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Review: Transformers Devastation

Oct 06 // Chris Carter
Transformers Devastation (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developers: Platinum GamesPublisher: ActivisionReleased: October 6, 2015 MSRP: $49.99 So let's get right into the thick of it -- the action. As you'd expect from Platinum Games, Devastation has a sound bedrock, with a combination of ranged and close-combat maneuvers. Basic abilities include trigger-based aiming, a combo system with light and heavy attacks, a super button, and of course, the power to transformer at will into various vehicles. Combos can even involve transformations on the fly (signified by a blue light with a short window), a slam move can be initiated by transforming mid-air, ranged attacks are capable of headshots, and attacking at top speed breaks enemy shields. As you can see, there's a lot of advanced mechanics at work here. The most technical of all abilities includes the addition of Witch Time (frame-perfect dodging that slows time), a concept taken wholesale from Platinum's own Bayonetta, which I'm totally okay with. Everything feels incredibly smooth. The combos available are just enough to keep action veterans interested without overwhelming newer players. With three difficulty levels to choose from (appropriately balanced, mind -- with three at the start, and two more later), there's something for everyone. Other small touches like NPCs frequently fighting alongside of the player character, 2D sections, and vehicular-based chases or race segments help break up the combat a bit. There's a light amount of exploration involved within Devastation's mission-based structure, similar to most of Platinum's previous work. It's mostly linear, but at various points spokes of that linear wheel will break off, allowing for some form of deviation. That includes conspicuous gates that lead to new chests, or short twitch-based puzzles that provide a reward at the end. I actually really dig this flow, as you can skip a lot of combat sequences if you wish -- just note that many zones will wall off areas until you defeat all the foes within, so you can't just rush through the whole game. [embed]314115:60629:0[/embed] Much to my surprise, all of the playable characters have different styles. Grimlock is more of a grappler, Bumblebee is quicker and doesn't pack a punch, Sideswipe has access to a quicker dash, and so on. They're not wildly different to the point where you'll have to relearn every single facet of the game, but they're nuanced enough that there's actually a reason to pick different Autobots. Devastation also sports an appropriate Saturday morning cartoon narrative that would fit nicely into an afternoon special block. The voices are either spot-on replications (including the campy Teletraan-1), or actual members of the original cast. The gist is that Megatron is yet again after another massive power source, and it's up to the Autobots to save the day -- so don't expect anything new here -- but again, the nonstop action helps propel players from start to finish. There are a few shortcomings, though. For starters, the game is priced at $50, and feels somewhere in-between a full retail release and a downloadable game. There's a lot to sift through here, but I could have gone for more characters, secrets, and unlockable modes (a challenge mode is basically it). Additionally, the RPG systems in place feel like a half-measure, particularly the loot system. While the equippable upgrade chips are a nice touch (and are coupled with a fun little crafting mini-game), managing loot is a nightmare. Throughout each mission, you'll likely acquire something in the neighborhood of 10 weapons, most of which are garbage or only marginally better than what you're using. To really take advantage of these duds, you'll have to synthesize them into better parts, but it's far too much of a chore to do that constantly when you can just forge ahead to more action. The loot system should have been scrapped entirely or pared down far more than its current incarnation. While not a deal-breaker, it could have been handled a lot better. I'm not even sure if there are G1 fans out there anymore. It shouldn't be a deciding factor when picking up Transformers: Devastation though, as it's a great action romp by any right. Just be ready to deal with a few nitpicky issues.
Transformers review photo
None shall fall
I've been a fan of Transformers since I was old enough to understand what television was. The bright colors and toy lines drew me in, but I've been a fan ever since. It's not merely nostalgia that fuels that fire -- it's...

Review: Rock Band 4

Oct 05 // Chris Carter
Rock Band 4 (PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: HarmonixPublisher: Harmonix (with distribution by Mad Catz)Released: October 6, 2015MSRP: $59.99 (game), $129.99 (guitar bundle), $249.99 (Band-in-a-Box) So let's get right into it. The setlist (seen here) is going to be a point of contention for many. Point blank, I'm not really a fan of most of it, for multiple reasons. Firstly, U2 (the Guy Fieri of music) was added last-minute, and features not one but two songs featured in career mode. This completely obliterated the "random" feature for one of the groups I played with, as they hilariously refused to play U2 on the principle that they "might" come up. Then you have the issue of era disparity due to a disjointed design. Often times you'll find similar types of music grouped together, but generally speaking, Rock Band 4 is all over the place. For instance, there's one Elvis song ("Suspicious Minds," which I really dig), but then, there's nothing else even close to that age or style of music. You also have the issue of showcasing a heavy helping of B-hits from major artists, like "Kick it Out" from Heart or "Prayer" from Disturbed. Of course, music is subjective, but my major issue is the lack of any real epic rock tracks (and I don't mean "epic" in the bad meme sense) on offer here, which every rhythm game tends to provide. I mean, "That Smell" from Lynyrd Skynyrd? You can't help but feel like the rights to a lot of big-ticket songs weren't on the table, some of which instead went to Activision's Guitar Hero Live. But I think this weaker setlist is kind of what Harmonix is going for. They're banking on the fact that you already own a ton of DLC, or are willing to shell out for it. That's going to be a point of contention for many people, who may have started out in the Rock Band ecosystem on Xbox, but like most of this generation, have since switched to PS4 exclusively. I'm kind of torn on where I stand personally, because while I do see Rock Band as a "platform," I wish the included setlist were as strong as it has been in the past. Just to clarify with Harmonix as of this week, I double-checked on the DLC roadmap beyond the singles in the store now (of which there are hundreds of piecemeal tracks). Track packs (read: those discs of songs you bought) are being worked on currently, and aren't up for launch. Additionally, title exports (Rock Band 1 and 2 songs mostly) are not available yet, and have no time frame at the moment. Finally, Harmonix is "looking into" exporting Rock Band 3 but nothing is finalized. None of this affects this review as it's all theoretical, but it's good to know. As disappointed as I am with the base setlist, the game, as always, is sound. The common theme here with Rock Band 4 is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is great for those of you who just want a current-gen Rock Band, and bad if you wanted something revolutionary. While the voting system (which allows players to select tracks, or vague categories such as eras and genres in a democratic fashion) is very cool, the career mode, despite promises of a major shakeup with the choice system, is largely the same. [embed]312826:60607:0[/embed] While there are choices such as picking between selling out and making more money in the short term or going on the road and garnering more long-term fans, they all feel very gamey in the end ("do you want fans or money?"). I really like the little story blurbs that pop up along the way that provide updates for the narrative such as "your van that you bought for next to nothing lost a door," but they really are more fluff than substance. Plus, the concept of playing tons of gigs with set songs (and some open-ended lists) for cash to buy new accessories never appealed to me -- when combined with the so-so story and the fact that every song is unlocked from the get-go, it doesn't feel like a gametype worth the effort. As a result, most of my time was spent with the quick tour and freeplay modes, which are still a lot of fun with a group. It's as simple as syncing the instruments (which is incredibly easy to do now) and pressing start, then you're ready to rock. The aforementioned voting system is a ton of fun, as it accepts every band member's choices, then triggers a slot machine-like animation that randomly picks one. It's fair, and it's a nice break from manually choosing songs. In terms of the adjustments to the instruments themselves, I also have mixed feelings. Everything has been marginally upgraded (both physically and in-game), but I'm still reeling from the complete lack of keyboard and Pro Guitar support. Harmonix certainly has a strong argument in that most players simply did not use these features last time around, but I can't help but feel like Rock Band 4 has been downgraded as a result. While I never really preferred the Rock Band style guitars (X-plorer for life), the build is noticeably more sturdy, which also applies for the new drum kit and microphone. The new gameplay feature with the guitar is the addition of freestyle sections, which no longer bound players to the rigors of tough solo portions. For casual players, this change is pretty great, and allows anyone to rock out in a fashion that more accurately portrays the spirit of the franchise. In essence, during your solo spots, you'll see new markers for blue and orange freestyle notations in the track. You'll simply strum to the beat, with the blue portion notating the top frets and the orange noting the bottom, and that's basically it. Sometimes you'll have to strum once and hold, for others, you'll have to shift rapidly to different frets. You won't lose any momentum here if you screw up, and every fret will cue a different sound, so you can come up with your own concoctions. The best part is this is wholly optional, so if you want to shred "Through the Fire and Flames" on expert, you can. Also, every song supports a full-time freestyle solo through a separate menu option. The drums have remained mostly the same, outside of Dynamic Drum Fills, and, as an exception to the lack of Pro instruments, Pro Drums (if you buy the Mad Catz Rock Band 4 Cymbal Expansion Kit of course). The former feature allows you to deploy Overdrive (Star Power) during pre-determined sections -- it's a minor change, and fortunately, like most of the new stuff, you can also turn this off. If you rock the mic, you'll have a few other marginal improvements as well. Now there's Freestyle Vocals, which allows people to improvise a bit. As long as you still sing on key, you'll be able to score points. It makes things a little more fun for singers as they don't have to follow as rigid of a pattern. Again, every instrument has been improved on paper, but not in a way that completely eclipses a lot of the advancements made with the last iteration. The physical element of bringing over instruments is also a bit strained, partially outside of Harmonix's purview. Firstly, you'll have to follow their compatibility chart here to see if your device will even work with the new game. Additionally, due to the shift in technology from the 360 to the Xbox One, you'll need a $20 adapter to even use your old instruments that do work. When you add in that nothing works cross-console family, things get even more tricky, as it'll cost you $250 to grab a new guitar, drum kit, and a mic -- and if you want to get a second guitar, it gets even pricier.  Rock Band 4 is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, it's not only a hassle to switch generations due to the fact that so many elements don't work with the new one, but additionally -- Rock Band 3 is still a thing, supports all of your DLC, and has more features. On the other, there's nothing inherently wrong with this iteration, and for those of you who missed out in the past or have broken 360s or PS3s, you'll still be able to rock out into the night with friends and have a whole lot of fun. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Band-in-a-Box bundle with a guitar, drum kit, and mic was assessed for this review. DLC or pre-order content of any kind was not provided, and was purchased by the reviewer.]
Rock Band 4 photo
Back in plastic
[Disclosure: Nick Chester, who is currently employed at Harmonix, previously worked at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the preview. I personally didn't work with Chester ...

Review: LEGO Dimensions

Oct 01 // Chris Carter
LEGO Dimensions (PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Traveller's TalesPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentReleased: September 27, 2015MSRP: $99.99 (Starter Pack), $29.99 (Level Pack), $14.99 (Fun Pack) Yet again, I'll explain how the toys are factored in, especially since LEGO Dimensions in particular can get confusing. For $99.99 you'll get the Starter Pack (reviewed here), which consists of the core game, three physical characters (Gandalf, Batman, and Wyldstyle), a physical Batmobile, and real life LEGOs to build the portal (called a Toy Pad). There are two major things to factor in here -- it's pricier than most toys-to-life games by at least $20, augmented by the fact that you're actually getting an actual miniature LEGO set. Straight-up, a lot of your enjoyment for LEGO Dimensions hinges on how much you enjoy playing with LEGOs as a whole. For example, to build the base, my wife and I spent roughly an hour. If you have a kid who plays with toys on a regular basis, this is a no-brainer -- for everyone else, that prospect may seem like too much of a task, and you're basically paying the premium for that. On the other end you have two additional purchasing options, Level Packs and Fun Packs, which are essentially DLC. The former unlocks a hub for $29.99 and comes with a character and two objects, and the latter unlocks a mission and one object. Oh, and then there's the Team Packs for $24.99, with two characters and two objects. Confused yet? Yeah it's all a bit much, and if you weren't averse to toys-to-life before, you probably will be now. But for everyone else, here's the rub -- you can play the entire story with just the Starter Kit, and for each franchise you buy a toy for, you'll unlock additional worlds. So for Portal, the only way to gain access to that DLC set is through a sole Level Pack, but some franchises (like Ghostbusters and The Simpsons) may have multiple Level or Fun Packs. No one ever said LEGOs or figure-based games was a cheap hobby, and now they've been Frankensteined together. [embed]313069:60565:0[/embed] But despite all that, LEGO Dimensions is one of the more interesting Traveller's Tales titles in years. As it turns out mixing up all of these properties involves some hilarious results, mostly thanks to the wit of the writing staff. Of particular note is Homer Simpson's breaking of the fourth wall to comment on cross-branding, and Batman's interactions with various characters like the Wicked Witch of the West. It surpasses the "that's so random!" realm of comedy and succeeds in melding all 14 (!) IPs together. The campaign's story is dead simple -- an evil entity wants to rule all worlds -- but the journey is where it excels. Due to the nature of the three starter characters you'll mostly play through the three hub worlds (Lord of the Rings, DC Universe, and the LEGO Movie), but you'll also cross paths with other worlds briefly, like the aforementioned Oz, Springfield, and Scooby Doo's realm. It's refreshing, and you never linger in one zone for too long. With this setup, it's far more fun than most of the other LEGO games, which tend to overstay their welcome over time with just one theme. LEGO Dimensions' use of the physical toys and portal is also a step ahead of its competition. For one, you can place up to six characters (most only allow two), one vehicle, and other objects all at once. Another cool mechanic involves the placement of the toys themselves during boss fights. Some encounters will actually force you to move your figures on the physical base to avoid attacks -- that's some serious Metal Gear Psycho Mantis-like stuff right there. Traveller's Tales succeeds in mixing up that type of gameplay all throughout the experience, and I never felt like I was missing out with just the Starter Kit. However, I couldn't help but feel like it was still an above average $60 LEGO game with $40 of additional baggage. Again, you're getting real LEGO blocks here, but I would have preferred a smaller premium to get them. Also, WB has planned out DLC and content packs all the way through May 2016, which leaves them plenty of room to develop another potential sequel next year. I'm sort of torn in LEGO Dimensions. It's one of the most expensive propositions in all of gaming right now, but the gameplay is there and the Starter Pack stands on its own. While the campaign can be a bit uneven at times, the always reliable LEGO charm and the innovation of the physical aspect of Dimensions allows it to excel. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Only the Starter Pack was provided.]
LEGO Dimensions photo
An expensive, but fun hobby
As I've talked about in the past, I'm usually the go-to person for the toys-to-life genre. I'm a kid at heart, and occasionally, I can enjoy a silly kids movie for the fun of it. No series has encapsulated that silliness more...

Review: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5

Sep 29 // Chris Carter
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: RobomodoPublisher: ActivisionReleased: September 29, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One) / November 10, 2015 (PS3, Xbox 360)MSRP: $59.99 (!) So let's get right into it. Just as before, you'll have the option to ollie, grind, manual, and revert your way into lengthy combos, with the added power of the "slam" mechanic. This new move will allow you to drop quickly to the ground straight into a grind. It's really gamey, but kind of cool once you actually get used to it. Personally, I tend to hold the button quite a bit to pre-load my grinds, so it was jarring at first. Everything else is still here, like spine transfers, plants, and special tricks. In the end though, it seems as if Robomodo can't be trusted to make a glitch-free game. I really liked Tony Hawk HD, but man was it a glitch-fest, filled with wonky physics and collision issues. It's the same thing in Tony Hawk 5, but worse to an extent. Revert timing and the like feels on-point, but it's mostly the objects and solid areas, some of which aren't filled in properly, that cause issues. Additionally, missions lag when they start up for a few seconds, sometimes rendering the level in real-time. There are some online issues at launch, namely causing players to stand still for periods of time or disappear entirely. That's not to say the game is fundamentally broken however, as these problems usually come up every 10 minutes or so on certain surfaces. The frame rate dips a bit on some levels, but for the most part, it is playable. It just needs a lot more polish. [embed]312863:60562:0[/embed] Career mode is par for the course, bringing you through a handful of levels with mission-based objectives, on top of the typical "find the DVD/VHS tape" and "S-K-A-T-E letters" challenges. The series has been mission-centric for a long while now (ever since THPS 4), but I've never really been a fan. I like how the first three games were literally free skate levels that just happened to have objectives in them. The unlock method is also rigid in Tony Hawk 5 -- earning stars for new levels isn't cumulative, as you'll need to earn 15 in each preceding level to unlock the new one. I do like the levels as a general rule, but they feel so middle-of-the-road, and I probably won't remember them as fondly as I remember a lot of the classic stages. With all that said, the core gameplay is there. I like how you need to beat every mission in a stage on the highest "Sick" rating to unlock new Pro challenges, and despite it working against you at times, it will test your skills as a digital skater, regardless of whether or not you're a seasoned veteran. Good lines for fun combo strings are still present, and every level will have you thinking of new ways to combo, like a puzzle. Additionally, the online portion of the game (which basically transforms levels into inoffensive social hubs) doesn't hurt anything, and you can still play the entire game solo if you want. Speaking of online play, it's also available in the form of side modes, but they're a pain to set up, and don't involve split-screen couch co-op. You can queue a round for quick match, trick attack, deathmatch, combo mambo (single combos win out over total score), big head (you have to do tricks to refresh your life bar), and king of the hill. It's a diversion for sure, and one you can skip out on entirely. In the meantime, I'm having trouble connecting to games and getting people in, possibly because versus modes are hidden in the in-game menu. The create-a-park mode is also back, and even though there are only five themes, the entire affair isn't as limited as it was in past titles. This is mostly because the Complexity Meter is a bit more lenient, allowing for players to place hundreds of different objects in a single arena before it caps out. There's sadly no "create-a-skater" option, but you can customize the pros available, and change their costumes to some sufficiently wacky outfits (like cops and robots). On a higher note, the soundtrack is actually pretty good, and although it doesn't have an iconic song like "Superman," it gets the job done and feels authentic. I didn't outright hate Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, as it distills a lot of the franchise's good points into an arcadey modern format. There are flashes of brilliance, but much of that is piggybacking off of the foundation its predecessors have already created. Considering that Activision signed a deal with Tony Hawk for more games a while back that's set to expire soon, I sincerely hope change is on the horizon if more titles are in the cards. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tony Hawk 5 review photo
This franchise needs a new developer
I grew up with the Tony Hawk franchise -- at least, Neversoft's vision of it. Game after game, even some of the more questionable ones, held my interest until Proving Ground led the series astray. But in 2007, ...

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...

Review: Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma Volume 1

Sep 29 // Chris Carter
Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma Volume 1 (PC, PS4 [reviewed])Developers: Redacted StudiosPublisher: Versus EvilReleased: September 22, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 (standard), $34.99 (trilogy bundle), $54.99 (ultimate pack) To give you a bit of background, this series does not feature the titular Afro Samurai (though he is around somewhat) -- instead, it focuses on Kuma, who as no surprise wears a giant bear head. Billed as a "brave warrior who once protected the great temple," he was betrayed by Afro, and now walks the Earth in search of revenge. You'll learn a bit more about how Kuma died during the course of this first volume, which is a continuation of the original game. The entire time during my play session, I was basically asking myself why this had to exist. There are elements of the Afro Samurai franchise I like, but forcing people to play through this new, quite frankly terrible series to delve into it is almost insulting. Why not just produce an OVA or even a web short? Much of the game consists of beyond campy voice acting, like anyone was invited into the studio for recording sessions, and simple art stills that fail to effectively tell any sort of cohesive narrative. There's also a really weird (but mostly good) RZA score that is peppered throughout Afro Samurai 2 that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the game. It just feels like this shouldn't have even gone to the developmental stages as a video game. The lack of quality control is most apparent with the sound editing, which is so bad you'll hear loud beats during key story sequences that drown out entire bits of dialogue. Major issues even pile up beyond that, as I noticed multiple sequences where the narrative audio was cut out prematurely, and the game has constant framerate issues both in and out of combat, leading to an overall shaky experience. One time I even entered a tutorial, came back out, and subsequently fell off a cliff, forcing me to restart the chapter. [embed]312865:60543:0[/embed] I thought the non-playable bits were bad, but I wasn't quite ready for everything else. There are some really weird "interactive" cutscenes that mostly consist of your character crawling on the ground during some dramatic event and picking up items or looking for some obscure object. If these were meant to instill some sort of emotional effect, they utterly failed, partially due to the wonky physics and broken game engine. The action sequences are also horrid, partially due to the aforementioned framerate issues, but also because of the fact that it doesn't even feel like a budget game that would be welcome on the original PlayStation. Kuma has access to counters, attacks, jumps, and a typical rage (Devil Trigger) ability, as well as the power to switch styles. It's all painfully slow, and to add insult to injury, many of the animations don't even connect. You're basically just going to mash attack and counter occasionally with very little nuance involved. The camera is also a huge problem, as it's fixed and it constantly flips out in a seizure-worthy fashion. What's particularly troubling about the way the camera works is when you're traversing stages, you often can't see what's ahead of you, leading to some lame pitfall deaths or ambushes. It's not like the game is hard by any means as it's essentially a button-masher, but it's constantly working against you at all turns through technical faults. This lurid affair will last roughly two hours, which is the standard for episodic games. Yet, the fact that you have to suffer through this begs the question entirely -- "why was this episodic at all?" Were they going to lose the license or something? I usually hold off on telling people not to get an episodic game until more of it is available, but even after playing the first volume of Afro Samurai 2, I can say with authority, "do not get this."
Afro Samurai 2 review photo
Digital seppuku
In the words of Samuel L. Jackson, "what kind of fucked up repugnant shit is this?" It's Afro Samurai 2.

Review: Skylanders: SuperChargers

Sep 28 // Chris Carter
Skylanders SuperChargers (3DS, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: Vicarious VisionsPublisher: ActivisionReleased: September 20, 2015MSRP: $74.99 (Starter pack, two characters, vehicle, base, game) To be frank, I was worried about the state of Skylanders after Trap Team. I mean, sure, it was a great action game and still had its charms, but I was starting to think that Activision had been scraping the bottom of the barrel with its newest gimmick. With the vehicular-based focus however, Vicarious Visions has turned the formula on its head again, going back to basics with old-school, sensible tendencies. The focus here is vehicles, and not just cars. Land, sea, and air-based transportation is at the crux of the experience, with the Starter Pack providing the former. To be clear, there are elemental gates for ancillary content (forcing players to use certain toys to access some areas), but the fact that the entire core game can be completed with one land vehicle, and the vast majority of sidequests are accessible with just one sea and air toy respectively is a massive step up from past titles. Yes, you will have to spend a bit of extra cash to get everything, but I was completely satisfied with the main campaign on its own terms. Speaking of the toys themselves, they're still at the top of their game. All of the vehicles sport moving parts, and take me back to my Micro Machines days, racing cars across a table with glee. There are fewer new characters this time around in favor of the vehicles, which is fine in my book, as they're much easier to wrap your head around with three distinct varieties. Just like before, two players can play together on the same console with two different Skylanders -- here, a vehicle can be added to the mix with the new portal. Yes, that's one vehicle. While I initially thought it was a limitation, it actually feels like a more deliberate design choice, as sharing a ride is much more fun as a co-op experience. [embed]312286:60536:0[/embed] One person drives, and the other shoots -- it's that simple. With the touch of a button you can switch roles, should someone else want to take the driver's seat. Movement is intuitive, as the driver is only focusing on traversal, and the shooting bits cleverly make use of a reticle to avoid the need for the driver to always be in sync with their partner. In short, it allows everyone a ton of freedom, but it isn't too overwhelming of a prospect to hop from car to car. The story this time around doesn't require any prior knowledge of the series, which simultaneously works in its favor and hurts the setup. Once again, Kaos (who is still charming as "Not Invader Zim," but is getting a bit old at this point) reigns supreme, it's just that this time he's taken the noble Eon captive, leaving your ragtag team of Patrick Warburton and company to save the day. It's a plot that belongs in a Saturday morning cartoon, but the sleek visuals and upbeat performances sell it well enough. During the 10-hour campaign, you'll find plenty of variety when it comes to mission types, enemy patterns, themes, and gameplay. One moment you might be diving underwater in an obstacle course of sorts with a submarine, and the next, you're up in the air dogfighting, Star Fox style (yes, you can barrel roll). The pacing is excellent, and boss fights are seen in a whole new light as vehicular confrontations. But this time you'll have Mario Kart-esque races as a distraction as well, which are easily the best pieces of side content yet for the series. The entire affair feels thoroughly integrated into the game itself, without feeling like a tacked-on "me too" mode. One race for instance features a level populated by two giant dragons, who constantly are visible throughout the track, and occasionally pop out to cause havoc for the participants. Each level feels like it was given a sufficient amount of love, to the point where I'd put many of them on par with classics like Diddy Kong Racing and some of the best Mario Kart games. That's not to say that it completely measures up to its contemporaries. The item system feels limited, and the combat system in general (all cars can use their standard attacks during races) is disjointed, as some elements from the campaign don't quite work in this gametype. Plus, you'll need to buy a certain number of toys to access every track. No, it's not perfect, but again, as a side mode, it does its job and then some. Online play for the campaign and racing modes also don't hurt its case, on top of the revamped Triple Triad-like Skystones mini-game. I'm utterly surprised that Activision hasn't run this franchise into the ground yet. Skylanders: SuperChargers reinvigorates my interest in the series, and I'd go so far as to say that I wouldn't mind a full-on SuperChargers racing spin-off in the same vein as a proper Mario Kart game (note that the Wii and 3DS editions are racing games, essentially). After all, a little competition never hurt anyone -- maybe they can put that Crash Bandicoot license to good use. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The Starter Pack and a few additional toys were provided as well.]
Skylanders review photo
Back to business
Year after year, I can generally count on the Skylanders games. I had zero hope for Spyro's return back in 2011, but every single iteration has been a competent brawler. While Activision can be accused of running franchi...

Review: Destiny: The Taken King

Sep 25 // Chris Carter
Destiny: The Taken King (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: BungiePublisher: Activision Released: September 15, 2015MSRP: $39.99 (digital) / $59.99 (physical) Lets start with the multitude of changes Bungie has made to this husk of a game since launch. It took a full year, but now, the vault is finally sufficient for storing a realistic amount of items. The Gunsmith, once a pointless relic a week after launch, now actually does something meaningful, and has his own questlines in tow. Ghost shells and class items have defense ratings, you can recreate and upgrade Exotics at will, class quests have been implemented to help players acclimate, and armor materials have been streamlined. This is in addition to a ton of quality of life updates the game has accrued this past year like alternative methods of gathering reagents. It's finally starting to take shape. Other major shifts include Nolan North completely taking over for Dinklebot as your companion, who has been completely and utterly erased from existence due to the online-only nature of the game. Ghost now sounds a little more enthusiastic, and presumably will have more actual voicework going forward for future DLCs -- great decision, Bungie, as Dinklage's previous DLC work felt like archived, pasted voices. Another big addition is the quest log, which, while barebones, actually provides players with some vague idea of what to do and where to go when choosing missions, which is leaps and bounds better than the nonexistent system before. Nightfalls, the ultimate weekly activity outside of the raid, are now less tedious, as they don't instantly boot you to orbit anymore upon death, all but ensuring that players won't camp out in the same cheese (exploit) spot for fear of having to restart 30 or more minutes of progress. Likewise, Weekly Heroics are now thankfully removed and integrated into a playlist with better rewards, and the daily heroic only needs to be completed by one character for account-wide rewards. Finally, all of the PlayStation exclusive Year One content is now available for Xbox platforms. Every single one of these aforementioned changes is positive, though this is how Destiny should have been at launch. But even still, Bungie has proven it can't write a story for beans. The narrative this time around is that a new big bad, Oryx, the father of Crota (who you killed in the first DLC), has entered the picture. It's everyone versus him basically, and that's pretty much all you need to know from start to finish. While it has all the makings of a basic moustache-twirling villain plot, it's actually coherent this time around, which is a massive step up from the awful story of the original. It's a step in the right direction, but coherency doesn't automatically translate into quality -- it's still pretty bad. [embed]312285:60513:0[/embed] It's just that this time, Bungie decided to put Nathan Fillion's character Cayde-6 at the forefront, where he has plenty of time to do Fillion-type things and crack wise at every turn. Your mileage may vary in terms of how much you enjoy the Mal Reynolds character that Firefly fans (and Fillion himself) have been clinging to all these years, but suffice to say I'm kind of tired of the shtick. Not to mention the fact that it's a bit odd that Cayde, who practically said nothing during Year One, is suddenly chatty. Also, all of the meaningful lore still isn't accessible in-game, instead forcing players to go online to to access the Grimoire system. After a full year this is utterly indefensible. So how is the actual content that you're paying at least $40 for? Well, somewhere in-between a DLC and another full game's worth. You're getting roughly nine (short) story missions, four Strikes (three for Xbox), a raid, three new subclasses, seven PVP maps, a small number of sidequests (including an arena diversion called the Court of Oryx), and new pieces of gear. Once again though, the story bits are rather disappointing, mostly consisting of missions you can breeze through in 10 minutes or so. That isn't to say that they aren't fun, but most players are likely going to conquer the entire story in a casual afternoon, which isn't the greatest feeling if you already spent $60 to $90 on the previous versions of the game on top of the Taken King. Oh, and roughly half of the areas are re-used, too. Alternatively, the third subclass quests for each class are actually pretty fun and inventive, even if they also only last 10 minutes or so, and take place in the same areas as the campaign (or borrow existing locations from PVP). It also helps that since every class can now control all three elements, dungeons and raids are that much more fun with so many different combinations of loadouts. The saving grace however is the Dreadnaught, an entirely new location to be patrolled, with its own set of missions and Strikes. Billed as Oryx's home base, this Hive ship is actually pretty cool looking, and is the first actually new exploration hub (the tiny Reef was pretty pathetic) Bungie has implemented since the launch of the game. Why the previous DLCs didn't have something like this is beyond me. The gimmick this time around is the "Taken," enemy type, which are basically souped-up denizens of Oryx. He restructures their bodies to serve him, and as a result, have this shadowy sort of glow going on. They're cool on paper, but once you realize that the Taken are literally just reskinned existing enemies, they lose their luster quite a bit. In my mind, they basically sum up Destiny's constant need to re-use existing content rather than actually provide something new. The Strikes however, like the attempt at a story, are another step in the right direction. Bungie has overhauled them so they're a bit more streamlined, and provide players with more to do than just shoot regular enemies before they face a giant bullet sponge boss. For instance, one tasks party members with grabbing a ball as a key of sorts, and running through the level with it to unlock various doors. Shield Brothers features a fun fight with two bosses, and Sunless Cell hosts a final boss encounter in complete darkness. When you add in the fact that the new Strike playlists actually give good rewards, they're suddenly much more fun to play. Additionally, the raid, King's Fall, is par for the course. Raids are easily my favorite aspect of the experience, and give us a quick one hour glimpse each week into the game that Destiny could be. The boss fights here are fast, fun, and puzzling, and I had a blast trying to figure it out with my group. Once again though many players won't even see this raid, as it still requires them to manually find a group and meet the entry requirements. Finally, PVP is getting seven new maps (eight on PSN), as well as a few modes. My personal favorite is The Drifter, which is an abandoned ship in The Reef, sporting a really cool atmosphere and design. PVP is a bit more robust now in general, with three new modes in tow. Mayhem is a hyper-ability based mode, Rift is like a capture the flag/basketball hybrid, and Zone Control is basically what the original PVP mode should have been -- where only capturing objectives, not kills, obtain points for your team. This is very close to the same competent but flawed shooter you played last year. Brand new players should probably jump on this opportunity to try the game out with the "Legendary Edition," which provides the base game, both DLCs, and the Taken King expansion, but anyone who hated Year One will only find the improvements to be incremental at best. Slowly but surely, Bungie is morphing this chimera of a game into something more presentable. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Destiny DLC review photo
The beta period is over
Year One Destiny players got taken for a ride. It's very clear that Bungie shipped an unfinished game, riddled with questionable design decisions, a bare-bones story, and a distinct lack of content. Hell, the developer w...

Review: Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance

Sep 22 // Chris Carter
Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance (PS4)Developer: NIS Publisher: NIS Released: October 6, 2015MSRP: $59.99 This time around, Void Dark, an evil overlord, sparks the largest Netherworld war in history. As a result of essentially alienating the entire galaxy, a heap of rival overlords rise up in revolt, one of which is led by the stoic warrior Killia. Because of the focus on global (or universal) conflict, the narrative feels more sprawling in Alliance of Vengeance, which works both for and against it. This is more of a gradual story, building up over time, than the small-group feel of most of the series. Hell, in Disgaea 3, the main character wants to kill his dad for smashing his video games. As a result, the characters aren't quite as crazy or manic as Laharl and Mao -- they have bigger things at stake. Killia's silent archetype does get old after a while, but his style actually works from a gameplay perspective, so I never felt fully disconnected from him. Seraphina, the Princess Overlord of the Gorgeous, is a bit more annoying. She has that "hohohoho!" laugh that's popular in anime, and her jokes of dominating everyone around her get old very quickly. But like all Disgaea characters, she opens up over time and reveals more depth, particularly with her backstory. She also fills in for Etna in-between chapters, delivering the comedic interludes that are clearly too absurd to be canon. There are plenty of side-conversations to have, and an archive function in the game's hub world allows players to re-watch cutscenes or dialog bits. Ailliance of Vengeance's weakest point is probably the narrative this time around. Particularly for the first 10 hours or so, the pace is relatively slow. You know nothing of the true motivations of most of the cast, and the main draw seems to be "fight, fight, fight until we get to Void Dark." You'll get a few flashes of story here and there, but for the most part it's one-dimensional, at least for the first half. [embed]309993:60317:0[/embed] As for the rest of the cast, it's about par for the course -- you have your meathead, your subservient Prinnies, your overconfident youngsters, and so on. There wasn't anyone I outright loved like Almaz or Mr. Champloo from Disgaea 3, but no one is excessively annoying or not worth using during missions. I've always felt like Disgaea is what you make it, party-wise. Since the class creation system is more robust than ever, you can literally custom-tailor your own characters if you don't like the core cast. It helps that the animations are beautiful, as is the artwork. It's not going to push the PS4 even close to its limits, but it's far better looking than the last entries on PS3, and it's crazy how gorgeous anime-style games look on current consoles. It's all so smooth, colorful, and well-crafted. Even characters that belong to the same class look different enough, especially when they wield a variety of weapons, which yield their own sets of personality. Disgaea 5 kicks off in record time, as you're placed into the main hub in minutes. Like every other game in the series, you'll launch missions from here, equip your party, and shoot the breeze with various NPCs. The tools available are a bit more expansive than other games, most notably the crazy character creation mechanic I mentioned above. In addition to a name and color scheme, you'll also be able to hire them at your current level, alter their personality, and change every single one of their skills if you wish. For instance, you could create a fury-crazed warrior with a red hue named Immortan Joe, debuff his ranged attacks, and reapply those points into close-combat, high-risk abilities. As usual, the "all at once" player turns in combat work splendidly. If you've never played a Disgaea game before, your entire team gets to do their turn, and then the enemy team does theirs. It's an interesting juxtaposition to the alternating scheme used in most SRPGs, and it's even more nuanced when you take into account the "execute" function that lets you play out part of your turn in the order that you selected. This is on top of the crazy counter-attacks that will play out randomly (as well as counter-counters and counter-counter-counters), and team-up attacks that initiate when you're near a party member on the grid. You also need to watch for enemy "Evilties" this time, which may produce effects like making foes stronger next to other baddies, and so on. Likewise, your team has their own set of Evilties, like Seraphina's ability to do more damage to males. Combined with the Geo system (colored zones that also provide buffs or debuffs), you'll have to pay attention at all times to get the most out of a battle. Eventually, you'll unlock the power to place characters in "Support Squads," granting them special bonuses with the caveat that each squad is limited in number. Oh, and there's the Revenge system that powers up characters after the death of a connected party member, the Item World and council system return, and new classes like Dark Knights (one of my new favorites), Maids (an item-based class), and Fairies (who absorb magic) join the fray. Thankfully, there are a lot of game options to customize the experience as well, including jacking up the movement speed during hub sequences, upping combat speed, skipping animations, and auto-scrolling conversations, which are mostly fully-voiced. While I don't have access to it yet and it didn't influence this review, Alliance of Vengeance still has the contentious DLC strategy as past titles. I feel like the series has enough content to last you at least 100 hours on its own, but I still don't like the idea of selling fan-favorite characters piecemeal directly after launch. Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance may not have the best story or cast in the series, but it gets the job done, and brings a ton of advancements with it in the process. I'll probably be playing this one for years to come, and I sincerely hope NIS is able to continue this series. It's still one of the best SRPG franchises in the business. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Disgaea 5 review photo
Finding The Lost
I can count on the Disgaea series. While NIS always seems to be trying to recreate the magic of the initial release, every game manages to capture the essence of SRPGs in a charming and robust manner. The story isn't as impressive as the last entry, but Alliance of Vengeance has made a number of advancements to the Disgaea formula.

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...

My time with Bloodborne: The Old Hunters felt far too familiar

Sep 17 // Chris Carter
[embed]310920:60384:0[/embed] Based on this build, if I saw someone playing The Old Hunters, I wouldn't have really been able to tell that it took place in new areas. In short, the demo location is very similar to Central Yharnam, outside of one particular landmark hill that hosts a striking view of the sun. Even the enemies look and feel the same, down to the werewolves that you've encountered since the beginning of the core adventure, and of course Hunters, the humanoid foes that sport the same weaponry choices as the player character. The map itself felt rather linear, which may be a result of paring things down for a fast-paced TGS demo, but so far it lacks the sprawling feel of most of the Souls DLC. At the end of the demo I encountered a boss (Ludwig, who plays a role in the central lore) that looked like a demonic cross between a horse and an abomination of some sort, complete with features that felt similar to the Cleric Beast. The creature had a grand opening, as usual, with unconventional movement animations to boot, bringing it inline with the rest of the big bads in Bloodborne. It's not jaw-dropping or particularly difficult, but it fits nicely into the lore. Hopefully this horse-thing was just a palette cleanser. That lack of excitement kind of sums up my time with The Old Hunters. I mean, it's more Bloodborne so of course it's going to be good to an extent (there's nothing directly wrong here), but I'm not sure I'm sold on the prospect of paying $20 for it. When I first played Artorias of the Abyss or the three Dark Souls II DLCs, I was immediately swept into another world, which is how a paid expansion should feel. Stay tuned on our thoughts on the finished version later this year.
Bloodborne photo
It doesn't feel like a $20 expansion
When Bloodborne: The Old Hunters was announced, I was ecstatic to get back into the world of Yharnam again. After all, I beat Bloodborne three times after just one week with it, and thoroughly enjoyed the more action-oriented gameplay compared to its predecessors. Based on my playthrough of a demo at TGS however, my excitement has been curbed a bit.

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...

Tearaway Unfolded faithfully breaks the DualShock 4th wall

Sep 02 // Steven Hansen
Tearaway used fourth-wall breaking about as much as Metal Gear Solid, which still, with the recently released Phantom Pain, has a character tell you to, "use the stance button to stand up." That you are playing a video game is addressed, here through the physicality of the thing. Your own face in the sky, representations of your fingers popping up in the world. Unfolded's entire opening is new. It plays off the home console's position as a living room box, likely hooked up to a television with some kind of cable network. The two voices that narrate the story switch through a fake cable TV guide, hastily bypassing shows called "Rubbish" and flicking through commercials before coming to the conclusion that there's nothing to watch, that there's no good story. So we'll have to make our own. Actually, it's almost like the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 4. The first new PS4 feature is light. The triggers produced a beam of light in the world that reflects the light emitted by the DualShock 4. It even keeps the same triangle shape and shows up in the world as if you were pointing to the front of the controller like a flashlight. So far it's one of the only useful reasons for that light existing, save for draining battery life and then blinding me every time I tilt the thing up to find the charge port. [embed]308798:60230:0[/embed] The You's -- that's you -- light has different effects, from simply illuminating the new, dim intro to making plants grow to scraping inky newspaper Scraps from the construction paper world to hypnotizing enemies that will follow the beam of light off a cliff. It doesn't have the same punchy feel as poking at them with giant fingers from below, but it does its job of grounding the player in both the game world and real world in a novel way. It's too hell with immersion and that's fine. Due to my lack of the PlayStation camera, I did find myself wanting with regard to my self-portrait showing up in the hole in the sky. Even if on the Vita it was grainy and always the least flattering angle (I never held my arms parallel to the ground when I played), it is missed, here. Same with the ability to, say, reupholster an elk by taking a picture of my cat. Of course, if lower case you have a camera, it's possible to sustain these touches, or if you have a mic at the ready you can record an intimidating yell for your scarecrow. A new gust of wind ability replaces your ability to physically leaf through the environment. Instead of swiping a platform down on the Vita screen, you swipe the DualShock 4 touchpad in the desired direction you want to the wind to blow. Atoi, the messenger you guide through Tearaway, can also throw enemies and items up "through" the TV screen and into your controller, and then you can aim a reticle and swipe forward on the touchpad to shoot the projectile back onto the map, whether to bash an enemy or solve a puzzle. The touchpad is also used for the paper craft segments where you're tasked with making wings for the local butterflies or snow flakes to pepper your mountain climb (I went again with some nice pink cherry blossoms). It works alright, but the lack of real estate makes precision hard. You might consider the companion app, which would give you (or a friend) a larger drawing surface, but, again, I don't want to be fiddling with three extra pieces of technological accessories just to get the same effect the Vita bundled up. Tearaway Unfolded isn't as elegant or holistic an experience as it was on Vita because of additional technical needs, but significant effort has gone to reproducing the same effects in new ways. It's pretty as hell, too, holding its own with anything on the PS4 despite its humble beginnings. New areas have been built from scratch, parts extended, others cut. No more log rolling troubles, which is the only Vita feature that bugged the hell out of me. A lot of care went into Unfolded. It may be another tacit admission that the Vita is dead, but at least this incredible, surprising game did not die with it.
Tearaway PS4 port photo
Challenging PS4 port flashes Metal Gear
Tearaway was the zenith of the PlayStation Vita. While many fine games have hit the platform since, few have been exclusive and original, and none used every inch of the Vita's additional capabilities to as good effect. That ...

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...

Very Quick Tips: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Sep 01 // Chris Carter
[embed]307495:60220:0[/embed] General tips: Use night vision often when you're searching for a human target, even if it's daytime. The core reason is because it's hard to see in-game models at times, especially with the dynamic lighting engine. Using night vision will highlight humanoid character models with a bright hue, allowing you to extract them with ease. Always upgrade your Fulton device as soon as you can -- it will help you for core and side ops alike. Pick a favorite weapon, upgrade it constantly, and remember it. You can use the loadout system (similar to Call of Duty) to set your preferred gear. It's easy to get overwhelmed and forget that you're using one of eight rifles, then go into battle with the wrong one. If need be, you can call for entire loadouts to be dropped in mid-mission. Once you get to R&D level 17, buy the flare grenade. It allows you to instantly call chopper support under duress, without having to use your iDroid. Since the game doesn't pause while looking at your device, it can get sticky. When you start Mission #5: Over the Fence, the wolf pup near the first objective marker on the hill is of the utmost importance. He's easy to miss, but if you tranq and Fulton it, he'll grow up to become an entirely new buddy for you to use. You can lock in your crew with the L2 button when assigning Mother Base operations. Use this method to prevent your preferred squads from down-leveling after shifting people around using the auto-sort option. As a general rule it's important to spread the wealth, but favoring R&D for tough missions so you can acquire new tools is never a bad idea. When searching for a target that has a wide circular array on the map, create multiple marks on your iDroid to set your own perimeter. In other words, "draw" bits of the outside of the circle with multiple letters, so you can clear the entire surface area. Marks will automatically erase when you reach them, so you'll know where you've been. Spend your cash upgrading the main stations of Mother Base, first and foremost. Construction takes a long time, but they pay dividends, and you'll want to start working on them as soon as possible. In the same vein, make sure you grab every resource you can on the field to ensure that you can constantly grow Mother Base -- don't just rush past open doors. Go back to the open world often! Fulton everyone you find and actually do those Side Ops. They're not necessarily required, but they'll reward you with tons of new weapons to use in the story, and your backup will be that much more advanced. As a last resort, press triangle while prone. This will bring you into a special "play dead" stealth mode, and you can even avoid being seen if the enemy is right next to you at night. This is especially useful in the "no alert" missions. You can change the type of support called with the R1 menu while using your binoculars. Along with the flare grenade mentioned above, you'll be able to instantly call in your chopper for everything but extraction. It's particularly useful during some boss fights to instantly call in a bombardment after locating an enemy. Play with headphones if possible! Listen for hit songs playing in the background, and follow the noise to the tape. Don't be ashamed of using the chicken hat sometimes if you need it. Some missions will checkpoint you right before a particularly difficult part, and there's no need to bang your head against the wall over and over. Much like The Witcher 3, calling your horse while it is not in sight will cause it to "teleport" to your side. Try to swing the camera away from it before you call it for instant access. In Side Ops #144, the target is laying on the ground in the open in the large base. This one took me forever to find, as I kept going inside, expecting it to be there. Without spoiling anything, to unlock the true ending, you'll need to complete all available main missions after the story seemingly ends abruptly -- yep, all those retread ones with higher difficulties. Alternatively, I have spoken to people who have unlocked the ending with a combination of story and Side Op mission completions. Try to beat all the core ops you can, and if some are outright frustrating you, switch to Side Ops.
Metal Gear Solid V tips photo
Kaz Be Not Proud
Metal Gear Solid V, from a gameplay standpoint, is one of the most complex titles in the series. While it was fairly easy to understand the limited amount of gear you were provided with in past entries (everything was basical...

Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Aug 31 // Chris Carter
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Kojima ProductionsPublisher: KonamiRelease: September 1, 2015Price: $59.99 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) $49.99 (PS3, Xbox 360) [There will be no story spoilers here, though themes and gameplay elements will naturally be discussed in this assessment. I'll be as vague as possible.] Phantom Pain opens up with a brutal playable sequence that sets the tone for the game. Big Boss has woken up after a nine-year coma, and just in time, as an elite infantry unit has invaded his location, ready to kill anyone and everyone just to get to him. Looking back on this opening, it's amazing to see how well thought out everything is in Phantom Pain -- there is very little wasted time. This rapid fire mentality shines throughout the entire game. No longer will you spend hours listening to two portraits talk back and forth via codec. Instead, it's all done through a radio seamlessly integrated into regular play. David Hayter's endless monologues are eschewed for Kiefer Sutherland's more deliberate interjections, and as a result, the entire experience has a very different feel to it. That's not to say there aren't some classic conventions present, or that Kojima has abandoned his roots. There's still plenty of silliness that ensues, crazy mutated boss fights, tons of robots, and Easter eggs for days. It's the gameplay that feels a bit more grounded this time around -- one mission even provided me with flashes of Splinter Cell, but with the obvious Kojima flair to it. The main setup involves a timeline in 1984, 11 years before the first MSX Metal Gear, in which the Soviets invade Afghanistan. Your first job as a newly awakened Big Boss is to rescue your comrade Kazuhira Miller, and begin work on an entirely new Mother Base as the "Diamond Dogs" -- taking on Skull Face and his forces. From here, it evolves into a tale of espionage and deceit, complete with franchise-wide reveals and some breathtaking action sequences. Yep, it's still Metal Gear all right. [embed]305699:60106:0[/embed] But thanks to the advancements Kojima has made over the years refining his craft and the power of the Fox Engine, this is the biggest game yet in just about every regard. To accompany this huge shift is a suitable open-world focus, which allows you to explore a giant portion of Afghanistan, and another region I won't spoil here. It's interesting to see a mainline Metal Gear go this route, but after a few hours, I was used to it. The principle reason I was able to acclimate so quickly is Kojima and his team have made the game fun to play almost at all times. Nearly every situation can either be taken head-on by knocking down the front door, by stealth, or any combination therein. By researching different weapons and tools in Mother Base, you'll have the option to equip hundreds of different loadout variations, and face challenges in completely different ways. For instance, I later came back to one area, took an utterly new route, and used the Fulton extraction system to kidnap an entire base -- one member happened to be a translator who upped my force's efficacy considerably. What's even crazier is how deep the customization goes. You can choose from an assortment of "buddies" (which include the horse and wolf that have been previously revealed, among a few others) to accompany you on missions, all of whom have various costumes and loadouts themselves. You can also choose to alter the appearance of Big Boss, Mother Base, and even your own support Helicopter team. If you enjoyed the prospect of switching up camo suits in Snake Eater, you'll spend hours customizing all your junk here. Mother Base is a whole different animal as well. By using the Fulton system in the field you'll slowly acquire new soldiers, which you can in turn visit at your base at any time. It's similar to the Farmville-esque Garrison system from World of Warcraft, but much more rewarding. While I usually tend to ignore mechanics like this, your crew is integrated into the game in a number of ingenious ways. New weapons rely on the R&D team's efforts, for example, and the Intel team can inform you of incoming weather, as well as nearby enemy patrols if they are sufficiently staffed. The rewards are both tangible and poignant. You can also visit some more important NPCs, partake in a few target practice minigames, hit the shower to wash off the blood of your enemies, and generally just explore the base's nooks and crannies for collectibles. As I touched on a tad, the Fox Engine renders this all beautifully. It's insane to see a portion of the game and realize that it's not a cutscene, but actually done with in-game visuals. Although I've only had access to the PS4 version of Phantom Pain, it's run flawlessly, with minimal load times and no major framerate issues during my time. Another huge thing I noticed was the impeccable sound direction, which may be the best I've ever witnessed in a game to date. It's especially delightful if you're wearing headphones, as you can hear every clomp of your horse as the wind rushes behind you, bullets darting past your head. In terms of my assessment of the plot from start to finish (which all told took me roughly 40 hours to beat), it's definitely not one of my favorite entries, but it does a good job of closing a number of storylines and providing us with a few revelations of its own. As a fan it was tough to forget Hayter at first, but Sutherland really works here, especially with how different Phantom Pain is tonally. Which again, isn't to say that it's all serious all the time, as plenty of absurd characters and storylines pop up fairly quickly. For those of you who are curious, you won't be completely lost if you haven't played previous games in the series, but Snake Eater and Peace Walker knowledge will definitely up your enjoyment of the narrative. But as satisfied as I was with the story, there are a few inherent issues with the way the missions are structured. For starters, a number of levels are uninspired, and force a degree of backtracking, usually for a menial task you've already completed multiple times. This is especially evident later in the game, as it's required to redo some missions with either the "Subsistence," "Extreme," or "Full Stealth" modifiers in tow. The former drops you in with no items or assistance, Extreme ups the amount of damage you take considerably, and the latter ends a mission automatically if you're spotted. Series regulars will probably remember playing a lot of these higher difficulty levels on their third or fourth optional playthrough, but now they're incorporated into the game itself. I have a feeling these objectives are going to be incredibly polarizing, especially since a few of them took me at least 30 tries to complete. It's a level of dedication that hasn't really been seen lately in the gaming arena, but to me, it's classic Kojima. I powered through these tough and sometimes aggravating sections, and was sufficiently rewarded, both in the sense of storyline progression, and the acquisition of completely new tactics. As a note, I couldn't test the online features of the game, including the base-to-base combat sections (FOB). The story calls for at least one scripted invasion, but I was required to play the game in its entirety offline. Once Phantom Pain launches we'll provide some impressions of this feature, and we'll provide a separate review for Metal Gear Online, which has been delayed until October 6. Rest assured, the entire campaign can be played offline, beyond the reach of microtransactions or pre-order bonuses. Despite the fact that I hit a few snags along the way, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain feels like a simultaneous celebration of the series, and a decidedly new chapter. It's equal parts tough and flashy, and it's fitting that if this is Kojima's last Metal Gear, he goes out on a high note. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. We did not attend the review event.]
Metal Gear V review photo
Happy trails, Kojima
Despite the fact that most of the spinoff Metal Gear games are good in their own right, they just don't get me excited the same way the mainline console editions do. Every core Metal Gear entry has something new, and offers up some sort of revelatory storyline event that has fans talking for years on end. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is no exception.

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: One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3

Aug 28 // Chris Carter
One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3 (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita)Developer: Omega ForcePublisher: Bandai Namco GamesRelease: August 25 2015MSRP: $59.99 Pirate Warriors 3 is a reboot of sorts (within the confines of the Pirate series that is), taking us all the way back to the beginning. Players will get a recap of Gold Roger the Pirate King, and how his death sparked the search for the great One Piece treasure, ushering in the Great Age of Pirates. After briefly showing us a Young Luffy, stoked by the fires of adventure, the game jumps 10 years into the future as our hero begins to gather his crew, starting with the ruffian Zoro. It's ambitious, starting over like this, but it's a great starting point for players who enjoy Warriors games, and have no prior knowledge of One Piece's narrative. You'll even get all caught up with the Dressrosa arc, the most recent bit of story (albeit with a different ending). With all that in mind, this is a very brief recap indeed, with entire arcs condensed to a single mission. In that way it spreads itself thin in many ways, not to mention the odd design choice of starting all over on the third game in the series. Battles still follow the same Warriors beat 'em up formula you know and love, with light and heavy attacks that can be chained into combos. What's crazy this time around though is the introduction of the Kizuna system, which lends itself well to One Piece's insane over-the-top style. Here, you'll be able to call out teammates for attacks on a constant basis, as well as unleash gigantic supers with multiple crew members, culminating in an explosion that usually kills hundreds of people at once. It's a mixed bag though, because while said explosions look really cool, they're ultimately all the same despite what crew members you have in the mix. So while it's entertaining for the first 100 times, it loses its luster eventually. Also, the regular Kizuna attacks are a bit clunky, as there's a half second delay for your party members to jump in and do their thing. It's not a huge deal, but it definitely could have been handled better. [embed]308138:60166:0[/embed] As for the rest of the combat mechanics, they're rather on point, and as usual, I like to make the point that the system is much deeper than the "button mashing" scheme non-fans accuse the Warriors series of. For instance, Luffy, your first playable character, starts with 14 combos, all of which have a purpose when you're playing on higher difficulty levels. Plus with nearly 40 playable characters in all, the amount of variety on offer is nothing to sneeze at. You'll want to play on a higher difficulty too, because without it, the actual story scenarios will likely start to wear on you. Without a local partner to play with enemies tend to blend together throughout stages, and despite the mixing up of themes (military, rural), they all function basically in the same manner, with the same types of weapons. The dialogue is also poorly written at times, and doesn't do a great job of drawing you into the world beyond the out-of-mission cutscenes. But hot damn, is that world beautiful on PS4. The only time I ever saw a framerate hit was when Kizuna moves were being done in local co-op, but other than that, it's silky smooth. No matter how many enemies are on-screen the game is relatively stable, and it's easy to dash around an entire map and lay waste to hundreds of enemies at a time. While the mission objectives aren't innovative in any way, they nailed the hectic feel of the anime. The story follows the typical Warriors format of roughly 15 hours of gameplay, with 50 or more to try to max out every character. Of course, there's more modes available, including free play, and "Dream" mode, which is basically a remixed version of the story. The latter sees you jumping from island to island, fighting off enemies in unique scenarios and gaining new characters and bonuses in the process. As a note, online play is only available for story mode, but local co-op is enabled for every game type. One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3, from a gameplay standpoint, is simply "more Pirate Warriors 2." It doesn't really do anything new outside of the slightly different Kizuna system, and veterans will likely favor the Dream mode instead of the retreading story. Despite its Frankenstein-esque shortcomings, Pirate Warriors 3 is a beautiful game, and still a lot of fun to play locally. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
One Piece review photo
From Straw Hat to Dressrosa
I haven't kept entirely up to date with One Piece, but I do read the summaries, and have caught most of the earlier arcs. It's a daunting task (the series has been running since 1997) in terms of the anime, and there's lots o...

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: Until Dawn

Aug 24 // Chris Carter
Until Dawn (PS4)Developer: Supermassive GamesPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentRelease Date: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 [There will be no major spoilers in this review, but the video may contain minor event spoilers.] Our tale starts off a year before the main storyline with a prelude of sorts, in a cabin high up on an isolated Canadian mountaintop. A bunch of "teens" (I use that term lightly as they all look 30) have gathered for some weekend shenanigans, and of course, something goes awry, leading to the mysterious death of two sisters. A year later, the surviving members of the group decide to go back to the same location (I know, right?), bringing all sorts of emotional baggage with them. Most of you have probably seen this type of campy setup before, but this is exactly what Until Dawn is going for. Soon enough you'll start to see the action ratchet up a bit, as more of the mystery of the mountain is revealed, and a psycho killer shows up, creating some Saw-like situations -- real sick shit. You'll also start to learn a lot more about the characters' motivations, and their relationships with one another, which you can (minimally) influence by way of light choices. By "light," I mean typical Telltale options that don't really influence the game in any meaningful way. The main gimmick here is the "Butterfly Effect," which will branch out your personal story, complete with a butterfly icon explosion on-screen and a handy menu option that lets you view your past choices. It can range from something significant like whether or not you want to risk your life saving a friend, or what door you took in an abandoned building. When the butterflies pop up, it's basically Supermassive's way of saying "this character will remember that." Without spoiling anything, most choices don't matter until the end of the game, where character deaths start to happen more often. [embed]305560:59991:0[/embed] Outside of the choice mechanic that basically surmounts to moving an analog stick in the desired direction, there's lots of walking involved, coupled with QTEs for the action bits. It's unimaginative at times, especially in the shaky intro sections, as those long roads seems to be there mostly to pad the game. After all, there's only so many plain paths you can take in the woods before it gets boring. But after the two hours, more interesting locations start to pop up, which house interesting documents and more bits of lore for you to locate. This is where the game excels. Despite the above issues, I was inspired to play Until Dawn from start to finish in one setting. It was interesting enough where it kept me captivated throughout, and the game is exceptionally good at world-building. While I initially didn't care about the whole meta-narrative surrounding the mountain, I quickly changed my tune as I acquired more totem collectibles -- artifacts that each unlock a few seconds of a secret video that gives you a bit more background on the events of the game. Also, all the Resident Evil style letters and notes are all done very well. Where recent David Cage efforts fail for me is the over-emphasis on performances that end up wooden, and a terrible plot that begs to be taken seriously. Thankfully, while other elements of the game may not be all that riveting or new, Until Dawn dives in with both feet on the horror theme. Sure it's not an excuse for some campy performances, but you really know what you're getting here, and there's no bait and switch involved. The script is also occasionally funny, as are the performances from the (mostly) talented cast. I have to say, it's really weird seeing Brett Dalton as anything other than Grant Ward, but he's mostly enjoyable to watch. My general enjoyment of the core cast goes double for "The Analyst" sections of the game featuring the always delightful Peter Stormare. These portions are easily the best part of the experience, as a mysterious psychologist asks you series of questions (usually about your fears) in various interludes of sorts after each chapter concludes. It slowly gets darker and more twisted over time, and they really nail the tension here. So how long is the game? My playthrough took roughly seven hours, and you'll have the option to replay chapters individually to rectify past wrongs or try out new choices. There's also a few extras involved in the form of little video featurettes that you can probably watch on YouTube in a week. If you aren't keen on hunting for collectibles, you can try to change the ending into one you desire. Until Dawn knows exactly what it is, and doesn't pretend to be anything more. In that process it allows for some predictable plotlines, hammy acting, and lack of meaningful choices, but I'm glad that it exists, and every horror fan owes it to themselves to play it at some point -- especially at a price cut. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Until Dawn review photo
Spooky teen hell dream
I had a chance to play the first few chapters of Until Dawn recently, and it ended at the worst possible moment. Whereas the first hour or so is slowly setting the table for all of the craziness that is about to ensue, when e...

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: 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: N++

Jul 28 // Chris Carter
N++ (PS4)Developer: Metanet SoftwarePublisher: Metanet SoftwareReleased: July 28, 2015MSRP: $19.99 If you haven't played N+ before, you're in for a treat. This series is predicated on tough jumps, pinpoint controls, and a physics system that's built on momentum. All you can really do with your ninja avatar is jump, but you'll be able to use acceleration and specific leaps to your advantage. It's a platforming fan's dream, as nearly every level presents a unique challenge that will force you to master every facet of the control scheme. The general layout of the game is also dead simple. You have 90 seconds to complete each level, and picking up gold along the way increases your timer. On every stage you'll need to brush against a switch to open up the exit door, then make your way to said door. It's cleverly paced, as you can choose to go for as little or as much gold as you want -- though hardcore players will likely want the clear bonus earned for picking it all up.N++ is massive in size, and to properly convey just how big it is, let me just give you a concise breakdown: Solo:600 new N++ levels125 Intro 600 Legacy Co-op: 300 N++ 50 Intro 120 Legacy Race: 300 N++ 25 Intro 120 Legacy Yeah, that's a lot of levels right? What I really like about the campaign in particular this time around is that it does a better job of acclimating players to the game, and all of the different concepts within. These arenas are short enough where you won't get bored learning the basics, but you'll be adequately prepared for what's next. While I finished most of the solo stages, I wasn't able to complete them all, and I played for roughly 30 hours. Co-op is particularly fun (with up to four players), as some stages specifically require people to suicide into hazards to let the other player complete the level. Races are also a rush, requiring one player to get to the goal first, and while they operate similarly to the solo sets (they can even be played by yourself), they can get crazy with multiple people, and if you really want, you can play the solo stages with friends. Sadly, there's no online play to be found for any mode, which is a disappointment. In terms of extras, I like how the game keeps track of crazy stats like how much of your time was spent in the air, on the ground, and on the wall, and there's a ton of really cool UI and visual filters to unlock and test out.  If you're so inclined you can also create levels with all of the available tools used to develop the game, and share it online. Even pre-launch there's already over 100 levels up, and the coolest one I found automatically takes you through a giant level without pressing anything. Others are more artsy, with messages and poetry that gradually appear on-screen. N++ might lack online play and feel like more of the same, but it's pretty much everything a platformer fan could want out of a sequel. It's still challenging, it has a boatload of levels, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
N++ review photo
Go ninja go, again
I don't think anyone could have predicted to success of the original N+. I was sitting around my dorm, playing Devil May Cry 3 for the billionth time, and my friend came in and said "dude, you have to play this game." It...

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...

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