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PC Port Report: Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty

Feb 23 // Darren Nakamura
Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty (Linux, Mac, Windows [tested])Developers: Just Add Water Developments, Ltd.Publisher: Oddworld Inhabitants, Inc.Released: February 25, 2015MSRP: $19.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit A lot of the heavy lifting was already done for the console version, but it bears repeating: Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty is a fantastic visual upgrade from Abe's Oddysee. The environments are all rebuilt and rendered in-engine, making the transitions between nearby areas smoother than the original. Seeing Oddworld in high definition is a treat. Loading times have been significantly reduced. Control is a little strange with a keyboard, at least for somebody who is more familiar with console controls. With full controller compatibility this wasn't an issue past my initial experiments to see how it works on a keyboard. There were some issues with listed button prompts when switching between keyboard and controller mid-game, but for my only complaint, it's pretty minor. The main point to note is that the PC port is technically competent; it is comparable to the PlayStation 4 version. I experienced no bugs, glitches, or even slowdown, which is great considering my rig isn't exactly state-of-the-art. [embed]288023:57455:0[/embed] Unsurprisingly, the Steam Achievements are the same as the PS4 Trophies, down to the artwork and descriptions. Steam Trading Card support is present, with Badges to craft and backgrounds to collect. A couple of the trading cards feature concept art unavailable in the console build. It isn't much, but it might be the one noticeable difference in the PC version. There is no Steam Workshop support, as Oddworld would have to be significantly tweaked to include user-created content. As a pie-in-the-sky idea, it could have been fantastic, but its nonexistence doesn't hurt New 'n' Tasty at all. Cooperative mode remains as bafflingly unnecessary as it has always been; it achieves the same thing that handing a controller to a nearby friend does. Alf's Escape, the piece of downloadable content released last August for New 'n' Tasty on PlayStation 4, is immediately available for PC. Altogether, Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty transitioned well to PC. Although it doesn't take full advantage of the platform, it has not lost anything in translation. If anything, the Steam version is a marginal improvement with a wider choice in control, the usual Steam baubles included, and a lower price tag. So I can breathe a sigh of relief. One of my favorite games from the late '90s got a great remaster last year, and it moved to my platform of choice without a hiccup. Oddworld has always been a dark, fantastic place to explore, and the upgrade to New 'n' Tasty has only made it more consuming.
Oddworld New 'n' Tasty photo
Delicious
Like Chris, I had my first taste of Oddworld when it was new, back on the PlayStation in 1997. Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus were two of my favorite titles from that era, so when Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty was announced, I was... read feature

Review: Blackguards 2

Feb 15 // Darren Nakamura
Blackguards 2 (Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Daedalic EntertainmentPublisher: Daedalic EntertainmentReleased: January 20, 2015MSRP: $34.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Blackguards 2 follows the story of Cassia, a noble woman who is cast out by her power-hungry husband, left to rot in a dungeon. After she escapes, she goes on a quest to oust her husband from the throne. Though it feels like revenge is her main motive, she recoils at the suggestion. It is up to the player to determine exactly what her motive is. Although there is a clear beginning and end to Cassia's story, choice plays a big role in the path between, and can have substantial effects on where everything ends up. In the beginning, I had intended to play as I normally do in choice-driven narratives: making snap decisions in the moment, but leaning more toward good than evil. To my chagrin, as the story progressed and my band of mercenaries made its way ever closer to the capital city Mengbilla, public opinion of Cassia deteriorated from the righteous liberator who the people supported to the treacherous usurper who needed to be repelled. It felt reminiscent of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, where politics and public opinion are just as important as character builds and tactical battlefield prowess. It serves as a great example for explaining villainy in a way that is relatable to regular people, without obvious good vs. evil ideas. Not once during my campaign to take back the throne did I feel I did anything unjust, but only at the end when I found myself fighting against common folk in addition to royal guards and monstrous creatures did I realize that I had become that which I had been trying to rise against. [embed]287404:57242:0[/embed] The kicker is it is entirely possible to go through without becoming a villain (I think). Depending on a few key choices, Cassia and her companions may be loved by the people, and perhaps even welcomed. It turns out that taking over a realm while remaining righteous is pretty difficult. By sparing the lives of enemy leaders and showing compassion to friends, not only does the narrative reflect that, but the final battles become tougher. The difficulty spike at the end is especially noticeable because most of the battles throughout are fairly easy for those who have a modicum of tactical sense. There are a few interesting boss battles that add light puzzle elements to contend with, but for the most part, difficulty stems from Blackguards 2's unwillingness to provide important information. Often, this takes the form of interactive objects on the battlefield whose functions aren't always clear. (What happens when I use this thing? Oh, a chandelier falls on three of my units and immediately takes them out of the battle permanently.) While those instances are minor infractions that are easy to learn from, the worse offenders are the battles with "gotcha" moments. Too many battles start with certain conditions shown, then only reveal their true nature after the player has already planned and committed forces to certain areas. It's the kind of inelegant difficulty that can be impossible the first time through, but then negligible once the trick is known. The general unfriendliness of the interface extends to what should be mundane aspects of a strategy game. Expected damage is not explicitly shown, so taking out a weak enemy may result in wasted actions if that enemy has armor or resistance, or wasted astral energy or stamina for an attack more powerful than was necessary. There is a line of sight predictor for ranged units, but it doesn't work for magic users carrying melee weapons. Sometimes the camera doesn't track the action well and the battle log disappears too quickly to easily discern what happened. Underneath it all, there is a competent tactical combat engine. On a turn, a unit can move and then spend one more action (which can also be movement). One neat thing is the wait ability: units with higher initiative can choose to wait and take actions at the end of a round of combat. This can set up a few useful strategies, like forcing an enemy to take the first hit in a duel or allowing high initiative units essentially two turns in a row. Though it was a buggy mess at launch, Blackguards 2 is competent in its current state. When it released, it had freezing bugs that set back progress. One of the patches moved where save files are stored without mentioning it or moving the old files, making it look like everything was lost. Even after the recent patches that have fixed the major issues, I have seen some ability text show up in German, so Daedalic's efforts to fix everything don't inspire too much confidence. That said, most of the major stability issues have been addressed. Blackguards 2 as it exists today is much more tolerable than it was three weeks ago. The aesthetic design is serviceable, but not outstanding. The world of Blackguards 2 is a standard medieval fantasy setting, with swords, dwarves, magic, and dragons. The soundtrack matches the setting: adequate at conveying the tenseness of combat but not especially memorable. Voice work can be a little cheesy, but is generally well done. Blackguards 2 scratches the tactical RPG itch just fine, though the battles do become tedious near the end. It certainly doesn't welcome new players with open arms, but veterans will view its opacity as a minor issue to work around. Its greatest strength is the surprisingly poignant narrative about the muddy area between good and evil. I almost want to play through again to see how different choices will affect the later battles and the story's conclusion, but at 25-30 hours for one playthrough and combat that wears thin toward the end, it is just long enough for me to shy away from that idea. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Blackguards 2 review photo
A tangled web we weave
A few weeks ago, I called Blackguards 2 "deep, unfriendly, and buggy." I had put several hours into the tactical role-playing game, but hadn't seen enough of the story to comfortably put out a review. Fast forward to today, a... read feature

Starr Mazer adds Transformers composer Vince DiCola, high profile crossovers

Feb 12 // Darren Nakamura
[embed]287554:57304:0[/embed]
Starr Mazer photo
Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, Children of Morta
Starr Mazer came out of the gate with an impressive roster of artists working on its soundtrack. Despite having a huge list of talent to pull from, developer Imagos Softworks has added another composer sure to pull on some n... read feature

Review: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series: The Lost Lords

Feb 03 // Darren Nakamura
Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series: The Lost Lords (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: February 3, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (episode), $29.99 (season)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] That is to say, one of my versions of House Forrester is doomed. For Iron From Ice and now The Lost Lords, I have run through with two separate save files. I do not recommend doing this for a couple of reasons. For one, playing through more than once lifts up the curtain on which choices actually make any sort of difference in the story and which ones lead to the same place regardless. Most choices do not have any immediate impact; only a select few shape the narrative into something unique to an individual player. This is standard Telltale modus operandi at this point, so it should not surprise most who have been following the developer for the past few years. For two, it shows how utterly inept I would be in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. For my initial playthrough, I live in the moment and make the decisions that feel right. Sometimes I mouth off, sometimes I am defiant, but often I keep cool and try to maintain allies. My second save is labeled "Jerks" and in it I play House Forrester as a group of inconsiderate, self-serving assholes. For my first save, I find myself sparing lives when I should kill, making promises I should never keep, and helping others before helping myself. For my second save, I do the opposite. By most measures, the Jerk Forresters are in much better shape than the True Forresters. [embed]286540:56983:0[/embed] Where Iron From Ice set the stage for the series, The Lost Lords begins to put everything into motion. The Stark-esque scattering of the members of House Forrester is deliberate, planned to coincide with major events from the novels. Mira continues to serve Lady Margaery in King's Landing just prior to King Joffrey's wedding. Gared has completed his journey to The Wall to begin training before Mance Rayder launches his assault. Newcomer Asher is traveling between Yunkai and Meereen just as Daenerys is campaigning to liberate the slaves in Essos. Of course, plenty of focus is given to Ironrath, the seat of House Forrester, in the aftermath of Episode One. In a way, it works against The Lost Lords to be set precisely when it is. The build-up will likely be worth it once everything is in place and it all starts to hit the fan, but in the moment it feels like a lot of waiting. Consequences for some of the major choices from the last episode show up here. If Mira asked Margaery for help last episode, then Margaery will be unwilling to provide any assistance now. Ethan's choice of Sentinel in Iron From Ice affects how the Whitehill soldiers are treated in The Lost Lords. The former consequence seems like a major one; an entire avenue of intrigue involving the Queen of Thorns may be locked away in the future. The latter does not appear as important; Lord Whitehill is ornery and spiteful regardless. Thus far, Mira had only been exposed to the diplomacy, secrecy, and espionage of King's Landing. In The Lost Lords, she gets her first taste of the more overt awfulness of Westeros. Her story is still the most subdued of the playable characters. Her audience with Queen Cersei in the first episode was chilling and tense, but there are no comparable scenes in this episode. Gared still holds the cryptic information given to him by Gregor in the beginning of Iron From Ice, and he hopes to become a ranger in the Night's Watch in order to investigate that further. It only comes up optionally, but it seems like he will be the center of that subplot in addition to being present during the huge battle at The Wall. Asher was teased in the first episode as the hothead exile brother, and his scenes show as the most action-oriented. He is apt to fight his way out of trouble, but he does have a sharp wit when he needs it. His story about returning to Westeros from Essos to help save his house has potential to be interesting, but it is only starting out. The oil paint aesthetic remains constant, with both its pleasing 2D backgrounds and distractingly fuzzy 3D objects. I did experience a few typical Telltale glitches, like teleporting character models, but nothing gamebreaking. Overall, The Lost Lords is a fine episode for Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series, but it does not stand out. It is not exactly filler, but it does feel like it exists almost entirely as exposition, putting the pieces into place for all of the really exciting stuff to happen in a future episode. It does begin to demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of each character's choices, but it lacks the truly memorable scenes found in the first episode. If Iron From Ice felt like a punch to the gut, The Lost Lords is the throbbing pain afterward. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Game of Thrones review photo
Feeling the Ironrath
I would not last a day in Westeros. My best hope would be to spend some time in Oldtown to train as a maester, and even though it would help to protect me from personally going to war, I would probably be too close to the pol... read feature

Review: Nihilumbra

Jan 30 // Greg Tito
Nihilumbra (iOS, Mac, PC, Vita [reviewed])Developer: BeautiFun GamesPublisher: BeautiFun GamesReleased: June 28, 2012 (iOS, PC, Mac) / January 27, 2015 (Vita)MSRP: $2.99 (iOS) / $7.99 (PC, Mac) / $9.99 (Vita) The nature of existence certainly could be well-explored in a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer but Nihilumbra never really makes it work. It's a difficult genre to tackle such intricate subjects as the nature of consciousness and creation because there's no real choice offered to the player - you either continue moving to the right or stop playing. The ham-handed narration desperately wants the puzzles to mean something, but all it does is distract from the fun of solving them. You begin playing as a tiny blob inside a purple black force called the Void. Moving to the right, as you do in a platformer, you escape from this void somehow and enter the real world. A disembodied voice speaks to you with incredulity that your little blob exists at all, but then it proceeds to give you hints in a vague tutorial-esque way. After traveling past a few obstacles easily leapt over, the blob encounters a scarecrow with its garments flapping in the wind, and with no explanation your blob transforms into a vaguely humanoid shape.  "Even if you change your shape to match this world, you are still an outcast," the narrator says. Why? Who made the scarecrow? Why can't I transform into a dinosaur or something? Meh - it doesn't matter. There are puzzles to be solved! That said, the bleak atmosphere of Nihilumbra is refreshing, and the use of slowly unlocked "colors" you can fingerpaint onto the ground using the Vita's touchscreen feels imaginative and interesting. Just don't go in thinking you'll figure out the secret of life as the narration incessantly suggests. The dev team at BeautiFun Games might have been better off just relegating it to tutorial duties and allowing the game to speak for itself. Do we need a gruff voice saying "Fear" or "Run" in tense moments? The narration commits the worst crime in storytelling - it tells you what's going on and how to feel instead of just simply showing. You start in the Void and that massive purpley force seeks to find you and pull you back into itself. To do so, it has belched out a bunch of weird void monsters with inexplicable names like Shyphoniths. To get past these enemies, and through the other environmental puzzles, you must use the ability to paint colors onto the landscape. The first you learn is blue, which makes the ground slick like ice. In true platformer fashion, you can use it to slide faster than you can normally to gain the momentum needed to make larger jumps. Or you can use it to make the enemies slide into chasms so you can pass. Painting the colors with your fingers is a nice use of the touchscreen, belying Nihilumbra's roots as an iOS game. Painting the colors is intuitive and easy to understand, but the mechanic is used in pleasantly complex ways as you progress. There are five levels and you learn a new color in each one. As expected, the levels focus on puzzles which can be solved with its distinctive color, but I liked that as you progress you uncover interesting synergies. Combining the use of green, which creates a bouncy trampoline surface, and brown, which you can stick to, allows for some super high bouncy jumps. By the finale, you'll have to use all five colors to keep progressing right in the 2D universe. Always to the right. Keep going right (That's not something the narrator says but it should). While some of the puzzles took a few attempts to suss out, or demanded some tricky finger work to pull off, you can make it through the whole game in just a few hours and those who demand brain-busting may be a little frustrated with the simplicity. That is, until completing Nihilumbra's main story and unlocking "Void Mode." Here, you go back to the five level environments to solve a series of much more difficult puzzles and situations using all five colors. The biggest bonus to these grueling challenges? The narrator isn't talking over them. Nihilumbra is a quick diversion for these who need a puzzle-platformer in their gaming lives and have ran out of things to do on the PS Vita.
Nihilumbra review photo
The puzzle-platformer for Nihilists
There's a nugget of a solid game here in Nihilumbra. Unlike many of the PlayStation Vita's offerings, it uses the touchscreen in a novel way that doesn't feel tacked on or forced. And the puzzle-platforming is supported well by an ethereal art style, score, and sound design. You just have to wade through a jumble of pseudo-philosophy to get to it. read feature

Review: Grim Fandango

Jan 26 // Steven Hansen
Grim Fandango (PS Vita [Reviewed], PC, PS4) Developer: Double Fine Publisher: Double FineReleased: January 27, 2015 MSRP: $14.99 Manny Calavera is a grim reaper, which in this art deco Land of the Dead means he's a travel agent, sending dead souls to their final resting place through a variety of fine travel options. Most prized is the Number Nine, an express train reserved for those who've led sterling lives. Manny isn't one of them, which is why he's working off his sins as a reaper, but a string of bum, low-commission clients has him treading water in this literal limbo.   I've never felt more emotionally connected to a videogame character than when Manny picks up a ceremonial Day of the Dead baguette and sticks the whole thing in his inner jacket pocket. And then another. And then another. And then another. Dios mio. Why is it letting me pick up infinite bread. I need boundaries. Surely all these breads aren't going to show up as individual inventory items I'll have to scroll through--oh, they do. Fine. I made my bread and I'm going to rye in it. I love bread--okay, I knead to stop with the bread. Grim Fandango is so playful, though, it gets me into a good mood. This is a world of travel-agent skeletons, giant cat races, and biting birds that comes off so comfortable you almost wonder why anyone is making miles towards the afterlife. Of course, it's an easier stay for the enterprising Calavera than the poor souls trekking for years on a walking stick. Then again, it's all about the journey. Grim Fandango is stuffed with sharp dialogue and you're encouraged to go through all the options, a bit of quick unlearning needed if you've been on a "he will remember that" diet of choice-heavy adventure games. Nothing feels throwaway, though. It's gags, pertinent information, or, more likely, a mix of both. The economy is impressive. Ancillary characters will reappear over the lengthy journey and it feels like seeing an old friend. It is not massive in the open-world, "you can walk to those mountains" sense, but it manages to feel both full and intimate, like a warm dinner in small, friend-filled kitchen. Tony Plana deserves enormous credit for voicing Manny and making even repeated item description lines feel natural.  About the only thing in Grim Fandango that isn't bleached-bone smooth is its puzzles, which are bound to trip you up eventually. For me it was a mix of my failed lateral thinking (stupidity) and the means of interaction. On the Vita, point-and-click with the touch screen works best in puzzle-solving situations, though I still ran about mostly with traditional controls. One puzzle had me using my scythe and in doing so with the X button, Manny just kept waving it around in the generally correct area. Clicking on what must have been a slightly different spot with the touch controls and opening the UI allowed me to progress. Wildly tapping until the UI pops up is also the best way to take stock of what you can interact with in an area, rather than relying on button clicks and Manny's neck craning towards objects of interest. PS4 users might face an added challenge sans touch controls. On the technical side, I did experience a couple crashes on Vita and one instance of Manny getting locked in place that necessitated a restart, so remember to save often. Figuring out how you're supposed to interact with something probably falls somewhere in between stupidity and means of interaction. Having to replace an item you might have picked up before essentially combining it--without any sort of traditional inventory screen and "combine" option--broke my brain a bit. Luckily the game is 17 years old and you can do a little cheating if your conscience can take it.  The comedic beats Grim Fandango hits in the opening cinematic alone are delightful. Reminds you how rare "funny" is in games. Some adventure game puzzle logic and Glottis' chunky orange polygons aside, it doesn't feel dated. It's well-written, rich, heartfelt, funny, and I'm glad as heck it's readily available for everyone to play. [This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the developer.]
Grim Fandango reviewed photo
Spooky scary skeletons send shivers down my spine
Grim Fandango didn't need a remaster as much as it needed a re-release. Many, myself included, have found it difficult to track down a copy to play. We've had an entire digital catalog--GOG.com--devoted to getting good, old g... read feature

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel illustrates the danger of nebulous season passes

Nov 03 // Darren Nakamura
To be clear, I was never one to complain about how Gearbox handled Borderlands 2's season pass. Where many would rail against the developer for producing content that was not included in the season pass (or even the Game of the Year Edition), I always saw it from a more measured viewpoint. Borderlands 2's season pass promised four pieces of story-based downloadable content, and it delivered four pieces of story-based downloadable content along with a bonus level cap increase that those without a season pass had to purchase separately. I bought it in good will before the game came out, and I felt like I got my money's worth. The fact that Gearbox continued to produce content for Borderlands 2 after the season pass had run its course never phased me. People wanted more stuff to do on Pandora, and were willing to pay for those experiences. The extra characters and Headhunter packs were far from essential to the experience, and they were never stated to be included in the season pass to begin with. As an informed consumer, I did not feel cheated. However, there were those who did feel cheated, and that might have contributed to this current mishandling. Many in the Borderlands community complained that BL2's season pass/Game of the Year Edition did not include all of the post-release content, and according to Gearbox Product Manager Chris Faylor, this move is an "[attempt] to address that." So now, instead of four story-based DLC packs that are included in The Pre-Sequel's season pass, along with other pieces of downloadable content that are available for additional fees, it sounds like the total amount of content is being reduced in order for it all to be included in the season pass. Worse yet, if we take the official Borderlands blog post's words literally, we can expect "another character, a level cap upgrade, a new campaign, and more," which lays down a particularly dismal tentative DLC schedule. Where previous games in the series featured four additional story packs, are we really meant to expect only one this time? Looking back at the Pre-Sequel season pass announcement, it is not that 2K lied or even blatantly misrepresented what players should expect in the season pass. So little information is there that the developers have quite a bit of leeway with it. Even on the official blog post, there is never any mention of what type of DLC is planned. The only information given are the phrases "new characters," "new challenges," "new missions," and "new experiences," which in hindsight are incredibly vague. All that is concretely stated is that there would be a season pass, that it would include four undefined pieces of content, and that buying the season pass would cost less than buying all four pieces individually. The problem here is one of expectation. Borderlands featured four pieces of downloadable content, and all four were story-based additions that included new areas to explore, new enemies to fight, and new missions to take on. Borderlands 2 continued that tradition with its four main DLC packs, along with a bevy of other content. I am certain that I am not alone in having made the assumption that the four add-on packs promised in The Pre-Sequel's season pass would follow that same pattern. I do not mean to belittle the amount of work that must be necessary in the design, balance, and playtesting of an entirely new character or even something like Borderlands 2's Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode (Playthrough 3). I do not doubt that the teams behind those additions feel that they put a lot of effort into producing something worth selling for ten bucks, and I do not begrudge them for it. However, while those add-ons may require comparable amounts of work, the value of those additions for the consumer is much lower than that of the traditional story packs. So even though no promises are technically being broken, and 2K plans to deliver four digital additions to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel for the price of three through the season pass, I cannot blame any who bought it for feeling cheated. The content fits the requirements laid out, but the value is not there. Even if the plans were to change from here onward and the season pass ends up including one new Vault Hunter and three story DLCs, the value of the pass over purchasing content piecemeal hinges on the quality of all three packs, and the series does not have a perfect track record on that front. Even for somebody who did not purchase the season pass, this news is disheartening. With a shorter base campaign and the possibility of only one story-based DLC pack, the lifespan of this game looks to be much smaller than those of its predecessors. It's like walking into a shipping container expecting a pizza party, only to find that the pizza is a hologram and the shipping container is about to be shot out of a cannon at the moon. In the months after Borderlands 2's release, there have been many in the community expressing extreme disappointment when it comes to the handling of post-release content. However, for those who complain that there exists content not included in the season pass, the intended solution was never to reduce the total amount of content in order for it to fit. Though it might have been an attempt to appease disgruntled fans, Jack's Doppelganger as DLC #1 for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has only bred more contempt in the community.
Borderlands DLC opinion photo
Glad I skipped this one
Over the weekend, details came out of PAX Australia regarding the first downloadable Vault Hunter for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. At first, it looked to me like a commendable gesture for a series that receives a lot of criti... read feature

Review: Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Oct 23 // Darren Nakamura
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth (Linux, Mac, Windows [reviewed])Developer: Firaxis GamesPublisher: 2K GamesReleased: October 24, 2014MSRP: $49.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Civilization veterans will be immediately familiar with most of the systems in place here, as they mimic those in Civilization V closely. Players found cities, within which they manage production, food, energy, culture, science, and health. In the international arena, there is diplomacy, trade, exploration, espionage, and war. Everything is interconnected in some way, and success comes to those who find the proper balance of it all. The interplay between all of the different systems and resources is complex. While the series has made positive strides with tutorial popups and the exhaustive Civilopedia it is still dense and a little inaccessible for new players. Some information is difficult to find but through trial and error. It is easy to know what Civilization is about, but it takes dedication to really know Civilization. Fortunately, getting to know Civilization is inherently rewarding. Finding interesting synergies between technologies and powers makes the player feel smart. Forming plans and seeing them through to fruition is intensely satisfying, and it is largely responsible for the series' notorious addictive quality. All of that is present in Beyond Earth. [embed]281963:55814:0[/embed] The most touted new feature in Beyond Earth is the Affinity system. Previously, unique units were tied to specific factions, but here they are dependent on a faction's level in one of three Affinities: Purity, Supremacy, and Harmony. Each Affinity represents a fundamentally different philosophy for how humanity should interact with the alien world. Purity followers believe that humans are special and should change the new world to be more Earth-like. Supremacy followers believe that humans should be cybernetically augmented in order to respond to environmental hazards. Harmony followers believe that humans must biologically adapt and become more like the indigenous life in order to survive. The Affinities are level-based and the choice is always open to increase any of the three through technological advances and mission rewards. It is generally smart to specialize in one Affinity, since the more powerful units require a minimum level, but it is possible to maintain a broad approach and take a little of each. The choice between Affinities sets the trajectory for the narrative of Beyond Earth. Though it is easily ignored for any who get into this strictly for the gameplay, the story is emphasized more strongly here than any any previous title in the series. It always starts the same: Humans wrecked Earth and have to find a new place to live. Which Affinity is focused on (if any) determines which victory condition is most easily attained, and each victory ends the story in a different place than the others. Another new tweak to the systems is in the Virtues. Breaking from Civilization V's system and instead following the same philosophy behind Affinities, none of the Virtues are mutually exclusive. Each time a new Virtue is earned, players may choose to develop down one of four trees: Might (military power), Prosperity (food), Knowledge (science and culture), and Industry (energy and production). There are benefits for generalizing as well as for specializing, and no one strategy is clearly better than another. One completely new aspect of Beyond Earth is the orbital layer. Set above the normal ground-level action, there is a hex grid layer representing the position of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. These orbital units can have various effects over areas, including increasing output of affected tiles, improving combat prowess for units underneath, or attacking from relative safety with a planet-carving laser. Placing an orbital unit near another civilization is not considered an outright act of war, though most will not take kindly to it. One memory I will keep for a long time involved General Kozlov placing a tactical support satellite near my borders, so I retaliated with an orbital laser in range of three of his cities, just waiting to be fired if he should misstep. It was the sort of cold war stuff that is often absent in games like this. The technology system received a substantial overhaul in more ways than one. Naturally, the science-fiction setting demands the imagination of new technologies. Those found in Beyond Earth range from currently existent (titanium mining) to really "out there" (constructing a giant flower that allows a neural connection between all humans and the living planet), though most are based firmly in plausible ideas for future technology. The most obvious change to the technology system is that it is set up as a radial web, expanding outward from a central point. The choice is available to set up a strong base of general knowledge, to make a beeline for any of the furthest techs, or to do anything in between. Most Affinity gains occur through researching specific technologies, so the tech web is also the arena that has the greatest effect on how a given civilization approaches the new world and how it plans to seek victory. There are five victory conditions: one for each of the three Affinities, one reliant on non-Affinity technologies, and the standard "destroy all the other civilizations" victory. Purity is attached to The Promised Land victory, which seeks to settle Earthlings who stayed behind on the new planet. Supremacy is attached to the Emancipation victory, whose goal is to return to Earth and demonstrate the power of cybernetics. Harmony is attached to the Transcendence victory, which aims to meld minds with the planet itself. Contact is the Affinity-agnostic victory; it involves building a beacon to communicate with an intelligent alien race. Narratively, each victory represents its corresponding philosophy well. The three Affinities approach the world with entirely different ideas, and their stories have appropriately different endings. However, the biggest failing of Civilization: Beyond Earth is that four of the five victory conditions feel too similar to one another from a gameplay perspective. Though the narrative reasoning varies, the basic framework for The Promised Land, Emancipation, and Transcendence is as follows: Research the required technologies, level up the corresponding Affinity to 13, build a planetary wonder, then defend it for approximately 30 turns. Contact largely follows the same path but without the minimum Affinity requirement. What happens after a planetary wonder is built varies between victory conditions, but not enough to make the individual experiences feel unique. From a balance perspective, it is easy to see why Beyond Earth adheres to this formula. It ensures a similar timeline regardless of path and it gives opponents clear warning that a player is nearing the end, allowing last-ditch efforts to race for another victory or topple the leader. For a series known for having multiple paths to victory, and especially for a narrative emphasizing just how divergent the ideologies within it are to one another, it is disappointing how similar each win condition is. There is no cultural, economic, or peace victory. There are only what amount to four science victories and a military victory. That said, the journey to get to the end does have a different feel depending on which Affinity is followed. The unique units bestowed to each Affinity interact with the environment differently and the benefits afforded allow for varied play styles. Where Purity and Supremacy fight against the planet's toxic miasma, Harmony learns to harness its power. Where Supremacy and Harmony benefit from leaving alien life alone, Purity gains combat bonuses against it. Where Purity and Harmony are geographically limited, Supremacy leverages its superior engineering in order to easily spread its influence across the map. Following the orbital escalation with General Kozlov described a ways above, he eventually did attack. After beating back his forces and teasing a peace treaty out of him, I dropped several tiles worth of miasma on his cities, just as a reminder for what happens when one messes with the African Union. He was cleaning it up for years, choking on it the whole time. Classic. In a separate encounter, Hutama of the Polystralians made note of my relative military weakness and, fueled by avarice and envy, broke our neighborly trade relationship in hopes of coming out a few cities richer. Although I was outgunned, he grossly underestimated the severe tactical disadvantage the local canyons and mountains put him at, and his forces were sunk to the bottom of the ocean before they could make landfall. That all highlights one of Civilization's greatest strengths: It provides the framework for totally awesome stuff to happen and lasting memories to be formed. Beyond Earth excels in that virtue with its new additions. Aesthetically, Beyond Earth really nails it. The three different planetary biomes add visual variety, and the rich colors pop. The palette features a lot of teal, pink, and purple, which conveys the idea of an alien world well. The soundtrack is appropriately grandiose during the climaxes and subdued during the lulls. Upon a dastardly betrayal or the completion of a planetary wonder, sweeping string pieces evoke a feeling that history is being made. In all, Beyond Earth is excellent. It maintains the secret sauce that the series is known for while adding setting-appropriate systems that change the gameplay up in interesting ways. Orbital units are inherently cool and add depth to international encounters. The narrative is thoughtful and important without being too preachy. Affinities show that the team put a lot of effort into considering how differing viewpoints may tackle the challenge of founding an alien world, as well as the consequences of those actions. If only there were more variety in the structure of the victory conditions between divergent philosophies, Civilization: Beyond Earth would be a perfect game. Even with that dissonance, it is damn close. The Civilization pedigree holds a lot of weight after all these years, and Beyond Earth more than lives up to its name.
Beyond Earth review photo
Stellar
"Civilization, but set in the future on an alien planet." That is really all Firaxis and 2K needed to say to get people excited for the next entry in the long-running turn-based strategy series. There is a fair amount of new ... read feature

Review: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Oct 13 // Darren Nakamura
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, Xbox 360)Developers: 2K Australia, Gearbox SoftwarePublisher: 2K GamesReleased: October 14, 2014MSRP: $59.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit There is a symmetry to be appreciated in The Pre-Sequel's in-between feeling, given that it is chronologically set between the first two games. Specifically, it is set after the events of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, but before Claptrap's New Robot Revolution, the third and fourth pieces of downloadable content for Borderlands, respectively. Taking place largely on Pandora's moon Elpis, the first regressive parallel to the original title in the series reveals itself: the moon is largely made up of desolate gray-blue rock dotted with industrial complexes. In the same way that our first adventure to Pandora spent entirely too much time in vast brown deserts, the first half of the romp across Elpis occurs in areas that are indistinct from one another. Getting lost is easy at first, even with the minimap and its waypoints. Eventually, the story works its way back to Helios, the Hyperion space station, and the environments become a bit more diverse. Even with the additional biomes found on Helios, the number of different looking areas to explore pales in comparison to Borderlands 2's tundra, temperate, desert, tropical, industrial, civilized, volcanic, and other environments. [embed]281294:55659:0[/embed] Other small oversights pop up in the level design here and there. Expansive areas meant to be traversed in a moon buggy lack vehicle stations at every entrance, sometimes causing the player to have to trek on foot when backtracking or if the rover is destroyed. There are natural progression blockers that are not completely functional once the requirement has been met. Specifically, there is a gap early on that can only be jumped in a vehicle, but even with four wheels and a rocket booster, I found myself falling into the lava chasm beneath the ruined bridge about half the time. Some of the smaller areas have no Fast Travel station, an annoyance compounded by side missions that require returning multiple times. On top of that, not every area has vending machines near the entrance, which makes dumping junk loot a bit of a pain when visiting the offending locales. One area in particular (Stanton's Liver) has everything going against it: unmemorable environmental art design, no Fast Travel, no vending machines, and several optional missions pointing toward it. Generally, these are minor quibbles regarding the level design. A lot of the time, traversing the environments is made easy through circuitous layouts and the new freedom afforded by the low gravity of Elpis and the Vault Hunters' ability to double jump. Other times this freedom is a double-edged sword, where the new ability allow for more verticality, but highlight the need for a more thoroughly upgraded map. It now shows whether enemies are above or below the player, but still represents only two dimensions, despite that a lot of the areas now make extensive use of the z-axis. Indeed, one of the most touted new features of fighting on Elpis as opposed to Pandora is the use of the moon's lower gravity. On paper, it does not seem like a big deal, but it surprised me to find out just how much it affects gameplay. In addition to being able to jump higher, the double jump allows for a lot of aerial control, and the new Gravity Slam move is both satisfying and useful. The double jump functionality is a lot deeper than it initially seems. Depending on when the second jump is activated, it can be put toward additional jump height, additional jump distance, increased traversal speed, or increased maneuverability. The slam damages nearby enemies, typically with an elemental effect, but one of the key features of it is that it does not interrupt other abilities like activating an Action Skill or reloading. This opens up the viability of a lot of weapons that were previously too cumbersome to use regularly. Weapons with long or frequent reloads like Jakobs shotguns or Scav (The Pre-Sequel's version of Bandit) rocket launchers can now be used more frequently, with firing punctuated by crowd-controlling slams. For instance, my Enforcer currently wields a Jakobs Quad -- a shotgun with huge damage, high ammunition expenditure, and frequent reloads. Most battles I get into are frenetic affairs, where I summon Wolf and Saint, double jump toward an enemy, slam to stun him, fire two shots into his face, mentally change targets, and double jump toward that one while reloading. It all happens quickly, and it is incredibly satisfying. Speaking strictly about combat, this is the most fun the series has ever been, and it owes most of that to the low gravity and corresponding abilities. In fact, the low gravity combat is so fun that I became noticeably irritated when the story takes the Vault Hunters back to Helios, where there is more standard, Pandora-like gravity. It is not that the standard combat is bad, it is just that the moon combat is so good. To expound a bit on the story, it opens in Sanctuary as it floats among the clouds. Clearly taking place after the events of Borderlands 2, Athena is forced to tell the story of the time she helped Handsome Jack years before. The playable portion of The Pre-Sequel is all told as Athena's flashback, regardless of which of the four available Vault Hunters is in play. What Athena describes is meeting Jack, a middle management Hyperion employee who saves her life and eventually the lives of countless people living on Elpis. Players get to see firsthand why Jack considers himself a hero, and they get to watch his slow decline into depravity, and his eventual transformation into Handsome Jack, the man wearing the mask. It is an interesting arc to watch, although it is still difficult to be sympathetic toward Jack's character through most of the story. The logical and moral leaps he makes, even when fueled largely by self-defense and paranoia, are still the product of a deeply disturbed individual. Even so, The Pre-Sequel does a great job of showing exactly why Handsome Jack despises bandits as much as he does, and it ends in a way that highlights the moral ambiguity of Borderlands as a whole. Without spoiling too much, the ending upset me initially. I felt betrayed, and I felt like it would not have and should not have happened like it did. Upon further reflection, I realize that while it caused me to see a character in a different light than I previously had, it perfectly encapsulates a major theme in the series. The bad guys are at least a little bit good and the good guys are at least a little bit bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. There is one extra thing regarding the story that more serious players will appreciate. For the first time, there is a believable narrative explanation for the second playthrough, True Vault Hunter Mode. There is additional dialogue to go with it, so players have more incentive to go through the higher level content. It is a small thing, but it is a welcome touch. I would have really appreciated a slightly different or expanded ending for those who make it all the way through twice, and the narrative would have allowed for it, but that is not the case. At about 25 hours to get through the campaign once, The Pre-Sequel runs shorter than Borderlands 2, but provides a good amount of entertainment. On the downside, the plot left open a few points that I was expecting to be addressed. Clearly, Athena is alive and in Pandora's vicinity between the point of her introduction in The Secret Armory and some indeterminate point after the events of Borderlands 2, so she lives through the Pre-Sequel, but the story never gives an explicit explanation on her whereabouts during Handsome Jack's tenure as CEO of Hyperion. Considering she was there to witness his insidious rise to power, there should be a good narrative reason that she would not help to bring him down. The Eridian race is also a bit of a mystery. They are present on Pandora during Borderlands, present on Elpis during The Pre-Sequel, but absent during Borderlands 2, and fans are left to continue speculating on the reason. In fact, the story presented here even fuels the fire of speculation by introducing more variables to the question of why they cannot be found later in the timeline. The writing as a whole maintains the classic Borderlands charm, though it does seem a little less wacky than that found in Borderlands 2, again striking a balance between the two previous titles. A few familiar faces show up; most current characters have a least small speaking roles. There are several new characters as well: the eastern European Nurse Nina, the not-quite-as-annoying-as-Tiny-Tina child Pickle, and my favorite new character Janey Springs. Springs is one of many denizens of Elpis, most of whom are the Australians to Pandora's Americans. She is immediately endearing, and has some of the best lines in the game. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, and overall the writing is smart and snappy. There are no Internet memes, except for one easily missed reference to an old Destructoid mantra that 99.9% of players will gloss over without a second thought. There are a number of shout-outs to other works of fiction, including Star Wars and Pokémon. One of the best new developments for the writing in Borderlands was the decision to have the Vault Hunters participate in conversations, giving each one more personality, and offering a non-gameplay reason to play through with multiple characters. This is especially important through Jack's campaign to save Elpis, as each character will react differently to his methods and evolving morality. Although Athena is my girl, the morally bankrupt sadist Nisha has some of the most hilarious retorts and insults. Weapons received a major overhaul between Borderlands and Borderlands 2; comparatively, the differences here seem slight, but their consequences reach further than it may initially appear. Slag weapons do not exist yet, since the first vault was only recently opened and the engineers are just beginning to study it. In its place is the cryo element, which slows enemies, damages them over time, and can eventually freeze them solid to be shattered into hundreds of shards. Lasers also appear as a separate weapon type, rather than being reserved for the relatively rare E-Tech weaponry found on Pandora. There are several different flavors of laser weapons, including Ghostbusters-style streams, Star Wars-esque blasters, and powerful railguns. Most useful is that laser weapons generally have low recoil and good hip fire accuracy. This pairs extremely well with the aforementioned low gravity combat. It is common to double jump across a pit and headshot an enemy with a railgun from the hip in the process, and it feels totally rad to do it. Where combat in Borderlands was like Call of Duty in a lot of ways, the fighting in The Pre-Sequel feels more akin to Halo. One other welcome addition to the loot system is the Grinder, which turns out to be a double entendre of sorts. By feeding it three items of the same rarity level, it has a chance to spit out an item with a higher rarity. Any three items can be fed in, but best results seem to come from matching equipment. For instance, grinding three common pistols will usually result in an uncommon pistol. I found myself keeping various weapons that I had no intention of using, because they would go well in the Grinder and return something I may want. With enough of a collection, several common weapons can be combined to eventually produce a rare item. Sadly, rare items cannot be used to create legendary items. The Grinder can feel random at times, and I wish there were more structure to it. Feeding it three Jakobs sniper rifles can produce a Maliwan sniper rifle, or feeding it three incendiary lasers can result in a cryo laser. It seems weapon type is the only attribute conserved in the grinding process. The Grinder also functions through a sort of recipe system, but there is no in-game method for tracking which recipes have been tried, what worked, and what did not. The Grinder is a great idea to deal with all the unwanted loot in Borderlands, but it could have been taken the extra mile to function well without outside support. Of course, some of the most fun in Borderlands comes with multiplayer, and The Pre-Sequel has made some strides to make this even more interesting. While each of the four Vault Hunters can be built to play solo, Athena, Wilhelm, and Claptrap have skills that benefit the whole team in unusual ways. Now, a well-formed group of four can be much greater than the sum of its parts. An obvious example of this is that many of Claptrap's Action Packages will affect the entire team, but a more subtle effect emerges when playing with Athena. As the group's shieldbearer, I acted as the tank, soaking up incoming damage that would have otherwise gone toward glass cannon Nisha. Although previous games have had similar abilities (Salvador could draw aggro and buff his defense), the character diversity and focus on team abilities allow for the potential to be more tactical than ever before. A lot of the best multiplayer moments have come from raid boss fights. Introduced to the series in the General Knoxx DLC, they have required some of the most intensive team interactions, and Gearbox learned a lot about making interesting raids over the course of the Borderlands 2 DLC schedule. 2K Australia has a lot to learn on that front, because the raid boss included in the core game is just a disappointing retread of the final boss fight, except that it has more health and deals more damage. Another arena in which The Pre-Sequel falls short of its predecessor is in general polish. A lot of common, benign bugs can be found, like enemies clipping through environment geometry (see above) or shields that glitch such that they recharge immediately and infinitely, rendering the player effectively invincible until restarting. I ran into a few more off-putting bugs over the 60 hours I spent playing. The most egregious resulted in one of my characters not being able to progress the story, just one area before the final boss fight. 2K has assured Destructoid that this particular bug has been isolated and addressed in a day one patch, so retail versions will be free from it. Regardless, it was heartbreaking to put 40 hours into one character only to be stopped just short of completion. At least two missions show up in the menu, but point toward the wrong location to accept the mission. One even points toward an area that the player might not have even found before, existing as an ever-present missed connection, with no guidance on how to actually take it on. In Borderlands 2, side missions were generally discovered organically, placed in the main path where they could not be missed. Here, many side missions require backtracking just to take them on, and that is backtracking that the player would not do naturally. Otherwise, there are issues with form and functionality that do not technically qualify as bugs. For instance, Wilhelm has a skill that sets up a healing aura around a point on the map, but that aura is denoted by a perfectly horizontal circle on the ground, centered at one point on the surface. In areas where the terrain is not completely flat (i.e. most of them), part of the circle is hidden from view. Other areas feature terrain that hides it entirely. In case it is not already obvious, I love the Borderlands series. I have followed it since its debut in 2009, and I have put hundreds of hours into using bullets to make numbers pop out of bad guys, digging into the lore, and hanging out with friends. Loving the series means knowing just how good it can be, and it means always measuring it against those high standards. 2K Australia nailed the combat with The Pre-Sequel. It is fast, fresh, and more tactically interesting than ever before. The writing hits the right notes, although the overarching plot is not quite as emotionally powerful as other entries have been. For many, that is enough to be a great experience. I had a lot of fun playing through, and I anticipate I will keep playing for months as more friends obtain copies. Despite that glowing praise, I am torn, because I also recognize that it is far from perfect. The environmental art direction gets dull too quickly, the level design is lacking in basic conveniences, and a general sloppiness is present when looking closely. Some of the cool new features like multi-leveled areas and combining weapons could have been enhanced further if the user interface and systems had been updated to play to those strengths. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a solid entry to the series, but I hope that the development team takes some of the failings to heart and delivers excellence in the future.
Borderlands review photo
If it ain't broke...
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, one of the writers for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.] "If it ain't ... read feature

Review: Costume Quest 2

Oct 07 // Alasdair Duncan
Costume Quest 2 (PC [reviewed], Mac, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Wii U)Developer: Double FinePublisher: Majesco, Midnight CityMSRP: $14.99/£10.99Release Date: October 7, 2014 Costume Quest 2 begins right at the end of the DLC pack for the original game, Grubbins on Ice. Siblings Wren and Reynold, along with their friends Everett and Lucy, have found themselves in a limbo world with numerous trans-dimensional portals. Thankfully, they're able to get back home, but only to find themselves as the protectors of Halloween against a new enemy. Who could hate Halloween so much? Why the devilish dentist Orel White, who uses time travel to free the monsters from Repugnia and wipe Halloween and candy from the face of the Earth. There's plenty of fun to be had with the time-travel plot; it's amusing to see Everett and Lucy all grown up and in the second third of the game, their daughter will team up with Wren and Reynold. You'll find lots of kids in the past who you meet in the future and it's entertaining to see how they have turned out, whether they achieved their hopes and dreams or whether everything went wrong. Don't expect too many head-scratching moments due to time travel -- it's a fairly linear game that you could play with kids and they wouldn't find it confusing to follow. This is still a light, fluffy, colorful series. Costume Quest 2 follows the same structure as its predecessor: there's a series of neighborhoods where your team of three party members can go trick or treating and at each house you can either get a neighbor dishing out candy or a monster encounter which leads to a turn-based battle. There are tweaks to the battle system this time around which make it a fresher experience. Now, each enemy has a class -- either monster, magic, or tech -- and the costumes your party wear will be stronger and weaker against those classes. So for instance, the superhero is strong against wizards but weak against tech, meaning you'll inflict more damage against magic users but take greater damage against tech enemies. Like the first game, each costume has its own special ability either offensively or defensively and some even have abilities that you can be used outside of battles. This time however, those battle abilities are tied to a progress bar that will move on with each successful attack or block. The ability to land a blow in real time has returned but now it's standardized across all costumes, along with a real-time blocking system. Eventually, you'll unlock a risky counter-attack prompt and a combo strike too but the combat wears out its welcome towards the end as you're really just repeating the same button prompts over and over again. Another thing that's new is that your party's health bars will carry over from battle to battle but that's undermined by having healing fountains dotted around each area. As long as you go straight to one after each fight, you'll have no problems preparing for each battle. To give Double Fine some credit, there's a whole host of new costumes you'll find throughout the game, all with distinct special abilities. You can customize your own party to either specialize against one specific enemy type or to try and cover against all classes. Like with many games that features randomized battles like this, you're not really able to prepare well for encounters; even though each neighborhood has only a few enemy types, you're not going to know the make-up of an encounter until it starts. So you might have only one costume that's good against magic but end up facing three enemy tech specialists. The best strategy just seems to cover all your bases and hope for the best. While the costumes are new, some of the abilities are just repeated from the previous game. For instance, the Pharaoh costume combines the resurrection ability from the unicorn and the grapple function of the pirate, all from the previous Costume Quest. True, there's not really much you can do in a game like Costume Quest 2 but it's worth trying out all the costumes yourself just to see the animations, even the clown's frankly horrifying healing animation.  Despite its limits, Costume Quest 2 is a fun little treat, one that doesn't last too long but perhaps that's for the best. Double Fine has done a decent job overhauling the combat system but while there's a more robust set of mechanics than the first game, they do wear thin towards the end. Costume Quest 2 still has that Double Fine charm and any game that includes a Blazing Saddles joke in 2014 is okay in my book.
Costume Quest 2 photo
Wren and Reynold return for more Halloween fun
The original Costume Quest was a seminal game for Double Fine; it was the first game to come out of Amnesia Fortnight, a two-week period of experimenting with small-scale games. Costume Quest's success led the way for Stackin... read feature

Civilization: Beyond Earth makes weekends disappear

Sep 26 // Darren Nakamura
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth (Linux, Mac, PC [previewed])Developer: Firaxis GamesPublisher: 2K GamesReleased: October 24, 2014MSRP: $49.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Those who have played Civilization V will see a lot of similarities right off the bat. Cities need food to increase population, production to build new buildings and units, money (energy in Beyond Earth) to maintain improvements, culture to expand borders and progress virtues, and science to enhance capabilities. A colony's health rating replaces happiness, but functions similarly: Healthy civilizations produce science and culture at their full potentials while unhealthy civilization receive a penalty. All of these pieces interconnect, and building a successful civilization means balancing each well. Single-tile stations replace minor civilizations but function in the same way. Non-sapient alien lifeforms take the place of barbarian tribes. This is where differences start to emerge. Where players in Civilization V can take on barbarian tribes with relative ease, and the tribes disappear from the map over time, aliens in Beyond Earth are much more formidable, and they can be found from the beginning all the way until the 250-turn mark that signals the end of the game. One such alien is the Siege Worm, which Dale was able to take down but generally should be avoided because they can one-hit kill most units, and they take very little damage from any military units before upgrades kick in. Pictured above is the lovely instance in which three Siege Worms decided to burrow up right in between two of my cities, wrecking my road between them and generally ruining my plans for about a hundred in-game years. [embed]273190:53373:0[/embed] Another hazard that life on alien planets presents is miasma, a ubiquitous terrain feature that saps the hit points of human units but restores those of aliens. Depending on the terrain generated, some alien nests may be even more fortified than others, with miasma surrounding and protecting them. What is interesting is that there are three philosophical schools of thought in how humanity may deal with the threat of alien lifeforms and miasma. Those who subscribe to the Purity ideal want to remain human while transforming the environment to suit their needs. Those who follow the Harmony and Supremacy ideals instead believe that humans must be adapted to survive in the world, though Harmony dictates that the adaptation should be done through biology while Supremacy dictates that it be done through technological augmentation. A civilization on the Purity path will be more likely to clear out miasma from friendly territory to allow for better control of resources, while a civilization following either Supremacy or Harmony may develop research that allows them to benefit from its existence. The trichotomy brings to mind the Sir David Attenborough quote "Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment." Despite there being three fairly distinct philosophies, there are not hard limits on what any civilization can choose. In general, advancing steps in any one branch involves researching a related technology. Since scientific growth follows a radial web rather than a linear tree, it is easy to broaden one's scope and take on traits from any or all three of the ideas. That said, it is generally beneficial to specialize in one philosophy. Some buildings and units require certain levels in one of the three branches, and unit upgrades are governed by the highest level affinity, so maintaining balance affords a greater breadth of abilities, but focusing on one grants more powerful abilities. Another aspect of Beyond Earth that diverges significantly from previous entries in the series are the various victory conditions, which stem from the three affinities. While domination (control all capitals on the map) and time (have the most points after a set number of turns) are in play, there is no longer a strict technological victory, cultural victory, or economic victory. Instead, there are victories tied to each affinity. Purity followers want to try to contact Earth to bring the rest of humanity to the newly conquered planet; Supremacy followers want to contact Earth in order to wipe out the lesser beings left there; Harmony followers want to develop a neural connection with the living being that is the planet. Each of those conditions requires at least level 13 with its respective philosophy. What results is a game where just about every victory is a tech victory. As a game based in science fiction, it makes thematic sense that technology is important for winning, and as my preferred path, it works for me, but it could be off-putting to those who prefer other avenues or a more balanced approach to civilization-building. On that note, victory by any means other than having the most points when time runs out seems especially difficult (at least in the preview build). Even in a lush environment to maximize production and with my cities and trade routes set to crank science out at their maximum levels throughout the game, the closest I have come was completing the Wonder necessary for the Contact victory by turn 246, after which another 30 turns were necessary. Presumably the timer will be increased in the final product. Another new element emerges from Civilization: Beyond Earth due to its setting. Where previous titles in the series have been basic retellings of Earth's history, Beyond Earth is now telling a potential story of humanity's future, which allows for more freedom in that department. To help shape that, missions now pop up from time to time, which provide optional objectives to work toward and offer a glimpse into how humanity got to this point and what it learns from this new planet. There is a scientifically important narrative to be discovered here, but it requires some effort and is just as easily ignored. The terrain variety is impressive in some ways, but a little disappointing in others. While there are several options for generating the world layout (Protean is one large landmass, Terran has several Earth-like continents, Atlantean features many smaller islands, and other advanced options), the biomes from world to world do not seem very different from one another. The lush worlds have more plant life than the arid ones, the taiga has more unusable tundra, but the same terrain types can be found on most worlds; only their proportions change. The same aliens are present regardless of which world is chosen. From a gameplay perspective it makes sense, but from the perspective of wanting to explore vastly different alien worlds, it is a bit of a letdown. Graphically, Beyond Earth maintains the standard set by Civilization V, but it has the added benefit of extra color from being set on an alien planet. Seas are a vibrant green and mountains have an orange tinge. Individual civilization color schemes are futuristic, with a lot of teal, purple, and pink. A special note should be made about the soundtrack, which swells with intense string crescendos at the right moments, and otherwise sets the mood for interstellar exploration, which feels grand and important. All in all, Civilization is looking as good as ever with Beyond Earth. It scratches that itch for building a workable engine and outshining one's neighbors, while introducing a lot of new mechanics that change up the general strategy. The preview build seems pretty full-featured, but next month's full release should remove the hard turn limit. Perhaps then the other victory conditions may seem more attainable. In the mean time, starting up a new game cannot hurt, right? (Send help please; I cannot stop on my own.)
Civilization Beyond Earth photo
Yep, that is Civilization all right
The Civilization series is famous for playing out in unplanned marathon sessions, where "one more turn" quickly turns into five more turns, which turn into another hour, before the player finally looks away from the screen to... read feature

Review: Wasteland 2

Sep 23 // Alasdair Duncan
Wasteland 2 (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: inXile EntertainmentPublisher: inXile EntertainmentMRSP: $39.99/£29.99Released: September 19, 2014 inXile head Brian Fargo has talked at length about how Wasteland 2 was rejected by numerous publishers over the years. It's a traditional, old-school PC RPG in almost every way -- so much so that it feels like a follow-up to the original Fallout games.  The world of Wasteland 2 is still the irradiated wastes of a post-apocalyptic USA. The only form of law enforcement is the Rangers, a group of former military engineers operating out of a base called The Citadel. Starting with a party of four characters, players will roam the the Southwest, initially hunting for clues to solve the murder of a Ranger but gradually uncovering a new enemy. What's interesting about the Rangers is that they're not universally liked; despite your best efforts, you won't always be able to change people's attitudes about your specific team or the Rangers in general. Not everything is black and white and your crew is going to have to make tough choices to achieve its goals. The wasteland is a dangerous, unforgiving place. Although the Fallout series has always had some dark humor to it thanks to the retro-futuristic setting, Wasteland 2 is mainly played straight -- there's not a lot of joy to be found in the irradiated wilderness. [embed]281221:55635:0[/embed] At the start, you'll get to select a team of four characters that you can either pick from a pre-set group or design on your own. All the named characters have a predefined set of skills to suit certain roles, like a medic or sniper, but you're free to generate a custom character and choose their skills as you please. As with a lot of role-playing games, you're shown many stats, abilities, and attributes when you pick a character and it's hard to know what to invest in. Wasteland 2 is the type of game where after a few hours of playing, you'll realize you've got a bad or otherwise ineffective combination of skills and will want to just start over. That's echoed with a lot of the quest design where there's often the urge to reload a much earlier save because you've either missed something or your party didn't pick up a vital piece of equipment from an earlier mission. You're not going to see everything on the first playthrough so don't be disappointed when there's some unresolved loose ends in the story when the credits roll. However, certain early missions just seem to lead into other ones without feeling resolved and you're left with unfinished business in your log. The game could do a better job of keeping you informed of where the most pressing mission is happening or let you know before you leave an area that there's still things to be done. Eventually, you can recruit for your team and add up to three extra party members. They all have their own attributes, gear, and stats but are prone to losing their cool under fire and ignoring your commands. Most of the time this actually works out fine as they charge into battle, shooting enemies as they go but sometimes they'll walk into a trap and just cause trouble. Early on, it's worthwhile to take an extra teammate or two with you just to at least have another person for raiders and mutants to focus on instead of you. One way the game could stand to improve is sharing resources between party members; dragging and dropping items to a member's icon more often than not led me to just dump items on the ground instead. Combat is based on action points that the player can spend to do things like move, shoot, and reload. Positioning and use of cover is key but it can be frustrating when you've got party members who are armed with melee and short-ranged weapons fighting in a big open area. An action queue is displayed at the top of the screen, showing the order of characters and who will act first, which is based on their initiative skill. Action point usage is displayed pretty clearly -- like when you hover over an enemy to see how much AP it will take to shoot them, or to throw a grenade, for instance. Keeping characters out of harm's way is a good idea as you can roll some unused action points over into that character's next turn. While it's possible to just push your way through early battles, you'll need to make good use of your party's skills to beat large groups of enemies.  It's easy to see where Wasteland 2's fairly modest, Kickstarter-generated budget has gone. Close up, the character models are basic, even compared with previous-gen console games. They're almost PlayStation 2-era graphics -- but they're not the reason you're playing the game. A few darker areas could have used some extra user-interface prompts to help players pick out their party and traps, and there's a strange lack of consistency with character's painted portraits and their actual 3D model in the game. One of my custom characters had a picture portraying him as a clean-shaven black man even though the actual 3D model showed him being white and having a grey beard. It's not a major problem at all, but it was jarring every time it popped up. Something else that's noticeable is the voice acting, or lack thereof. While your main contact General Vargas is fully voiced and you'll hear plenty of radio chatter with other characters, more often than not it's only the first and last line of a conversation that has spoken dialogue -- the rest is just text. Again, not a problem in the larger scale of things, but it's noticeable. If these sound like nitpicks, then it's because they are really the only problems that are due to how the game was made. Other issues come from the fact that this is a real old-school RPG, the kind that most developers haven't made made in a while (Divinity: Original Sin is a recent exception). It's the type of game that sticks with the "dice rolls in the background" mechanic and there will be times when you have a 99% chance to succeed and you'll still fail. There are separate skills for lock picking, safe cracking, and bypassing alarms. That's been part and parcel of the genre for years so if that kind of thing doesn't put you off, you're going to enjoy your time here. Wasteland 2 is an expansive game that demands to be replayed again and again to get the best out of it. While a lot of the detailed mechanics feel somewhat archaic, they're not going to hold back dedicated players who want to micromanage and really role play their group of characters. It has all of the familiar elements and even if some aspects of its presentation are not quite up to modern standards, its design and gameplay are timeless and welcome.
Wasteland 2 review photo
This Kickstarted RPG delivers exactly what was expected
[Disclosure: I backed the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter and as such received an Early Access copy of the game.] Wasteland 2 is one of the projects that saw success in the wake of Double Fine's Broken Age. Just a month after Tim Sch... read feature

I have a feeling Massive Chalice is going to be great

Aug 29 // Steven Hansen
[embed]280358:55485:0[/embed] Massive Chalice is structured like recent wonderful game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There is the boots on the ground layer, which involves action points, movement restrictions, and killing monsters -- the Cadence -- on an isometric plane. Your troops will be one of several types. The Hunter is basically carrying a personal ballista on their shoulder. The Alchemist has a bladed hook used for melee, but is mainly meant for slinging explosives. The last has a giant battering ram of sorts. What you want to do is escort your gaggle of fighters throughout levels without getting people killed because if they're killed, you don't get to continue to use them (permadeath). Because of the melee focus, there's no cover bonuses, so you'll want to unlearn that XCOM tic. It's all line of sight and numbers. I got through the demo losing one soldier too many (that is, one), which then opens up to the overarching strategy screen, which is where things get interesting. Your goal in Massive Chalice is to make it through 350 years of encroaching Cadence. Your characters will die, eventually. Lineage and generations become key, like Fire Emblem: Awakening was mixed with XCOM, but stretched out. You can advance the chronology in large chunks between significant events (or battles) in the same way you'd run a few days on the world clock in XCOM's mission control. There are a lot of systems at play. You appoint Regents in ten or so kingdoms on the map to stymie Cadence spread and then you give them a partner to continue the bloodline. This detracts from your pool of warriors, however, as Regents can't fight. It's a sort of retirement spot, then, for your best fighter, but you have to weigh considerations like their age, risk of losing them in battle, and their genes. Some characters carry positive characteristics that can be passed down. Some are cursed with things like asthma, which reduces movement if you exhaust both AP in one turn. The accumulated experience points of a Regent and partner can affect the growth of the child. A parent could die of old age before the child grows up. The child would have the same genes, but have a different growth trajectory based on the stats of the replacement Regent.  One of the choices you'll make is what to research using the titular chalice. 15 years for improve health. 23 years for a global fertility boost. Adoption is possible too, through later chalice research, and that child can go to same sex or hetero couples. If your two strongest characters are of the same gender, you might want them to raise an adopted child (ages 0-15) to gain 40% experience from each of them during the raising process. Maybe you just appoint a Regency and partner for two characters whose unwanted traits you're trying to weed out of your lineages (asthma is pretty crippling).  Muir said it's "like a long form roguelike," in that you can lose the game. You can fail to contain encroaching cadence and have your kingdom slowly devoured. I love it. I liked XCOM for letting you lose. In that sense, it is divergent, replayable. Your starting soldiers are always different, and the soldiers you'll have to use throughout the entire game will inevitably be different as they age and die. Narrative bits come in the form of random events, like choosing whether or not to send Bella Black to retrieve her uncle, The Walrus, who refused to move from his home near encroaching Cadence. I did. It took nine years, but Bella came back stronger. The team is working on cranking these up, including some nastier ones where, "we just come around and spit in your soup, I guess."  Massive Chalice does have a more defined narrative, but it's mostly in the endgame, should you survive for that many generations. 350 years. I'm excited to try and get there. I'm excited to fail, and to try again. And I'm always down for playing digital matchmaker (by way of horrible eugenics scientist). 
Preview: Massive Chalice photo
Already in love, already fearing it'll devour my time with an XCOM-like fervor
We've heard little from Massive Chalice in the year and change since its successful crowdfunding campaign that took in over a million dollars following Double Fine's even more successful campaign for Broken Age. Jus... read feature

Review: Gods Will Be Watching

Aug 01 // Alasdair Duncan
Gods Will Be Watching (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)Developer: DeconstucteamPublisher: Devolver DigitalMRSP: $9.99 / £6.99Released: July 24, 2014 Gods Will Be Watching is one of the most grueling gaming experiences you can have. It puts you in charge of characters who are in a real tough spot and tasks you to simply survive. It's not easy and you'll gnash your teeth at the frustration of it all but it's worth grinding through -- there's a good story here about survival, camaraderie, and what a person will do to stay alive. Set against a backdrop of rebellion in an oppressive intergalactic empire (they've banned coffee!), Sgt. Burden must keep his group of researchers alive while stranded on an icy planet. The narrative jumps around between different time periods so pay attention, as there's some plot details that are easy to miss if you're just clicking through all the dialogue. The game will put you in a number of scenarios that you'll have to "manage," for lack of a better term, to succeed. Although Gods Will Be Watching controls like a point-'n'-click adventure game, it doesn't play like one. The challenge comes not from puzzle solving, but from keeping track of different factors in the scenario that you have to balance to succeed. Take the opening situation, which sees you control a Xenolifer rebel called Abraham. He's tasked with keeping a group of hostages under control as the rebel leader Liam tries to hack into a secure database. While he's doing that, a security team is slowing inching its way forward and if it gets to the door, it's curtains for the rebels. [embed]278671:55107:0[/embed] The key here is balance. You need to make sure the hostages are fairly calm -- but not so calm that they get confident and try to take Abraham out -- and not too scared that they decide to make a run for it. You can berate and kick them to keep them in line and even shoot them in the legs if you decide it's necessary. Rebel member Jack is keeping watch at the door and can fire a few shots to get the security team to back off or try and threaten them to stay put or the hostages will die. The former will scare the hostages but will force the security team to retreat while negotiating will make them hold their position but won't rattle your captives. You must maintain the situation while Liam is hacking the database and it just feels like it takes so long for that progress bar to move on. Let's get this out of the way here: you will fail this mission the first time you try it. You'll also fail the second time, the third, and most likely the fourth. Maybe at the fifth attempt you'll get close to completing the hack. The most important thing to note is the turn process which isn't labelled on any HUD but shows up on your list of options as either red or cyan. Red options will usually move the scenario forward, like for instance the security team will move along the corridor in the hostage situation if you select a red action. Cyan options tend to have no consequence or don't put anything at risk, like alternating the security camera or non-critical dialogue options. Understanding the difference between the two and realizing that you have a set amount of turns to last, or manage, is key to succeeding. It does take away some of the immersion in the experience though as scenarios become more like working out an optimal order in which to have your actions play out. That's not to say that there's a fixed way of getting through things as characters' responses will vary and it certainly doesn't feel like the same things play themselves out time after time. While each scenario is designed to be replayed, it can get frustrating having to play an entire sequence repeatedly only to fail right at the end. The story is really interesting, full of intrigue and deception and the dialogue is pretty well written but once you see the same lines pop up again and again, some of that freshness starts to drip away. What also diminishes the drama is the flatness of presentation; while the art style is well executed and colorful, everything is presented in flat text so it can be hard to gauge any kind of nuance or subtlety in a conversation. This just adds to the mechanical feel of each chapter, which isn't there the first time you play a scenario; it's just, each time you fail, the game feels more and more mechanical. There are effective bits of sound design that are sparingly used, including one wince-inducing moment involving a hammer and some teeth. Gods Will Be Watching is a tough sell as it's a game that only gives out as much as you put into it. When you fail, take a step back, examine the scenario, and work out a better strategy. Then just keep at it and you'll find you're able to make progress and unravel a rewarding story. There aren't that many chapters in total, so while it's short in structure you are going to play each chapter over and over again. Achievements add little challenges to each scenario but please don't try for them on your first round. There is an easy mode which isn't the default and it's still rather hard; consider knocking down the difficulty if you start to enter double digits for the first few chapters, at least until you get an idea of what strategy you'll need. This is a unique game, presented as a traditional point-'n'-click adventure title but more focused on strategy and planning instead of puzzle solving. If you push on and don't give up, you'll be rewarded -- just expect a few heartbreaking moments first.
Gods Will Be Watching photo
There are no easy answers
Gods Will Be Watching is a tough game. It puts the player in positions that they'd rather not be in and asks them to make difficult choices. In order to succeed at a mission, you may have to do unthinkable things, betray your morals, and become a monster just to survive a little longer. It's also tough in another sense: the game is bloody hard.  read feature

Steam Machine delay photo
Delayed to make the "best gaming experience possible."
Valve's Eric Hope took to the Steam forums today and announced that they're delaying the release of the Steam Machine program and the Steam controller into 2015. "We’re now using wireless prototype controllers to conduc... read feature

Unreal Tournament photo
A collaborative effort between Epic, fans, and Unreal Engine 4 devs
Epic Games made its "future of Unreal Tournament" announcement and it's actually promising. There is, in fact, a new game in the works -- starting today with "a small team of UT veterans" -- that'll be developed in open colla... read feature

Review: Republique: Metamorphosis

May 07 // Chris Carter
Republique: Metamorphosis (iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 5], Mac, PC)Developer: Camouflaj, LoganPublisher: CamouflajReleased: April 30, 2014 (iOS) / PC (TBA)MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) There's no long exposé or lengthy tutorial sequence at the start of Metamorphosis, as it picks up right after the first installment ends. Our protagonist Hope is on the run and searching for answers to the dystopian society she inhabits, and you'll start things off in a typical "locked room puzzle" -- which functions as a way to re-acclimate yourself to the game's controls. If you had your save file erased and are worried about not being able to access Metamorphosis, you can go straight to episode two even without a prior save file. For those who haven't played it before, you're basically playing the role of a shadowy "helper" type character that can operate the world's various security cameras and bits of technology, and you can only see things from the viewpoint of said cameras. In many ways it's like Metal Gear Solid, just with touch controls (that work well) and a different viewpoint -- but more of an emphasis on stealth since Hope isn't exactly battle-hardened. Gameplay is relatively the same as before, but I feel like the series is just starting to hit its stride. Episode two takes place in a futuristic library of sorts, and as a whole, the story is more interesting from the get-go, and the locales are brighter and more fun to explore. There's also a new enemy (the ARC Prizrak) that's smarter and tougher, which changes up the gameplay significantly from the relatively weak AI in the first episode. For starters, Hope can't use stun weapons against these foes and they tend to just wander around random paths rather than set beats, which makes everything more unpredictable in general. It's a nice way to mix things up and keep it fair, as you'll still have to be slowly escorted to a prison when you're caught. New to Metamorphosis are the prediction and spy powers, which allow you to calculate enemy paths and see through walls, respectively. It's a perfect addition for a second episode, because I really liked how the game handled its currency and power system to begin with. The beauty is that abilities aren't overpowered in the slightest (as they run on a limited battery), and in order to acquire them, you need to find intel to sell it back to the vendor NPC. It encourages you to explore for rewards, which is genius for a stealth adventure game. If you spring for the Season Pass, you get extra access to some behind-the-scenes commentary tapes by locating the various developer tags across Metamorphosis. These are very well done as you not only get some insight into the game's creation process, but some candid shots of the developers as well as some concept art. The audio logs are also short and to the point, so you'll want to listen to them bit by bit. I had my doubts about the Republique project as a whole, but it's clear to me now after two episodes that Camouflaj "gets it." The studio is finding a way to improve upon the core tenets of the game while maintaining an episodic format, which many other developers don't tend to do. While I wouldn't recommend that everyone rush out and buy the Season Pass right now, I'm looking forward to seeing what the next episode brings to the table.
Republique 2 review photo
I'm starting to see some more hope
Republique started off with a lot to prove. As a Kickstarted stealth game featuring stars like David Hayter and Jennifer Hale, the project garnered an equal amount of high expectations and skepticism. The move towards an epis... read feature

I died an embarrassing amount in Hotline Miami 2

Apr 17 // Brett Makedonski
The first half of the demo took place in a level that was reminiscent of most of the first game. Tight corridors leading to room after room of roving henchmen, all waiting to be methodically and maniacally murdered. What made this section special is that we got to see some of the new masks that will be available. A representative from publisher Devolver Digital challenged me to select one that restricted me to only using my fists. After some hesitation, I chose one that equipped me with a chainsaw permanently mapped to one mouse button, and an ally whose only purpose was to pick up ammunition for the firearm assigned to my other mouse button. The second part of the demo is where things got a bit more unique. Rather than taking place within a confined and segmented area, it was largely open with very little cover. That means that guns were an extremely risky proposition, as it wouldn’t take much sound to bring another enemy running. Without anything to hide behind to bottleneck them through, it was necessary to rely heavily on melee attacks, making the whole affair quite challenging. [embed]273390:53447:0[/embed] The other aspect of the second level that was interesting is that there was no mask to choose from. This is because the playable character was a different one than in the first stage. While there are multiple characters to play as, we don’t know why yet, as Dennaton isn’t talking much about the story. In fact, they weren’t even at the show; the member of Devolver Digital that demoed the game with me said they stayed home to keep working on the game, so I had no chance to try to squeeze anything out of them. While there might be slight variations to Hotline Miami 2, my core experience from the original was intact in that I died a lot. I mean a lot. Like, an embarrassing amount considering that there were people in line behind me waiting to play. If anyone that was there is reading, I’m sorry, but I have a feeling that it was par for the course for the entire weekend. The sequel’s going to be just as frantic as the original, and let’s face it -- that’s what everyone wants from Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami 2 photo
I bet everyone did
Anyone that has even the slightest bit of familiarity with Hotline Miami knows what defines it. The neon-swathed visuals, the gratuitous violence, the quick and unforgiving gameplay, and the blaring soundtrack all made the ga... read feature

To Leave is one of the neatest games I played during GDC

Apr 03 // Steven Hansen
[embed]272809:53244:0[/embed] To Leave (PC [previewed], Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita)Developer: Freaky CreationsPublisher: Freaky CreationsRelease date: 2014 To Leave is artsy, forward in its metaphor. The main character, Harm, is attempting to get out of a rut, out of a harmful life. The way to do this is to take his flying door and get the heck out of his bog of despair. But escape is hard because the door is fragile and if you hit something, you get sent all the way back to the beginning of the game, the bottom of the city Harm lives in. The progression is glorious. This isn't Super Meat Boy sort of rapid repetition that encourages white knuckle runs as fun. These white knuckle runs can send you back to the beginning of the game. Now, there are checkpoints of sort in the world. You're not replaying the whole game after each death, but it's a tense set up and that sees you failing early and often. And then you keep on keeping on, getting better at wresting yourself from the slop. If you want to ignore the metaphor, the base game is exciting to play. If you run out of Drive (a gauge filled by collecting those blue spirit things), you enter an extra atmospheric Hopeless mode with weird music and sludgy controls. Otherwise, you're clinging to your door, avoiding obstacles with the sort of floaty controls. And enemy patterns don't just reset at respawns so you can't just muscle memory or power your way through levels. I jumped forward in the game to a harder level and just compulsively died and started over, trying to run before walking.  To Leave is also artistic. Just take a look at the screenshots. Nothing is tiled and art isn't reused. There are a number of different themed sections as well. "We want to show Ecuadorian craftsmanship," Palacios explains at my surprise. I couldn't quite put my finger on why the game looked so different, despite it's interesting art style, until I realized. And all those benevolent looking stone faces are cool as heck. Then there's the music, which is a huge focus. You can check out some of the samples right here. Even through a laptop's speakers in a semi-trafficked area, the score helped to immerse me in the world. I just wanted to keep listening to it. GDC is always refreshing and playing To Leave was a perfect example of why I love it. The mechanics are tight, the artistry is interesting, and the angle feels new.
Preview: To Leave photo
Ecuador's first indie game
GDC is full of neat games. There are sentai management sims. Body building cats. Hyper Light Drifter. But one of the neatest games I played during GDC is To Leave, which creative director Estefano Palacios says is the first i... read feature

Review: Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

Mar 26 // Chris Carter
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (PC [reviewed], Mac)Developer: Blizzard EntertainmentPublisher: Blizzard EntertainmentRelease: March 25, 2014MSRP: $39.99 Before you even begin your adventure in Reaper of Souls, Patch 2.0.1, or the "Loot 2.0" patch is already fully in place. This doesn't require the purchase of Souls, but it adds in quite a few changes that make the entire game much better as a result. Paragon levels have been uncapped and are account-wide, rare drops have increased (and junk drops have decreased), a clan system is now available, the crafting system has been made more accessible (materials have been combined for less confusion), timed events have been added, and difficulties have been reworked. A lot of these changes seem to be unchained due to the removal of the Auction House, which allows the loot system to really thrive. You'll earn rare and even legendary items on a constant basis, keeping that loot wheel turning pretty much every run -- it reignites that flame of "one more dungeon" that Diablo III sorely missed after a few weeks of play. The other changes are pretty great as well, most notably the difficulty system. Now you can pick from five options all the way up to Torment (which is basically Inferno with a sliding scale) whenever you want, granting extra bonuses like more experience. This is a two-fold fix, as it not only alleviates the issue of people finding the game too easy the first time around, but it also helps keep you interested for longer periods of time with more options. Now, you don't have to beat the game three times to get to the "hard part." It's a win-win. [embed]272063:53130:0[/embed] Beyond that, there are Reaper of Souls specific additions that further augment Diablo III's new features -- most notably a brand new Act, a new character, and "adventure mode." The first thing you'll probably notice when you boot up Souls is the Crusader class, which is defense-minded damage dealer that's basically a mix between a Barbarian and a Monk. Like the archetype allows, the Crusader is a nice mix between offense and defense, allowing you to customize your character according to your personal priorities. Because they have access to a number of buffs and debuffs, you can choose to go all out with strong abilities like hammers or defensive powers like magic shields, or go for a middle of the road approach. They also have a ton of unique skills that no other class has, like a magical horse that crashes through enemies, and their armor design and general theme fits the game perfectly. If you loved the Paladin in Diablo II and the Monk didn't really fill that void, you'll love the Crusader. I would have preferred two extra classes (perhaps another caster) in this expansion to balance things out, but the Crusader is definitely fun enough to go from 1-70 with on its own. Speaking of level 70, that's the new cap that applies to everyone. All classes will get an extra ultimate ability and more runes, as well as more passives and an extra passive slot at max level. The account-wide paragon system also allows you to tweak everyone beyond the cap, allowing for an unprecedented amount of customization -- and that extra passive slot goes farther than you'd think. A third Artisan (in addition to the Blacksmith and the Jeweler) also makes an appearance in Souls, in the form of the Mystic. This NPC can re-work specific statistics in items into more desirable parameters for a price, as well as morph existing items into different skins through transmogrification. The former is a fairly pricey affair, but the latter is so well done (and appropriately priced) that it ensures you'll never hate the look of your character again. If you get an amazing item that looks lame, you can just change it in seconds. Like the new ability changes, it ensures that you're always in control of your character.The meat of Reaper of Souls however is Act V, which takes place in the desolate area of Westmarch. The narrative itself deals with Malthael, a former member of the Angiris Council and ex-Archangel of Wisdom, who has since become the Angel of Death -- the arch-nemesis of the expansion. It's pretty standard stuff when it comes to Diablo III's so-so narrative, but the environments and enemy models aren't ripped wholesale from the core game, which is what really makes Act V shine in its own right. Malthael's minions range from grim reaper type foes, to bone dogs, to general demonic entities, as you make your way through a variety of towns, graveyards, swamps, and temples. It's basically a mix of every Act before it, but with its own signature artstyle and charms. Although the areas themselves are fun I would have preferred better boss fights (and at least one more at that), because outside of one fan-service oriented enemy everything pales in comparison to the Ancients encounter from Diablo II. It's not like the bosses are bad, per se, but I expected a bit more based on Blizzard's past experience. The good news is once you're all done with the story, you can embark upon Adventure Mode -- a new feature in Reaper of Souls. Here you'll basically collect a number of different quests (bounties) with every active waypoint that can be tackled with your leisure. Usually these are shallow requests like "kill this boss" or "clear this area," but you'll earn tons of bonus experience for your efforts, as well as shards that can be used to open up random dungeons (rifts). This is basically the new lifeblood of Reaper of Souls, as dedicated players will no doubt take their 70s into Torment difficulty bounties and rifts in search of better loot -- and with Loot 2.0, they'll get it. It also helps that the new Paragon system is helping you earn stats for every character along the way, including a potential Crusader character, so no session feels like a waste. Diablo III may have lost its allure after a first months of play, but Reaper of Souls has sucked me right back in again. Most of these additions should have been in the base game from the get-go, but there's no denying that they're welcome changes. Now that Diablo III has a new base to work from, I hope Blizzard keeps at it to make it the best they possibly can. Thankfully, Reaper of Souls gives me hope.
Reaper of Souls review photo
No Auction House, no problem
After the classic that was Diablo II, expectations for a follow-up were at an all-time high. Although it could never really meet those expectations, Diablo III was a fine hack and slash, and I ended up replaying it time ... read feature

Review: The Powerpuff Girls: Defenders of Townsville

Mar 23 // Darren Nakamura
The Powerpuff Girls: Defenders of Townsville (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: RadiangamesPublisher: Cartoon Network GamesReleased: March 14, 2014MSRP: $7.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit In standard fashion for the genre, the Powerpuff Girls lose all of their powers at the onset of the adventure. Mojo Jojo builds a device that erases their procedural memories, causing them to forget how to use all of their powers. He also kidnaps Blossom, Bubbles, and the Mayor, leaving Buttercup to try to save the day. At the beginning, Buttercup can do nothing more than walk left or right; she cannot even punch or jump. With robots on her tail, she has to stay on the run. It is sort of interesting to be so completely disempowered, but thankfully the section does not last long. One of the first memories Buttercup regains is how to punch. Shortly after that, she remembers how to fly and things really start to feel right for the Powerpuff Girls property. One design decision that comes off as slightly strange at first is that there are two attack buttons, with one for leftward attacks and the other for rightward attacks. It takes some getting used to, but it quickly becomes clear why it is the way it is: a short time into the game, Buttercup gains a projectile attack, and the control scheme acts as a sort of simplified twin-stick shooter. With independent attack directions, players can fly left while shooting right, or vice versa. [embed]272334:53091:0[/embed] At that point, what appeared to be a brawler becomes more of a shmup. Some enemies put out an unhealthy amount of glowing purple bullets. Though it never reaches the point where it would be called bullet hell, the girls do a fair amount of dodging and shooting from afar, in addition to their more powerful melee attacks when the situation calls for it. Eventually, Buttercup rescues Blossom and subsequently Bubbles, and the player can switch between the three at will with a quick button press. All three have most of the same basic abilities, but each has her own unique projectile attack. Buttercup has a wave beam-esque pulse that can pass through walls, Blossom throws fireballs that deal splash damage and melt ice, and Bubbles has an ice attack that has the widest spread and can freeze open certain barriers. The girls' unique abilities provides one of the avenues for blocking progress and backtracking, though other universal abilities are used for this as well. As far as these types of games go, Defenders of Townsville is more open than most, with multiple paths available at any given time, and not much direction on which path makes the most sense. This highlights one of the weaknesses of the game: the map is less helpful than it should be. With such a nonlinear environment and the backtracking that entails, the map gives no information on what was previously blocking progress. It does show whether a room has a powerup to find and whether it has been cleared of enemies, but little else. It ends up not being a huge deal, because the area to explore is not too large, and the girls' ability to fly makes traversing it a relatively quick endeavor, but it does seem to be a step back for the genre, which has taken steps in recent years to minimize wasted time and effort. After completing the first quest, a second one opens up, but the progression is a bit different. In Mojo's Key Quest, the Powerpuff Girls keep all of their regained memories, and sections of the map are locked off by collectible keys rather than by abilities. To compensate for starting almost fully powered up, the robots to fight are more numerous and more formidable than before. It is in this second quest that the combat really starts to get demanding. With some practice, players are able to fully utilize some of the cool abilities that show up late in the first quest. The girls can punch projectiles out of the sky, use defeated enemies as explosive weapons, and perform devastating charge attacks to drop the robots. Some may find the combat in the first quest to be too easy, but it becomes much more satisfying in the second quest. Mojo's Key Quest has its own map issues, despite the change in progression. While it does clearly distinguish locked and open doors, it is a larger area with certain doors acting as two-way teleporters. The big thing missing from the in-game map is which teleporters lead to one another, requiring a rote memory component for something that could have easily been represented on the map screen. Graphically, Defenders of Townsville matches the recent visual reimagining for The Powerpuff Girls, and while I hated it at first, I got used to it by the end of the first two-hour quest. However, series purists and those who cannot get over it have the option to use the classic, thick-outlined art style, which changes not only the character sprites, but also the whole environment. Otherwise, I experienced a bit of noticeable screen tearing, but nothing too distracting from the experience. The soundtrack is a decent chiptune collection, but it does not especially fit the franchise. It has a bit of a grungy sound to it, rather than the expected sugary pop that many associate with The Powerpuff Girls. It is not bad by any means, but it just does not match. All in all, I came out of The Powerpuff Girls: Defenders of Townsville pleasantly surprised. Not only does it nail the look and feel of flying around and beating up robots as a Powerpuff Girl, but it also stands in its own right as a unique take on the metroidvania genre. Where most focus on platforming as a means for getting around, the girls' constant flight and projectile arsenal puts an emphasis on shmup gameplay instead. Though it suffers from a few design oversights, Defenders of Townsville is a good, solid game. It handles the franchise well enough, but it would be good even without the Powerpuff Girls property. At about four hours of total gameplay, it does not overstay its welcome, and it definitely does justice to the franchise.
Powerpuff Girls review photo
Sugar, spice, and almost everything nice
Fifteen years ago, The Powerpuff Girls was my jam. I used to watch it (along with Dexter's Laboratory) just about every day after coming home from school, but before firing up a videogame. A couple weeks ago, when The Po... read feature

Epic Games announces new $19.99/mo Unreal Engine 4 subscription plan

Mar 19 // Dale North
Here's a message to Sweeney himself: [embed]272174:53046:0[/embed] Some notes from a Q&A session after the announcement: Sweeney says that free-to-play games will not have to pay any royalties While support platforms' source for past projects will be provided with the plan, console support and source will not be available. For console access, Epic negotiates on a case-by-case basis "We are not shipping an Unreal Tournament game" alongside this engine announcement
UE4 goes subscription  photo
$19.99 a month, 5% of revenue, starts today
Anyone can gain access to Unreal Engine 4 now with a new subscription plan, priced at $19.99 a month. This was announced this morning in a GDC press conference by Epic co-founder Tim Sweeney.  With this new plan, users c... read feature

Review: Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Jan 30 // Darren Nakamura
Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4)Developer: Young Horses, Inc.Publisher: Young Horses, Inc.Release: January 30, 2014 (Linux, Mac, PC), March 2014 (PlayStation 4)MSRP: $14.99 ($11.99 until February 6)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Octodad is just a typical guy, trying to make his way through life with his wife and two children, except that he is an octopus and he has the additional burden of keeping that a secret. Dressed in his snazzy suit, most people are none the wiser about his true identity, but suspicions rise when he is spotted acting strange. In addition to mouse and keyboard control, full gamepad support is in place. I ended up preferring playing with a controller, but both work on the same principles. By default, players control three of Octodad's limbs: two legs and one arm. By manipulating their positions in space, Octodad can walk, run, climb, grab objects, and do all of the things a normal human being does. The kicker is that each limb is generally controlled one at a time, and they are all held together with an elasticity that often sends them off in unintended directions. [embed]269232:52279:0[/embed] The result is almost like handing a non-gamer a controller and putting him in the thick of a first-person shooter; there is a lot of flailing around and looking at the ground. It takes a certain amount of brain rewiring to be able to make Octodad move as intended, even when the necessary sequence of actions is cognitively clear. In any other game, these would be complaints, but Octodad is specifically about being uncomfortable and learning how to function in a body that is almost alien. For some, it may be frustrating, but for those willing to put in the effort, it is ultimately rewarding to learn how to function as an octopus in society. By the end, players should be able to walk competently without knocking things over or punching kids in the face too often. Being an octopus also affords Octodad some benefits that humans cannot reap, like the ability to squeeze into tight spots or to stretch out over large gaps. Young Horses built this awkward, difficult control scheme, and then crafted environments that take full advantage of its physics. Where the previous title was more of a proof of concept on the control scheme, Dadliest Catch delves a bit more deeply into Octodad lore. Revealed over the course of the campaign are how Octodad and his wife Scarlett met, when he decided to start masquerading as a human, and why the neighborhood sushi chef wants to kill him so badly. Of course, how he and Scarlett managed to have two human children is jokingly brought up but never seriously addressed. Truly, Dadliest Catch realizes how silly its concept is, and never takes itself too seriously. The writing fits the mood perfectly. Some of the off-hand remarks and terrible marine biology puns are worthy of a few laughs, but the general absurdity of the situation in its entirety is the biggest source of humor throughout the game. The silliness is conveyed well through the graphics and sound as well. Octodad lives in a colorful cartoon world that serves as a welcome contrast to the muted palettes of more realistic games. The soundtrack is similarly upbeat and peppy, and it features a main theme that will be stuck in my head for years. Though it looks great, there are occasionally hiccups throughout in which the graphics lock up for several seconds at a time. It is a minor nuisance for most of the game, but one area in particular features spawning urchins that exist in number too great for the system to handle. Calculating the physics and rendering that many objects is just too processor intensive, and the experience becomes screen-punchingly unplayable with normal settings. Even after dropping the graphic effects and resolution to their lowest levels, the World of Kelp plods along with frequent framerate drops. That it ends with a fairly difficult climb up a jungle gym exacerbates the issue; ascending a fair way up just to fall due to graphics locking up is intensely frustrating. Another potential sticking point for some might be the relatively short length of the story. Clocking in at about three hours, it ends before the central conceit starts to wear thin. Dadliest Catch does about as much as it can with its octopus limb control scheme, but it (ironically) would not have the legs to last much longer. I personally had no issue with the length, but those who like to calculate hours of entertainment per dollar may take exception that the main story finishes not very long after it begins. Alleviating that a bit are some optional objectives for those who want to keep playing. Each level hides three custom neckties for Octodad to wear, each requiring thorough exploration, tricky climbing, or some interaction with the environment. Additionally, each level has a par time to beat, opening it up for potential speed running. Also included are Steam Workshop support, so users can create their own levels, and a hilarious cooperative mode that allows up to four players to control one or more limbs, requiring an unusual form of teamwork and resulting in an even more awkward octopus than usual. Despite the short length of the campaign, there is enough in place for diehard enthusiasts to keep going for as long as they want. In the end, I would not be surprised to hear that the Octodad community is thriving years down the road. It exudes a certain weirdness and charm that makes it stand out from a lot of other titles out there, and there are tools in place for it to live on past the point when the credits start to roll. Though it has some issues with framerate drops and its approach to control is definitely not for everybody, Dadliest Catch kept a smile on my face for most of its duration.
Octodad review photo
Not octobad
An interesting exercise in game design is to identify assumptions about the genre or medium in general, then question those assumptions. One such assumption that most make is that control should feel natural and unobtrusive a... read feature

Elder Scrolls photo
Even if you're not a fan you'll appreciate this amazing cinematic
Yes, it's a cinematic, but it's one hell of an impressive cinematic. Fan or not, you can't help but get excited for The Elder Scrolls Online after watching this eight minute long movie. Makes you really wish for an actual El... read feature

Impressions: Starbound

Jan 01 // Darren Nakamura
Starbound (Mac, PC [tested])Developer: Chucklefish GamesPublisher: Chucklefish GamesReleased: TBA [beta now open] Terraria veterans will feel familiar with Starbound shortly after starting up. There is a much more robust character creation tool, allowing for customization of race, gender, traits, and even personality (which determines stance and gait). Then, players are thrust into the narrative, drifting in orbit above an unknown planet on a spaceship that is out of fuel. After collecting what little resources are available, players teleport down to the planet, and the adventure begins. Despite being set in the future, where technology allows for interstellar travel and teleportation, Starbound begins with mostly primitive items and goals. There is a futuristic multi-tool that can be used to dig through the ground, fell trees, and move items from one point to another. Importantly, while it can do most of the things a space colonist would want to do, it does its work very slowly. So the first thing a new player will typically do is take down a tree or two for lumber, excavate some stone, and put them together to craft stone tools, which have more specialized functions, but work much more quickly. At this point, the engine driving the early game reveals itself: mine for precious metals, chop down trees, build better tools, weapons, armor, and shelter. Use those things to find even better materials. Survive. All the while, the overarching narrative is looming: players must find fuel for their ship in order to continue exploring the galaxy. A few new systems throw a bit of a wrench into things. In addition to having to worry about health and oxygen, hunger and temperature are now factors to consider as well. To stave off hunger, players can kill alien creatures with a hunting bow to harvest meat or take to farming wheat and corn. For warmth, characters need only to stand near a heat source during the night. At first, the new systems seem like slightly annoying, unnecessary additions, but they contribute to the idea that Starbound is not just a game about mining. It is a game about survival. Speaking of indigenous protein sources, the procedural creature generation is pretty robust. It features bipeds, quadrupeds, flyers, and swimmers of all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and temperaments. While many have basic melee attacks, I have seen more exotic creatures with acid-projectiles or control over electricity. More interesting is that not all of the alien fauna is hostile; some creatures will happily coexist with colonists, as long as they are not attacked first. When players do get around to mining and building, a few noticeable upgrades stick out. Pickaxes now work by default over a three-by-three area of blocks instead of on one block at a time. Placing blocks to build structures is done four at a time. Both of these operations can be modified to work on single blocks for fine operations, but in their default modes they make some of the more tedious portions go much more quickly. Another tweak is that building materials are not separated into foreground and background blocks; a left click will place a block in the front and a right click will place it in back. It sounds like a small thing, but it is just one example of elegant design streamlining some of the more mundane aspects of sandbox games. Another welcome addition for newcomers is the inclusion of missions to lead players in the right direction. While Terraria has a progression of events, it is often difficult to determine and even completely miss-able for those not looking in the right places. The first thing Starbound does is give instructions on how to get started through its missions, guiding new players through the early game without being too intrusive for veterans. Graphically, Starbound is impressive. While it maintains a chunky pixel look similar to Terraria's, the animations are much more detailed. Weapons swing more stylishly and creatures interact more realistically with the environment. Trees sway and topple instead of just exploding into crafting material. In addition to the standard day/night cycle, weather effects like rain and lightning make the planets of Starbound feel more real than Terraria's single world. With countless worlds with unique biomes and wildlife, each ready to be explored and colonized, Starbound's scope is incredible. After hours of playing, I have only seen a small fraction of the planets I have visited, and there are still thousands more left to explore. There is content I know exists -- dungeons, villages, vehicles, boss fights, and more -- but have not yet experienced personally. This game is enormous, and I have barely even scratched the surface. Unfortunately, the scope of the game has kept it in development for a bit longer than expected. Currently, Starbound is available to play in Stage One of the beta, which is visibly missing content and has its fair share of bugs. Most are harmless, though I have been stuck on the ship before, unable to teleport down to a planet. Worse yet, the current stage of the beta has seen a number of character wipes; though these were made well known by Chucklefish, it still stings a bit to have hours of progress erased. Thankfully, we can expect just one more character wipe before Stage Two of the beta begins. My time with Starbound has been breathtaking. Adding space travel into Terraria would have been an ambitious enough goal for most studios, and an exciting enough idea for fans, but Chucklefish has gone so far above and beyond with Starbound that it makes me feel tiny. There is no way for any one person to find all there is to find in the deepest reaches of outer space. Though I will visit dozens, perhaps hundreds of planets in the coming months, I can only dream about the untold stories on one of the thousands of planets that will never be visited. For a game about space exploration, that is the most perfect feeling it could impart.
Starbound impressions photo
Shooting for the moon
Back in 2011, Re-Logic released Terraria, which gained massive popularity for its procedurally generated sandbox gameplay that had combat and objectives for those wanting more than just a place to go and dig. It was a surpris... read feature

Review: Republique: Exordium

Dec 20 // Chris Carter
Republique: Exordium (iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 5], Mac, PC)Developer: Camouflaj, LoganPublisher: CamouflajRelease Date: December 19, 2013 (iOS) / PC (TBA)MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) Republique is a stealth game at heart, with a bit of adventure style exploration involved. It follows the Telltale scheme of distribution, so you can buy the roughly two hour first episode now, and the four other episodes will arrive at a later undisclosed date. Right off the bat it's pretty easy to understand the concept, as the theme is your standard dystopian tale of freedom versus control. You play the role of Big Brother. Literally. Using an entire network of cell phones and cameras (just like the ending of The Dark Knight), your job is to save Hope -- a young woman who is in danger of being "re-calibrated" because she read some literature she wasn't supposed to. The tale is told by way of top voice talents, and as a general rule, is on par with some of the biggest AAA games out there. An Otacon-like partner named "Cooper" (who talks only in text-to-speech) helps add some welcome comedy to the proceedings. Having said that, Camouflaj hasn't really sold me on the world or the lore yet. Barring a cliffhanger ending and some hints of an interesting story, Republique hasn't offered anything unique in its first episode that really has me hooked. It's mostly just straight stealth, with constant (underwhelming) hints at what's to come. It's a good thing then that the series has plenty of promise. [embed]267744:51971:0[/embed] As I said before, the entirety of Republique is seen and played through a security system, and it's done so well that it doesn't feel like a gimmick. Lest you think that a stealth game cannot work on a mobile device -- think again. Republique basically blew me away with how responsive its icons are, and the way Camouflaj handled the design is brilliant. Pressing the camera button in the top right corner "pauses" the game, and views every selectable object in the field instantly. No matter where an object or individual is on the screen, there's an icon attached to it, floating off to the side -- just tap on that icon, and it instantly selects it. There's no pixel hunting, or "precise pinky touching" here -- you just tap the giant picture and go. It helps, because there are no clunky virtual joysticks or controls -- you touch an area to make Hope move, you touch a camera to "jump" to it, and so on. Everything is done by pointing at it like you would a mouse, and I was pleasantly surprised at how I had little trouble getting to where I needed to go. The only problem is that traveling long distances is incredibly slow going. Even if you double-tap to get Hope to (slowly) "run" to the area you wish, only some of the time will the camera automatically switch to her new area. So basically, you have to command her to go to an area, press the camera button, pause the game, find a camera, jump there, then un-pause. In short bursts it's extremely fun to quickly switch and change up tactics on the fly, but it gets really old if you're just running around looking for items. Republique initially stated it had elements of a Metroidvania in its Kickstarter, but I don't really see much of that here. Given the fact that you don't really want to explore too often because of the camera, it doesn't help that a lot of the first episode consists of heavy backtracking and one room, linear areas with nothing of interest. Maybe that'll change with subsequent episodes, but for now, the idea isn't fully realized yet. Republique makes some compromises though, because although Hope is mostly defenseless from guards, she does have a few tricks up her sleeve like pepper spray and tasers. By equipping either one of these items, Hope can either attack a guard or use it as a defensive ability -- similar to the daggers in the Resident Evil remake. It works as these items are sparing in nature, which helps keep Republique as a stealth game without getting too action heavy. It's incredibly addicting to steal from every guard too, similar to the dogtags from Metal Gear Solid. You can also sell data to the "Data Broker" at select terminals to earn upgrades like eavesdropping on phones (for more data, basically), and distraction hacks to keep guards busy. It's not too overpowering a feature, and it adds some RPG and progression elements to the proceedings, which is pretty unique for an episodic adventure.  There's another hang-up here, though. Hope can't die, as she is "ordered" to undergo a certain punishment by the higher-ups -- so if the guards catch you, they'll always bring you to a containment cell that you can quickly hack out of. At first, it's pretty unique, as you can thwart guards leading you to the cell by locking doors behind you (thus shutting them out), but you'll get sick of it very quickly after going through it every time. Eventually you can press a "fast forward" button to skip the escort part, but most of the time, it's more painful and pace-killing than a checkpoint or game over screen. Unexpectedly, Republique brings with it a cool like meta-world element to it, similar to Kojima's oddball videogame, literature, and film references. Beyond the obvious Orwellian jibes, it may very well be the first videogame to heavily reference other Kickstarter projects, and pick-pocketing guards will sometimes yield old gaming cartridge collectibles with some commentary from Cooper. These little jokes range from "I spent too much on this Kickstarter for this poster," "before Infinity Blade, I thought mobile games were for babies," and so on. Scanning guards will even sometimes yield the mugs of heavy backers. It's not overly funny, but it's a cute way to tie-in the game's roots.Like any episodic series, Republique's quality will be based on its offering as a whole, and not necessarily a single episode. Having said that, the game has the solid framework of a serviceable stealth title, but the story and cast haven't sold me yet that this will be a tale worth telling. I'll be waiting with bated breath to see if episode two is an improvement.
Republique REVIEWED photo
Running on a touch of Hope
Republique was quite the ambitious Kickstarter project. With big names like Jennifer Hale and David Hayter attached, not to mention the million dollar budget, to say this stealth adventure promised quite a bit is an understatement. Having played the first of five episodes, I can safely say that most of the lofty goals have been met, but there is a bit more that's yet to be seen. read feature

Review: Teslagrad

Dec 18 // Darren Nakamura
Teslagrad (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed])Developer: Rain GamesPublisher: Rain GamesReleased: December 13, 2013MSRP: $9.99Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Immediately upon its outset, Teslagrad offers a brief back story of its young, unnamed protagonist, though it brings up more questions than it provides answers. Who is this boy in blue? Why is he venturing out on a rainy night? Why are the men clad in red trying to capture him? Teslagrad does eventually answer those questions, but it is the manner in which it achieves that result that is particularly interesting.Other than the title menu and the closing credits roll, there are no words in Teslagrad, spoken or written. The narrative is delivered through wordless puppet shows found at various points up the main tower, and through still images found in various nooks and crannies. The real wonder is that Teslagrad's narrative is clear and cohesive despite the limitation, offering a tale of cooperation, treachery, greed, hope, and salvation. Were it done another way, it might not have been a particularly engaging story, but as a sort of mystery to be pieced together over the course of the game, it is marvelous. [embed]267329:51794:0[/embed]The wordless narrative is helped made possible by Teslagrad's fantastic art direction and visual style. The mixture of hand-drawn character sprites, 2.5D background elements, and various lighting effects provide an unwelcoming feel suitable for the exploration of a mysterious castle. For the most part, the game is gorgeous, and I took many more screenshots over the course of the campaign than will fit in this review. The only minor quibble with Teslagrad's visual presentation is that the protagonist's animations seem a bit jumpy at times and often don't match his speed. It is a bit glaring at first, but easy to ignore when he is doing more than just walking.As far as gameplay is concerned, the mechanics in Teslagrad are nothing we have not seen before. Objects in the environment (and eventually the player character) can be colored red or blue, where same-colored entities repel one another and opposite-colored entities attract. Using that basic idea, the player can perform otherwise impossible feats: scaling high walls, crossing wide gaps, and avoiding strategically placed electrical arcs. At their best, Teslagrad's puzzles present the player with a clear problem and ask the player to solve them given the tools provided. On the other hand, Teslagrad occasionally commits the cardinal sin of puzzle action: there are times when the solution to a problem is clear, but the execution itself is difficult. Few things are more frustrating than knowing exactly how to do something but being physically unable due to precise timing requirements or a general lack of dexterity.That is not even to mention the boss fights. Eschewing puzzles altogether, the boss fights are heavily informed by the old school of game design, for better and for worse. These large enemies typically have three stages, can defeat the player in one hit, require pattern recognition and quick reactions, and can be surprisingly difficult. While most of the bosses are not subjectively bad, the frantic pace and emphasis on action makes them feel as though they belong to a completely different game than the otherwise pensive rest of Teslagrad. The last two bosses in particular are obnoxious not only because they introduce new attacks late in the fights, but also because failure causes a full restart of the battle, leaving little room to learn how to deal with the new ideas. That said, my heart was pounding toward the end of my winning bout against the final boss, and his eventual defeat was supremely gratifying. Adding to the old school woes is a small collect-a-thon element that could have been handled much more elegantly. Hidden throughout the tower are 36 capsules, each containing one of the aforementioned still images explaining Teslagrad's back story. Often, they are presented clearly in a room as a reward for completing an optional, more difficult puzzle than the standard one in that location. In that form, the optional capsules are great. Elsewhere they are hidden from plain sight and only attainable through tedious exploration of every room. Compounding on that is the largely unhelpful map screen, which gives no indication of even general areas in which any missed capsules reside. Toward the end, there are hints that something special happens if a player were to collect all 36 capsules, but only the most meticulous searchers would be able to find them all without outside help.Taking all of that together, it is not obvious for whom Teslagrad was created. It requires a very particular set of interests and skills to fully enjoy. The incredible artwork and wordless storytelling style invite those who want to experience a unique narrative, but the difficult action gameplay and tedious exploration for capsules actively work to keep players from that experience. For those who are interested in the history to be discovered and who are able to persevere through the products of old design philosophy, Teslagrad is highly rewarding and an ultimately fantastic game. However, I would not be surprised to hear of others unable or unwilling to see it through to the end.
Teslagrad review photo
Electrifying
Ever since it was first revealed, I've been attracted to the basic conceit of Teslagrad. Perhaps due to the volume of available titles in the genre, indie puzzle platformers have become a bit polarizing, but that never repell... read feature

TES Online dated photo
Console versions to follow in June
ZeniMax Online Studios has come out with a suitably memorable release date for The Elder Scrolls Online: April 4, 2014 (aka 4.4.14). That's when the massively multiplayer online role-playing game will arrive on PC and Mac --... read feature

Defending earth against new threats in XCOM: Enemy Within

Oct 09 // Steven Hansen
XCOM: Enemy Within (PC [previewed], Mac, PS3, 360) Developer: FiraxisPublisher: 2K GamesRelease Date: November 12, 2013 Enemy Within expands the original content on two levels. Down in the trenches, in XCOM’s turn-based, solider-controlling gameplay, we’re seeing new additions like solider modifications and new enemy types. It isn’t just new aliens that look like a mix between the mechanical squids of The Matrix and the alien ghosts from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. There are scummy jerks in fedoras, too. Well, they probably own fedoras. Exalt is a comically evil paramilitary secret society that is down with the aliens’ genetic perfection aims. It intends to rule over the world using alien technology and genetic superiority. It is basically a facile, extra occult Nazi party, but with a name that has an “ecks” instead of a “z.” You’ll have to fight with Exalt members in covert operations, which are two new mission types within the expansion. Their AI has been tuned differently than the aliens, too, allegedly making them more cooperative and tactical enemies. In Covert Extraction, you send a plainclothes solider into a scheming Exalt cell, then go pick them up, ensuring they live through the process (and you hack a com relay). In Covert Data Recovery, your solider on the inside doesn’t need to make it out alive but you need to protect two different assets. The first can be sacrificed if you want to hole up and protect the second, but you get less money. I ran a Data Recovery mission -- successfully, in fact. My covert op, a Russian armed with only a pistol, actually managed to hit every overwatch shot and made the final kill. Unfortunately, I lost two in the process soldiers, including a dependable Italian heavy, Maurizio Mancini, who was close to my heart. I mention the soldiers’ nationality because soldiers now speak in their native language, rather than everyone having the same handful of American English combat barks. It’s a subtle addition, but I liked it a lot. On the macro level, Exalt changes your day to day operations as XCOM commander as well. First, Exalt cell attacks are another event you’ll have to respond to. Fail to do so and it can hinder your progress in some way. Exalt will run Propoganda attacks to raise panic, Research Hacks to slow your lab’s research progress, and Sabotage attacks to directly drain your money. You don’t have to take Exalt’s shtick lying down, however, just foiling them in retaliation. For a fee, which increases each time, you can scan the world for potential Exalt activity. An exposed Exalt cell won’t be able to begin its attack, letting you choose whether or not to engage it or to let it go back underground and prepare another attack. Stalling is always an option if you’re not presently up to a challenge. Engaging with Exalt, whether through planned covert ops or otherwise can also yield clues to where Exalt is located; for example, you may learn Exalt is not in Africa. With enough clues, you can take a stab and accuse a country of housing the cell, or collect more clues until you're sure. A wrongly accused country pulls out of the XCOM project, as they are well enemy within their right to do. Choose correctly and you get a shot at Exalt’s challenging, fortified base. Playing Enemy Within reminded me of how good XCOM: Enemy Unknown is. After playing it, I had to go home and start a new game of Enemy Unknown, x-completely aware that to experience Enemy Within’s additions, I’d need to start a new campaign. Maybe next month it will be time for that Classic Ironman run, with an added twist.
XCOM Enemy Within photo
XCOM expansion has me xcompletely excited
If you haven’t played the eXcellent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you should. However, now there is a caveat to that. You should play it, but you should probably wait until November 12 to do so because that’s when the Enem... read feature

Steam Machine specs photo
A Titan! As in, yes, an Nvidia Titan!
Later this year, Valve will ship out 300 prototype Steam Machines for beta testers. If you thought you wanted in on this action, just wait until you see the official system specs. "The prototype machine is a high-end, high-pe... read feature







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