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Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Nov 17 // Chris Carter
Star Wars Battlefront (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE)Publisher: Electronic ArtsMSRP: $59.99Release Date: November 17, 2015 My main problem with Star Wars Battlefront is how arcadey the game feels, when it's very clear DICE is trying to push a fully-fledged shooter on you. The end result is a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, with a lot of fun bits, and some elements of overproduction and bloat fixed in to boot. Let's start with how the game handles class creation. "Cards" are basically uninspired loadout options, with the tired gating process to boot. Why does the game feature a "credits" system on top of ranked level gating? Call of Duty solved this conundrum ages ago with tokens, which simplify everything with a singular in-game currency that you can use to unlock things. With Battlefront, it feels like DICE is actively gating you at every turn, and willingly deterring you from experimentation. Once you actually open up your options they aren't exactly mind-blowing either, with generic powers like "focus fire" (more temporary accuracy), or Thermal Detonators, which are just grenades. The only standout is the jump pack. All of the aesthetic options lack personality as well, and beyond the token gender and race choices, everything looks the same. Whereas previous titles would allow players to choose between multiple races with drastically different abilities (read: droids), every Battlefront player is humanoid in nature, whether they're a Twi'lek rebel or a Stormtrooper, they all operate the same. [embed]320463:61122:0[/embed] That isn't to say that the game isn't fun. Locations are sprawling and full of life, even if the character models aren't nearly as vibrant. Every single environment is detailed to the point where it looks like it was taken directly from the films, and most of the time, there's a gigantic battle playing out in the skies above, adding a dire feel to every match. I really like most of the modes, particularly Supremacy, Fighter Squadron, and Hero Hunt. There are nine in all, and all of them are fine in their own way. Supremacy is basically the new core mode of the game, featuring a "capture the point" tug of war system. It fits with Star Wars' high-octane action, as tons of different vehicles are scattered about at a frantic pace, to the point where every spawn is interesting. This game type is pretty much always fun when it's featured in a Battlefront game, and I haven't had a bad experience yet. Fighter Squadron, while rudimentary, is also a go-to of mine. Across several landscapes two teams will battle it out in the sky, solely in vehicles. It's not even close to the thrill of a proper X-Wing or Tie Fighter game, but again, as an arcade-like experience, it does the trick. Barrel rolls, quick turns, shields, and missile locks are all in, and it feels unique enough to set itself apart from other similar titles. My other standout favorite is Hero Hunt. This one basically teeters from a team-based mode to a free-for-all in an instant, placing a collective of soldiers against one named character -- the person to score the killing blow gets to play as that hero. It's a rush due to the fact that heroes cycle after every death, and fighting the jet-pack wielding Boba Fett is a completely different experience than taking on a Force user. You're constantly forced to change up how you approach any given situation (and learn all of their abilities, and how they impact the flow of a match), and the recognizable characters elevate the mode. Playing online is the gift that keeps on giving with Battlefront. There's a wide variety of game types to choose from without having so many that the community feels segmented. Even in EA Access there are plenty of people online, and games fill rather quickly. Then you have the mission mode, which is separate from everything else. I'm not convinced that it's much more than a fleeting fancy, even with an online or offline co-op partner. The first half consists of basic "versus" battles with or without placing players in the shoes of heroes and villains, and survival essentially amounts to another horde mode. What's weird about the former is that it's so incredibly limited, almost for no reason. The game forces you to play with "tokens," similar to Call of Duty's "Kill Confirmed," and with just four maps, it gets old in an afternoon. Why did it have to be like this? Why aren't there more maps, and better bots available? It feels rushed, almost like EA had to add in a token offline game type just to have it in there. The same goes for survival, because while I do like that the wave-based mode has an "end," unlike many other boring infinite horde modes, there isn't much to it. Occasionally waves will throw an AT-ST or Tie Fighter at you, and all players have to do is blast it into oblivion with environmental weapons or their normal gear. They have a lot of health even on normal, so it can get incredibly tedious. In short, do not count on a reliable single player component. Star Wars Battlefront feels authentic in many ways, but that authenticity is aggressively pursued at the cost of gameplay, and is often tacked-on. If you're in the mood for a relatively shallow shooter with caveats you likely won't be disappointed, but I wish that DICE had a little more time to polish it and add more substance. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, as well as time spent online with the EA Access program on Xbox One, purchased by the reviewer.]
Star Wars review photo
Ready are you? What know you of ready?
Star Wars has been a part of my reality ever since my parents showed me the first film on VHS. From there I attended the release of every movie in the series, including the re-releases of the original trilogy -- if you'r...

Star Wars Battlefront's full version hasn't really swayed me

Nov 12 // Chris Carter
Firstly, I have to say I'm surprised at how smooth the EA Access build has been. I've had no issues connecting to any matches, and online play has been very smooth. There's also plenty of people in the program, and nearly every match I've played has filled up immediately. Additionally, nine modes in all is enough to keep people interested without having the unfortunate effect of splitting the community. In addition to the modes I already covered, another addition really stood out -- Hero Hunt. It's a 1v7 mode essentially, where one player takes the place of an iconic hero, and defends themselves against a group of standard soldiers. Whoever kills said character becomes one next. It's pretty fun, mostly because of how formidable each hero is. I love that it's constantly changing up the hero after each kill, as it forces players to adjust their tactics The other breakout mode is Fighter Squadron, which is an entirely vehicular based affair, similar to a Star Fox skirmish. It's a far better way to handle ships than the lame "power-up" style pickups in the core modes, and there are even hero ships like the Falcon involved. AI is also built in to make it feel more full and "epic," which I'm mostly okay with since it feels more arcadey than anything. As for the rest of the modes they're pretty standard fare (team deathmatch, escort), and across all of them I noticed the same stilted animations from the beta. It feels cheap, even in comparison to DICE's recent efforts like Battlefield 4. Voicework for standard grunts and heroes alike also feels rush and hastily injected. Pop-in is a major issue, and one of my soldiers even grew hair in the intro -- it was hilarious, but when it happens in-game it's just annoying. [embed]320256:61076:0[/embed] Thankfully the offline modes have been fully unlocked as well, allowing me a much bigger taste in comparison to the one horde mode mission in the beta. As a note, all of the following supports online and split-screen play, the latter of which sees a small drop in quality as well as the framerate, but is still presented in a very much playable state. The first of the two modes is "Battles," which are essentially team deathmatch confrontations with AI built in. There are only four maps to choose from (Hoth, Tatooine, Endor, and Sullust), and both support regular or hero battles -- the latter of which allows players to control a named character (Luke, Han, Leia, Vader, Palpatine, or Boba). It's...straight-up Kill Confirmed from Call of Duty. After downing a foe they'll drop tokens, which you'll have to collect to score points. Do that 100 times and the match is over. If you want you can turn off your AI support, which makes the gametype even more like a horde mode than it already is. Sadly, the AI is a bit dull even on the "master" difficulty, so they never really take the gameplay to the next level. The same exact four maps are available in Survival mode, which delivers enemies in waves like a traditional horde experience. It's a fun distraction, but it doesn't ever go the full mile, heavily relying on nostalgia, like the classic soundtrack from the original trilogy. Ultimately, both modes feel the same. The former is framed more as a versus match, but still places multiple AI opponents in each arena with you -- it just isn't presented in a wave-based format. For those of you who were holding out hope for a more involved single-player component in lieu of a campaign, prepare to be disappointed. I obviously need more time to deliver a final verdict, so stay tuned for a full review sometime next week. In the meantime, you can download the game now if you're in the EA Early Access program or you happened to get a free token recently.
Star Wars Battlefront photo
EA Access impressions
I wasn't all that smitten with the Star Wars Battlefront beta, but today the full game launches for EA Early Access members, with a 10-hour time limit caveat. Now the game is free of content locks, with all modes available for play in addition to the offline component, which features split-screen support and bots. The final build hasn't really changed my mind all that much.

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (Patch 3.1)

Nov 11 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 23, 2015 Whereas past patches tended to lead towards an epic conclusion with a pesky Primal, 3.1, As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness in many ways is a table-setting diversion. The brand new trial encounter (Knights of the Round EX) is not gated by the main story questline -- players can just pick that up from the Mor Dhona bar -- and the tale essentially consists of a series of errands and cutscenes, with only one instanced mission at the end. All said, it will take you roughly an hour to complete. It basically deals with locating missing comrades after the events of the story and has no real payoff other than furthering the Warrior of Darkness arc, which will likely slowly play out throughout the entire course of Heavensward, until another expansion comes around. That said, it still has a lot of personality. I enjoyed seeing the new cast interact with one another. The real star of this patch though is the new exploratory mission mode. Billed as an open-world sandbox, you're thrown into a randomly generated high-level zone with various objectives, including combat challenges and gathering activities. In a Guild Wars 2-like twist, players will share rewards and XP if they fight named creatures in this mode while encountering other parties, and everyone can contribute to objectives as a party.  The rewards are excellent, and the entire affair plays out like a giant randomized hunt. It's a rush to fly around with a bunch of strangers and locate targets, and killing a bunch of high-priority enemies will spawn newer, tougher bosses. While it's meant to be played as a group you can still solo queue for it, as long as you're okay with rolling greed for everything against everyone else. I played this more than anything else this patch and don't see myself getting tired of it. [embed]320086:61066:0[/embed] Players can also head into two new dungeons and the 24-person Void Ark raid, meant to mirror the Crystal Tower casual activities in vanilla Realm Reborn. I'm happy with how the two dungeons (Saint Mocianne's Arboretum and Pharos Sirius Hard) turned out. The developers have it down to a science now (the same goes for the new EX encounter, King Thordan, which is just as fun as every EX in the past, and perfectly tuned in terms of difficulty). Bosses are fun without being too tough for people just passing through in matchmaking, and the locations, although heavily gated to prevent speedrunning, are full of detail. While patches typically provide three new dungeons, I'm actually fine with a pair of them, and the trend of one new location and one remake is something I can get behind. The Void Ark is very similar in that regard, but it also provides a brand new arc, which I personally feel is stronger than Crystal Tower's. The encounters are a tad easier than the previous casual raids, which I'm starting to have mixed feelings about. I get that the philosophy is accessibility, but at the same time, I feel like the developers aren't preparing the player base for tougher activities, some of which support matchmaking tools. On the flipside, I'm a bit more invested in the story this time around, as they've weaved Diabolos into it, as well as another fan-favorite character from the series that I won't spoil here. So what else does 3.1 entail? A bunch of ancillary stuff. For one, you have the Vanu Vanu beast tribe quests, which will provide hardcore players with another faction to grind for. I was never big on the tribes as they felt far too repetitive for menial rewards, and only adding one tribe feels like a half-measure -- people will just grind it out in a few minutes and move on daily. The Gold Saucer also got a small update in the form of a new wing, two new mini-games, and the Lord of Verminion strategy game, as well as some new Triple Triad cards. I'm really glad the team is still pushing this zone, as it's the perfect place to go while you're waiting for queue times, or if you want to spend a few minutes in the game without doing anything important. No, Verminion isn't quite Pokémon, but it adds in another use for minions, and it's definitely fun enough to play a few times on a weekly basis. Other quality-of-life fixes are in, like the fact that the DualShock 4 is now plug and play on PC. There are new camera options, enhanced companion functionality like full support for other mounts, a small Ninja buff to bring them in line with other DPS, more flying mounts, and the ability to ride in Idyllshire. Another controversial change is the "solution" to the housing market -- demolition -- or as other MMOs call it, "decay." After 45 days, your house will be demolished, unless you log in and prevent it. It's...a very typical strategy for more hardcore games, but for a casual MMO like Final Fantasy, it feels out of place. I wish Square Enix would just fix the housing issue with bigger wards and more of them, but the developers haven't actually addressed it in months. All in all, I'm a bit conflicted on 3.1 I adore the exploratory missions, and find them to be one of my favorite gametypes in an MMO to date. The new dungeons (as well as the Void Ark) are strong, and the story, while brief, is engaging. But at the same time, this is clearly a catch-up patch, with the typical loop consisting of players grinding for Poetic Tomes to better face the existing Alexander Savage raid. Sadly, there's no new wing for Alexander, and most disappointing of all, the anticipated continuation of the Zodiac weapon questline is nowhere to be found, as it has been pushed to a later patch I'm not sure if As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness is enough to really pull anyone back in if they quit recently, but I'm having fun with it regardless. I can see myself doing the Void Ark weekly for the foreseeable future, and logging in regularly to do more exploratory missions. I just hope the team has more up its sleeve sooner than later. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV photo
As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward was a tremendous expansion, all things considered. It brought in a whole new storyline that was worth getting invested in, new classes, and tons of additional activities including a raid. B...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Nov 09 // Steven Hansen
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $59.99Released: November 10, 2015 (Xbox One, Xbox 360); Q1 2016 (PC); Q4 2016 (PS4) Having previously glimpsed the supernatural, Rise of the Tomb Raider's Lara is open to the wild theories of ancient immortality that consumed her father. A brief trip into Syria introduces the new enemy, a highly-funded, obviously evil group called Trinity led by Konstantin, a religious zealot and less comic book version of Uncharted 2's Lazarević. Lara then tries to beat the stonejaw-led shadowy entity to the Siberian wilderness, where most of the game takes place. The first thing I noticed in Syria was its rich orange sands, a strong contrast to the last Tomb Raider's much more muted palette. Then it was Lara's powerful blue glow stick as she began navigating tombs, providing the same orange/cyan look you find in most Hollywood movie color grading. Naturally, when Lara goes to off to Russia and the blue-white snow and ice, she's suddenly packing orange glow sticks. It's not a bad thing, though. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not shy about using unrealistic lighting to set a mood and it works, like when the blizzarding night sky is illuminated with an eerie deep red light thanks to Trinity flares. It's one of the best-looking games this year, but it also goes beyond stylish at times and helps set the mood. Coupled with a camera that occasionally, but never annoyingly, takes control from you to frame the next impressive mountain establishment or some such thing you have to climb. [embed]319740:61038:0[/embed] The combination of framing, use of color, and lighting are welcomed Hollywood cribbing. Most of the additions since the last entry are welcomed, too. The stealth options make more sense in a supposedly serious game hellbent on showing the brutality Lara deals with (gruesome death close-ups are still plentiful), rather than the more discordant Lara-as-Terminator that doesn't jive with the story being told. That said, you can still mostly do that. Even when the game hinted I could stealth through an environment, unless I saw an obvious path, it was easy to loose bows from afar into enemies' heads. Rise also touted the tombs pre-release, which are peppered throughout the world. They're probably the highlight. I think Tomb Raider is a better platformer than shooter and working out these beautiful, often complex environmental puzzles had me yearning for a more ICO-like distribution of puzzle/platforming versus murder. The stealth, too, kind of hints at a game that could've made death and killing meaningful in line with the narrative, but instead we're left with a refinement of the Uncharted series sans one-liners.  Except for the bloat, which kind of flies in the face of the snappy movie cues and Uncharted's beats. Rise borrows slightly from the Legend of Zelda formula in that there are distinct areas ("hubs") organically woven together, but requiring back-tracking with new gear and items. It's a very game-y conceit. In the cinematics I asked why Lara hadn't a camera (or even a cell phone) to prove (evidence!) the things her father died over, but she didn't even slip an iPhone out of her pocket. At the same, coming across a rope and being told I can't cut it until I find a knife, well, why the hell does Lara not have a knife? People who like busywork will probably appreciate the hub areas replete with open-world style challenges (burn all 10 communist propaganda posters, cut down all the snared rabbits, etc.), but it kind of grated on me. I didn't open the map until a few hours in and I immediately wanted to slam it shut after seeing the Assassin's Creed-style unreadable mess of icons. And while these tasks often yield rewards, including XP, it just feels to unnecessary. Which is kind of true, given that I got through the game fine without doing anything but the most convenient extras, and didn't find a +2 damage Polished Barrel to affect my capacity to kill folks all that much. So why's any of it there at all? Rise has a very pressing, dire narrative, and is a joy when you're moving around and exploring the gorgeous environments. Constant IU flashes (10XP!!!) only serve as an intrusion and gum up the works. Having to pause the game and look at a static menu screen to hear picked-up audio logs (already a bit of a lazy, all too convenient way to shove more story into your game) kills momentum, tension, excitement. You just have to stare at a render of a tape recorder if you want to know why the big bad bleeds from his hands. The story handles the necessary, telegraphed third act turn to the supernatural well, but generally suffers from a glossing over. The Burberry-clade arm of Trinity trying to beat Lara to the punch are well-acted, but pretty one-dimensional (even with everything wrapped up in explanatory audio logs). An entire society isolated in the Siberian wilderness speaks perfect English. It's perfunctory Hollywood boilerplate, down to the set up for the sequel, but competently done. Worth noting: I ran into an odd problem late in the game where enemies would disappear. First right before me when I was swinging an ice axe at them as if Lara did so with enough force to banish them from this plane of existence, but then sometimes they'd vanish completely on their own. Once this locked me in a room because whatever needed to trigger to open the door couldn't and I had to restart (not losing much progress), while it also happened during the game's final boss fight, which was anticlimactic. The loss of XP from these tactical Houdinis might impact games on harder difficulty settings where the leveling and crafting system could prove more necessary, though on normal I got to a point where I didn't even care to spend my skill points. That excess is a problem shared with the last Tomb Raider, which bills itself (and thematically tries to be) a survivalist game, but simply isn't. It's a bit goofy ruining the beautiful colors of the world by constantly jamming down the "survival instincts" button to light up objects of interest and clambering around to strip trees of their boughs. Eventually I stopped going out of my way to pick up trash, yet I still always had ammo and arrows. Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat. Busy work. And it isn't consistent with the story. Moving around, on the other hand, is sublime. It is odd, though. There's an animation for when Lara is pushed up against a short, maybe knee-high lip; pressing the jump button has her labor up it a bit. Yet if you push the jump button otherwise, she will leap clean four feet into the air like a cat. That amusing inconsistency aside, Lara's movement animations are all so fluid and impressive. If she barely makes a jump, she can slip and fall if you don't press a button. But rather than her needing to get a grip be a recurring quick-time event, it organically happens every time you barely snag a ledge. This means you can tell if that prompt is about to come up and can preemptively push it, and Lara will secure her grip and you can continue about fluidly climbing around. It's a good bit of adding interaction to the platforming without having to pre-plan bits of structure that will start to crumble when you grab them. Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than its predecessor, but only because of its additions; it doesn't fix any of the things that were wrong with Tomb Raider (2013). The story is smoothed down, much of it hidden away in dull audio logs. It's not about "survival" as billed, given the ease of mowing down dozens of folks and plenty of resources. But finding tombs wherein to clamber about ancient Rube Goldberg machines, coupled with the gorgeous visual flair and diverse environments, make Rise's wilderness one worth exploring and elevate Tomb Raider's otherwise perfunctory take on the third-person action platformer. I still get a strong sinking feeling in my stomach when I've misjudged a jump and watch Lara careening towards a splat. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tomb Raider review photo
Get to know 'er
I sometimes forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981. Its breezy pulp adventure quality carries only obvious signifiers of its era (like, Nazis), and the repetition of these tropes act as enough hand waving to the...

Review: Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Nov 06 // Nic Rowen
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (PC)Developer: Nicalis, Edmund McMillenPublisher: NicalisMSRP: $9.99 (DLC),  $24.99 (Bundle with Rebirth)Released: November 4, 2015 Afterbirth's “back of the box” bullet points are impressive – 120 new items, new level variations for every floor, a pack of new bosses and enemies, a new character, and an entirely new game mode to round it off - but those numbers only tell half of the story (maybe only a quarter). Any game can just add a bunch of new stuff, a crate of duplicate items, a pack of palette-swap enemies, a few coats of paint on some old levels, whatever. What makes Afterbirth so special isn't just how many new little doodads have been dropped into the game, but how perfectly the new additions entwine themselves into the experience. How they fit right in, but at the same time dramatically warp and twist the classic Isaac experience into an entirely new entity. Afterbirth takes a lot of risks to introduce new wrinkles and mechanics. Almost every new item does something wild, or weird, or aggravating. The Glass Cannon lets you fire a powerful mega shot every few seconds, at the cost of depleting your health down to a perilous single half-heart. The Fruitcake randomly changes the type of tears you fire with every shot, constantly shuffling between spread shots, homing tears, holy bolts, and the occasional randomly exploding fire shot (always a treat when you’re not expecting it). Items like the Scalpel, an infinite use ability that lets you make portal style tunnels between two points (either in the same room or different ones) complete changes the way you approach room exploration and some boss fights. Things like the occasional “Item Recycler” in an item room that will let you pay coins to change the offered item to another random selection, lets you make smarter, more interesting choices about how you play. This isn’t just “more stuff;” it’s all different, surprising, and exciting stuff. As someone who spent an ungodly amount of time with the original game, one of the things I've enjoyed the most about Afterbirth is finding new combinations and synergies with old items. There is more of an emphasis on layering and blending items rather than just replacing them in this expansion. An old standby like Mom's Knife can now be combined with the laser beam spewing classic Brimstone to create a spray of butcher knives that will travel across the screen. Or a mix of old and new, like the freshly introduced Incubus pet, a little demon that will mirror Isaac's tear effects, combined with a traditionally poor item like Soy Milk to scrub a room clean with hundreds of tiny, but rapid, tears. Further encouraging fresh experimentation with old items are a slew of new transformation effects. Collecting certain items that belong in the same set will result in a character-changing new look and a bonus ability or two. Rebirth only had two transformations (including the much beloved Guppy transformation that would change Isaac into brokenly powerful manifestation of his dead cat). Afterbirth comes correct with nine entirely new transformations to mutate poor Isaac. The effects of these transformations are weaker on average than the Guppy buff, but are sourced from item pools that are far more common, including several junky items. It's a smart change, instead of being monomaniacally focused on becoming Guppy, there are now potential advantages to picking up so-called dud items, encouraging smart play with a long-term vision. Or they can just serve as a consolation prize for a few limp item rolls. The new boss enemies follow the same philosophy, not just “new,” but “new and different.” Some of them are entirely fresh Afterbirth originals, while others are revamps of classic monsters. All of them are humongous jerks (often to the point of feeling overly difficult and imbalanced compared to the original cast of bosses) and they're all pitching curve balls. Even lightweights like Little Horn, a mere first floor boss, introduce crazy new tricks. He's a diminutive imp who spontaneously creates cartoon black holes for you to fall in which he'll try to herd you towards with slow moving tracking shots like a devilish sheep dog. Bigger bosses (telling would be spoiling) get even crazier, assaulting Isaac with entirely new mechanics as well as blatantly unfair levels of firepower. One particularly crazy fight involves a boss that will buff himself and summon allies if you don't destroy the icons he is constantly spiting out, making it a frantic race to stay on top of them before things gets out of hand. The new fights are wacky, crazy, and occasionally frustrating, but most of all, they're all fresh. Greed Mode, introduced in Afterbirth, turns the traditional Isaac dungeon exploration experience into a much more tightly focused, wave-based horde mode. I like to think of it as Isaac for the person who only has 15 minutes. Get in, kill a few waves, get some money, try to cobble together a build, and get out (by death or by victory) before your lunch break is over. I don't know if it will have a ton of staying power, but it is a fun alternative to getting deep and dirty in the basement. New floor variants and room layouts keep things fresh. Themed floors like the Burning Basement or Dank Depths have their own flavor, unique obstacles, enemies, and (universally killer) soundtracks. There are plenty of new room types, varying in all manner of size, shape, and hazard, making the dungeon crawl feel more natural and less like moving through a grid. Many of these layouts introduce new trap and puzzle elements, confronting players with spike floors that rise and lower in alternating patterns and need to be shut down by pressing different buttons, or explosive TNT chambers that need to be set off in the right order to avoid damage. Again, smart and exciting. There are also innumerable smaller changes to go into, some of which are obvious niceties (like expanded HUD options to display collected items without pausing) while others you can't discuss without sounding like a crazy person to non-Isaac nuts. Little things like “Devil Deal rooms will convert to soul heart prices automatically if you sell your last red heart!” or “the co-op baby can place bombs again, hallelujah!” I know, it sounds like gibberish, but to the diehard Isaac fanbase, these are big deals and welcome changes. Like many roguelikes, Isaac has always had a slightly masochistic bent. I've always said that the unforgiving and random nature of the game is something you have to lean into, have to embrace to really enjoy Isaac. Sadly, Afterbirth takes that bent and presses on it until it breaks, reaching a peak of difficulty that has even an roguelike-apologist like me throwing up my hands in frustration on a regular basis. For every clever, interesting, and fresh idea Afterbirth has, it also has some dickish, spiteful, little aggravation to throw at you as well. Those handy item room recyclers I mentioned earlier? Sure, you could get one of those in an item room, or you could get an item surrounded by spikes, or a “bonus” room infested with monsters, what a cute joke! Those new rooms and traps? Neat, until you wind up in a boss room the size of a closet with TNT barrels or spike blocks in all four corners, have fun with that! The new bosses? Sure, they all have new and clever mechanics, but many of them also flood the screen with nearly unavoidable shots and a legion of minions in addition to whatever fresh hell they're also bringing. I imagine the idea was to challenge seasoned players with this expansion, to push the skills of hardcore Isaac players to their upper limits. But the difficulty in Afterbirth goes so far it loops back around on itself, ending up with a game that feels more luck based than ever. In Rebirth, I used to feel that any run, no matter how unlucky, could be saved by smart play and excellent dodging. In Afterbirth, I’ve had several rounds that felt so hopelessly stacked against me that instead of galvanizing me to play better, they just demoralized me into throwing in the towel, hoping for better items in the next run. That's not a great way to feel after 200 hours of experience in a game. The nastiness of the difficulty spike leaves me in an uncomfortable position with this review. I think that the vast majority of changes made in Afterbirth are superb. The astounding creativity of the new items, modes, and rooms is flat out inspiring, as is the sheer amount of new additions. Afterbirth has found ways to significantly add to and improved on a game that I already considered to be a nearly flawless. I don't want to diminish that accomplishment at all - in a perfect world, this is what all DLC would be like. I'm still having tons of fun with the game and I'll probably be playing it for another hundred hours or so, but I'd be lying if I said I was having as much fun with Afterbirth as I did with Rebirth. It found my limit. You should absolutely play Afterbirth. If you're already an Isaac diehard, or someone fresh to the genre, Afterbirth has hours upon hours of genuine joy in store for you. But you should know it will also have moments of soul-annihilating frustration. Maybe that's the price for flying so close to perfection. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Afterbirth review photo
Deal with the Devil
The Binding of Isaac has always been a game of contradictions to me. It's both a game that embraces the fickleness of chance and the purity of skill. That encourages you to play around, explore, and experiment, but also rewar...

Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Nov 06 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Treyarch (PC, PS4, Xbox One), Beenox/Mercenary Technology (PS3, Xbox 360)Publisher: ActivisionMSRP: $59.99Released: November 6, 2015 I'm just going to get right into it -- this is the weakest campaign yet from Treyarch. Right from the start you can see what it's going for, and things get way too heavy-handed and exposition-laden without actually saying anything. There's lots of talk about a "new Cold War" in the future, and after rescuing an Egyptian minister after an uprising in Cairo, it's off to the races. There's plenty of Terminator-esque "Man vs. Machine" going on with the 2065 backdrop and a touch of surrealism, but all of it has been seen before and done better. To boot, none of the characters are memorable or compelling in any way, and the dialogue is the most generic it's ever been. Part of it is because you're now "The Player" (male or female) instead of someone like Modern Warfare's Soap MacTavish, a character you can somewhat connect with while you're playing. You're kind of just there, and the relationships with each cast member never really have a chance to flourish across all 11 missions. Treyarch seems to have a knack for historical narratives, but I'm not really buying its grimdark sales pitch here. Now, that doesn't mean that the campaign is all bad. The powers that be have now implemented a system where you can choose any mission you want, right from the start, without having played any prior stages. That way if you get bored and want to see the ending, you can skip right to the end. Additionally, the hub center where you can switch your abilities, weapons, and loadout around is convenient, as is the progression system with full XP rewards to encourage multiplayer playthroughs. There's also an arena-based "combat immersion" center to test weapons out in, which looks a lot like Metal Gear's VR missions. [embed]318891:61008:0[/embed] Split-screen play (for two players) is also in, as is online play for the story, on top of a "Nightmare mode" that remixes every level with undead foes. With the recent removal of split-screen from Halo 5, support for multiple players on the same console is a breath of fresh air. Yes, the framerate does suffer as a result of playing couch co-op, but I'm very glad it's there, and that Treyarch is still actively pushing for it. Hell, LAN play is even supported on consoles -- in 2015, that's pretty damn rare. Now, we get to the good stuff -- all the other modes besides the campaign. Although light, the Freerun gametype is a cool way to show off all of the new mechanics (wallrunning and the toned-down jetpack). It's only playable solo and has a scant four maps, but it's really reminiscent of Mirror's Edge's abstract DLC packs, which were my favorite part of the game. Plus, it has leaderboards, which are a major plus for a mode like this. I don't want to spoil much, but the Smash TV-like Dead Ops Arcade is back, and it's better than it was before. Of course, it wouldn't be a Treyarch game without zombies, and I think it's assembled the best cast, alongside of the most interesting setting to date. I'm talking Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough in a Lovecraftian noir city unique. Seeing Goldblum play a washed-up scumbag magician is a treat, and the actors really give it their all for this new chapter of the zombie saga, "Shadows of Evil." While I did appreciate the campaign tie-in for Advanced Warfare's zombie mode, I like where this particular setting is going, and I hope it can keep this same cast going forward. It's also the most fully-featured from a gameplay perspective, with customizable weapon loadouts, individual upgrades, and a leveling system. You can also change up your "Gobblegum Gumballs," which are like miniature $500 soda machines that grant temporary perks. It's a tiny little thing, but it really helps you play the way you want, which is only a recent concept for zombies. In terms of secrets I think this is going to be the most challenging one yet for the community, as a lot of it hinges on changing into the "beast" (read: a Cthulian creature) to unlock specific areas and bonuses. I've spent nearly 15 hours in Shadows of Evil alone and I feel like I've only scratched the surface. What the campaign lacks in personality, zombies makes up for in spades, and that principle also goes for multiplayer. Now players will choose a "specialist," when playing traditional multiplayer, which operates a lot like a unique character skin, with an added ability in tow. For instance, the robot "Reaper" has access to a minigun power-up that comes out of his arm, or a skill that creates non-lethal clones of himself to run around the battlefield. One dude even looks like The Fury from Snake Eater, complete with a flamethrower special. They clearly had a lot of fun designing these creations, and it plays that way. Most of the powers feel balanced, especially when you consider the fact that they can only be used once you earn enough meter for them, which is typically only one or two times per match. This is on top of the classic scorestreak rewards -- but since those reset your meter upon death and the specialist powers don't, it's a way for casual players to engage without feeling like they're never earning anything. Wallrunning also adds a new depth to arenas (of which there are 12 at launch), where specific chokepoints can be circumvented by traversing raised platforms on the sides of some bases. Likewise, swimming, as simple of a mechanic as it is, bids a welcome return from Advanced Warfare, with a lot more freedom in terms of movement and combat. Those of you who found Advanced's crazy twitch movement system to be too frenetic will be pleased to hear that it's been toned down for Black Ops III, as the jetpack is now essentially a double jump, or a slide boost, and that's it. While I did like airdashing and all of the craziness that the last iteration entailed, I'm happy that each game has a distinctly different feel to it. Multiplayer has been overhauled from a features standpoint too, as there's now full support for streaming (including a cavalcade of spectator options), arena ranked playlists with seasons, and an even more convenient instant menu option for perma-muting anyone outside of your party. There have been hundreds of people populating Black Ops III's servers during this testing period without issues, but if anything changes we'll provide updates as needed on the front page. At this point, at least two of the Call of Duty developers (Treyarch and Sledgehammer), have it figured out. They now have a three-year development cycle, which means that technically, each individual game is not a rushed "annual" iteration. While the campaign could certainly be a lot stronger, Black Ops III is living proof of that concept. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty review photo
Zombies...uh...zombies, find a way
Call of Duty campaigns are some of the most inconsistent storylines in all of gaming. While some entries are content with wowing you on a constant basis with new setpieces and unique sequences, a number of them (Ghosts&n...

Here's a big list of 2016 video game release dates

Nov 03 // Chris Carter
January:   Darkest Dungeon - 1/19 Hyrule Warriors Legends - 1/21 Yakuza Kiwami - 1/21 Resident Evil Remaster + Resident Evil Zero Remaster - 1/22 Final Fantasy Explorers - 1/26 Lego Marvel's Avengers - 1/26 The Witness - 1/26 Dragon Quest Builders - 1/28 This War of Mine: The Little Ones - 1/29 Amplitude - TBA January Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen PC port - TBA January The King of Fighters XIV - TBA January February: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - 2/2 XCOM 2 - 2/5 Arslan: The Warriors of Legend - 2/9 Firewatch - 2/9 Gravity Rush Remastered 2/9 Mighty No. 9 - 2/9 Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 - 2/9 Project X Zone 2 - 2/16 Street Fighter V - 2/16 Fire Emblem Fates - 2/19 Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - 2/23 Far Cry Primal - 2/23 March: Tom Clancy's The Division - 3/8 The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD - 3/4 Hitman - 3/11 Uncharted 4: A Thief's End 3/18 Killer Instinct: Season 3 - 3/24 April: Quantum Break - 4/5 Total War: Warhammer - 4/28 Dark Souls III -- TBA April May: Battleborn - 5/3 Mirror's Edge Catalyst - 5/24 June: No Man's Sky - TBA June We Happy Few - TBA June October: Yooka-Laylee - TBA October TBA: Allison Road Attack on Titan Crackdown 3 Cuphead Day of the Tentacle Remastered DayZ Dishonored 2 Doom Enter the Gungeon Final Fantasy XV Gears of War 4 Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem Gravity Rush 2 Hellblade Homefront: The Revolution Horizon Zero Dawn Hyper Light Drifter Mafia III Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Nier: Automata Odin Sphere Leifthrasir One Piece: Burning Blood Persona 5 Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 Pokken Tournament Ratchet & Clank Resident Evil Zero HD Scalebound Shadow Warrior 2 Star Fox Zero Star Ocean: Integrity of Faithlessness The Legend of Zelda Wii U Zero Time Dilemma
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Updated as needed
A lot of readers have asked us about compiling a list of games that are being released each year. It's a massive task, but I'm going to try to keep one updated for 2016. If you see something that isn't on the list, feel free to chime in, and we'll update it. Also, bookmark it and come back at some point!

Review: Mushihimesama

Nov 02 // Chris Carter
Mushihimesama (Arcade, PC [reviewed], PS3, iOS, Xbox 360)Developer: CavePublisher: Degica (PC)MSRP: $19.99Released: October 12, 2004 (Arcade), December 15, 2011 (iOS), November 5, 2015 (PC) Mushihimesama is translated to "Bug Princess" in English, which is an apt name as an insectoid theme permeates the shooter. You may play the role of a human girl, but you'll ride on a bug, blast other bugs, and take on gigantic, intimidating bug bosses. This unconventional theme (shmups usually feature traditional spaceships) helps set Mushihimesama apart from the pack immediately. Don't expect anything in the way of a narrative, though -- the story is once again rather throwaway in favor of focusing on the action (a princess races to find a cure for her village). Bug Princess was crafted after cave had nearly 10 years of development experience under its belt, and the enemy and bullet designs really reflect that. You may have seen this infamous video from the game's Xbox 360 sequel (Mushihimesama Futari). While players won't be taking on that exact same encounter, the game's harder difficulties can get similarly insane. For those of you who opt for lower settings however, the game plays out more like a bullet purgatory, with deliberate patterns that are manageable and direct across all five stages. Because ultimately, great shmups aren't just action games, they have elements of puzzle titles peppered in as well. While blowing things up and earning a high score is paramount, the way that Cave and its competitors design enemy patterns indicates a huge attention to detail, as they're not just strewn about for good measure, and always have a counter to them with specific degrees of movement. This is especially true for Mushihimesama, and I enjoyed relearning some patterns as well as giving my twitch skills a test with the PC release. Thankfully, this edition also features full two-player co-op (with drop-in support) if you want to bring another friend into the mix. [embed]318273:60921:0[/embed] As a port, Mushihimesama far exceeds the amount of effort that went into Playism's localization of Touhou 14. It's fully translated, there's options for 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, full screen mode, screen rotation (for vertical monitors), fully customizable controls (for keyboards and controllers), and allowances for UI additions like arcade joysticks and buttons. Players can also tweak the difficulty before each session (original, maniac, and ultra), including the total ship count and the points required to earn an extra life. It's a limitation of the first game, but I wish there were more characters, and not just three variations of the same princess. The difficulty curve is perfect, as original is manageable even by casual fans, maniac significantly steps things up a bit in a way veterans will appreciate, and maniac, for once, earns the moniker. Almost immediately with the latter difficulty, you'll see regular enemies fill up the entire screen with giant bullet-curtain mazes, forcing players to use everything they've picked up from the genre to survive. Although it wasn't factored into this assessment, there's a V1.5 "Matsuri" DLC available for $4.99 at launch that essentially adds in a new arranged mode with a remixed soundtrack. It's a bit redundant to say as nearly every Cave shooter is a "must play" title, but Mushihimesama is required reading for shmup fans. Whether you're going at it solo or with a friend, on the highest difficulty setting or the lowest, Mushihimesama is incredibly easy to spend an afternoon with for years to come. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
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Bug Princess finally hits PC
I was lucky to have been introduced to Cave shooters at a young age. I had a friend who lived in Japan and had family there, so he'd just bring games back over and we'd play them. Most were ported from the arcades to the PS2,...

Review: The Park

Oct 27 // Chris Carter
The Park (PC)Developer: FuncomPublisher: FuncomRelease:  October 27, 2015MSRP: $12.99 At a base level, The Park seems to be about a mother and her lost child, but it crescendos into much more than that. Yes, this is a walking simulator alright, with limited amounts of items to inspect, and no inventory management. You'll traipse around, hear some monologues, learn more about the characters and the park itself, and essentially watch a film play out with some degree of interactivity. It's more involved than your average title, as you can ride the rides in the park (a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and the like), and look around at your surroundings while doing so. There's also a decent amount of lore-building involved, and not just because of the Lovecraftian themes that are intertwined with the Funcom-verse. I actually enjoyed reading tidbits about various incidents at the park, and how they involve the cast. While the park itself is cool, the exposition starts off a little stilted. The script is incredibly flowery with its opening monologues, and doesn't give you any real reason to care about the cast. It's almost like watching an amateur poetry hour at times, and there was a point where I rolled my mind's eye at some of the lines. Slowly but surely though, The Park spirals into a tale of depression, with some light adult themes. It gets better, darker, and examines mental illness in a rather unique way. [embed]317523:60854:0[/embed] As far as the presentation goes, in some ways, it would have been better as a short film. The Park might feature a sprawling setting, but a lot of it consists of filler. There are long paths that essentially function as loading screens. The Park isn't going to wow anyone from a visual standpoint, but the effects involved are cool-looking, invoking a perspective that is slowly losing grip on reality. Without spoiling anything, it kind of reminded me of the film The Babadook. If you're looking for pure horror, maybe go elsewhere. The Park isn't a "survival" game nor is it going for scares -- there's only one portion that provides that feeling, in fact. Instead, the narrative attempts a more disturbing tone, with realistic and relatable problems told through the veil of a creepy theme park. I don't want to give away too much as The Park is only an hour long, but I admire Funcom's effort with this experimental take on the genre. It really does try something different, even if you can feel the core themes sneaking up on you a mile away.
The Park review photo
Dunwich horror
The "walking simulator" genre has thrived in recent years. With titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home hitting it off with audiences, it's no wonder the "adventure lite" (as I call it) market is influencing new exper...

Review: Downwell

Oct 20 // Steven Hansen
Downwell (PC [reviewed], Android, iOS)Developer: MoppinPublisher: Devolver DigitalReleased: October 15, 2015MSRP: $2.99 Downwell asks you to learn with it, explaining nothing outside of the control scheme (move with directional pad or analog, jump and shoot with one button) and the upgrades between levels. Initial expeditions down the well are clumsy. Your Gunboots start with limited charge (think: ammo) and you have to refill them by touching solid ground. Or -- wait, they refill when you stomp on an enemies' head, too? -- and, oh no, don't try and stomp on an enemy that is an angry bright red. These are the kind of things you learn as you delve deeper and deeper into Downwell's four worlds (three levels each) and they are presented intelligently. For example, the first spat of blood red enemies that you shouldn't be jumping on all have spikes, video game shorthand for danger. Later ones won't warn you so nicely. And of course there's trial and error, too, like touching a hot stove, for those who don't get it. Level randomization requires you stay engaged. Different power up offerings between levels will change how you play. Dimension-shattering time voids are occasionally cut into the well walls and host a treasure trove of gems or different ammunition. The latter is where the Super Crate Box comparison is obvious. [embed]316411:60790:0[/embed] Changing ammo isn't a strict necessity, but it practically is, given that picking up a new ammo types will often come with a heart or some battery charge for the Gunboots (more ammunition between reloads), but different ammo types function in drastically different ways. Shooting is actually more useful in fighting gravity and keeping yourself from falling too quickly into unseen trouble than it is for killing enemies; they should typically be bopped. Especially since bopping enemies fills your Gunboots and stringing together kills without touching down gives you rewards. It's best to stomp out enemies, using your ammo stores to occasionally slow your descent or send you across the screen to stomp something else. Aside from the constantly changing levels, ammo types, and upgrades, new "styles" are unlocked over time, like the "Boulder style," which features a much fatter boy who starts with six HP instead of four, but only gets to choose from two between-level upgrades instead of three. Then of course there are dozens of Palette options that change the colors of the game, though I have only found a handful I like as much as the default black, white and red. The variety makes the frequent deaths more palatable and I would probably buy a custom dedicated handheld that just played this game. Because death comes so quickly, health is at a premium. If you slowly inch your way down the well, stopping at every platform and dutifully eliminating enemies, you'll take forever and likely not rack up enough gems to clear out shops, which are operated by the the most adorable timeline version of a snowman (who gives a good disapproving face when you jump behind the counter). But as you get better and can chain combos, netting gem, battery (ammo) and health bonuses, you can stay in the black, even increase your max HP. It's all about building a better, more equipped you while you play. It's always fraught, mind. You are working against gravity and your stabilizing shots will sometimes rip the ground from under you as you destroy blocks on the way down that might have offered reprieve. Or you accidentally shoot an enemy you're coming up on, losing a chance to replenish your ammo, and end up in a dangerous free fall. My 15-hour transition from inelegant tank (Boulder style) laboring down the well to eyes-closed, 25-kill-combo (Levitate) falling with style has been a flurry of close calls, of "one more run," of consistently dying to the boss despite doubling my starting health. The knees-braced bullet pounding side winding across the screen to slow my descent, the meaty pop of brain stomping and the brief upward moment it grants before gravity yanks me down again. And for such a noble reason. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Downwell review photo
Falling with style
Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling down wells. Downwell is a game about getting down a well, but the only way to get down the well is to learn how to get down the well well. Because this Game Boy thr...

Review: Pulse

Oct 20 // Jed Whitaker
Pulse (PC)Developer: Pixel Pi GamesPublisher: Pixel Pi GamesReleased: October 20, 2015MSRP: $14.99 Eva's story isn't exactly original as it is essentially a mashup of a Disney cartoon and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Pulse centers around Eva, a girl blinded at a young age, who defies her parents and attempts a dangerous pilgrimage using only echolocation and her imagination to visualize the world around her. What motivated Eva to embark on this journey is never explained, though the results of her actions are evident by the time credits roll in around an hour and a half later. That's right, an hour and a half for a penny shy of 15 dollars, which means you're paying over 16 cents per minute of gameplay. On top of that, there is a Steam achievement for beating the game under 30 minutes, so it clearly can be done faster. Whether or not the cost of entry is worth it depends on how much you value the artistic style of Pulse, because the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. That isn't to say that it's bad, just that it doesn't really go anywhere. From the moment the game starts and you take your first few steps, you'll have grasped everything it has to offer. [embed]316434:60795:0[/embed] Walking causes colorful rippling sound waves to trace the world hidden within the black void that is Eva's vision. Following the paths as they are revealed in the darkness, you'll come across Mokos, which are round, Furby-like critters with giant puppy dog eyes. Mokos can be picked up and thrown to cause sound in the distance -- giving Eva a brief glimpse at the level ahead -- and can be placed in giant hamster wheels to open closed doors.  The only area where Pulse really deviates the gameplay is one requiring Eva to walk slowly across a frozen lake, taking care to pay attention to where the ice is cracking beneath her feet thus allowing a safe passage. Aside from that, you'll come across a couple of areas of simple platforming, and not much more, which is honestly a shame for how great the game looks. Unity isn't exactly known for having the best-looking games, but Pulse proves that the engine isn't the problem by having one of the most gorgeous presentations this year; from a vibrant forest, to a tundra, to a living cave, Pulse is stunning. Due to the way Eva is imagining how the world around her looks, the world is brightly colored in a minimalist way, meaning each level only has a few colors total. One level is mostly blue, while another is mostly shades of orange, which sounds like it would hard to navigate, but the creators made it work and I never found myself lost a single time.  Pixel Pi Games managed to take the concept of a blind heroine and create something beautiful around it, but considering the game took less time to complete than this review and costs 15 dollars, it is hard to recommend to anyone but those thirsty for an artistic game or a unique character. If Pulse had a longer, more in-depth story with evolving gameplay, it would be easily recommendable. As it stands now, it feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Review: Pulse photo
Expensive art without vision
While having a blind protagonist isn't exactly a brand new idea, Pulse tackles the subject in a unique way that proves that video games are indeed art by being one of the most colorful experiences I've played to date.  Unfortunately art sometimes comes with a high price and ends up not only lacking vision, but being a bit short-sighted.

Review: Tales of Zestiria

Oct 20 // Chris Carter
Tales of Zestiria (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Bandai Namco Studios, tri-CrescendoPublisher: Bandai Namco EntertainmentMSRP: $49.99 (PC, PS3), $59.99 (PS4)Released: January 22, 2015 (JP), October 16, 2015 (EU) October 20, 2015 (US) If you've played a Tales game before, you pretty much know what to expect. This is still very much a hero's journey affair, with the main character Sorey embarking upon an epic quest to become a Shepard and save the world. This is complicated by two warring nations, the evil Heldaf, and the Hellion -- monsters created out of pure evil energy. Along the way Sorey will conscript new companions into his crew, including his childhood friend Mikleo. For the most part, the story stays on point and doesn't stray from its primary goal of a fantasy epic. Just when you think it's starting to get crazy with the juxtaposition of humans and the heavenly Seraphim race, Zestiria quickly grounds things with Sorey as a tether, who was raised by the latter but is still a human. It's all very straight-forward, partially to a fault, and is easy to follow. Zestiria houses a stable of interesting, memorable characters, but they don't necessarily grow over time. Sorey also sports a bit of a drab persona, but again, it helps that he's at least likable. As you may have heard, Zestiria has generated a fair bit of controversy over in Japan when it was released earlier this year. The crux of the issue stems from a character named Alisha, who was heavily promoted before the game's release, and then relegated to a side character that wasn't in most of the game -- and later sold as DLC. The games producer even apologized for it. This in no way effects the review, but it's something to be aware of in case you might have heard something negative about Zestiria in the past. Ultimately, I'm ok with this being Sorey's tale. When it comes to exploration, Zestiria walks a fine line between open environments and too many linear dungeon-like settings. It's actually more open than both Xillia games, but don't get the impression that they're as sprawling as say, Xenoblade Chronicles. I'm ok with this compromise though, as the developers have stuffed a ton of secrets into the game's universe, including monoliths that grant you information, and cute hidden creatures called Normin that grant you rewards the the effort of finding them. The concise focus also helps make the dungeons less of a slog, and allows them focus more on a centralized theme or puzzle element. [embed]316377:60788:0[/embed] Combat is easily the most meaningful advancement Zestiria has made, however. It's now a lot more action-oriented, and relies on SC (spirit chain) energy, which adds a new strategic element to the mix. At first players will start off with just 4-hit combos, which are essentially a mash session, but the game quickly ramps up into something much more interesting. For starters, your attacks get stronger as you expend SC, but unloading all of it will leave you vulnerable. To recharge SC you'll have to guard or stay idle, leaving you open to attack. It's interesting, as sometimes you'll want to go all out on a foe if they're stunned or if you're attempting to finish them off, but it can completely backfire. It's a nice risk-reward system that's present in every fight, not just boss encounters. Other advanced arts like quickstepping (dodging) come into play on a constant basis. Oh, and certain characters can actually fuse, Dragon Ball style, with Seraphim companions to supercharge their abilities, which is just as fun as it sounds. Everything having to do with character customization is supercharged this time around, actually. Players can stack skills for each party member to make them stronger, or diversify their elemental loadouts to create new skills. There's also a host of meta-abilities like snack preparation and discovery, which recharge party member's health bars and present icons on the minimap respectively. You can even further augment characters with abilities like auto-guard, and alter your AI's strategic tendencies when you're not in control. They really went all-out when it comes to the game's core mechanics. Like most Tales games, Zestiria has a beautiful art style in tow, with plenty of bright colors and endearing character designs. It has its limitations however, as it is a PS3 game at heart, and longshots typically don't have the same impact. Also, the camera angle is insufferable at times, especially indoors, and can't be easily manipulated. Thankfully dual audio comes standard with the western release, and both the dub and sub are well done. You can also alter the battle difficulty at any time, lengthy combo input windows, utilize fast-travel, skip cutscenes, and even skip individual lines of dialogue. Oh, and players can save anywhere with a quick save system, which is convenient. Tales of Zestiria plays by the book in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its cast and narrative. But it's still a great entry into the series, and a welcome return for old fans, especially as far as the battle system is concerned. In fact, it's even inspired me to go back and finish both Xillia titles -- that's the magic of the Tales series at work. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tales of Zestiria review photo
A tale of two Shepherds
My history with the Tales series is sort of akin to an on again, off again relationship. I was introduced to Phantasia by way of a friend's import copy, and immediately fell in love. After that I only dabbled in a f...

Review: Metal Gear Online

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

Review in Progress: Metal Gear Online

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

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

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

Review: Read Only Memories

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

Review: The Beginner's Guide

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

Review: Laserlife

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

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

Review: Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

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

Review: Mad Max

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

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

Review: Disney Infinity 3.0

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

Review: Mega Man Legacy Collection

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

Review: Smite (Xbox One)

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

Review: Toy Soldiers: War Chest

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

Review: Galak-Z: The Dimensional

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

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning

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

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