Melee-focused action games have spent years enacting the fantasy of engaging in armed combat, fortunately sparing us the hours of rigorous training and resolve it takes to actually do so in real life. But For Honor, Ubisoft's third-person weapon-based arena combat game, is different from other melee-focused action games, like Dark Souls or Dynasty Warriors. Its combat system is simple on the surface, but executing its more advanced tactics requires a patient mind, as well as an understanding of its deliberate pacing. There are not many games quite like For Honor; it's an incredibly entertaining fighter that's satisfying both in single and multiplayer, even despite the narrative flaws of its story mode.
Its fantasy medieval world is populated by three of history's most iconic warrior classes: knights, vikings, and samurai. Regardless of which faction you choose to play as, For Honor challenges you to restrain yourself and uphold self-control in the face of strenuous conflict. The elegance of its combat is at times awe-inspiring, easily pulling you into the euphoric highs of a well-deserved victory, where your patience was maintained and your reflexes were on point.
For Honor focuses primarily on one-on-one duels, though fights against multiple foes are common. There are 12 heroes to choose from, each brandishing their own unique weapon and fighting style. While the game's combat is simple enough to be accessible to beginners, its deep mechanics allow frequent fighters to noticeably develop their skills. It's only then that each Hero's strengths and weaknesses are fully revealed. For example, the spear-wielding Nobushi offers a wealth of slow, long-range poke attacks, which when put up against Orochi's swift sword swipes, transform the battle into a calculated struggle of space management and precision striking. Every moment you spend in combat is rife with strategic possibilities: should you keep baiting an opponent with an attack or dodge? Should you get in close and knock them into a nearby pit? Or should you disorient them by being overtly offensive? For Honor's combat encourages adaptive thinking, providing substantial depth and balance in its moment-to-moment action and myriad matchups.
At times, putting what you learn into practice is a test of patience, whether you're playing against human opponents or AI. Fights are slow and measured, demanding you diligently carve out openings through subtle, calculated movements rather than through brute force or button mashing. As a result, you spend as much time--if not more--trying to read your opponent than attacking them. The pace of combat in its initial stages seems clunky and disorienting--especially if you're used to faster-paced fighting games--but once you grow accustomed to its tempo, it's For Honor's most fulfilling and enjoyable quality. Its slow-pace is much like learning a dance; you aren't adjusted to the choreography’s complexity and speed, but after repeated practice, it becomes a gratifying exercise of muscle memory.For Honor's combat encourages adaptive thinking, patience, and quick reflexes.
Aside from a few informational videos and practice sessions, For Honor's most useful training tool is its single-player story mode--at least for a time. It more or less functions as a long-form tutorial, putting you into various story-driven scenarios that teach you the fundamentals of combat. For example, some stages offer you insight on how certain characters are played and how their special abilities (called Feats) are used, while others familiarize you with some of the multiplayer modes.
Unfortunately, the narrative that links these scenarios together is a nonsensical mess. A warlord named Apollyon, whose intention is to ensure an eternal age of all-out war, instigates the conflict gripping its world. But her motivation is so unclear and muddled that she rarely makes for an entertaining presence. Meanwhile, the battle-hungry ensemble cast tasked with either standing up to or supporting her are marred by lackluster characterization. They provide little in the way of relatability, coming across more as tools to move the story forward than actual living, breathing people. It also doesn't help that their character models are lifted straight from multiplayer, with recycled, faceless designs that make it difficult to distinguish them from the multitude of other characters.The story mode's ensemble cast provide little in the way of relatability, coming across more as tools to move the story forward than actual living, breathing people.
While the story mode is content to act as a multiplayer tutorial, there are moments when it attempts to be more ambitious. For instance, you sometimes encounter set pieces, like a desperate siege against a heavily fortified Japanese castle or a fast-paced chase on horseback. But these moments end up more monotonous than exciting, as they typically consist of repetitive fights against dozens of AI opponents with the occasional objective involving interacting with an object in the environment. The attempt to string together For Honor's unique take on melee combat with a narrative leaves much to be desired. Its roughly six-hour length effectively teaches you its base mechanics, but it overstays its welcome well before the first half with a haphazard narrative. And due to the simplistic AI of many of the foes you encounter, it’s easy to become more aggressive and complacent in duels, which is a bad habit to bring into multiplayer.
When you tackle For Honor's multiplayer, there are plenty of modes to dive into. However, the most varied and entertaining of the bunch is Dominion, a 4v4 mode where you and your team cooperate to capture and hold three zones in a battlefield filled with AI minions. Rushing from point to point, defending a zone, or working with your teammates to obtain others is exhilarating. And in the midst of all this, there is always a multitude of emergent moments to experience, like heroically sprinting into the middle zone and slaughtering swarms of AI minions in order to capture a point and turn the tide of battle, or finding yourself cornered on a bridge alone, up against three members of the opposing team. Unfortunately, combat in this mode can become too chaotic when no respawns occur at the tail end of the match; this often causes you and your teammates to mindlessly button mash your way to victory against the last standing hero. Despite this, Dominion encapsulates the sensation of a large-scale medieval battle on a smaller scale, distilling the desperation of a relentless charge and the ruthless sword fights that ensue in its wake.
Elimination mode, meanwhile, emphasizes and amplifies the complexity of For Honor's team-based duels. It's uncomplicated in premise: a 4v4 face-off to the death with no respawns. Combat is thrilling and challenging in this mode, especially when it's solely up to you and a teammate to secure a victory against a full enemy squad. You come to understand not only how to fight against multiple foes, but also how to judge when and where it's appropriate to do so. Learning this is at times punishing or unfair, as poor environmental awareness in a battle against multiple foes often spells certain death. But when your reflexes and ability to manipulate these factors work in your favor, it's difficult not to feel an overwhelming satisfaction in how the game makes it possible to win against all odds.
If Dominion demonstrates For Honor's capacity to create varied and exciting moments, and Elimination embodies the thrill and depth of its team-based fights, then Duel showcases combat at its most tense and absolute. This strictly one-on-one battle mode removes your ability to use Feats, forcing you to rely on the strength of your Hero's base moveset. The grace of its simplicity heightens the tension of combat, taking the base of its complexities and forming it into something more akin to a traditional fighting game. Duel's stripped down nature showcases the brilliance of For Honor's one-on-one combat, elevating its other modes in the process by how it condenses what a duel is into a raw and brief competitive instance.The sense of community and promise of rewards in Faction War gives you a higher sense of purpose.
It helps that many of For Honor's various multiplayer modes are each entertaining in their own right, as playing through them feeds into a cross-platform territory acquisition system called Faction War. As you play matches, you earn War Assets based on your personal performance, which can be distributed to further your chosen faction's influence. While it doesn't seem like much, the sense of community and promise of rewards it provides gives you higher sense of purpose.
In terms of performance, For Honor runs smoothly on both PS4 and Xbox One versions with little issues in stability online or off. The PC version runs well too, even on low to mid range hardware setups. You're given a slew of options to find the best balance between visual quality and frames per second. This is paramount since the game requires you to consistently run at a bare minimum of 30 fps in multiplayer.
After slaying countless foes, it’s clear the impact For Honor's combat has had; its fundamental tenets of discipline and restraint are bestowed upon you permanently, forever changing the way you perceive a melee-combat encounter in a game. In its highest moments, For Honor is difficult to put down. Its slow combat pace and narrative shortcomings might turn off those unwilling to take the time to dive deep into what it has to offer. However, make no mistake--those who do will be rewarded with some of the most satisfying multiplayer melee fighting conceived in recent years.
Diluvion is in that most tragic class of disappointing game: the kind with great ideas. There's so much to love and appreciate on the surface that the game's profound awkwardness and convoluted mechanics just hurt to experience.
It presents an unusual take on a post-apocalyptic society where humanity doesn't go to space or live in the nuclear wastes. Instead, they're forced to build civilization anew underwater, with steampunk-inspired submarines and habitats as their only means of shelter. Humanity's only hope of breaking through the oppressive ice above is a godlike ancient artifact lying at the bottom of the ocean.
As the captain of your own tiny vessel, you are tasked with recruiting a capable crew, building a ship strong enough to withstand the crushing ocean depths, and locating the powerful artifact before anyone else. As you creep your way to the bottom of the ocean, you'll often have a checklist of parts to grab, people to see, and enhancements to make. Much of your journey is spent scavenging supplies and key items in uncharted danger zones infested with landmines and sea creatures--and it's hard not to be affected by seeing how many other vessels tried and failed to infiltrate the same areas. One of the more chilling commonalities along the way is finding merchants who were stranded in isolated areas, waiting for someone to come along to give them the jump they needed to escape.
The game is at its unnerving best when it sends you into near-pitch blackness, with only the comfort of sonar to light the way toward your objective. Missions may be as simple as raiding a derelict ship, but even that might turn into a much different, frantic scramble away from unexpected danger. Being underwater, nothing in the world is particularly fast, but the management of resources to optimally escape a dangerous situation delivers great tension.
Thankfully, Diluvion isn't always fear and dread. The journey's gentle pace leads you to treasure every new landmark you come across--many awe-inspiring in either scale or design. Towns are elaborate wonders of construction. Most checkpoints are man-made structures overtaken by ice or algae. Diluvion's most notable accomplishment is its score, a beaut symphony that haunts every mile you journey in-game, accentuating the wonder in one scene, ratcheting up the tension in another. The more shallow sections of ocean are bright, wondrous places that you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly with a sense of peace and calm.
The ancillary, narrative experience of Diluvion is a fine one. It's the act of actually having to play the game that causes the whole thing to dissolve.
Interacting with other characters takes on a lighter tone, with the view switching from the artfully rendered 3D ocean to 2D when docking at towns or with other subs. There's an element of repetition here, since many of the stock NPCs are copy-pasted throughout the entire game, and most of them are interactive only to issue random grunts and sighs. The ones who do talk, however, speak in snappy, often funny lines of dialogue, with more than few characters worthy of endearing themselves over time--especially your erstwhile crew, who will interact not just with their captain but with each other when they're docked. The relationships tend to fall by the wayside as exploration ramps up, but it's always welcome when the game takes a breath and allows your helmsman to give the history of a new area or lets your crazy gunner talk rings around the submissive sonar expert. The ancillary, narrative experience of Diluvion is a fine one. It's the act of actually having to play the game that causes the whole thing to dissolve.
Diluvion is marred by unintuitive controls and one of the most needlessly convoluted user interfaces in recent memory. This is a problem that truly shows its ugly face when your sub is forced into a fight. Your attack options are limited to begin with: you can fire shrapnel--or later on, homing torpedoes--at your enemies, and maneuver slowly around them. That's about the extent of your tactics, and in practice, most naval battles in the game resemble less Assassin's Creed: Black Flag than a toddler crashing two submarine toys against each other going “pew-pew!” before eventually deciding one of them gets to win. Boss fights are well conceived, but once the initial shock of many of the creature designs fades away, you're left with the fact that all these problems multiply in the face of larger enemies. More powerful gun upgrades help later, but combat in general is a slapdash affair that builds dread for the wrong reasons.
When you're not fighting, you're exploring. You'll get a constant, easy-to-follow list of tasks for every mission, most of which just revolve around traveling to an unknown area and scanning for a particular type of resource. Errand-running aside, the game completely flounders when it comes to the actual act of navigating Diluvion's vast ocean. There is an in-game map that doesn’t actually show the player's location relative to any of the landmarks they've visited. Your waypoint function is a school of golden fish who come to help only when they feel like it and often swim through walls--something you cannot do. Checkpoints are frequently miles away from where you've traveled, and running out of air during the journey back is something that occurs frequently until you invest the hefty funds required to buy a new air tank. Occasionally, even if you are able to reach a specific location, the game has a nasty habit of not telling you that you need to hear a specific conversation before a particular event is actually triggered.
For every one fresh, intriguing, and delightful element Diluvion brings to the table, the act of getting to experience any of it is an exercise in frustration.
These are the problems that plague Diluvion, and far too often, the persistent state of your sub is “hopelessly lost.” The game tries to make you do some actual navigational heavy lifting, which is admirable, but you're stuck with a limited pool of resources (like air and food for the crew) that restrict how long you can spend out in the unknown before desperately needing to refuel.
And therein lies the true tragedy of Diluvion. For every one fresh, intriguing, and delightful element it brings to the table, the act of getting to experience any of it is an exercise in frustration. And while the story answers the questions posed at the outset, more often than not those answers aren’t worth the Sisyphean effort it takes to find them.
Halo Wars 2 lies somewhere in between an RTS game for Halo fans and a Halo game for RTS fans. It adapts Halo's FPS roots well, taking the series’ classic missions and reformatting them in ways that make sense for a strategy game without sacrificing accessibility. But ultimately, this is a very light RTS experience geared toward Halo veterans, not a robust strategy game, and it runs out of steam quickly.
Halo Wars 2 takes place nearly three decades after the first Halo Wars and chronologically after Halo 5. The crew of the Spirit of Fire emerges from cryosleep and is now taking on a rogue Brute faction called the Banished, rather than the Covenant. At the head is Atriox, a Brute known for his extensive cruelty, and you and your army are tasked with finding him and shutting him down. It’s an interesting story as a Halo fan in that it explores other aspects of the universe, but it doesn’t offer compelling revelations or necessary information for the main Halo storyline. There are, however, some gorgeous cutscenes that make following along worthwhile, and even when characters are saying some slightly cheesy action-movie lines, seeing the emotion in their faces is enough to get pulled back in.
Unfortunately, Halo Wars 2 never develops its characters in a meaningful way, which leaves cutscenes feeling more like eye candy than essential additions to the universe. But most pieces of the story feed into battle effectively. Pre-fight dialogue helps to prepare you for what you’re about to face--including why troops are in certain positions and why you have to defend specific points--and that’s useful when you’re still getting used to the structure of battle. The story integration is smart and not overdone, allowing you to find your footing without the feeling of being coddled by a tutorial.
The campaign consists of discrete missions based around capturing points, defending bases or troops, or surviving waves of enemies. You have control of the entire army, including manufacturing new troops and managing the two resources you need to fight: supply and power. There’s a bit of a balancing act involved when deciding when and how much to produce, and you often have to make those choices quickly. You can flip through different points of interest, like a group of units or your bases, with the D-pad, and battles that involve multiple fronts or more enemies require you to coordinate between those different points as fast as you can.
But Halo Wars 2’s campaign is at its best when it borrows from its FPS source material, and that’s most evident in its mission design. A Warthog sequence in the first mission feels like a bird’s eye version of the Warthog runs in Combat Evolved and 3, and the structure is comfortably familiar even if the big-picture strategy angle isn’t. Slower missions with snipers are bookended by chaotic horde battles in what feels like a typical Halo campaign played from a different perspective, rather than an RTS in its own right.
But Halo Wars 2 can often feel too stripped-down to be truly strategic. On the one hand, it’s accessible, but the campaign is only challenging in the final few missions and is a little anticlimactic. Unlike in Halo Wars 1, you can form custom groups of any combination of units, but you may not need that feature--despite it being a welcome addition--until one of the very last fights. Up until that point in the game, you can get by so long as you keep an eye on your opponent’s unit types and build an appropriate army to counter it, rock-paper-scissors style. Marines make good fodder, Cyclops units counter vehicles, Hellbringers have the upper hand on infantry, and so on. On the normal difficulty, the AI doesn’t seem terribly smart, and they only had an advantage over me when I wasn’t correctly armed (as opposed to flanking me or adapting much to the makeup of my army).
With this knowledge under your belt, which is really the main strategy element at the core of every battle, you can basically end a fight by sending all your troops to one location for an attack. It’s often easier and more effective to just double-tap the right bumper to select all of your units rather than try to separate them by unit type and form a truly organized offense. There are rare battles where you need to build the exact right units in the right amounts--and send each group to separate fronts all at once--to achieve victory, but for the most part, Halo Wars 2’s tactical hurdles are too low to be truly satisfying.
In multiplayer, the only important decision to make is which of several leader powers to pick--otherwise, the UNSC and Banished factions offer pretty similar tactical opportunities. But the modes cleverly take tried-and-true Halo FPS modes and adapt them for an entire army. Domination games--which involve capturing and holding a location, like the Territories mode in 2, 3, and Reach--are an arms race requiring a lot of resource management, for example. And if you’re used to drop-in FPS matches, Halo Wars 2’s RTS adaptations usually have a pretty quick pace, so you can still jump in and play a game or two even if you’re short on time.
Matches are generally hectic enough to be exciting, but that streamlined, FPS-inspired nature of battle is only entertaining for so long. Because options are pretty limited, particularly with control inputs on the gamepad and the several leader powers you can select before the match, there’s only so many possibilities to react to and counter. Once you’ve ironed out a general plan of attack and gotten resource management mastered, there’s not much left. Other than that, Blitz mode is interesting, putting an RTS spin on Halo’s deck-building card game--so instead of being turn-based like most CCGs, you’re using cards on the go and managing things like resource drops. Of course, without a solid RTS foundation for the game at large, that doesn’t mean much for Blitz, and like the rest of Halo Wars 2, it’s not deep enough to have legs.
Halo Wars 2 carries forth enough of the series' beloved elements to make any fan of Halo feel right at home at first, but not in the long run. It’s palatable for those used to the FPS games, taking inspiration from favorite missions and putting a strategic spin on them; but just when things become more challenging and actually interesting, it runs out of steam.
Playing Divide is akin to experiencing deja vu over the course of several hours. It’s built on a promising sci-fi premise, but each new area, encounter, and objective feels cyclical and repetitive to the point of tedium and frustration.
Divide's story blends elements of corporate greed, familial ties, and time travel with David at the center; a widower left sorting through the mess left behind when his wife passes away. After receiving an urgent message from a man who worked with his late wife, David takes his daughter Arly and meets with the man, who gives David a suitcase without explaining what’s inside. In the midst of a weird mishap with the strange technology inside the case, David is separated from his daughter and flung into the future, where he teams up with a young woman named Eris trying to escape a planet dominated by corporate control.
Divide is an isometric game with elements of RPGs and twin-stick shooters. It’s a unique blend for a narrative-driven sci-fi game, and it oscillates between interesting and maddeningly dull. The main mechanic is driven by a pair of contacts David wears that allow him to interact with technology in the world via an augmented-reality UI. Using these contacts, he can hack into servers, upload data, control aspects of the environment, and even amass new abilities to interact with enemies.
It works well--until it doesn’t. The contacts don’t become activated until you guide a reticle around David’s body using the right analog stick, and although it’s satisfying to discover new points of interaction in the environment--sort of like a digital treasure hunt--it’s frustrating to use the interface in any capacity other than fixed objects. Attempting to use it on an enemy proved fatal on multiple occasions when I’d fixate on one foe and attempt to hack them, only to have them move slightly and completely throw my alignment--and thus my aiming--off. The sensitivity can be adjusted, but it feels awkward regardless.
These problems are amplified by Divide’s poor communication of objectives and location. A majority of the game is spent wandering aimlessly in sterile, repetitive environments, each looking practically identical to another in layout and presentation. The level map is difficult to read, the purpose and significance of different icons and actions aren’t clearly specified, and clues are easily missed in seemingly throwaway conversations with NPCs.
The level flow follows a familiar pattern of wandering around the environment looking for specific terminals and uploading information to gain clearance to a new areas. Divide offers flavors of Metroid-style backtracking, but instead of new weapons or abilities used to progress, you’re rewarded with a clearance that allows you to unlock doors. The similarly constructed environments mixed with just a handful of occasional new elements and abilities to break up the pacing make Divide feel like one long, homogenized experience. Wandering around an area without any clear direction or information quickly becomes tedious and frustrating.
Divide has a solid sci-fi hook, and like many forms of science fiction, it explores multiple themes in its Philip K. Dick-style narrative: the dangers of capitalism, corporate greed, maintaining a healthy family dynamic, and a humanist view of freedom from oppression. It explores all these elements to varying degrees of success. It’s easy to sympathize with Eris accompanying David, who wants nothing more than to escape the planet and the overreach of its techno-fascist state. The interactions with David and his daughter are believable and, at times, gut-wrenching, especially when they venture into discussion about her mother and her fierce dedication to work. Even the villains have a delightfully evil charm and chew an appropriate amount of scenery with glee.
Divide stretches on for a bit longer than it probably should, but the strengths of the story are heightened by decent writing and voice performances throughout. Conversations feel organic and real, line deliveries have a satisfying amount of emotion, and each character comes across as genuine. But the strength of the story is undermined by a game that poorly communicates necessary information and is built on repetition to the point that it loses the personality contained within the characters. If there’s a second meaning to the title, it describes the division between a strong narrative and mediocre gameplay that would’ve been better served with more variety and direction throughout.
For a very abridged version of a very deep series, Fire Emblem Heroes is initially engaging in that it has hooks for two different kinds of players: for fans, the hope of randomly unlocking a favorite character, and for newcomers to the series, an accessible and fun introduction to its turn-based battle tactics. But it also doesn’t do much beyond that, and if you’re somewhere in between those two archetypes, it doesn’t give a compelling reason for you to stick with it.
Playing Fire Emblem Heroes consists mainly of engaging in battles to earn Orbs and then using those Orbs to unlock characters from previous Fire Emblem games at random. There are several currencies to manage and a layered leveling system, but that’s the basic feedback loop. Win a battle, collect an Orb, and hope for a good character (or your favorite) to unlock; if you don’t get what you want, keep trying. What’s missing is why.
Heroes adapts the series’ tactical gameplay for mobile by lowering the difficulty enough to increase the pace of battle. Fire Emblem is known for turn-based strategy on a battlefield, punishing perma-death, and RPG-style character and story development. Heroes features simplified combat without perma-death, and it has a minimal story that isn’t at all interesting without previous Fire Emblem knowledge.
I breezed through the first few chapters with no problems aside from having a weak party initially, and it was a good warm-up after a long break from Fire Emblem. Battles themselves play really well on touchscreen thanks to intuitive controls, and dropping in for a few minutes while on a break makes sense and is definitely an entertaining way to spend some downtime. As the challenges get harder, executing the right strategy can take some serious trial and error, and finding a solution to a tricky map or tough enemies is satisfying.
Trying to unlock new characters, however, is more of a drag. If you have a bad party due to unlucky character drafts, pulling new, stronger allies is the best way to get the upper hand in high-difficulty battles. In the beginning, you can use reward items from completing challenges to quickly level up whoever you want to use. But if you hit a bit of bad RNG, that can mean a lot of grinding--and there are diminishing returns on how fun a battle can be when you’re only doing it to avoid paying real money for Orbs so you can keep getting more characters.
Of course, it’s like that on purpose, since that’s often how free-to-play games turn a profit. But if you’re not terribly invested in unlocking Tharja or Camilla or Marth, then the only reason to keep playing is for the battles. Before I’d put together a strong team, I started to lose interest in playing; but once I pulled good characters, I had a hard time putting my phone down. It’s very tempting to keep playing thanks to Heroes’ quick grind-reward loop, and when I wasn’t spending Orbs on characters, I was using them to fill my Stamina--a separate currency you need in order to battle which refills over time in typical mobile game fashion.
While I never felt forced to buy Orbs, I did end up spending money on them once I started battling for extended periods of time. Playing for more than a few battles in a row meant needing (and buying) more Orbs--and that’s when I decided I would much rather just play Awakening instead, where there’s more of a challenge and my favorite characters are more fleshed out.
When the incentive to keep playing is to be able to keep playing, it’s easy to burn out on Fire Emblem Heroes. Aside from obtaining your favorite characters--if you even care about that--Fire Emblem Heroes becomes less and less rewarding as time goes on. Grinding can only be fun for so long before chasing rare allies becomes a chore, and in that sense it caters to two ends of a wide spectrum while offering little incentive for anyone in between.
There's always been something voyeuristic about sniping in video games. With a powerful rifle in hand, you're perched in some bombed-out tower overlooking a Nazi-occupied town, your crosshairs fixated squarely on the head of an enemy soldier as he strides along his designated patrol route. He has no idea that with one pull of the trigger, you're about to send a bullet careening through flesh and bone, snuffing out his young life in a single, gory instant. It's in these moments, when an unaware enemy is trained in your sights and you take a deep breath before pulling the trigger on a skull-shattering killshot, that make Rebellion's Sniper Elite such a devilish joy. Where the series has regularly faltered, however, is in the moments between these euphoric, long-range kills, where it has often been a cumbersome chore just to get around in a stealthy manner. With Sniper Elite 4, Rebellion has changed all that.
This starts with the levels themselves. In Sniper Elite 3, Rebellion abandoned the linearity of previous series entries in favour of opening things up, and Sniper Elite 4 continues that trend in grand fashion. The smallest map in Sniper Elite 4 is three times the size of the largest one seen in its predecessor, and these expansive sandboxes are brimming with open-ended objectives you can choose to complete in any way you desire and in any order you please. They're varied locales, too, stretching across picturesque Italian landscapes on the verge of invasion: from the sunswept isolation of a cavernous island off the coast, to the narrow confines of an opulent beachfront town, to the dense overgrowth found in the heart of a verdant forest. Each one teeming with fascists just waiting to be extinguished with a well-placed bullet.Click image to view in full screen
And these massive playgrounds aren't just big for the sake of it; they grease the cogs of every other aspect of Sniper Elite 4's design. Collectibles and advantageous sniping positions are judiciously dotted around each map, encouraging you to explore, and the macabre satisfaction of sniping is increased tenfold when you're able to execute a pinpoint headshot from as far as 400 metres away. Sniper Elite's signature X-ray kills return in all their morbid glory here--now with even more detail--and it's a particular treat to see a bullet travel over these extensive distances before colliding with an enemy's skull, the hot lead bursting through eyeballs and sending a mixture of brain matter and skull fragments scattering onto the floor. This may sound tasteless, but the series' grisly ballistics are still second to none--and there's something wonderfully schlocky about rupturing an enemy's scrotum from 200 metres away.
Getting into these fruitful sniping positions isn't the chore it once was either. There's a newfound responsiveness to protagonist Karl Fairburne's movement that makes it easier to get around and stay hidden. This polishing of the underlying mechanics makes tiptoeing across these mammoth spaces enjoyable in itself. There's a decent degree of verticality to each map, too, and you now have the ability to utilize it by clambering up specific surfaces, jumping across gaps, and climbing in and out of windows to navigate with increased freedom--not to mention the ability to wipe out a few enemies with some stealthy ledge takedowns. Environmental kills also play a part, whether it's a convenient red barrell or a rickety-looking bridge, and foliage is often a welcome aid to keep you out of sight from curious Nazi eyes.
With the structure (or lack thereof) of its open-ended mission design, there's also a clear emphasis on experimentation. This is never more evident than with the two-pronged function of each item in your deep-pocketed arsenal. For distraction devices, this means you can switch between throwing rocks to lure enemies to a specific area, or a whistle that will bring them straight to you. Where it really gets fun, however, is with the bevy of explosives in your stockpile. Equip landmine, for example, and you can set it to detonate after one press or two. The former will see it explode the moment it's stood on, which is ideal for a single enemy; while the latter detonates after two steps, making it perfect for dealing with groups. Rig one up with two presses in, say, a doorway, and the delayed blast radius is liable to take out three or four enemies, rather than just the first guy to enter the room. Once you start booby trapping bodies, this devious feature really comes into its own.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the sniper rifle's secondary function: suppressed rounds. These trade dramatic bullet drop-off for silent sniper fire, giving you the flexibility to use the game's standout feature with much more frequency. This was actually an issue in Sniper Elite 3, where it often felt like there were too few chances to use the sniper rifle without alerting everyone to your position, almost encouraging you to stick with the silenced pistol. There are still opportunities to mask the loud crack of your rifle with malfunctioning generators or the thundering noise of Luftwaffe flying overhead, which is the ideal way to silently pop skulls. But in areas where this isn't always possible, you now have the option to snipe with far more regularity, which is key in a game built around doing just that.
If you are spotted and the bullets start flying, pulling out your Thompson and going toe-to-toe with the bloodthirsty fascists isn't as clunky or frustrating as it has been previously. There's a fluidity to the way the game shifts from stealth to action and then back again. And while its cover-based shooting is merely competent at best, its viability as a messy plan B for when things go awry is very much appreciated--which, once again, traces back to the size of the levels themselves. Every objective essentially occupies a pocket of space on these vast maps. Once you're inside one of these pockets, you can cause as much mayhem and destruction as you please, and the rest of the enemies dotted across the level will be none the wiser. This allows you to go in all guns blazing and savour each violent moment, safe in the knowledge that you won't have to worry about the rest of the mission being full of Nazis on high alert. It's a smart choice.
The AI shows a marked improvement over its predecessors in situations similar to this. They'll attempt to triangulate your position based on the sound of gunfire, and officers will command their troops to overwhelm you if they have your location locked down. Inconsistency is a common menace, though, and they're not always the brightest bunch. There were a number of occasions where I would simply circle around an area after being spotted, only to find a bundle of enemies cowering behind cover near my last known position. With all of their backs turned, it was easy pickings. In other instances I've killed an enemy whose body is quickly discovered by one of his buddies. Naturally, I kill him while he's examining it, which garners the attention of another guard, and you can probably tell where I'm going with this. Guard after guard after guard; each one brazenly disregarding the growing pile of corpses to wade into my line of sight.
If you want a harder challenge from the occasional bungling enemy, the “Authentic” difficulty setting strips away all of the handy assists and extends the life of the campaign with a steep learning curve. You'll probably want to skip all of the cutscenes a second time through, though. The plot is completely forgettable; a stereotypical World War II tale, with an unhinged Nazi villain, and a superweapon only our gruff American hero can stop. Some surface level details touch on the Italian resistance and the mafia's role in the war, but it never delves deep enough to be particularly enlightening or engaging as a story. Beyond the beautiful Italian landscapes, the setting isn't exploited as much as one might hope.
Sniper Elite 4 feels like a natural progression for this series, as Rebellion continues to refine its systems and put a greater emphasis on the long-range shooting
Multiplayer serves up a plethora of game modes spread across competitive and cooperative offerings. Control asks teams to battle for supremacy over an ever-moving control point, disregarding the sniper rifle in favour of some up-close-and-personal skirmishes. This sits in stark contrast to the rest of the competitive modes, which are predominantly marksman affairs. If you enjoy cautiously moving across maps with an eye open for the glint of an enemy scope, then there will be something here for you. I can't say I've ever regularly enjoyed sniping in multiplayer shooters, so entire matches based around this style of combat aren't for me. Killing a human player from the opposite side of a map is still immensely satisfying, but these moments are so few and far between, it was never enough to hold my attention for too long.
Survival fares much better, as up to four players work together to withstand increasingly challenging waves of enemies-- à la Horde mode. As snipers, distance is a key advantage, and it's fun finding an opportune location to seek shelter and pick off each wave of progressively difficult Nazis. In a unique twist, the supply box you use to replenish your ammunition also moves to a different location every few waves, forcing you to get creative with your trap placement, and discover new areas to camp out. Once mortar fire, tanks, and heavily-armoured units rain down upon you, it can get incredibly tense.
Sniper Elite 4 feels like a natural progression for this series, as Rebellion continues to refine its systems and put a greater emphasis on the long-range shooting it does so well. Its stealth and action mechanics may be simplistic, but they're functional and regularly enjoyable. And the maps--with their impressive scale, open-ended objectives, and clever level design--coalesce these disparate systems into a creative and fulfilling whole. There are still some issues with AI inconsistency, a bland story, and some dull competitive multiplayer, but it finally feels like this series is living up to its long-standing potential.
In Arc System Works’ revival of the classic Double Dragon series, we have evidence that some video game throwbacks can be too authentic for their own good. Double Dragon IV is a direct sequel to the NES version of Double Dragon II (oddly not Double Dragon III)--and when we say "direct," we mean it. This is an odd game that, quite literally, could’ve appeared on the 30-year-old system and felt right at home.
While this might sound great in theory if you have nostalgia for the 8-bit era, reality tells a different story. The original Double Dragon games still hold a special place in many an older gamer’s heart, but they are products of their time. Later side-scrolling brawlers would vastly surpass the primitive action of the series' Lee brothers. Capcom’s Final Fight and especially Sega’s Streets of Rage would go on to take the mantle of top brawlers in the 1990s, so seeing a sequel to the NES version in 2017 is a bit strange.
Double Dragon IV staunchly replicates the NES games' graphics and mechanics, complete with incredibly annoying screen tearing and flickering. Characters are crudely drawn, hit detection is sketchy, and the gameplay itself wavers between mindless and unfair. Some enemies stand around senselessly or rush blindly at you, and others start attacking with projectiles before they even appear onscreen. Compared to a modern brawler, the moveset--though slightly enhanced since the early ’90s--is limited. You have a punch, kick, jump kick, and a couple of minor “special” moves like an uppercut. Regardless, you can get through most levels by spamming basic attacks.
Repetition has always been a problem with brawlers, but Double Dragon IV really doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like the originals, it takes around 35 to 45 minutes to complete. Levels are short, transition story panels are slight, and while the scenery changes, there’s not a lot of variety in the level design.
In light of a few sections that require pixel-perfect accuracy on your part, Double Dragon IV's stiff controls add an unnecessary layer of frustration to seemingly simple platforming. At one point, there’s an odd level inside a freight ship that includes spiked ceilings and traps, that lead to a lot of annoying instant deaths. Tricky level design isn't unusual for Double Dragon, but unfortunately, it serves to highlight how sluggish the controls are.
So, Double Dragon IV isn’t a good game in a modern sense, but it certainly is an honest trip back in time that will, if nothing else, offer a heavy dose of nostalgia for anyone with a fondness for the Lee Brothers' 8-bit adventures. Frankly, it mimics its source material perfectly. It’s a worthwhile historical artifact if nothing else, but absolutely cannot match the vast improvements in gaming since those early days.
Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach is a tough game to play. It's a turn-based strategy game packed with great ideas pulled straight from its namesake tabletop game, but it buries the good bits under layers of awful user interfaces, poor artificial intelligence, threadbare aesthetics, and a ton of bugs.
On the surface, Sanctus Reach seems like it'd be easy enough to pull together. You only have two factions to manage: the iconic Space Marines and the bloodthirsty Orks. Once a match starts, each player has a preset number of points they can spend on the units and gear they'd like to take into battle. Options are varied and run the gamut between colossal Dreadnoughts and packs of Goblins. After each side picks its warriors, players take turns moving across the board with the aim of controlling as many victory points as possible. Bouts are engaging, and depending upon your initial choices, you'll have a small array of strategic options at your disposal. Unfortunately, almost everything outside of that core is painful and frustrating. And it starts with the menus.
Starting a match in Sanctus Reach is a tedious process. At a point where players should be raring to go, excited for all the possibilities to come, menus with almost nonexistent tool tips bog and frustrate. Outside of the campaign--where you're railroaded into a series of rough-hewn maps--skirmishes and multiplayer games start you off with a few options. Most of these, like the size of the map, are simple enough. Others, however, don’t make any sense unless you’re a seasoned player, as they don’t get any cogent explanation.
The game fails to demonstrate which troops do what or what types of foes they're effective against. Match length is unpredictable and the objective of each game mode is unclear. Options include "Attack," "Defend," "Meeting Engagement," and "Symmetric." None of those, on their own, explain their effects at the start.
Granted, some of that goes away with experimentation, but the bulk of the game's tutorials are in YouTube videos. They explain things in a direct, easy-to-understand manner, but they're not available in the game itself. You can access these videos from the game's splash screen, or click an in-game link that closes the program and launches your browser. Instructions within the game are insufficient as they are, and it’s unfortunate that you need to leave the game entirely to learn the inner workings of its mechanics.
Even with the video tutorials, however, you’ll encounter situations you won’t quite understand. A Dreadnought (Warhammer speak for monstrous exosuit) can stand right next to a cadre of Orks, unable to attack. You might think it's because line-of-sight is blocked, but there’s nothing preventing you from attacking. The Orks will shoot up your mechanical walker several times before you can reposition, and before you know it, you’ve lost one of your most expensive units. It’s impossible to tell if there’s some mystery mechanic that’s never explained or if it’s a bug.
Those bumps notwithstanding, matches do show some promise. Depending on the composition of your team, you'll have tactical options (though, again, you don't know what those are without experimentation) that range from area-of-effect attacks to suppressing fire to specialized melee abilities. Your only goal is to scout control points and hold onto them with your units’ various abilities. Depending upon whether you're attacking or defending, you can charge forward, blowing holes in walls and destroying your foes' cover, or you can hunker down and prepare ambushes for the invaders. Regardless, this is where Sanctus Reach's scant strengths show.
Most units have a few different means of attack. Some have heavy weapons and melee options, while others are fast shock troops that switch between pistols and grenades. Your goal is to leverage each of their abilities and organize your teams into tight groups that work well with one another in order to clinch victory. Pairing units that complement one another--like vehicles that can hit hard and move fast with flamethrowers that can wreak havoc on swarms of enemies--is crucial. And the combination of troop variations with map obstacles often creates intriguing decisions. You can hold a defensive position in a bombed-out building, whittling enemies down as they approach before you blow through a wall to continue on to the next control point.
As fun as that can be, you won't have to wait long for it to wear a bit thin. Whether you're in the campaign or in skirmish/multiplayer modes, you're always dealing with control points. Turn timers put a hard cap on how long games last, too, so rushing tactics are the only real option. There's no total elimination and no multi-part missions with creative or varied goals.
Making matters worse, the game’s AI is laughable. Often, Orkish hordes will march straight into an obvious trap, and then, once their soldiers have been reduced to mangled, bloody bodies, they'll send another detachment without any additional precautions or changes to tactics. The developers have openly acknowledged some of these problems, but at time of this review, it's a big drag on a game that desperately needs some more marks in its favor.
Sanctus Reach is frustrating enough with poor tutorials, bugs, and awful AI, but that’s all magnified by bland aesthetics that blur together. Many units look similar, textures are grainy and pixelated, and many screens have low-resolution backgrounds. It's not usually an issue, but graphical oversights of all types abound and can make it difficult to recognize units and unit types, as well as hinder the legibility of tool-tip pop-ups.
Even if you can get past its many shortcomings, Sanctus Reach has some of the weirdest bugs I've ever seen. In my time with it, I found that the game wouldn't always maintain full-screen priority. Without warning, it would shift into the background and bring up a web browser or word processor. It would also lock up on occasion, and when trying to Ctrl-Alt-Delete to close, I'd get a Sanctus Reach-specific error code saying that it had a "Fatal Application Exit." Crashes like this were rare, as was the automatically shifting window priority, but they add even more frustration to an already flawed game.
Sanctus Reach does offer a handful of decent moments. I chuckled when I reduced a squadron of Orks to bloody puddles, and again when I managed what at first seemed an impossible incursion. But these flashes of satisfaction aren't enough to hold up a game that’s mediocre at best and vexing at worst. Together with a host of minor annoyances, they add up to a long, dull stint with a bad game from a great franchise that deserves far better treatment.
Nioh is an immensely layered experience. Through its Dark Souls-inspired combat, you're taught the virtues of patience and the value of defense. With each death, you learn a bit more about yourself and your enemy. This Team Ninja production, set during a time of great social upheaval in Japan, demonstrates the studio's penchant for demanding action-driven gameplay that rewards tactics and high dexterity. And despite all the inevitable dying, Nioh is surprisingly rich with solutions to overcome its many hurdles.
Koei Tecmo's fondness for Japan's tumultuous Sengoku period is on full display in Nioh. The unusual foreign point of view of protagonist William Adams adds freshness to this familiar setting. Adams' real life notoriety as the first Western samurai is the kernel that allows the game to glorify him as a knowledgeable user of Japanese melee weaponry. His path to combat proficiency is partly motivated by his pursuit of antagonist and occultist Edward Kelley, also an English historical figure. Both are searching for Amrita, a type of magical stone abundant in Japan that is thought to have the power to turn the tide in Queen Elizabeth I's favor in her war against Spain.
Death is featured heavily, not just in the frequency of player failures but also in the war torn lands Adams explores. Many of Nioh's levels feel like you've walked into an imaginary epilogue of an Akira Kurosawa film. The extensiveness of ruin and the littering of corpses are complemented by a recurring musical theme that effectively captures the solemnness of what remains.
These devastated landscapes is also a breeding ground for hostile yokai, demons and creatures heavily inspired by Japanese folklore. Like the Onimusha and Toukiden series, Team Ninja puts their own spin on these fantastic beasts. There's great imagination on display as Adams confronts unusually agile ogres and homicidal ravens decorated like Buddhist monks. There's much to marvel at in the otherworldliness of the yokai's designs when you're not too busy dodging their deadly attacks.
The demands and challenges of melee combat in Nioh cannot be overstated. Assuming your character level isn't significantly higher than the recommended level of a given mission, some enemies can kill you with a single stroke. By the same token, there's always a chance, however unlikely, you'll clear a chapter without a scratch. At times, enemies fight with the unpredictability of a PvP match. It's normally comforting when you can recognize the beginning animations of a enemy combo. Yet there's another layer of difficulty when that foe can switch up attacks mid-combo, a common occurrence in Nioh. You'll sometimes wish you could compliment these enemies for their cunning--that is until you throw your controller from dying at the hands of a boss for the twentieth time.
Nioh is at its most elegant when you're engaged in a one-on-one duel. Many enemies telegraph a lot of information even before they attempt their first strike. By studying their stances, you can deduce what attacks tend to result from those poses. Their outfits also offer hints on capabilities. Sword-wielding fishermen attack with two-handed labored lunges, making them frequently open to attack. Decorated and well-armored veteran samurai show more discipline and attack with greater efficiency. As you gain experience with a sword, you'll have an easier time anticipating the attacks of other sword-wielders, since many use the same stances and techniques as Adams. Being able to read your enemy and emerge victorious thanks to all this visual information provides some of Nioh's most gratifying moments. Between the occasional compulsion to fight honorably and the potential for one-hit kills, Nioh is the closest a game has gotten to recapturing the unique intensity of Squaresoft's Bushido Blade series.
At its most fundamental level, survival in Nioh is about managing stamina--known in the game as ki--which determines how frequently you can attack an enemy. To complicate matters, enemies often create ki dead zones where stamina does not replenish. The beauty of Nioh is how it's chocked full of countermeasures that deal with such obstacles. In the case of these dead zones, potential solutions include stamina enhancing consumables and ki-specific weapon enhancements. For the most dexterous players, a quick shoulder button press after a combo can potentially boost stamina recovery. And the fact that enemies are equally limited by stamina creates tactical and exploitable opportunities one seldom encounters in these types of games. Like a scene straight out of a samurai film, there's a sense realism when you and a foe are huffing and temporarily immobile from stamina-depleted exhaustion. That's followed with heightened suspense, knowing that one of you will fall once you both catch your breath.
Just as enemies have tricks that extend beyond melee combat, Nioh empowers you through a wealth of resources and choices that only expands as you make progress. A single weapon is capable of over a dozen types of attacks, organized and spread across a trio of battle stances. You acquire new weapons through a Diablo-inspired loot drop system, where myriad stats and special effects ensure that no two weapons are alike. Five melee weapons types, a selection of firearms, and non-samurai abilities like magic can be a lot to take in. Yet given Nioh's optional quests and the ability to replay completed missions, you can take your time to get your footing and learn what tactics work for you before advancing to the next mainline chapter. And even if these resources aren't enough for you to vanquish a boss in your first or tenth attempt, level grinding works as a viable solution.
Options for success further expand with the inclusion of cooperative play, available after completing the initial chapters. This isn't co-op in the traditional sense since there's no way two friends can experience new story chapters together. In order for a guest to be eligible for a host's story mission, the guest needs to have already completed that mission. This, unfortunately, nerfs what could have been a stimulating session. Save for a slight increase in boss' health bars, difficulty does not ramp up in co-op. The guest, armed with information on a map's layout and the boss' tactics, can help turn a chapter that would normally take three hours into a 15-minute jaunt.
Regardless how you choose to progress, the immense variety in environments is reflected in the thoughtful pacing of what will be an 80 hour playthrough for many. Nioh doesn't escalate in intensity with every subsequent mainline mission, although the endgame is rightfully brutal. Instead, there's a rhythmic ebb and flow as you advance through the story. For example, after an exhausting two-chapter skirmish on a ravaged battlefield, you're greeted with a less demanding yet still challenging trek through a lush and foggy forest with enemy ninja encampments. These reprieves from the more intense missions add depth to the campaign.
Each area exudes its own sense of character not just by conveying widespread destruction in its detailed backgrounds but also by challenging you with environmental puzzles. The chapter based in the Iga, for instance, capitalizes on the region's reputation as a nest of shinobi and a playground of stealth. It's a level loaded with enough hidden doors and confusing passages that you might need graph paper to make sense of the level. Adding to these engrossing complexities is a section that can be literally flipped, where the floor becomes the ceiling and vice versa. And these do not take into account all the ninjas hiding around corners and behind sliding doors. Iga is just one location that showcases Nioh's impressive labyrinthine maps, of which there are many. And much like the Dark Souls games that inspired much of Nioh's level design, having a fastidious exploratory mindset helps reveal a location's many shortcuts, the discoveries of which are always satisfying.
It is though exploration that you increase your chances of finding weapons and items, often by searching through the seemingly countless corpses strewn throughout the game. The final words of the dead echo in Adams' head, often providing clues to nearby dangers. The fallen are additionally represented by the gravemarkers of other Nioh players with a note of their respective cause of death. These serve as warnings to the living, whether it's a hint of a nearby cliff or a difficult yokai ahead.
Although the spectre of potential failure hangs heavy over any play session, dying in Nioh is never genuinely disheartening. This is thanks in part to the various avenues of character growth and many approaches you can utilize to tackle a difficult section or boss fight. It shouldn't be surprising that the foresight and patience needed to survive a battle in Dark Souls translates well to the fundamentals of samurai combat here. Nioh's most invigorating and intimidating moments occur when you feel you're at equal footing with your opponent. And it's during these encounters that one careless move can result in your demise or the right string of thoughtful actions can make you feel invincible.