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Shadow Of The Colossus Review: A Somber Masterpiece

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 01/30/2018 - 08:01

2005's Shadow of the Colossus was a revelation, a game whose gorgeous aesthetic and reserved tone were, at the time, undeniably distinct. Together with its unique take on boss encounters and a stirring soundtrack, those aspects made the game a defining title of the PlayStation 2 era. But it was also a game infamous for its technical issues: most notably, the ambitious design of the titular colossi meant the game would often suffer from a choppy, aggravating framerate.

A 2011 HD remaster for the PlayStation 3 alleviated these problems, but now, with 2018's Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 4, Bluepoint Games has completely rebuilt every aspect of the game's world while leaving the underlying structure and mechanics intact, a move which not only rejuvenates the game visually but uncategorically intensifies the utter majesty of this extraordinary experience.

Shadow of the Colossus takes place in an ancient world, where young warrior Wander and his horse Agro transport a deceased loved one to a forbidden, sealed land. With a mythical sword and an ordinary bow, Wander hopes to take advantage of a fable that suggests something in this isolated province has the means to bring back the dead. There, he encounters an omnipresent entity who compels him to destroy sixteen colossi scattered throughout the territory in order to enable his wish.

If you've already played a previous version of Shadow of the Colossus, you'll find that Bluepoint's rendition feels much the same, barring some minor differences in controller mapping, some subtle quality-of-life tweaks, and a new Easter egg. The locations of each colossus and the methods of defeating them remain the same, as do the locations of every white-tailed lizard and fruit collectible. The weight and movement physics of Wander and Agro feel unchanged, and New Game+ rewards are identical.

But the impact of the completely rebuilt world is transcendent. This is a world that is geographically as you remember, but one that still astounds you as if seeing it for the first time. Highly detailed environment modeling in tandem with impressive light and shadow simulation bring amazing life to the game's breathtaking biomes. Lucious forests are densely packed with majestic tall trees and twisting foliage, dappled beautifully with soft rays of sunlight. Vast, arid deserts feel hauntingly desolate as you try and sight somber ruins through a wispy sandstorm. Even the simple sight of mountainous crags and cliff faces is impressive, with shadows acutely defining their rocky surfaces, making them pop ominously. Every time you crest a hill, emerge from a crevice, or change your perspective, the landscape will be a sight worthy of pause.

The increased fidelity of the reconstructed colossi is just as spectacular, and the mere sight of one in this version of the game is even more awe-inspiring than it is in your memory. Each foe--some small and nimble, the rest impossibly titanic and overbearing--is a terrifying beast of stone, fur, and leather. That fur is now noticeably more dense and luscious, and hanging onto it for dear life as your enemy tries to violently shake you off feels even more intense. These moments are enhanced by the detail of the distant environment that lies far beneath you when on top of a colossus, combined with motion effects that amplify the sense of danger at these dizzying heights. The first time I mounted a flying colossus in this version of the game, I could feel my chest wrench as I squeezed my controller to hold onto its wing for dear life while it soared, flapping wildly through the air. It was exhilarating.

Playing on a PS4 Pro offers you the ability to further enhance visual fidelity via high dynamic range color, as well as the choice between two different graphical options with different priorities. Cinematic mode enables 4K resolutions, as well as allowing for impressive downsampling (that is, scaling down a higher-resolution image) for 1080p displays at a targeted 30fps. Performance mode provides less impressive graphical quality but maintains a smoother frame rate targeting 60fps. In my experience, I preferred the crisper image offered in Cinematic mode--once you realise you can recognise the definition between each individual blade of grass, it's hard to let that go. However, the visual quality offered by both modes still enhances the experience of the game in ways previously mentioned, especially for those whose last memory of it was suffering through sub-30fps framerate issues on the original PS2 release.

The visual reconstruction doesn't detract from what makes Shadow of the Colossus great, and the game's holistic and understated direction still comes through strongly: its muted colors, cinematic camera angles, and stark absence of music while exploring the world still evoke a poignant tone of desolation and solitude. The world's large forsaken landscape doesn't feel bereft of things to do, because simply riding through it and enjoying at the majesty of the land, accompanied only by the sound of Agro's hooves scraping against the earth, is a meditative experience.

Fighting a colossus is still a grand, solemn, and tense challenge that is exhilarating to overcome. The impassioned orchestral soundtrack heightens the pressure of every maneuver: Deciphering a method of mounting your impossibly enormous enemy, clambering to reach their vulnerabilities as they try to fling you off, and driving your sword into their flesh. Every moment of a colossus battle is thrilling to execute and witness, whether you're doing it for the first time, or the fifteenth time in a post-game time trial.

While the passing of twelve years hasn't affected the overall quality of Shadow of the Colossus, there are two technical annoyances that persist and remind you of a bygone era. The third-person camera system does not clip through world objects, so it becomes erratic and troublesome to adjust when moving Wander through enclosed spaces, or near a solid object. Additionally, the game's unforgiving climbing system, which asks you to jump with the X button and grasp onto a ledge or surface with the R2 trigger, is occasionally temperamental in certain situations; there may be times when contact with a ledge may not correctly register even though you may have been holding R2 well in advance and correctly estimated the distance needed for your jump. However, both of these issues affect only a small amount of your time with the game and should not be considered a significant strike against the whole. In the case of the climbing system, it's a quirk that's easy to come to peace with because of how absolutely essential the mechanic is to creating the rousing pressure and suspense of colossus encounters.

Shadow of the Colossus is a tremendous journey, and one well worth taking and retaking. The visual overhaul is stunning, thoroughly enhancing every facet of Wander and Agro's excellent adventure. Galloping through the tranquil world is always breathtaking; felling a monumental colossus is always humbling. Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful reconstruction of an already exceptional title. It continues to be a modern classic and is an extraordinary game that everyone must experience.

Subnautica Review: A Water Wonderland

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 01/29/2018 - 21:00

Decades after Jaws cemented our cultural fear of the deep ocean, Subnautica emerges from Steam Early Access to fuel a new breed of underwater nightmares. This first-person survival epic by Unknown Worlds Entertainment dumps you into the water with not a great white shark to watch out for, but an entire alien world full of monstrosities ready and able to swallow you whole. Subnautica expands into an intense and challenging game that maintains considerable beauty and mystique across its massive environments. It's so magical and otherworldly that it practically pains you to stop playing, even when you're filled with dread.

Despite its scale and demanding ecosystem, Subnautica is one of the most approachable open-world survival games around. Where most of this sort have a steep difficulty curve to climb, this underwater alien world is easy to get into. The solo-only campaign begins when your ship crashes onto a flooded planet. You awaken, floating in your pod with only the fiery ruin of your former starship to break up the monotony of the ocean that rolls on endlessly to all points of the horizon.

From here, your goal is a simple one--survive, discover what else is on this world, and do your best to find a way off of it. Thankfully, you come from a Star Trek-style federation. Your lifepod is tricked out with a fabricator, a nifty wall-mounted device that can make pretty much anything, provided you feed it the necessary raw materials. Bladderfish are needed right away to provide potable water, while smaller finned creatures are best for fast frying and eating.

Compared to other survival games, gathering up items is easy. Want to see what mineral is hiding in that rock? Punch it or whack it once or twice with whatever you have in your hand. Need to cut plants or coral? Right-click to slash with your knife. Considering other survival games force you to do things like bash your fists bloody against trees to collect wood, you get by pretty easy here, and the entire game is better for it.

Because the crash has corrupted a lot of your databank, you also have to find and scan fragments and crack open data boxes scattered across the ocean floor before you can build bits of technology. You can even fabricate additional fabricators that make components for vehicles like the zippy Seaglide or Seamoth mini-sub, and even seabases straight out of Octopussy. These are not only cool to look at, but useful in the long run, with '70s-style observation bubbles, solar panels, and high-tech hardware to refine and manage your supplies.

Of course, there are still some significant challenges here. While you start off in the appropriately named Safe Shallows, home to mostly friendly fish and readily available materials required to craft basic items like swim fins and oxygen tanks, you soon need to venture farther afield. The world consists of many biomes, distinct geographical regions with their own flora and fauna. Most of the better goodies in the game come from more extreme and far away places, which forces you to steadily upgrade your equipment to handle greater depths and highly aggressive sea life that look more like monsters of myth than fish at your local aquarium.

...there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you're constantly achieving one new goal after another.

Aggressive creatures are a continual presence. You have to respect them and keep your distance, knowing what they can do. With that said, creatures are not unduly punishing. Running into something aggressive doesn't result in instant death. You'll likely die far more often as the result of drowning during an exploration dive, or starving to death because you took too long during an expedition.

Diving into wrecks makes for the most intense moments in the game, especially when you're at significant depths. Bigger wrecks almost always seem to be in the neighborhood of the nastiest monsters on the planet, which means you need to sneak in and out. Caves are almost as nerve-wracking and contain an even stronger likelihood of drowning due to their labyrinthine nature. Further investigation rewards you with rarer natural resources like diamonds, nickel ore, and Blood Oil. Caves aren't as enjoyable to explore as wrecks, though, because the sheer danger makes them too risky to have much fun in. At least the game eventually allows you to craft things like a compass and the pathfinder tool that lets you lay down a trail of electronic breadcrumbs.

While routine scavenger hunts for more basic survival needs can grow routine (though you can turn off the need to eat and drink at the start of a game--or go in the other direction and turn on a hardcore permadeath mode), there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you're constantly achieving one new goal after another. Even something as simple as grabbing a dozen or so bladderfish and peepers and turning them into bottles of water and salted fish snacks can be rewarding, because you know those supplies are essential for extended exploration missions.

Your development as a scavenger is nudged along by a story that loosely guides your exploration. Getting the lifepod radio repaired reveals a number of distress calls from other lifepods that went down along with you, along with coordinates of their current or approximate locations. This even opens up a possible rescue attempt, which leads to another interesting part of the planet. Venturing to these locales uncovers an unexpectedly deep story, but it also moves you to various locations where you find vital resources at just the right time. Progress moves quickly if you follow the story, though this is still a huge game that requires a lot of time, patience, and exploration.

Some patience is also required when you bump into the game's rare technical issues. Loading save files takes a very long time, there are regular sound glitches where audio vanishes while leaving the water, and crashes can occur when loading your save. Given that you're only allowed a single save slot per campaign, these moments are stressful, though thankfully no saves were lost during our time with the game.

Subnautica's story, scares, and beautifully rendered underwater setting make it one of the most fascinating survival games around. You will always have to grind away to a certain extent to gather necessary resources, but the overall experience is both accessible and refined. Subnautica may not make you eager to get back to the beach this summer, but right now there is no better virtual way to experience the beauty, and the terror, of the deep blue sea.

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