremely far off). World of Tanks wants your time or your wallet -- pick your poison. Fortunately, giving it your time isn't the worst option. World of Tanks can be rewarding. Every hit landed on another player is satisfying. Blowing them up is exponentially better than just damaging them. Surviving the entire match, destroying several on the other team, and/or capturing a base might just make you feel like you're General Patton. You start to think "I'm getting better. If I keep playing like this, those end-game tanks will be mine in no time!" These are the immutable highs of World of Tanks. It's simply enthralling when you set off on a literal warpath and cut down everything in your way. This is the meat of the game, and it's a prime cut. Excelling at tank-play against other humans feels very, very good. At this point, imminent defeat in the next match is all but assured. That's where World of Tanks is at its worst. Barring the progression frustrations, it's all too often that you'll feel like your opponents know something you don't. Their death machines are probably superior to yours, sure. Still, they'll angle their tanks in such a way that they never expose the weak part of the armor that you didn't even know was weak. They're really good, and you're not sure how to get to that level. The game doesn't teach you, and it doesn't seem like you'll ever learn on your own. It's very unintuitive. For everything that might appear impossible, what you do pick up on your own is invaluable. It isn't long before rushing in looks like a fool's game. Flank, hide, proceed with caution. These vehicles may be harbingers of destruction, but you can't treat them as such. Each minute movement actually means something when you're in the thick of it. These are the times when you'll feel a strategic sense in World of Tanks. Suddenly, things aren't so bad again. Everything seems possible, at least. And, that's what World of Tanks thrives on -- a cyclical mindset between frustration, slight progression, and back to frustration. There are intermittent spurts of elation peppered in occasionally in the event of an outstanding performance. Otherwise, it's right back to not quite understanding why others know more than you do. Which poison did they pick? Time or wallet? Or, heaven forbid, both? Anyone who truly appreciates World of Tanks won't need a review to guide them. They're already well beyond the long barrier to entry. Everyone else will likely find themselves similarly on the outside looking in. There might be something special to World of Tanks, but it's not something that's immediately apparent; it's something that only shows itself after a significant investment. The gameplay can be rewarding at times, but most won't have the patience (or the money) to ever get to that point. Thus, World of Tanks won't ever be more than a quick detour on the way to something that's easier to comprehend. [This review is based on a retail build of the free game downloaded by the reviewer.]
World of Tanks review photo
Pick your poison
World of Tanks is a selfish game. It acts selfishly in that it hides information from its players, expecting them to figure out any and all intricacies on their own. Similarly, it asks its userbase to roll into combat as...

Neverwinter: Strongholds might get me back into the game

Jul 31 // Joe Parlock
Building your Stronghold [embed]296961:59747:0[/embed] With the goal of providing “interesting and meaningful experiences to guilds”, the process of creating and upgrading your guild’s stronghold is at the heart of the expansion. All buildable structures and upgrades are ultimately decided by the leaders of the guild, but those goals are worked towards by every member through the “Coffers” system. Coffers are the total resources available to a guild to help build up their stronghold, and they’re separated into three categories: materials, which are found in the lands surrounding your stronghold such as lumber; treasures, which are earned by playing through the campaign zones of the wider game such as the Dread Ring campaign; and stockpiles, the normal loot, gold, and astral diamonds players earn throughout the game. Finding these resources ensures creating a good stronghold for your guild isn’t just a case of the leaders fiddling with the UI; every member of the guild would have a role to play, be it collecting resources or planning out where structures will go.  Once there are enough resources to build a new structure in the stronghold, or to upgrade an already existing one, the guild leaders can then start the work of upgrading, while also setting the next goal for the guild to work towards. However, the amount of upgrades you can apply to a structure depends on the overall level of the guild’s keep. While structures have a maximum level of 10, the keep can grow up to level 20. However, structures can’t out-level the keep, so sometimes an effort must be made to upgrade the keep rather than simply rushing for all the new and shiny buildings. As players donate these hard-earned resources to their guild’s coffers, they are awarded guild marks with which they can buy new gear and items for themselves at the marketplace. It’s a way of incentivising altruism among the guild, and is one of the few times in the game players can make decisions for themselves that aren’t directly linked to the decisions of their wider guild. Another way the guild must coordinate in building their stronghold is in the new added boons. Boons are passive bonuses granted to players, and in Strongholds, structures can be built to grant the entire guild specific types of boons. There are currently four categories: offense, defense, utility, and Player vs. Player (PvP). The catch is not every type of boon would available for a guild at the same time, as there are only a limited number of boon structures that can be made. This requires decisions to be made about how players within the guild will be buffed. An example given would be a raiding guild may put more emphasis into PvP or offensive boons to increase their power. The boons in each category would be optional for each individual player, however what type of boon is available is up to the guild. It’s a neat mechanic, as now other players who you’d regularly play with have an active impact on how your character works, and how these buffs influence your character may well change in the future. Should the guild decide to change an offensive boon structure to a defensive one, the boons you previously had would no longer apply. It’s interesting, however I could also see it causing some conflict within guilds. The area given to a guild to build its stronghold on is the biggest zone Neverwinter has ever seen: it is three times bigger than the biggest previous one. The zone is split into multiple, smaller themed areas, each with their own enemies and quests. For example, there may be faetouched areas, or there may be areas that are more desolate, and different enemies may be encountered in each one. It’s nice to see some variance in the zone, as Neverwinter does have a problem of each zone being its own themed thing that gets boring sometimes: the snowy zone, the desert zone, or the city zone and nothing but that. Some areas will be sealed off and hidden until the stronghold has been built up and expanded on, but what’s interesting is that the future of the zone isn’t entirely known even to Perfect World yet. The strongholds system is planned to be expanded upon over the course of at least the next two expansions: Strongholds and a currently unannounced expansion after that. According to them, being “done” with building a stronghold simply isn’t possible, as new structures and boons will be made available in future updates.  While there is a storyline planned out for Strongholds and the expansion after that, the specifics of what sort of boons and structures will be included in them are apparently down to player feedback and community suggestions. New Player vs. Environment Content Building up a guild’s stronghold isn’t the only new addition to Neverwinter. Alongside it comes a new range of player vs. environment content, much like in the previous expansions before it. However, a lot of this will still directly help your stronghold grow. Firstly, the act of actually acquiring your guild’s new keep will be part of a quest line that changes as the stronghold grows. At first, your guild and a travelling band of Orcs will both arrive at the same time, causing there to be multiple skirmishes and missions available. Finding guards, protecting farms, and driving off Orcs to ensure that your keep is safe in the early days. As the keep levels up, new enemies will start to appear in the zone. For example, the second phase of the zone involves mercenaries appearing to try and steal the keep from you, giving you multiple quests involving dealing with them. The zone’s campaign appears to play out in much the same way as previous campaign zones such as the Dread Ring have, however there is also the added dimension of it being dependent on your keep’s level. Of course, there will also be a series of daily quests available from your stronghold’s steward too, and they will also help guide players to the next of their campaign quests. Greed of the Dragonflight That’s all pretty standard expansion stuff: more of what Neverwinter players will be used to. What’s particularly interesting is the major new boss fight that occurs in the Strongholds zone. Dubbed Greed of the Dragonflight, the boss is designed to be played by guilds of 40 or more players who must coordinate and plan out how to take down four powerful dragons simultaneously across the map. If one dragon is killed, the other three will flee shortly afterwards, requiring guilds to figure out which players are best suited to take on each dragon, and make sure all four of them die at the same time. Doing so will net the guild huge rewards, some of the most powerful items in the game, according to Perfect World. However, failure to nab all for dragons doesn’t mean nothing was gained. Due to some guilds not having enough players to take down all four dragons, there is a sliding scale of what rewards are given. The more dragons the guild can kill, the better the loot given. What I saw of this event reminded me of my favourite bit of Neverwinter: the timed boss events. Instances are great, questing is fun, but seeing the alert to head to an area of the map to slay as big-as-hell lizard was always really cool to me. It’s involving, it’s hectic, and it looks as though adding in the extra element of needing to size up who takes on which dragon will make it all the more satisfying when the guild succeeds. The difference between normal timed events and Greed of the Dragonflight is that it isn’t only a timed event. Due to a large amount of player requests, Perfect World is allowing guilds to trigger the event manually whenever they like, and so it could become a pretty big part of guild social life somewhere down the line. A New PvP mode inspired by MOBAs Player vs. Player in Neverwinter has been the centre of Perfect World’s attention for a while now: originally offering a fairly basic 5v5 arena mode, an open-world PvP was later added in Icewind Dale, and of course Strongholds will be adding even more for those who like stomping other players. The PvP added to Strongholds is a 20v20 Guild vs. Guild mode, which when I first heard about it reminded me a lot of Guild Wars 2’s World vs. World feature. However, it appears as though the new mode is being more inspired by the likes of Dota and League of Legends. This isn’t a compulsory feature, guilds must queue up to enter the mode. Once in the game, guilds will find their strongholds and surrounding lands “glued together”, with a river separating the two. The MOBA inspiration comes on the emphasis of controlling the various lanes between the two strongholds, while pushing forward and sieging the enemy guild. Perfect World has also catered to smaller guilds that might not have 20 players online at a time. When in queueing, if a guild has enough players to spare, they will be transferred temporarily to the other guild and fight for them instead. It’s a nice way of evening the playing field, but it will also be interesting to see where their alliances lie once the match is underway. It’s worth noting I didn’t get to actually see any PvP in action, due to the problems setting up a game with 40 players just to show me it would’ve caused. As such, all of this is only how it was described to me by Overmyer. Final Thoughts As previously mentioned, I’ve got a fair amount of experience with Neverwinter, however the lack of something to keep me interested once I’d finished the story quests meant I dropped out of the game soon after. Guilds have always been something in MMOs I’ve had an interest in, but never found the right match – I always ended up in quiet, inactive guilds where nothing ever happened. Strongholds looks like it wants to solve both of my problems, while giving me more of the solo content that got me into the game at first. I’m somewhat concerned that finding decent guilds might still be tricky, but maybe the new toys guilds can play with will convince people to give running guilds a go. PvP has never been a big interest of mine. I got into Rift’s quite a bit, but still eventually found myself going back to questing. Neverwinter in particular has been quite notorious for equipment you can buy in the store being perceived to be more powerful than stuff you can earn in-game, which always put me off PvP. However, if it’s true that the rewards from Greed of the Dragonflight are some of the strongest in the game, it could go a way to fix that problem. Overall, I’m excited. I’m definitely going to be going back into it just to see how all of these new mechanics change how people interact within guilds, if at all. Plus Dragonflight is a condensed version of everything I like about Neverwinter, which is great. Neverwinter: Strongholds will be released on August 11 as the next free expansion on PC. Neverwinter is free-to-play on both Xbox One and PC.
Neverwinter: Strongholds photo
An in-depth look at all the new stuff
On August 11, Perfect World will be releasing the latest expansion to their Dungeons & Dragons-based MMO Neverwinter, Strongholds. With its action-based combat, fantastic locations, and relatively simple mechanics, N...

Windows 10 is now available, these are the gaming features you might care about

Jul 29 // Jed Whitaker
The start menu is back and why are we celebrating this!? A big complaint about Windows 8 was the removal of the basic start menu for the Metro system with live tiles, tailor made for touch screen devices. As most of us probably still use Windows with a mouse and keyboard it wasn't a great solution. It had some apps running in basically their own full screen only windows, thus defeating the purpose of... you know... windows. Thankfully Windows 10 fixes this by combining the old school easy-to-use start menu with the flash and flair of live tiles from Windows 8 Metro start menu. The apps now launch in their own resizable windows instead of full screen only, and plenty of them can be downloaded from the Windows Store for free. Windows Store for those of you who haven't heard of Steam The Windows Store includes plenty of games you can play with your Xbox Live friends and even earn Achievements, but most of them are just ports of casual mobile or Facebook-style games. However, you can find Project Spark on the Windows Store, which runs far better on PC than Xbox One. In the future you can look forward to the sexy free-to-play Gigantic which I quite liked at PAX East this year. Halo's Cortana is the new voice assistant you'll most likely ignore Cortana is to Windows as Siri is to iOS devices, that is to say she is a personal assistant that can be used via text or voice. Cortana is voiced by Jen Taylor, just like in the Halo series, and can do all kinds of tasks such as scheduling appointments, setting reminders, opening apps, and even chatting about Halo and Master Chief. I honestly haven't used Cortana too much but I don't really dig voice assistants, as they don't always seem to understand what I'm saying; even Cortana had trouble understanding me while using my professional grade microphone. Even on my iPhone I've literally only used Siri to call Buffalo Wild Wings instead of adding them to my contact list because I'm too lazy. Voice assistants seem more geared towards business than common folk like me. The Xbox app with game streaming from Xbox One is actually decent The Xbox app is free on Windows 10 and gives you access to all your friends, messages, achievements, clips and even allows you to stream games from  your Xbox One. Streaming from the Xbox One requires an Xbox controller (360 or One) be connected to the system which at time of writing can only be done via USB, though a wireless dongle is coming. The Xbox app also allows you to record gameplay and take screenshots of any game on your PC, whether playing on Xbox or not via a handy keyboard shortcut (Win + G) and pop-up toolbar. Game streaming works about as well as you'd imagine. I just played a match of Halo 2's SWAT -- a game mode requiring precision aiming due to requiring headshots for kills -- in which I came in the middle of the pack with over ten kills. There was a smidgen of noticeable lag at one point, but not enough to really affect the gameplay enough to matter. Video quality-wise there was a bit of artifacting but only if I really looked for it, even with both my desktop and Xbox One running on wired connections. Also the "Xbox record that" voice command won't work during streaming, so you'll have to use Xbox apps keyboard shortcut to record directly onto your PC that way. Supposedly better performance out of your current graphics card with DirectX 12 To save you all the geeky technical talk just know that DirectX 12 allows many graphics cards to have majorly increased performance in comparison to previous versions, meaning you might be able to play at higher resolutions with better settings on your current setup. For more details check out this informative video from AMD.  I personally haven't seen much real world increase in graphical performance, but I'm running on an Nvidia GTX 980 that could already max out all the games I was playing on Windows 8 previously. Perhaps you'll see some gains? Minecraft: Windows 10 beta is a thing that exists If you are one of those people who must have every version of Minecraft possible then good news, you can get the Windows 10 beta for free if you already own a PC copy of the game. Details on how to get the beta are at the Mojang site. I just attempted to do it and it is only allowing me to download the trial version, so your results may vary. This version of Minecraft allows you to play with up to seven of your Xbox Live friends at once and eventually even play with mobile players. I guess that is probably exciting for someone.  -- Windows 10 has plenty of other new features, most of which just let you do what you'd normally do more efficiently such as new ways to snap windows, a new task view, automatic updates, and the Microsoft Edge web browser that is probably the fastest browser currently on the market. Edge doesn't currently support extensions, which is keeping me from switching from Google Chrome at the moment. I've been using Windows 10 on my main system for quite a while now with no issues and with all my games and applications working as intended. Windows 10 is easily the best operating system I've ever used as it allows me to play, work, and relax more efficiently and effectively. It has been worthwhile for me.
Best Windows yet? photo
Pizzazz, pizzazz, Windows 10 is here
Windows 10 is now officially available, and those who have Windows 7 or 8 can upgrade for free, which is a pretty good price for what I consider the best version of Windows yet. Windows 10 packs a bunch of new features, including some nice extras for Xbox One owners. Here is an overview of new features you might care about as someone who plays games.

Review: Life is Strange: Dark Room

Jul 28 // Brett Makedonski
Life is Strange: Dark Room (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])Developer: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Square EnixRelease date: July 28, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) Interestingly enough, Dark Room largely betrays the pacing set forth by the previous three installments. Those chapters had a tendency to meander as Dontnod built the world and its characters. There wasn't anything inherently bad about that. Actually, now that the game's nearing its conclusion, it's paying dividends. We're invested in the story surrounding Arcadia Bay. Still, Dark Room is always tugging at your sleeves, trying to guide you somewhere. The stakes in this episode have been raised to a degree that doesn't lend itself to killing time. Urgency permeates the entirety of Dark Room. Rushing from one location to another advances the plot as things escalate steadily, and there's not always a chair handy to take a mental breather. As quickly as things move, a lot of the brilliance behind this episode comes in the form of finally tying together past events and seeing how they cause everything to shake out. There's some resolution, even if it's not full resolution. Dontnod has proven that it expertly laid the framework to affect future encounters. One particular instance comes in the form of another spat with a familiar antagonist. The branching paths can lead to several outcomes, none necessarily more optimal than the next. [embed]296752:59714:0[/embed] Another prime example is very un-Life is Strange, and maybe the only time Dark Room just sat still for a minute. Max has a board of clues that she must use to put together some damning evidence against someone. Putting on Max's sleuthing hat, the puzzle requires carefully finding related documents and grouping them in a sensible way. Odd as it may have seemed, this section nicely conveyed a sense of inter-connectivity and broke up the episode's breakneck speed. The rest of Dark Room's high points were the bleakest moments the game has seen, none of which should be discussed here. This episode doubled down on grim material and somber social issues. The absolute best thing Dark Room does is that it still somehow manages to present most of this (and the characters tied to it) from a complex perspective. It's not dealing in blacks and whites -- even though it's completely expected by now, given the nature of the subjects. The more time spent in Life is Strange, the more obvious it is that this isn't the game we may have originally thought. The supernatural won't overshadow the social issues. The rewind mechanic often doesn't feel like an option because you want to live with your decisions. Somehow, Dontnod resisted the urge to lean on these aspects, even though they'd be the easiest to lean on. The game's immeasurably better off for it. So, after another cliffhanger ending, we're left awaiting the conclusion and with no real idea where the narrative might go. Dark Room has been the most masterful installment in Life is Strange thus far, and it sets us hurtling toward the finish line. If the first 80 percent is any indication, it probably won't be a "happily ever after" ending. Only one thing's certain, though: that ever-present throat lump will be along for the ride.
Life is Strange review photo
Super Max
I played the fourth episode of Life is Strange with a lump in my throat. You know, the sort of uneasiness that puts a slight pressure behind your ears. The lump waned and grew with the chapter's crescendos and decrescend...

Review: King's Quest: A Knight To Remember

Jul 28 // Chris Carter
King’s Quest: A Knight To Remember (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: The Odd GentlemenPublisher: Sierra EntertainmentReleased: July 28, 2015MSRP: $9.99 per episode / $40 for the "Complete Collection" To be clear, this isn't a true continuation of the series, but rather, a "re-imagining" with the same characters, and some of the same events. For the most part, this new rendition is going to tell side stories that happened between the games over the course of five episodes -- A Knight to Remember is the first. There's plenty of fanservice scattered about to keep old fans happy, but newcomers won't be lost in the slightest in their first foray into Daventry -- it's a great balancing act. When I first booted up the game, it was seemingly taking a low-key Ico-like approach, which I really dug. The protagonist didn't talk much initially, and you're thrown into an unknown situation that sets up the rest of the tale. It immediately reminded me of a Don Bluth project, with beautiful scenery and interesting character designs. There are a few areas I encountered that had some screen tearing issues, but nothing that affected my enjoyment significantly, or crashed the game in any way on Xbox One. Slowly but surely the game opened up and started to become more talkative, at which point I immediately fell in love with it. The way the game is framed is through the narration of King Graham, who is telling his granddaughter the tales of his youth. Christopher Lloyd plays an older Graham to perfection, with plenty of "grandpa puns" and lots of heart. You can tell he's really enjoying it and isn't phoning it in like some stars might (Destiny), and in fact, the entire cast is one of the most organic collective of characters I've ever seen in a game. There's tons of great references to classic films like The Princess Bride with a welcome appearance from Wallace Shawn, and even direct references to characters like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. While I don't want to spoil the surprises, they're done with the utmost respect to the source material, and never approach the level of an annoying forced meme. It helps that the game's animations are incredible, and it's hard to not laugh out loud when you see Graham frantically running with his arms flailing about like Disney's Ichabod Crane. In fact, I've never laughed so hard at a game in my life -- trust me when I say that's not an exaggeration. I particularly like how the game handles death with the Grandpa Graham narration mechanism, which even makes failure funny. There's also a few hilarious references to characters "remembering that" from Telltale games, and a clever use of the narration technique in other ways. For instance, there's one part where you're walking on a log, and after going over it again, Graham mentions that it would be repetitive if he had to explain that bit over and over to his granddaughter, so it transports you to the other side. It's convenient and charming in the same breath. One thing I need to mention is that the game is not as hardcore as past King's Quest titles, which is to be expected. The narration element sort of clues you in sometimes to the solution (which again, is done very well), and I really like how the game focuses in on objects you are currently trying to use a piece of equipment on, to eliminate any nasty instances of pixel-hunting. There's also plenty of choices to be had that change the story in smaller ways, like leaving tips in a collection plate in any empty store, or bigger conundrums that promise more of an impact in future episodes (stay tuned to future reviews to see how this plays out). While the first hour or so of the roughly five hour adventure is rather linear, the game opens up significantly after that, with a large sandbox that isn't as massive as a classic adventure game, but big enough to roam around in. There's also some third-person obstacle dodging, mild on-rails platforming, and several first-person aiming sequences. There's a few quick-time events but they are very few and far between, which is a nice touch, as modern adventure games use them as a crutch far too often. Of course, A Knight to Remember also has several puzzles as well as some memory work involved, which are well executed. So yes, it's much more involved than your average Telltale game. I wish King's Quest: A Knight to Remember was a bit more taxing, but I loved everything about it. If this series does well I hope we get to see the adventures of other family members like Alexander, and additional areas like the Land of the Green Isles. Right now though, I'm going through withdraws for the second episode already. Move over Telltale, there's a new adventure king in town. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Kingís Quest review photo
A kingly modern classic
Not all revivals or remakes instill a sense of nostalgia within me. For instance, if we ever got that sequel to Kabuki Quantum Fighter we were promised in the original's credits, I wouldn't be all that excited. But King'...

Review: Five Nights at Freddy's 4

Jul 24 // Nic Rowen
Five Nights at Freddy's 4 (PC)Developer: Scott Cawthon Publisher: Scott Cawthon Released: July 23, 2015MSRP: $8.00 The setup of Five Nights 4 intentionally replicates the design of the first game. The original cast is back, their avenues of attack directly mimic their first outing, and the general layout of your besieged room is the same, making this entry feel like closing a loop. But, this time instead of haunting a creepy knock-off Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, they're spooking up your home instead. There are no more security cameras to monitor, no more batteries to fuss over. You're just a little kid with a flashlight, scampering between the two doors into his room and whatever might be lurking in his closet (or right behind him). The type of sense you rely on has been inverted: instead of keeping an eye on things, this time you'll be listening for whatever is out there. When you creep up to a door you have to pause, wait a moment, and listen for any kind of breathing or noise in the darkened hallway. If you hear something, you need to shut the door as fast as you possibly can. If it's clear, shining your flashlight down the hall will ward off anything stalking towards you. If you're wrong though, and the monster is right there, and you shine your flashlight right into its toothy mechanical face, well, it's is the last thing you'll ever do. What this means mechanically, is that you need to absolutely crank up the volume to reliably hear things. Headphones are nearly required. Of course, the jump scare death animations are as loud as ever. Do you see where this is going? Sonic fucking boom. If you want to know if this game made me yelp, or jump, or spill my coffee and send me trudging to the kitchen for a roll of paper towels while I swore angrily under my breath -- yes, it did. Of course it did. It's a cycle of protracted periods of peering into the darkness and intensely listening to absolutely nothing interrupted with SUDDEN. LOUD. JUMP. SCARES.   [embed]296612:59683:0[/embed] It's an easy, dull, and obvious trick. The final refuge for a game that has run out of any other ways to scare people. Don't think of anything new and clever, forget introducing any kind of gameplay twist, or carefully establishing tension or mood. Just take the basic components, crank up the contrast, pump up the volume, and jam the severity. It's trite, lazy even. I'm not sure how the inevitable Five Nights at Freddy's 5 will be able to top this kind of “subtlety.” Maybe it will come with a pair of electrodes you attach to your testicles, so it can administer 5,000 volts of spookiness every time something goes “boo.” *BZZZZZT* What, did that make you jump? Sissy. There are a few other tricks. Monsters introduced in later nights operate with slightly different rules, and by the time the fifth night rolls around, you'll be sprinting all over the bedroom trying to keep things locked down. Unlike previous games though, the rules don't feel tight. Things are sloppier, with more guesswork and chance baked into the experience. When I died, I often had no idea what I did wrong. And if I'm being honest, when I succeeded I wasn't always sure why. Frustrating deaths and unearned victories are equally unsatisfying in their own way. The animatronics' logic was never clear enough to me to come up with a reliable strategy to keep them at bay. I supposed that could be intentional, a way of always keeping even seasoned players on their toes, but I think that's giving the design credit it doesn't deserve. More than any other Freddy game so far, I just felt exasperated and annoyed playing through Five Nights 4.   The emphasis on carefully listening for every creak and groan in the darkness isn't just a lame way to manufacture easy scares. It's also a way to ruin one of the greatest pleasures I've had with the series, namely playing the game with an audience. While others sneer at Freddy's for being pure Twitch/YouTube bait, I've always understood it. I get why these games are fun to watch because I know how well they play in the living room with a couple of spectators and rotating victims. There is a real joy in playing these games with someone else or two in the room to watch you screw up. To have a small chorus whispering “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit...” behind your shoulder as the tension mounts. Of having someone to exchange nervous glances with when the doors stop working and it's 5 AM going on 6 AM and there is just the tiniest chance that you might roll over to the next day before Freddy pops out and – “OH GOD HE'S IN THE ROOM!” Those were moments I missed while I played Five Nights 4. What I'd think about while I was all hunched up in my chair with a pair of headphones clamped on tight. The memories that made me feel like a traitor whenever I violently shushed anyone in the room who made even the slightest distracting peep. However you played the previous games, know that this Five Nights is purely for the lone wolves and streamers out there who don't mind strapping on their pair of overly-expensive, sound-canceling Beats By Dre. But enough about how I resent the bargain-basement scares and penny-ante tricks the game uses to provoke a response from you. Enough about how this game is profoundly annoying and deeply unimaginative on a mechanical level. As a person who has followed the series since its start, the most damning part of this boondoggle of a game is how it absolutely folds under the pressure of its own established narrative. After all the teasing and hints, the essay-length forum posts and amazing fan-made theory videos that manage to be more entertaining than the games themselves, the promise that THIS Freddy's will be the one to finally answer the series long-standing questions -- it completely flubs the landing. All of the world building and story momentum generated by the first three games lurches to a disappointing stop, like a wind-up car gummed up with carpet lint. Yes, the infamous “bite of '87” is finally addressed in Five Nights 4. But like so many smoke monsters and Cylon replicants, the mystery was always better than any answer the series could reasonably provide. You see it, say “meh” to yourself, and retroactively wonder what the big deal was in the first place. The fact that this kind of anti-climax is common doesn't excuse Five Nights 4 of its wet noodle narrative and limp “reveals.” If anything, all of those previous failures should have been taken as cautionary tales, the value of mystery should be known and respected by now. Some questions are better left unanswered. It doesn't help that the way the game wraps up heavily implies that the events it depicts should not be taken literally. Yes, the tired old “it was all a dream/nightmare, or maybe a metaphor, or like a weird trippy memory, I don't know” trope is dusted off once again, so nothing is particularly clear. That's without getting into how the chaotic mass of prequels, reveals, and reinterpretations the games have constructed now threatens to collapse into a superdense black hole of no-longer-giving-a-shit at this point. I almost broke out a whiteboard trying to figure out the series' mythology at this point. “Okay, so this game is set in '87 to see the infamous 'bite,' around the same time as the prequel events in Five Nights 2. But it's also BEFORE the murders of the children that haunt Five Nights 1 and what you find out happens with Springtrap in Five Nights 3. The Purpleman doesn't really have a role, but he does show up in a cameo. Wait, are the kids in the last cutscene the eventual murder victims? Oh god, I'm seeing spots. Is this a migraine, or am I having a stroke? Do I need to call 911? If I die, are they going to find my body splayed out in front of a computer with a bunch of crazy notes about Five Nights at Freddy's? Am I going to end up as some shitty urban myth about how Five Nights totally killed a reviewer?” This game is stressful in all the wrong ways. The now familiar Atari-esque mini-games appear between chapters to deliver their payload of exposition and spooks, but all the menace of those scenes has been lanced and drained by repetition. There is a new sort of mini-game between nights where you play Weeping Angel stop-'n'-go with an animated plush doll. Stop him on a specific mark and you can knock two hours off the next night. Let him get too close or run out of time and, you guessed it, JUMP SCARE! It's the one new addition Five Nights 4 brings to the table, and it feels like the shadow of a reflection of an afterthought. You don't need to play this game. Even if you've been invested in the series up till now, it's just going to disappoint you and rankle your nerves. The interesting gimmicks have been completely rung out of the franchise; this game is imaginatively bone dry. The louder, nastier jump scares that are left are just a crass attempt to try and distract you from the lack of innovation. The story, the ongoing mystery of Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria, and the strange goings-on surrounding it are best left to your personal headcanon or favorite fan theory. You'd be better served experiencing Five Nights at Freddy's 4 the way it was obviously intended to be enjoyed. By going on YouTube and watching some twenty-five-year-old, dressed like a fourteen-year-old, scream and cry his way through the game like a seven-year-old. The game truly has come full circle. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Five Nights 4 Review photo
This guest has overstayed its welcome
Well, it's been a few months, time for another Five Night at Freddy's game I suppose. I don't like to be cynical. I don't volunteer to review games, and pay for them out of my own pocket, hoping that they'll disappoint me and...

How the hell did Galak-Z hide a Gundam for three years?

Jul 24 // Steven Hansen
Let's recap for a second if you haven't been following along. Galak-Z is broken into five seasons each with five episodes. The fifth season will be added in for free post launch. This is one diversion from the typical roguelike set up, in that when you die, you don't start all the way at the beginning of the game, but rather at the beginning of whichever "season" you're on. "One of [Kazdal's] pet peeves with roguelikes" is that playing very beginning segments over and over can get boring, so this blends that death-based need to replay with earned progression. More typically, levels are randomly generated, and you get different fractions of story and dialogue every time. This way you won't hear the same repeated bits death after death, but slowly glean more information until you finally get through the season. The space shooting half we already knew about is not just a twin-stick shooter, either. The ship maps thrusters (and a boost) to the triggers. There's also a backwards thruster so you can shoot and flee, a dodge thruster, and a a barrel roll (square) that juts the ship "toward" you like it's coming out of the screen (and over incoming bullets on the 2D plane). You have your standard weapon and an Itano Circus missile salvo (limited, but you can buy more if you find the shop during levels). [embed]296589:59676:0[/embed] Ok, so the not-Gundam? You can morph the ship into the robot at any time with a smooth, Transformers-like animation and change up the playstyle completely. It has a beam sword, which can be charged for a stronger, wider attack, and a shield that has parry capabilities. Perhaps most fun, though, is the extending claw arm that can grab dangerous space junk and throw it at enemies, or grab enemies themselves, bringing them in close so you can start wailing on them with punches. Keeping the mech locked up this long is impressive. The feature was locked off in the many public shows Galak-Z has been demoed at and no one slipped up about it. Kazdal tells me there were plans for a third, stealth-focused character, initially, but that it made for too many mental hoops in dealing with all the other things that could be happening at any given moment. Galak-Z is smooth, feels great to play, and the mech is a welcomed addition, adding one more layer to the game. There are warring factions you can sometimes pit against each other, environmental hazards to be aware of (and sometimes use to your advantage -- thanks alien trapdoor spider who saved my ass!), and instant shifts between ranged and close-quarters combat. It's tough, gorgeous, encourages exploration (beyond mission goals, there are blueprints for new gear and other upgrades to find), and a ton of fun.
HANDS ON: Galak-Z  photo
Spelunky by way of Macross...and Gundam
We've covered the "Spelunky by way of Macross" space shooting roguelike for a couple of years now and the follow-up from Skulls of the Shogun developer 17-bit is almost here, coming to PS4 August 4 and PC a few months down th...

Review: Trials Fusion: Awesome Level Max

Jul 21 // Jordan Devore
Trials Fusion: Awesome Level Max (PC, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: RedLynxPublisher: UbisoftReleased: July 14, 2015MSRP: $9.99 (DLC) / $39.99 (Full game, Season Pass DLC, and Awesome Level Max) While Ubisoft has spent much of its time talking up "The Awesome Adventure," the group of levels centered on the unlikely duo, that content makes up the minority of Awesome Level Max. It's only short eight levels, one of which is an even-shorter FMX course that has players performing tricks as they fall from space. The other twenty-two levels are a mix of developer and player-made creations. They're far more varied and come packaged under the "RedLynx vs. All-Stars" banner. But back to that unicorn -- it's meant to be ridiculous, silly fun. That may seem obvious, but some people take Trials leaderboards very seriously. Think of this set as something you'll go through once -- maybe a few times more, tops, to get better medals -- and never touch again. The scenery is a change of pace, especially from the core game's offerings. Level layouts aren't particularly memorable or challenging, and I suspect most dedicated players will be able to breeze past them, crashing only because the path ahead wasn't clear enough the first time through. The seventh track culminates in a boss battle, if you can even call it that, against a penguin inside a mech. There are pixelated cats, for some reason. You literally win the fight by balancing on the machine's helmet. I didn't know what to expect for the conclusion, but it sure wasn't that. Weird stuff. It's also worth noting that the unicorn and cat are locked out of other tracks aside from Supercross. [embed]296414:59632:0[/embed] The RedLynx vs. All-Stars side of the DLC is far more fulfilling. For one, it represents a better range of difficulty. Clearing the first checkpoint in the two new Extreme tracks felt like an accomplishment, as it should. I haven't managed to finish either of them yet, and that pleases me. One concern going in was that there would be an inconsistency between the player-created courses and the ones RedLynx designed. I didn't find that to be the case at all. If they weren't labeled separately, I'm not certain I'd be able to tell the levels apart. One takes place in a computer. Another is reminiscent of Limbo's shadowy, saw-filled world. Too many tracks employ lava but, on the whole, this bundle has exactly the variety I missed in the often bland base version of Trials Fusion. Folks who skipped the season pass but want more Trials in the vein of Trials HD and Evolution should consider downloading Awesome Level Max. It's a little on the easy side, but I appreciate RedLynx for trying new ideas and bringing back more of its unusual personality. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Trials Fusion DLC review photo
Just go with it
Why would Trials Fusion drop its motorbikes for a gun-toting cat on a unicorn? Because it's funny. The touchy controls transfer to your new ride, so when you inevitably lose balance, the quadruped will start hoofing it on two legs. If you're anything like me, you'll burst out in laughter.

Review: Tembo the Badass Elephant

Jul 20 // Chris Carter
Tembo the Badass Elephant (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Game FreakPublisher: SegaReleased: July 21, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Tembo has a rather short little setup, and from there, doesn't really give you any further exposition until the very end. What you see is what you get in essence, which is a Rambo-inspired elephant laying waste to an enemy dictator, who controls the Phantom Force army. It sports a charming little visual style that reminds me of Regular Show and a few other Cartoon Network properties. It even has effects like a literal "BADA BADA" phrase appearing while dashing about, and despite the low key setup it's a very bright and loud game, mostly in an endearing way. The basic gist is that you'll be able to jump, dash, and float in the air momentarily like Yoshi, with the added ability to shoot water from your trunk. More advanced moves involve uppercuts, slides, butt stomps, and a cannonball dive spin with a bounce. As you progress you'll start to learn more nuances, almost like you're fitting Tembo through various keyholes with your moveset. There are no real explicit puzzles, but it sure feels puzzle-esque if you're going for flawless runs. For instance, select levels can be completed without losing any momentum whatsoever, and it's a blast to dash, dive-kick, and slide your way through the entire thing. There's even a modified charge that you can utilize by holding down the water button, which can put out flames while running. It's pretty much the perfect amount of depth, allowing newcomers to pick up and play Tembo while giving hardcore platforming fans room to experiment a bit. [embed]296063:59600:0[/embed] The level design is fairly open-ended, tasking you with finding hidden civilizations scattered across the map, and killing as many enemies as possible -- both of which have separate goals that are tracked. Mini-bosses and a few full-on Big Bads are peppered into progression, but I would consider it more of a traditional platformer than a real action game -- especially with how muted and easy these encounters are. There's many more instances of timing and running than fighting, which is something you mostly happen to do while jumping around. Game Freak keeps things exciting with hazards, well-placed enemies, and lots of explosions, which will keep you on your toes constantly. Tembo has 17 stages, which last a few hours -- if you play very well, that is. Now, here's where my big holdup is with Tembo -- gating. In order to progress past certain stages, you need to kill a certain amount of enemies. Each stage has a death counter of sorts, which requires you to rescue most of the civilians trapped within a level, as well as actually seek out and defeat most of the enemy forces. It incentivizes actually killing foes, which is neat, but it ultimately ends up causing frustration and forcing players to replay levels over and over. While it is cool that levels do split off into branching paths, several of them have points of no return. If you happen to just choose a particular path, you may be locked out of say, 50 kill points or so -- which can easily be the difference between unlocking new levels and being forced to replay. It's maddening in some cases, and at one point I was held back by six points. Now, I did like returning to some levels to try to "master" them per se, but that should be a player choice -- not something that gates main story progression. Tembo the Badass Elephant is a really enjoyable game at its core, but it can get tiring to replay the same stage five times over just to grind out a few kills to see the next set of levels. It's an odd design choice for sure, but most of you will probably enjoy dashing through unsuspecting Phantom Soldiers and butt stomping them into oblivion regardless. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Badass Elephant review photo
They drew first blood
When someone told me that the developer of Pokemon was creating an action platformer called Tembo the Badass Elephant, I knew I had to give it a shot. While a few of the design choices are a bit odd, they don't overshadow the sum of its parts.

Review: Rocket League

Jul 14 // Zack Furniss
Rocket League (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PC)Developer: PsyonixPublisher: PsyonixMSRP: $19.99Released: July 7, 2015 Rocket League is Psyonix's follow-up to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, which had entirely too many hyphens. By dropping the hyphens and making every facet of their concept as simple and accessible as possible, they've made something undoubtedly focused. You are a car, and you must knock a large ball into the opposing team's goal. It never gets more complicated than that. You can play one on one (though I can't imagine that'd be terribly fun), or up to four on four with players around the world or bots. There are different modes available: Exhibition is for local games with four-player split-screen or bots, Season allows you to set up consecutive bot matches over complete with playoffs, and Training teaches you the basics of movement. Starting with Training is a swell, yet ultimately unnecessary idea since you'll have a feel for the driving by the end of your first match. You can accelerate, reverse, jump, double-jump, and boost all over the field and it all feels crunchy and responsive in the best way. The arenas all have just the right amount of friction to feel like you're completely in control of your vehicle at all times. When you try to boost into the ball to score a goal and you careen right past it, you have no one to blame but yourself. The perfectly-tuned controls lend themselves to a desire to acquire mastery, a feeling that seems rare as of late. If you master one skill, proper use of boosting is the one to pick. Since boost juice is finite, you have to drive over boost pads to keep it topped off. Whether you use said juice to dart from the goalie to position to attempt a risky goal or you boost long enough to crash into someone to temporarily destroy them, you'll learn to love judiciously tapping and holding that circle button. Exploding a member of the opposing team only takes them out for a second but can be a viable strategy when things get hectic. While you can play with four players per team, it tends to be too chaotic. You'd think with more players that one person would designate themselves as the goalie, but instead each person gets caught up in an offensive. With a dedicated team it'd probably be a viable mode, but I was playing mostly pick-up games. 3 on 3 seems like the definite sweet spot and is recommended when playing online. Since Rocket League has cross-platform play between the PlayStation 4 and PC, I was always able to find a match within a minute or two. The loading screens are always brief so it's a little too easy to find yourself starting up another match even after telling yourself it's 2 in the morning and you need to texture a patch of drywall tomorrow (that's a normal thing, right?). There's also a carrot on a stick to keep you playing in the form of car customizations. By playing well, you can enter the garage to customize your car's body type, decal, paint job, wheels, boost trail color, antenna, and topper. I rocked a pirate hat on my little pick-up truck for the majority of my matches. These are all purely cosmetic so as not to distort game balance. It would take quite awhile to unlock all customizations, but they're a nice little bonus for the already fun core gameplay. There are seven arenas (though a few of them are the same, with different weather) that are all gorgeous. Watching your little car zip over billowing grass as it rains down on you all in a crisp, smooth frame rate is more aesthetically pleasing than you'd expect from soccer car smash fusion. Though I sort of expected different obstacles or boost pad placement on each arena, I ended up appreciating that these changes are only cosmetic. You always know exactly what you're playing with. I didn't go in expecting much from Rocket League since I'm usually not a huge fan of driving and sports games. Instead of walking away with a confirmed bias, Psyonix's laser-focused concept gave me something fun to whip out the next time I have friends over. I imagine with a bunch of awful beer and willing companions, we'll have a great time. What's next, will I enjoy a game that mixes Metroids and Soccer? We'll see. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Rocket League review photo
I will only call it 'soccar' once
A good chunk of today's onslaught of complex games has convoluted controls, alienating lore, and feature creep that can sometimes be overwhelming. Every so often, a developer comes along and makes something that just seems nice and digestible -- no need to research the best character build or wiki-scan to catch up on the plot. And sometimes that tasty little morsel is a driving/soccer sandwich.

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight - Batgirl: A Matter of Family

Jul 14 // Chris Carter
Batman: Arkham Knight - Batgirl: A Matter of Family (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WB Games MontrealPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $6.99Released: July 14, 2015 (for Season Pass holders) / July 21, 2015 (wide release) The Batmobile takes a backseat this time in favor of a tale told entirely from Barbara Gordon's perspective before the events of Arkham Knight. WB just couldn't resist the chance to bring The Joker back yet again, and it uses every opportunity to let you know that this is his DLC without really having him do all that much. In other more exciting news, Harley Quinn is back, but with her red and black Animated Series get-up for the first time in the Arkham games. It looks great. All of the action takes place in the Seagate Amusement Park, which can be thought of as a tiny little sandbox that hosts the new DLC area. The Joker has captured Jim Gordon, and it's up to Barbara (and Robin) to save the day. Family kicks things off with a by-the-book Dual Play combat session, then it's off to free roam for Batgirl. For the most part (like all the other playable characters so far), Batgirl operates just like Batman -- she even has identical detective vision. Combat is relatively the same, and even though WB Montreal notes that she's "weaker" than Bruce, it doesn't really feel that way at all. It's very cool grappling about with Robin, but other than the use of a new type of gadget (advanced hacking), it's the tried and true Arkham formula. In Family, Barbara can use her remote hacking device as a "catch-all" basically, to do all sorts of things like short-circuit devices or manipulate objects. Think of it like a super gadget that can do a lot. It's presumably done so you don't have to micro-manage all of Bats' tools all over again, and to give Batgirl a slightly different feel. Here's the thing -- it does work at a base level, mostly because it distills the experience down to a lot of the good bits, and takes away the pesky forced Batmobile sessions. In other ways it feels limited, as you're stripped of most of those wonderful toys. [embed]295688:59441:0[/embed] None of the environments are particularly memorable outside of a nice little cameo I found in a water tank (in fact, most zones are even less interesting than the random spots you'll find in Gotham proper), but the linear format isn't jarring, either. That's mostly because of the fact that the DLC is so short. Normally that would be fine, but the story never really goes anywhere until the very end. Even then, it feels like a footnote rather than an impactful part of the overall narrative. In terms of length, it's meatier than the Harley DLC, but not by much. You can complete the main story in roughly an hour, and sort out all of the other collectibles in another 30 minutes. What I would have really loved to see is a full-roam option with Red Hood, Harley, and Batgirl (I mean, the models are already in the game with grappling and combat animations), but it's not meant to be -- the latter is still confined to her tiny add-on area. There are eight Achievements/Trophies though if you're into that sort of thing. Warner Bros. is really employing an odd strategy with Batman: Arkham Knight's post-launch content and the relatively expensive $40 Season Pass. All that's been revealed so far beyond a bunch of throwaway content (skins, races) is a handful of bite-sized episodes such as this; it's a far cry from the competent Cold, Cold Heart add-on for Arkham Origins last year. While A Matter of Family may be worth it for hardcore Batgirl fans, WB will have to do a lot better than this to justify the cost of the pass. [This review is based on a retail build of the DLC purchased by the reviewer.]
Batman DLC review photo
The Killing DLC
Enough time has passed for me to make a solid judgement on Batman: Arkham Knight. For the most part, I agree with the sentiments expressed in Steven's review of the core game -- Rocksteady tried too hard in many respects, and...

Call of Goldbum photo
DLC...DLC finds...a way
Activision has sent us a great deal of information regarding Call of Duty: Black Ops III's upcoming zombie mode today, revealed at its San Diego Comic-Con panel. For starters, the all-new zombies cast features Jeff Goldblum ...

Review: Spectra

Jul 09 // Brett Makedonski
Spectra (PC [reviewed], Xbox One, iOS, Android, Windows Phone)Developers: Gateway InteractivePublisher: MastertronicReleased: July 10, 2015 For all the things Spectra isn't, it does one thing very very well. The chiptune beats instantly remind of Chipzel's in Super Hexagon -- a game which is renowned for its recognizable and catchy music, and for its addictive qualities. There's a logical explanation for this connection: the music is made by Chipzel. Good as that component predictably is, one can't shake the feeling that the developers put the music too far at the forefront of Spectra. It's tied to the core of the game in such a way that Gateway Interactive actually developed around it. The ten levels are procedurally generated for what's happening with the music. Dynamic (racing) tracks for static (music) tracks. The problem isn't so much with the method, but with the absolute lack of variation in it. Spectra takes place on a winding two-lane road (like a Sheryl Crow song) with hexagonal prisms peppered along the way liberally to serve as obstacles. The entirety of Spectra consists of avoiding those barriers, picking up gold pellets, and ever-so-occasionally hitting a turbo marker that not only boosts speed but a score multiplier too. Technically, that score is probably the main reason to play Spectra. It's heavy on arcade-like qualities in that it asks the player to put up with great repetition in pursuit of leaderboard glory. Unfortunately, the procedural generation makes it so that no one can necessarily hunker down and teach themselves how to dominate the game. [embed]295486:59424:0[/embed] Instead, it emphasizes reaction over pattern recognition, which would be noble if the algorithm didn't often feel as if it spawns too many barriers at once. Sometimes it could very well be impossible to escape those situations unscathed. It's mostly unnoticeable on the earlier levels, but it's all too apparent in the later ones. Hampering those efforts is a control system that's not poor, but just slightly too loose for a game that only asks the player to steer. It's more a complication with the ship's animation than the actual controls. Regardless, it causes the tiniest of disconnects. A reaction-based game on a narrow pathway with thousands of hurdles has no excuse for not giving the player complete control. Spectra seemingly knows it as going off-track often grants a split second mercy window to get back on before plunging into the abyss. Besides score chasing, players may find themselves insistent on simply trying to finish each level. Clocking in around three and a half minutes each, it's no small feat as Spectra lends itself well to temporary concentration lapses causing immediate failure. The track length often seems about a minute too long to sustain any spurts of enjoyment. Even completion is unsatisfying as there's no finish line due to the game being unsure how far you will have made it over the duration of the song; rather than any sort of fanfare, a new screen pops up informing you of your accomplishment. I don't usually rely so literally upon Destructoid's scoring guide when assigning a number for a review, but it feels so apt in the case of Spectra. It's like a boring meal that did nothing more than chew up a little time. It does lack any real flavor. It didn't leave me any different than it found me. It's tolerable, but not anything special. Well, the music is special, but it turns out that Spectra can't stand on the merits of its music alone. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Spectra review photo
Beat it
Spectra isn't a lot of things. It isn't complicated; its mechanics and entire premise can be learned in literally five seconds. It isn't structured; level design is eschewed for procedural generation. It isn't long; an hour of playing will have unlocked all the tracks with plenty of time to retry the many failed ones. Probably most important: it isn't really fun.

The Red Hood DLC pack for Arkham Knight is disgustingly short

Jul 03 // Chris Carter
[embed]295280:59335:0[/embed] [Straight-up, I'm not going to spoil the story for you, but be aware that this tale takes place after the events of Arkham Knight, and that many commenters may indeed spoil it for you below -- you have been warned.] First, the good news. Red Hood takes the path of least resistance, and can be seen as an anti-Batman vigilante of sorts -- Under the Red Hood was a fantastic film, and I think Rocksteady nailed that vibe here. Red Hood is pissed (for good reason), and he isn't going to let anyone get away with their crime sprees -- unlike Batman, who is content with putting people back in Arkham only for them to break out at a later date. Similar to Harley and all of the other characters in Knight, Hood feels the exact same in the close-combat sections (just mash attack and the counter simple-minded AI), with the added power of some unique animations like...murdering people with his pistols. Unlike Harley who simply couldn't use silent takedowns, this gives the DLC a distinctly different feel, and the tone is fairly unique to the series in general. I'm also a fan of Black Mask, so seeing him return was a treat. All of this is cut short by the fact that it's roughly 10 minutes long, which naturally gives it no room to grow any of the characters or deliver anything worthwhile. You'll be greeted with a combat scene, a brief Predator sequence, then another combat bit with Black Mask, who doesn't exhibit any real unique boss qualities (again, it's "this boss throws adds at you constantly, have fun"). It's a disappointment, to say the least, as both DLCs could have been so much more if they were an hour long, had more involved stories, and interesting boss mechanics. Rocksteady is teasing a few more of these "Arkham Stories" with the Season Pass, and I sincerely hope they're more than this.
Red Hood photo
Man do I love this character though
Just yesterday, we gave you the rundown on the Harley Quinn DLC pack for Batman: Arkham Knight. Much like many aspects of the core game, it was a letdown, mostly due to its length and the fact that it doesn't really provide a...

The Harley Quinn DLC pack for Arkham Knight is painfully brief

Jul 02 // Chris Carter
[embed]295181:59315:0[/embed] Much like Azrael and Batman's other playable companions, Harley's fighting style is nearly identical to the Dark Knight, and other than a few new animations, feels exactly the same -- though, she does have a "party popper" batarang substitute that functions like a Spider-Man web trap. Sadly, the most enemy waves will throw at you is roughly four standard foes and a shield-wielding cop, which doesn't really allow you to dig deep with the Free Flow combat system. A lack of nuanced gameplay permeates in the stealth portions too. In the few Predator sequences that are included, stealth is not really a priority for Harley. She employs laughing gas rather than smoke bombs, tumbles and leaps up walls instead of grappling, and so on, including exploding jack-in-the-boxes rather than explosive gel. Thankfully there are a few differences, most notably the fact that her "detective vision" shows her more demented side with graffiti written on the walls. Harley also cannot employ silent takedowns -- in fact, they're called "loud takedowns," and will always alert guards. She can however use a "Mayhem" ability that lets her knock out enemies in one hit for a limited time, and use Ivy's plants to take out enemies from afar. The entire affair is far too linear, taking place in the Blüdhaven Police Department. It's a prequel, so you know exactly how it plays out if you watch the intro, with a bit of stupid Penguin chatter (I never really liked Arkham's rendition of him) littered between the loose collections of challenge rooms. It all culminates with a final battle with a major hero from the story that uses the tired "throw adds at the player until he wins or loses" mechanic. There are some bright spots, like the idea of Harleen's inner self trying to reason with her insane "Harley" personality, but those concepts aren't really explored in half an hour. If you're a huge fan of Harley you can buy it this fall once its "pre-order exclusivity" (so dumb) is up, or you can just wait for the Game of the Year Edition where it will most likely appear as well. The same goes for the GameStop exclusive Red Hood pack, the PS4 exclusive Scarecrow DLC, and all the costume exclusives.
Harley Quinn photo
Less than 30 minutes
Harley Quinn is at it again this time with a pre-order exclusive DLC (yuck) for Batman: Arkham Knight. I have good news for everyone who didn't bother pre-ordering -- you aren't missing much. The entire add-on basically amounts to less than 30 minutes of the same core gameplay as Knight, minus the Batmobile-fest.

Blizzard: 'We have the freedom to bring any character we want into Heroes of the Storm'

Jun 30 // Chris Carter
Destructoid: Let's start out with a simple question -- what inspired Blizzard to create Heroes of the Storm? Kaeo Milker: It all started out as just a cool way to show off what the StarCraft II Editor was capable of for BlizzCon back in 2010. We’d just launched StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and set a few very small teams of developers loose on creating fun mod maps for the show. These teams built several maps, and we selected four to bring to BlizzCon, including one that was an homage to Warcraft III Defense of the Ancients that we called, “Blizzard All Stars.” The expectation was that we’d release these maps to StarCraft II shortly after the show, but something special happened with Blizzard All Stars and the feedback we received changed the course of things.  There was so much excitement about the game from our team, from Blizzard, and from the BlizzCon attendees that we had to take a step back and reconsider how much additional work should go into the map before its release. We ended up holding it back and we assigned a handful of developers to continue working on it en route to BlizzCon 2011, where we showed it again as, “Blizzard DOTA.” There were new heroes, a redesigned map, and some different takes on game mechanics, and we got even more positive reinforcement on its potential. This growing excitement from internal folks as well as our community led to some very intense conversations about the scope of the game and how we should approach it.  Some serious discussions spawned where we started asking questions like, “What if we ignore the recent games in this space and approach this as a reimagining of what those early mods could have become?” Those conversations led to a decision to make a standalone game where we’d throw out the expectations and rules, and simply make the game we wanted to play. That decision was super scary in its departure from the norm, but also very liberating, and we ended up calling that game Heroes of the Storm when we re-announced it at BlizzCon 2013. D: Tell us a bit about the beginnings of the MOBA genre and its origins. How did the team react to this level of engagement out of a use map settings creation? K: The genre originated all the way back with our own mapmaking community’s Aeon of Strife UMS maps from the original StarCraft. Those maps set the stage for the now-familiar single-hero control and multi-lane map layouts that later inspired mapmakers in Warcraft III to create offshoots including the immensely popular Defense of the Ancients maps. Along the way, many of the RPG-like mechanics that were core to Warcraft III’s gameplay like individual heroes, unlocking and empowering abilities via hero leveling, and item-based stat manipulation were creatively used to evolve the gameplay from Aeon of Strife into that of DOTA and everything that’s come since. It’s inspiring to look back on the game genres that have incubated and spawned from the Blizzard mapmaking communities. The team responsible for Heroes of the Storm also made the original StarCraft as well as Warcraft III, and many of the people working on Heroes of the Storm today were either here at Blizzard or active in our communities when this all started. We’ve all watched this evolution with equal amounts of respect and admiration for everything our players have created. D: Can you give us a rundown of what to expect going forward after launch, both in terms of timelines and content? K: Historically for our team, launching a game has meant that it is “done,” but with Heroes, launch is truly just the beginning. The content and features in the game today represent the foundation of a game that we expect to be in constant evolution moving forward, and we have a growing team that’s been refining our tools and processes to allow us to create and deliver more stuff, more often. We’re moving into a phase now where we’ll be bringing new heroes into the game every 3-4 weeks and are planning for incremental changes and additions to the game even between hero releases.  We currently have several battlegrounds in development and we’ll continue to bring them into the game multiple times a year, starting with the Eternal Conflict release where we’ll introduce a collection of Diablo-themed battlegrounds, heroes, skins, mounts, and events over the next few months. There’s a lot more in store that I can’t talk about yet, but know that we have some amazing things in development and our team is just as excited about this game as our players are! D: What niche do you believe Heroes fulfills in the current MOBA scene today? K: Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard’s take on a genre that has been around for over a decade. We’ve set out to capture and accentuate the elements of these games that we found most compelling, while improving or eliminating the things that we found detracted from the fun. We approach this process with all of our games from the perspective of gamers, and again, we set out to build the games that we want to play.  The game we created features some pretty dramatic departures from the norm like action-packed 20 minute games, an ever-growing pool of objective-based battlegrounds, team leveling, per-hero talent trees that let players modify each hero’s playstyle, and of course, real Blizzard heroes and worlds – all wrapped up in the fun, light-hearted humor we’re known for. It’s free to play, so I invite everybody to check it out and see if it’s the kind of game they want to play, too. D: What is the current state of the MOBA genre financially as a whole? Is there room for more major releases? K: I’m much more of a development guy than a business guy, but clearly there is a ton of interest in this genre and there has been since the Warcraft III days. I’m excited about that interest not because of some potential financial opportunities, but because it represents players who might be open to checking out our game and I think we’re doing something really different with Heroes that can build on the things they’ve loved from past games, while also addressing concerns from players who may not have liked those other games.  Ultimately, I think there’s always room for great games. Our focus is to make the best games we possibly can, and history has shown us that if we stay true to that goal and uphold our commitments to quality and fun, success is within our reach. D: Who is your biggest competition currently, and what do they do right? K: We’ve always looked at other game companies less as competition and more as part of a community that’s pushing game development, technology, user experiences, gameplay, genres, and the industry forward together. Coexisting in a creative space like gaming can help lead to refinement and innovation, and that’s a very healthy thing for us both as developers, and as gamers.  We’ve clearly benefited from the things other developers have learned with similar games – the right choices as much as the wrong choices  –  and as we’re starting to see already, they will in turn benefit from the things we’re trying as well. D: What efforts are you going through in terms of growing Heroes as an eSport? K: This year will be a time where we establish Heroes as an eSport alongside establishing Heroes as a game. We’re off to an amazing start with Heroes of the Dorm, where we brought college teams together from across the US and Canada to battle it out for full college tuition. That event cemented the legitimacy of Heroes as an eSport given the intense competition and its undeniable strengths as a spectator event. The recently-announced 2015 Road to BlizzCon will be the professional extension of that path we’ve started down, and we’ll all get to watch the very best teams from each of our regions work their way through their regional qualifiers and semi-finals en route to the ultimate global showdown at BlizzCon. Like the game, our eSports support will be in constant evolution and I’m very excited to see what develops. D: Walk us through a basic outline of what it takes to create a hero from start to finish. K: Hero creation is a very involved, multi-month process that relies heavily on iteration tied to ideas and feedback from many people across our team, and even across Blizzard. It all starts with paper design, where a Hero Designer comes up with a written pitch for the hero, its playstyle, and its kit. After several rounds of feedback and refinement, that paper design gets approved for prototyping. Our tools allow our Tech Designers to stand up a first playable version of the hero with placeholder art, sounds, and effects very quickly and an exhaustive process of playtesting and iteration begins amongst our design team. This process can span several weeks, with constant reaction to feedback every step of the way.  Once the design team is feeling good about a hero’s progress, it graduates to team playtesting. These tests take place several times per week and several hundred of our team members and support personnel are invited to participate and provide feedback to help further refine the hero’s design.  Another multi-week reaction cycle begins based on that ongoing feedback, and only after successfully making it through the team playtesting phase does a hero graduate to full production where we unleash the full power of the development team on its finalization.  During production, our art, user interface, writing, sound, localization, and quality assurance teams begin their respective processes creating, refining, and testing the version of the hero you’ll eventually play in the game. Throughout the hero’s journey, each developer bolsters their part of its creation with a ton of polish and love, and that really shows in the final product. D: Can you give us an idea of potential heroes or kits you've been working on for future patches? K: Sure, up next is…wait a sec…nice try!  I can confirm that we’re spending some time with Diablo heroes for the Eternal Conflict before returning to heroes from other game worlds. Beyond that, all I can say is that anything’s possible – any hero from any Blizzard game, ever!  D: As a follow-up, are you concerned that certain franchises like Warcraft may be overrepresented? K: We currently have a disproportionate number of Warcraft heroes, but more than anything that is a function of the abundance of incredible Warcraft heroes to pull from when we started out. Our goal moving forward is to bring in excellent heroes from all of our games – past, present, and future. We value variety tremendously in this game and are trying to provide players with a dynamic experience where they have choices to make which give them the ability to directly impact that experience. This starts with selecting the hero they want to play and continues with choices in skins, mounts, team compositions, battleground strategies, and talent builds. Be on the lookout for an ever-increasing number of non-Warcraft heroes coming into the game with our Eternal Conflict event starting later this month! D: What is one hero from the Blizzard universe that will absolutely not fit in Heroes of the Storm? K: So far, this hasn’t been an issue. We have the freedom to bring any character we want into the game and enough flexibility in our game mechanics and design to re-interpret each one in a way that captures their essence while tailoring their gameplay for the best possible experience in Heroes. It’s an amazing space to play around in and we’re really enjoying this limitless potential. D: Finally, what is your favorite current hero? K: I love Kerrigan and have played her extensively since the first day of our Development Alpha. Her combo-driven, melee assassin kit brings out the overcommitting lunatic in me and I play her much more aggressively than perhaps any other hero in the game – for better or for worse. She’s incredibly powerful early game and can scale really nicely into late game, especially when paired up with another hero to complement her kit (Tassadar is one of my favorite partners). Beyond her gameplay, I have a personal connection to the character dating back to my passion for the original StarCraft and leading through my 8+ year investment in producing StarCraft II. And I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but my daughter is even named Kerrigan! While Kerrigan is my all-time favorite, I’ve been maining Nazeebo lately and have him on the cusp of hitting Level 20.  I relish the perfect Zombie Wall and am thrilled pulling off the well-timed Ravenous Spirit to clean up a team fight from afar after all of the enemy interrupts have been blown. Ayyyeeeee!!!
Heroes of the Storm photo
A Q&A with the game's lead producer
Heroes of the Storm has been out for almost a month now after a lengthy set of alpha and beta sessions, and I'm still enjoying it as much as I did at launch. Blizzard has vowed to constantly support and update the game w...

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