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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...

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...

Very Quick Tips: Destiny's King's Fall raid

Oct 15 // Chris Carter
Getting a group: This can be the toughest part. I personally use /r/fireteams, and if that fails, Destiny Tracker or DestinyLFG. There's also niche sites like The 100 if you want a more personal feel. Yes, it sucks that Bungie hasn't added in any sort of concession, even party finders, but I use these tools on a near-daily basis with almost no issues. If the group lists a "Sherpa" or "newcomers welcome" party, odds are they'll be patient with you and teach you the ins and outs of King's Fall. The raid itself: When starting off, you'll need to split into two groups, left and right. Two designated runners will grab the relics displayed on the map and slam them into the center where indicated with an orb in the statue. You'll need to slam less than five seconds apart. Repeat this process on both sides six times, with the relics getting farther away each time. I've found that it's best to send two players each into each side, with two in the center, clearing adds, shooting down the doors that block both sides. For the ship-based jumping puzzle, you'll want to follow the group closely if you're playing it coy, like you've done it before. This ensures that you'll get on the first ship out, and you can just follow the pack from ship to ship. When it comes to the toughest bit roughly three-fourths through, you'll want to crouch at the back left to avoid getting knocked off, and then jump from the top left if you're a Hunter. After you pass through the wall in the next portion, look for a fragment before you go up the teleporter. The totem section can be approached the exact same way as the first segment. Split into groups of three, and have two on each side immediately run towards the relic and totem. Have a third player hang back to clear adds, and once the first player runs back, run in and relieve the second player from totem duty. In essence, you'll need to keep a shield on each side's totem, which shifts every 30 seconds. When you're playing middle (step on the trigger until your entire Deathsinger debuff is off), try to use supers as much as possible to drop orbs for your team, and kill the Knights and Wizards as soon as possible, or they'll cause trouble for everyone else. At the start on the front-most pillar to the right, you can pick up a fragment. The Warpriest is actually a rather easy fight. Split up into the following groups -- two up on top on the left, two middle, and two right. Designate one person from any side to run forward and look at the incoming glyph order -- this explains when players will need to step onto their panel. The last player will always get the shield buff. I've found that it's easy to just meet in the middle twice, as it's a perfect range for Touch of Malice and other guns. Usually groups at this point can smoke him in two rounds of shields. If not, you'll want to go middle, right, middle. To get the next fragment hang a left in the dark hallway, then another left -- it's at the end of the line near the door on the right. On Golgoroth, there's a unique strategy that works quite well at the start, especially with at least one Titan. You'll want to gather everyone in the back, and pop a shield where the rocks open up to prevent Golgoroth from firing in. Since all party members will likely have their supers charged (since the preceding maze is quite lengthy), blow them all, and create a cache of orbs for everyone. You can nab another fragment by heading left and jumping up on the first ledge after Golgoroth. For this jumping puzzle, you'll want to look straight down right away, and head to the right-most platform. The last fragment is there. After that, you can start making your way left and onto the first pressure plate. If you want to cheat the puzzle you can pull out your sword (legendary or exotic, it doesn't even matter if you have ammo actually) and sword-jump horizontally or vertically across. Just jump, sword, jump, sword, and rinse and repeat until you've climbed to your desired location. Practice the timing at the start if you like. If you're a Hunter, try to save your triple or double-jump for the last moment of impact, otherwise your momentum will be too great and you'll fly off the edge. On the witch encounter, my groups have found that the best spot to shoot them from is the middle, right underneath the opposite witch. It allows for the best Touch of Malice damage. If you find yourself running the relic too often and you don't have a lot of experience, you can kill yourself (and optionally self-res) to rid yourself of the responsibility. I don't recommend doing this though unless you are short on time, as everyone has to learn eventually. For Oryx, you'll need to shoot him constantly to keep his chest open while you detonate orbs -- keep this in mind in case it doesn't look like you're doing a lot of damage. Also, feel free to pop your Three of Coins before you fight the Shade.
Destiny raid tips photo
Give it a go, it's fun
As previously mentioned, I think the King's Fall raid in Destiny is the best offering yet. It's clean, doesn't have very many bugs, and has a lot of variety within its walls. At this point I'm sitting on 15 clears, some for gear, some for fun, and others for quests and fragments (a collectible questline). Whatever your reason is, here are some tips to help you through.

Destiny's Taken King expansion alienates casual fans more than Year One did

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
People often note that "I haven't given Destiny a chance" when I talk about its shortcomings, and I kind of die on the inside hearing that. I have every Year One Exotic, every piece of raid gear (both armor and weapons, including primaries) for all three classes, and I've completed all of the Year One Moments of Triumph. As of this week, I'm working on my third Exotic sword and fourth Oryx clear. Let me explain my situation a bit. I have a group of MMO friends that I move from game to game with. When we settle on a title, we go in, and surgically crush its PvE content into oblivion. Sometimes we splinter off and try different games, but after each expansion, people usually move back to Destiny for a while. Destiny isn't an MMO by any stretch of the imagination, but other dungeon crawlers like Diablo fall into our purview too, so it's fair game. Yes, it is fun to play with friends, despite its many, many shortcomings. But thankfully, The Taken King, along with the drip feed of Year One quality-of-life updates, has made Destiny much more enjoyable. But I say that with the perspective of a hardcore raider. A lot of my casual friends are not having a good time. Let's look at why. End-game content still doesn't have matchmaking After taking an impromptu Twitter poll earlier this week, I saw that many players still hadn't partaken in a lot of endgame activities, mostly because they couldn't find anyone to play with. Raids, Nightfalls, and all of the post-game quests do not have any matchmaking capabilities. Instead, they're left to try their luck on sites like or reddit Fireteams. As an outgoing person, I'm completely okay with filling out a team member or two using these tools, but most people want an in-game solution. Bungie could address this in a ton of different ways. Yes, endgame content is by definition tough, so matchmaking may be hard to do, but what about actually making the game Open up the Tower to more players, and have the lounge area actually do something. Make it a hangout for players "looking for groups," complete with billboards and a full-on LFG system built in. Players could look at terminals, post what activities they want to do along with their Light level and class, and it could automatch accordingly. This would alleviate the issue of matchmaking in one fell swoop. Raids are still the only way to max out your character Certain players don't want to raid because they aren't comfortable, and I don't blame them. Bungie doesn't make anything clear for newer players in terms of what to expect from raids, or how to acclimate to the pressures of a six-man group. Many of those issues could be solved by a training session of raid mechanics, on top of a "Sherpa" system that could be built into the Tower groups idea. Because in the end, players will need to best King's Fall to get the good stuff -- the post-level-300 items, which will be necessary for the presumed Hard Mode version. Some 310 Exotics can be picked up here and there from bonkers questlines (more on that later), but for the most part, players will find themselves stuck teetering below 300 without going to face Oryx. I definitely think, as a raider myself, that raid gear should be special, but many multiplayer games out there have equivalent gear that can be earned with enough tokens. Right now, the vendor gear only goes up to 280. It could stand for an increase. The new Light system that takes weapons into account encourages dishonesty With Year One, players had a Light level that was indicative of the armor they wore. It was simple to understand after a few hours of max-level play, and you only needed to manage four pieces of gear to maintain it. Now, Destiny has three more equipment slots with Light on them (Ghosts, class items, and Artifacts) and weapons also play into your Light ranking. Things can get real confusing real fast, but I'm noticing a trend where players "fake" their Light and switch back to their weapons of choice. For instance, some people might have a Light 280 shotgun, but a particular mission almost exclusively calls for sniping. Since players only have a 220 sniper and would "look bad," they equip the shotgun, pass for 280 Light, and switch back once the mission starts. Now, the old way wasn't perfect either -- armor was limited in that you could only wear pieces that had higher Light ratings on them. This has been alleviated by the ascension mechanic, which lets you rank up gear of your choice by sacrificing other items to it. But tying that same principle to weapons has had mixed results. Since Light influences how much damage you do and how much you take, even just a few points can make a mission that much tougher. By limiting players who may not be comfortable with certain loadouts, Bungie is forcing people to use specific pieces of gear, and that changes the entire way the game is played. It's the same problem, amplified. All the new system has done is made the game more elitist by adopting a Gearscore mentality. Having played MMOs since Ultima Online, I'm used to it, but many people are turned off by it. Allowing more flexibility with the weapon side of things would help. Some of these new quests are off-the-wall hardcore Now, this is actually my favorite aspect of The Taken King. There is so much more end-game content now, with hidden tidbits like the Black Spindle quest or the aforementioned Exotic sword questline. But all of those come with a price -- extreme amounts of grinding or crazy-high difficulty ceilings, both of which aren't viable options for casual fans. Take the Exotic sword mission. After completing a bunch of busywork, players will eventually come to an impasse -- the grinding step. Here, they'll have to down over 500 enemies with abilities in line with the element of their sword of choice, and attain 10 special resources, hidden within drops of Helium Filaments, Spinmetal, or Relic Iron. Oh, 10 resources, that's not bad, right? Well, it really is. For this particular quest, you'll have to acquire resources within resources, which are said to drop at a roughly 5% rate. For my first sword, it took me over two hours straight of grinding, and I knew the routes from playing so much of Year One. For my second sword, it took five hours. Then you have to do a Strike that requires everyone to be roughly 300 Light (20 more than raid-ready). If my group wasn't so hardcore, I wouldn't even go for the third. Bungie has claimed in the past that it doesn't want to make players grind, but it has introduced such a boring task here that so many people won't do it out of principle. Which is weird, because the Exotic sword is an essential item for a number of reasons and completely changes the way you approach most content (I highly recommend getting one for the Court of Oryx -- to quote a great 20th century philosopher, "it is... so choice"). The Black Spindle isn't easy for casual players to get, either -- the quest nearly requires a full three-person fireteam of raid-ready team members. And forget doing the Court of Oryx's third tier by yourself, or even with a public group. Destiny is still growing as a game, and it's not quite there yet It's clear that Bungie still doesn't know what to do with Destiny. On one hand, the developers claim "they don't want to revisit legacy content," but many of the old Strikes have been re-done with a Taken flair. To go ever further, these select Strikes have been hand-picked for a zombification of sorts, while others are eliminated entirely lest you play the useless, no-incentive legacy playlist. Bungie also notes that it wants to be welcoming to new players, but gates most of its meaningful content behind a lack of matchmaking services and grindy, exclusive questlines. The game is much better than it was, but it has a ways to go. In some ways, the entire Destiny experience feels like a beta test for the sequel, which is reportedly going to drop next year.
Thoughts on Destiny photo
There's more dependency on groups now
Destiny has noticeably improved since The Taken King dropped. This is partly because there's a lot more to do than just grind the awful Prison of Elders activity from the last bad expansion, but additionally, the game has gotten much more hardcore. It's great news for me and my group of comrades, but I've been seeing a lot of people cut back on their playtime lately.

Review: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below

Oct 07 // Chris Carter
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developers: Omega ForcePublisher: Square EnixReleased: October 13, 2015 (US), February 26, 2015 (JP)MSRP: $59.99 Following a very cool opening cinematic, you're greeted with the same iconic designs from Akira Toriyama that we've all come to love over the years -- yes, this might be an Omega Force game, but it's still a Dragon Quest joint. The visual style has translated excellently to this new endeavor, and although I'm sure some will find the realistic regalia meshed with bright goofy enemies jarring at times, it looks even better in action. It's great to see the timeless designs for enemies like the skeletons and slimes still hold up. There's also a lot of detail present, such as the aforementioned skeletons taking off their heads, or golems losing their bricks at times. The writing and story however, are very basic and not indicative of the typical Dragon Quest experience. There's plenty of fun puns (a slime says things like "Goo and help him" a lot) so it is charming, but the dialogue itself never really has any chance to evolve from start to finish. What you see in the first 30 minutes or so is what you get, and it follows the same sort of heroes' "ragtag band" journey schematic throughout. It is a hack and slash game after all, but I expected a bit more. Getting right into the action, players are presented with two control schemes -- one is a standard Warriors setup, and the other literally allows players to mash one-button combos with ease. Given that you can choose between these and a male or female main character to start, new players will relish how easy it is to acclimate. Said combo system takes its cue from Warriors in that specific rotations of light and heavy will lead into new moves (such as a wave-clearing area-of-effect or a vertical launcher), but there's more variance here than meets the eye when it comes to weapon nuance. For instance, swords can parry, staffs impact a wide area, and then there's all sorts of outliers like boomerangs, fisticuffs, whips, axes, bows, deadly fans, and magic. If you're curious, yes some fan favorite characters pop up, ranging from heroes who appeared in Dragon Quest IV through VIII. Players can also block, make use of a fully-featured jump (not just a useless hop), and utilize a rather generous dodge in addition to the classic Musuo power mode after charging up. [embed]312829:60648:0[/embed] Due to the exaggerated nature of the dodge, it makes the proceedings a bit more action-oriented than a lot of games in the past, and leads to a less rigid style of gameplay. Plus, using Musuo mode when combined with Toriyama's designs basically turns you into a Super Saiyan. You can also get more advanced with air dashing, double-jumping, summoning minions (which can go into offensive or defensive mode), party member toggling, and queuing up spells both in combat and in non-action sequences. As for the AI who follows you into battle (there's a real-time party switching element with L2), not enough work was done considering that it's a rather essential element. The AI is mostly involved with the battles at hand, sure, but they tend to loiter far too often, and it can take you out of the game. Maybe it's to actually entice you to switch more often to fire them up, but I wish there were a Gambit system of some sort that allowed you to control their general actions. It's not just the party system that makes Heroes feel like a real RPG though, as the game sports a world map, a pretty deep stat and customization mechanic, skill trees, and shops. You're free to upgrade your armor, magic, and items, and visit the alchemist to create and synthesize new gear. Players can also chat with their party at the bar, use the church to pray and save the game, and eventually get an airship. The sidequests feel right at home and like an authentic Dragon Quest game, and trophies reward players directly -- a system more developers should implement. But while sidequests are generally fun, missions are shorter battles that are often a bit too linear. In other Warriors games you're usually completing multiple objectives on large, sprawling maps with plenty of side areas, but here in Heroes they feel more like arenas that sometimes only span a few screens. Thankfully the bosses are more involved as a result, sometimes featuring flying enemies or multi-foe fights. I won't spoil them here but suffice to say they all have strategies and weak points to discover, and are sufficiently formidable. You'll need to actually switch between party members and think tactically. Alongside of the more bite-sized quest structure though is a complete lack of multiplayer. Yep, that's right -- there's no split-screen or online play of any kind. Whereas it was easy to introduce people into the world of Zelda with some co-op Hyrule Warriors sessions, Heroes is definitely a tougher sell, as the vast majority of Warriors games are shipped with heavy multiplayer elements for a reason. It does have all of the current DLC from Japan bundled in though, which is a plus. Dragon Quest Heroes almost feels like a fully-fledged action RPG, but there are a few things holding it back from greatness. In the end though it still has its charms, alongside of a beautiful art style and a buttery smooth framerate. If you really dig Warriors games and can go at it solo, you'll likely enjoy it.
Dragon Quest review photo
That name though
Close your eyes. Imagine you're stuck on a deserted island for a year -- yes, in this situation, a year is a certainty. If you could only have one game with you for that entire period (and have a working power source, bear wi...

Review: Transformers Devastation

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

Review: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5

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

Review: Destiny: The Taken King

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

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...

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

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

Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

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

Review: One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3

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

Review: Disney Infinity 3.0

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

Review: Madden 16

Aug 25 // Steven Hansen
Madden NFL 16 (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: EA TiburonPublisher: EA SportsReleased: August 25, 2015MSRP: $59.99 Madden 16 makes an interesting opening gambit, once again going right into a game, this time a fabricated Super Bowl 50 starring the Cardinals and Steelers. No one wanted to watch that match up seven years ago (except me because of the Kurt Warner), but EA insists on framing this nostalgia-less, fake match up with Any Given Sunday editing, close ups on players, and even tepid, badly-acted football dialogue, the kind of jawing written by someone who has not played sport.  Fuck, is it boring. It introduces new (very simple) catching mechanics in painful slow motion setting up situations (oh, one of the teams is trailing!) we're supposed to have emotions in, like I have any stake in Fake Super Bowl 50, like I'm supposed to feel something when alleged rapist Ben Roethlisberger (who narrates later tutorials) tells his mates, "It's time to be the team we're supposed to be right now. Believe in the man to your left and to your right. It's our time right now" like he's reading commercial cue cards. At least the San Jose 49ers' digital Levi's Stadium field hasn't turned to pudding like the real one. This is what Madden is, though. In past years I have creatively ripped on the series for aggressive advertisements of real-world products, which this one seems to have toned down significantly (unless they're coming dynamically as updates post launch). But! Madden is a yearly advertisement for the NFL. From the start menu it encouraged me to share my information with the NFL, promising digital playing cards as a reward. This is what it means to have exclusivity rights to the only meaningful football league (because no one internationally gives a shit), the commodification of players. It is cool to see the increased likeness of Arizona's head coach whose fascinating neck folds and face-scanned pores have him looking like a corrugated version of Dana Carvey's turtliest member of the turtle club. [embed]307755:60128:0[/embed] In 2006 (that would make it Madden 07) I distinctly remember when I fell into the habit of abusing slot receivers instead of number one and number two wide receivers. This meant a lot of balls to the perfectly serviceable Kevin Curtis instead of two of the greats, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The worst thing about those slot receiver posts, or crossing routes over the middle, has always been linebackers undercutting the passes for picks. Here is the scenario: a player looks reasonably open for a pass. It is a pass any NFL quarterback could make. It is a pass I, an idiot with bad knees, could make. You throw it with a nice arc over the front defensive layer and before the safeties. Madden has never wanted to give you that pass and it has taken near 10 years for the series to introduce "touch passing," a double tap that lets you drop balls into open zones. Ten years. Low and high throws are executed by holding L1 (high) or L2 (low) while passing. The passing game has seen the most new features added this year. Aside from the aforementioned quarterback stuff, there are three types of catches, done by holding one of three buttons while the ball is in the air en route to the receiver. The Aggressive catch (triangle) is for leaping catches and bodying cornerbacks. RAC (square) encourages the player to make a catch in motion and continue running up field, provided they're not about to be clocked. Possession catches (x) are for keeping feet in-bounds or making sure the receiver hangs on to a first down. These useful buttons encourage more user interaction during catches and also speak to a refined interplay between defensive backs and receivers. On the other side of the ball, you can have defenders play the ball (hold triangle) to go for an interception or deflection, or more conservatively play the receiver (hold x) to ensure you make a tackle and possibly knock the ball from them. There is much more realistic jockeying for body position and faithful physics so long as you don't stare too closely at the instant replays. Eventually you'll notice some similar, more dramatic catch animations (a particular one-handed one stuck out), but it is a plus on the whole for verisimilitude, for giving weight and feeling to awesome athletes interacting in a confined space. That's about it, though. There are some neat presentation additions (statistic graphics overlaid on players) and the menus are well laid out, though they are also pretty slow. Load times, too, are still a bit of a problem (and intrusive presentation elements are bothersome when running a hurry up offense). The insistence towards microtransaction-laden Ultimate Team and the new fantasy football-cribbed Draft Champions modes is useless. Throwing, catching, and defending throws have seen some welcomed, long-ignored additions that get a couple yards closer to faithful simulation. You can decide if that's enough. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Madden reviewed photo
Mildly deflated
I do feel, some, for Electronic Arts and the people responsible for making Madden every year. This is only my 4th year (out of  27 releases) covering it and I fear I may have peaked with last year's review. But like a fr...

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Reckoning

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

Review: Life is Strange: Dark Room

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

Review: King's Quest: A Knight To Remember

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

Review: Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess

Jul 14 // Chris Carter
Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess (PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Vita)Developer: Tecmo KoeiPublisher: Tecmo KoeiMSRP: $49.99 (PS4)Released: July 14, 2015 Since the core experience hasn't changed all that much, head to the original review to get a full breakdown of the main mechanics. The gist is that you'll be controlling a character that, for all intents and purposes, can't attack on their own, and must rig an elaborate combination of traps to do their dirty work for them. You'll do this by pausing the game, bringing up a menu, and placing a number of wall, ceiling, and floor traps that can be used with one another for maximum mayhem. For instance, you can hold an enemy in place with a beartrap, shock them with a wall taser, then drop a giant boulder on their head from the ceiling. It's glorious. So before you get confused, The Nightmare Princess is an all-new SKU that includes everything in the original package on top of another story with 100 quests, a new character with a different moveset, and a "Studio" mode so you can create your own scenarios. The extra campaign is easily the new draw, and I have to say, newcomer Velguirie holds her own here. Her tale runs concurrently with Laegrinna's and doesn't feel tacked-on in the slightest. 100 new quests also isn't really anything to shake a stick at either, though it must be said that there's only a few new zones (which are rather small), as some quests re-use old areas from the base game. The second campaign does stand up on its own, and even playing both stories back to back, they didn't overstay their individual welcomes. Velguirie's big gimmick is that she can kick enemies now -- something no other protagonist was able to do in the history of the franchise. [embed]295432:59487:0[/embed] But it's important to put things into perspective here. She can't just karate-kick bad guys into oblivion with flashy combos. It's a simple timed kick on a cooldown that can be used to tactically slot foes into position for traps (or stomp them on the ground), which are still going to do the real legwork here. It's not a game-changer, but again, the story, bonus traps, and the new character design themselves are enough to carry another playthrough. Yep, I said bonus traps, including a deadly toilet, a bolt of lightning, a wardrobe that eats armor, and sticky flooring. At this point there are so many trap combos at your disposal that you're only limited by your imagination.  You'll get to test your inner demon plenty with the Studio mode, the other big addition in Nightmare Princess. Here, you can create enemies with various custom parts and name them, placing each creation inside an existing arena. You can craft fun scenarios like battling the entire Justice League, and even download or upload them online for all to see. It's not as expansive as I would have liked, but the fact that you can download new missions every so often is a breakthrough for the series. Keep in mind that your fun is also going to be limited by how many actual parts you have, which are unlocked by completing both campaigns. Here's the bad news for those of you who already bought the original. While the new story is enjoyable and the Studio is fun to mess around with, you aren't getting a substantial new expansion to pour over for weeks here. Think of it more like a hefty DLC package. In other words, unless you absolutely love Deception, it probably isn't a good idea to shell out $50 for Nightmare Princess. It's a really weird thing for Koei Tecmo to do, as it could have easily provided an "upgrade" for say, $20, and then released a package version on the side. As it stands, you either have to go all or nothing. At the very least, there is the added bonus of being able to import your old save data, so you don't have to complete the original campaign all over again to reap the unlock benefits. Deception IV: The Nightmare Princess is in a really weird spot, but here's the rub -- as a Deception enthusiast, I was more than happy enough to take Velguirie's story for a spin, and I found myself beating the original game again as well as creating a few levels in the Studio. Just know exactly what you're getting into with Nightmare and make an informed decision. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Deception IV review photo
Hardcore trappers only
I really liked the original release of Deception IV. It was refreshing to see the series get another lease on life after taking a hiatus with Trapt all the way back in 2005, and newcomer Laegrinna fit right in. This...

Review: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Jun 26 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015 The "40 hours" of questing claim by Square Enix for the main story (levels 50-60) is accurate, but there's a caveat. You'll have to do a combination of sidequests, daily hunt marks (which can be done solo), and dungeons to push through some gaps, particularly in the middle levels. A few portions can be off-putting sometimes in terms of pacing, especially since the sidequests aren't nearly as good as the main story questline. Having said that, there wasn't any point, even the aforementioned lows, where I stopped having fun. There's just so much to do at this juncture of Final Fantasy XIV. I would frequently stop to do world hunts, which respawn every few hours or so in each area. They're even more fun now once you've unlocked flight for that particular zone, and all of the old hunts still exist too, albeit with smaller rewards for kills. You could hunt all day if you wanted to. I'd visit my new apartment in my friend's beachfront property villa in the Mist, and see what was going on with their new workshop -- a feature that lets you build Free Company (guild) airships in Heavensward, which go on expeditions for more items, similar to Retainer quests. Although I don't tend to craft in any MMO I play, I hung out with a group of crafters and chatted for hours about the new crafter meta and theories for some testing, which are insanely deep. For those who aren't aware, each crafting and gathering class has its own miniature storyline, and crafters in particular now have a even more complicated method of creating new high quality items. Crafting was always like a puzzle, allowing players to learn the best rotations for creating the best items, but now, there's an "endgame" of sorts for the profession, featuring a separate system of crafting in guilds to help build airships, and more complicated patterns that will fetch big gains on the auction house. Flying makes gathering nodes more fun, which is a big improvement on the 2.0 system -- and more nuanced with new gathering abilities. I also took a break and started a Dark Knight, Astrologian, and Machinist, which are all new jobs in Heavensward. Although there's a debate going on regarding the latter's low damage output, I've grouped and played all of them, and each brings something unique to the table. The Dark Knight is really fun to tank with, as he can drop his "Grit" stance (having it on lets you take less damage) on occasion, which unlocks a whole host of damage-dealing abilities. [embed]294750:59242:0[/embed] As a general rule you always want to be doing your core job and tanking with Grit, but when you need that extra push, the Dark Knight is ready and willing, and feels far more engaging than the existing Warrior. The Astrologian sacrifices a bit of firepower (compared to the White Mage and Scholar) but makes up for it with a variety of different healing tricks, and the Machinist is one of the most complicated DPS classes in the game. They are all worthwhile additions, and each role (tank, healer, ranged DPS) fits perfectly in the current meta. By the time I was done with the story and hit level 60, I had played far more than 40 hours. While there are some predictable plot points and far too much Final Fantasy grandstanding, I have to say I enjoyed it as a whole. I really dig the dragon theme that permeates throughout the expansion (they commit to it), and I was satisfied with the conclusion, especially the final boss, which Final Fantasy fans will love. The epilogue also does its job of sufficiently teasing all of the upcoming free content updates, so I'm pumped to see where this goes. The dungeons are all par for the course, which again, is a theme with this expansion. Every dungeon, including the three level 60 ones at the end, have the same linear design that is crafted to prevent you from speedrunning them. Gone are the labyrinthine paths of some low-level dungeons, as well as the tricks of the trade of the vanilla endgame areas; the structure is basically the same every time. Thankfully, the boss fights are spectacular, and nearly every zone features an encounter that has something I've never seen before. Without spoiling it, my favorite dungeon has a fight where a bird flies up into the air, and causes the entire battlefield to fill with fog, forcing you to find his shadow before he comes back down. Another hilariously tasks players with picking up totems and placing them in certain areas to prevent a boss from casting a ritual that ties his health to them. Every fight is intuitive so you won't be scratching your head going "how does this work?" but you will have to actually try. It's a good balance, even if I wish some of the dungeons were a bit more open. The two Primals (Ravana and Bismarck) are worthy additions to the game, and both have EX (extreme) versions that will test your might at level 60. Ravana is an awesome fight that I refer to as "the ninja bug," and it basically feels like how Titan should have been, with a circular arena that you can fall off of. Bismarck on the other hand is like nothing else in Final Fantasy XIV, featuring the titular whale flying right next to a floating rock that the party is standing on. Players will have to hook him with harpoons (you can shout "call me Ishmael" while doing it) and whale on the whale's weak point temporarily. I feel like Ravana is faster-paced and more fun, but again, Bismarck is unique. Currently the endgame consists of gathering law tomes (obtained by high-level dungeons and hunts), buying item level i170 gear, and upgrading them to i180 by way of items from seals. Bismarck EX will net you i175 weapons, and Ravana earns you i190. You have two weeks to fully upgrade your left and right-side gear to face the first part of the Alexander raid, who will debut at that time (with the tougher "Savage" difficulty unlocking two weeks after that). Said raids will be even better thanks to the new loot systems, which can give a raid leader more control over who gets what (finally). With everything there is to do in the game though, it doesn't feel like a grind to get to that point. Did I mention Heavensward was beautiful? I'm pretty sure I have often, but I'll do it again just to drive the point home. It looks fantastic, from the snowy landscape of Ishgard to the Souls-esque Dravanian Hinterlands, complete with lush plains and hellish mountains filled with fiery depths. I would often stop just to admire the scenery, which is even easier thanks to flying mounts. Every time I visit an old content area I long for the chance to use a flying mount, but alas, it's only available in new zones. Specifically regarding the PS4 version, it's starting to feel the sting of the more open areas a bit, particularly when it comes to longer load times (which can be a pain while zoning in for hunts) and some slowdown. I should mention that said slowdown never becomes unplayable, even with 50 other players slashing away at the same world hunt target. It can just get a bit sluggish is all. My view is partially colored by the fact that the new Direct X 11 version on PC looks gorgeous and runs smoothly. Down the line you have new storylines to look forward to, as well as the aforementioned Alexander raid, more 24-player casual raids (which aren't currently in yet), a new PVP map, and a new multi-part relic weapon quest that will debut next month for all jobs. None of this was factored into this review, but it's something to be aware of -- based on its past track record, Square Enix will continue to evolve the game and make it better. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward is more A Realm Reborn, which is a fine thing to strive for in my book. Whether you're the type of player who enjoys crafting, endgame content, or role-playing, there's so much to do here for people of all skill levels it's insane. While I fizzled out a bit after completing the main story in 2.5, Heavensward has rekindled my flame. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Heavensward review photo
Par for the heavens
When our story began last week, I was a level 53 Paladin, soldiering through the new content for Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward. I stand before you now as a level 60, having played everything that's currently available. My opinion on the expansion hasn't changed much, which is a good thing.

Review in Progress: Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Jun 19 // Chris Carter
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixMSRP: $39.99 ($12.99 per month)Released: June 19, 2015 (Early Access), June 23, 2015 Picking up directly where the last campaign left off, the first quest of Heavensward is located in the Coerthas Central Highlands, directing you to Ishgard. Yep, you heard that right -- it continues the story of the core game, so you'll need to complete the main campaign (ending with "Before the Dawn") and reach level 50 first. Newer players will find at least double the experience from the original vanilla quests to help boost them up a bit. According to Square Enix, the new Heavensward story is roughly 50 hours, and based on my pace so far in at 10, that's fairly accurate. It's about the same length as the original game, which is quite a feat, and about the sweet spot for a campaign in my mind. There's so much other stuff to do to keep you busy at this point. The flow of the process is to get from levels 50 to 60 with mostly story quests, which has worked out for the most part with my first character -- so far, I'm level 53 and counting. I decided to take on the leveling process with my trusty Paladin, who would be able to jump into queues at a moment's notice. Most classes have a handful of new abilities, and in the Paladin's case, there are five in total. I've acquired one so far -- the power to use a pinch block ability to give him some extra durability. There are a few new combo abilities that mix up your rotation quite a bit, as well as a few tweaks (like an accuracy buff to Shield Oath). It's just enough to keep you on your toes and get you interested in leveling without making things too tricky. Ishgard is the new capital city and the expansion hosts nine new locations, all of which are much larger than the original zones in A Realm Reborn. This is mostly because they now support flying mounts, a brand new mechanic in Heavensward. You can't just fly right off the bat, though -- you'll have to attune to each zone through a combination of locating aether and completing key quests. The idea is that you'll have fully explored the area by the time you're done, opening up a more vertical approach later on. [embed]294029:59024:0[/embed] It sounds like it could be annoying, but you'll get a compass item that will help you find said aether currents with instructions that aren't too vague and aren't on-the-nose either. It's a fun mechanic that reminds me a lot of the same design philosophies found in Guild Wars 2. Some of the currents are even built around jumping puzzles. Flying isn't as glorious as in, say, Aion, but it's very fun to soar about when tracking down hunt targets. I can see Square Enix doing a lot of cool things with future updates like hidden areas and quests; there's some of that already now. Speaking of flying, your personal Chocobo will allow you to do just that at a certain point in the story, so everyone can easily get on track and enjoy the ride. Having said that, the PlayStation 4 version is starting to show its age already. Although this is launch so there's lots more people concentrated in specific areas, the frame rate crawls a bit more than it used to in vanilla Realm Reborn, especially since most of these zones are so much bigger. It's not game-breaking, but it is odd. The PS4 was previously a powerhouse and nearly on par with the PC. I haven't tested it for that long, but the newly minted DirectX 11 engine on PC (that also released today) is drastically better than ever before, alleviating nearly all of my concerns. I'll provide more information on this in the future. The quality of the story is improved overall, drawing from what the development team learned from all of the superior updates. It deals with a thousand-year conflict between Ishgard and Dravania. I'm interested in seeing where this goes, and I'll provide a spoiler-free update when I complete it. The actual quests haven't been any better or worse than A Realm Reborn, and so far, the theme of the expansion seems to be "more of a good thing, without re-inventing the wheel." There are two starting zones to alleviate the congestion, which have worked, on top of the fact that roughly half of the post-level-50 community is going back to the old content with the new jobs anyway. As for other content, there are a handful of new dungeons, one of which I've tried out already called Dusk Vigil. It's about on par with the recent additions in the newer updates. That is to say they're very flashy, filled with their own lore bits, and while they cut down on exploration quite a bit, they're all designed to be completed casually with the occasional peppering of a challenge. The pacing is spot on, and they don't drag like a few of the vanilla dungeons. The same goes for the first hard mode trial (read: group instanced boss) I've encountered, which features a really badass bug that I don't want to spoil here. Suffice to say, it's a little more interesting than the initial Primals you meet in A Realm Reborn. Several other classes have gotten a few major shakeups, like the Bard, who now has a DPS-based Limit Break, and the Black Mage, which must stay within Ley Lines, a magical circle, to gain extra damage by way of haste. Every class now has a unique level-three Limit Break animation, which is great. All of these changes help make your job feel more unique and make Final Fantasy XIV a more well-rounded MMO as a whole. Switching to my other jobs for a few moments felt different, especially the Bard. You can really notice even just a few extra skills in dungeon runs. As for the three new jobs, I had a chance to try out Dark Knight, but there's also the Astrologian and Machinist. Unlocking them is as easy as reaching Ishgard and talking to a specific quest starter in town, then doing a 10-minute quest for each -- that's it! They all start at level 30, and come equipped with a few pieces of gear and roughly 10 skills each at first. It's perfect, as there's just enough there to give you plenty to do right away, but not so much that you're overwhelmed. While I need more time to test them, I think they all bring something unique to the table, and I love the Dark Knight's risk-reward mechanic. It's the freshest take on tanking yet. Other extras that I still need to dig into include the all new Au Ra race, the DirectX11 visual upgrade on PC, new hunt targets, a more comprehensive loot system for raids, the power to queue for dungeons with less than five players, Free Company (guild) upgrades like Workshops and Airships, crafting upgrades, Bismarck and Ravana as new Primals, more Triple Triad cards, a future new Frontlines PVP map, an all-new Relic questline set to debut in 3.1, and a new Alexander raid, which will unlock at a later date. Stay tuned as I continue to play through Heavensward, work my way up to level 60, and try out the new classes. Only then will I provide my full review for the expansion.+ [This review is based on a retail build provided by the publisher.]
Final Fantasy XIV review photo
Par for the heavens
The story of how Square Enix turned Final Fantasy XIV around is still incredible to me. I always tell people about playing it at E3 in 2010 for the very first time, pre-Realm Reborn, and how it was one of the least fun MMOs I...

Star Ocean photo
SO5 producer on how new game came to be
During an interview with Destructoid today, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness producer Shuichi Kobayashi intimated the series was in a state of upheaval after the launch of Star Ocean 4. Kobayashi told me "nobody would ...

Transformers photo
Later this year on everything but Wii U
After Best Buy and a leak spilled the beans, we now have official confirmation from Activision -- Platinum Games will develop Transformers: Devastation, an upcoming action project based on the Transformers universe. It ...

Based on the new demo, I have a good feeling about Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

Jun 11 // Chris Carter
[embed]293784:58947:0[/embed] The first ever playable build of the game that's been released to the public features three levels -- a water ruins location, a desert, and an action sequence that takes place on a conveyor belt. The first two heavily feature transformations, which thankfully have returned after their absence in Pirate's Curse. For the first stage you'll have the opportunity to change into Shantae's classic monkey form, which can climb up walls and jump with ease, and on the second, she sports a crab transformation with heavy defensive capabilities. As always, her new forms are downright adorable. Unlike Mighty No. 9, which doesn't match its great gameplay with a similarly impressive visual style (it still looks a little bland), Half-Genie Hero is gorgeously hand-drawn. In other words, it looks almost exactly like the concept art: a rarity these days. It also plays great, as the simplistic three-button system (jump, attack, and dance for transformations) works perfectly even in this early build. I dig the bright settings, platforming design, and art direction. Get a look at two of the stages above yourself -- you'll have plenty of time to decide on whether or not to pull the trigger, as WayForward has made it clear that there is still no solid release window for Half-Genie Hero.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero photo
Three levels in Early Access
Back in 2013, WayForward crowdfunded a new project by way of Kickstarter called Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, the fourth game in the storied Shantae series. It managed to raise almost a million dollars in funding, whic...

Sneak king: 14 hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Jun 09 // Steven Hansen
[embed]293558:58900:0[/embed] There is a reason I am excited about Snake's horse having a poop button and it is not only that I am a dumb idiot. While I never managed to confirm, I am sure that you can do something like strategically place poop so an enemy walks into it and stops, or maybe slips. Because things like that are what elevate Metal Gear Solid V above typical stealth and/or open-world titles. It's the idiosyncrasies, like calling in a supply drop from Mother Base right onto the head of a stationary guard, knocking them out. It's knowing winks like hiding in a PS4 cardboard box, or the ghost from PT being an item, or a spoken, in-universe tutorial where you're told fourth wall breaking things like "press X" while under extreme virtual duress. The opening segment, which has mostly been covered in diced up trailers, stuck with me in hindsight for how long it goes on with you controlling a crawling, limping Snake in the under siege, burning hospital. It's a while before you're given any power back (guns or even the ability to walk properly), which I appreciated. Kojima ratchets up the direness here, too, as loads of hospital patients get brutally murdered all around. The meat of Phantom Pain opens after this mix of spectacle and terror with a trip to dusty Afghanistan to save Miller that ends in a frightening [redacted]. This plays similarly to Ground Zeroes, of course, but with a horse and more scouting and enemy tagging to do. I wormed my way up to where Miller was captive, climbed up a crack in a building, and jumped from one roof to another to neatly sneak in. Carrying a less-limbed Miller out did get me plenty shot up, but a whistle for my buddy D Horse got both of us out of there quickly. Back on Mother Base, the structure becomes clear. There are main missions you must travel to (by helicopter to a nearby landing zone, or on horseback/by ground vehicle) and they are not all story heavy, though you're always treated to beginning and ending credits, as if each mission was a TV episode, just in case you forgot that this was directed by Hideo Kojima. One mission simply tasked me with rolling up on a compound and assassinating three Russian officers. I fulton'd them all -- attached balloons to them to send back to Mother Base -- against Miller's wishes instead, which proved wise as the officers had some high statistical aptitudes. These poached soldiers fill out your private army and get cool names like Blue Mastadon. Eventually you can scan them ahead of time to know which have high stats, or you can sometimes interrogate soldiers into informing you if an en elite operative is nearby (provided you've acquired a translator for your support team, as Snake's language skills are limited). [embed]293558:58893:0[/embed] It's a lot of contract work in addition to the narrative goal of stopping the Hamburglar-masked Skull Face and generally figuring out what the hell is going on with things. I was actually a bit surprised by how infrequently missions came with cutscenes or main story ties. Sometimes they open up three at a time and you can take them on in any order. You can also choose to repeat a mission at any time if you want to aim for a better performance ranking. I did this with a prisoner extraction mission I had previously finished, but barely. Turns out using the Phantom Cigar to speed up until nighttime, coupled with the night vision goggles, made that particular mission a five minute cakewalk. Going at it in the day led me to enough deaths that I was offered the Chicken Hat, which makes things easier and slows down enemy reaction time. Other dynamic weather events -- rain or sandstorms -- can also come into play, sometimes not at opportune moments. The low visibility caused by sandstorms helped me a few times, but also led me to walk right into an enemy soldier, once. There are also useful side missions that pop up for you take at your leisure, often en route to the next mission point. The Afghan desert is huge, but much of the terrain is empty or cordoned off by mountainous areas or steep cliff sides that encourage you to use the main roads. These roads are littered with enemy outposts, however, often with small platoons of three to four and a watch tower. Sneaking through them isn't too tough, because often you can take a longer loop around them, but they often house collectables (you can pinch a huge assortment of music from enemy tape players) and valuable resources that tie into the upgrade system. Oil, alloys, raw diamonds for straight cash, plants to upgrade the sleeping toxin in Snake's tranquilizers or the time-shifting Phantom Cigar -- you'll be scooping up all of it, though other means of acquisition open up when you can start sending squads out on missions. Plus, those posts are full of soldiers to abduct and, after you upgrade your Fulton balloons, things like heavy artillery to nick. [embed]293558:58895:0[/embed] Everything you Fulton, barring bad weather or bad luck with nighttime visibility, ends up back at Mother Base, which is large enough, especially once you get construction going, that you can actually take a helicopter to other parts of it. Or you can take a long, straight drive in a jeep. Going back to visit helps your troops' morale. They're also proud and happy to have you practice your close quarters combat on them at any time. During my lengthy hands-on, I never got to the point where my Mother Base came under attack, though that's supposed to be a big part of it, up to the point where you can consider nuclear capability as a defense. It's worth noting that 14 hours or so with Phantom Pain and I didn't feel close to finished. Back at Mother Base, I was still building an animal sanctuary (necessary to house all the wandering sheep and other creatures I kept bringing back) and trying to get an imprisoned, sun-bathing Quiet as a deployable buddy like D-Horse and Diamond Dog (the adorable wolf pup that grows into a super-scouting badass). She just sat in the cell, face down, top undone (got to watch those tan lines) listening to tunes from an eclectic, amusing soundtrack. Adorably, construction scaffolding on Mother Base is all stamped with a picture of a dog in a hardhat with a pick axe. It's the little things. Like changing my Diamond Dogs logo from a boring, stencil font "DD" to a cool ass octopus emblazoned with the words "VENOM WOMAN." You can even paint Mother Base if that Giants-orange is too much for you. I find a tasteful dark blue goes well with the sea. My favorite Mother Base quirk so far, though, is the giant shower Snake can jump into to come out feeling refreshed. It also washes off all the blood that accumulates on him while out on missions (if you end up getting shot, at least). [embed]293558:58891:0[/embed] While there are reasons to return home, you can manage a lot of Mother Base, like troop allocation and base development, while out in the field through the iDroid. It also acts as Snake's cassette player, useful for Codec-replacing heaps of exposition, which is just about the only place I heard Snake do much talking.  From the iDroid you can also develop new or better versions of weapons and items. There are upgraded critter traps, different abilities for Snake's robot arm, enhancements to the binocular scanner, extra Fulton balloons to heft heavier weight. I mostly played with a stealthy approach so I didn't dabble much with the vast assortment of snipers, machine guns, or rocket launchers you can call in. Nor did I ever run up on a lack of funds that would prevent re-supply drops of my own essential Fulton balloons and tranq darts, but the fact that you have to call in and then get to the supply drops means that the feature rarely made things too simple. Especially because missions often end up in close quarters or indoors where a supply drop would be useless anyways. I was impressed by how naturally set piece sort of areas exist in Metal Gear Solid V's world. There are long tracts of dusty road, vast open desert, but suddenly you stumble upon an enormous, imposing compound. In the case of one early mission, it was an Uncharted-style winding, honeycomb-esque historical labyrinth, which you get to by creeping through an excavation camp. There are mission areas that would feel like obvious "levels" elsewhere, but here they mesh cleanly with the open world. Just starting or ending a mission (the latter, usually by reaching a helicopter and flying out in real time) is seamless and the day/night cycle persists in cutscenes. I did hit one snag with this open-world structure, though. When you start a mission (or side-mission), you're then restricted to a "mission area." Leaving it ends the mission. I only ever noticed after one challenging mission that ended with [redacted] and [redacted] coming up on [redacted] and holy hell [redacted] -- anyway, towards the end I tried to hightail it on my horse, but I ended running clean through the mission area and having to start from way, way back. It wanted me to sneak to a nearby chopper extraction point instead of just racing to safety and calling one in. This is, incidentally, when I noted the cutscene and subsequent segment I originally did at night now took place during the day. [embed]293558:58892:0[/embed] Phantom Pain feels like the freshest, most distinct use of an open world since Far Cry 2 and it does this without sacrificing the cozier feeling of the series' past level design. While I can't say anything about the story, I don't actually know much at this point, either, besides various "holy shit" moments that have only raised questions. It's appropriate, then, that this Sutherland-voiced Snake speaks sparingly. He always seems sad and a little bit confused, retreating into the rote, work-like task of soldier stuff hoisted upon him by Ocelot and Miller, who seem to be a bit at odds with each other as well.  While Ground Zeroes' sadistic storytelling might raise concerns over how this extra grim tale will play out (Snake is basically a devil what with the horns, the intro is pure brutality before giving way to surreal insanity, there's still a whole thing about child soldiers at some point), I've come away nothing but impressed with Phantom Pain. I don't miss codecs, I don't miss Hayter. I've embraced the open world, I love the tangible Mother Base. And I feel like I've only scratched the surface. There's so much more to do. I've barely used the cardboard box -- you can leap out the sides or hang out in delivery zones and actually have enemies unwittingly pick you up and drive you into outposts. I haven't used to inflatable decoy to bop someone off a cliff. In a world of blockbuster clones and genre convention, Metal Gear Solid V manages to feel fresh. I can't wait to get someone to slip on my horse poop.
First hands-on! photo
First hands-on with Metal Gear Solid V
Trailers from as far back as two years ago offer evidence enough, though. Do you all remember the giant, on-fire man supplanted in malevolence seconds later by the even more giant, on-fire whale careening through the sky to ...

Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Supremacy

Jun 02 // Chris Carter
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Supremacy DLC (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Sledgehammer Games (Current-gen) / High Moon Studios (Last-gen) / Raven Software (Zombies)Publisher: ActivisionReleased: June 2, 2015 (Xbox) / TBA (PC, PS3, PS4)MSRP: $14.99 ($50 Season Pass for four packs) First up is Skyrise, a map that takes place in futuristic Greece. Well, you wouldn't notice the setting unless you really looked, as the only clue is the Acropolis landmark on one side of the map. As it stands, it's basically a straight remake of Modern Warfare 2's Highrise. It's a classic arena in its own right -- but as I've said in the past, I'm not a fan of injecting remakes in a $15 DLC pack. Having said that, Highrise really holds up. It's a classic tiered map with plenty of high, middle, and underground paths, with a giant playground in the middle, and hidden side paths. It's a nice addition to the rotation, and enough time has passed between the release of Modern Warfare 2 to not piss me off. Parliament is set on the River Thames in London, and is yet another tanker map. It's almost like Activision needs to fulfill an imaginary quota of tankers in every Call of Duty, so this is where you can get your fix if you're a fan of steel traps. It's a lot like Skyrise in that most of the cool stuff is happening in the background, but there's some decent opportunities to jump around the map and over hazards like the river itself. It's not quite on par with Skyrise's layout, but I have no real qualms when it comes up, since it takes advantage of the increased Exo mobility quite well. Kremlin, obviously set in Russia, is extremely colorful, and sets itself apart from the rest of the pack immediately. I love that it feels like a legitimate map from an older game like World at War, as there's tons of detail inside and out, and nearly none of the layout is wasted. It's one of the best objective-based maps currently, as there are multiple chokepoints built into it, including one really rad area that involves a long road and a mounted machine-gun perch. Whenever it comes up in a playlist, my eyes light up and I mash the vote button. It seems like there always needs to be one bad apple in these DLCs, and Compound fulfills that niche. Taking place in a staging ground in Colorado, Compound is a boring, small map that serves no real purpose in Advanced Warfare, which is a much more mobile game than past iterations. From what I've played, opposing teams tend to spawn on top of one another, leading to a bunch of messy firefights. They tried to go for a more tiered design here, but it mostly fails because everything is so low to the ground. Thankfully, the Exo Grapple playlist returns for Supremacy, and I recommend playing it to get more mileage out of Compound. In case you were wondering, there's no DLC weapon this time around -- which I'm more than fine with. [embed]293187:58782:0[/embed] Like clockwork, a number of issues I have with Supremacy have been alleviated with the third part of the Exo Zombies tale, Carrier. I really love how Sledgehammer and Raven Software are moving the story along with the same cast of characters, and its narrative style is pretty much exactly where it needs to be. It's not as cryptic as Treyarch's method, it's not too on-the-nose, and it's far more interesting than Infinity Ward's alien-oriented Extinction lore. It helps that Bruce Campbell is now along for the ride, and he fits the tone of the game perfectly. Maybe he'd be better suited as a full-on Ash cameo down the line with a wackier take on the zombies mode in general, but he does a great job of acclimating to the already talented cast here. Carrier itself looks aesthetically similar to the first Exo Zombies mission, but the intricacies will soon start to pop out the more you play. One of my favorite bits involves a makeshift Pachinko machine on a random wall that takes spare grenades, rewarding you with cash. There's also a lot of cool skirmishes with humanoid opponents this time, which elevates the mode and gives it a certain degree of depth that exceeds your normal "horde" expectations. Objectives like defusing bombs while fighting off ravenous zombies do a great job of keeping you on your toes. Call of Duty: Advance Warfare's DLC drops have become incrementally more impressive as Sledgehammer is willing to take more risks. While I didn't think it'd be able to bring anything new to the table for its first Call of Duty outing, the studio has proven me wrong, surpassing Infinity Ward in my mind. While the jury is out on the fourth DLC for Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer has already done enough to make me look forward to its next project. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Call of Duty DLC review photo
Third time is a charm
Another year, another round of Call of Duty DLC -- four rounds, yet again, in the case of Advanced Warfare. We've already had the Havoc and Ascendance packs drop so far as part of the Season Pass, and while they weren't bad offerings, nothing about them really vied for a purchase. With Supremacy, there may be a case for the pass, at the very least at a discount down the line.

Disney Infinity 3.0 expands with the Star Wars and Inside Out playsets

Jun 01 // Alessandro Fillari
For those who aren't familiar, or maybe just a bit confused about what Disney Infinity is, this title brings players into an open world and unified experience to craft unique and original playgrounds for Disney characters from the past and present. Much like the Skylanders series, characters are acquire by purchasing actual figurines that can be uploaded into the game via a world disc, a real world scanner. While you can create levels and unique scenarios and share them with others online, you can also dive into unique playsets centered around specific Disney films and television shows. In its third year now, Disney Infinity has seen a number of upgrades and additions. With last year's expansion introducing Marvel characters, they've also spent some time upgrading the gameplay and general design. In order to do this, they recruited help from independent developers such as Ninja Theory, Sumo Digital, and United Front Games where they worked on the key areas of combat, racing, and additional character support respectively. With general development handled by Avalanche Software (note: not the same Avalanche behind Just Cause), they've found the creation of Disney Infinity to be a rewarding and satisfying experience. "The two words that come to mind are 'humbling' and 'gratifying," said the GM of Avalanche Software John Blackburn while reflecting on his work on Disney Infinity. "I feel so fortunate to work with all these brands, and it's a dream come true in a lot of ways[...] I'm pretty happy that people have responded to it in the way that have, and have accepted it and are looking forward to the new versions right now. I want to make sure we're doing a good enough job that we're really trying to make high quality kids and family entertainment, because that's been more and more difficult as a business to do. So it's very gratifying to see that we're doing it right." With the 3.0 expansion, new environments and characters will be added to the core game, such as the recently announced Star Wars: Twilight of the Republic (based on the prequel trilogy), Rise Against the Empire (original trilogy), The Force Awakens, and also Pixar's Inside Out playsets. While Star Wars will be largely combat and vehicle focused experiences, Inside Out will experiment more with platforming in surreal environments. Much like the film, the gameplay centers around the emotional state of a young girl named Riley and her changing perception and feelings. Set sometime after the film, players take control of Riley's emotions Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear, when she experiences a nightmare after falling asleep during a scary movie. The playset focuses on platforming gameplay through Riley's dreamscape, where environments and enemies take on a variety of different properties, such as warped gravity and the ground turning into hot lava. Each character has their own unique abilities and skills which will serve them throughout the adventure. After seeing the movie, I was itching for another trip into the bizarre and evocative world from Inside Out, and the Disney Infinity playset serves a great follow up to the film as it's basically the sequel to the film. Moreover, it fleshes out many of the settings and areas from the film, such as the dream productions studio where Riley's subconscious craft her dreams by way of old school film production. It's a very colorful and imaginative world, and it's likely the most unique playset Disney Infinity has had yet. The devs at Disney Interactive were very excited about what the new playsets can offer. "Every year a new fan is born," explained the VP of production John Vignocchi. "We're sitting here in the hallowed halls of Pixar, and everyone there will be someone who sees Toy Story for the first time, and we want to make sure that when they pick up Buzz Lightyear, or another favorite character, and when they play with them inside of Infinity, that he is just as cool as he was in the film." Even though I've only had some minor experience with Disney Infinity, I was quite surprised with the creativity found in these playsets. Perhaps this was coming off of my high after seeing Inside Out a month early, but I was very pleased with the translation from film to game. With the writers and directors from the film working with the devs, along with the same voice cast including Amy Poehler and Bill Hader, they wanted to ensure that it would be as faithful as possible. It's pretty crazy to see how much Disney Infinity has grown over the years. What was once a strange experiment trying to catch on to the Minecraft and Skylanders craze, has now turned into a title that's really come into its own. It's pretty impressive to see how much detail and content is packed in the title already, and with the new 3.0 expansion hitting this Fall, the Disney universe is about to get a bit bigger for fans to explore.
Disney Infinity photo
It's a small world after all
Who knew that Disney's strange and bizarre mishmash of characters into one large game would turn out to be such a big hit? I know, a Disney title with a bunch of Pixar, film, and legacy characters would've sold regardless, bu...

Review: Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series: Sons of Winter

May 26 // Darren Nakamura
Game of Thrones - A Telltale Game Series: Sons of Winter (Android, iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: May 26, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (episode), $29.99 (season)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit [Editor's note: there will be no major spoilers present for the episode reviewed here, but events in previous episodes may be discussed.] Those following along with the series shouldn't expect any major changes in how events play out. There is lots of dialogue, lots of split-second decisions, a handful of quick-time events, a little bit of exploration, and not much else. The split between the four living playable characters stays about the same as well: Mira's sections are almost entirely dialogue-based and Asher's are generally more action-focused. Despite being the Forrester known better for stabbing first and asking questions later, Asher's story in Meereen comes with some of the more interesting this-or-that decisions this episode. Where Rodrik has to choose between murder and mercy, Asher has the more nuanced quandary of loyalty to the family that exiled him and loyalty to his sellsword partner Beskha. Parts of Beskha's past come to light in Sons of Winter that give the situation more gravity. Of all the decisions in this episode, Asher's handling of the mission in Meereen is "the big one" for me, and I'm most anxious about the potential fallout from my choice, which won't show up until next episode at least. [embed]292557:58611:0[/embed] Mira's tribulations in King's Landing continue to be a high point for the series. Though this episode lacks the big names -- neither Cersei, Tyrion, nor Margaery makes a significant appearance -- the way Telltale handles Mira shows genuine understanding of what makes the source material so great. Any game could have quick-time swordfights, but a Game of Thrones game ought to be more than that. Her best scene is at Tommen's coronation feast. It comes closest to being like a classic adventure game. She must navigate the celebration cautiously, eavesdrop on conversations to gain information, and use that information at the right time. Even if it turns out not to be the case in the end (as Telltale games often do), the feast scene felt like it could have ended with a much different outcome. As it stood for me, I came out of it laughing, pleased with how clever I felt to have achieved what I wanted and particularly smug about the last line I had Mira say to close out the scene. It reinforced the idea that in King's Landing, shrewd manipulation of information is just as powerful as a sword, if not more so. Rodrik has his own share of politicking to deal with on the home front. A new opportunity lands in his lap that could help return control of Ironrath to House Forrester, and he has his own decisions to make, though they seemed a bit more obvious. Satisfy a desire for petty revenge near the beginning and he loses some leverage for later on in the episode. I'm curious to know how things shake out with other choices; in contrast to the first few episodes I feel like I made the best decisions for Rodrik this time around. There is a tense scene as Rodrik at Highpoint, the Whitehill stronghold. Not only are the stakes high, but it also rewards an attention to detail. Prior to the meeting with Lord Whitehill, some light exploration can help to reveal information that can be used in the encounter. It's another instance where proper intel beats physical force that feels right in place in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. Gared's scenes were the least interesting this time around. Where prior episodes set him up to be part of the party that goes to Craster's Keep, he ends up with a blander story. It still has room to get better once the importance of the North Grove is revealed, but in this episode it felt a bit like he was stagnating. The oil paint aesthetic that turns people off remains, though it does feel like Telltale has tuned down the baffling polygon edge blur effect that plagued the first two episodes. It's still present, but not nearly as distracting as it used to be. There aren't any heart-stopping moments or dramatic twists like there were in the early episodes, but Sons of Winter sets a good pace and keeps it up throughout the episode. It's great to see the continued focus on shrewdness over brute strength for most of the characters, especially considering House Forrester's situation in Westeros. What the family lacks in soldiers, it must make up for in cleverness. Being party to the events makes me feel clever, whether I truly have much of an effect or not. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Game of Thrones review photo
Son of a...
At the end of Episode 3: The Sword in the Darkness, Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series was in an interesting place. Nearly all of the playable characters were in tough spots, but all of them ended the episode with some h...

Review: Life is Strange: Chaos Theory

May 26 // Brett Makedonski
Life is Strange: Chaos Theory (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])Developer: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Square EnixRelease date: May 19, 2015MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode) As Life is Strange plays out chapter by chapter, it's increasingly difficult to talk about with any degree with specificity. Doing so not only runs the risk of spoiling the many significant plot points that continually punctuate this game, but it also feels like a disservice to discuss Life is Strange's events in black and white when much of its brilliance lies somewhere else. It's not a linear story progression that makes this title worthwhile, rather it's the character building and continually changing relationships that constantly shine. While episode two felt like it meandered too much, it laid the framework for an effective third part. Just spending that extra time inside the head of Max, getting to know Chloe, and seeing the incessant vitriol at Blackwell made for characters who are easier to empathize with. It all pays off in a big way in Chaos Theory as the cast is finally at a place where the audience feels like it knows them and cares for them. At the forefront of this trend is Max's relationship with Chloe, as the duo is ditching the re-introduction stage and have hit a groove of sorts with their interactions. There are plenty of moments when Chloe's rebellious carpe diem spirit rubs off on Max in a charming way; likewise, Max's level-headed and rational demeanor affects Chloe, probably for the better. [embed]292750:58673:0[/embed] These conflicting personalities may have been most at equilibrium during a serene midnight dip in the academy's swimming pool. It's here that the two are at their most introspective and humble. It's here that they express that they lean on one another. There's an understated emotionality about it all that makes it one of Life is Strange's best scenes yet. Really, the swimming pool scene best exemplifies the quality that Dontnod's employed masterfully throughout the three-fifths of Life is Strange that we've seen: restraint. It would've been easy to highlight the moment with some sort of memorable event. But, the developer didn't. Instead, it let the two simply talk, which wonderfully lends humanity to them both individually and as a team. However, it's not just Chloe and Max that are further humanized. Almost all characters have some sort of sympathetic progression, as Life is Strange continues to prove that it excels at dealing in shades of grey. We get a glimpse at how scumbag drug dealer Frank has loved and lost. We see how "step-prick" David password protects his computer not with a nod to his army service or himself, but with a receipt that holds the date he met his wife. The latter of those revelations is discovered through a fetch quest-style puzzle. As painful as it is to admit, this element of gameplay is still where Life is Strange is at its very worst. The reason that's sort of tough to swallow is because it always encourages exploration and will often reward the curious. However, when it forces that wandering upon the player, the pacing drops from a self-imposed standstill to a mandatory one. It's enough to deaden the mood rather quickly. It's a rare instance of Dontnod eschewing that aforesaid restraint to somewhat negative results. Thus far, the developer has done a great job keeping everything in check so as to not go off the rails. The time-rewinding mechanic still doesn't feel as if it's taken over the game nor does it serve as a permanent crutch. Instead, it's mostly sparingly used, usually to glean more information from a tight-lipped witness. Similarly, Life is Strange hasn't yet gone full-out on the paranormal aspect that clearly hangs over the entire story. This reserved approach is appreciated, as it lends weight to the characters and their personal circumstances rather than spotlighting the supernatural. There may be an imminent deviation from that pattern in the very near future, though. In the waning minutes of Chaos Theory, Max discovers a new ability that could easily shift the narrative focus. Chaos Theory is effective in that it's the first time Life is Strange asks the player to evaluate the net benefit of Max's ability to alter time. Until now, it's mostly dealt in small affairs where the results are immediately noticeable. Episode three finds a way to work on a longer timeline and with more at stake. In all honesty, it's the first time I've felt that exact heart-wrenching emotion that I experienced eleven years ago when watching The Butterfly Effect. The cliffhanger that Chaos Theory ends on is so perfect for this portrayal of the fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon where nothing's ever perfect. However, it's also scarily dangerous in that it very well might render most of the world-building a moot point. It'd be such an absolute shame if that were to happen. We have to wait to see if that's the case. But, Life is Strange now has me in its grips, and if I'm worried, it's only because I care. I finally really, truly care. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Life is Strange review photo
Tornadoes in Texas
I'm worried about Life is Strange. But, it's not the same concern usually expressed when a game's teetering dangerously close to mediocrity or worse. It's the type of uneasiness reserved for a title that's taken three install...

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