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Master of Orion Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/27/2016 - 20:42

Master of Orion is a game with grand scope and massive scale, and more often than not, both work to its advantage. You explore outer space, colonize planets, and swing other leaders on a clandestine dance floor of galactic diplomacy, all with an overarching plan in mind. The problem is, Master of Orion doesn't always make that process fun. It vacillates between moments of exhilaration and periods of boredom.

Commonly referred to as a 4X title (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate), Master of Orion is a reboot of an earlier series of the same name. The first Master of Orion draws easy comparisons to Civilization, another franchise in which you guide a nation from its nascent years to its swan song through various victory conditions. But over time both franchises have drifted apart, introducing their own twists on the empire-building formula throughout the years.

One of the few notable changes in this new Master of Orion is an optional real-time combat system that allows for a more hands-on approach to inter-fleet skirmishes. You can divert individual ships and focus fire on specific enemies, using the agility of your frigates and the firepower of your battleships to pick apart enemy clusters.

This combat system works well on several levels. Primarily, it adds unpredictability to combat that's otherwise based on mathematics and predetermined outcomes. If your small collection of frigates faces off against a hardened group of cruisers, odds are, the "auto-resolve" option will lead to defeat. But if you take the time to direct your fleet on a micro level with daring maneuvers, you have the potential to upend the odds in your favor.

The Sakkra Brood are defensive and reticent in the galactic diplomatic scene.

Secondly, this form of combat narrows Master of Orion's focus from what's otherwise a sweeping look at the history of several civilizations. It drops you from the admiral's chair to the cockpit of a fighter vessel. Not only does it change up each playthrough's pacing, but sets the stage for a fine balance between micro and macro managing your people's development.

This bouncing between big picture problems and minute concerns is where Master of Orion shines brightest. You plot the course of an entire civilization, establish your presence in numerous solar systems, and bring about the end of entire alien races--but you also upgrade your frigates' laser cannons. You bribe the Alkari leader with a few billion credits. You build mining outposts on forgotten moons in the outer reaches of the galaxy. There's a vast difference between the bird's eye view of a political leader and the tactical considerations of a hangar bay engineer. But Master of Orion uses that contrast to its advantage. It links strategy and tactics with seamless ease.

This dynamism between the large and small scale can also change up Master of Orion's pacing, which often becomes rote in the mid-game turns of playthroughs. This problem has plagued the best of 4X strategy games, and unfortunately, this reboot doesn't find any way around it.

Unless you're at the outset of your budding civilization, engaged in combat, or guiding your people in the last few years before that exhilarating grab at military, technological, economic, or diplomatic victory, turns become mundane. Colonies often lack individualism, utilizing the same structures and constructing the same military units as the planets in their neighboring systems. Aside from the occasional thrilling space battle, playthroughs are seldom all that different from the ones preceding them.

Master of Orion's chief allure--the promise of exploring uncharted solar systems--is only novel for a few hours.

Furthermore, the game's chief allure--the promise of exploring uncharted solar systems--is only novel for a few hours. It soon becomes clear that, aside from a handful of different biomes, planet sizes, and mineral types, there's not enough variety between planets to encourage exploration for its own sake. Maps also lack many surprising discoveries in the space between systems--you'll come across ancient artifacts, stray clouds of debris, and rogue pirate bases, but again, after a few hours, you'll likely see it all. Exploring can reveal bright spots on the sci-fi game's sprawling star map, but also a lot of empty space.

What Master of Orion lacks in variety, though, it makes up for in fine-tuned design. The galactic map, composed of multitudinous star systems and the quantum warp paths connecting them, leads to interesting strategic quandaries for your scouts and battle fleets. Defending individual star systems means guarding warp points and building defensive emplacements around your key settlements. Managing the interlocking web of colonies and the established lines of travel between them is key to preserving your people, or destroying someone else's. This is supported by the combat system, which pierces through the ennui of Master of Orion's exploration.

There's another web at play here: the diplomacy system is a minefield of bad tempers, interlocking alliances, and cultural pet peeves. The leader of the Sakka Brood, a reptilian race, doesn't value scientific advancement, and because of this, won't trade credits for your advanced technological knowledge. The Skylord of the Alkari Flock is aggressive by nature, and will declare war if you demonstrate too much good will toward the civilization's enemies. Master of Orion's diplomacy system isn't a separate entity from the rest of the game, but the foundation of many other mechanics. It excels in making you consider your diplomatic choices. It lends weight to hefty decisions elsewhere in your unfolding nation.

The star map necessitates strategic thinking as you close off warp points and defend key solar systems.

The presentation of these various alien races, and the emotions motivating them, drives home a personal touch in a game that otherwise focuses on sociological management and technological progress. The voice acting grounds the alien leaders and makes them feel like real characters. After several full playthroughs, I know to never trust the silver tongued Darlok. I know to be on the defensive around the Terran. I know the Bulrathi are valuable allies in a tight spot. Master of Orion succeeds in depicting intergalactic events in a smaller, more intimate context, and it lends compelling reasons to steer your civilization one way or another.

And that's the thing about Master of Orion: there are plenty of weighty decisions, risky maneuvers, and impactful events to consider. But they often take place in repetitive playthroughs in galaxies that don't always differentiate themselves from the next. Master of Orion shows signs of brilliance, but it's bogged down by boredom, and sometimes, the allure of the stars wanes too much to beckon us onward.

Categories: Games

Alone With You Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 22:08

Your enjoyment of Alone With You depends largely on how much you value narration. As a homage to classic 80s-style Sierra adventure games, this is first and foremost a piece of interactive storytelling. It bears thematic similarities to a lot of other science fiction stories, but the personal nature of the story gives Alone With You a somber yet relatable presence .

The basic premise of Alone With You is this: the lone survivor of a disastrous terraforming operation is trying to repair an escape pod before the planet in question explodes. This survivor, who wears their space suit through the whole game, is never really identified. You give them a name at the start, but never see any of their defining characteristics. This enables you to easily project your own identity preferences on the character. It’s a clever move in a game largely about conversation and developing deep relationships with others.

Alone With You is billed as a “sci-fi romance adventure,” which sums it up nicely. At the start, your only companion is an AI that's desperate to find a means of escape before it’s too late. A rift has formed within the structure of the planet, possibly caused (or at least exacerbated by) the mining and terraforming operations. Acid rain and earthquakes pummel the landscape amidst huge storms, causing immense damage to the various facilities on the surface.

Since time is short and you’re just one human with indeterminate skillsets, the AI does something rather radical to get the expertise necessary to repair the one remaining space ship: it creates four holographic AI representations of technicians from the former colony. These four represent the skills needed to repair the fuel, engines, food, and communications systems. More than that, however, they also provide your only link--however artificial--with humanity.

These four technicians might be simulations, but they’re seemingly conscious and human in their behavior. Since they were generated based on monitoring records, their memories only extend to the moment right before the rift occurred, stifling all outside communications. With believable emotions, your holographic comrades suffer from self-doubt regarding the nature of their being.

Alone With You isn’t a personality simulation or AI experiment, though. It’s a fairly linear interactive novella. The game moves in days, and each day you can visit one location. Each location is associated with one of the four holographic crew members. Conversations are often one-sided, as you listen to characters talk about their work, their lives, and their relationships. At certain times, you’ll be prompted to select one of few responses, which convey positivity, negativity, or ambivalence.

The rest of the game revolves around exploration, item hunts, and puzzles. Each location contains logs, journals, and even stories to discover that add depth to the characters and your dire situation. You’ll have to find specific items necessary to repair the ship, ranging from crystalline fuel and ship parts to viable sources of food. It's a simple task unfortunately made time-consuming due to how difficult it can be to spot key items in environments filled with potential objects of interest.

The characters, including the base’s AI, are all fully realized individuals that lend surprising emotions to the simple interactive experience.

In a particularly old school nod, I found myself having to pay far more attention to all those notes and logs to solve puzzles. None of the puzzles in the game are overly challenging, but there’s no quest log and you never find a handy list of texts. As a result,I frequently had to take notes to remember clues, names, and numbers needed to figure out passwords and door codes.

Of the artificial men and women you interact with, you can bond with whomever you wish, leading to once-a-week private rendezvous with subtle romantic undertones. These dialogue sequences add depth to the characters and overall story, and do a great job of it. The holograms’ main goal is getting you off the planet alive, and while their self-confidence wavers, they never veer from that objective. Alone With You is remarkably well-written, even when it delves into dangerously melodramatic waters. The characters, including the base’s AI, are all fully realized individuals that lend surprising emotions to the simple interactive experience.

Remember: all tubes lead somewhere important.

There are a couple other distinct aspects to Alone With You. The retro, heavily pixelated artwork is strangely atmospheric despite the lack of fine detail. There’s a lot of grim imagery and the overall tragic tone feels a bit more bearable without graphic depictions of death and destruction.

This is a game that warrants repeated playthroughs to see both endings and experience other relationship choices. Alone With You bears some heavy thematic overlap with recent games like SOMA, Everyone’s Gone to Rapture, and other story-centric releases that focus on the nature of what makes you human, the importance of relationships and contact, and mortality. It’s different enough to feel new despite its retro roots, delivering impactful scenes that shine thanks to a stellar script that brings its few, but emotionally charged, characters to life.

Categories: Games

Attack on Titan Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 14:00

The gruesome, sometimes disturbing anime and manga series Attack on Titan has gained worldwide popularity since the comic's launch in 2009. There have been only a handful of video game adaptations, with varying success--the last one, Spike Chunsoft's Humanity in Chains which released in 2014, was an action game with an uninspired layout, a half-baked rehash of the main storyline with simple, dull gameplay. Koei Tecmo's take, on the other hand, does a bit more with the Attack on Titan property; it grafts the series' elements onto the musou genre, in which core gameplay is a series of isolated maps that must be cleared of enemies. But although Attack on Titan painfully lacks combat variety and includes a host of technical disappointments, its use of Attack on Titan's strange world makes it a unique, and sometimes genuinely exhilarating, experience.

Attack on Titan recounts the events of the anime and then some--the story slips past the show's season one finale, telling tales from the ongoing manga series and foreshadowing the show's upcoming second season. Each chapter is broken up into a handful of missions that set you down on a map with specific objectives. These range from simply hacking titans to bits, protecting a specific structure on the map, or escorting soldiers from point A to point B. This is as complicated as things get. The latter half of the game, which includes narrative content past the show's first season, is unfortunately padded out; to add some length to the campaign, you are forced to complete dozens of small, formerly-optional side missions before you can advance the story. These are just as monotonous as the main missions, and after a while the campaign begins to feel like a parade of chores.

You spend most of the game slinging through towns and forests like Spider-Man using Omni-Directional Mobility Gear, special machinery used to move through the air and scale heights quickly in order to attack titans. Attacking titans requires you lock onto one of the giant's limbs and use your ODM Gear to gain speed as you fly towards it--the faster you're moving, the greater the damage you'll do, and hopefully slice off its meaty leg or arm with one stroke. If you can get a titan down on the ground, or you've propelled yourself high enough, you can kill the monster for good by aiming for the nape of its neck. It takes some getting used to, and there is some nuance in learning when to deploy your anchors and when to use gas canisters to propel yourself forward or up.

Oh, you know. Same old stuff, different day.

I had a good time with Attack on Titan's traversal system. It feels so good to sling between buildings, nailing titans in the nape of their neck for the one-shot kill as you fly from objective to objective. I felt powerful and free, like I was actually living in the Attack on Titan universe. The ODM gear is such a hallmark of the show, and having it done justice in the form of a gameplay mechanic was thrilling to experience.

There are some other things you can do when fighting titans, like drop fire or smoke bombs, but you'll spend almost all of your time in battle targeting and slinging towards titan limbs. There is a severe lack of variety in mission structure as well, and if you've played a musou game the drill will be familiar: defend certain points on a map, escort AI allies to other points on the map, and kill as many enemies as you can before they overwhelm your own forces. Once you've completed all of a map's required objectives, one final "boss" titan will appear for you to take down. This boss titan doesn't feel any different from the smaller monstrosities you encounter and it's an easy kill. Even the different types of titans--big, small, beastly, and armored--can all be taken down in the same way with little strategy. Even on harder difficulty levels, Attack on Titan presents rather simple challenges, making for rote gameplay through the latter half of the campaign.

Slinging across cities is actually really fun.

This mission layout is the same for the multiplayer Expedition Mode, where you can team up with three other players to take on optional challenge missions. But there is no incentive to team up and take down a titan; you can simply zip to opposite sides of the map and route the enemy more quickly, with little fanfare or reward should you decide to work cooperatively. Multiplayer mode is just as cut and dry as single player mode, except now you have two other non-AI characters running around the battlefield.

Cutscenes are heavily pared down and aren't as dramatic as the show, but the visuals themselves are impressive, like cells taken straight from the anime. This includes the horrifying titans, which look like someone took the heads of full-grown men and attacked them to oversized chubby baby bodies or alternatingly emaciated and bloated corpses with long, flailing limbs. And even more disturbingly, their sexless bodies are entirely naked; more than once I found myself hurtling towards the ground with a giant butt directly in front of my face, or trapped beneath the quivering belly of a downed titan. Most of the time the framerate held up, but when the screen started to fill up with titans, things became muddy. The action slowed down and the lag prevented me from landing hits. In one horrible instance, my character got stuck between the rear-ends of two titans, one of which had clipped into the geometry of a nearby building and was stuck there. Unable to land an anchor on any part of either one, I managed to frantically jettison my way out after a few awkward seconds.


Attack on Titan also includes an over-simplified equipment upgrade and modification system that makes your blades slightly more powerful or grants you longer aerial time--or lets you buy a better horse for open field missions. Upgrading your gas canisters for better aerial control and your blades for toughness does make you feel more powerful, but I completed long stretches of the campaign without upgrading anything, and found missions several chapters apart didn't vary terribly in difficulty. Thus, I never felt compelled to spend time buying materials and upgrading my gear. After a certain point you are able to choose your own character, and playing as the the powerful Levi, quick-footed Mikasa, or as Eren in his Titan form is fun in its own right for fans of the series.

Facing the titans, too--no matter how derpy some of them look--also provides some grotesque thrills. It's one thing to watch them chomp people in half in the anime. It's another to find yourself face to face with these grinning menaces, fighting to slip from their grip and slicing their legs from underneath them like so many haunches of meat. I actually felt like Mikasa or Levi. Attack on Titan gets you up close and personal with the terrifying beings that make Attack on Titan so great, which is reason enough to give the game a shot.

Attack on Titan may be systematically simple and has some visual issues, but I still had fun playing within its world. Well-trod musou layout aside, battling titans and swinging through the skies with futuristic military gear can be an enjoyable experience--if you can look past its glaring flaws. It's not a work of art, that's for sure, but the freedom of flight and the thrill of unease that comes with fighting a titan make it entertaining.

Categories: Games

13 Dos And Don'ts For Trying On Shoes

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 13:02
How to not be THAT person when you’re trying on shoes
Categories: Fashion

Men In Skirts: A History Of Male Dress Obsessions

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 11:04
David Beckham’s sarong, Jared Leto’s suit skirt and Kanye’s leather kilt – Jaden Smith isn’t the first guy to skirt the issue
Categories: Fashion

Why France Needs To Wake Up And Stop The Burkini Ban, By Hijabi Blogger Nabiilabee

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 10:04
Hijabi blogger Nabiilabee on why France’s burkini ban is totally offensive
Categories: Fashion

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/26/2016 - 00:54

With such a large cast of eccentric characters and fighting styles, it's no wonder the cult favorite manga and anime series Jojo's Bizarre Adventure has repeatedly gotten the fighting game treatment over the years. The series' latest adaptation, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven, keeps the trend alive. But rather than retain the Street Fighter-esque fighting system from its predecessors, it goes for accessible team-driven combat in 3D free-roaming environments. While its new fighting system may throw off players of past Jojo games, Eyes of Heaven remains an entertaining platform for hardcore fans to engage with the series, as well as reenact or reimagine the greatest battles it has to offer.

Unlike past Jojo games, Eyes of Heaven utilizes a fighting system akin to the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series, putting its focus on easy-to-perform combos above highly technical play. However, Eyes of Heaven takes its own liberties with the established formula, emphasizing two-on-two matches where you and an AI-controlled teammate duke it out against an opposing team in a frenzied brawl.

Eyes of Heaven's visual presentation is its most striking quality.

Special moves are now performed with simple button combinations subtly displayed on-screen; removing the need to memorize or understand complicated inputs. There's also the addition of a combo breaker move that can stop an opponent mid-combo and launch them away, giving you time to breathe during a challenging match. These mechanical changes make combat straightforward and accessible, creating an experience that's far easier to pickup and play compared to the more complex and abstract fighting systems of previous Jojo games.

However, this doesn't mean that the fighting system is overtly simplistic; its intricacies are far more measured and understated. Each of the game's 53 characters has their own unique moveset packed with special moves that often yield a distinct execution property or effect. For instance, one character has a knockback at the end of his punching flurry attack, while another can inflict a bleeding status effect on an enemy when he hits them with his projectile move, causing their health to slowly drain over time. When used methodically, these attack properties can be strung together to create a multitude of powerful combos and setups. Despite the fact that advanced moves are easier to pull off than before, wielding them effectively requires a fair amount of practice. It's just unfortunate that there's no training mode available to better hone your skills towards executing these moves.

Battles in Eyes of Heaven are hectic and satisfying, keeping you constantly engaged as you perform one damaging flurry of attacks after another. And as you get a knack for the pace and flow of combat, your string of successes are rewarded by special achievements when you reenact moments or character behaviors from the series. These inside joke-infused achievements earn you bonus points that increase your overall ranking at the end of a fight. This adds a layers of enjoyment to your growing competency of the mechanics, aligning you further into the role of your respective character through association and context.

Once you've grown confident in your fighting abilities, you can take on Eyes of Heaven's story mode. Thankfully, it doesn't repeat the mistake of its predecessor--All Star Battle--by attempting to haphazardly retell the 30-plus year ongoing saga of the Jojo series with limited characters and assets. Instead, it tells an original crossover story that throws its multi-generational cast of protagonists into a conflict against a mysterious foe known as the "Noble One." (Be wary: if you haven't watched or read far into the series, there are major spoilers of key plot points for later arcs.) While the addition of a fully-fledged story mode with an original narrative is an inviting notion for longtime fans, its execution is tedious and lacks pacing. The story comes across more as mediocre fanfiction, displaying none of the over-the-top and dramatic qualities that makes Jojo's arcs so captivating.


The problem with story mode lies in its repetition; you're thrown into a predictable cycle throughout the 20-hour campaign, slogging through a multitude of repeated battle encounters under the same premise. The premise is as follows: your group of characters meets brainwashed versions of a couple of their old allies; you reluctantly fight them and once they're down, you cure them of their affliction and they join your team. This repeats until you obtain all 34 protagonists of the story mode's character roster. There are encounters that attempt to add variety to the monotony you're thrown into, such as fighting against waves of zombie vampires or playing a poker mini-game. But these moments are fleeting and do little to improve the tedium, as the story instantly turns around and repeats on the same old tired premise to push its plot forward. As an unfortunate result, the constant repetition also ends up detracting from the enjoyment of combat, rendering it a middling affair due to the dull framing of the narrative.

In the face of such a mundane story mode, it helps that Eyes of Heaven's visual presentation is so vibrant and endearing. Characters are faithfully rendered with an attention to detail that expertly captures the dynamic art of series creator Hirohiko Araki. A large number of the character models and animations have been recycled from All Star Battle, but they hold up well here, retaining a sharp aesthetic appeal thanks to a slight boost in detail and graphical fidelity. Each character is also brought to life with a pitch perfect cast of Japanese voice actors, whose performances elevate the plethora of fanservice moments they're thrown into. Eyes of Heaven contains far more banter between matches than All Star Battle, and it's an absolute joy to hear some of the series' most beloved characters speaking to one another with full authentic voice acting. From hearing a young Jotaro instruct his future daughter how to find the best punching angle, to hearing Dio acknowledge the fighting prowess of a certain italian-born fighter; moments like these heighten the excitement and add weight to the battles that ensue.

Aside from Story Mode and Free Battle--a mode that allows you to partake in one-off matches against the CPU--Eyes of Heaven also offers you the ability to play against others online. However, the netcode is incredibly unstable, featuring heavy input lag and erratic frame-rate. It's unfortunate that there's no local multiplayer options to compensate for the near-broken online mode, as the rare moments where competitive play did work amidst the lag proved to be energetic and tense.

Eyes of Heaven's issues hold it back from being as refined as other fighters, but I kept finding myself coming back to play more long after completing its story mode. The ability to play as such a large number of the series' most iconic characters, chaining their famous attack techniques into destructive combos, is a powerful and mesmerizing experience that serves as a fulfilling recompense that eases the frustrations elsewhere. And with a slew of single-player bonus fights, and countless character costumes and poses to unlock, there's a wealth of content available to maintain an ongoing sense of satisfaction. When Eyes of Heaven allows itself to simply deliver on the quality of its fan-serving premise and accessible combat, the game shines even during its lowest moments; and for the most dedicated lot of fans, this can be more than enough to absolve its biggest flaws.

Those unfamiliar with Jojo are likely to be bewildered playing Eyes of Heaven; the game pulls no punches in declaring its priorities with its thick layer of fanservice, pleasing only those who've read far into the series' three decade long run. It's an unfortunate misgiving to newcomers, but for fans, it's unequivocal bliss. Eyes of Heaven's foibles can be inexcusable to many, but it remains an entertaining, accessible fighter that fans shouldn't hesitate to try: "Do you understand?"

Categories: Games

How To Deal When You Hate All Your Clothes

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 08/25/2016 - 12:20
Got nothing to wear? Here’s how to handle it
Categories: Fashion

EXCLUSIVE: Grimes On Politics, Panic + Why She's Over Talking Gender Neutrality...

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 08/24/2016 - 13:00
Get a sneak peek at our October cover star...
Categories: Fashion

Madden NFL 17 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 08/24/2016 - 02:00

Madden games have historically had many different difficulty settings and challenges, but Madden NFL 17 actually gives you the confidence and the desire to take them on. Between an improved running game and welcome changes to the defensive line, EA Sports’ latest iteration of its lauded football series not only provides more tools to become a well-rounded playmaker but also the means to execute more decisive plays. A significant launch-week bug and lack of online co-op are just two of the issues that prevent it from being a complete Madden experience, but that doesn’t hold back Madden 17 from making you feel like a complete Madden player.

After two years of superb entries in the series, Madden 17 capitalizes on those most recent games’ strengths. Last year’s passing improvements are now complemented by improved animations in an already solid running game. The juke, for example, looks and feels more like a highlight-ready move. Against teams with high defensive ratings, pulling off a tactful juke feels like a reward for adept spatial awareness. Madden 17 adds a number of different animations, with the most graceful jukes reserved for the most agile players. Even if the Jets’ Eric Decker has a plus-80 overall rating, his sub-80 juke stats makes him a slightly less graceful wide receiver than say, Odell Beckham Jr..

It’s fitting that Madden 17’s main menu gives equal real estate to its two marquee modes. Franchise has been a Madden institution since the late 1990s, and Ultimate Team (and, to an extent, Draft Champions) satisfies that card-collecting itch while allowing you to live out the fantasy of building a squad of promising rookies, Hall of Famers, and other talented players. Franchise remains the trusty single-player campaign that lets you show devotion to a team over multiple seasons. The roster UI has been improved over last year’s unremarkable interface, which now features prompts for roster cutdowns and recommendations on who to trade, cut, and sign. This saves considerable time while you make key week-to-week adjustments.

The main draw, whether you’re in this mode as a player or owner, is in seeing the impact of your decisions over the course of a season, whether it’s key trades or changes to concession prices. There’s a sense of responsibility with every choice, like how you address lingering injuries. If you’re an Andrew Luck devotee taking control of the Indianapolis Colts, would you start him even if he’s not in peak condition? Would you risk a season-ending injury just because you’re not comfortable with the backup talents of Scott Tolzien?

Even though Ultimate Team hasn’t been around as long as Franchise, it has a well-earned following, despite its microtransactions. Of course, you can have a completely satisfying experience grinding it out through the mode’s solo challenges without spending a dime. Completing these tasks serves multiple purposes: You feel a sense of accomplishment in overcoming developer-curated obstacles, you’re strengthening your roster with newly acquired cards, and you’re getting practical training that carries over to all other modes.

A skilled defender knows how to read the subtle clues of an opponent’s formation in order to get an edge on the offense. Unfortunately, a noteworthy bug (which originated in the pre-launch EA Access build) gives the defense too much information--specifically on whether or not they can expect a passing or running play. It’s simply a matter of whether you can see the receiver’s names or not. If the names are visible while toggling the Play Art feature, it’s a pass; if not, it’s a running play. One hopes that developer EA Tiburon will have a patch to address this soon. While not as detrimental, long loading times hamper select areas, particularly the Ultimate Team solo challenges.

Crowd variety and diversity impresses in Madden 17.

If there’s meaningful solace to be found, it’s in the ability to (finally!) skip cinematics and other non-gameplay camera cutaways. Madden 17 greatly benefits from these little tweaks and touches. There’s added realism in player locomotion, even for linemen who aren’t handling the ball. Midair swatting by a defender is a fitting counter to an otherwise overpowering receiving game. And it’s a challenge finding copy-and-pasted groups of fans in the crowd. One of the more obvious changes involves kickoffs and field goals. By employing a three-button input system used by most golf games, EA Tiburon shows its willingness to use tried-and-true mechanics that have been around since the 1980s.

This is a franchise that evolves over years--and, in recent entries, over days. Weekly roster updates have become a series standard, the kind of perk that fans look forward to regularly. Trades by the Week 8 deadline seldom ever change the overall strengths and weaknesses of a given roster, but it’s always an engaging experiment to be on the opposing side and see how these new lineup changes can shape the playoff picture or even your weekly heated matches against friends. The Seattle Seahawks are a particularly intriguing team even before the regular season starts, given the retirement of likely Hall of Fame tailback Marshawn Lynch. Madden 17 impresses as an ever-evolving product, with sponsored updates and promotions and a non-intrusive ticker that shows recent scores, upcoming matchups, and news from around the league.

Even with speedy game flow and the lack of commercial breaks, a game in Madden can last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour if you’re a purist who plays 15 minute quarters. EA Tiburon’s idea of an alternative play session for busy people is called Play the Moments. This mode significantly reduces play times by having the bulk of the game unfold via a simulation while letting you take control on crucial plays. It pits you against two opponents: the AI and the simulation itself. It’s a dicey proposition to leave the outcome of an entire drive in the hands of the CPU, but after several tests against unbalanced teams, it’s comforting that even lowly teams like the Jets consistently have a chance at beating the Patriots at the half.

Beyond the highly accessible Rookie and Pro modes, Skills Trainer ensures that newcomers and novices receive a thorough understanding of the controls. It’s a lot to take in, which is why Madden 17 retains the series’ context-sensitive button hints. The only missing feature is a submenu detailing the rules of football--the kind of details that would benefit a genuine newcomer. However, time and practice are your best tools in going up against players who’ve played Madden for decades. It’s not hard to put up a fight, even if you lose your first dozen online matches.

First-time Madden commentators Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis aren’t household names, but their professional experience at Westwood One and Fox Sports respectively makes them qualified to fill in these coveted roles previously held by the likes of Jim Nantz and Cris Collinsworth. It only takes one quarter to get a feel for their talent and enthusiasm for the sport. Their contributions game after game are more than serviceable, though their accounts aren’t any more remarkable than many of their more recognizable predecessors. They (and their commentary writers) frequently use football generalities to move the game along, while their player-specific insights rely heavily on reciting a star’s resume. It’s not a significant change in Madden play-by-play, but I’m immensely grateful that the one-dimensional era of Phil Simms has come to a close. Unlike some prior Madden commentary pairings, it’s easy to believe that Gaudin and Davis were often in the voice over booth at the same time. It shows in their rapport, despite the fact that they’d never worked together before. Their inflections are well timed during and after plays, which goes a long way to show how engaged they are.

If EA Tiburon's goal with Madden 17 was to build upon the solid foundation set by the last two iterations, the studio mostly succeeded by fine tuning its production values on and off the field while also focusing on its strengths in its Ultimate Team and Franchise. Rather than deriding this latest Madden for featuring more of the same features from previous years, there's instead comfort in the familiarity of trusted and refined features like weekly updates and the comprehensive Skills Trainer. Save for the aforementioned play-calling bug and the loading times, this is the most accessible and welcoming Madden in this console generation, which is an accomplishment for a sport that can appear complicated at first glance.

Categories: Games

Metroid Prime: Federation Force Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 08/24/2016 - 00:48

Metroid Prime: Federation Force is the first Metroid game in more than half a decade, coming hot on the heels of the series' 30th anniversary. Rather than walk in the footsteps of its forebears and thrust you into another adventure as spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, Federation Force puts you in the boots of a no-name foot soldier and tasks you to complete nearly two-dozen short missions. You can play alone--using an item that boosts your strength to help even the odds--but you're highly encouraged to team up with other players locally or online.

Even though it bears the title of the renowned franchise, Federation Force is only tenuously connected to the Metroid universe, with its only strong links to the series being a few cameos and references. But it's the inconsistent gameplay and difficulty spikes that make it tough to love, rather than the tenuous connection to its beloved namesake.

First and foremost, this is a first-person shooter where you spend a lot of time fighting armed ground troops, flying pirates, and occasional space bugs. Moving and aiming work surprisingly well, and uses a combination of the 3DS analog stick and gyroscopic sensors. With a New 3DS system, you can use the secondary stick to control the camera for more traditional, console-like controls. Save for your modest walking and turning speed, Federation Force's mechanics are sound and work as expected from the get-go.

Rather than build up an array of powerful weapons as you progress into the campaign, you have access to a slew of weaponry practically from the start, including missiles, elemental ammo, proximity mines, and decoys. You pick and choose your loadout from ammo reserves prior to each mission, but you can pick up replenishments from item boxes within levels, regardless of your initial selection.

For the most part, you succeed by shooting what you can with whatever you've got, and if an ally falls, you can revive them by rapidly tapping a button next to their mech.

In multiplayer, everyone in your party pulls from the same ammo pool before heading into battle. With no voice chat online, you're left to communicate via impersonal, predefined text strings if you want to strategize loadouts with your team. You can see how breaking up offensive and recovery items pre-mission could facilitate forming roles within your squad, but missions fail to incentivize such behavior. For the most part, you succeed by shooting what you can with whatever you've got, and if an ally falls, you can revive them by rapidly tapping a button next to their mech.

Missions offer little in the way of exploration, with secondary objectives that feed into your score serving as the primary incentive to think outside of the box. Even here, Federation Force loses its head, since there comes a point during multiple missions where you aren't rewarded points for shooting enemies due to an imposed score limit. You can look for cracked walls and bust them open to discover equippable mods that slightly enhance your stats, but you end up with so many middling mods that they begin to feel like an afterthought only a few missions in. A few are helpful in a pinch, but most offer incremental, almost-indiscernible boosts. It doesn't take long before going the extra mile becomes an afterthought.

Simple puzzle-based missions, by and large, fail to match the occasional excitement of combat, but they break up the predictable stream of alien grunts nonetheless. These mini-challenges typically involve shooting balls with your gun to roll them from one end of a map to another, navigating around obstacles and incoming fire along the way. But there comes a point in one mission where you pick up a ball using your suit's tractor beam, and you wonder why you were forced to deal with the convoluted process of shooting the balls to and fro in the first place. It's a minor contradiction, but one that feeds into the game's overarching sense of disarray.

Though you spend most of your time suited up in a mech, you occasionally need to abandon it to sneak into tight spaces and flip an access switch. You’re unarmed and diminutive compared to the space pirates that stand in your way, and Federation Force forces you to play stealthily during these sections--benign diversions that neither thrill nor pose a meaningful challenge.

Federation Force doesn't shine as a single-player experience because mission parameters and variables are balanced for larger parties and remain set in stone regardless of your party size.

There are times, however, when the game is too difficult or too easy for its own good; it all depends on the size of your squad. As I reported last week, Federation Force doesn't shine as a single-player experience because mission parameters and variables are balanced for larger parties and remain set in stone regardless of your party size. I hit a wall about a third of the way through the game when playing alone and eventually teamed up with a coworker. Together, we progressed further in the campaign but found ourselves outgunned with only a few missions left. I was able to team up with a full squad (four players) this past weekend, and sure enough, we completed the final few missions without fail. It should’ve been cause for celebration, but victory came almost too easy. A boss that a team of two couldn't finish in 20 minutes was effortlessly pummeled into submission in less than five minutes with a full team.

I spent more time with the game after finishing the campaign, tackling missions with teams of two, three, and four players, and concluded that there's no perfect fit for Federation Force as a whole. Playing by yourself the entire time is too difficult to be fun during certain missions--your punishment for failure is having to restart the entire mission--but playing with a full squad makes even the game's toughest encounters too easy to appreciate. In a game with discrete modes for playing solo or with a team, it's reasonable to expect that the game would cater its difficulty levels accordingly. Save for an item that boosts your damage output and armor, you're granted no meaningful advantage when playing alone. Even if you get a stat boost when playing solo, you can't be in two, let alone four places at once, and you can't repeatedly revive yourself when you run out of health.

Federation Force is lopsided; it presents simple rules and scenarios, but the variables therein fluctuate with no discernible rhyme and reason. If you manage to somehow land in a mission with the appropriate number of people, boss fights in particular can feel exciting, but you shouldn't be penalized for playing with a squad of any size when the game casually allows it. You can take the time to seek out a team whose size meets your needs, but that's bending over backward to accomplish something that should be handled for you. Unless you know missions like the back of your hand, you may find yourself unsure of how big that team should be in the first place.

When you strike the right balance between a mission and the size of your party, Federation Force is a decent co-op shooter with standout controls that provides a few hours of enjoyment. Unfortunately, it can just as easily frustrate you or bore you for no reason other than its static difficulty. Metroid devotees may not find a game that aligns with their deepest desires, but that alone isn't cause for concern here. In fact, Samus groupies may be thrilled to know that a post-credits sequence appears to hint at a new chapter in the Prime saga. This tip of the hat may inspire warm and fuzzy feelings for a moment, but an implied announcement for a game people have been asking for doesn't wash away the bad taste of a game that nobody wanted. Expectations for Metroid aside, Federation Force fails to make a case for itself in the end.

And then there's Blast Ball: the soccer-like game where you and two other players face off in matches against bots or other players, shooting a massive ball with your gun in hopes of knocking it into your opponent's goal. Blast Ball is nothing short of a chaotic frenzy where everyone fires at the ball simultaneously, aching for total control but never achieving it. More than a sport, Blast Ball is a war of attrition. Your controls work just as well as the main game, but there's almost zero room for skill or nuanced play. Having more to do in a game for the sake of having options isn't an automatic victory. If anything, Blast Ball is an unnecessary reminder of how mediocre Federation Force is as a whole.

Categories: Games

Inside Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/23/2016 - 20:26

A world, broken at the hands of technological progress, decays in silence and darkness. Cowed and enslaved people shuffle mindlessly through the streets. Overseers dressed in masks and black clothes stand at the corners, waiting for one of the slaves to fall out of line, watching the soulless masses as they are forced to jump and dance. A featureless boy in the midst of it all walks through this dystopia wearing a red shirt, one of the only touches of color in this oppressive world.

This is Inside, the second game from Limbo developer Playdead. Like Limbo, the gameplay is simple: you have to walk, jump, and grab objects in order to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. Ultimately, however, the game is about your journey through a tyrannical, unknowable, and apocalyptic world. Over the course of a few hours, you descend ever deeper into the heart of a malicious and immense construct that threatens to suffocate agency and humanity.

Limbo followed a character moving through a strange and primitive land. Death came easily to the character, but it rarely felt like murder. Inside, on the other hand, exudes violence, cruelty, and artifice. The game highlights the old and shattered parts of a society that you discover has been dragged into a hell of human experimentation.

As you progress through Inside, you experience stretches of quiet and calm punctuated by flashes of complete absurdity. The game encourages you to relish these often shocking or brutal twists, which incite feelings of revulsion and confusion. They make you want to know more.

These moments remain vivid in my memory even a few days after completing the game. A mindless horde of figures followed me off a cliff only to slam into the ground, creating a squelchy pile of flesh. A wispy, feminine creature tenaciously stalked me through underwater regions. I led my character to many deaths that were immediate and gruesome. I loved the game most during its quiet lulls when the oppressive feeling of the world was most apparent, but the in-your-face moments showed a different and darkly comedic side of Inside. I sometimes couldn't help but laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of what it threw at me.

Solving puzzles can be as simple as moving a box up to the base of a high ledge in order to jump up to the top, or as complex as synchronizing multiple automatons to flip switches, lift objects, and move carts so that you can open a door. Some early puzzles rely more on cautious movement than logic as you attempt to avoid murder or abduction at the hands of masked figures. Later puzzles, on the other hand, require more patience and thought. Some make you open sequences of doors to move objects through a room, while others require delicately timed jumps or switches to complete.

There comes a time when Inside leans too heavily on its puzzles to keep you engaged. In these moments, I felt that my driving motivation had shifted from exploring the world to simply flipping the right switch. It's a problem that plagued Limbo, and Inside nearly falls into a similar trap in its middle act when it takes you deep underground. You must complete the game's most time-consuming puzzles during its most narrative-light sections, and the suspense that the game worked so hard to build nearly falls apart.

Fortunately, this issue evaporates as the game enters its final act, when the world and puzzles again form a cohesive bond. Inside is at its best when it doesn't feel like you're doing puzzles at all, but rather avoiding obstacles and finding paths through a dangerous space. As Inside nears its conclusion, the puzzles strengthen the sense of exploration that defines the rest of the game.

Much of Inside's success in storytelling comes from its visual design. The game is gorgeous, with a simple but evocative art style defined by muted colors and featureless figures. Gone are the indistinct backgrounds of Limbo; Inside's environments are richly detailed and full of motion and secrets. For example, you might find smoke still wisping from a candle in a recently abandoned room, a truck full of automatons departing right as you enter a new screen, viewing platforms used to watch slaves dance, or the massive shadowy shapes of the compound's machinery looming far off in the background.

Inside's use of sound and music is occasionally breathtaking. You never hear voices, but each setting has its own unique noises. As I moved through a forest, pine trees rustled, rocks clacked against each other, and leaves crunched under my feet. In the compound, a pulsing, rhythmic noise accompanied my journey, a constant and unsettling reminder of the world's heartlessness. Music is used sparingly, but when it swells, even minor events like exiting a building became points fixed in my memory.

All of it--the setting, the sound, the beautiful art--builds to the discovery of the secret of this compound, but what I found at the end almost ruined the entire experience. Subtlety was thrown out the window and I was left reeling, unable to process the turn. The oppressive, quiet, slow-moving, and mysterious story that dominated most of the game changed in a flash of complete absurdity. I didn't know whether to laugh or yell in horror as Inside twisted in on itself. When the credits began to crawl, I sat in silence for a few minutes, unable to decide what to make of it.

But as time passed, those final moments grew on me. I still find the ending somewhat odd, but upon playing through Inside a second time, I found endearing elements that fit with the overall story more effectively than I first thought. The ending is self-aware in a way that is simultaneously overwrought and humorous, poking fun at itself and at Limbo. It's also cathartic, releasing all of the tension that built over the rest of Inside in one scene.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and memorable game, a worthy follow-up to Limbo. Its puzzles, although rarely difficult, are engaging complements to the story. The real achievement of this game, though, is the way that it crafts its narrative: detailed environments convey the bizarre world that you travel through; introspective moments are filled with minimalist sound design and just the barest touches of music; and the things you must do to complete your journey force you to confront the realities of humanity, freedom, and existence. The puzzles might not bring you back to play it again, but the opportunity to learn more about the world alone is enough motivation to return to Inside's dystopia.

Categories: Games

Bafta Winner Georgina Campbell On Eating Ice Lollies With Jude Law

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The King of Fighters XIV Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 08/22/2016 - 15:00

The King of Fighters XIV is yet another satisfying entry in the long-running KOF series. It ditches the intricate sprites found in recent games in the series in favor of 3D characters and backgrounds, though battles still take place on a 2D plane. This change is bound to turn off those who might favor the series' traditional visual style; however, the game's core fighting system lives up to the series’ legacy, offering new mechanics that expand upon those from its predecessor. KOF 14 is an engrossing fighter that exceeds the initial impressions of its bland presentation, delivering an experience well worth your time, whether you're a dedicated KOF follower or a casual fighting game fan.

KOF 14 pits your side against teams of three fighters in a series of one-on-one battles; when one character is defeated, the next one is brought into battle and a new round begins. Returning players will notice the difference in movement speed from past games right away; the game seemingly slows down the energetic action of KOF 13, but this doesn't diminish the exciting nature of fights. Battles remain tense and exhilarating, especially once you get a feel for the pace of combat and combo timing.

Fights are as tense and exciting as ever.

Many familiar faces from the series’ 22-year history return, while a host of new characters enter the fray to mix up the series' already diverse set of fighting styles. It’s uplifting to see such a robust cast, but it’s unfortunate that the visuals do little to bring their large personalities to life. The new 3D character models, while serviceable, are stiffly animated and occasionally doll-like in appearance. They’re a far cry from the dynamic 2D sprites of the past, showcasing only a faint glimmer of what made these characters so memorable and endearing.

Despite the less-than-stellar visuals, KOF 14’s new fighting system is its most striking quality. It streamlines mechanics we’ve seen in the past, while introducing expansive techniques and options for combos. The result is a fighting system that's easier to understand and more fulfilling to engage with.

The game presents three major mechanics to manage: Max Mode, Super/Advanced/Climax Cancels, and Rush. Max Mode is a cross between KOF 13's EX Specials and Hyperdrive Mode--it’s a state you trigger that grants you the ability to perform more powerful versions of your character’s special moves. These prove useful in turning the tide of battle, since these beefed-up moves can be linked with other moves to create even more powerful combos. Max Mode can be activated whenever you have a super meter to spare.

The iconic rivalry continues.

Then there’s the multiple ways of canceling moves into supers, which is the game’s bread and butter for executing destructive combos. Each allows you to cancel a certain move into a type of super special move at the cost of a set amount of super meter. When executed properly, canceling can be an effective means of finishing off opponents when you’re in a tight spot. It’s also an especially user-friendly mechanic that’s far easier to execute than the complicated Drive Cancels from KOF 13. Canceling out of one attack and beginning another more powerful one allows you to turn a single move into a custom combo, and with three ways to cancel moves in KOF 14, this opens up a wealth of opportunities for players of all skill levels to deliver a series of devastating attacks.

Lastly, Rush is a unique combo that you can perform by repeatedly pressing light punch. Similar to Persona 4 Arena’s auto combo, the attack is suited for beginners looking for a way to strike back at their opponent. This may raise red flags for advanced players; however, the attack is balanced accordingly, requiring you to be right next to an opponent in order to perform it. Rush also does comparatively little damage when you stack it up against the game's powerful combos.

These new mechanics help make KOF 14's combo-focused fighting system less convoluted and more straightforward; it’s the most accessible entry in the series thus far. That isn't to say that it downplays the finesse and strategic planning of the game. You’re still required to understand the fundamentals of execution and positioning if you want to be able to fully take advantage of the offensive and defensive capabilities available.

There's a wide variety of different characters, each with distinct movesets.

The coalescing of these mechanics makes performing devastating combos easier, which increases the stakes of a fight--one wrong move could result in a punishing reprisal that costs you half your life bar. However, the odds are tipped in your favor the more of your team’s roster is eliminated since the game provides additional super meter bars on top of your base ones during consecutive lost rounds. You may end up with five super meter bars during the final round of a match, which can be a lifesaver if you're able to find an opening to initiate a comeback. While this might seem imbalanced at first, it gives the losing player opportunity to even the odds, so that by the time the match reaches its final round, both sides are on equal footing. Still, it’s unfortunate that a combo-breaker move (in the vein of Guilty Gear’s Burst mechanic) wasn’t implemented to better give newcomers a chance to stave off opponents with higher combo literacy.

Thankfully, the path to understanding the intricacies of KOF 14 is a welcoming one, since the game offers a multitude of tutorials to get you up to speed on the series’ established mechanics, such as rolls, blowbacks, and the all the different types of jumps. There’s also a Trial mode that educates you on the combos you can perform with each character, providing a general idea of which attacks and special moves each character can link together.

Once you’ve outfitted yourself with the basic knowledge to fight, KOF 14 offers plenty of modes in which to test your skills. Like past games, there's a story mode that allows you to fight against 10 stages’ worth of CPU opponents, but if you're expecting anything similar to the recent story modes from other fighters, like Street Fighter V or Mortal Kombat X, you're going to be disappointed. The narrative is vague and nearly non-existent, setting up--in three brief cutscenes--a much larger conflict that's likely to continue in later installments. Fortunately, the game includes ending cutscenes for each of the canonical teams to help bookend your journey and provide slight context over the events that took place.

If you're looking to compete against other players online, the good news is that servers are smooth and stable thus far. It also helps that your online activities are initiated via matchmaking rooms, where up to 12 players can join in and slot into separate rooms within to play exhibition matches of a chosen mode. The format is intuitive and keeps you from having to constantly search for a new room after every match just to find another opponent--though you'll be resorting to this in Ranked mode. It's also a great way to interact with multiple players at once via voice chat or text, testing your skills, asking questions, or discussing strategies.

With plenty of opportunities available online or off, KOF 14 is a well-executed addition to the revered fighting series. Those disappointed in its new visuals may be unwilling to give it a chance, but if you remain steadfast in parsing through the multiple layers of its mechanics, you'll be rewarded with one of the most accessible, satisfying entries in the series to date.

Categories: Games

Why You Need Two-Tone Jeans In Your Life

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

Games Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/19/2016 - 14:00

The way I play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided may not be the same way you play it. When I step into the shoes of Adam Jensen, I avoid conflict, drink all the alcohol I find, and stop bad guys from doing terrible things by releasing pheromones into the air and then asking politely. I like to sneak through areas without hurting anyone if possible, and prefer to knock someone out and hide their body if I really need them out of the way. But occasionally, I want to role-play a cyberpunk bad-ass who doesn't take trash from anybody, letting my magnum revolver do the talking when I enter a room. Deus Ex lets me do all these things, and doesn't punish me for solving problems one way over another. The series is characteristically defined by giving you choices--a variety of ways to tackle given situations like armed conflict, social interactions, and branches in storyline. Mankind Divided is no different. There is no wrong way to play, and the game rewards you for achieving things with your personally preferred method, no matter what that may involve.

Every obstacle in the cyberpunk world of Mankind Divided has multiple solutions, provided you've invested in certain abilities. For conflict scenarios, there are more than enough tools provided for a direct approach--a variety of lethal and non-lethal guns, grenades and ammo which fire and explode wonderfully, and cybernetic augmentations that can give you temporary buffs like heavy armor or slowing down time. Shooting controls well--it feels effortless to transition from first-person aiming into third-person cover mechanics, change ammo types quickly, and smoothly line up headshots with iron sights. Entering a room while firing a shotgun, then finishing off the last couple of enemies with a lethal takedown feels exceptional.

Alternatively, there are robust stealth mechanics that let you slip quickly and accurately from cover to cover, see enemy sightlines, and let you turn temporarily invisible. If enemies hear or see you they'll transition into a suspicious state where they will attempt to confirm your presence before turning hostile, and this can be used to your advantage. Throwing objects or intentionally making a noise can lure a guard to a particular area, letting you silently take them out or slip past them unnoticed. You can also use hacking skills and have fun taking advantage of the game’s futuristic setting, turning sentry robots, automated turrets, and the environment against aggressors without drawing attention to Jensen himself.

But no matter how you decide to go about solving a problem, there is always a thrill when you succeed, and the game dishes out experience points no matter which actions you take. This means killing enemies is just as satisfying as slipping past them without raising suspicion. Punching through a wall is as fulfilling as stealing a keycard and just using the door. There is no superior way to complete a task.

Killing enemies is just as satisfying as slipping past them without raising suspicion. Punching through a wall is as fulfilling as stealing a keycard and just using the door.

During investigation scenarios, the direct approach may require you to manually hack into computer terminals in order to procure the information you need, or craft tools to do the hacking for you. If you have the patience though, coercing knowledge out of a citizen or spending time snooping around for clues can also provide what you need. It's refreshing to play a game where different routes can not only be equally successful, but flexible as well. Being an expert in one field doesn't necessarily lock you out of another.

Mankind Divided introduces a handful of new augmentation abilities for Jensen on top of those introduced in the previous game, Human Revolution. Some of these new augs are more interesting than others though; Remote Hacking is invaluable for disabling automated obstacles at a distance, and Icarus Dash is a powerful tool for discreet traversal. However the TESLA, PEPS, and Nanoblade abilities achieve similar effects to some of the game's more conventional weapons--they stun and kill enemies from a distance. There are some advantages to using them, but most of the time I wished I had spent points elsewhere.

What's interesting about these new abilities is that with their introduction comes with a caveat: to equip them, players must disable one of their other augmentations to avoid putting strain on Jensen’s predominantly cybernetic body, and risking negative effects. Initially, this "Overclocking" system makes for tantalizing dilemmas. The necessity of permanently disabling some skills in order to power others early in the campaign made me stop and seriously think about how I would be handling situations in the future. Not all augments can be disabled (you can’t disable your HUD, for instance) but when I decided to enable Remote Hacking, I made the tough decision to disable something seemingly essential--the ability to mark and track enemies.

However, as I earned more skill points I decided to experiment, activating multiple new abilities at once without disabling others. The unfortunate revelation was that despite characters and the augmentation menu telling me I was at a critical status and needed to disable more abilities, I experienced no serious detrimental effects that made completing missions any more difficult than usual--a brief radar glitch was the worst I saw. Even more annoyingly, a later plot event re-enabled my once permanently disabled talents. Although being able to unlock and use all abilities in a single playthrough of Deus Ex is near impossible, it was disappointing to see a consequential, weighty choice made inconsequential.

Mankind Divided continues with the series' portrayal of a cyberpunk dystopia with a focus on the politics around people with cybernetic implants, and the subsequent implications on the definitions of humanity. The plot involves countless government bodies, corporations, security forces, underground resistances, even the Illuminati--and the events of Mankind Divided frame suspicion on literally every organisation and individual it introduces. This makes it impossible to trust any one character other than Jensen as you search for evidence revealing the motives and masterminds behind a number of terrorist acts. Deciding which organisation to aid and which to deceive during pivotal plot moments is grueling because everything is so unyieldingly grey. The world and attitudes of characters can vary depending on your choices and actions, and even the game's dozen or so side missions take dramatic twists and press you to make difficult decisions--many involve the ethics of hypotheticals our present-day society has yet to encounter--and there are no right answers.

It's easy to become completely engrossed in this morally ambiguous chess game, with so many unknown factors lurking beneath the surface. But the lack of a clear antagonist or driving purpose at any one time can lead to temporary disillusionment, with no one enemy ever standing in the metaphorical crosshairs for too long. The upside to this is that Mankind Divided doesn't feature the ill-received boss battles that appeared in Human Revolution, and remains purely as a series of increasingly challenging infiltration and investigation scenarios, all of which can be solved in the manner of your choosing. The pace of the game doesn't feel like one that's defined by a series of climactic acts, but a constant burn of tension and a chase for knowledge as mainline missions, hub exploration, and optional side missions bleed into one another.

The world of Deus Ex is an easy one to get completely absorbed in. The city hubs, all based in Prague, are where you'll spend most of your time and are stunningly well-realised. The streets are full of life and bold neon advertising. The futuristic buildings constructed among old-world European architecture and dilapidated housing make the city believable. You'll revisit locations and walk the same routes regularly in Mankind Divided, gaining an intimate knowledge of the streets and structures, and this knowledge is incredibly useful and satisfying to draw upon as new situations arise. One hub, Útulek Station, is a stunningly claustrophobic and oppressive multi-level slum, filled with ramshackle apartments and dense marketplaces which made me stop every few feet just to soak it all in.

Exploring these environments for information and scavenging for items is also immensely enjoyable. Spaces are filled with character, densely packed with discoveries to make about its inhabitants, and are exceptionally curated with subtlety. You might push unremarkable boxes on a shelf aside to pleasantly discover someone has hidden some rainy day cash behind them. You might look behind someone's couch to find that's where they stash a pistol, just in case. You may notice that despite his constant, over-the-top broody demeanor, Adam Jensen absolutely loves eating colorful, sugary cereal. Additionally, a portion of the game’s side missions are not explicitly marked, and only found by going out of your way to talk to certain people you may have otherwise run past. Mankind Divided rewards exploration, and its locations are delightful to explore.

Mankind Divided rewards exploration, and its locations are delightful to explore.

Mankind Divided also includes an asymmetrical online-only competitive mode called Breach. Breach uses the first-person combat, stealth and remote hacking mechanics of Deus Ex in brief, visually abstracted challenge missions with a focus on score-chasing, speedrunning, and beating other players. Augmentation abilities are also present, but Breach uses a slightly modified skill tree, and enforces stricter limitations--the player is able to unlock every upgrade, but they can only equip a limited number before going into each mission.

The tone of Breach is very different to the main campaign, with the emphasis not so much on the breadth of options available to you, but taking the path of least resistance. After playing through Adam Jensen's story as a Pacifist, Breach gave me much more license to experiment without consequence--racing around like a maniac, shooting non-human enemies and causing general chaos as I tried to climb the speedrun leaderboard. Breach mode also incorporates a career levelling system, similar to other multiplayer games, where you can earn "Booster Packs" containing randomised items like weapons, special ammo, one-time buffs and skill points to aid progress. I found this inclusion to be a little off-putting here, since one of Breach's draw cards for me was its skill-based leaderboards, and your performance can be significantly helped or hindered depending on what random drops you do or don't receive.

Although multiplayer-focused, Breach also attempts to tie directly into the Deus Ex universe. As you progress, new conspiracy stories arise and unlocking their details requires you to successfully collect a number of gems in particular missions. These are interesting to take in, but feel out of place within Breach. I would've rather uncovered these dark mysteries in the main game, rather than collecting gems and punching bright neon men in the face in an optional mode. Tonal confusion aside, Breach is still a pleasing way to hone your skills with Deus Ex's action mechanics.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided refines and reinforces the defining foundations of the series. It creates challenging situations and gives players the tools and flexibility to deal with them in a multitude of ways, all within an absorbing cyberpunk world. Although not a significant departure from Human Revolution, Mankind Divided is still a uniquely fulfilling experience, one which feels rare in games today.

Categories: Games

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