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Planet Coaster Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 12/05/2016 - 19:00

Building and managing an amusement park is a difficult job. There are a surprising number of things to consider: keeping your rides safe and well maintained, making sure you have enough trash cans and janitors to keep things clean, forecasting and managing your finances to avoid crippling debt, and deciding how many pickles should or should not be on a burger. But most importantly, you need to keep everyone happy. You need to keep your visitors entertained, your employees motivated, and your business a success

Planet Coaster is a game full of optimistic, fun-loving character that conjures up fond memories of visiting local carnivals as kids, full of bright lights and jaunty calliope music, or maybe a more recent excursion to a big-name amusement park, full of thematic details everywhere you look. The desire to try to replicate these experiences is a driving force that makes it easy to get swept up in every aspect of Planet Coaster. This is a simulation where you can find satisfaction in tweaking your park on a macro scale: managing your park's overall cash flow and adjusting variables to influence average guest behavior, for example. But you can also lose yourself in the more frivolous micro level, placing that decorative shrub in just the right spot or making sure a roller coaster triggers confetti cannons at just the right time.

It's possible to feel lost when you first dive into construction and management. There's no integrated beginner's tutorial--only links to YouTube videos explaining some of the basics. But this quickly proves to be an ample solution since the systems in place are so clear and simple to use. With construction, the tools for creating and manipulating walkways, shops, rides, and scenery are efficient and enjoyable. Snaking a path between obstacles or creating a spiral staircase to reach an elevated platform, for example, is painless. Instead of drawing out a route, the pathing tool involves laying down suggested pieces. You can adjust the direction and elevation of a piece with subtle mouse movements, and clicking anywhere places the segment. Mistakes can instantly be undone using the universal Ctrl+Z shortcut, with any money spent instantly being refunded in full. It's an intuitive process that encourages experimentation without the fear of punishment.

Constructing a roller coaster--which may sound as intimidating as riding one--is, thankfully, just as simple. Laying down tracks relies on a similar predictive pathing tool, but with a few handy additions: there are buttons to help adjust the curvature and rotation of each track piece, a number of complex, pre-made turns are available to quickly attach, and the track can be automatically completed and smoothed out. Portions of a coaster can also be adjusted non-destructively after it's been fully built. It's an accessible process that will allow even the most novice of players to comfortably create thrill-rides of their own.

This handy heatmap overlay can help pinpoint the exact position where your guests will throw up.

This intuitiveness is consistent among all of Planet Coaster's tools. They're all extremely versatile, but it doesn't take long for them to feel like second nature. You can pull the earth up through pre-existing structures to mold tunnels like it's no big deal. A series of interlocking, elevated walkways spanning across vast chasms takes minutes. In making the labor of construction easy, Planet Coaster fast-tracks you into feeling like the game's creative possibilities are endless.

While you can use pre-designed shops and scenery in your park planning, you can also build your own from scratch. Learning how to construct buildings requires a little more diligence, but only to get your head around the abundance of individual pieces you have to choose from: walls, roofs, windows, lights, animatronic characters, special stage effects, and foliage. Anything you construct can easily be saved as a template for future use or shared with the community. Given that creation is a painless process, it comes as no surprise that Steam Workshop integration is robust, seamless, and virtually limitless. Thanks to the game's long stint in Early Access, there are more than 44,000 items available for use--beautifully intricate structures and stores, ambitious, carefully engineered rides, and detailed replicas of real-world attractions. Casual discovery can be a problem outside of prolific creators, but if you know what you want, chances are it's probably already there.

Planet Coaster offers three different modes of play: Challenge, Sandbox and Career. Challenge mode offers the classic blank-canvas scenario where you begin with limited funds, a limited selection of rides, and an empty lot. Sandbox mode is the same as Challenge mode only you're given unlimited finances, and Career mode puts you in the middle of pre-made scenarios. Initially, Career seems unattractive, especially since the game's tools for creativity are so well realized and beg to be used on a fresh plot of land. However, it's here where you're pitted against the game's management variables and learn how to work with and around them.

Career entrusts you with a number of impressive, half-designed parks--which on their own, are an awe-inspiring glimpse into what you can achieve with the game's tools. It then dumps you in very tricky situations and requires you to learn how to get out of them with what you have on hand. A scenario may ask that you make a park located on treacherous terrain, without resorting to flattening the world with terraforming tools. It might limit you to traditional rides like carousels, requiring you to make the most of them, and learning how to tweak your park so it specifically caters to families. It may place a monolith in the center of your park that mysteriously makes attractions break down faster, forcing you to become competent in managing technicians, work rosters, and maintenance schedules.

There's little guidance on the steps you should take to resolve these situations, and succeeding in a Career map may take more patience than other modes. But it's satisfying to solve a big problem in a trial by fire, using hard-earned knowledge. Working hard to pull yourself out of bad situations, slowly improve your finances, and continuing to create bigger, better, and more attractive things under strict limitations is a great challenge. Once you've accomplished your goals, you're left with a profitable, well-attended, attractive park to keep building on.

Career mode offers beautiful parks in dire circumstances.

This is what makes Career mode compelling: it encourages you to dive deep into the management layer and focuses your attention on the elements that you may have ignored without consequence in the other modes. With the traditional blank-canvas Challenge mode, it's easy to coast along, since ride integrity and human happiness don't degrade fast enough to require constant attention, at least on the default difficulty. Planet Coaster has a wealth of easily digestible variables to tweak, all of which have tangible effects--the cost of your food and what toppings you have on them, the duration and specific movement cycles of your rides--but if you have no interest in this kind of micromanagement, it's easy enough to leave everything on the default settings and still be profitable, leaving you to focus on the creation aspect.

Planet Coaster's constructions tools are effortlessly intuitive and encouraging, and the minutiae of its management variables are fun to tinker with for obsessive players, though it won't punish those who don't find satisfaction there. This is a game focused on the positivity that amusement parks can bring, one that fosters even the smallest spark of imagination and creativity. Planet Coaster's scenario-based maps are a delightful challenge, the included assets are full of character, and its Steam Workshop community is a stupefying bounty of creative talent and inexhaustible content. It's a game that occupies your thoughts when you're not playing it, and it's thoroughly captivating when you are.

Categories: Games

Robinson: The Journey Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 12/05/2016 - 18:00

Crytek has been experimenting with ways to make games more immersive by utilizing new tech for a while, whether it’s the exceptionally good use of stereoscopic 3D effects in the Crysis games or impressive demos for Oculus Rift. Taking that experience to PlayStation VR, the developer has released Robinson: The Journey, a virtual-reality game that’s everything great and annoying about VR all rolled into one.

The Journey is about a boy named Robin, one of thousands of passengers aboard a massive starship seeking a new world. This craft, the Esmeralda, crashes on Tyson III, a habitable world stuck in the equivalent of Earth's Cretaceous period. Unfortunately, Robin and his floating robotic companion (an AI orb known as HIGS) are apparently the only survivors of the crash.

Soon after landing, Robin discovers a just-hatched and adorable T. rex--and, like any reasonable person would, he adopts her, hugs her, squeezes her, and gives her a name: Laika. Their story then jumps forward a year: Robin and HIGS have made their escape pod a home, they have a working garden, protective energy fences, and a semi-trained baby Laika.

The appeal of Robin's adventure relies on the spectacle of dinosaurs to create a visually stunning VR experience. This is easily one of the best-looking, most technically impressive games to hit PlayStation VR, but it’s also an incredibly interesting, engaging game. Crytek has transformed their earlier VR demos like Back to Dinosaur Island and The Climb into a narrative-focused experience revolving around exploration and puzzle-solving that really shows off how VR can create a new level of immersion.

Robin follows the various paths from his home base, searching for the memory cells of non-functional HIGS units. Such memories yield more insight into how the Esmeralda crashed. Of course, finding these robots is made more difficult by the terrain and prehistoric inhabitants. Thankfully, Robin seems to be part monkey; he can easily climb natural structures, vines, giant cables, and more.

This is easily one of the best-looking, most technically impressive games to hit PlayStation VR, but it’s also an incredibly interesting, engaging game.

The climbing mechanic uses two floating hands (controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons respectively) to simulate actually being there, effectively enhancing your sense of immersion. You have to tilt and turn your head to find the next viable hand grip--and some of these climbs are dizzyingly high. At times, getting the correct hand to grab an obvious grip requires shifting your body around to match the precise angle the game demands.

Robin can also levitate and manipulate items from a short distance, but it's a painful mess of trial-and-error since there’s no smooth way to finely manipulate them in the air. This is readily apparent in the endgame, when you must shove cylindrical power cells into round sockets.

Most puzzles revolve around climbing and manipulating objects, but the objectives are frequently vague. HIGS occasionally provides hints, but the game largely relies on you to figure things out on your own. Laika, for instance, isn’t just a cute sidekick, but a useful puzzle-solving tool. She can growl loudly to scare herbivores, go to specific spots, and come when called. Just the same, part of the overall vagueness of objectives may simply be to lengthen the adventure.

Just running straight through, you can easily finish The Journey in less than three hours (and probably a lot less). The game includes hidden data cells to find, which when analyzed can provide more background data and there is a kind of minigame for analyzing and cataloging the array of exotic animals and insects on the planet, but for the most part, this is a linear trek from start to finish.

Short experiences are nothing new for PSVR, though, and when Robinson: The Journey works, it does so amazingly well

Short experiences are nothing new for PSVR, though, and when Robinson: The Journey works, it does so amazingly well. The sheer sense of scope and detail is stunning. Tyson III is a beautiful place, and its massive dinosaurs are even more impressive. Events like a brachiosaurus stampede, stealthily avoiding raptors, and a particularly inspiring climax involving a fearsome T. rex show off just how amazing VR can be.

At times, you see the game from HIGS’ view. These stationary sequences show off an aerial view of Robin’s surroundings and are easily among the most visually stunning uses of VR to date. The game’s use of 3D to create depth is amazing on the whole, with impressive, but the holographic-like visuals in these segments steal the show.

There’s a distinct advantage to playing Robinson: The Journey on the PlayStation Pro. The game defaults to using step turning where it flips like a slide show in the direction you turn to reduce motion sickness. You can select the smooth-turning option, but unless you’re playing on the PS Pro, there’s a far greater chance of motion sickness due to poor frame rates. The frame rate and draw distance of environmental objects are also enhanced on the Pro, and it looks a little better. It’s still a beautiful game no matter what you play it on.

Robinson: the Journey is one of the most immersive, engaging games to hit PSVR, but it suffers from its short length and reliance on vague objectives. Still, the sheer visual splendor and moments of legitimately awesome sights make it an engaging experience. Crytek has taken their usual flair for gorgeous visuals and made a world worth stepping into.

Categories: Games

The Last Guardian Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 12/05/2016 - 16:00

True to Fumito Ueda's work on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a fascinating game that portrays a heartfelt relationship between two unlikely cohorts--a nameless boy and a giant creature named Trico--who develop mutual trust, communication, and compassion against seemingly impossible odds.

Their tale is a shining example of storytelling through subtle cues and shared experiences; the occasional annoyances that come from trying to force members of two different species to cooperate are part and parcel of their partnership, for better and for worse. But touching moments throughout and an unshakable final act melt these grievances away. The culmination of your incredible journey crystallizes a bond with Trico and makes you immediately long for another adventure with your newfound best friend.

It all begins when you awake from a dream to find yourself imprisoned in a mysterious cave. Trico is nearby, subdued by a metal collar, armor, and a pair of spears lodged in its back. Though the cause remains a mystery until the end, you immediately understand the need to remove the weapons and forge an escape. Trico knocks you unconscious after you extract the first spear, but your continued efforts after you wake payoff. In short order, the creature is free from the heavy shackles, and the two of you begin your tricky escape.

You and Trico are instrumental to each other's progress; it's easy for you to slip through small passageways and precisely manipulate objects to activate doors, but only Trico can leap dozens of feet into the air and reach high, out-of-the-way places. Your massive companion needs to be coaxed into giving you a hand at first, and food in the form of glowing barrels works as a motivator at times, but you otherwise need to provide directions through physical positioning and vocal commands. Because you move with palpable inertia, running around in search of the next step and managing Trico at the same time can feel taxing, but its a small price to pay for the organic, lifelike animations on display.

Success typically comes down to identifying the one object or passage in an environment that allows you to move ahead, and working with Trico to access it. You will climb on the beast's back to reach high ledges, use its tail to descend into pits, and lure it to jump into pools of water so you can ride the resulting wave. But you must accept its slow reaction times and patiently decipher its body language, and it's a process that can test your patience when you've lost your path, dense as the world is with red herrings like intrusive outcrops and heavily ornamented architecture.

Yet even at its most disobedient, Trico is an impressive animal to behold, with the mannerisms of a house cat as it rests and slinks through environments, and the temperament of a lion during run-ins with possessed sentinels. Trico will swat and sniff curiosities--sometimes as a hint, other times because it's simply distracted, and the only way to calm your companion after a fight or a scare is through the solace of petting and coos. When you look into Trico's curious eyes as you run out of reach to pull a lever, or when it senses something frightening, you don't see the artifice that defines most video game characters; you see an honest portrayal.

Much like a real pet, Trico doesn't automatically learn because you want it to, but its progress yields confidence in your cooperation as it eventually learns to take commands on the first try. This is gratifying from a gameplay perspective, since you feel less like you're wasting time investigating the world and more like you're working in concert with a reliable partner. As an emotionally invested player, your patience is handsomely rewarded by the formation of an unwavering bond.

The Last Guardian is, for the most part, a totally convincing experience that draws you into the mindset of Trico and the boy. However, there are times when you're reminded of the game they live in. From beginning to end, without an option to disable it, a button prompt appears when you’re in front of an interactive object. Contrasted with environments that force you to consider every option, it's confusing that the game never trusts you to handle basic tasks and instead opts to interrupt the otherwise complex experience.

And despite handling numerous impressive scenes without a hitch, there are a few scenes with obvious frame-rate issues. These occurrences by no means dominate the game--far from it--but they make you consider the technological lattice holding the world together when they appear. It also makes you consider the impossible task Ueda and company likely faced when The Last Guardian was in development for PlayStation 3.

The resulting shift to PlayStation 4 has obviously paid off--troubled moments aside, your journey is dominated by awe-inspiring architecture and natural wonder. As you weave in and out of caves and ruins, you're treated to wide views of towers and bridges in the distance that you may never visit, but they live on in your imagination as you piece together the story and world around you.

It isn't clear whether or not The Last Guardian means to be frustrating at times--if it's a concerted effort to test your patience for a lovable-yet-stubborn creature. Your affection for Trico and sympathy for both characters blossom nonetheless, culminating in an enrapturing series of revelations that cements your attachment to their personalities. Trico is the undeniable star of the show, exhibiting believable physicality and emotional range, but the boy is a valuable lesson in how to be patient and resilient when faced with unforeseen challenges.

When the book closes on their story, it's hard not to open it up again and begin anew. The trials you overcome endear you to both characters, but the emotions Trico elicits make you want to give it another chance--to be the patient, effective partner it truly deserves.

Categories: Games

Dead Rising 4 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 12/05/2016 - 12:00

Since its debut a decade ago, Dead Rising has continuously evolved with each new game. It's changed settings and protagonists, added crafting and vehicles, abandoned escort missions and limited saves. In spite of all these changes, however, the core gameplay always remained intact: grab whatever's handy to kill and maim droves of zombies in a huge variety of gruesome, hilarious ways. Dead Rising 4 maintains this tradition of superficial yet entertaining mayhem by adapting ideas from every previous iteration.

Intrepid photojournalist Frank West, for example, finally returns as our playable protagonist. We also revisit Willamette, Colorado, which has been completely rebuilt since the original outbreak many years prior. Tragically, it's once again the epicenter of an undead pandemic, only now its citizens are supposed to be inoculated. This raises a lot of questions for Frank and his rebellious protege Vick Chu, both of whom fight to uncover the truth in their own ways.

For a game that's all about mindless zombie murder, the storytelling is remarkably adept. Frank and Vick's relationship feels nuanced and believable. The central mystery consistently metes out new clues that keep the plot intriguing and the action meaningful. And though Frank isn't always likable, he's frequently relatable and entertaining, spouting goofy, smart-assed quips at every opportunity. There's also a coherent personality that binds every aspect of the experience together. From the dark, satirical humor of the collectible journals to the jaunty holiday music that plays over the pause screen, Dead Rising's juxtaposition of slaughter and silliness makes for a memorable world.

The heavily advertised Exo Suit plays only a minor role in the overall experience.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is a bit more mixed. Fundamentally, the core combat has evolved less than any other facet of the series. Though Frank uses a mix of melee, ranged, and throwable weapons, you're going to spend most of your time just mashing the X button to whack whatever's in front of you. It's serviceable, even satisfying in its cathartic brutality, but it's also rudimentary, offering little depth or challenge.

In fact, Dead Rising 4 is rarely challenging in any way, and there's no way to select a higher difficulty level. I always had plenty of health and weapons, and armed enemy soldiers seemed nearly as braindead as the undead. The new super-agile Evo zombies are definitely harder to put down, but of the 14,000-plus zombies I killed, only 71 were Evos. Honestly, the hardest part of Dead Rising 4 is trying to pick a specific item up when it's situated too near a pile of other objects.

While greater mechanical depth could have made Dead Rising 4 a more intense and rewarding game, I can mostly forgive its one-note combat for two big reasons. First, the deep and hilarious supply of outrageous combo weapons. There are now more than 50 in total, and once you've obtained a blueprint and the requisite materials, you can craft your new death-dealer on the fly rather than dragging everything to a workbench like Dead Rising 2.

Whether you've created an electrified axe or a toy Santa that spits acid, new combo weapons consistently provide fleeting bursts of concentrated joy. And though not technically a combo weapon, the new Exo suit--a mechanical exoskeleton that turns Frank into a robotic superhuman--provides several hilarious ways to send zombies screaming into oblivion. Suits are scattered sparingly across the map and they lose power pretty quickly, but they're a blast while they last. The game may not challenge your skills, but it certainly rewards your curiosity.

There's also plenty to do outside of combat. Unlike the original and its immediate sequel, Dead Rising 4's campaign doesn't have a timer, and while that erodes the series' identity to a degree, it allows the open world and all its activities to breathe. The central mall and its surrounding areas are packed with hidden secrets, interesting weapons, and compelling collectibles. Obtaining combo weapon blueprints frequently forces exploration and puzzle-solving, which can be frustrating but also satisfying. You can also seek out "maniacs"--special side bosses that aren't quite as memorable as previous games' "psychopaths" but can nonetheless hit you with an amusing curveball. Along the way, you might also discover survivors that need rescuing--though thankfully you'll never have to escort anyone to a safehouse.

And of course, Frank's packing his trademark camera, so photography returns as an optional method for accruing experience and Achievements--and the progression system, though perfunctory, does give the campaign a sense of forward momentum. Frank's camera also plays a crucial role in the Arkham-esque investigation sequences that periodically pop up during the campaign. The process of saving your photos isn't particularly well explained upfront, but having a metagame that's always available can turn even random exploration into a worthwhile endeavor.

In defiance of the two most recent Dead Rising games, co-op has been removed from the campaign and funneled into a separate multiplayer mode. The pacing and narrative scaffolding of the campaign work well without a partner, but the new mode doesn't offer much consolation for co-op fans. Basically, you and your squad spawn in a slice of the world, complete a series of objectives selected from a small, preset pool, then head for a randomly designated safe zone. It's enjoyable enough, but the unimaginative structure and lack of distinct gameplay ideas make the mode feel like an afterthought. You can, at least, find continued enjoyment in the campaign by starting again with all your blueprints and skill unlocks intact once you've completed your first playthrough.

Regardless of what you choose to play, Dead Rising 4's tech holds up well--for the most part. I noticed a few zombies trapped in objects with just their arms poking out of, say, a giant rock, but the framerate never slowed noticeably, which is quite a feat considering how zombies could populate the screen at once.

Dead Rising's zombie-slaughtering formula has started to wear a bit thin after all these years, especially since its combat remains largely routine. The surprisingly well-crafted story, wild new combo weapons, and expansive open world elements, however, turn Dead Rising 4 into an over-the-top piece of popcorn entertainment that captures the series' best elements.

Categories: Games

Can A Fashion App Really Make You More Stylish?

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 12/02/2016 - 17:47
Fashion director Arabella Greenhill on the clever bit of tech that put some colour into her life
Categories: Fashion

What It's REALLY Like Backstage At Victoria's Secret Show

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 12/01/2016 - 20:53
Welcome to Supermodelville. Population: 51 mega babes.
Categories: Fashion

The Ultimate French Girl Style Guide

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 12/01/2016 - 12:25
Ever cool
Categories: Fashion

The Chic Girl's Guide To Skiing

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 12/01/2016 - 11:49
From sambuca shots to high buns, here's what we learned when we hit the slopes with Fendi...
Categories: Fashion

Orwell Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 11/30/2016 - 23:47

George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the sort of writer whose work is unlikely to ever feel irrelevant or unimportant. Although his writing is only explicitly mentioned a few times in Orwell, the game questions modern surveillance techniques and the security of online communication in a way you'd imagine the author would were he still alive.

You play as an “investigator” with access to Orwell, the ironically named surveillance system used to accumulate data on suspicious individuals. Your first day on the job opens with a bomb detonating in a public park, and the next five days, spread between five chapters, are dedicated to working out who was behind this attack and preventing further incidents. This is all done by collecting information about suspects from their digital presence, both public (blogs, comments, social media) and private (bank account, phone calls, email, their home desktops).

The Watergate name is a bit on the nose.

The Orwell program has an “Ethical Codex” that requires each piece of intelligence found to go through a two-step process. Data you find can be sent on to an “adviser” who does not have access to the same systems you do, cannot have a conversation with you, and must judge evidence impartially. This system means that you need to really pay attention to what data you’re sending through and what you’re choosing to ignore.

As you peruse the evidence available to you, certain pieces of text will be highlighted in either blue or yellow, corresponding to suspects in the case. The blue-highlighted text can immediately be uploaded to Orwell, but it can be misconstrued. Send through an innocent joke between friends about one torturing the other, and without the proper context, the adviser is likely to think the person is unhinged. Yellow-highlighted text denotes a contradiction with another piece of text, and it’s up to you to study these contradictions and figure out which piece of information to send through. Not being able to go back on your poor choices feels like a gameplay constraint rather than something that makes sense in the narrative, but being forced to commit to your questionable choices ramps up the game’s tension as you search for details.

Some characters are harder to dig up information about than others.

Orwell simulates the busywork of an office job to tell a larger story about surveillance. You soon find yourself investigating “Thought,” a mysterious collective made up mostly of young activists with awkward Internet histories. As a game focused on searching through in-game websites for dirt and details, Orwell lives or dies on the strength of its plot and characterization. Thankfully, the writing is consistently lively and intriguing. The depiction of a surveillance state feels extremely relevant; it’s made clear that the obvious advantages of being able to easily track terror suspects online come with a disquieting loss of privacy for innocent civilians. In an age where so much personal information is willingly released by so many, Orwell brilliantly explores the implications of this data being misinterpreted.

The characters feel real and familiar, without ever drifting into cliche. Investigating their lives and relationships means getting to know them and figuring out which characters are actually committed to the ideals they claim to hold. You never meet any of these people, but the characterization runs deep. Suspects like Harrison, an angry idealist with an attitude problem, an inflated sense of self-worth, and a clear willingness to sell-out on his ideals, feel genuine. The game’s writers have a strong grasp of how people communicate online and how rhetoric shifts between personal and public conversations. It’s also interesting how personal bias can seep into the gameplay--I often found that whether I wanted to hide or release certain information depended on how much I liked the person I was investigating.

Hey, it’s that guy the game is named after!

The changes brought about by your decisions and discoveries are significant, and while they won’t upend the entire plot, there were noticeable differences in my second playthrough. Subsequent runs are unlikely to be as satisfying as the first, though, if only because solving the central “mysteries” of Orwell signposts which decisions are likely to be “good” or “bad” on a second attempt. I found myself needing to purposely reach conclusions that I knew were incorrect, role-playing as a bad investigator just to see what would happen. But even knowing the “right” answers isn’t always enough--I tried hard to change an outcome at the end of Chapter 3 on my second playthrough, but the thing I’d been trying to avoid still happened, albeit for completely different reasons than I’d experienced on my first playthrough. Orwell’s twists and turns are surprising and exciting, even when you have some idea of what’s coming. There are a few minor issues with Orwell’s current build--the game hard crashed on me a few times, or refused to load images--but each issue I had was fixed with a reload, and because the game saves constantly, I never lost progress.

Orwell is a hard experience to pull back from, even as the dirtiness of your job sinks in. It uses simple mechanics to tell a complex and engaging story, one that feels particularly relevant right now. This is a game where your choices matter and resonate, and which will leave you with plenty to think about once it’s over.

Categories: Games

Where to Buy the Slip Dress That Selena, Kendall And Gigi Love

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 11/30/2016 - 11:11
"It's sexy, it's minimal, it's sophisticated, it's timeless, and it's seasonless"
Categories: Fashion

Ruffles, Knits and PVC - How I Nailed My Party Vibe

In Style Fashion News Feed - Tue, 11/29/2016 - 14:29
We're so over sequins and stilettos, aren't you? Junior Fashion and Beauty Stylist Hannah Lewis headed to the changing room at & Other Stories store for the ultimate Christmas party fashion haul.
Categories: Fashion

Bore Off LBDs: The ALT Girls' Guide To Party Dressing

In Style Fashion News Feed - Mon, 11/28/2016 - 18:04
How to be the soiree slag without the tag via some simple styling tricks...
Categories: Fashion

Final Fantasy 15 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 11/28/2016 - 16:00

The best Final Fantasy games are often regarded for their layered characters and stories, but that will not be Final Fantasy XV's legacy. Save for a few minor arcs and some impressive cutscenes, the story of the deposed Prince Noctis and his three bodyguards ultimately leaves little room for its stars to evolve and earn your affection. But finishing Final Fantasy XV's story prepares you for difficult trials tucked away in Eos, the game's imposing and bountiful open world. Its best quests and treasures extend well beyond the needs of Noctis' fight, and it's these pursuits that make you appreciate your brothers in arms, and Final Fantasy XV in the long run.

We first meet Noctis and his crew en route to the prince's wedding; a political marriage to his childhood friend designed to unite their families' opposing nations. Shortly afterwards, Noctis receives news that his fiance's father ordered an invasion of Noctis's home city, killing his father--King Regis--and claiming stewardship of a powerful crystal. In an effort to retake the throne and restore balance to the world, Noctis must locate ancestral weapons scattered in lost tombs across Eos, battle hundreds of monsters, and go toe-to-toe with powerful gods.

Eos' best quests and treasures extend well beyond the needs of Noctis' fight, and it's these pursuits that make you appreciate your brothers-in-arms, and Final Fantasy XV in the long run.

But this is a fantasy anchored by more mundane, real-world elements; Noctis and company sleep in motels, eat at roadside diners, and gossip with down-to-earth cooks between missions. Among the relatable working-class people that populate most of Eos, your party sticks out like a sore thumb. They ride in an ostentatious convertible, their hyper-fashionable clothes and hair flapping in the wind. Other stylish elites make an appearance during cutscenes, of course, but your meetings with commoners far outnumber your royal rendezvous--there are at least 80 side quests, and only 14 story chapters. For the vast majority of the game, there's a very real disconnect between your party and the outside world that's never thoroughly addressed.

Unlike many of its predecessors, Final Fantasy XV embraces contemporary open-world game principles from the start: outside of story missions, you are free to explore sprawling environments and take on dozens of side quests at your leisure. Townsfolk, seemingly unaware of your princely status, will employ you in a number of tasks including infrastructure maintenance, scientific field work, gem hunting, and light farming. Dedicating your time to rewarding pursuits has a side effect: the more comfortable you become living in Eos doing honest work, the further away and less important Noctis' concerns feel. It doesn't help that most NPCs would rather talk about their magazine publishing business or recipes than important world affairs.

And as far as your bodyguards are concerned: they're content cruising around Eos in their fancy car, cracking jokes and taking selfies. With Noctis' crew--Gladiolus the muscle, Ignis the brains, and Prompto the comic relief--what you see is what you get. Each character is treated to time in the spotlight during specific story missions, but these events, which seem major in the moment, have little long-term impact. Your friends make for upbeat travel companions, offering tons of colorful banter during your travels, but it's disappointing to see supporting characters--a group that typically has diverse backgrounds and curious personalities in Final Fantasy games--relegated to cliched, unbending roles.

It's disappointing to see supporting characters--a group that typically has diverse backgrounds and curious personalities in Final Fantasy games--relegated to cliched, unbending roles.

During the first half of the story, missions are designed to familiarize you with the ebb and flow of the open world; how to make money, where to spend it, and how to recover after a hard day's work. More importantly, you learn how to fight. There's a lot to manage in combat--despite only having direct control over Noctis as opposed to your entire party--which makes for a satisfying juggling act once you understand the game's demanding pace and the extent of your abilities. Though you can pause the action to re-equip characters and use items mid-battle, combat is otherwise a non-stop, fluid process and very different from previous Final Fantasy systems. Unlike Final Fantasy XII which allows you to dictate the behavior of your companions, you have to rely on AI to ensure your allies have your back in Final Fantasy XV. The only time you can issue direct commands is when they deal enough damage and fill up a meter, and you call upon the one ability you assigned to them.

By holding down a button, Noctis will deliver a combo attack until he's interrupted by an enemy. If you're quick, you can press another button to phase through an incoming attack and continue your assault. Noctis can also warp-attack from great distances, swap between four weapons--mid-combo if need be--, cast magic, and on rare occasions, summon god-like Astrals onto the battlefield to mop up enemies.

Astrals are powerful beings that align with Noctis throughout the story, to be summoned later in a time of need. They offer some of the most impressive moments in the game--typical of Final Fantasy "summons"--towering high above battles while unleashing incredible displays of power. But much like distant friends, you only see Astrals when it works for their schedule. Each of the four Astrals you acquire call for very specific battle conditions, but even if all criteria are met--being dangerously low on health in the vicinity of water, in one case--there's no guarantee an Astral will actually appear. Where you could always count on summons to save the day in previous Final Fantasy games, it's disheartening that they usually fail to appear during Final Fantasy XV's most difficult battles.

There's a lot to manage in combat, which makes for a satisfying juggling act once you understand the game's demanding pace and the extent of your abilities.

More often than not, you can at least rely on magic to hammer tough enemies when Astrals are out of reach. Spells can be crafted by bottling ice, fire, and lightning harvested from elemental springs in dungeons and the overworld, and you can also combine these elements with items for increased potency and extra status effects, the tradeoff being that you're sacrificing valuable commodities in the process--spells are consumables, not permanent abilities. It's important to pay attention to what you cast, but also where you cast it, as your party can suffer frostbite, burns, and shock if they are standing too close to the point of impact. While this sounds bad, it adds an appreciable layer of strategy to combat that makes you weigh the risks and benefits of taking the easy way out.

As you earn experience and level up, your party accrues ability points that can be spent within the Ascension Grid menu to upgrade things like AI behaviors in battle, or bolster Noctis' suite of skills. You can also unlock passive abilities that help you earn money and experience points faster as you explore the open world. But all told, AP is in short supply and the Ascension Grid is fractured into many categories, making it difficult to decide where to focus your efforts.

Ultimately, accessories do the heavy lifting when it comes to character customization. They typically increase characters' stats, but may also offer protection from status ailments and influence your companions' behaviors. On the other hand, most weapons you acquire are less exciting and varied, and you may be shocked and disappointed when you discover that each merchant only carries one or two for the entirety of the game.

And don't be fooled by the "attire" menu; no one sells clothing in the game, meaning you're stuck with your initial set--two per character, or four, if you count optional jackets--until you unlock a third outfit at the end. It seems odd that there are so few clothing options, not only because there's an inventory screen dedicated to them, but because the few outfits you can wear come with small but noticeable effects on your party's attributes. They clearly serve a greater purpose, but are largely treated like an afterthought.

You can more than double the amount of time it takes to finish the story and still have plenty of worthwhile adventures calling for your attention.

By the time you tackle the second half of Final Fantasy XV's story missions, you'll be surprised how fast the remaining chapters go by. These are linear quests, some shorter than an hour. You can always explore the world at your leisure, but these tightly choreographed dungeon runs and action set-pieces move fast and draw you in with spectacular cutscenes.

Presuming you let it pull you along, with minimal side tracking, it's possible to finish Final Fantasy XV's story in about 30 hours. This is short by Final Fantasy standards, but after the credits roll, the real fun is just getting started. Final Fantasy XV's endgame content is some of the best in the entire game. Unreasonably large monsters, legendary weapons, and mysterious high-level dungeons lie in wait if you choose to continue playing. You can more than double the amount of time it takes to finish the story and still have plenty of worthwhile adventures calling for your attention.

Over 60 hours into my quest, I recently discovered strange locked doors unlike anything else I've seen up until this point, nested within the inner sanctums of high-level dungeons. I have no idea how to open them, but my party's amazement--as well as my own--is enough to make me want to pore over Eos and find a way. I'm also in the middle of a questline that promises to reward me with the most powerful weapons in the game, but only if I can take down powerful creatures that almost the Astrals' impressive scale. When Final Fantasy XV eventually runs its course, these are the moments I will remember most.

One of the first things you see when you boot up the game is this claim "A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers." It's a strange statement; fans can't agree on what makes a good Final Fantasy game, and who knows why newcomers shied away from the series in the past. It's been a long ten years since Final Fantasy XV was first revealed, and tastes have changed in the meantime. While it's safe to assume fans and outsiders will find some aspect of Final Fantasy XV disappointing--be it the shallow story or finnicky Astrals--it would be hard for anyone to deny that Final Fantasy XV is a fascinating game after giving it a chance. Where its characters fail to impress, Final Fantasy XV's beautiful world and exciting challenges save the day.

Categories: Games

Your Comprehensive Guide To Black Friday

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 11/25/2016 - 09:49
Black Friday, the biggest (and most daunting) day in the shopping year, is here again so get clued up on the fashion, beauty, home and lifestyle brands taking part in the epic sales...
Categories: Fashion

Watch Dogs 2 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 11/24/2016 - 00:21

Anyone who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area will feel right at home in Watch Dogs 2. The important landmarks are there, even odd intersections that may only stand out to residents. But I don't think you need to be familiar with the real Bay Area to appreciate how Watch Dogs 2's mix of nature and urban sprawl makes for a picturesque, playful open world. Its people and places are colorful and over the top, kind of like the real thing.

And whether or not you understand the references that drive Watch Dogs 2's twisted take on Silicon Valley shouldn't matter either: This outing errs on the side of irreverence and unapologetic fun, trading in the original Watch Dogs' rain-soaked trenchcoat and drab demeanor for a neon-colored assault rifles and a pair of skinny jeans. The new attitude and setting are a great combination that allow you to experience the dream--rather than the nightmare--of living in the digital age.

That doesn't mean the world of Watch Dogs 2 is all peace and love. Its gleeful exterior masks a troubled society in the throes of gang violence, political corruption, and rampant hacking. Our antihero Marcus is, to an extent, part of the problem, but he's mostly on the side of good. With his hacking skills under your control, you spend a lot of time thwarting nefarious jerks by tapping into their networks to hit them where it hurts--whether that means dismantling their criminal enterprises or airing their dirty laundry in public. And when digital attacks fail, Marcus knows how to handle a gun. He's a walking contradiction that hates corruption yet murders without flinching, but his actions are so entertaining that you probably won't care for long, if at all.

Your primary mission stems from Dedsec, a group of stereotypical, hyperactive hackers who target government and corporate entities that see private information as a commodity. With society networked and people rampantly sharing pieces of their lives with third parties, the critical mass of data has overflown into the pockets of evil in Watch Dogs 2, but you're the best digital Robin Hood around, which means almost nothing is out of reach. If you can't hack or shoot your way into a building, remote-controlled drones can get you into hard-to-reach places.

With the help of a botnet derived from Dedsec's social media followers--which you're responsible for cultivating by completing story missions and side quests--you can manipulate digital locks, computers, and security cameras to steal data and spy on unknowing targets. Your handy smartphone is capable of hacking into bigger equipment, too, including massive cranes that can lift you atop tall buildings. If you have a penchant for creating domino effects in games, look forward to repositioning explosive objects with forklifts to set up semi-elaborate traps--if not because you have no other choice, then perhaps for the satisfaction you get from watching your prey wander into harm's way.

Sneaking around guards requires critical thought and precise action, but the more you play, the more you discover ways to work around the heaviest hitters and enemy AI in general.

To survey a scene for potential hackables, enable Nethack mode, and you can peer deeper into your surroundings and pinpoint the location of vulnerable devices and human threats; hackable objects and other points of interest are brightly colored. It's easy to lose yourself in Nethack vision because it gives you a palpable advantage while hacking into hard-to-reach locations, but this trick can feel a little like cheating and ultimately robs you of experiencing the sights and sounds around you firsthand.

Even with Nethack mode enabled, sneaking around guards requires critical thought and precise action, but the more you play, the more you discover ways to work around the heaviest hitters and enemy AI in general. It starts early on when you learn how easy it is to distract a guard by sending a fake call to their cell phone, even when they’re searching for an intruder. Then there are quirks specific to unique events. In a later mission, you can use a quadcopter to unlock a prison cell; the two guards standing by won't bat an eye when a heavily locked door magically opens behind them, making your job far easier than it should be.

However, enemies are great at hugging corners and swarming your hiding place when your cover is blown. In numbers, a group of guards is difficult to manage, and a few missions will surprise you with tricky layouts and hidden variables that force you to consider a Plan B. Marcus is remarkably fit, capable of scaling small buildings provided there's a nearby dumpster-sized object to give him a boost. He can also run forever without a pesky stamina meter and has a habit of doing a backflip when jumping from ledges. He's less graceful when facing guards, unfortunately, due to sticky cover mechanics that don't always react as expected. It's not unusual to find yourself on the wrong side of an object because the game couldn't tell if you wanted to round a corner or snap to a different object altogether.

Resorting to guns to get into or out of buildings balances out time spent sneaking and hacking by adding some exciting moments, but it's shallow in isolation. The shooting feels fine, but plenty of other open-world action games offer more substantial, varied options--Grand Theft Auto V and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain come to mind. There's more emphasis on sneaking and acting silently in Watch Dogs 2; quiet melee takedowns often get you farther than an itchy trigger finger might, especially against armored enemies.

There's no shortage of wacky quests to break things up and offer light-hearted goals, such as rescuing a Tom Cruise-like celebrity from the clutches of a cult.

It also doesn't take long for the police to show up when gunfire breaks out. You can try to hold your ground by hacking and firing back, but even with a heavy arsenal, you’ll eventually have to flee. Driving, in mechanical terms, is all over the place, with only a few rides that offer a pleasing balance of performance and control. The rest are too slow to be useful--or too wild to steer with confidence under pressure.

Motorcycles feel great, on the other hand, offering both speed and easy handling. Exploring the map on a motorcycle--whether it’s searching for stunt ramps or to simply take in the sights--is a relaxing way to kill a few hours in Watch Dogs 2. Don't be surprised if you hop into the game just so you can ride a motorcycle down the Embarcadero at sunset or blow through the lush scenery of Golden Gate Park.

Ubisoft does a great job of presenting the Bay Area in an attractive way that feeds intrepid tourists an impressive variety of sights. However, something’s definitely missing. You won't see a lot of pedestrians or cars on the street compared to similar games. This limits how much destruction you can create, but it also gives you space to drive fast in a city that's usually clogged with traffic. The latter is important not only for sightseeing, but also because it gives you a better chance of running into minigames. You can always check your map and fast travel to mission icons or curious events, but that deprives you of the rewarding sense of discovery Watch Dogs 2 affords. Eschewing fast travel also gives you the chance to get to know your fellow urbanites, either by working for an Uber-like car-sharing service to engage in chitchat and make extra cash, or by walking the streets and hacking into their phones to steal money and listen in on phone calls.

When you get tired of that, you're never far from a motorcycle or go-kart race, or a handful of small side missions. There's no shortage of wacky quests to break things up and offer light-hearted goals, such as rescuing a Tom Cruise-like celebrity from the clutches of a cult or hijacking a talking car--similar to KITT from Knight Rider--from its movie-set storage. You may wonder how a team of determined activists find themselves so readily distracted from their primary targets, but somehow, every mission connects back to the bigger picture. And, really, Watch Dogs 2 doesn't take its own story too seriously, so it pays to sit back and enjoy the ride when things get weird.

Even when playing solo, Watch Dogs 2 remains a fun, energetic game filled with possibilities.

Though the feature wasn't present at launch, Watch Dogs 2 now supports seamless player-versus-player hacking online. You are free to turn this off if you wish, but knowing that you may have to stop what you're doing at the drop of a hat to find the nearby stranger tapping into your phone adds a small but appreciable layer to the experience. The game also offers opportunities to join police chases and take down troublemaking players--don't be surprised when the tables are turned and you see another player on your tail, barreling down steep streets beside a fleet of SFPD vehicles. When you'd rather hack with, rather than against someone, you can take on small co-op missions, but they’re so close to single-player missions in structure that factoring in coordination can seem more like a chore than a benefit.

Even when playing solo, Watch Dogs 2 remains a fun, energetic game filled with possibilities. It's easy see-through enemy AI during missions that are supposed to be challenging, which holds back the game at large, but it's a chance to let loose, logic be damned. Watch Dogs 2's world is a step up from the first game's dreary rendition of Chicago, and even though Watch Dogs 2 can't go toe-to-toe with genre heavyweights, it's hard to walk away from its fun-loving attitude and exuberant cast.

Categories: Games

Hitman Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 11/23/2016 - 22:43

Agent 47 never takes this long. The 2016 version of Hitman plays like the longest assassination of the chrome-domed killer’s lengthy career, thanks to developer IO Interactive’s decision to issue the game via six chapters released roughly from spring to fall. But I’m certainly not complaining about the marketing, given that the final package showcases some of the most enthralling exploits of gaming’s most infamous murderer-for-hire. Sprawling levels, tremendous attention to detail with both graphics and sound design, and countless assassination options make this an engrossing experience that includes some of the best replay value ever seen in a game.

Having come into this season of Hitman only after it was complete, I can’t render a judgment about how the game was released in an episodic format. I’m glad that I got to play through it as a complete experience, and I can’t imagine having to wait weeks to go on my next assignment. But at the same time, I see the appeal of tackling each of the game’s six separate assignments (plus the opening training missions that flash back to the beginning of Agent 47’s career) one by one, given just how much gameplay is jammed into each of them. The individual missions here send you jetting all over the globe like a bald James Bond with a barcode on the back of his head. Everything is linked via brief cutscenes that focus on a figure from Agent 47’s past. But the levels are so big and so packed with details that they take on lives of their own, much like separate movies in a franchise.

The long-running international flavor of the Hitman series has been spiced up here with unique locations that take place in virtually every corner of the world. You prowl a Paris fashion show, sneak around a luxurious villa on the Italian coast, venture into mobs rioting in Moroccan souks, stalk a rock star at a five-star hotel in Thailand, assault the leaders of a militia on a compound in Colorado, and finally explore a private hospital atop a snowy mountain in Japan. Each level looks fantastic and is stuffed with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore and hundreds of NPCs to interact with--many of whom come with dialogue and specific routines and behaviors that can be figured into your assassinations. The only drawback with the overall presentation is the quality of the NPC dialogue, which is nicely varied and well acted but virtually all spoken with a standard American accent that can kill your suspension of disbelief. Hearing Italian thugs and Cuban soldiers all speaking like average American Joes really takes you out of the moment, at least until you get accustomed to this oddity.

The attention to detail is otherwise superb, though. I typically took a good hour or two wandering around each level, listening in to conversations, and just generally getting the lay of the land before deciding on a course of action. The game offers dozens of ways to kill every target--and even more routes to take to get to them before you shoot them, garrotte them, drown them in toilets, blow them up, poison them, blast them out of an ejector seat in a jet plane, and so on. Every assignment also comes with loads of different people in loads of different professions, which provides even more routes to your victims via the outfits you can remove from their corpses for use as disguises. Want to stay in a secret-agent tux? Or even a snazzy summer suit? Sure thing. But you can also ditch the formal outfits for the garb of a security guard, a male supermodel, a scientist in a hazmat suit, a plague doctor, a chef, and many, many more.

Granted, all of the above makes Hitman more of a funhouse ride than a grim series of contract killings. While it’s fun to encounter switches that drop chandeliers, a hookah that can be poisoned, convenient wire-and-puddle combos that can be turned into electrocution traps, and murderous random accoutrements from bombs to scissors to swords to bricks to fire extinguishers to pretty much everything but the kitchen sink, everything goes well over the top. The game is more of a cartoon than any sort of authentic exploration of the world of contract assassinations--which is certainly a good thing, both for the way this lightens the mood (any game where you can blow up a guy who’s puking into a toilet isn’t one that takes itself too seriously, despite the body count) and also how it provides so much room for murderous creativity.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with so many options to reach its goals. The first time through a level is just the beginning. Replay value is spectacular, and maybe even unprecedented for a Hitman game, given the massive size and scope of the levels, the number of NPCs, the number of murderous gadgets and weapons littering every room and corridor, and also because of the added options that open up after an initial run-through. Completing mission challenges unlock frills like new weapons, disguises, and starting locations, which of course offer up new ways to get to and finish off your marks.

And then there is Escalation Mode, a new feature that adds requirements to existing levels. It basically creates new missions that involve you offing multiple new targets in specific ways. Difficulty goes up with each successful assassination assignment. Escalations start with things like murdering a few people in specific ways, say by explosives, and then move on to more complex goals like killing while wearing a specific disguise, finishing off all of your targets in a tight time limit, dumping all the bodies in one location, and so forth.

Elusive Targets is a timed mode that lets you go after special victims (who can’t be seen on the map) with just one chance at success before you lose the contract forever. IO releases these victims into the wild at set times and leaves them up for limited periods of time until they vanish, never to be heard from again. It’s a great added incentive to keep going back to the game, even long after the standard missions and their added challenges wear thin. And Contracts Mode (brought back from 2012’s Hitman: Absolution) allows you to mark random NPCs as targets and set kill requirements, creating missions that can be shared with other players.

Finally, PS4 players have access to one more series of exclusive missions called the Sarajevo Six. These sideline assignments that follow along with your trips around the world to complete your main goals see Agent 47 tracking down a half-dozen war criminals who’ve been wanted ever since they participated in war crimes during the Siege of Sarajevo some 20 years ago. It’s a great story with a nice tie-in to the real war in the former Yugoslavia, but the assignments are pretty straightforward and don’t don't offer the variety of escalation/contracts. These bonus contracts still probably make the PS4 version of the game the best to buy, although you’re really not missing much by playing on PC or Xbox One.

You can approach Hitman in two very different ways. You can use the default settings, which sees the game function more traditionally. This primarily means that you’re guided through the game via highlighted Opportunities that underline when conversations and circumstances can be used to set up assassinations. It’s kind of a tip system, pointing you in the direction that you might want to go and turning the game into a relatively linear experience. I found Opportunities invaluable for initial runs through missions, as the tremendous size of the levels make them very daunting to approach without any hand-holding--at least at first. Another enhancement is the Instinct feature, held over from Hitman: Absolution, but scaled back in some ways so that you can no longer use it to track NPC movements or to avoid detection while disguised. Still, even though the option is supposed to replicate Agent 47’s preternatural abilities as an assassin, it kind of turns him into a superhero with X-ray eyes and mind-reading skills. So, I avoided its use.

Or you can shut all that stuff off and venture into a complete sandbox experience, where you have nothing to guide you to your targets save your own wits and observation skills. This offers the purest, most rewarding Hitman experience, but it’s also probably best reserved for experienced players in search of increased difficulty or a new way to approach levels you’ve already bested with the above features turned on. I found the levels too vast to explore without some assistance (and using Opportunities is also a big help when trying to pull off the most outrageous kills), but I can see the value of turning off these crutches for a second go-round. Going in without this help makes everything more realistic and emphasizes how much you have to watch and listen in order to plan out a path to your kills.

My only lingering issues with Hitman involve a couple of relatively minor points. The first involves the internal logic of the game. At times, it seems to be somewhat random whether or not you an NPC or victim notices you. I don’t know if it’s the luck of the draw, but sometimes you’re seen as a suspicious character right off the bat, even if you’re wearing the right disguise and (seemingly) haven’t done a thing to draw attention to yourself. Even accidentally bumping up against somebody can raise the alarm, which is really annoying at times--the number of NPCs packed into most levels makes it impossible to get through crowds without letting fly an errant elbow.

Enemy AI is a little slow on the draw when it does identify you, though. Lengthy pauses make it reasonably easy to run off or shoot a guard or three in the face, even well after they’ve figured out that the weird bald guy with the ominous head tattoo is actually up to no good. The second issue is the irritating need to be connected online to play the game. It’s totally unnecessary for a solo experience like this. It seems to slow the game down somewhat (load times are way too long), and the servers disconnect on occasion for short periods of time, leaving you unable to play.

Delayed gratification from the episodic release schedule or not, this 2016 take on Hitman is a brilliant game. Expansive level design and nearly unlimited replay value courtesy of so many routes to your assassinations (and so many methods with which to carry them out) make the experience almost completely different each and every time you play. Yes, Agent 47 took his time getting here, but it was time well spent.

Categories: Games

Overcooked Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 11/23/2016 - 21:24

You've got to hand it to jugglers: they really know how to up the stakes. Need more tension? Add more objects! Still not enough? Light those objects on fire! And for the grand finale? Recruit a second juggler and start tossing flaming batons back and forth. Cooperative party game Overcooked cleverly borrows this template and applies it to a restaurant setting. Across an ever-changing series of kitchens, up to four chefs must prepare meals by performing simple tasks--chopping vegetables, cooking meat, washing dishes--in an effort to prepare and serve as many complete dishes as possible within a strict time limit.

Each task is, in isolation, dead simple--actions rarely require more than a single button press and objectives are plainly displayed on screen at all times. But as part of a larger coordinated effort, each step potentially becomes that one load-bearing Jenga block that sends the entire tower tumbling when removed. If, for example, your onion soup is ready to serve but you don't have any clean bowls, the soup starts to burn, not only ruining the dish but eventually lighting the kitchen itself on fire as well (don't worry, there's always a fire extinguisher handy). The tiny red warning signal that flashes and the accelerating beep that accompanies it quickly become sources of immense panic.

If this all sounds stressful, you're right, it is. Extremely stressful. And that's exactly why Overcooked is one of the most exhilarating couch co-op games of the year. All the stress and tension that mounts as the timer ticks away result in a massive wave of relief and triumph upon successfully finishing a level at the highest rating. It also sucks you into the experience better than any game in recent memory. The same way a truly great song turns even the most reluctant wallflower into a dancing machine, Overcooked's potent recipe for escalating chaos will have you and your friends screaming instructions to one another without a hint of self-consciousness. More than once, I noticed a teammate standing on the opposite side of a counter directly in front of the bin of food items and found myself breathlessly demanding a tomato. To illicit that kind of reckless abandon is a rare and laudable feat.

And not only does the basic gameplay formula work wonderfully, the experience provides a huge variety of unexpected wrinkles across its reasonably meaty campaign. At the beginning, dishes involve only a single ingredient, but you'll quickly graduate from soups to salads, then to burgers, burritos, fried foods, and so on, each meal more complex than the last. Dishes aren't the only source of challenge and variety, though. Every mission occurs in a different kitchen, and every kitchen introduces its own unique twist.

For want of a bowl, the kitchen was lost.

In addition to coping with layout changes, you might also have to hop between trucks while grilling your way down a highway or dart across icebergs that intermittently connect the two halves of an icy kitchen. If you make it all the way to The Lost Morsel DLC, you'll even have to smack buttons to raise and lower barriers while dodging fireballs. Even smaller challenges--like limited flatware or adorable mice that steal your food--can derail your efforts. The roster of potential variables is both extensive and wildly inventive. This not only keeps the experience feeling fresh, it also results in a renewed sense of accomplishment with each rating star earned.

Without that tension, however, Overcooked's formula starts to fall apart, which is why the game really doesn't work as a solo experience. If you play solo, you control two characters, swapping between them on the fly as they complete automated tasks you've set for them. The gameplay becomes a different sort of balancing act, but too much is lost in the process. The hilarity and infectious enthusiasm of playing with friends is replaced by tedious task management, so the energy fizzles. Plus, score requirements are set much lower, so you can totally bungle a few orders and still somehow achieve a perfect rating.

Without question, Overcooked works best when played with friends, which makes the fact that you cannot play online an unforgivable oversight. There is, at least, a local competitive mode to compliment the cooperative campaign. Two teams of two cook across a series of symmetrical kitchens to see which pair can churn out the most dishes. It's a simple addition that makes no meaningful changes to the core gameplay but provides a welcome diversion from the campaign nonetheless. And recruiting people to play either mode should be relatively easy. Overcooked is not only extremely accessible--with intuitive, pick-up-and-play controls--it's also adorable. Who wouldn't want to chop onions as a racoon in a wheelchair?

Overcooked contains all the necessary ingredients for a truly excellent co-op game. Stress is always balanced out by feelings of accomplishment and progression, and its gameplay requires a mix of smart planning, consistent communication, and some level of dexterity to execute plans effectively. And of course, the cuteness keeps it feeling light and fun, which helps you not hate your friends when they fail to take a pan off the burner in time. It's a shame there's no online option since most of the game's magic evaporates without other players to help you along. If you have folks to play with, however, Overcooked turns juggling simple tasks into a hilarious and occasionally catastrophic exercise in precise communication.

Categories: Games

Football Manager 2017 Review

Games Spot Reviews - Tue, 11/22/2016 - 22:19

Sports Interactive’s long-running Football Manager series is at its best when you’ve been with a team for a handful of seasons--once you’ve managed to stamp your mark on a club, imbued it with your own philosophies, and adopted an anomalous way of putting your opponents to the sword. Sure, you’ve dealt with your fair share of volatile personalities throughout the years--perhaps you were forced to sell a star player after a heated argument over his eagerness to join Barcelona--but you always had a plan.

All of the franchise's disparate systems--transfer dealings, player scouting, tactical tinkering--coalesced into an endlessly engaging whole that creates some memorable tales. It’s no surprise that with each new addition to the series, we see plenty of improvements and new features in these areas. Yet it’s the on-pitch action--which usually takes a relative backseat in Football Manager--that really holds it all together.

In that regard, Football Manager 2016 was a decidedly flawed game. Its 3D match engine was flushed with blemishes: god-like crosses comprised the vast majority of goals scored, right backs were overpowered, and defenders inexcusably forgot how to defend in the simplest of situations. These flaws may have seemed minor, but magnified over the long haul, they cheapened and frustrated the experience. My resounding success leading Burnley to a fourth-place finish in the Premier League hardly felt gratifying once I realized I’d unwittingly exploited the AI’s inability to deal with crosses. And losing a cup final on something that felt less like a player’s mistake and more like the fault of the match engine itself was particularly exasperating. As such, I only spent a mere 200 hours with Football Manager 16 (a far cry from the 800-ish hours I usually spend rooted in the series’ virtual dugout).

I’m happy, then, to proclaim that Football Manager 2017's engine rights its predecessor’s wrongs, and it’s simply a much more enjoyable game to watch and manage. There are still a tad too many goals scored from crosses, but this is mitigated somewhat by the sheer variety of potential goals now, owing to the fact that players perform far more intelligently.

Previously (and I’m talking a few years here), wingers would reach the byline and unforgivably shoot from the tightest of angles. Now when this happens, your sprightly winger will, more often than not, take stock and assess the situation. He might hit a high cross to the striker at the back post or cut it back to an onrushing midfielder on the edge of the box for a Lampard-esque finish. You’ll also see playmakers ping 40-yard passes to pacy forwards dashing behind the defense, see the odd deflected effort loop over a stranded goalkeeper, or jump up in excitement as a curler nestles in the top corner of the net. And it’s not just a goalfest, either. Defenders are now more adept at, well, defending--maintaining their shape and proving difficult to break down if they’re set up to do so.

Opposition managers are more likely to make tactical adjustments mid-match, too. When I went up against “Big Sam” Allardyce and his Everton team during my career with Liverpool, he started the game in a very defensive 5-4-1, hoping to keep things tight and probably come away with a hard-fought draw. When I breached his wall of defenders after a few minutes, however, he switched things up, shifted some of his midfielders further up the pitch, and stuck another striker on to try to score an equaliser. Stuff like this makes match days more involved than ever. There’s just more ingenuity spread throughout the pitch, and that edges the simulation ever closer to reality.

Legacy issues do still persist, however. The conversation system--whether it’s with individual players, the press, or in team talks--is relatively untouched, so you’ll still be choosing the same options you've had for the past few years. Tactics are also in need of a grand overhaul. The mixture of shouts and player roles the series has been using for a few iterations now is certainly serviceable, but at this point, it feels far too rigid and restrictive. Say you want to utilize a double pivot between your two central midfielders or deploy the type of structured pressing Jurgen Klopp and Roger Schmidt use so effectively--there’s no easy way to do either of these things. You can try various workarounds in an attempt to mimic something that regularly happens in real-world football, but even then, it’s never going to be perfectly accurate.

The tactical side of Football Manager would benefit from giving you more control over how your team functions, especially during specific phases of play--perhaps letting you fluidly shift from one formation to another depending on whether your team has the ball or not. Against Real Madrid in this year’s Spanish Supercup, new Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli did exactly that. By deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation while in possession and altering to a 3-4-2-1 without it, Sevilla managed to effectively stifle the Galacticos attack for much of the game, while still maintaining a system his team was comfortable with when they had the ball. Stuff like this just isn’t possible in Football Manager, so it makes the tactical system feel outdated and behind the curve of the sport’s most innovative coaching minds.

The tactical interface is also incredibly difficult to get into. Unless you want to scour the Internet for the real nitty-gritty stuff and actually read pages and pages of differing opinions to learn how everything works, it can feel like you’re shooting in the dark. This could be rectified somewhat if the game offered more feedback on your tactics--with staff members providing information on what instructions clash with one another or tips on how to prevent the types of goals you’ve been conceding--but you’re basically left to your own devices. It’s in need of reinvention. This might be tough to implement in an annualized series, but it’s about time.

The perennial strengths of Football Manager are stronger than ever, yet it’s the furtive improvements to the match engine that really set Football Manager 2017 apart from its immediate predecessor.

And that last part is pertinent, because on the whole, Football Manager 2017 is a lot better about presenting you with digestible information than its predecessors ever were. Now you consistently receive clear, concise reports from your backroom staff that significantly speeds up the process of actually playing the game. They’ll come to you with reports on training and scouting, as well as players they think you should praise or tutor. In the past, you’d have to sift through pages and pages of information to make these kinds of decisions, but now it’s only one or two clicks away. Tasks that you would have previously neglected because you just couldn’t be bothered, or because you simply overlooked them, are now easily performed. It makes your job as a manager much more streamlined. These aspects of the game might not be anything new, but these refinements are wholly appreciated.

In terms of new features, there are only a few that stand out, and they’re mostly shallow and inconsequential. There is one outlier, however. Brexit--everyone’s favorite apocalyptic buzzword--stands apart as being a more meaningful addition than most because it alters the landscape of world football if it’s randomly enacted during your game. This is most keenly felt in the British leagues, of course, as work permits for foreign players become increasingly harder to come by, limits are imposed on squad selection, and the Premier League’s bundles of money are sapped out. It might prove frustrating, especially if you’re forced to disassemble a multinational squad, but to ignore a real-world event with such far-reaching consequences would be a disservice.

The inclusion of social media is decidedly less profound, but it does at least allow you to keep an eye on notable events happening across the world of football. As it pertains to you and your club, however, the finite depository of fan reactions soon gets repetitive, with the same happy, angry, and indifferent responses repeated over and over again, no matter the situation. You’d think everyone would be overjoyed when an 18-year-old scores a hat trick in his debut, but I guess there’s no pleasing some people.

Similarly forgettable is a more robust (and I use that word lightly) creation suite. There are more sliders and hair options, and you can import a picture of your face (or anybody else’s) to slap on the default character model. But for the rare occasions when you actually catch a glimpse of your manager, this is a feature hardly worth mentioning. I should, however, acknowledge a few of the new wrinkles that crop up during Football Manager 2017’s regular structure. Across multiple saves I’ve seen some abnormally high-scoring games: Tottenham beating Arsenal 8-2 (like that would ever happen) or Barcelona smashing Atletico Madrid 7-3, along with the usual 5-0s and 6-4s that seem to appear on a near-weekly basis. These aren’t game-breaking, but they do break the immersion nonetheless--as do the sheer number of managerial sackings. There were seven during my first season in the Premier League (most notably Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola), despite the fact that there were only six games left to go in the season. Apparently battling for fourth place wasn’t good enough.

Football Manager 2017 is not a game of revolution, but one of refinement. Transfers are smarter and more involved, and the faster player development and the aforementioned streamlining of information are welcome. The perennial strengths of Football Manager are stronger than ever, yet it’s the furtive improvements to the match engine that really set Football Manager 2017 apart from its immediate predecessor. Sure, I still have gripes with the tactical interface, and there isn’t anything new there worth writing about. But if your rear end has ever been entrenched in the virtual dugout or you're just a fresh-faced hopeful looking to begin your journey, Football Manager 2017 is easy to recommend to the budding manager.

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