This review has been updated to reflect XCOM 2's re-release on PS4 and Xbox One, which released on September 27, 2016:
Time is always fading in XCOM 2, and it's never on our side. As we train our next soldier, drop them into battle, and fight for humanity's survival, we can only make the best of the minutes we have left. We'll probably fail. But we'll move on anyway.
Following in the footsteps of 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, its sequel is a brutal, unforgiving turn-based strategy title played on a strategic world map and isometric battlefields. XCOM 2 places us in command of the human Resistance as they rise up against the Advent, an alien regime that has governed Earth for 20 years. As opposed to the soldiers of Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2's rebellion is on the offensive. We're no longer staunch defenders--we're a desperate guerilla force.
This new script supports numerous tweaks to the XCOM formula, all for the better. We're still building an army, researching new technologies, and putting them to use in squad-based strategy missions. But these missions are less about repelling the aliens, and more about sabotaging their global operations whenever we can. We loot supply trains and intercept communications signals to halt the Advent's plan for human eradication. XCOM 2 ties its narrative and gameplay together in such a way that every mission feels critical, and every shot carries weight.
The mission objectives have changed, but so have the ways we approach them. XCOM 2 implements a new concealment mechanic, in which your soldiers drop into most missions unnoticed, allowing you to sneak past enemies or coordinate attacks on unsuspecting patrols.The Viper is one of several new enemy types. Fighting them is terrifying.
This further elevates the idea of guerilla warfare, but also allows for exhilarating ambushes, as you lob grenades into groups, fire machine gun rounds as enemies scatter, and pick off stragglers before they have a chance to react. Initiating firefights takes just as much consideration as finishing them.
XCOM 2 also uses procedural map and objective generation to ensure a different mission each time your squad leaves the dropship. You'll defend new rooftops and sneak through different alleyways in each campaign. This dynamism, coupled with the aforementioned stealth mechanics, extend XCOM 2's longevity far past that of Enemy Unknown, in which missions grew boring several campaigns in.
In fact, the entirety of XCOM 2 unfolds in original ways each time you play. It's a multilayered experience wherein each level displays nuance, but also contributes to an amorphous, ever-changing whole.
XCOM 2's strategy layer imparts the same urgency as the tactical battles on the ground.
The squad firefights lay the foundation: there are tactical considerations, from the elevation of the battlefield to the sightlines of the map's structures. Then there are the character classes, each with a world of possibilities to consider: the specialist can hack Advent security towers and buff your squad in the field. The grenadier's carrying capacity makes him the pack mule of the group. The ranger's blade makes her a lethal close-quarters force. The psi operative, on the other hand, uses the alien mind control powers against the Advent, turning firefights into psychological battlegrounds.Character customization lets you control everything from your soldiers' loadouts to their nationality.
The sheer amount of factors affecting any firefight is staggering, raising numerous questions as I move across the map: how many aliens are there? Does my specialist have any medkits left? Who has the highest armor rating in my squad? Should I leave my sniper in overwatch, or move her forward with the rest of her crew? And how can I flank that Sectoid before it uses its mind control abilities to turn my ranger against me?
More often than not, there's a timer pushing you forward, counting the turns until your target escapes, or the aliens extract their secret data. There's always something to worry about, something to consider, some way things could go wrong as you fight to keep your squad alive. In many cases, I opted for retreat: by throwing down flares I could extract my remaining soldiers back to base. If objectives became impossible to reach, saving my valuable fighters became paramount in the grand scheme of things.
XCOM 2's overarching strategy layer imparts the same sense of urgency, and a similar bevy of obstacles. As we move the humans' mobile Avenger base across the globe, establishing links with other rebel cells, we also fight the aliens' plan to erase humanity, indicated by a crimson progress bar at the top of the world map. A real sense of tension forces us to maintain a constant state of motion, whether by freeing a waylaid country, researching new alien weaponry, or rushing production on a crucial new structure.The strategy aspect is almost as important, as you make contact with rebel cells, and build your overall economy.
Underlying all of this is a more personal current. We grow attached to individual soldiers as they perform spectacular feats and rise in the ranks. We get to know their loadouts and what equipment they carry. We rely on our best leaders to stay composed, and root for rookies to prove themselves. XCOM 2 may be a war game, but it doesn't ignore the boots on the ground--strategy plans are only as good as the soldiers putting them into action.
Take Lieutenant Micky Taylor, for instance. He died in the snow at 6:53 p.m. outside of my disabled helibase, just outside of Kansas City. The mission was to destroy an EMP device that was preventing us from taking off, while also keeping the Advent away from our landing pad. With enemy Vipers poisoning my rangers, hulking Mutons wounding my grenadiers, and mechanical Sectopod mechs bombarding my medics, I balanced offense and defense, accounting for every eventuality as the mission unfolded. Things went well. But then I sent Taylor into cover as the rest of his squad rushed to the evac zone. He was the only one who didn't make it. It was his 23rd mission.
I remember that scenario because of its clever design, but also because it's where I lost my best soldier. In the end, XCOM 2 is fantastic not just because of its refined individual layers, but how seamlessly they interact. We think on different levels during playthroughs, bouncing between the commander's chair, the scientist's lab, and the sergeant's eyes. If Enemy Unknown was a chess game, the sequel adds more pieces--and more spaces--to the board.
We think on multiple levels in XCOM 2, bouncing between the commander's chair, the scientist's lab, and the sergeant's eyes.
Every once in a while, however, XCOM 2's difficulty surpasses challenging, and becomes unfair. For the most part, enemies abide by the same restrictions we do. But sometimes, they shoot through walls and dodge point-blank shotgun bursts. The cards are already stacked against us in most campaigns, and part of the fun is overcoming those odds--but when the enemy AI ignores the rules, the game loses its appeal. Furthermore, XCOM suffers from certain technical glitches: the action halted during action-camera sequences, and in certain cases, I felt as if the game was overwhelmed. My soldiers' reaction shots didn't trigger when they should have, and enemies' attacks happened all at once, or weren't shown at all.
But the vast majority of the time XCOM 2 performs well and the difficulty is fair. We will make mistakes--but that's the point. Failure is not just a possibility in XCOM 2, it's a necessary presence. This is the rare game that's less about choices, and more about the consequences thereafter: we play, we learn, we strive to get better. The entire process is a stunning display of meaningful failure.
So time keeps ticking in XCOM 2, and the best we can do is make the right choices when we have the chance. XCOM 2 imparts the weight of those decisions, and that's what makes it extraordinary. It's mathematical, emotional, and thoughtful all at once. It's exhilarating, even in the face of failure. It's compelling, even though we often lose. Victory is the goal, but that's just an afterthought here--it's the complex journey that counts.
Now that XCOM 2 has made its way to consoles, these sentiments remain the same. Some technical issues have migrated from this year’s PC release: characters sometimes freeze in place while the turn progresses; soldiers can take almost 10 seconds to execute commands; and cutscenes have a tendency to drop frame rates throughout campaigns. But the layered tactics, impactful meta-game, and deep character-building are all intact on PS4 and Xbox One. XCOM 2 remains a superb strategy title.
Being consistently good can bring its own problems. Among the highlight gameplay changes in this year's FIFA we have: better throw-ins, low driven shots, and the ability to control the ball from a long keeper kick. Welcome improvements, sure, but still, pity the guy making them sound exciting in the press release.
Maybe that's why FIFA 17, a football game that checks all the usual boxes you’d expect of an already successful annual sports title--trimming, tidying, domination by iteration--also throws in a more glamorous and unexpected addition: The Journey.
The Journey is a new story-based mode centering on Alex Hunter, a young player breaking into professional football. It’s built from a mix of gameplay, dialogue, and cutscenes, which depict Alex’s evolving relationships with his family and teammates and, ultimately, whether his talent is enough to kickstart a dream career.
It is, in other words, a football Cinderella story--and, as such, it marks a pleasant change from the relentless capitalism of FIFA’s monstrously successful Ultimate Team. FIFA already contains at least three modes life-consuming enough to take up 12 months of your spare time, and aside from an annual release schedule that demands a constant supply of newness, recapturing some of the hope and romance of football seems the only logical reason for The Journey to exist.
As for the mode itself, hope and romance are what it does best--convincing dramatics and RPG gameplay, not so much. Choice within The Journey is, in practice, pretty limited, outside of the initial opportunity to choose which Premier League side Hunter joins. Certain fixed plot points underpin the story. They happen no matter how you’re performing on the pitch or behaving off it--things like being sent out on loan, or Hunter’s childhood friend and teammate Gareth Walker being inexplicably awful to him the whole time.
Once you start leveling up, you can directly apply upgrade points to specific skills, enabling you to make Hunter exactly the sort of player you'd like him to be. But there's less flexibility in the dialogue choices offered during certain cutscenes and post-match interviews. These are clearly labeled--"fiery," "cool," "balanced"--and rather than leading individually to different opportunities or outcomes, these decisions are aggregated into a binary temperament gauge showing whether Hunter is hot-headed or sensible. This, in turn, has an effect on cosmetic things like how pleased your manager is with you or how many fans you have, but it doesn’t unlock any significant changes in events.
While lead actor Adetomiwa Edun (Merlin, Bates Motel) shines through the performance capture process to offer a vulnerable, determined Alex Hunter, The Journey still sounds the occasional awkward dramatic note. Interactions between characters can seem forced, like Alex’s dad storming away from an early game or your rivalry with Gareth. And sometimes the locations themselves (especially exteriors) are quiet and empty, giving the scenes an unreal, disconnected feel.
Speaking of unrealistic, sometimes the cost of mistakes seems unfeasibly high. At one point, Hunter was established in the first team at Tottenham Hotspur, and a red card led directly to him getting released from his contract despite the fact that he'd scored in the previous three games (requiring a return to the latest save). A talking-to or even a transfer listing might’ve worked here; to suggest a player scoring goals in the Premier League could find his contract canceled and career over because of a sending-off is bizarre.
And yet, for all that, The Journey captures something that the existing parts of FIFA never have. Despite its rough edges, there are moments here that deliver a kind of brute emotional force: the opening scene of Sunday morning boys’ football, which puts the cliched tale in a delicate context; a pitch-side camera’s view of Hunter’s first goal for the senior side, with his own delirious shout audible above the crowd; various quiet moments of triumph and failure with family. It lacks sophistication, but The Journey has something, and it succeeds in attaching an added emotional weight to your actions on the pitch.
It lacks sophistication, but The Journey has something, and it succeeds in attaching an added emotional weight to your actions on the pitch.
As for the rest of this year's update, FIFA 17 feels like a round of unglamorous but welcome housekeeping after the relatively thorough gameplay changes of last year. EA has touted the switch to the Frostbite engine, a change that will presumably pay off increasingly in future years. Right now, wide shots of stadiums look very pretty, especially at night and with mist hanging in the air. But elsewhere, you'd be hard pressed to spot the difference, and some locations in The Journey--offices, bedrooms, changing rooms--look a little flat and characterless.
The gameplay improvements this year are typified by much-needed tweaks but also feel like the kind of changes you only get around to when there's nothing really pressing to address. So now throw-ins can be dummied much like a faked shot, giving players a way to move defenders around and get a better chance of keeping possession. Free kicks and penalties have been freed up, so you can choose your angle of approach and charge your cross or shot much more like you would in regular play.
Physical play, too, has been refined so that holding the left trigger down is now the way to let the game know, in attack or defense, that you want your players to engage physically with the other team. It's a small tweak, but it’s one that removes some of the mystery surrounding jostling while defending and seems very useful for holding on to the ball while in possession, especially with sturdy midfielders like Mousa Dembele or Paul Pogba. Finally, the inclusion of low, driven shots adds an appreciable new wrinkle to offensive play. Nail the timing, and you're able to power efforts on goal low and accurately, finally ending the years-long, reality-defying rule that more power must equal more height.
Other welcome-but-non-revolutionary additions include multiplayer skill games--things like passing drills and small matches of two-on-two--which are so much fun that the loading screens for full matches now threaten to become the matches themselves. There’s also the fact that reality--or a small slice of it, at least--has been invited into Career mode. Your objectives in managing a club are now more specifically tailored to the club in question, and are divided into Domestic and Continental success, Brand Value, Finance, and Youth Development. Pick Tottenham, for example, and your club overlords will be less worried about European success than winning at home. Choose Manchester United, and you'll not only have high expectations in terms of winning trophies but also a global brand to sustain. It's a relatively simple way of removing the mode's previous one-size-fits-all feel while giving a sense of individuality to every playthrough. There's now a reason other than boredom to switch clubs or start a new career altogether.
This year's FIFA, then, can be fairly summarized as one big change that doesn't quite pay off, and lots of small ones that do.
Ultimate Team remains FIFA’s biggest draw, with EA choosing to add to rather than tinker with a winning formula. The most notable addition are Squad Building Challenges, which require players to construct sides with certain conditions--using only players of two different nationalities, or with a minimum chemistry level--and then submit them for rewards. It’s a very smart piece of design, not only giving players a use for the scores of bronze and silver players they’ll accrue over the course of a season (and that will never feature in a playing squad), but also making play of the subtle and sophisticated problem-solving that already underpins Ultimate Team’s systems.
This year's FIFA, then, can be fairly summarized as one big change that doesn't quite pay off, and lots of small ones that do. The Journey is engaging enough that it'll be interesting to see how it's developed next year, but right now, it's not the reason to buy FIFA 17. That remains a combination of still-excellent fundamental gameplay (on a par, at least, with Pro Evolution Soccer 2017's much-improved showing) and Ultimate Team, the game-above-the-game to which PES still has no serious answer. Put together with an improved Career mode and best-in-class presentation, and FIFA 17 is still out in front--even if its lead has been cut this year.
With Rise of Iron, Destiny feels like a game that’s within reach of fresh ideas, but can’t quite escape its own past. There are moments of exhilaration throughout the newest expansion, and a few inspiring missions remain rooted in my memory, but as Bungie’s shooter wades into its third year, a sense of fatigue has risen to the surface. Destiny’s exhaustion is beginning to show.
From a story standpoint, Rise of Iron follows our Guardians as they assist Lord Saladin, one of the last remaining members of the Iron Lords, in his fight against Siva, a nanobot plague that all but exterminated his group years before present events. Rise of Iron borrows its aesthetic from fantasy tales such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, pulling us up to the snowy Felwinter Peak to the sound of low horns and loud clarion calls. At its outset, Rise of Iron displays a confident sense of character.
But that wears thin soon thereafter. Destiny’s new campaign lasts for about 90 minutes, and while it does a decent job of setting up the expansion’s late-game missions and public events, the plot serves only to introduce us to new quest-givers and areas of interest. Any narrative promise the opening moments display soon fades. The campaign’s final boss battle may be thrilling--it encourages frantic melee combat against an onslaught of enemies--but the short trip it takes to get there is forgettable.
As a major Destiny expansion, of course, Rise of Iron also brings additional cooperative strikes, public events, player vs. player options, a new social space, a new patrol zone, and a six-player raid. I call this content additional, and not new, for a reason: much of Rise of Iron’s content is taken from Destiny’s first two years and given a fresh coat of paint.Rise of Iron's new gear blends science fiction and fantasy.
Yes, Siva-infected enemies bring new dangers to firefights, and existing bosses have changed their combat strategy to make things just fresh enough to initially feel different. But the Destiny grind is more apparent here than ever. I’m once again firing round after round into Sepiks Prime. I’m patrolling the snowy wilderness on a strikingly familiar Earth. I’m wading through strikes I’ve played dozens of times before. The Wretched Eye strike, Rise of Iron’s truly new cooperative venture, is one of the aforementioned shining moments. But it’s surrounded by vapid echoes of the past.
Rise of Iron’s player vs. player content follows suit. The new Supremacy game mode requires you to pick up fallen orbs from slain enemies, not granting you full credit for a kill until you do so. You can also deny opponents their points by collecting your comrades’ telltale remains--the system creates tense situations as players rush into the open to gather orbs, only to die and make the field that much more tantalizing for the next challenger. Smart players can hang back and pick off scavengers shortly before gathering several points for themselves.
While Supremacy does lure you out of your comfort zone with enticing scenarios, the experience is only a slight variation on the classic deathmatch formula. As with Rise of Iron’s campaign, Supremacy feels uninspired. Rise of Iron’s maps are well designed, combining close-quarters battles and long-range engagements with seeming ease, proving once again that studio Bungie is a top-tier developer of competitive shooter arenas. But these maps set the stage for a new mode that doesn’t pull its own creative weight.
The redundancies in Destiny's campaign, strikes, and Crucible content are a shame, too, considering the moments of greatness Rise of Iron does deliver.
The redundancies in Destiny’s campaign, strikes, and Crucible content are a shame, too, considering the moments of greatness Rise of Iron does deliver. The quest line to obtain the newest version of Gjallahorn, Destiny’s now-mythical rocket launcher, culminates in a massive battle the likes of which Bungie hasn’t created since its Halo days. Archon’s Forge, the expansion’s new public event space, plays host to chaotic battles between a possible nine players and a variety of alien bosses. The sheer spectacle of these skirmishes combines with Destiny’s mechanical fluidity to create some of the shooter’s finest moments to date.
This rings true in Rise of Iron’s Wrath of the Machine raid. The trek pits you and five other players against an array of enemies in a bevy of complex scenarios that don’t use boss battles and hordes of enemies as crutches.
While these elements are present, Wrath of the Machine demands that you rethink what a boss fight can be: without spoiling too much, one section of the raid asks you not just to battle a massive enemy, but use it as transportation, too. Wrath of the Machine’s final encounter is one of those shining moments I keep coming back to. Despite the difficulty you’ll encounter, it’s a stunning combination of teamwork, survival techniques, and combat tactics, as well as using the expansion’s pervasive Siva against itself, that will carry your squad through.The new strike pits you against two enemies, only one of which is susceptible to damage.
But the raid is the sparkling light at the end of an often-dreary tunnel. I spent dozens of hours slogging through familiar strikes, uninspired new Crucible content, and a patrol zone that felt like a retread, not an adventure. I found myself playing more for the new gear and Light levels--for the progress--than the actual enjoyment.
As an expansion that revamped how Destiny actually played, last year’s The Taken King was a major step forward for the shooter. But Rise of Iron feels merely like the other foot catching up to rest firmly in place. It feels timid. It feels safe. It feels like the last remaining breath before the possible sequel, as if Destiny is standing still and waiting for inspiration to arrive, rather than going out to find it.
NBA 2K17 feels like it was made by a team of people who live and breathe basketball. Everything from the meticulous presentation to MyCareer mode's practice drills exhibits the care and attention that only come from people who get whisked away in midday dreams of playing in the NBA--and that makes it doubly easy for you to do the same. This is the first time I've delved past an NBA 2K game's Play Now and Blacktop modes, and in witnessing how great this game is, I’m beginning to wonder why I never did so in the first place.
2K's NBA games are known for smooth, fluid play, and true to form, 2K17 allows you to move the ball around the court, mixing in advanced ball maneuvers and fancy footwork with ease. Employing the right stick's ability to juke is when you'll really feel the satisfaction of faking out an opponent on your way to the net. It's empowering to know that you outsmarted the opposition, and it's a credit to the game's controls that complex moves are accessible and feel natural. Once you grow accustomed to the potential at your fingertips--a fast process--NBA 2K17 feels like a game of instincts, rather than a calculated series of inputs.
Of course, victory wouldn't feel as sweet if the AI didn't put up a good fight, and given its prowess, you need to employ smart positioning and playmaking to get to the hoop. Experimenting with the tools at hand is as essential as it is satisfying when you put a winning strategy into action--and humbling when you're stuffed by a clever opponent. The AI isn't going to fall for the same trick every time, so mixing up your strategies is required--passing the ball to your best player in an attempt to score three points every time isn't going work. Finding out the best way to tackle each shift on the court is continually rewarding and engages you wholeheartedly in the excellent on-court action.
To get your bearings, you can jump into the 2KU mode, which has you participate in scrimmage games, and feeds you tutorial tips as you play. Gameplay pauses as instructions and narration pop up to let you know how to pass, shoot, and retrieve the ball on defense. This can be helpful for learning the basics, but it would be a lot more effective if the game reacted to your performance and coached you appropriately rather than merely providing static direction. For example, it doesn't let you know why you lost a jump ball or why you got a foul for trying to knock a ball loose. Without a responsive, real-time feedback system, NBA 2K17's training mode feels more like a primer than a full-fledged tutorial.
When it's game time, NBA 2K17's commentators, camera angles, and mid-game events--such as mascot antics and halftime dunk shows--demonstrate incredible realism and attention to detail. Fans get excited at the right moments, with intercepted passes and turnovers riling them up the most. The only downside to the whole broadcast setup is the pre-game and half-time shows; they sound good, but the virtual hosts are stiff. It often looks like someone’s pulling the strings of realistic Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kenny Smith puppets. Thankfully, they're a relatively small part of the package, and the rest of the presentation, particularly the commentary and fans, makes every game feel like you're playing in the NBA.Shaq, Ernie, and Kenny don't echo the authenticity found elsewhere in NBA 2K17.
Playing with authentic teams and players scratches the NBA itch, but MyCareer offers a different kind of game, where you create a player and master a single position as you make your way through college and into the pros. Cutscenes are infrequent, but they add some nice background to you and your life through moments of playing video games with a friend or talking to your excited, caring mom over the phone. They're not super impactful, but the way everyone in your life reacts to you and your playing makes you want to do better on the court.
Playing as a single athlete can feel restrictive in some sports games, but playing your part on a team in 2K17 is thoroughly rewarding. Setting up a teammate for an alley-oop or having someone pass to you so you can make that key three-point shot fosters an awesome sensation that feels like real teamwork, where you have total ownership over your role. Sure, you can call for the ball every second and hog it like Kobe, but you'd be robbing yourself of the satisfaction that comes with skillful cooperation.
Playing as a single athlete can feel restrictive in some sports games, but playing your part on a team in 2K17's MyCareer mode is thoroughly rewarding.
You can actually improve your game by participating in practices--various types of mini games. They might challenge you to sink as many alternating three-point shots as possible, shoot the ball from a specific spot, or play a game of one-on-one. Most of these challenges are fun, making the choice to go to the gym before a game a lot easier.
Outside of playing basketball, MyCareer encourages you to take part in life off the court. You can attend promotional and fan events to get a little extra currency to spend on attributes and upgrades. These amount to nothing more than selecting a menu item, watching your player walk out the door, and then getting a message saying you completed the event. The lack of interactivity with these events is fine, but the amount of time it takes for this process to finish feels a bit excessive. Additionally, you get text messages from friends, players, and coaches, and the way you respond will change the way certain people react to you. These moments of texting are often funny and add a bit of life in between games and practices that's much appreciated.
2K17 offers a number of modes to play online against other players, and for the most part, the connection holds up well. In my several hours of online testing, I came across a few games where the connection was fairly bad, resulting in a match that was nearly unplayable. Thankfully, these encounters were few and far between.
You can compete against other players in the basic Play Now mode or take a team you assemble through card packs and face off against others in MyTeam. In this mode, you kick things off with a starter pack that gives you a small bounty of cards to help you build a lineup of players. In addition to paying real money for these packs, you can earn them by racking up in-game currency. This process takes much longer, and you aren't guaranteed to get any useful cards in a pack. This can be frustrating, especially when you pay real money toward the purchase of card packs. You're better off buying the players you want from the auction house. Doing what essentially amounts to gambling is a risk that just isn't worth it.
Despite its few drawbacks, NBA 2K17's excitement for basketball is contagious, and it's hard not to get wrapped up in it. Apart from the lacking 2KU mode and stiff recreations of commentators, the rest of the game looks great and plays even better. After finally devoting a significant amount of time to one of these games, I now see why it's such a well-regarded series, and it makes me wish that every sport got the same treatment that basketball does in NBA 2K17.
These days, it's easy to find games that let you exterminate fantastic beasts with giant blades and panache. Yet not all those experiences deliver the immediacy of prey hunting with cooperative play quite like God Eater 2: Rage Burst. It makes up for its lack of difficulty and recycled maps with a robust combat system and a wealth of loot to sort through and manage in between matches. Much like the best of Monster Hunter, Rage Burst reaffirms that an online action RPG can rely on a single objective type, as long as that objective is to triumph over hostile creatures.
Set three years after the post-apocalyptic events of God Eater: Resurrection, Rage Burst finds the remnants of humanity on a planet still overrun with godlike beasts known as Aragami. God Eater has always been about surviving the end of the world while looking good in the process. The introductory music-video cinematic sets expectations by showing off the agents’ fiery, demon-killing intensity while wielding God Arcs, transformable weapons often larger than a typical human. It’s easy to be motivated by your squad’s collective gung-ho attitude and the game’s bombastic choral soundtrack, which features the kind of compositions normally saved for final boss fights.Don’t mind the commander who’s dressed like a recent widow.
The unabashed nature of its teen-targeted presentation is the crux of Rage Burst’s charm. The intricate, often vibrant youth-centric outfits serve as a reminder that Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts veteran Tetsuya Nomura does not have a monopoly on gratuitous zippers. The backdrops of desolate cities, fallen skyscrapers, and the imposing visages of otherworldly Aragami do little to dampen the hopes of the spry early twenty-somethings who make up your party.
Anime-styled cutscenes are pleasant breaks in between sorties, and the steady stream of new characters help add diversity to your potential squad. Compared to Resurrection, Rage Burst’s initial cast is surprisingly easygoing, and it takes a few hours before more distinct archetypes join the cast. For example, the unsurprising addition of the overconfident-but-well-meaning agent serves as a poignant contrast to the introduction of the brooding-yet-skilled squadmate.
Rage Burst isn’t as front-loaded with scene-setting exposition as Resurrection, which makes it easier to get started with the first batch of missions. Like in Monster Hunter and even Phantasy Star Online, it’s not unusual to revisit old maps or see foes from the past reprise their roles as prey in Rage Burst. They’re worth getting reaquainted with, especially given the imagination put into their designs. Large, bipedal bugs and helmeted lizards return, as does the gigantic gorilla sporting armor reminiscent of a Japanese demon.
Combat is the main course in a god hunt that actually involves the consumption of the deities you’re tasked with vanquishing. The straightforwardness of Rage Burst’s “kill X” quests can appear shallow at first, and yes, you can accomplish many goals by making a beeline for your targets and mashing a basic combo. Exhilarating moments can be as simple as relentlessly pummeling your foe or showcasing an adept use of well-timed roll dodges.
There’s a rush in avoiding an Aragami’s strike and fully capitalizing on the opportunity with a lethal thrashing. Aragamis aren’t pushovers, though. They can extend the fight with a hasty retreat to recover health. Different maps offer Aragami distinct escape routes--some inaccessible to your party--but it’s a problem easily fixed with a speedy chase along the paths you can use. If you’re smart when it comes to managing your ammo, you can interrupt a retreat with a well-placed salvo, even if the Aragami’s already 50 yards away.
Rage Burst is rich in these satisfying tactical maneuvers. Moves partly executed in midair add flair to an already stylish squad. By adding complex staggers and cancels to your repertoire, you can appreciate the series’ fighting-game influence--and, more importantly, become a more meaningful contributor in battle.
One of the game’s most rewarding combat features, Burst Mode, isn’t complex at all, though. If you can find a two-second window to charge your God Arc in melee mode, you can take a literal bite out of an Aragami, resulting in a temporary enhancement of your stats; it’s essentially God Eater’s “Super Saiyan” mode. It sounds twisted, but you can buff your friends by shooting at them. The most rewarding aspect of Burst Mode is the ability to use the same element-enhanced attacks of the Aragami that you consumed. It’s the equivalent of beating up an opponent with his own arm--which, by the way, you just ripped off.Belts and buckles, all the live long day.
Loot is the key to molding and refining your character’s battle skills and combat prowess. Rage Burst’s modest difficulty makes it easy to craft weapons, where style can sometimes take precedent over optimization. Sorting through loot and pondering over stat upgrades can be overwhelming at times--the game offers more than 100 skill effects alone, and that doesn’t include support skills or status effects.
It’s not unusual to spend more time poring over weapon-crafting than in completing a single assignment. What good is killing an Aragami if you don’t give yourself a fighting chance at an S-rank and looking great at the same time? It’s not a case of whether you live or die, but whether it takes 60 seconds or 5 minutes to finish the same sortie. It’s very much determined by how you’ve crafted your gear to your playstyle, but team chemistry is also a factor. While the AI can’t replicate the efficiency of a seasoned online team, the AI-controlled comrades are surprisingly reliable.
Good sequels strike a balance between reproducing familiar systems and introducing new features. Rage Burst shares many similarities with Resurrection, to the degree that you wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking the former for an expansion pack of the latter at a glance. But Rage Burst is bolstered by a beefed-up combat system and scores of stylish, powerful loot, making frequent, sometimes repetitive questing, more enjoyable than it was in Resurrection.
Soccer is upon us. Pro Evolution Soccer 2017 has arrived, with FIFA trailing close behind. And, perhaps most visibly of all, the clattering circus of the soccer season itself--which both FIFA and PES must increasingly reflect and celebrate in order to stay relevant--has emerged from summer hibernation. And in terms of representing the global event, Konami’s PES 2017 is a genuine step forward for a series. Yes, there are signs here that PES’ rivalry with FIFA has led to an unnecessary overextension in features and modes, but the core of PES 2017--the soccer it plays--is competitive again.
The improvements this year are a mixture of the specific and the general. Goalkeepers are a good example of the former--they’ve been heavily (and necessarily) reworked, offering not just a more realistic defense against corners and saveable shots, but also a dynamic set of animations that help give PES the kind of authenticity the series often lacked. Low one-handed dives, instinctive blocks with a single leg, and more authoritative claims under high-balls all help give this year’s keepers a reassuring sense of life and ability.
There are also big improvements to ball control, turning, and the time it takes for players to recover after physical contact and changes of direction. These add up to a sharper, more agile game and collectively contribute to the feeling that PES 2017 has improved all over. Take first touches, the response time once you’ve pressed shoot or pass, and the sense of weight and momentum carried through turns when dribbling--in previous years, these joints and hinges of play were where PES creaked the loudest. This year, their improvement makes building up an attack or just knocking the ball around a pleasure again, even (crucially) away from the top-tier teams.
More specifically, this year the skill dribbling ability comes into its own. PES has a pretty deep set of skills buried in its control system, but it’s intricate to the point that learning more than a one or two showpieces is beyond most players. In PES 2017, the tight-control dribbling offers a rough equivalent to FIFA’s right-stick skill system--an accessible way to wrong-foot defenders, open up space, and create unexpected angles. Like FIFA’s system, the exact moves your player will pull off depend on their skill level, so it’s less impactful with John Stones or even Eric Dier than Raheem Sterling or Erik Lamela. Still, it’s a useful touch to slow down play and wait for options, no matter which players are on the pitch.
One more particularly prominent element of PES’ improvements this year is the fluidity of attacking play. Through balls and crosses have a high success rate and always feel dangerous. True, through balls aren’t so handy for build-up play--short ones played as part of midfield triangles are often frustratingly underpowered, which can often pull you into messy scraps--but in the final third, they feel reliably deadly. Crosses, too, just feel more user-friendly. Dramatic, aesthetically pleasing arcs can be produced on the run, from deep outside the box, or under pressure from opposing players, making flowing, edge-of-the-seat football not just possible but common, and on all levels of the game.
If playing with the ball has taken a big stride forward, defending this year is more of a qualified success. One-on-one defending out-wide is fine. It’s a mixture of positional play and timing, and slide tackling feels pleasingly potent. But in congested mid-fields and as the ball moves toward the box, defending can become clumsy and haphazard. AI-controlled teammates sometimes double up on the opposing player with the ball, ignore simple interceptions during scrambles for possession, or simply get in each other’s way. Often, a well-timed slide-tackle results in player control being switched to a nearby teammate while the tackler gets up from the pitch, even though he’s still the favorite to reach the ball first. If the joy and intensity of attacking in this year’s game is excellent, the defending struggles to keep up.
But away from its core gameplay, PES 2017 struggles. There was a time, on PS2 and beyond, when Pro Evo played such a good game of soccer that its lack of licensed teams and kits wasn’t an issue (this year PES has assembled a patchwork of licenses from individual teams - Barcelona, Liverpool and Dortmund being the only European sides officially featured). In recent years, FIFA has not only had a monopoly on authenticity but also offered the best gameplay, too. Even with PES’ recent strides, there’s no daylight between the two games, and the value of real names, grounds, and the rest is higher than ever. This is a thing peculiar to our age--a time of intense media management, brand partnerships, saturated coverage, and constant streams of social media interaction. Soccer is everywhere, all the time, and a sniff of the inauthentic means death in this slick transaction between sport and customer. PES, in other words, is Gobots. FIFA is Transformers.
Yes, it’s possible to download and tinker with option files to improve the in-game presentation. And, yes, Master League--still the game’s best mode, classic offline dream-team assembly--is like a refuge from the branded assault of modern soccer, an escape into an unlicensed parallel world. But PES 2017’s focus isn’t on Master League. It’s on myClub, the squad builder that is, in base terms, like Master League with microtransactions.
FIFA's Ultimate Team has become an enormously popular and lucrative juggernaut. It powers season-long attachment to the game, forms the basis of constant YouTube coverage, and ties the real-life sport into FIFA’s virtual soccer. Konami clearly feels that PES has to be active in this space, whether for the microtransaction income, or because it’s seen as an entry-level feature, but PES’ licensing shortfalls make myClub a difficult sell. Even with improvements on last year’s presentation--including a concise introductory tutorial and clearly laid-out panel menus--there’s a hollowness to the mode that leaves it feeling like a off-brand alternative.
Not helping in this regard is PES’ continued inconsistency online. The ultimate goal of myClub is to take your gleaming team of stars and pit them against online opposition, either in one-off games or the mini-league Divisions mode (also borrowed more or less directly from FIFA). But online play suffers from serious connectivity issues. Wait times for opponents are lengthy, and most games I played suffered from a latency that left a full half-second between me pressing a button and my player releasing a pass or a shot--essentially unplayable in a game built on anticipation and timing. I had a good connection roughly the same number of times I was disconnected entirely; heavy lag was the standard.
All of which leaves PES 2017 feeling like a superbly talented team of footballers playing on a terrible, uneven pitch. If your football game of choice complements your love of the real-life sport, or you’re interested in testing yourself against online all-comers, consider yourself warned. If you’re unlikely to play online and don’t mind tinkering for an hour or so to get your leagues looking unofficially official, PES is once more a serious contender.
Update: We've updated our review to reflect the PC version of Forza Horizon 3. Please scroll to the bottom of the story to find the updated content. - PB, 9/27/2016, 10:40 AM PDT
However sacrilegious, the ability to launch a Jaguar over a hill and into a cornfield with no risk of mechanical damage is one of the reasons why Forza Horizon 3 is such a blast. As with every well-made open world, Horizon’s lands are rife with distractions; in this semi-fictionalized setting of Australia's Pacific coast, every mile between you and your presumptive waypoint can feature dozens of detours. Before you know it, you’re up five levels, 1 million credits richer, and you still haven’t arrived at the music festival that you meant to reach an hour ago.
Developer Playground Games expands upon the previous game's regional hubs--glorified garages and showrooms to buy new cars--and turns them into their own festivals. Imagine a multi-stage music gathering like Coachella or Glastonbury, except you have to drive five miles to get to the closest tent. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but so is this series’ conceptual marriage of music and cars.
To fit new fans, your handler, Keira, advises you to expand your festivals from time to time. Doing so unlocks more driving events in a festival’s respective region. Whereas the last Forza Horizon’s main campaign path was the completion of tournaments (and is still a substantial mode this time around), there’s a new emphasis on gaining followers in order to open up more events. A single region can offer at least 50 activities by the time you’ve maxed out its potential. Combine all four regions, and you have a campaign that rivals Burnout Paradise's generous to-do list.
Many racing games in the last decade have cleverly crafted single-player narratives around building the player’s reputation. This has been used to attract fictional rivals and grow an imaginary fan base, the latter being the crux of Forza Horizon 3's main path. It takes the reputation game to its next evolutionary step with a lesson in Branding 101. Without blatantly using the term “influencer,” some of the most effective fan-growing events are themed on positive public relations. No joke--these sections are actually called “PR Stunts.” Once you finish rolling your eyes and accept that it’s a sign of the times, you can look beyond the propagandist window dressing and simply focus on the objectives, such as stringing together stunts or executing a single vehicular feat.
Like Forza Motorsport, Forza Horizon 3’s point-to-point or circuit competitions are never bereft of split-second moments of gratification, whether it’s shaving off a tenth of a second through drafting or executing a sublime drift. Placing first is, of course, the traditional goal, but you can’t underestimate the thrill of making a clean pass against a competitor, even if it’s to avoid placing last.
Forza Horizon 3 transcends the genre’s classic reward designs by pummelling you with dopamine hits well beyond the 12-car races. It’s not unheard of to gain a level, unlock a perk, expand a festival, and obtain a new car in the span of seconds. This can occur at any time, whether you’ve just completed a championship or simply avoided traffic while jetting down the highway. This is what happens when you add a fame-based component to an already robust reward system that includes the previous games’ level progression and skill trees that recognize risky behavior.That's one way to ruin an Audi.
It’s especially compelling if you can get a well-rounded car into a vineyard and spend the next 30 minutes laying waste to grape plantations with e-brake drifts to earn skill points. The skill tree has tripled in size for this Australian excursion. Along with the perks that enhance the ability to get more perks (e.g., improved skill point multipliers, longer skill point chains), you can purchase XP and earn bonuses that ultimately lead to new cars.
Forza Horizon is known for taking sensible liberties in its real-world locations. In Forza Horizon 3’s case, that means being able to drive from Surfers Paradise to Byron Bay in 90 seconds, normally a little over a one-hour drive. Real-world locales like the Kiewa Valley and the Twelve Apostles also litter this eastern region of Oz. It’s a pleasingly subdued version of Australia rather than a caricature of it. There’s no risk of hitting kangaroos, and the local hosts don’t spout slang in every line of dialogue. There’s a generous helping of lush forests and open fields set to the often-gorgeous backdrops of weather and day/night cycles. Those who miss the Out Run-inspired coasts of Italy and the French Riviera of Forza Horizon 2 also get an adequate stretch of shoreline. In short, you won’t ever run out of photo opportunities.
After Colorado and Mediterranean Europe in the first and second games respectively, the shift to Australia is fitting for a driving series that has now made room for more off-road competitions. You have to think 50 yards ahead when planning a dirt jump in a Hummer-like Lamborghini LM002. Your landing, however bumpy or misplaced, can mean the difference between maintaining the lead or fighting to escape last place. The natural unpredictability of off-road driving is a stimulating accompaniment to the more structured asphalt races.
Forza’s three-year-old Drivatar system has proven itself as a viable alternative to traditional catch-up or rubber-band AI. Supplanting generic names with those of your friends and their driving behaviors puts a spin on asynchronous multiplayer. What’s surprising about Forza Horizon 3 is the wealth of social options without your friends’ real-time presence. Familiar features like leaderboards and clubs are now joined with modes that let you curate your own shareable championships and special events using templates.
These forms of asynchronicity are so persistent--including the option to race a friend’s Drivatar during freeroam--that it’s sometimes easy to ignore Forza Horizon’s 3’s online component, despite the return of King and Infected modes, as well as a capture-the-flag-style mode called Flag Rush. For the most part, they’re worth trying out, if only to help friends (and yourself) knock off campaign objectives. The trade-off? Races and adversarial modes can feel like a hassle at the first sign of rubber-banding or lag, which was evident during a number of pre-release online sessions.
For a game series that associates itself with ever-popular music festivals, it would be an embarrassment if there wasn't a kickass music playlist, and Forza Horizon 3 doesn’t disappoint. The return of Chvrches’, a band that stood out in Forza Horizon 2, accentuates the near-utopic vibe of this spin-off series. Some events have their own pre-chosen song to fit a given moment. It’s hard to beat listening to Richard Wagner while making an epic 500 foot leap into a gorge or hearing Night on Bald Mountain when racing to a haunted house. And thanks to Crazy Taxi, listening to the Offspring during a timed driving contest makes for a sweet trip down memory lane.
The PC version of Forza Horizon 3 benefits from being able to adjust myriad visual options; you have flexibility in optimizing things like lighting, detail, and anti-aliasing. It can be a demanding game, but even a three-year old Razer Blade laptop can run Forza Horizon 3 with performance on par with the console version. High-end graphics cards let you experience Forza Horizon 3 at speeds beyond the Xbox One version’s 30 frames per second, complemented with vibrant lighting and smoother blur effects. It’s not enough to make me regret spending my first 25 hours on Xbox One, but it’s conceivable that the rest of my treks around Playground’s vision of Australia will be exclusively on PC.
With Forza Horizon 3, Turn 10 and Playground Games affirm the series’ status as the driving game for everyone. The new emphasis on off-road options isn’t at the expense of traditional races, thanks to the sheer volume of activities. All the while, Playground Games’ calculated kitchen-sink design philosophy and rich reward system persistently tempt you to explore beyond your comfort zone, whether it’s gifting your first Ariel Nomad buggy or reminding you that stunt races can impress thousands of fans. Enhancing your own brand might feel like a strange motivation to hit the road, but pulling off sick e-drifts on a mile-long series of curves makes the PR work worthwhile.