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Battlefield 5 Review In Progress - On The Front Lines

Thu, 11/15/2018 - 23:48

Editor’s note: We are waiting to finalize this review until we are able to test Battlefield V’s server stability with more players and see if certain bugs persist after initial patches upon release. While the free Tides of War updates for Battlefield V are scheduled through March 2019, we are evaluating the game based on what is currently available as of its November 2018 launch. Look out for our final review in the coming soon.

Chaos and scale have always been the foundation of the Battlefield franchise, and Battlefield V is no different. Squads of soldiers relentlessly push towards objectives with either sheer force or improvised tactics while gunfire and explosions ring throughout the beautiful, but war-torn landscapes. It's an overwhelming sensory experience and a fine execution of a familiar formula--if you play the right modes.

Battlefield V goes back to where the franchise began by using World War II's European theater as the backdrop for first-person shooting and vehicular combat in large multiplayer matches. It's not too dissimilar to Battlefield 1, where every weapon has a distinct weight and impact that comes through vividly in both sight and sound. The core conceits of Battlefield remain mostly untouched, but small tweaks have been made to the formula, most of which are welcome.

Ground troops are even more deadly this time around, with a revamped ballistics model (random bullet deviation is gone) that results in reduced time-to-kill for skilled players; floundering in open areas is now more dangerous than ever. Navigating the maps' messy terrain has a smooth, intuitive feel whether you're mantling obstacles or scrambling for cover. All players regardless of class can revive squadmates and highly encourages sticking together and alleviates the disappointment of dying without a medic around. Since it takes a few precious seconds to perform a revive and is limited to squadmates, it doesn't negate the importance of the Medic class' instant revive. The ability to spot enemies is now exclusive to the sniper-focused Recon class by using the manual spotting scope or having the subclass perk to reveal enemies you fire upon.

As impactful as Attrition sounds, it's not so overbearing as to drastically shake up Battlefield's core, though it does make going rogue less viable.

Class roles and teamwork are further emphasized by the Attrition system, which encompasses the changes made to resource scarcity and scavenging and affects nearly every aspect of the game. The fact you're not given much ammo at spawn makes the Support class's ability to dole out ammo pouches clutch when you survive multiple firefights, while the Assault class has a perk that grants more ammo upon scavenging dead players. Surviving with the game's health system, which is partially auto-regenerating, relies on having a medkit on hand, which can only be distributed by Medics. As impactful as Attrition sounds, it's not so overbearing as to drastically shake up Battlefield's core, though it does make going rogue less viable.

Another new mechanic introduced in Battlefield V is Fortifications, which consists of building predetermined structures--like sandbag walls, barbed wire coils, and Czech hedgehogs--within the environment. There are no resources tied to your ability to construct them, though the Support class builds much faster than other classes and can prop up a stationary gun in certain spots. Overall, building fortifications feels a bit tacked on and inconsequential given the pace of some modes, but there's no denying their effectiveness in the right situations. Something as simple as improvised sandbags for a little cover can go a long way by turning a sitting duck into a well-positioned defender who can better hold down an objective when every other building's been reduced to rubble.

The narrative dress-up is a nice touch, but the real reason Grand Operations works is because it keeps up the momentum from round to round and packages a variety of the game modes into one long match, encouraging you to see it through.

Above all else, Battlefield V truly shines in Grand Operations, a series of three consecutive matches (or rounds) intertwined by brief narrative bits inspired by WWII events. Each round, presented as one in-game day in the same theater of war, is a specific game mode, and teams can earn reinforcement bonuses for certain rounds depending on the outcome of the previous one. The narrative dress-up is a nice touch, but the real reason Grand Operations works is because it keeps up the momentum from round to round and packages a variety of the game modes into one long match, encouraging you to see it through.

The success of Grand Operations should be primarily accredited to the more focused, well-executed modes like Airborne, Frontlines, and Breakthrough. Frontlines in particular plays out like a tug-of-war; teams fight over varied objectives in sequential order within defined sections of a map, depending on the phase of the match. Teams will struggle to hold capture points in sequence to push the other back, and other phases may be demolition-style attack/defend skirmishes. The opportunity to push back a phase also makes it so you can regain ground if your back is against the wall; by the same token, you can't get too comfortable with a lead.

These game types aren't entirely new; Frontlines was seen in Battlefield 1 DLC and borrows elements from Rush and Conquest, and Grand Operations is a variation--albeit improved--on the original Operations in Battlefield 1. However, the tools and mechanics built around Battlefield V along with how map dynamics shift at each phase make them an absolute thrill to play. It accentuates the best features of the map roster, and also makes the moment to moment firefights distinct since they're concentrated across different sections. The structure of modes like Frontlines naturally ushers a team's attention to a handful of clear objectives at a time and provides a method to the madness, creating a satisfying push-and-pull where success feels earned.

As great as Grand Operations is, the series staple of Conquest has become the weakest link. This traditional mode has devolved into a match-long carousel of flag captures, easy kills, and cheap deaths. Maps like Twisted Steel and Arras function well enough for Conquest, but that leaves a majority of the eight available maps lacking. Narvik, Fjell 652, and Devastation feel too condensed for the high player count and mechanics of Conquest; the action hardly ever stops, but cramming everyone together in compact, circular maps means you're often caught from behind or flanked by enemies that simply stumbled upon that fruitful opportunity. It goes both ways, as you'll frequently find yourself catching enemy squads with their backs turned because you lucked into a certain spawn and ran off in the right direction.

The success of Grand Operations should be primarily accredited to the more focused, well-executed modes like Airborne, Frontlines, and Breakthrough.

Battlefield V is also rough in spots. A few bugs are forgivable, like wild ragdoll physics, but some are more problematic. On rare occasions, the map goes blank when enlarging it, or health packs just don't work. Very rarely would you have to revive a squadmate by a door, but when this happens, you're likely to only get the prompt to interact with the door, leaving your friend to die. Thankfully, these issues are not enough to overshadow the game's best parts.

Regardless of your preferred mode of play, you'll be earning XP for a number of separate progression paths. There's overall rank, class rank, individual weapon rank, and for good measure, each tank and plane has its own rank as well. There isn't a whole lot to unlock for weapons given the WWII setting, but leveling up weapon proficiencies lets you customize them to your play style, like choosing greater hip-fire accuracy, faster reload, quicker aim-down-sights, or less recoil in ADS. Various weapons and pieces of equipment (such as the spawning beacon for Recon or the anti-tank grenade for Assault) unlock as you rank up classes. It's a fairly sensible system, though the same can't be said about vehicle progression. Vehicles are tough to come by in Battlefield V as it is and since each one ranks separately, it takes an extra-concerted effort to level them up. There are some useful perks to obtain for vehicles that can provide a slight disadvantage, but it can be a struggle to acquire them.

The structure of modes like Frontlines naturally ushers a team's attention to a handful of clear objectives at a time and provides a method to the madness, creating a satisfying push-and-pull where success feels earned.

Aside from weapon skins, you'll customize each class's appearance for both Allies and Axis. It's the cosmetic aspect where you can fit yourself with different parts of uniforms, though it doesn't bear much fruit since this is a first-person game that moves so fast, even your enemies won't really notice the 'rare' uniform you're wearing. Cosmetic customization is also how Company Coins, the in-game currency that you earn through completing challenges (daily orders or assignments) or completing matches, comes into play. Most cosmetics can be bought with Company Coins, which can be a grind to earn. You should note that unlocking weapon and vehicle perks are also tied to Company Coins, but at least they are relatively low-cost. There are no microtransactions at the moment, but they are said to coming in the future, and for cosmetics only.

Battlefield V isn't solely a multiplayer endeavor. War Stories returns as the single-player component that attempts to present a brutal conflict with a more earnest tone. The campaign highlights lesser-known parts of WWII, like the Norwegian resistance, and the Senegalese Tirailleurs who fought for the French Army amid racial discrimination. The effort is admirable, especially when it comes to the Tirailleur campaign as it sheds light on piece of history that has nearly been forgotten; the scale of Battlefield comes through in and the story speaks to the horrors of war. However, the campaign doesn't quite stick the landing in the end. Nordlys boils down to a mix of stealth and combat that casts you as a one-person army that's enjoyable at times, but doesn't go beyond lone-wolf skirmishes--at least it showcases some of the game's best setpieces. And the Under No Flag campaign for the English side is an eye-rolling series of tedious missions that goes for a lighthearted note that doesn't work. War Stories has its moments but is all over the place in tone and style.

The effort is admirable, especially when it comes to the Tirailleur campaign as it sheds light on piece of history that has nearly been forgotten.

Currently, Battlefield V still has features to implement as part of its game-as-a-service approach (designated Tides of War), but there's enough to chew on for now given the quality of the better modes. It's an exciting prospect that there's more to come at no additional cost, but you can't help but feel that the launch package could've been a bit more dense considering there's only eight maps. Additional modes (including co-op), new maps, another Grand Operations mission, and the Firestorm battle royale mode will be rolling out intermittently between now and March 2019. All that could make for the most feature-rich game in the series; unfortunately, we won't be able to evaluate those parts of the game until they arrive.

The Battlefield series has a winning formula that Battlefield V doesn't deviate far from, at least for now. Conquest and the map roster don't mesh well together, however, Grand Operations-- and the other modes within it--steal the show and foster some of the greatest moments the franchise has offered. You might be surprised by the impact of the slight changes made for Battlefield V, especially when you're deep into pushing objectives in Frontlines alongside teammates fulfilling their roles. That's when Battlefield is at its best.

Overkill's The Walking Dead Review - DOA

Wed, 11/14/2018 - 01:00

Despite appearances and obvious inspirations, Overkill's The Walking Dead often doesn't feel like a shooter at all. It takes the rules established by Robert Kirkman's comic series and its subsequent TV adaptation to heart in the wrong ways, imposing unbalanced rules on its missions that heavily restrict how you're able to play. Combined with a dizzying assortment of survival mechanics buried in unintuitive menus, meaningless customization options, and non-existent incentives to improve your gear, The Walking Dead feels unrefined and unfocused.

This iteration of The Walking Dead features a new cast of characters and little to no ties to the rest of the series' mythos. It's set in the heart of Washington D.C. as you establish a camp and attempt to survive as one of four playable characters. These characters are borderline lifeless, with no real stories of their own aside from previously released promotional material. Nothing about their personalities materializes through the game's story, and neither do stories between survivors within your own camp. The Walking Dead forces you to engage with your camp and its inhabitants between missions but gives you absolutely nothing to do or say to them, which makes it a struggle to care about their fates at all.

The overarching story is equally thin on details, with only slideshow animations and voiceovers providing context for each of your missions. The voice acting is monotone and dreary, the writing vague and uninteresting, merely existing only to give veiled purpose to the missions they precede without weaving a captivating story through them. Overkill plans to add more story content in the form of seasons, but its heartless premiere doesn't instill much confidence for where this story might go in the future.

In action, The Walking Dead presents itself as a first-person shooter, with the familiar trappings of cooperative play that games like Left 4 Dead and Payday successfully capture. But even though you might be equipped with two firearms and a melee weapon, The Walking Dead only encourages the use of the latter. Each main mission bears a meter that fills up whenever you make noise. Firing a weapon, triggering one of the many near-impossible-to-see traps, and even unavoidable enemy actions all contribute to this, and eventually summons waves of undead enemies towards you without reprieve.

The strength and scale of these waves is determined by one of three tiers that the meter bears, with each tier pushing you further towards insurmountable odds of failure. In fact, simply hitting the first tier makes most missions too difficult to continue, as the constantly spawning enemies can clutter the narrow linear walkways of most mission areas to the point of comedy. It's not uncommon to see doorways entirely blocked by hundreds of enemies, forcing you and your team to mindlessly chip away at the crowd only to have the same issue arise at the next chokepoint. It's wildly unbalanced and overly punishing, making most missions tediously long and frustrating.

Missions are diluted into more stealthy affairs as a result, which can be mildly entertaining when you're working closely with teammates. As part of a well-organized team you can keep noise to a minimum and circumvent enemies entirely, but it usually only takes one player not sticking to the script to ruin a run. Making matters worse, there's no support for voice chat in-game nor any other ways to communicate aside from text chat.

If The Walking Dead didn't make it feel mandatory to play with other people, this might not be as big of a problem as it seems. Missions are unnecessarily difficult to begin with but borderline impossible to play alone. The number of enemies doesn't scale and mission objectives don't change based on party size, making even early easy missions a chore to slog through without friends in tow. This is exacerbated by unreliable matchmaking; it's tough to find matches with other players currently, which can bring your progress through the game's story to a complete halt until you manage to find others to play with.

Even when you've overcome the technical hurdles of matchmaking and unnecessary difficulty spikes, The Walking Dead is just not engaging to play. Its missions all follow identical designs, populated by scores of undead enemies and sparse camps of armed human foes. You'll have to fight or avoid a group based on your strategy, then hunt for objects around the area to solve simple puzzles to progress. These puzzles never change beyond hunting down specific items and bringing them back to a location and are used as a poor method of pacing that just adds tedium to every mission. There are also no objective markers or other indications that would make these items easier to find, adding to the unnecessary frustration as you attempt to hunt down a single electrical fuse while enemies continually spawn around you.

In between standard story missions are simplistic wave-based survival modes where you'll have to fend off humans or the undead back at your home camp. This is the only mission type where you're free to work with the weapons you've unlocked, as noise isn't a factor. Gunplay emphasizes headshots, especially against zombie foes, and it can be exhilarating to pull off a string of them to down a small horde in no time. Outside of that, gunplay is mostly unremarkable, as are the weapons you'll find along the way. You're able to customize them with modifications, increasing range, damage, stability, and an abstract power value. These stats feel superfluous, and The Walking Dead never feeds them into its gameplay in a tangible way. It makes your starting weapons feel as effective as ones you've collected 10 hours in, which just makes the hunt for better loot meaningless.

The same can be said for the four playable characters. Each one has a unique gameplay mechanic, be it the ability to deploy medical kits for healing or flashbangs to blind enemies. Beyond physical items, each character also has their own unique skill tree that feeds into their type of playstyle. Aidan, who I spent most of my time playing, has skills that increase the amount of damage you can output when low on health, for example. But like the modifications to weapons, these skills never surface in a tangible way. No matter how many improvements to my personal stats I had unlocked, or which melee baseball bat I had equipped, zombies always required the same two light attacks or single heavy attack to kill.

From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you.

The Walking Dead could easily be described as a management simulation as much as it can a first-person action game. Despite your camp feeling desolate and lifeless, you'll need to provide resources for upkeep costs, which impact your ability to progress. Your map is restricted by certain upgrades you've made to your camp, which can halt your progression and force tedious grinding to just continue with story missions. There's a frankly ridiculous number of upgrade trees to manage, pertaining to weapons training, medical facilities, radio outposts, and more. It's overwhelming trying to micromanage every aspect of your camp and frustrating that progression demands you engage with it regularly just to continue with missions. Coupled with unintuitive menus and a lack of teaching tools to guide you through all these subsystems, The Walking Dead doesn't make its secondary focus on survival management easy to parse or entertaining to engage with.

From its restrictive mission structures, unbalanced difficulty and frustrating means of progression, The Walking Dead struggles to justify the time it requires from you. It's a collection gameplay blueprints stacked upon one another without thoughtful consideration on how they might cohesively work together, wrapped up in a dull presentation and mundane combat that very rarely excites. The Walking Dead is a mess of scattered ideas and a lack of direction, and there's no reason to make sense of it all.

Spyro Reignited Trilogy Review - Fan The Flames

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 20:36

Many would-be mascots have come down the pike over the years, trying to capture just the slightest hint of Mario-level stardom. Spyro the Dragon never quite got there, but he did manage to star in some of the most charming and accessible platformers of the PlayStation era, and the Reignited Trilogy is a grand testament to the little guy's staying power.

The trilogy includes the first three--and best--titles in the series: Spyro the Dragon, Ripto's Rage (also known as Gateway to Glimmer in Europe and Australia), and Year of the Dragon. His adventures are simple but delightfully cartoonish fare. The first game has him traveling through the five dragon realms freeing his bigger, badder brethren from Gnasty Gnorc. The second has Spyro attempting to take a vacation after his previous adventure, but winding up getting dragged into a realm being invaded by effete warlock Ripto. The third has him facing off against the evil Sorceress, who has stolen over 100 dragon eggs with the help of her rabbit apprentice, Bianca.

Ignore the graphical overhaul, and these are very much the games that released the first time around on PS1. The fact that they stand up so well mechanically against more recent games is the most pleasant surprise of the package. Movement and attacks are one-button affairs, and the simplicity works in the collection's favor. If there's a learning curve to be found, it's in the fact that it's all too easy to use Spyro's charge attack too recklessly, sending him flying off cliffs or missing the enemy he's aiming for by inches.

Thankfully, Spyro’s moveset need not do much heavy lifting, especially in the first game. Every area has a number of crystallized dragons to find, and once enough of them have been freed, you take a balloon off to the next dragon realm, and repeat until you reach Gnorc's trashy fortress. There's some minor puzzle solving, and an enormous amount of treasure to be found, and that’s about it. If anything, the first game's biggest weakness is that there's so much other stuff to collect, between the hundreds of gems, hidden treasure chests, and dragon eggs stolen by hidden--and super annoying--Egg Thieves, but only freeing the dragons really matters in terms of progress.

The sequels are much better in that regard. Each stage has its own little tale of animated hijinks that plays out, from a tribe of Himalayan telepaths being terrorized by a Yeti, to my personal favorite, helping superspy moppets Hansel and Gretel stealth their way into a heavily guarded fortress of nomadic lizards so they can use their psychic powers and take over. There's a slew of unique challenges within each stage for you to do, usually involving super-powered versions of Spyro's current abilities or sequences where you have to take to the skies and firebomb specific objects for gems. The third game brings new playable characters into the fray, all with their own specific movesets and bonus stages, giving you a very good reason to run around collecting shiny stuff to unlock it all. The linear repetition of the first game never rears its head again for the rest of the collection.

As mentioned, it speaks well of the originals that the Reignited Trilogy doesn't change a thing mechanically and all three games are still a joy to play. The audio has gotten a bit of remixing and reworking but remains fairly true to the original soundtrack, which can be switched to on the fly. But the Reignited Trilogy goes above and beyond here, giving all three games an impressive visual overhaul, essentially making all three games close to a Dreamworks animation. More than just new lush-looking foliage, skin and scale textures, and warm, blissful lighting, hundreds of tiny new details are here, giving each character and enemy more personality. There are a bunch of visual gags and quirks every character will run through if you leave them alone for a moment. The generic gruff dragons from the original are all unique creatures with their own personalities when imparting knowledge to Spyro, same for the dragon babies in Year of the Dragon, who each react like delightful, rambunctious toddlers when they hatch. The Spyro trilogy already felt timeless to play. Now, it’s much more dazzling to look at.

The Reignited Trilogy is the best kind of collection that not only brings a beloved series up to current visual standards but also proves just how well-built the original titles were. Granted, the originals were done by a little studio called Insomniac, and it's not exactly surprising something that team did is a fine example of the genre. But the Reignited Trilogy's developer, Toys for Bob, deserves major kudos for bringing Insomniac's vision to life in the way we could've only dreamed in 1998.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu And Eevee Review In Progress

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 19:16

Editor's note: As of November 13 at 6 am PT, the Pokemon Go-compatible features in the Let's Go games are not yet available. We will update this review in progress when those features, which include transferring Pokemon from Go to Let's Go, are live and we've had a chance to test them.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee are gorgeous--albeit lean--reimaginings of one of the series' most beloved adventures. While some features fans have come to expect are missing--like abilities, breeding, and held items--Let's Go has an admirable amount of depth for a game aimed at a younger audience that has never played a Pokemon RPG. Both games may not have the same lasting appeal as previous entries, but revisiting Kanto and catching some of the series' most iconic creatures makes the journey worthwhile.

Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee take you back to Kanto, the home of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow. Not much has changed structurally, but the previously 8-bit region has been realized in vibrant detail. Revisiting some of the series' most memorable locations like Viridian Forest and Saffron City on a big screen is an absolute joy. Areas that were once composed of lines and simple shapes are now colorful forests and detailed cities. Pokemon both big and small roam the wilds, giving personality to the region--you can watch a tiny Horsea speed through the waves or a massive Onix slink through a dark cave. The catchy original soundtrack has also been remastered, and it sounds better than ever.

Those familiar with the originals or their remakes, FireRed and LeafGreen, should have no trouble navigating the world. After you're introduced to your partner Pokemon (Pikachu or Eevee depending on the version you choose) you set out on an adventure to collect Gym badges, defeat the Elite Four, and put an end to Team Rocket. While there are a few surprises, the layout of the region and your progression through it is nearly identical to the originals. Fortunately, Let’s Go sheds some of Red, Blue, and Yellow's more archaic designs. For example, HMs--"hidden moves" that allowed you to get past certain obstacles--are replaced with "Secret Techniques" that fulfill the same purpose without taking up one of a Pokemon's move slots. As a result, you can focus on team composition and complementary move sets instead of figuring out how to divvy up HMs between your party Pokemon.

Let's Go also does a much better job at guiding you through the world and story. After you made your way through Rock Tunnel in the originals, you had little direction through Lavender, Celadon, Fuschia, and Saffron and could do certain Gym battles and events out of order. It was easy to miss key items and wind up fighting Pokemon much stronger than your own, which led to frustrating backtracking with little idea of what to do next. While you still can complete certain beats out of order, Let's Go ensures you don't miss anything crucial. For example, after you beat Erika in Celadon City, a character gives you a key item that will let you enter Saffron City. Previously, you had to buy a drink from an inconspicuous vending machine on the roof of the department store and give it to a city guard, and if you failed to do so, you wouldn't be able to fight the sixth Gym Leader.

One of Let's Go's most fundamental changes is how you catch Pokemon. Instead of the random encounters and wild Pokemon battles of previous mainline games, Let's Go adopts Pokemon Go's catching mechanics. Pokemon roam the wilds in real time, and you have to walk into one to initiate catching it. Then, rather than battling it to whittle down its health, you just have to throw a Poke Ball at it, and the timing and accuracy of your throw increases your chances of a successful catch.

The new catching mechanics are a welcome change to the formula that breaks up the pace of traditional trainer and Gym battles. Although catching wild Pokemon doesn’t require as much strategy as it did before, the act of catching is far more engaging. You don't need to worry about accidentally defeating and therefore failing to catch a rare or one-time Pokemon, and if there's a Pokemon you don't want to catch, you simply avoid it. The absence of random encounters also makes traversing caves a lot less tedious. Yes, that means you can even avoid Zubats.

Let's Go encourages you to catch Pokemon more so than any other mainline Pokemon game, and it's better for it. Sure, catching every single species has always been the overarching goal, but I've never felt more inclined to complete my Pokedex. Catching Pokemon is the most efficient way to level up; with each successful catch your entire team is awarded a generous dose of experience. This alleviates the need to spend significant amounts of time grinding and makes it easier to experiment with different party compositions.

Let's Go also introduces Catch Combos, which occur when you catch the same species of Pokemon multiple times in a row. As you build your combo, your chances of running into rare and powerful Pokemon increase. You can even find Pokemon you typically wouldn't find in the wild. Catching repeat Pokemon is both useful and satisfying--it's great knowing that luck is not the only factor involved when trying to catch a rare Pokemon, and it's very hard to stop when you're deep into a combo, knowing something good could spawn.

However, the new catching mechanics don't come without issues. The Joy-Con motion controls are inaccurate at best and unpredictable at worst. Over the course of my journey, I never found a reliable way to throw a Poke Ball to the right or left. In most cases, I would just wait for the wild Pokemon to return to the center of the screen before throwing a Poke Ball, and even then, the ball wouldn't always go where I wanted it to.

The Poke Ball Plus controller, an optional Poke Ball-shaped accessory, is a bit more precise, but because there are only two physical buttons on the controller, navigating menus and interacting with the world can be a pain. As novel as it is to see Kanto on a big screen, handheld mode is the best way to catch wild Pokemon. You can either use the Switch's gyroscope sensor or the left control stick to line up a throw. It's far more precise than the other methods, but you do have to consider the Pokemon’s size and distance.

Despite changes that make the Pokemon experience more accessible than ever, Let's Go is surprisingly deep. It does an excellent job at easing new players into some of the more complex mechanics without being bogged down by tutorials. Each Pokemon still has six base stats and one of 25 natures, and the game seamlessly presents all that information to you. For example, whenever you switch Pokemon during a battle, you are shown its stats. You can get through the entire game without paying attention to a Pokemon's stats, but it's helpful to see that information presented clearly and often. Early on, you even get the ability to "judge" a Pokemon, which lets you see its base stats (also called IVs). While this may not be super useful for beginners, it's presented in a way that's easy to understand and it gives veterans the opportunity to check for Pokemon with good stats early on.

Unfortunately, those invested in the competitive side won't have as much to sink their teeth into. The absence of abilities, held items, and breeding limits the potential for highly competitive play. You can farm for Pokemon with higher stats through the aforementioned catch combos, but even if you do manage to catch a Pokemon with the stats you want, you won't have much to do with it.

If you do decide to build a competitive team, the online features are limited. You can trade and battle, and that's about it. There are no ranked battles, the Global Trade System is nonexistent, and there is no Wonder Trading. The barebones trading features may be disappointing at first, but given the smaller roster of Pokemon, I never felt that I needed the GTS or Wonder Trade to complete the Pokedex. However, the inability to matchmake and battle with other trainers online is a bit of a letdown.

Despite changes that make the Pokemon experience more accessible than ever, Let's Go is surprisingly deep.

Without the competitive mechanics fans are accustomed to and the limited Pokedex, it can be difficult to come back to Let's Go after the credits roll. While there certainly are reasons to revisit Kanto once you have finished the game, like completing the Pokedex and grinding for Pokemon with perfect stats, the pull isn't quite as strong. There aren't many surprises and what's there isn't all that enticing. The last thing I need to try is the Pokemon Go connectivity, which isn't available as of this writing.

Despite these concessions, Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee are delightful reimaginings of the series' origins and a deep RPG in their own right. It makes a lot of smart improvements on the original Red, Blue and Yellow while holding on to what made them so special in the first place. Fans of the series might be let down by the lack of features they've come to expect, but Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee take the Pokemon formula in some exciting new directions.

11-11: Memories Retold Review - Modernist Warfare

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 05:00

Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the armistice treaty signed on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I, 11-11: Memories Retold follows the stories of two men swept up in terrible events (mostly) beyond their control over the course of two years on the Western Front. A collaboration between Aardman, the animation studio best known for the Wallace & Gromit TV series and films, and DigixArt, a fledgling French game development team, it's a visually striking adventure game that foregrounds its occasionally moving, occasionally ludicrous narrative atop a layer of light puzzling and collectible gathering.

The intertwining story sees you play as both Harry (voiced by Elijah Wood), a young photographer from Canada who finds himself in France shooting film--not foe--for propaganda purposes at the invitation of a British major, and Kurt (Sebastian Koch), an older German electrical engineer who enlists when he receives word that his son's unit has gone missing. Their tales are connected, of course, and at key moments in each chapter your control will switch from Harry to Kurt and back again, often multiple times. Later, there are even scenes in which you are free to switch between them, and a third character, whenever you wish.

Each man's journey plays out across a France (and bits of Germany and Canada) that is rendered like an oil-on-canvas painting, the thick individual brush strokes and contrasting colours an obvious nod to the Impressionist style that was still en vogue in the early 20th century. It feels like each scene is being painted in real-time as you walk around, as the brush strokes flicker in a manner suggesting an artist constantly reapplying paint on canvas. From the crackling ember reds of a battlefield to the dappled whites and yellows of an idyllic farmstead, the unique art direction succeeds in setting the emotional tone of each scene. The overall effect is quite startling and very often beautiful.

What you're actually doing inside each scene is rather more conventional. Harry and Kurt walk--and occasionally crouch or run--around a series of mostly small locations, talking to people and picking up dozens of collectibles. Helpfully, you always have a specific objective to accomplish; in Harry's case it's typically whatever task Major Barrett has ordered him to perform while Kurt's pursuit of his son's whereabouts is often derailed by the whims of his own superiors. Regardless, most objectives are easily completed by simply walking to the desired destination, interacting with a certain object or talking to the right person. Sometimes there's even a box to push out of the way or a couple of levers and dials to fiddle with, but absolutely none of it is in any way taxing.

This is for the best, perhaps. At least, it means the story takes center stage and you're not in any danger of getting stuck on a puzzle and finding yourself unable to see that story to its conclusion. More than that, though, it also works because the story 11-11 tells is genuinely good. Sure, it's a romanticised version of World War I that doesn't really confront the senseless brutality of trench warfare or the sheer scale of human loss and suffering that resulted--there's but one scene where you don a gas mask, for example, and when Harry is finally called upon to go "over the top" he's more focused on getting a few good pictures than whether he'll survive the mad dash into no man's land. But the story works because Harry and Kurt are convincing characters whose flaws and motivations remain all too real no matter what the war throws at them. The plot may contrive to see the lives of the two men intersect in unlikely fashion, but they themselves are utterly believable and empathetic until the very end.

Further, the story works because you are given choices to make at critical junctures. Each choice feels weighty and full of consequence. I didn't replay scenes to see how things could have played out differently--and perhaps the rippling effects are minimal--but I didn't want to. What matters is that the import of the decisions I made was felt in the moment I made them, and ultimately I was more than satisfied with how my version of the story ended.

Where the story undermines itself, however, is in its pacing. Or, to be more accurate, in how certain pieces of the story are locked behind collectibles, the search for which sees you get bogged down in scouring every area for hidden documents and items rather than keeping the plot ticking over. Not to mention that it's quite silly when Kurt's ordered to quickly fix a radio during an attack while you're thinking, “Hang on, let me just check if there's anything I've missed down the other end of this trench….” You can ignore the collectibles, but you'll also be missing out on story content.

When it comes together, whether in moments of high drama and urgent choices or in the quiet interludes that follow, 11-11 draws you deep into the lives of these men. When it misses the mark, whether through an implausible coincidence, a throwaway puzzle or tedious collectible, it can push you away and cause the surrounding narrative beats to fall flat. It's uneven, yes, but there's undoubtedly more good than bad, and there are poignant scenes, tense moments and breathtaking images that will resonate long after the end credits have rolled.

Full Metal Furies Review - Puzzle-Brawler

Sat, 11/10/2018 - 01:26

It's difficult to define which exact genre Cellar Door Games' Full Metal Furies belongs to. On a cursory glance, the co-op game appears to be no more than a well-structured brawler, and you'd be forgiven if you completed its 15-hour campaign thinking that's all it is. However, if you dig a little deeper into the optional hidden content, there's another five to seven hours of complex, multi-layered riddles to find. There's a fascinating meta narrative interwoven into Full Metal Furies' puzzles, and journeying to its end makes for a satisfying cooperative experience.

In Full Metal Furies, each player takes control of one of four adventurers. If played solo, the game puts you in control of two and you can switch between them at will. There's Triss, the leader whose penchant for sassily drinking tea often leads to hilarious spit-takes; Meg, the lazy, nearsighted sniper with a poor sense of direction; Erin, the brainy tinkerer who desperately wants to be cool; and Alex, the air-headed soldier who wholeheartedly believes bashing in the skulls of the arrogant men she and her friends run into should be both a first and last resort to solving all their problems.

Collectively known as the Furies, the four girls are on a quest to cross the monster-infested wasteland that humanity once called its home in order to find and destroy god-like entities known as the Titans. The sons and daughters of the mad tyrant Cronus, each of the four Titans desires a better world, and their conflicting ideologies as to how to bring about that dream have led to a war that threatens to destroy all life.

This seemingly straightforward battle between good and evil hides a surprising number of twists and turns. With every step forward, the Furies notice more signs that their efforts might be actually causing more problems than they're solving. But the team keeps pushing onwards, hoping that in the long run, their efforts will have a positive effect on the world. The narrative plays out in a series of sprite-based conversations, both during and in between combat missions. For the most part, these are tongue-in-cheek skits--some even throw in the occasional pun or reference to the fact that this is all a video game--but a few also focus on Triss' growth. Despite putting on airs, she struggles with the responsibilities of leadership and the morality of the Furies' quest. Unfortunately, her teammates don't receive the same treatment, and are fairly two-dimensional throughout the main campaign.

In combat, each of the four ladies handle and attack in their own way. For example, Meg can use a grappling hook to maneuver out of danger and snipe opponents from afar, while Triss can defend her teammates and herself with a near indestructible shield and also clear out enemies by screaming at the top of her lungs. Each of the girls fulfills a unique role seen in many other team-based brawlers--with Triss as the tank, Alex as the fighter, Meg as the archer/sniper, and Erin as the summoner.

Full Metal Furies supports couch co-op and online multiplayer. As of publishing this review, the Switch servers are fairly empty, but we did manage to test online play using two copies of the game and can confirm it works relatively smoothly. There were some brief stutters at the start of a few levels, but none of them negatively impacted gameplay. However, my game did completely crash at one point.

It's unfortunate the servers are so empty as playing with an incomplete team puts you at an immediate disadvantage. So unless you recruit some friends for couch co-op, you're in for a fairly tough time. Even Erin and Meg are crucial, as Triss and Alex rely on their teammates' supportive attacks to give them both time to recharge their special abilities. Button-mashing with the two melee fighters can be an effective strategy early on, but it will only get your team so far. Mid- and late-game enemies and bosses require a certain degree of tactical assessment, and chaining together each character's abilities is the ideal path to success. For example, when confronted with a mob of jumping werewolves that are too quick for the slower fighters, your team might rely on Triss' area-of-effect shout to stun a few, use Alex's dive bomb jump to launch the weakened wolves into the air, and then have Meg shoot their leader out of the sky. All the while, Erin's portable turret and her mid-range pistol can finish off the members of the pack not caught up in the combo.

Combat in Full Metal Furies is constantly evolving, with new enemy types appearing almost every third level. It keeps the game from descending into a grindfest of similar foes, while leaving room for you to experiment with new strategies on enemies you've encountered before. Sections of certain levels can get brutal, resulting in dozens of game over screens. But checkpoints are numerous, cutscenes you've seen are skippable, and it's typically very clear which careless mistake resulted in the failed mission. If anything, the game's combat seems content to really only punish those who play with less than four people, which presents an interesting way of making the game easier or more difficult for yourself at any point in the game. If things are still too hard with a full team of four, or you can't scrounge up a full team but don't want to make the game more difficult, there's an easier Story Mode too.

Despite being labeled as a brawler, only about half of Full Metal Furies is regulated to combat. The other half is a series of interlacing puzzles and riddles, and it's here where the co-op nature of Full Metal Furies truly shines.

None of the puzzles or riddles in Full Metal Furies are obvious to find, and the game doesn't teach you how to solve them either. It's completely dependent on the player to be curious enough to wonder if the symbol-covered stones hidden throughout about two dozen of the game's levels are more than meets the eye. Finding the stones themselves is a challenge, and once discovered, each stone's riddle is typically even tricker to figure out.

Eventually, the main campaign reveals that solving these riddles is necessary for gaining access to the game's final area and true ending. The riddles grow more meta as you discover additional stones, some even requiring you to do things outside of the main game, such as watching a YouTube video for a clue or adjusting the game's accessibility settings to perceive colors and sound in a new way. Teaming up with friends to overcome a challenging boss fight is fun, but the most satisfying moments in Full Metal Furies are when you have a eureka moment and are able to figure out the next piece of the overarching mystery. Several of the solutions to certain puzzles and riddles rely on a particular Furies' unique skill as well--some answers even require multiple Furies or the full roster of four--so every player gets to enjoy being a part of the process of figuring something out at some point. Completing this game is very much a team effort, and it successfully makes sure no single player feels left out or useless.

So yes, Full Metal Furies is primarily a brawler, and a good one that promotes teamwork instead of button-mashing. But it's also a very hard puzzle game, one that challenges you to perceive each level, as well as the game's mechanics and characters, in new ways. It's a shame most of the Furies are so two-dimensional throughout the main campaign--especially Meg, who's arguably the most lovable of the bunch--but the story is consistently witty with its humor and an absolute joy to watch unfold. And while coming up with strategies to handle new enemies and piecing together the clues for each puzzle is fairly difficult at times, it's a rewarding and deeply satisfying challenge.

Tetris Effect Review - Feel The Groove

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 16:00

Without context, the premise of Tetris Effect won't stop you in your tracks. It's Tetris at heart, and its familiar playfield is presented against fantasy backdrops with songs and sound effects that react to your actions. What that basic description doesn't tell you is how powerful the combination of conducting tetrominos and music at the same time can be. Give Tetris Effect your complete, undivided attention, and you'll form a sympathetic bond to the notes and puzzle pieces alike and lose yourself in the flurry of color and energy that permeates every stage. It's a lofty promise, to be sure, but there's no other way to describe the impact Tetris Effect has once it finally clicks.

Though there are a handful of modes--no sign of multiplayer, sadly--with basic twists on the standard formula that are worth exploring at your leisure, the bulk of the Tetris Effect experience takes place in Journey Mode. It's an aptly named trip that will take you to recognizable locations like the moon, but more often to abstract settings that are best defined by a list of adjectives. These dreamscapes can be breezy, electric, stressful, haunting, heavenly, or crunchy, to name a few of the standout qualities. The music in each stage may not always be a predictable pairing, but just because you didn't see a particular harmony coming doesn't mean it can't work.

Over time, you will notice that the game not only hooks you with music, but that it gets you hooked on songs that may not traditionally fit within your musical preferences. Odds are you don't listen to chanting in foreign languages nor the complicated beats of the tabla on a daily basis, but Tetris Effect makes these uncommon sounds enticing. It's hard to say what these songs would feel like without first experiencing them during gameplay, but when you're enraptured in their rhythms whilst simultaneously flipping and reconfiguring puzzle pieces in a race against time, they become relentlessly catchy, sticking with you long after you stop playing.

Because Tetris Effect is so infectious, it's very difficult to put down once you fall into its rhythm. Tetris has proven itself to be a highly effective game, and one that has an ever-rising skill ceiling that allows it to draw in players who have decades of experience under their belts. Journey mode will ramp up, but in keeping with the sense of going on an adventure, it will also slump down, though rarely for long. The non-linear flow is an important part of the experience that charges you with anticipation and rewards you with relief, and is an unexpected benefit to the standard flow of a session of Tetris.

The shift in tone and pace is often determined by your progress within a stage. Most require you to clear 36 lines total (on normal difficulty), with milestones along the way that dictate the present rhythm. You do, however, have a tool at your disposal that is designed explicitly to pump the brakes and give you a chance to salvage a potentially disastrous situation or to build up a high scoring combo. The Zone ability can be triggered with a single button press at any time that you've got some charge in the relevant meter, which is fueled a quarter of the way every time you clear eight lines.

With Zone activated, pieces hover rather than fall, and you get to take your time--as allotted by the meter--placing them in your stack. Clear a line, and it will shift to the bottom of the stack, ready to be cleared automatically when Zone disengages. Because lines persist even when "cleared" while in Zone, you can make combos that go beyond the standard four-line Tetris clear if you're skilled enough. They won't count towards your line count for the level, but they will give you extra scoring opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be possible.

The new Zone mechanic adds an interesting layer of strategy for new and veteran players alike, but more than this new mechanic, it's the quasi-spiritual bond that forms between you and the game that defines Tetris Effect. Even though you don't need a PlayStation VR headset to get a taste, there's no question that Tetris Effect is best played in VR with headphones turned up loud.

With your vision and hearing cut off from the outside world, you fade into the game. You feel things that you'd never imagine a game of Tetris could make you feel. Don't be surprised if you catch yourself bursting with joy, or on the verge of tears, all because the confluence of gameplay and sensory stimulation works so well. There is no extra physical movement asked of you--the opposite of almost every other VR game in recent memory. Tetris Effect wants your mind, rather than your body, and even though we all dream of one day being completely immersed in a high-end VR game. In truth, Tetris Effect achieves the base goal--belief in your connection to the game.

Tetris Effect is a transformative game that will more than likely be overlooked by people who think it's "just Tetris." Well, it is and it isn't. Anyone who knows Tetris can pick up Tetris Effect and begin playing right away. The fundamentals remain the same; it is a time-tested formula that continues to work, after all. But Tetris is just the beginning of Tetris Effect. It provides the foundation for a complex emotional journey that defies expectations. Its a vector for meditation. It's a driving force that pushes you beyond your presumed limits. It is the definition of awesome, and if you have an open heart and an open mind, you owe it to yourself to take the plunge and see why it's anything but "just Tetris."

Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption Review - Trials and Tribulations

Fri, 11/09/2018 - 02:00

Many stories like to use religion as a narrative device, and the name would suggest, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption takes a crack at it too, offering a refreshingly pared-down experience of Gothic religious horror. But while the game's boss rush structure possesses some clever mechanical twists, its more superficial elements don’t quite have the same shine.

Enter Adam, the titular sinner, not-so-subtly named after the first man to do wrong. Instead of an apple from a tree, you've clearly been far naughtier than your namesake. Here, the afterlife has dealt you a rather unfortunate hand; defeat the manifestations of all seven mortal sins, and you just might get a happy ending. However, that's definitely a lot harder than it actually sounds, because the bosses are all about 20 feet tall, incredibly strong, and they hate your guts, and you have to give something up before you fight each one. This is the pivotal "sacrifice" part of the equation.

Sinner is about going from boss to boss and beating them into the ground before they can do the same to you. It clearly takes inspiration from the Dark Souls lineage of games, both conceptually and mechanically. Each adversary you face has succumbed to a cardinal sin, whether it's by lack of action or by a conscious choice to take a particularly unsavory behavior too far. As a result, the bosses are fascinatingly warped beyond human recognition--we're talking about headless noblewomen, hunchbacked sorcerers, and walking fortresses that are more metal than man.

Mechanically, Sinner features animation locking, that has you commit to your attacks, and tough-as-nails enemies. You're given a handful of javelins, health potions, and melee weapon options that you can swap between on the fly before the game throws you at the first boss. All your enemies have unique attack patterns that you'll have to memorize if you want to win, and some are more telegraphed than others, which leads to a good variety of challenges across the board. It's a strong, if familiar, set of systems, but Sinner's biggest feature lies in its sacrifice mechanic.

Inventively, the game puts you in the unique predicament of getting weaker as you progress. Your 'sacrifice' could be a portion of your HP, some of your weapon attack damage, or even resources. You lose that thing, and you get a little bit weaker each time you go toe-to-toe with a malevolent foe. It's an innovative spin and its focus on the core basics means Sinner feels like an evolution of the genre rather than a derivative work. Sinner also includes a new game plus mode, which adds some exciting spice in the form of more challenging boss gauntlets where you fight them in groups along with broader weapon customization options.

Each enemy is introduced by way of an epitaph and a scene which tells you how they ended up in that sorry state. The scenes are compelling on their own, and despite the sparse monologues which don’t give you a whole lot to go on other than your own imagination, the villainous Victorian-inspired visuals and the individually distinct boss arenas also provide just enough environmental storytelling to pique your curiosity. While you may still be slightly in the dark about what you've truly accomplished for your character in the atonement department when the credits roll, the road to redemption is still a scenic one.

However, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption suffers from some problems with repetition. After about the sixth hour, things start to blend together a little. Each boss has its own unique orchestral accompaniment, which are enjoyable in their own right, but they're all based on the same recipe of overdramatic string sections and choral vocals. Each boss also harnesses a theme or an element of its own, but the arenas don't necessarily hold up to scrutiny over long periods of time; the surrounding textures in the background suffer slightly from a lack of fine detail, and there's only so much crumbly ruined stonework that you can stomach.

It's also a little disappointing, though not completely surprising, to see the game run worse on Switch than on other platforms. There were instances of framerate lag turned deadly because of the pace of gameplay and also an instance of blinding light effects for a particular boss in a dimly-lit environment that were a hindrance. On the PlayStation 4 and PC versions, the framerate lag is almost undetectable.

Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption is an ambitious game that brings something new to an increasingly popular style of action game. While it seems like it's missing a lick of paint to make sure that its aesthetics are as strong as its mechanics, it's still a smart step forward and a good example of how we can pay homage to the beloved works of others with originality.

Hitman 2 Review: Hit Parade

Thu, 11/08/2018 - 11:00

Hitman is a game about killing people. Well, killing specific people and trying not to kill other people unless you really have to. But it's also a game about exploring large, real-world-inspired spaces, learning about how they operate, finding multiple solutions to problems, and using that knowledge to improvise and manipulate the environment to hit the people you're hunting. The episodic nature of the Hitman refresh in 2016 saw IO Interactive release one level every month--a contentious move at the time, but one that helped accentuate the potential in each mission. Hitman 2 ditches the episodic model and adds a few new minor mechanics, but the loop of continuously replaying a single location, slowly uncovering the wealth of possibilities, and being able to effectively draw upon that knowledge in new challenges is where Hitman is strongest.

Hitman 2 takes you to six new locales, and each poses unique situations to overcome as you attempt to assassinate your targets. Mumbai is a standout with its densely populated streets and labyrinths of tenement buildings--a great environment that makes the most of a new Assassin's Creed-style crowd blending mechanic, allowing you to disappear into big groups of people. A mission in Miami, Florida takes place at an active raceway, a loud and vibrant stage that feels like a theme park with its swaths of attendees, distinct zones, and a concealed backstage underbelly.

These levels are overwhelming in the best way possible, and it's exciting to begin peeling away the layers of these large, intricate areas--exploring the spaces, discovering routes, finding tools and disguises, and figuring out the best places to utilize them. If you're familiar with Hitman, you know that each stage and its AI inhabitants run on routines like clockwork, making Hitman a game that rewards social stealth and patience. Eavesdropping, tailing, and passive observation are good first steps to success. Even the Whittleton Creek stage, a small, sparsely populated suburban block in Vermont, feels like a mindmap of interconnected causality when you begin to dig deeper. Having the curiosity to uncover how things operate within levels, stumbling upon minor plotlines and amusing flavor dialog along the way, is interesting in its own right.

Hitman does make an upfront effort to help focus your scope and give you some momentum toward your objectives, though thankfully your initiative is still necessary to solve some predicaments. Stumbling across a Mission Story (previously known as Opportunities) might lead you to a machine you can sabotage, for example, but you need to find the tool to do so and work out the best method of either distracting or dispatching the people around it.

Mission Stories are a great first step, but Hitman becomes its best when you start to internalize the stages and uncover the more obscure ways things can unfold in subsequent playthroughs, be it through pursuing alternative Mission Stories, Challenges that ask you to perform specific tasks, or your own improvisation. There are few fail states other than your own death, and there are so many approaches and tools at your disposal that the path to victory can be as creative and elegant or as bumbling and messy as it needs to be. Completing a stage typically takes a long time, and there will be plenty of moments when a guard catches you doing something you shouldn't be doing and calls for backup. Unhinged gunfights still feel as futile as ever, but when things get out of control there's almost always the opportunity to escape to a less hostile part of the level, swap your disguises, and come up with an alternative "make do" approach. In fact, Hitman is sometimes more exciting when your initial plans fail.

The only problem with being presented with such a staggering array of interactions is that the limitations of the sandbox will eventually reveal themselves if you push the wrong way. For example, while you can stash bodies in dumpsters and closets, I was disappointed to discover I couldn't stash them in one of many vacant portable toilets. While Agent 47 can leap tall fences and shimmy across daringly high ledges, he seemingly can't muster the courage to drop down from certain first-floor balconies. Guard AI behavior is stern but generous--if you're found trespassing in a restricted area they'll give you a chance to find the exit before reacting, but sometimes it's too generous. I was amused to see a target's personal bodyguard decide to go home for the day after his employer "accidentally" fell off a building, even though I was the only other person in the room.

Hitman 2 continues to embrace a trial-and-error playstyle in its campaign. The levels are long, but autosaves are generous and manual saving is encouraged, which gives you the freedom to experiment with different ways of approaching a problem. And the closer you get to bending the systems in just the right way--trying to narrowly squeeze past a guard's sightline from different directions, or using coins and cheeseburgers to divert someone's attention--the more thrilling it feels, no matter how goofy it actually looks. Hitman 2's interstitial cinematics are as grim and dramatic as a British espionage drama, and it's hard not to let yourself buy into the clinical overarching conspiracy. But in the field, the series' tongue-in-cheek absurdity happily remains with ridiculous costumes, unlikely weapons, and Agent 47's self-aware deadpan acting, which perfectly accompanies any bumbling improvisation. Both exist distinctly, don't really compliment or detract one another, but are still enjoyable in their own right.

Hitman 2 also boasts a few significant modes outside of its campaign, including Sniper Assassin, which adapts the design seen in the Hitman: Sniper smartphone game and tasks you with taking out a series of targets from a single vantage point using only a scoped rifle. It's a straightforward but enjoyable, low-stakes mode that allows for a surprising amount of creative freedom, and it can be played in two-player online co-op. But Hitman 2's most enticing bonus, at least if you own the previous Hitman, is the ability to download the original stages into Hitman 2, which gives you feature-complete versions of them with the addition of new mechanics like functional mirrors (which enemies can spot you in) and the briefcase (which lets you conceal and transport tools discreetly), among other things. These legacy stages are wonderful to revisit under a new light.

It should also be mentioned that one of the most compelling elements of the 2016 Hitman was the continuous, free live content updates that occurred after the game's launch. Escalation Missions, where you're given specific conditional challenges of increasing difficulty, and Elusive Targets, limited-time events where you have only one chance to take out unique assassination targets, added tense trials that tested both your knowledge of levels and improvisational skills. IO Interactive has announced that these familiar features will be making a return, along with free content updates to Sniper Assassin and Ghost Mode. We obviously can't judge the quality of this content at launch, but it's surely something to look forward to.

The addition of other minor mechanical changes--like concussive weapons, a picture-in-picture enemy activity alert, and visible security camera sightlines--help to improve Hitman 2 overall as a dense and accessible stealth assassination game. But the new locations are the real stars, impressive and inventive sandboxes ripe for picking apart with exciting experiments. Hitman is about experiencing the anticipation of seeing whether a plan will work when you try it for the first time. It's about feeling the tension of briskly walking away from a bad situation, hoping you can lose the suspicious guards. It's the satisfaction of knowing the machinations of a level so well that when a target moves into a particular place at a particular time, you have the perfect way to intervene. Hitman 2 is a familiar experience, but in the Hitman world, familiarity is an incredible strength.

The Quiet Man Review - Silent, But Not Golden

Wed, 11/07/2018 - 00:12

The interactive movie--that nebulous, hard-to-define genre briefly fashionable in the mid-1990s, when CD-ROM technology made it possible for developers to integrate live-action footage into games--is not exactly remembered for its high quality. But even in the tradition responsible for such notorious follies as Night Trap, Sewer Shark, and Who Shot Johnny Rock, The Quiet Man is astonishingly dire--a graceless, outdated game that belongs squarely in the era of laserdiscs and the Philips CD-i. When it isn't an interactive movie, it's a simple 3D beat-em-up of the kind once ubiquitous at arcades. But an interest in the past does not make The Quiet Man a love letter to video game history, and its ideas are poorly realized.

The Quiet Man boasts a formal conceit that is at least moderately interesting. You play as a svelte blonde 20-something named Dane, who is deaf, and as a consequence the game is almost totally silent. You hear only the muffled patter of footfalls while walking, some indistinct notes of synthesizer to represent voices, and a faint patina of generic ambience elsewhere. The marketing materials describe this as an effort to allow the player to "experience the world in the way Dane does." But we clearly do not experience the world as Dane does. Dane reads lips; he communicates extensively and effortlessly with every character he encounters. So why are these conversations not subtitled? In one lengthy scene of dialogue after another, people talk with Dane, presumably advancing the story. Meanwhile, we have no earthly clue what's being said or what's going on.

This sort of inexplicable design is entirely typical of The Quiet Man. It’s difficult to understand so much of what transpires. Consider an early narrative sequence in which Dane meets either a colleague or a friend--the relationship was not apparent to me and only gets more confusing over the course of the story--and converses with him in his office. In a series of mundane closeups the other man speaks as Dane nods along, rapt; the nature of their discussion is opaque, and their performances, amateurish and hammy, are abysmal. You can imagine this scene being staged in such a way that the content would be clear even without sound or subtitles. The Quiet Man doesn't even try.

When these mystifying, interminable full-motion-video scenes at last end, the actors are switched out for crudely animated substitutions, many of whom bear such a poor resemblance to their real-life counterparts that it is frequently unclear who's who. It's never hard to pick out Dane in the heat of battle, though, because he's the only one who's white. The endless procession of villainous henchmen you're asked to brutally dispatch are uniformly latino, broad caricatures of "cholos" in street-gang garb who sneer at you between pummellings. You fight them pretty much exclusively throughout. The political implications of the game's demographic makeup are appalling, in this fraught time of wall-building especially, and the end result is plainly, unforgivably racist.

In any case, it's quite fitting for the enemies to be the same cliched type repeated ad nauseam, because repetitiveness is the very nature of The Quiet Man's beat-em-up combat system. Brawling has what might generously be described as an arcade-like simplicity: one button to punch, one to kick, and one to dodge, plus a finishing move that can be triggered on occasion. It would be more accurate to call this rudimentary. Almost every battle boils down to a dull frenzy of button-mashing, as enemies rarely block, scarcely fight back, and practically never come at you more than one at a time. Though waves of 10 or even 20 must be defeated to clear a given room, they don't change their approach or vary their style, and mostly seem to stand around awaiting their turn to be vanquished. There's no way to vary your own attacks, either, which gives every encounter the air of a chore.

Boss battles aren't much different in terms of character or technique. They distinguish themselves instead in terms of overwhelming difficulty. I almost never lost a fight in the course of regular gameplay; each of the handful of boss battles, though, kept me stuck for a long time, as I labored through dust-ups with enemies that seemed absurdly overpowered and virtually invulnerable to damage. Worse than simply losing these battles was how consistently vague they proved to be. Seldom is it apparent why you might be losing a fight. The game doesn't track damage or show the enemy's health, and it's never certain whether your hits are landing or registering much effect--hitboxes are indistinct and attacks almost always clip through bodies, which makes the whole process feel at once feeble, confusing, and outrageously imprecise.

Simplistic, ungainly combat is all the more surprising given that it is The Quiet Man's only gameplay mechanic. From beginning to end there is nothing else to do — no places to navigate, no items to collect, no weapons to wield, no puzzles to solve. It's just those same mind-numbing punches and kicks broken up by extended narrative scenes that by virtue of the enforced silence you can't hope to follow or understand. The broad contours of the plot are vaguely discernible: the drama involves childhood trauma, a seedy metropolitan underbelly, various acts of conspiracy and revenge. As for the details, it's impossible to say. The game's final moments tease an upcoming addition that will allow you to play it through a second time with the sound restored. This feels like both a preposterous cop-out--it's walking back the main conceit!--and a cruel punishment. With sound the story will surely make more sense. But having suffered through The Quiet Man once, I can't bear to try it again.

Cities: Skylines - Industries Review - The Up And Up

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 20:21

If my nearly 10 years as a small-town mayor in Canada have taught me anything, it is that bringing in industrial growth is an extremely demanding task. So much production has moved offshore in recent decades that it has become tough to keep the industries that we still have, let alone add new ones. But this isn't quite the case in Industries, the new expansion for Cities: Skylines that adds character to your carefully crafted municipalities without much in the way of difficulty. While being able to concentrate on specific industries adds an involving and entertaining new dimension to city creation, the lack of challenge and reward when building these new districts makes the add-on less than essential.

With that said, this enhanced industrial focus has been seamlessly incorporated into the base Cities: Skylines game as if it had always been there. In addition to still being able to zone properties for random industrial use, there is a new option to paint part of your municipality as an industrial district specifically for forest, farming, ore, or oil. It is very easy to establish these zones. Mark them out, drop a main building to get started, and then lay down facilities to gather resources. You instantly start rolling in the logs, crops, rocks, and black gold. Levels are then gained based on the number of materials produced and employees hired, which unlocks new buildings. These industrial districts soon turn into into beehives of activity.

Getting these industrial districts up and running is satisfying, as it is the one employment area in Cities: Skylines where you directly construct industries and create jobs. As such, building industrial districts is more hands-on, as opposed to the usual "zone it and let it go" approach in the game's standard industrial, commercial, and residential development. The process is still straightforward, though. While industrial districts require a certain amount of micro-management, creating and running them is relatively easy to handle, especially for Cities: Skylines veterans. Start with something like a main forestry building and a few tree plantations and you can soon expand into sawmills, storage yards, biomass wood pellet plants, planed wood production, pulp mills, and factories making finished goods like furniture and paper products at a printing press.

Industrial districts add character to cities, making them more products of their environment than the mostly generic burgs of the original Cities: Skylines. Everything looks and feels more natural. Have a city surrounded by trees? Industries based on wood products are the only sensible option. There is also a lot to be said for finally taking full advantage of the natural resources on city maps, as previously there was little way to commodify what was all around you. Now, for example, a forest map plays like a forest map should play, with industries based on what is right in the neighborhood.

Playing on a map with multiple resource types makes things even better, as you can set up numerous industrial districts that feed into specific unique factories. The toy factory, for instance, needs both the plastic that comes from oil and the paper that comes from wood, so you need both to make sure junior is happy on Christmas morning. Districts tie into each other, making the entire industrial process operate as something of a mini-game; resource gathering, production, and warehousing all form a chain with these factories at the end of the line.

Just two minor drawbacks cause issues. First up is the need to reserve a ton of room on the map for industrial districts, as you have to build a lot of resource-gathering facilities and storage yards/warehouses to keep production humming and raw materials on hand. Second is the way that managing industries can become so involved that you forget about the rest of your city. I had a number of occasions where I spent so much attention on an industrial district that I didn't notice garbage piling up elsewhere or corpses going unclaimed in homes because I neglected to keep pace with population growth. Still, spending time dealing solely with industries is a welcome break from the other aspects of the game. As great as Cities: Skylines is, it has also become pretty familiar for those of us who have been with it since the beginning. A little micro-management isn't a bad thing in this case.

Industrial districts also never seem entirely necessary. While they are always enjoyable to plan out, and it is pretty easy to turn them into serious money-making machines, just about anyone who has played Cities: Skylines for a dozen hours or so likely has little trouble staying in the black with the original industrial zoning options. I really enjoyed turning forests into furniture and playing J.R. Ewing with oil, but I never needed the extra cash that these businesses generated. So as much as I appreciated the novelty, running these industries also seemed like extra work with questionable end benefit.

Other features added to Cities: Skylines are fairly minor. Snail mail has finally come to residents. Postal services operate much like other regional city facilities such as police stations, bus stops, and so on. Set up a post office or postal sorting station and watch happy faces sprout up all over a neighborhood. Toll booths can now be installed on city roads, letting you earn extra revenue from vehicular traffic at the small price of slowing everybody down a bit.

Industries somehow feels like both a worthwhile and an unnecessary addition to the Cities: Skylines family. Requiring direct management of industrial development definitely adds dimension to budding metropolises. Paying attention to nothing but smokestacks and jobs for a while also represents a needed change of pace from what has become a familiar city-building experience. Still, there are no significant new gameplay challenges to overcome here or enough unique rewards that make it an absolute must to create industries like an oil patch or ore mines. While this expansion provides a better, more involved experience when it comes to industry, virtual mayors can give this one a pass if they're satisfied with the factories of the original game.

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection Review - It Belongs In A Museum

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 08:00

As an anthology of games from SNK's simpler days, the 40th Anniversary Collection offers a variety of classics that are more fun than you might expect given their age. The simple-looking Vanguard (1981) may not give off a rousing first impression, for example, but play it a bit and you begin to discover that its dynamic scrolling system and proclivity for handing out invincibility power-ups make it more than a predictable space shooter. This and many other entries show a glimpse of a company developing its prowess for making arcade games, and it's fascinating to take it all in. This is in large part thanks to the great attention to detail and comprehensive research that went into cataloging and smartly presenting an unsung but important part of gaming history. What's more impressive, and less obvious, is the work that was required to make every game in the collection playable at all.

The full extent of developer Digital Eclipse's efforts is difficult to know from the sidelines, but it's recognized among gaming historians that the team holds itself to a very high standard and often succeeds at meeting it. Beyond programming emulators, it also helps track down relics--original arcade motherboards--when the source code has been confirmed lost by SNK, in addition to scanning and restoring marketing materials that tell the story around the games at the time. Regular maintenance can keep old arcade boards alive, but with dwindling numbers of working units in the hands of private collectors, there's a feeling of "now or never" when it comes to preservation. The SNK 40th Collection is a treasure trove of classics that heeds the call.

At launch, there are 14 games to play: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Guerilla War, Ikari Warriors, Ikari Warriors 2: Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue, Iron Tank: Invasion of Normandy, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, TNK III, and Vanguard. For some of these games where there was an NES home port of the arcade original, you get both versions to compare and contrast. It's a great lens with which to examine the mindset of the day, where everyone wanted to bring the arcade experience home and people were willing to accept compromised graphics and gameplay to get there.

A perfect example of this is Ikari Warriors, one of a few proto-twin-stick shooters in the collection. As evident by the included console port, when the game made the transition to the NES, you could only shoot in the direction you were moving, rather than independently, as you would in the arcade game. Now that the collection is on Switch with two analog sticks to handle the controls, we are that much closer to having the true Ikari Warriors arcade experience at home. The game actually used a single arcade stick that had an added rotation function, but short of releasing a new peripheral to exactly replicate the stick, Digital Eclipse has gone as far as possible to achieve what consumers wanted when Ikari Warriors was on everyone's radar.

While there are a lot of solid games on hand, there are no doubt going to be games that are more interesting in theory than in practice. Given this, it's nice to see that each game--minus some NES ports--has an autoplay option. This will not only make it easy for you to examine a game with ease but also gives you the chance to tag in when a game gets good. Disengaging autopilot and taking the wheel isn't the smartest way to learn how to play any game, but if you find yourself up against a difficult section, you can also trigger the rewind button to fix mistakes and undo accidental deaths.

The 40th Anniversary Collection gives you a lot to play and many ways to tailor the experience to your whims, including settings that come in handy while playing vertically oriented games. From a technical and experiential standpoint, it's an all-around great collection. And if everything goes according to plan, Digital Eclipse has 11 more games scheduled to arrive before the end of the year via free patches and DLC.

In the meantime, if you exhaust interest in playing what's around, there are a lot of special features to explore. Scans include assorted marketing sheets and advertisements but even go so far as to include independent fan zines from the '80s and arcade game guides. For a more in-depth peek into the past, every game released by SNK between 1978 and 1990 gets a neatly animated history lesson, complete with screenshots and interesting anecdotes that help tell the overall story of SNK's formative years. And if you want to just zone out to some nostalgic music, there are soundtracks for 12 of the games in the collection ready from the start.

Digital Eclipse proves once again that it's the right team for the job of both preserving and resurrecting classic video games. For SNK and its fans, the team has elevated some of the company's most important milestones. It's responsible for more than just Neo Geo games, and though not every game that came before is worth replaying on its own today, the addition of supplemental materials and revitalizing modern gaming conveniences make them feel more interesting than they have in years, and in some cases, decades.

Deracine Review - Grains Of Sand

Mon, 11/05/2018 - 11:01

Dark Souls creator FromSoftware is renowned for its vague, interpretative stories and captivating gameplay--two strengths of the studio that have been successfully applied to similarly styled games for nearly over a decade. Deracine is a departure from what the studio is primarily known for. It's a narrative adventure that makes good use of PlayStation VR and the immersive nature of the hardware but fails to consolidate a poorly structured story and mundane gameplay to create something truly special.

Deracine puts you in control of an invisible Faerie who manifests in a mysteriously secluded boarding school that serves as a home to five children. You're summoned by one of the children, Yuliya, who believes in a Faeries' duty to guide and protect those in need with their ability to alter and traverse time, tasking you with looking over the other children at the school. Deracine's tale begins with innocent chores around the school, where you play simple pranks on the children in a bid to prove your existence. But its overarching narrative quickly starts exploring greater themes concerning life and its sacrifices, obsessions with the past and the morality surrounding the ability to change past events.

It's a story that presents its ideas without much hand-holding, which combined with the frequent time jumps can create a difficult thread to follow. It can often feel like you have a grasp of where the narrative is heading before it completely flips itself again, introducing more characters and supernatural elements that undermine the overall story. The final two chapters are most guilty of this, tossing aside previously established themes and instead focusing on numerous jumps between two days in an attempt to explain these sudden additions. The repetitive nature of these chapters wear thin quickly and only confuse the narrative further, sadly undercutting the harrowing conclusion that desperately tries to tie everything together.

As a Faerie, Deracine gives you two abilities to command with disappointing limitations. The first lets you glance at current objectives though a magical pocket watch, while also giving you the power to travel through time when the narrative allows it. The second is a glowing red ring that can absorb time from objects and beings around you. The earliest example of this has you transferring the limited time left on a ripe pair of grapes over to a wilted and dead flower, instantly rejuvenating and reviving it. This initially seems like a clever mechanic, but you rarely get to use it. You're only able to use it freely in two puzzles, and even then, the choices presented to you are too straightforward. It's a shame that more of Deracine's puzzle-solving couldn't be designed around this single intriguing mechanic, especially when you ponder how captivating it might have been to be given the chance to experiment with its power in smart settings.

Each chapter takes place within a frozen moment in time, letting you explore the school at will and interact with both past and present versions of the children residing there. Translucent echoes of characters give you insight into past events and create a breadcrumb trail for you to follow back to their current locations for more context into their current actions. Past conversations play out after you manipulate certain objects around the house and on the children's persons, while larger changes to their surroundings culminate in short showings of how they react to your meddling. Deracine makes your impact on its world and characters felt with each action, even if it gives you little to no room for experimentation.

Exploration is the gateway to Deracine's point-and-click-like puzzles, which have you hunting for items you'll need to advance stories during each chapter. This can be as simple as hunting down a key for a locked chest or as involved as figuring out a way to move a stubborn black cat from your path (since Faeries seem to fear the cute pets). Puzzles are all similar to one another and expect you to pay close attention to each of the conversations you stumble upon for vague clues to their solutions. Sometimes, these clues don't offer meaningful information, leading to infrequent but frustrating instances where you're stuck trying to use every item in your possession to elicit a response. But most of the time they delicately point you in the correct direction--not outright explaining what to do, but giving you enough to make your eventual solutions feel satisfying to orchestrate.

Moving around Deracine's surprisingly large boarding school and accompanying grounds makes good use of existing VR systems of control. You're forced to use a pair of PlayStation Move controllers (since you'll be handling items frequently with your hands) but an intelligent combination of segmental rotation and teleportation makes getting around a breeze. You use two face buttons to rotate the camera through fixed angles and then use a third button on the right Move controller to teleport to any highlighted area within view. In instances where you need to take a closer look, you can get right up and close with the item in question, orbiting the camera around to give you whatever desired angle you might need. It doesn't take long to become comfortable with the control scheme, making its frequent exploration easy to engage with and comfortable during long sessions of play.

Deracine does contain an impressive level of detail to its world, enrapturing you in a space that is primed for you to pick apart. Finely detailed objects give you insight into its lore, with the benefit of VR and motion controls letting you manipulate each item carefully to inspect its every detail. The ability to move around freely and engage without numerous objects within Deracine's world with your own hands is effective in making you feel exactly like the Faerie the children describe, which just wouldn't be the same with a traditional controller.

Deracine has the buildings blocks of a good VR debut from Dark Souls creator FromSoftware, but it lacks the engrossing gameplay and mystique that has made the studio's previous titles so successful.

Expressive animation also plays a big role in enriching the many character moments with a strong sense of emotion and personality. The boarding school and its surrounding forests are also beautiful, bathed in warm lighting and rich seasonal colors. It's contrasted by a delicate and somber score, which loops and changes with each scene to provide a serene backdrop to your adventuring. Silence is also used to great effect, creating an ominous atmosphere at key, powerful moments. With the immersive properties offered by virtual reality, Deracine is a technical treat on both eyes and ears.

Deracine has the buildings blocks of a good VR debut from Dark Souls creator FromSoftware, but it lacks the engrossing gameplay and mystique that has made the studio's previous titles so successful. It is a good example of a PSVR-exclusive title that uses the medium effectively, giving you ample control over your movement and an enticing space to explore fully with the flexibility of using your own two hands to pick it apart. Its narrative ambitions fail to meet the same bar, though, with intriguing themes that get lost within a poorly constructed narrative that's difficult to follow. Its puzzles fall prey to the same inadequacies, failing to leverage the more exciting mechanics presented from the start and instead relying on trivial scavenger hunts though frozen time. Deracine is a disappointingly flawed adventure that won't likely stick with you long after its conclusion.

Football Manager 2019 Review - A Winning Strategy

Fri, 11/02/2018 - 23:40

There are a lot of variables that go into having a successful season in Football Manager. You have to contend with the delicate balancing act of keeping your team's morale high, deftly navigating the transfer market to make astute signings, developing players on the training ground, and rotating your squad to micromanage the risk of injuries, among other things. It's a unique challenge geared towards racking up points on the pitch, yet all of these disparate aspects must first be built atop a solid foundation that begins with pieces on a whiteboard. Tactics are the bedrock of any great team, and Football Manager 2019 gives you more control and flexibility over how your team plays than ever before.

While not a complete overhaul, the granular redesign of the tactics interface opens up your strategic options and tactical pliability. The composition of each team's playstyle is now broken up into three distinct phases: in possession, in transition, and out of possession. Your options in possession will be familiar to anyone who's ever played Football Manager in the last few years, dealing with facets of your team's approach play and plan of attack once you enter the final third. The transitional phase is perhaps the most exciting for the budding Pep Guardiolas and Maurizio Sarris of the virtual dugout, allowing you to decide how your team reacts when both losing the ball and winning it back; while your options out of possession let you set where on the pitch you want your team to engage the opposition and how high or low you want your defensive line to be stationed. All of these additional choices feed into a transparent approach to the tactics module that removes a lot of the previous guesswork that went into creating your team's identity. If you want your team to press high up the pitch and counter once you've won possession, that option is now just a couple of mouse clicks away.

To give you a better feel for how potential tactics are constructed, there are now a number of preset tactics too. These ostensibly recreate generic real-life strategies like possession control and parking the bus, while also featuring distinct philosophies such as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp's Gegenpressing, Tiki-taka, and the Italian Catenaccio. Choosing a preset isn't a simple plug-and-play solution, however, since you still need to consider your squad's strengths, weaknesses, and composition of player roles for any of these tactics to be successful. It's no use asking a team with a low collective work rate to press for 90 minutes unless you want them dead on their feet, just like asking a non-league side to play expansive passing football isn't going to result in a beautiful Barcelona-esque style. Instead, these presets provide a practical baseline to teach you how forging tactics in Football Manager 2019 works, allowing you to borrow, learn from, and expand upon these ideas yourself.

This is beneficial for both veterans and newcomers alike because it provides a clearer understanding of how each instruction can affect your team's makeup, as well as being a necessary complement to Football Manager 2019's tactical redesign. It's not a perfect renovation--implementing something as simple as a midfield pivot, for instance, still isn't an option--but it ditches a lot of the restrictive elements of past games, and impacts the game in a positive way that also lays down building blocks for further improvements in the future.

Elsewhere, your work between the orange cones at the training ground has been completely overhauled. Training sessions were previously presented in fairly broad strokes, compartmentalizing each area into straightforward groups of attacking, defending, fitness, tactical, team cohesion, and ball control. Football Manager 2019 expands upon training in a way that's initially overwhelming, introducing you to a customizable plan of up to three sessions per day that allow you to select from an exhaustive list of training drills and exercises. You can opt to work on areas such as your team's defensive shape, numerous types of set pieces, chance creation, chance conversion, ball retention, endurance, and even extra-curricular activities such as community outreach and team bonding, which both improve your squad's teamwork.

It all seems a bit too much at first, but the comprehensive--albeit wordy--tutorial does a decent job of explaining how everything works, and after a few games training is likely to become an integral part of your pre-match preparation when it was previously viewed as an afterthought. Have a big game coming up against a free-scoring team? Spend the week working on various defensive drills that can potentially counteract their attacking style. Playing some minnows in the cup? Dedicate your training to chance creation and finishing to keep your offensive players sharp. Or you can always have your backroom staff handle all of this themselves. You can engage with as much or as little of Football Manager 2019 as you please.

Additional choices feed into a transparent approach to the tactics module that removes a lot of the previous guesswork that went into creating your team's identity

Of course, all of this groundwork eventually culminates in front of a packed stadium on a Saturday afternoon, and the 3D match engine has undergone some tangible improvements as well. The most noticeable of these is the way the ball now dips and curls through the air in a much more authentic manner. You'll see diminutive playmakers lift the ball over a high defensive line with some cute backspin, and free kicks that bend and nestle in the top corner of the net as though they were off the foot of David Beckham in his prime. It makes for more dynamic passing moves and generally improves the flow of play.

Mistakes, on the other hand, have always been part and parcel of Football Manager's DNA--whether it's a centreback misjudging the flight of the ball, a goalkeeper dropping a cross, or a striker blazing a shot over from six yards out--and now referees are fallible, too. VAR and goal-line technology have been included for league and cup competitions that utilize them (such as Serie A and the newly licenced Bundesliga), and they add an extra layer atop each high-intensity match. There's a specific heart-dropping moment that occurs when you're celebrating a goal only to see the referee on his way over to the video assistant to make sure there wasn't a missed foul or offside call in the buildup. It's another feature that maintains Football Manager's attention to detail.

Touchline shouts, however, are still needlessly vague, but the immediate feedback you receive after issuing one makes them a viable tactical option. Players are generally more intelligent as well, holding their runs when they know they're offside, and picking out the right pass when inside the opposition's penalty area. There are still some legacy issues that persist, such as the high percentage of goals that are scored from crosses, which usually stems from fullbacks not being particularly adept at stopping opposing wingers. You'll also see players dribble into advantageous positions only to stop dead in their tracks to give a defender time to recover, and defensive mistakes are sometimes a little too frequent. These can be frustrating, but they don't dominate the match day experience like they often have in the past.

All of this contributes to Football Manager hitting its prime, like a 28-year old striker. The tactical redesign--while not as thorough as some may have wanted--improves clarity and gives you more control over how you want your team to play, while the match engine and newfound emphasis on training enhance your work in the tactics room by bringing all of your ideas to fruition. These are meaningful changes that push the simulation further, making it feel like you can really impose your footballing philosophies on a team. Watching your players score a goal by completing a sweeping move in the exact way you envisioned is an absolute joy that no other sports game can match, and it's a more viable feat now because of these additions.

It's still not the most welcoming game for newcomers, stacking systems upon systems upon systems, but for veterans and those willing to put in the effort to learn, there's never been a better time to hop in and entrench yourself in the virtual dugout. Football Manager 2019's tweaks will have you happily settling in for another mammoth play session of juggling egos, pipping your rivals to the signing of a wonderkid, and smashing in a 90th-minute winner to capture a league title in triumphant fashion.

Call Of Cthulhu Review - Squid Logic

Fri, 11/02/2018 - 00:00

Even if you haven't read any of H.P. Lovecraft's literary works, you likely possess a passing understanding of why he is broadly recognized as one of the most significant horror writers of the 20th century. His ideas of unspeakable, unknowable terrors driving men (and it is almost always men) to madness, and his creation of the Cthulhu mythos with its pantheon of ancient gods utterly indifferent to the lives of men, have influenced countless novels, films, pen-and-paper and video games in the years since. This latest effort, from French studio Cyanide, spins a familiar tale of artistic obsession, unnatural experimentation and the frailties of the human mind into a mostly successful--if not exactly revelatory--exploration of Lovecraft's core thematic concerns. But its achievements in narrative and mood-setting are regularly undermined by some lackluster sleuthing, run-of-the-mill adventure game puzzles and a handful of truly terrible pseudo-action sequences.

Edward Pierce is a private investigator in Boston who seems to specialize in underwhelming his employer, the Wentworth Detective Agency, and self-medicating the trauma he suffered during World War I with alcohol and sleeping pills. Still shaken after waking from yet another nightmare, he agrees to look into the death of Sarah Hawkins, her husband, and their son three months prior in a house fire on the tiny island and former whaling port of Darkwater. Sarah's father seeks out Pierce after taking posthumous receipt of one of his daughter's paintings, a rather heavy-handed depiction of a woman cowering before some kind of demon. Pierce, summoning all his investigative acumen, suggests Sarah was trying to send a message via her art.

The rhythm of Pierce's detective work, and thus the bulk of the game, is established as soon as he disembarks at the fog-drenched and permanently midnight Darkwater docks. You can explore, in first-person, a small location, talk to the various locals and examine certain items of interest. Conversations are presented with a dialogue wheel offering multiple topics, some of which are only unlocked if Pierce has learned relevant information while occasionally others are delivered as binary choices--pick one and you can't go back to pursue other spokes on the wheel. The voice performances here as entirely serviceable, and not nearly as hammy as one might fear given the setting, though the writing itself suffers from some jarring tonal shifts as you navigate the branches of dialogue and countless unfortunate typos in the subtitles.

Taking cues from the Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG, you can earn and assign points to a collection of stats that, in theory, let you tailor Pierce's detective expertise towards Investigation, Psychology, Eloquence and so on. These stats affect both the dialogue options--a high level in Eloquence might enable Pierce to choose a more persuasive line of questioning--and the ways you can interact with the environment, i.e. Pierce can draw upon his knowledge of Medicine to reveal something about a corpse. Yet these moments rarely, if at all, feel significant; they mostly seem like minor excursions en route to the same outcome.

In general, the RPG nature of the game feels undernourished. The idea of these stats is, I assume, to let you know you're applying specific techniques of investigation; in some instances, it succeeds, most notably in the few occasions when Pierce is able to solve puzzles in multiple ways. But much of the time the differences between having leveled up your Strength stat instead of your Investigation stat feel ambiguous at best and trivial at worst.

It's ambiguous at best because you get the feeling that's what the game is aiming for in order to drive central narrative themes. When you make certain choices or perform certain actions the message, "This will affect your destiny," pops up in the top left corner in a manner similar to a Telltale adventure game. What's never clear, however, is how your destiny has been affected. There's no end of chapter screen that recaps the crucial choices you made and little sense, by the game's conclusion, of how those decisions lead to the choice Pierce has to confront in the very final scene. On my first playthrough I was faced with two possible endings, while on my second, after making a bunch of different choices throughout, I had unlocked a further two without any real understanding of how I'd been given the chance to alter Pierce's destiny.

Call of Cthulhu, and Lovecraft himself, revels in the inexplicable, the ineffable, the fallibility of human perception and its limited capacity to understand the world. Over the course of the game, Pierce finds himself grappling to make sense of what he's seen--or what he thinks he's seen. As his grip on reality, already tenuous to begin with, further loosens, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to reason out cause and effect. On a narrative level, this serves the story well, maintaining suspense and hitting you with well-timed twists. But on a more mechanical level, as you select each choice with a shrug of ignorance, it feels weirdly distancing and ultimately unsatisfying.

Much of Pierce's detective work is routine. You scour each location for hotspots with which to interact, pocketing clues and the odd useful object. Progress is typically a case of diligence--find enough hotspots and Pierce will work out what to do next. Sometimes, however, he's able to "reconstruct" past events that occurred at the present location, but while these tend to be interesting in terms of plot revelations they, again, only require you to find the relevant hotspots and click on them. There's a kind of grim pleasure to be had here, I suppose, a measure of compulsive enjoyment gleaned from tracking down every last hotspot that some players will find gratifying. It's rote work, though.

When Call of Cthulhu breaks out of its procedural setup, it reveals itself at its best and at its very worst. The high point sees Pierce trapped in a hospital you've previously visited--and thus, crucially, should be familiar with. He has to traverse a shadow version of the hospital, navigating its pitch black corridors using only the fading light of a lantern to unlock a route through the normal version. By drawing upon the knowledge you've accumulated previously, it works fantastically as a tense and unsettling puzzle.

In contrast, the low points arrive when you're forced into the game's handful of action sequences. In one, you're hiding from a monster that will kill you instantly if it gets too close. You eventually realize you have to find a particular item--one, it should be said, out of a dozen near-identical items scattered throughout the adjacent rooms--and use it in a particular spot. The only clue you're given is a comment Pierce makes when he picks up the correct item, noting that this one "seems different somehow." I'm not ashamed to admit that, in the heat of the moment, I failed to pick up on this dialogue change as I was a little bit distracted by the howling monster pursuing me across the room. During this trial-and-error cycle of death and reload I must have attempted this sequence 30-odd times before I eventually worked out what to do and was able to systematically try each item until I found the correct one.

In another, Pierce is equipped with a handgun for the only time in the game and has to make his way across an area populated with slow, shuffling enemies. On my first playthrough, I died while experimenting with what happens when you get caught and, when the game reloaded, found myself without a gun. The only way I could proceed was by running around the area, luring enemies into chasing me around until eventually, a gap opened between them that was wide enough for me to dart through. It turned what was probably meant to be a dramatic, seat-of-the-pants dash for safety into a comical farce. (On my second playthrough I simply shot everyone, thanks to my gun not disappearing, and it proved rather more mundane than dramatic, but at least it wasn't frustrating.)

Dwelling on these few low points may seem overly harsh--they account for no more than a small portion of the whole game, after all. But they are not merely poor moments in an otherwise solid game; they're awful pieces of game design utterly inconsistent with the rest of the game. Much of Call of Cthulhu is a perfectly competent adventure game built on firm, if uninspired, point-and-click traditions. And while it won't dazzle you with ambitious, creative puzzle-solving, its central story is as haunting and consuming as you want a good Lovecraft tale to be. But then, like some nightmare creature, an action sequence comes out of nowhere and ruins the experience.

Gwent Review - Heart Of The Cards

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 18:01

Editor's note: After two years in beta, Gwent is now a standalone game. It released alongside Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, a single-player game with Gwent mechanics. While the Gwent and Thronebreaker are connected, they are separate applications, and we have reviewed them separately. You can read or watch our full Thronebreaker review or read on for our full Gwent review.

In The Witcher 3, Gwent was an enjoyable but arduous side activity, only rewarding for those patient enough to scour the open world in search of more powerful playing cards. If you weren't inclined to do that, you'd miss out on much of what made Gwent a unique take on collectible card games. Gwent, now a free, standalone multiplayer game, gives you the room and resources to really enjoy it. Its rules are shaken up to provide an even playing field for veterans and newcomers alike, and it establishes a deeply rewarding loop that encourages you to stick with whichever of its various factions interest you most.

Gwent's fundamentals haven't changed much since The Witcher 3. You're still restricted to playing one card per turn, with the goal of attaining a higher power value than your opponent in each of three total rounds. Each card has an individual power value attached, and your total score will increase the more cards you commit to each round. If you feel as though you're outmatched or similarly far enough ahead in any one round, you can choose to pass and save your current hand for the next. Given that your ability to draw new cards is limited, having more cards in your hand gives you a tangible advantage. Gwent rewards calculated restraint, which makes knowing when to fold and when to go all in an important part of its strategy.

The big differences lie in the structure of the board. Previously Gwent featured three rows, one for each type of unit. That's been reduced to just two now--melee and ranged--and you're free to choose either for your units. Certain units will have abilities that you can only activate when spawned on a certain row, while other units that deal damage to enemies will have their range limited to one or two rows ahead of them. With fewer limitations on card placement, you're able to play Gwent with more fluidity. Experimentation with row-specific abilities and how they link up with cards already in play affects the board in significant ways during a single turn. These new rules keep rounds unpredictable at times and let the tide of the skirmish shift frequently. Having to decide between a big play or holding back for subsequent rounds makes for an engaging test of strategy, with no single approach being best in all scenarios.

The flexibility doesn't help the stagnant pace of matches, though, where each player turn feels far more drawn out than it should. Given the limited number of actions you can take a turn, it's frustrating to watch an opponent stall on playing a single card. Gwent could also benefit from more helpful visual feedback on card abilities and triggers, as I often found myself fumbling a play by placing a card into the wrong row simply because I missed a single word of text on the card itself. Boards should ideally give you more contextual information to work with when you select a card, so that you're not stuck reading each card repeatedly to make sure you're making the right play.

Cards are segmented into five different Factions, each of which requires a distinct strategy to play effectively. The noble Northern Realms specialize in cards with abilities like Deploy (which are triggered when you play a card) and Order (which you manually activate after meeting certain conditions). Monsters, conversely, enjoy strategies laden with Deathwishes that unleash often devastating chains of events when certain creatures die and head to the graveyard. You'll have a starting deck for each Faction when you initially begin Gwent which helps in familiarizing you with each of their differences. But it's also important to experiment with and figure out which Faction speaks to your style of play, and you'll have to decide where to invest your rewards from wins as you go.

Reward trees sprawl out on parchment maps, with one for each Faction and sub-trees for each of their respective Captain characters. Nodes on these maps can be unlocked with Reward Points, which you'll earn frequently by completing challenges in-game. These can be as easy as playing a certain number of cards during a match, or as complicated as eliminating a large number of enemy cards in a single turn. Unlocking nodes rewards you in multiple ways, including small gifts of in-game currencies and big bundles of card packs called Kegs. Each map rewards you with respect to the Faction it belongs to, incentivizing you to spend points on the Factions you play most. It emphasizes the need to experiment with different factions and settle on your favorites beforehand, as the influx of Reward Points slows down after clearing many of the easier challenges.

In-game currencies are plentiful in Gwent, and each serves familiar purposes. There's one that acts as the standard fare for purchasing new card packs, another that helps in the crafting of new cards, and a third that can be used to spruce up existing cards into shinier, animated versions of themselves. Gwent rewards you well for match wins (and additionally for matches where your opponent congratulates you, which is a nice touch) which makes progression towards your next card pack feel balanced. Combined with currency rewards you'll get from reward trees, I found it easy to amass a large amount of each resource in a handful of hours. Gwent is generous with how it rewards the time you invest in it, giving you the means to build up a formidable collection of cards before tempting you to spend real money on it.

Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge.

That's not to say that time will eventually come, unless you're planning to keep up with the shifting metagame that CCGs generally employ to keep things fresh. Gwent's in-game store gives you many options for purchasing bundles of resources and some alluring starter packs that reward you with a generous number of Kegs to open.

Gwent clearly learns from other digital collectible card games that have carved their niche out of the market, but its play style offers up an entirely different type of challenge. It's one that requires some investment, and hard decisions on which Faction you'd like to invest in, but Gwent also respects your time by rewarding you for nearly every action in a match, tempting you to play just one more. Its matches could use some fine-tuning in their pacing and presentation, but Gwent is otherwise a refreshingly new take on card games that establishes itself firmly outside of the simple side activity it was in The Witcher 3.

Black Bird Review - Featherweight

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 23:47

Black Bird pits you--a young girl turned into a demonic bird--against overwhelmed cities in a frenetic side-scrolling shoot-em-up. Humorous sensibilities and gleeful chaos capture the frantic fun typical for the genre, but the charms are short-lived. With a mere four levels (and an unlockable remix mode), your bombing fantasies wrap up after just 20 minutes, leaving you plenty of time to ponder what ruffled that mean bird's feathers.

The cities you conquer are teeming with the lives of the ordinary people who live there. A mustachioed man on the sidewalk turns the crank of a pipe organ while his neighbors chatter happily away on a nearby balcony. It's only when you spew forth a stream of deadly bullets that the danger bells toll. The militia attempts to thwart your attacks with slow-moving arrows from precarious sniper spots or whatever vehicle they can leap into. The hot air balloons of early stages give way to jetpacks and missiles as you get deeper into your killing spree, flooding the screen with bright red projectiles that mean your death if you stray too close. The tried-and-true action is enlivened by the personality of the characters and the dramatic music, but once the sheen wears off, it's clear there isn't much depth to the action.

Aside from upsetting ordinary life in spectacular ways, the goal of each stage is to blow up the guard towers dotted across the city. These bases take more shots to destroy than the average enemy, and while you're unloading your arsenal into these hotspots, the local army is gathering its force to ensure your victory is not easy. Dodging their attacks isn't that difficult because Black Bird goes easy on the projectiles compared to a teeth-grinding, bullet-hell shooter, but there's enough danger to keep your hands sweaty and your attention engaged as you swerve recklessly through the air.

There isn't much in the way of strategy, though. Your gun automatically becomes more deadly as you progress--adding bigger bullets and shots that move diagonally--but there's no way to decide the upgrades yourself. And the vortex bomb power-up that deals massive damage in a pinch is too limited to fill that tactical void. The best shoot-'em-ups allow for deeper tactics, often by giving you control over weapon upgrades, which lets you inject your own personality into the killer proceedings. Without more options here, the only real strategy is to shoot the attackers while avoiding getting hit yourself, and that's not much to sustain your fun long term. With every run feeling very much like the last, a crushing sense of deja vu soon becomes your biggest enemy.

Stages circle in on themselves so you can fly over one well-protected tower, keep moving in the same direction, and then reach your mark again with fewer defenders in sight. This retreat-then-attack strategy works well because enemies materialize whenever you stay in one spot for too long, but you never feel as if you're wasting time by flying away from your target. The cities are jam-packed with bonuses and secrets to boost your score and extend your life. Blowing up neon signs or spinning windmills are neat diversions that build on the goofy presentation that is so prevalent throughout the adventure.

Even the enemies themselves are funny rather than threatening. The second boss is a chicken head perched upon a tank that spews projectiles, for instance. Filling its beak with bullets while avoiding the bouncing balls it spits out is much more charming than gunning down an ordinary fighter jet or attack helicopter. All the enemies have this off-kilter personality that keeps the game feeling light and carefree even amidst the most hectic moments.

After shooting down the boss on the fourth stage, you open up a true mode that bumps up the difficulty and adds new enemies. Bosses aren't too difficult the first time around, but once they're equipped with more attacks and a bit more speed, they go from being pushovers to genuine roadblocks. Although Black Bird never reaches the agonizing difficulty of other shoot-'em-ups, true mode offers a good challenge for those who want to be smacked down a few pegs.

Ultimately, though, the game isn't interesting for long. At first, I was frustrated that dying meant restarting from the beginning. But after seeing just how quickly I could reach the end once I knew the enemies' patterns, I could understand why death is so punitive. There just isn't a great reason to keep playing once you've seen everything. Sure, there are high scores to chase and alternate endings to unlock, but the stages don't allow for the diverse tactics that would make striving for a better ranking so exciting. After you've blown up those neon billboards once, the thrill wears off, and you're just going through stages by rote without having to put much thought into what you're doing.

It's a shame Black Bird is so shallow, because the core action is so appealing. The lighthearted atmosphere and sharp controls make it a joy to wreak havoc on the unprepared people and the difficulty hits a nice sweet spot where it provides a good challenge without ever being frustrating. I would have gladly spent more time in this sepia-toned world if there were more stages and more strategy, but with such meager offerings, I'd fly right by Black Bird.

Diablo 3: Eternal Collection Review - Better With Age

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 16:00

More than anything, Diablo 3: Eternal Collection proves just how well Blizzard's action-RPG has aged. Six years after its original release, the dungeon crawler remains as rewarding as ever, and despite a few technical concessions, it has found yet another welcoming home on Nintendo's portable console.

For those unfamiliar with Blizzard's 2012 loot fest, Diablo 3 places you in the shoes of a superpowered demon-slayer in a hellish, gothic world. You explore five disparate regions from a top-down view, upgrading your character and earning new loot as you battle the lords of the underworld and their monstrous swarms.

With the Eternal Collection, Diablo 3 includes every expansion, every character, every quality-of-life improvement the RPG has ever added. One of the more notable options is the ability to play Adventure Mode right from the start, eliminating the need to slog through the slower-paced story out of necessity.

Of course, in coming to Nintendo Switch, Diablo 3 has also become a portable game. And it works. It works incredibly well.

In fact, I can think of few games better suited for a handheld port. So much of Diablo 3 plays best in short bursts, from the 10-minute chase for that next legendary item, to the satisfying flow of a challenge rift. I completed bounties on my way to work and organized my inventory on the way back. Of the 50 hours I spent with Diablo 3 on Switch, about half of them played out in handheld mode. It's another testament to the novelty of Nintendo's console, yes, but also the elegance of Diablo 3's design.

Movement still feels natural on the analog sticks--whether you're playing with the Joy-Cons or Pro controller--and custom controls make it easy to maximize your character build at any time. As was the case with Diablo 3's previous jump to PS4 and Xbox One, the mechanical leap to Switch is painless and fluid. It's just as easy to rely on muscle memory while you focus on the kaleidoscopic display of magic and fire. To paraphrase the designer Don Norman: good design is invisible.

When it comes to visual fidelity, Blizzard ensured that Diablo 3 on Switch runs at 60 frames across the board--aside from rare occasions when elemental effects didn't animate, the Eternal Collection is remarkably clean. Even during high-level challenge rifts, with hundreds of demons covering the screen, the dungeon crawler maintained a smooth and steady pace. The framerate is equally stable in handheld mode, and crunching those mobs is just as satisfying as it's ever been.

The Eternal Collection's resolution, on the other hand, is a bit more muddled. In the Switch's docked mode, Diablo 3 looks aggressively fine, or at least, as good as any other isometric game released in 2012. In handheld mode's 720p resolution, however, things get cloudier. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. In Diablo 3's darker areas--of which there are many--I have to crank my console's brightness all the way in order to really see what is going on. Even then, there's a slight haze over everything, making character models look more like mirages than actual figures. Handheld mode's jagged edges and foggy panoramas aren't massive flaws by any means, but after playing for long periods in docked mode, they tend to stand out.

What they don't do, however, is detract from Diablo's thrilling combat. And of course, in true series tradition, that combat is often more thrilling with a friend or two.

Few cooperative experiences compare to a Monk, Demon Hunter, Barbarian, and Wizard working in concert to whittle down mobs down little by little, one demon at a time. It's a special thrill to see my character build factor into a larger group, and an even better one to see how that group dynamic changes how I play. I'm still mainly focused on killing every enemy possible, but I'm also thinking about tanking with my Crusader, or healing with my Monk, or littering the screen with corpses to give my Necromancer ally more ammunition.

As with previous console iterations of Diablo 3, The Eternal Collection allows for up to four players on one console at a time. Item management is less satisfying in this scenario, as you're either quick-equipping new loot without appreciating its subtleties, or pausing the game for the entire party just so you can boost your damage by 100 points. The radial menus are also still as imprecise as ever, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a better solution without a mouse and keyboard.

I came into the Eternal Edition expecting a eulogy for one of my favorite games. Instead, I stumbled upon a celebration.

And although Diablo 3 on Switch gives you the option to use Joy-Cons as individual controllers, be warned: It's counterintuitive and cumbersome, with poor button-mapping and an overreliance on motion controls. Blizzard did the best it could with what the Joy-Con offers, but when in doubt, stick to the Pro controller or the dual Joy-Con rig.

The Eternal Collection brings the additional ease of playing via LAN connection on each player's respective Switch. It's helpful to have the camera focused solely on your character, especially in Diablo 3's more hectic moments. But I still couldn't help preferring local co-op. There's something novel--even nostalgic--about playing on the same screen, watching the same chaos unfold as the person next to you. Diablo 3 on Switch allows for several methods of playing with friends, and whatever your preference, the experience still holds up.

Like the best games, Diablo 3 has gotten better with time. And despite a few setbacks, the Switch is now my preferred home for the extraordinary RPG. It includes every major improvement Blizzard made to the formula, with the added handheld versatility every Switch port offers.

Diablo 3 is a game about long term goals accomplished in short, thrilling bursts. It's rewarding and subtle. It's flashy and boisterous. I have spent six years enjoying it, and will likely spend six years more. As far as video games go, that's a long time--I came into the Eternal Collection expecting a eulogy for one of my favorite games. Instead, I stumbled upon a celebration.

Transistor Review

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 16:00

Editor's note: Transistor remains an absolute joy to play on Nintendo Switch. The system's screen has no issues with readability, though the game is best enjoyed in docked mode, where its visuals--which remain striking nearly five years after its original release--have room to flourish on a big screen. Its turn-based combat and relatively brief encounters are well-suited to short bursts of gameplay in handheld mode, though the strong writing and pacing are likely to pull you through extended sessions. The loss of the PS4 version's DualShock gimmicks, such as your sword's voice coming through the controller's speaker, are missed, but this port nonetheless represents a fine way to play what is still a gorgeous, terrific game. -- Chris Pereira, October 30, 2018

A dead man. A weapon. A dress, torn and discarded on the ground. A voice says, "What a night. You're still in one piece; that's all that matters."

Transistor begins with remarkable confidence, throwing you right into the life of nightclub singer Red at what might be her lowest point. There's no immediate explanation for who she is, or what this world is, or what happened the night before, and all this mystery only makes your journey more captivating. Transistor asks you to trust in it, to come along on the journey even though you have no idea where you're going. And it rewards your trust, weaving a beautiful and unconventional sci-fi tale with a human heart, and empowering you with a wonderfully flexible combat system that fuses real-time and turn-based action to create something that feels unique.

As you move through Cloudbank, the world of Transistor, you encounter manifestations of the process, a force that's seemingly running rampant, annihilating Cloudbank as it goes. With the help of the transistor--the strange weapon you pull from a dead man's body when the game begins, a weapon Red drags along behind her as if it's a sword that's too heavy for her to wield properly--you fight the process. You can run around fighting your enemies in real time, but you're outnumbered, and you're just not quick enough or strong enough to overcome them this way. Thankfully, you have a trick up your sleeve called turn, which enables you to freeze time, plot out your upcoming movements and attacks, and then carry them out in rapid succession.

As you progress, you collect more and more techniques, called functions, each one the essence of a fallen resident of Cloudbank. There are 16 functions in all, including straightforward attacks, movement abilities, a function that spawns a doglike helper, a function that temporarily turns enemies into allies, and others. Each one can be slotted as an active ability, or to upgrade another function, or to give you a passive benefit. There are a remarkable variety of ways in which these techniques can be combined, and hitting on particularly effective combinations and putting them to use in battle is immensely satisfying.

Transistor's combat makes you feel powerful by giving you an edge on the process, but it also encourages you to think carefully about what you're doing, because the process is no pushover. It has tricks of its own, sometimes obscuring your vision, sometimes pulling you out of your turning phase without warning. It's a clever foe, which makes matching wits with it all the more enjoyable. And, much like the idols of Supergiant Games' earlier game Bastion, Transistor has limiters, optional modifiers that make your life more difficult but reward you with more experience, so if you want a more challenging experience, you can have it.

You can upgrade any function with any other function, making your skill set extremely customizable.

But what is the process, really? And what has happened to all the residents of Cloudbank? Red is driven to get to the bottom of it, and she's not alone. From inside the transistor speaks a man's voice, bringing life to your quest as it responds to your actions and slowly helps you piece together the story of Cloudbank. The always-present voice also puts a relationship at the heart of Transistor. Red can't speak--the events of the night before have stripped her of her voice--but her wordless actions reveal her fierce determination, and as the voice speaks from the transistor, and Red finds ways of responding to it, a connection between the two becomes clear.

Also shedding light on the world and its people are the files accompanying each function. To reveal more about these people whose essence has been trapped in the transistor, you have to use their functions in different ways, putting them in active slots, upgrade slots, and passive slots, which gives you an incentive to tweak your build and try different techniques. The files are so well written and paint such vivid pictures of Cloudbank's fallen residents that you naturally want to uncover all the details they contain.

There's a touch of magic, even of spirituality, to Transistor's story, a sense that there are things within the world of Cloudbank that transcend our understanding of what's possible.

What slowly emerges in Transistor is the story of a clandestine organization called the Camerata, working behind the scenes in Cloudbank for its own purposes. And while the answers to the plot's questions about who the Camerata are and what the transistor does are interesting, they're not what makes Transistor's story special. Cloudbank is a technological world, but not a cold one. It's not a place of pure ones and zeroes. There's a touch of magic, even of spirituality, to Transistor's story, a sense that there are things within the world of Cloudbank that transcend our understanding of what's possible.

Red has a good set of pipes. Or she did, before last night.

And Transistor's artful presentation has some magic of its own. There are a few astounding moments in Transistor, like the moment when you step up to a microphone and press a button to sing, and Red's haunting voice comes in and carries you back to what had happened the night before, the visuals communicating in shorthand what words would take too much time to say. Or the moment when Red, silhouetted against the city, speeds across Cloudbank on a motorcycle, hunting the people who are responsible for everything that has happened.

Transistor is always a good-looking game, but in these instances, it demonstrates a rare knack for combining its visuals and music to powerfully convey both narrative information and tone, driving the story forward with Red's own unwavering resolve. So in the end, yes, Transistor is a fun action role-playing game with a neat combat system, but beautiful moments like these make it more than that. They make it a game with a soul.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review - Wild Wild West

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 16:26

Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 release has finally come. The new open-world game is out now on PS4 and Xbox One, though there remains no word on a PC version. New evidence in the game's official companion app suggests a PC release could be in the works, but that remains unconfirmed. If you pick up the game on console, you should first download the day-one update. It isn't required to play, but Rockstar recommends you install it first, as it includes "a number of last minute tweaks, bugs, and fixes." And if you're looking for some help, we've assembled a wide range of guides and tips to help you make the most of the experience, and more cheat codes continued to be discovered. Read on for our full Red Dead 2 review.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about consequences where you have only the illusion of choice. Yes, there are some decisions to be made, and those decisions will shape your character and the world around you. But some of the most disastrous choices were made for you before the game even begins, leaving you to deal with the fallout. And because it's a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, you also (probably) know how the story ends. All that's left is discovering what happens in between and making the most of it. To that end, you fight against the repetitive nature of missions, frequent moral dilemmas, and the inconvenience of doing what's right. For the most part, the frustration that tension can cause is also what makes the story impactful, and when it all comes together, your effort is not wasted.

At the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2, the Van der Linde gang is already on the decline we know from the previous game is coming. After a heist gone wrong in Blackwater, they're on the run, down a few members, and on the verge of capture, starvation, and succumbing to a snowstorm. There are familiar faces--Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston chief among them--as well as new ones. As senior member Arthur Morgan, you're in the privileged position of being Dutch Van der Linde's right hand, privy to his machinations and included in the most important outings. Once the gang escapes the storm and settles into a temporary campsite, you're also put in charge of the camp's finances, meaning you pick out all the upgrades and supplies. If Dutch is the center of the gang, Arthur is adjacent to all its vital parts at once, and that gives you a lot of power.

With that power, you're encouraged to do as you see fit and at your own pace. A lengthy series of story missions early on introduces you to some of the ways you can spend your time, including hunting, fishing, horse-rearing, and robbery. There are a lot of systems, and covering the basics takes several hours. While they're not so cleverly disguised as to not feel like tutorials, the actual learning is paced well in its integration with the story, and the missions also acquaint you with the characters and the surrounding area. For example, the fishing "tutorial" has you taking young Jack Marston out for the day, since John is not exactly great at fatherhood. Jack is pure and sweet--and incredibly vulnerable to all the gang's wrongdoings--and the mission is memorable for it.

In addition to the mechanics of various activities, you're also presented with a few elements of semi-realism you need to contend with. Mainly, you need to eat to refill your health, stamina, and Dead Eye ability "cores," which deplete over time. Eating too much or too little results in weight changes and stat debuffs. Eating itself isn't a problem, and neither is maintaining cores in general, but eating enough to maintain an average weight is intrusive; despite experimenting with what and how often I ate, I couldn't get Arthur out of the underweight range, and eating any more frequently would be too time-consuming to justify. You don't have to sleep (though you can to pass time and refill your cores), and surviving hot or cold temperatures comes down to choosing the right outfit from your item wheel, so managing your weight sticks out as superfluous rather than conducive to immersion.

Limited fast travel options are the better-implemented side of Red Dead 2's realism, perhaps counterintuitively. There's next to no fast travel at the beginning and few methods in general, so you have to rely on your horse to get around. It can be slow, but there's no shortage of things to do and see along the way. Chance encounters are plentiful and frequently interesting; you might find a stranger in need of a ride to town or a snake bite victim who needs someone to suck the venom out of their wound. You can stumble upon a grotesque murder scene that sets you entirely off-track, or you can ignore someone in danger and just keep riding. And just as you can decide to rob or kill most anyone, you'll also run into people who will do the same to you. Even the longest rides aren't wasted time, and it's hard not to feel like you're missing something if you do opt for fast travel.

Red Dead Redemption 2's version of America is vast and wide open, stretching from snowy mountains and the Great Plains down to the original game's New Austin in the southwest. Further to the east is the Louisiana-inspired Deep South, which is still feeling the effects of the Civil War after nearly 40 years. There's a distinct shift when traveling from region to region; as grassy hillsides become alligator-filled swamps, Union veterans give way to angry Confederate holdouts, and good intentions and casual racism turn into desperation and outright bigotry. The variety makes the world feel rich, and it both reacts to you and changes independently of your involvement; new buildings will go up as time goes on, and some of the people you talk to will remember you long after you first interacted with them (for better or worse).

Incidental moments as you explore make up a large part of the morality system, in which you gain and lose honor based on your actions. "Good" morals are relative--you're a gang member, after all--but generally, it's more honorable to punch up rather than down. Helping an underdog, even if they're an escaped convict and even if you need to kill some cops or robbers to do it, can net you good guy points. In these situations, it's easier to be noble than a true outlaw. Committing a dishonorable crime is hard to do undetected, even in remote locations, and usually requires you to track down and threaten a witness, run and hide from the law, or pay a bounty down the line. While you'll earn money more quickly doing "bad" things, high honor gets you a pretty discount at shops, and you'll make good money either way through story missions.

In many ways, you're nudged toward playing a "good" Arthur. The gang members he's closest to from the beginning are the more righteous, principled ones who are motivated by loyalty and a desire to help others, while he insults, argues with, and generally reacts negatively to those who are hot-headed and vicious. The most rotten of them is Micah, who's so easy to hate that it's hard not to follow Arthur's lead and take the higher road. Unlocking camp upgrades like one-way fast travel and better supplies also essentially forces you into being honorable; although everyone donates, you have to invest hundreds of dollars yourself if you want to afford anything, and that automatically gets you a ton of honor points whether you like it or not.

One of the best, most understated details in the game is Arthur's journal, in which he recaps big events as well as random people you've met and more mundane, everyday things. He sketches places you go, doodles the plants and animals you find, and writes out thoughts he barely speaks out loud. The journal changes with your level of honor, but at least for a relatively honorable Arthur, the pages are filled with concerns and existential crises--inner turmoil over being either good or evil, for instance--that make you want to see him become a better person.

Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how.

It's a lot harder to feel like a good guy when doing the main story missions, though. Arthur, along with nearly everyone else, is loyal to the gang first and foremost. This means following Dutch into trouble, busting friends out of jail, and committing a number of robberies in the interest of getting money for the gang. Even if you're trying your hardest to be good, you'll inevitably slaughter entire towns in mandatory story missions--stealth and non-lethal takedowns aren't always an option, and the snappy auto-lock aim makes shootouts a far easier option anyway. The dissonance is frustrating to play through in the moment, but it's incredibly important to Arthur's arc as well as your understanding of the gang as a whole. To say any more would venture into spoiler territory.

That extends to the structure of story missions, which start to get predictable around halfway through the game. It's not that they're boring--the opposite is true, actually, and you see a lot of action from beat to beat. But after a while, a pattern emerges, and it's easy to figure out how any given heist or raid is going to unfold. This too becomes frustrating, partially because you often have no way of significantly affecting the outcome despite any decision-making power you thought you might have had. But your weariness is also Arthur's, and that's crucial. The mid-game drags in service of the narrative, which only becomes apparent much later. There's also enough variety between missions and free-roam exploration to prevent it from dragging to the point of being a chore to play.

Like any good prequel, there's an incredible amount of tension in knowing what happens without knowing exactly how. If you played Red Dead Redemption, you know who survives and as a result who probably won't make it to the end of the game. Even during the slower parts, you're waiting for betrayals and injuries and other events you've only vaguely heard mention of before. You're waiting for characters to reveal their true selves, and watching as everything unravels is riveting and heartbreaking if you know what's to come.

You can still enjoy the story in its own right without that background knowledge, though. Some of Red Dead Redemption 2's best moments have almost no relation to its predecessor. One mission takes you to a women's suffrage rally, and a painful side mission has you facing a woman whose husband you killed and life you ruined. The new characters are among the best, too; Sadie Adler is a personal favorite for reasons I won't spoil. Another, a young black man in the gang named Lenny, mentions how the Southerners treat him a little differently; Arthur says that he hasn't noticed anything weird, to which Lenny replies, "All respect, Mr. Morgan, you wouldn't notice."

Generally, Red Dead 2 tackles pertinent issues of the era with care. Rather than defining any of its characters by the bigotry they may experience, it allows them the room to be well-rounded individuals while still not ignoring that things like racism and sexism exist. One arc focuses squarely on a very serious issue, and here, the lack of real choice in the story's direction--and your resulting involvement in what transpires--will likely make you uncomfortable in a powerful way.

While Red Dead Redemption was mostly focused on John Marston's story, Red Dead 2 is about the entire Van der Linde gang--as a community, as an idea, and as the death rattle of the Wild West. It is about Arthur, too, but as the lens through which you view the gang, his very personal, very messy story supports a larger tale. Some frustrating systems and a predictable mission structure end up serving that story well, though it does take patience to get through them and understand why. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an excellent prequel, but it's also an emotional, thought-provoking story in its own right, and it's a world that is hard to leave when it's done.

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