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H1Z1 Review: Still On The Ground Floor

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 03/23/2018 - 21:29

Battle royale games have evolved rapidly in the past year with the likes of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite, but H1Z1's early access version captured the magic of the last-person-standing shooter well before the genre's current front-runners. With the official full release of H1Z1, however, it's apparent that not enough has been done to help it stay in the larger conversation.

H1Z1 drops up to 150 players (solo, duos, or squads of five) on a sprawling rural map where small towns, gas stations, and campsites act as points of interest for loot. In traditional battle royale style, everyone starts with only the clothes on their backs and rushes to find the best weapons and gear. Naturally, the fact that you have one life per match makes this type of deathmatch thrilling and rewarding when you find success, especially when coordinating tactics with a squad.

A number of gameplay elements factor into succeeding, like scavenging for the right materials to craft useful items. Among the essential items to craft are makeshift armor for much needed protection, ointment to stop bleeding, and explosive arrows that can really throw a curve-ball at enemy squads. Crafting feels more like a carry-over mechanic from early H1Z1 models, but it's a key component to winning, and thankfully it isn't very deep considering the fast pace of matches.

There isn't much time between each phase of the shrinking safe zone, and matches move quickly because of it. When employing the strategy of skirting along border of the deadly circle, there's a strong sense of urgency; if you don't find a vehicle or start running towards the new safe zone soon enough, your fate may have been decided well before the toxic gas envelops you. H1Z1 does incorporate a significant amount of predictability, which offers a different dynamic for players who want to jump straight into conflict. During the pre-match warm-up phase, you choose which grid of the map you want to drop in to start--this is called tactical deployment. A heat-map will also provide a general indication of how many others are planning to drop into each grid. Combine those elements with the fact that H1Z1 unveils the first safe zone in the pre-match phase, and you can essentially choose something that's more action oriented.

The fast-and-loose rules of H1Z1 shine through when you're shotgunned by an enemy that hopped out of a jeep going 100 miles-per-hour, made possible by the fact that you don't take damage when jumping out of fast-moving vehicles. Pulling off combat maneuvers like this are actually quite rewarding when you use them strategically. But by leaning into more outlandish action and a faster pace highlights a sort of dissonance in H1Z1, primarily because it retains the survival and simulation elements from its progenitors. Aside from crafting, players have to manage continuous health loss (with varying degrees of severity) after taking damage. This is complicated by the fact that first aid kits only replenish health gradually. Assault rifles also fire with such significant recoil that you'd think H1Z1 taps into realism or military sim roots. These mechanics aren't necessarily bad on their own, but they are at odds with the core of how the game is played.

A lack of variety also hurts H1Z1's longevity. One map would have been just fine if it wasn't for the emptiness of the fields between the plainly designed city centers. A few locations, like Runamok Lake's cabins and camping grounds, add some flavor, but overall you can expect little in terms of verticality or intricate structure layouts. This extends to the available arsenal; a shotgun, magnum, and two assault rifles are useful in the proper scenarios. Crossbows with exploding arrows come in handy although they aren't practical given that the arrows need to be crafted. A sniper rifle provides a long-range option, however, it's only available through randomized supply drops. There are no attachments or scopes to change up the limited set of firearms, and the excitement of putting a good weapon to use is hard to come by. Going into a first-person view on the fly allows you to use iron sights to get better shots in tight corridors, but there isn't much to use for long-range combat. It's an absence of parity in weaponry that's very apparent when battling it out in the map's open areas. Firefights still carry the intensity you'd expect from battle royale game, but lose some of steam when the available arsenal limits the depth of enemy engagement.

To shift gears from the standard last-person-standing concept, H1Z1 has a separate mode called Auto Royale. The mode itself is in beta, but it serves as an admirable change of pace. This team-based car combat pits 30 teams of four against each other by putting one player in the driver's seat and three others as passengers who shoot from their seats in an effort to destroy enemy cars. No one can leave the car, and it's absolute chaos. The battle royale structure is still in tact with a progressively shrinking safe zone, but teams sink or swim as one unit. Players can revive themselves if they get knocked out, so teams are eliminated once the vehicle is destroyed. This mode trades uneasy tension for carefree off-roading action.

Akin to Twisted Metal or Mario Kart's Battle Mode, item pickups litter the map, including weapons and ammo for teammates, diversions like smoke screens and oil slicks, or car repair kits to help stay in the fight. Ramps are also tacked onto the map for high-flying stunts in the middle of high-speed chases. Auto Royale is as absurd as it is fun, albeit only enjoyable in short bursts.

By nature of being free-to-play, H1Z1 unsurprisingly features microtransactions, which are thankfully limited to cosmetic items. Colorful skins for everything from vehicles and parachutes to guns and helmets leave a lot of room for customization. You're allowed to trade items with other players as well, so if there's a skin you really want, you don't have to rely entirely on the loot box system. Timed challenges give you something to work towards and serve as a means to acquire in-game currency, though there is a separate paid-for currency available.

H1Z1 predicates itself on eliminating the more random factors seen in other battle royale games, and it remains a competent execution of the genre. The game has its intense moments and exhilarating firefights; the thrill of besting 100+ players is very much present. However, the incoherent gameplay elements overshadow the better moments, and the lack of variety in both map design and weapon selection makes H1Z1 lose its appeal rather quick, especially in the genre it spearheaded.

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Detective Pikachu Review: Elementary, My Dear Watt-son

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/22/2018 - 20:55

Pikachu is normally very cute and a little bit sassy, but its Detective variety is unlike any Pikachu you've ever seen. Detective Pikachu plays with your expectations of what Pikachu should be, and the game has a lot of fun reveling in the weirdness of a small, adorable creature talking and acting like a human man. It's campy and self-aware, showing a different side to Pokemon and Pikachu with an infectiously rambunctious attitude. Detective Pikachu--the character and the game--is full of personality, and as a result an otherwise standard mystery-solving game is far more fun and entertaining than you might expect.

You play as Tim Goodman, who has arrived in Ryme City in search of his father, Harry, who went missing in an accident. Of course, the real star is Detective Pikachu--you meet him almost immediately, and you're the only human who can understand him. Like a grizzled detective out of a '50s noir, he sounds like a middle-aged man and gestures like a caricature of a New Yorker, and his voice acting and animation captures that character perfectly. He'll occasionally get your attention with a cute jump and a gruff "Hey!"; sometimes he'll give you hints, which are entertaining even if you didn't need them, while other times he'll just chatter away about something random or interact with a nearby Pokemon. His streetwise attitude and campy quips never get old, adding a delightful (if weird) charm to every scene.

You soon learn that Pikachu was your father's partner Pokemon and lost his memories after the accident, though he can still lend you his detective skills to solve mysteries. Those mysteries largely involve misbehaving or even violent Pokemon, most of which have been exposed to a chemical called R. The cases start out with simple mischief, but as you investigate, you'll solve bigger ones--including actual white-collar crimes--and find clues about Harry's disappearance. The game follows a basic detective story structure overall, but the pulpy tone can make it feel less derivative, and the conspiracies around R and Harry are intriguing enough to keep the pace up.

Cases consist of everything from finding missing Pokemon to whodunnits with dramatic reveals. Your job is to talk to people--Pikachu will translate for Pokemon witnesses--and gather evidence that you can then use to solve each case. You talk to people, get more information, and use that information to unlock follow-up questions until you have everything you need to start the deduction process. Pikachu guides you through most of this, framing the questions you need to answer and later prompting you to pick the evidence that best supports your theories. There's no real way to fail; as long as you talk to everyone and search the environment thoroughly, you'll get everything you need to piece things together. That on its own is disappointing if you're hoping for compelling mysteries and puzzles.

Finding all the clues is fun, however, especially with Pikachu wisecracking as you go. Getting one solution will open up a new question or pose another problem to solve, and while they all follow the same gameplay structure, each case is deeper than it seems at first. For the most part, I was never so far ahead of the game's pace that I was still gathering evidence long after I'd figured everything out--while nothing shocked me, there were times when I wasn't entirely sure how a culprit had done it until I was choosing what evidence matched Pikachu's hints. But there were also a few frustrating times when I'd figured out the solution but couldn't find the last piece of evidence to back it up. In one chapter, for example, you have to gather a half dozen or so alibis, then use witness testimony to deduce which alibi is a lie. It involves a lot of talking, and I ended up running around for 15 minutes re-interrogating everyone until I finally found the person I'd missed (despite knowing who was responsible and why the entire time).

It's hard to stay annoyed for long, though, because Detective Pikachu is brimming with personality. Pikachu himself is a total goofball, but the other Pokemon are also entertaining in their own right. Each one gets its own special subtitle (Garbodor is the "connoisseur of trash," for example), and they typically have interesting things to say, even if those things aren't useful as evidence. The world of Pokemon is cleverly incorporated into different parts of the New York-inspired city, from flying Yanma that work as news camera operators to the Trubbish that occupy the subway entrances. You don't need to know anything about Pokemon to solve Detective Pikachu's cases, but being familiar with Pokemon and appreciating all those details enriches the simple gameplay and story.

And Detective Pikachu is a simple game. There's not much variety to the way you solve cases; the story follows a standard detective formula, and as long as you're thorough, you won't have too much trouble connecting the dots. But it's full of heart, and its silly characters and intentionally campy tone are what make it fun.

A Way Out Review: A Tale Of Two Prisoners

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/22/2018 - 16:00

A Way Out is not really the hard-hitting, serious, emotional tale of two convicts escaping prison it appears to be. At times, it successfully strikes those notes, but extreme tonal shifts, gimmicky QTEs, and a terrible finale kill almost any emotion or tension contained in the game. In the end, entertaining environments and some inventive set pieces prove to be its saving grace.

Like director Josef Fares' last game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out contains two protagonists who experience the game's story together. Unlike Brothers, however, you'll need a friend to play with this time round; A Way Out is only playable in co-op, either locally or online. Whichever you choose, you'll always be playing in a split-screen that dynamically shifts between the respective views of Leo--a reckless, aggressive gangster cliche--and Vincent--a more cool-headed family man.

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Sometimes the screen will be split vertically, sometimes horizontally; sometimes evenly, sometimes unevenly; and sometimes not at all. This framing device is mostly used in interesting ways, such as giving more screen space to whoever's performing a more important action, or splitting the TV in three to also dedicate real estate to an attacking NPC. However, it can be a source of irritation, such as when I was talking to a friendly character, only for my partner to trigger a cutscene and for the screen to shift entirely to his view, ending my conversation prematurely.

This is a problem faced outside of cutscenes, too. A Way Out's small explorable environments often contain multiple characters to chat with, but if you and your co-op buddy both engage in different conversations at the same time, the game has no better answer than to play all the audio in parallel, meaning you struggle to hear either of the conversations happening in front of you. The problem is alleviated slightly if you turn subtitles on, as each side of the screen contains its own set, but the overlapping sound is still distracting.

Such issues do irritate, but they are more of a footnote than a major strike against A Way Out's co-op-only nature. Without a partner in crime, some of the game's standout moments wouldn't feel nearly as impactful. In one early scene, Leo and Vincent are attempting to hack away at their respective jail cells using a screwdriver. While your partner stabs the wall behind his toilet, you must keep watch from your adjacent cell for patrolling guards, occupying them when they get too close and warning the other player to look natural when your distraction fails.

This is when A Way Out is at its best: communicating with (and relying on) your partner both in-game and in real life makes these moments of tension consistently thrilling. There are a handful of these set pieces throughout the 7-8 hour campaign that feel unique and justify the decision of forcing you to play with another person.

The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas

But while those moments do carry some tension, it's because you're sat next (or talking) to someone you care about and never because you're playing as someone you care for. The protagonists and their motivations are the most generic B-movie fodder--gangsters with escape and revenge on their minds, but with the hackneyed added layer of troubled families. To make matters worse, the dialogue is stilted and unnatural. Conversations often end abruptly (regardless of whether your partner triggers a cutscene), and entire scenes go by without adding anything in terms of plot or characterization. Some lines in particular are cringeworthy--during one sequence in which a couple are interrupted while having sex, a female extra instructs her male partner to shut the door by saying, "I'm gettin' cold in my lady parts."

The tone veers wildly from a Shawshank-inspired escape tale to a silly semi-parody of '70s crime dramas, complete with overextended sideburns and an assassination across the border in a villain's remote Mexican lair. In one scene, A Way Out nails the feel of punishing prison life, and in another it lets you act like children on a playground swing. Sometimes those conflicting tones even crop up in parallel. One poignant late-game moment--where my character learned some surprising and emotional news on one side of the screen--was ruined by my partner interacting with a bicycle bell on the other side that caused his character to exclaim, "Ring ring, motherf***er!"

If it's not the dialogue dampening moments of tension, it's the game's numerous QTEs. While A Way Out does use timed button-tapping well in some instances, such as when our characters must time their pushes up a vent shaft while standing back-to-back, it also wastes scenes with gimmicky implementations. The final playable section of the game--the crux of this entire plot and hours of journeying and escaping and chasing--boils down to mashing Square / X. A Way Out's third and fourth acts are by far its weakest: save for one inventive story beat, all creativity is lost and the game turns into a mediocre action romp with anemic shooting and little else to do or care about.

Luckily, the rest of the game (which is much longer than the mercifully contracted finale) contains more interesting and varied environments. Throughout your journey, you'll travel from the prison to a forest, a farm, a cinema, a trailer park, and more, and each is filled with objects to interact with, puzzles to solve, and people to talk to. These diverse areas are small but dense, and they add color to what could otherwise be a monochrome world of good and bad. The trailer park was a personal favorite, offering a chance to pause and play some baseball or chat to secondary characters. There's even a Trophy / Achievement for exposing the aforementioned couple to the man's jilted wife. That this captivating space comes during what should be a time-sensitive moment, when playing baseball or exposing adulterous men would be the last things on anyone's mind, says everything about A Way Out's story and tone, however.

A Way Out has problems. By the time the credits rolled, my partner and I didn't really feel like we'd been on much of a journey with Leo and Vincent. We'd been on a geographical tour, sure--one that was often trite, gimmicky, or cringeworthy--but we didn't feel the pair had learned anything or grown in any meaningful way. I did, however, enjoy the journey I'd been on with my friend sat next to me. We had to look out for each other while escaping prison, work together to solve puzzles, and save each other's life on multiple occasions. Our characters might not have grown closer together, but A Way Out's forced co-op is worth it for the few standout moments it provides.

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In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 03/22/2018 - 14:00

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