Links to stuff:
Far Cry 5
Forza Motorsport 7
What is the point of this site? There's a million gaming blogs out there, as well as dozens of "professional" joints... why make another? What's the need?
•I've yet to find any sites that reflect my opinion.
"Everyone has different tastes", sure. I can respect that. I also can't help but get the nagging feeling that there's a homogeneous "taste" in mainstream gaming media. I listen to a number of gaming podcasts and visit a fair amount of sites, and there's an inescapable air of solidarity. I can't count the number of times a topic is brought up only to have a half dozen hosts/journalists all circle jerk in agreement no matter how divisive the subject matter. They all seem to be cut from the same cloth and in a business based primarily on opinions there seems to be one "right" school of thought you must agree with or face being fired/ostracized.
And no, I'm not part of the "Gamergate" crowd or whatever. I'm not part of any crowd... that's kind of the point. I just think Gone Home is a complete piece of shit and zero alcoholic, Southern California-based journalists who hang out with each other at events, met the developers, and were given the game free of charge agree with me. So fuck them. They're way off base or out of touch with my "tastes". (more...)
Wrote an "opinion" piece on the new God of War. Starting to have serious misgivings about creating "columns" for the top of the website... Looks good, like an old-timey newspaper column on desktop, looks like shit on mobile where you have to scroll through these stupid updates every time...
Also can't add anything other than text or photos in the columns. Wanted to add a video clip of The Shining, had to settle on still photo. Note to self: change it when the article moves past the column section. Also note to self: read this note on mobile, so you're forced to scroll past it...
I also learned how to use Photoshop (or the free equivalent, Gimp... because I'm a poor sack of shit) in about an hour to make the picure for said article. Not bad, if I do say so myself.
New review is up. And by "new", I mean a game from 1985. When there's jackshit coming out for new releases, you have to fall back on the classics.
Happy 2018... which started off by this site reverting back to October of 2017 for some reason... I call shenanigans. It's fixed now.
Been awhile since an update, but it's been awhile since I had anything worthwhile to write... like Wolfenstein 2 is hot garbage. It is. Review is up.
Back to the badlands of Defiance and further back to the American Revolution in Empire: Total War. Grunt Free Press Podcast Episode 105 is out, despite the summer slowdown of games. We'll make due. And the forum mysteriously has disappeared... I'll fix that eventually. Maybe.
Grunt Free Press Podcast 101 is out, painfully detailing every E3 announcement, because E3 happened.
Just got back from Fun Spot. Recorded a podcast you should check out for the full rundown. Vacation is winding down. Didn't do jack shit, so that's always good. Friday the 13th is finally out. I'll probably do that.
Holy shit, the original Syberia is good. Still. Review for Outlast 2 is up. That's also good, just not Syberia good. And the standard podcasts and that shit. Those aren't nearly as good as Syberia. I should probably write a review for Syberia at some point...
Baseball season has begun. You know what that means... probably the most boring game to watch is going to be featured on the site and the podcast for months to come. I play every game of full seasons, so... grab the peanuts and Cracker Jacks. And learn to tie a noose.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That's what happening. If you watch the Hitbox stream... Zelda. If you listen to the podcast... Zelda. No new reviews, because the next one is going to be Zelda. Then it's back to the fifty other games I left half finished.
Lot of shit going on, gamewise. If you look up at "Games Played"... yeah. Good for choice, not good for completion/reviews/my sanity. Podcast is up as usual.
You asked, I delievered. A review for For Honor. If I write anymore, this might turn into a video game site or something. Oh, and podcasts, blah blah blah.
Been jumping around, playing random garbage like usual, not finishing some games, finishing but being a lazy fuck and not writing reviews for others. Podcast continues to go up weekly like clockwork, though. It still sucks.
Grunt Free Press Podcast published. Grunt Free Press is now a part of "social media", whatever that means. Find us at @GruntFreePress on Gab.AI. I think that's how it works... Just basically means one more thing I have to do besides play games in the end.
Time to drag call upon our old friend, General Maintenence to move some shit, add some shit, take some shits. Grunt Free Press Podcast Episode 72 posted, Resident Evil 5 review should be up soon. Stuff. Shit. Stuffed shit.
Darksiders Review (PC)
Darksiders came out in the middle of the Second Golden Age of gaming, when 3-D action was finally hitting it's stride and new, mind-blowing gameplay concepts were commonplace, as was the tendency of subsequent games to rip them off (or pay homage to them). It's tough to describe Darksiders without going down the rabbit hole of comparing it to other games; “It's like a more mature Zelda”, “It's like God of War”, “You get a literal Portal gun”, etc. Thankfully, the mix and match nature of the design steals (borrows) the best elements from legendary sources, and the fantastic art from Joe Madureira lets it stand on it's own.
You play as War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, arriving on Earth to partake in the final battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell. You've arrived to the party early, and are swept up in a plot of revenge, backstabbing, and servitude involving the defeated army of Heaven, some demon creatures, and The Council of Something or Other. It's a twisted, rather convoluted story that's relayed through sporadic cutscenes varying in tone from epic drama, comic book heroics, lighthearted comic relief, and being metal as fuck. I could barely follow it (it's full of hyperlinks and the game comes with a digital comic if you care), but it sets up a nice background for the brutal action and ruined, fantastic landscapes you must explore to get revenge... on someone. For something.
Darksiders is heavy on the action; you're not going to travel very far without running into a pack of demons to dismember with sword, scythe, pistol, or any of the various tools you collect throughout the adventure. The combat system is more free-form than most other “character action” games, asking you to chain together simple special moves rather than memorize long strings of button presses to pull off intricate combos. The game does a good job of slowly introducing the basics of the combat, then adding onto it once you grasp how it works; you'll go from button mashing to finger-twisting controller acrobatics by the end. As you use each main weapon it increases in level, allowing you to unlock more moves for them or upgrade the ones you already have by spending Souls (currency awarded for defeating enemies) at a shop.
While most encounters are typical melee affairs where you beat on hordes of enemies until a prompt appears above their heads and you deliver a gruesome finishing move, there is plenty of variety to keep the action from getting stale. Aside from the expected arena fights and boss battles, many of the objectives in Darksiders are based around puzzle-solving, be it figuring out how to reach areas with the many tools you're given or how to deal with a group of creatures blocking your progress. As previously stated, the exploration is not far off from a Zelda game; You'll enter themed “dungeons” (some of them incredibly massive and complex), discover tools inside to help you advance, and fight a boss at the end of the stage that most likely involves the newest addition to your arsenal being it's weakness. There isn't much hand-holding here; you're expected to experiment with what you're given and use observational skills to get to the solution. It's rewarding to puzzle things out on your own, even if the goals aren't always apparent.
A couple issues arise from the game constantly adding new abilities to War's repertoire. One is the menu system; while it looks slick, it's rather daunting and isn't the best at conveying information. Just when you get used to the controls and have your hotkeys nailed down, you're given yet another tool or sub-weapon and have to shuffle everything around again. If you're playing on a controller it's not uncommon to run into an environmental puzzle and have to pause the game completely, making sure you have access to quick-swapping the abilities needed. Another is some of the cooler concepts are underutilized. For instance: You gain access to a badass-looking horse, only to ride it a short distance before you're forcibly dismounted and have to go into a claustrophobic, lengthy underground dungeon. Once you emerge, you've all but forgotten about the horse and it's only available in very limited areas. Same goes for the Portal gun... after the initial dungeon where it's introduced, it's barely a factor. Kind of disappointing for a game that let's you revisit most of it's stages.
Darksiders is a competent and solid action game. With it's unique art style and mind-bending dungeons, it's still a blast to play even eight years after it's initial release. It's deceptively lengthy, but remains engaging until the end thanks to the constant evolution of War's toolkit. It might be guilty of “borrowing” from other games piecemeal, but it does so with the purpose of creating it's own unique vision of comic book apocalypse badassery and it succeeds.
Far Cry 5 Review (PC)
Cults are in vogue right now. The inbred religious fanatics of Outlast 2, the child-sacrificing Satanists of 2Dark, The Epsilon Society in Grand Theft Auto 5, the hordes of gamers who convince themselves the Metal Gear series makes any sort of sense and Hideo Kojima is a God... You can't turn a corner without running into delusional people who have been brainwashed into questionable beliefs by either charismatic leaders or the need to belong to a group in our nihilistic, Godless modern society. Cultists are the new zombies. And they make for just as good bullet fodder; they may have been humans at some point, but fuck them.
The Far Cry series has a tradition of casting larger than life personalities with devoted personal armies at their beck and call as the antagonist. The general theme of the games was akin to the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness novel (or Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now... which was loosely based on the same book): the player was tasked with assassinating an insane warlord in an exotic location, and over the course of the journey became increasingly “native”, questioning their sanity. Far Cry 5 continues with the premise, but instead of getting stranded in a third world, technologically lagging jungle, you're isolated in rural Montana which I'm told is slightly different.
The game opens with a helicopter ride into a compound controlled by fanatical cultists, and as a Federal Agent of some kind you're looking to take the leader into custody. The atmosphere is tense, but things look promising as you cuff him, contain him, and start to transport him away from his flock. Of course, your luck runs out as the chopper is shot down, you're stabbed in the back by the local law enforcement, and the town is walled off, forcing you to work with the crazy, gun-totin' natives to topple the Seed family's empire of psychedelically tweaked out psychopaths.
The plot is a bit shaky and the weakest part of the game, despite some smart refinements to the long standing problem of storytelling in open world games. Most of the narrative is presented as non-interactive cutscenes; they're well done, but as always break you away from the otherwise freeform, sandbox gameplay. Hope County is divided into regions controlled by the Seed siblings. As you do just about any activity to break the cultists' hold, you're awarded “Region XP” which feeds into a progress bar. Once you hit a threshold on the bar, you'll be captured and come face to face with the region's boss, usually resulting in a more scripted, linear section where you have to escape the leader's compound. Do that a few times and it will culminate in a boss fight. Take out the four underlings and you'll draw out the big man, Joseph Seed, himself.
While the story isn't “bad”, it splits the difference between gritty but run-of-the-mill “cult stuff” and really goofy, absurd premises that turn the game into a cartoon. For instance: the cult poisons the county's drinking water with mind-altering chemicals. That would be disturbing if it didn't result in special VIP enemies that are visually represented with constant green clouds of mindfog swirling around their heads. As you start succumbing to the effects of the hallucinogen yourself, the boss fights become less like an escape from Waco and more like something out of Silent Hill by way of Ren and Stimpy. People float, teleport, shapeshift, and throw fireballs at you... You're under the spell of the toxic green goo, as indicated by your undulating vision and the appearance of sparkles in the air, but it's still kind of silly.
Perhaps most disappointing of all is Joe Seed himself. He's got the look of a classic villain: David Koresh aviators, dead, beady eyes, usually shirtless to show off the words of the seven deadly sins he's carved into his body. His personality is lacking, however. Other than the occasional sermon or ramble about the End Times, he mostly does a lot of staring at you. The empty stare is disturbing... for about five seconds. Then it pulls you out and makes you wonder how such an uncharismatic leader managed to attract such a following in the first place, free drugs or not.
Fortunately, the average story missions are just a small percentage of what there is to do in Far Cry 5. It's an open world shooter that firmly places the emphasis on shooting and action. While there are still a number of perks to work towards unlocking, gone are the RPG-like skill trees of the previous titles. You don't earn generic Experience Points like in previous titles. Instead your goal is to complete challenges like in Call of Duty's online progression system: Get 'X' Number of Kills with a Certain Weapon Type, Travel a Certain Distance in a Wingsuit, Hunt and Skin These Animals, etc. Perk Points are also awarded through completing missions and finding prepper stashes- caches of valuables discovered by following clues and solving small traversal puzzles. Most perks are available from the outset, so there's no pumping points into specialized branches until you reach the more powerful abilities that you actually want. In other words: there's no real grinding to speak of, which I always appreciate.
For a game with such a massive world to bomb around in, the action is surprisingly heavy and focused. Aside from the more scripted setups like taking over outposts or rescuing captured civilians, it's not uncommon to have a short walk through the woods turn into a complete clusterfuck before long. Wildlife is plentiful and aggressive (including bastard alpha skunks and wolverines...), the roads are infested with cultish pickup trucks with machine gun turrets fixed to their beds, you're harassed from the sky by enemy bombing runs and helicopter attacks, and explosive barrels and highly flammable brush are plentiful and usually in close proximity to each other. It's barely controlled chaos that's usually quite humorous to witness, full of “what are the chances?” moments and insane stunts. Crash Nixon would be proud.
Accompanying you are some true red, white, and blue American patriots that are perhaps some of the most realistic characters to appear in a video game. For those native to the Land of Milk and Honey, you can take along some archetypical companions that are just slight exaggerations of people you know in real life: the quiet, damaged girl that's slightly overdramatic, the outdoorsman who's way too excited to blow shit up for the sake of it, and (my favorite) the middle-aged sexpot who delights in sticking it to her ex while keeping a harem of young studs to give her the “good dick”. There is also a dog that will mark enemies for you, as well as a tamed mountain lion and a bear named Cheeseburger. The friendly NPCs are great; just one small step into satire to be entertaining while still feeling grounded.
The main campaign will run you about twenty hours or so, if you take the cues the game gives you and systematically move from region to region once they are freed. If you return to the world post-credits (the last story mission sucks. Just a heads up.), trying to do everything the game offers- prepper stashes, collectibles, countless hidden Easter eggs- could take dozens more. If you're still not satisfied, Far Cry Arcade offers endless community made maps to play, both single player and cooperative challenges, and competitive multiplayer. As per usual, delving into what random people made is a complete crapshoot; you might find uninspired garbage that plays like shit, or it could be incredible art that's good enough to be part of the commercially released game. If you want to try your own hand at it, the much appreciated Map Editor is there for the patient, talented, and ambitious. And it's both simple and powerful, so you only have yourself to blame when you suck at it like I do.
Far Cry 5 is great. It's beautiful, shakes up (yet simplifies) the typical Ubisoft open world mold, and keeps the focus on the ridiculous '80s-style action while still offering an unprecedented scale of freedom. I laughed, I cried, I got creeped out... then my pet mountain lion, Peaches, started eating dead bodies while an old slut circled overhead in a helicopter, saying she wanted to catch some trouser snakes. It's as close to capturing real America as it gets.
God of War is a “One Shot”. Wow?
In an attempt to further blur the line between movies and video games, the newest installment of the God of War series (simply named God of War) is touting the artistic decision to present the game as a “one shot” as daring and innovative. To break down what this means, we first have to understand where the term comes from. Quick answer: film. In a movie, the “one shot”, or continuous shot, has been used for quite some time for varying lengths and effects. The technique refers to long stretches of time where there are no cuts: the sequence took place in real time, uninterrupted.
On a film shoot, in the meat world, creating a one shot is extremely technically demanding. Cameras are physical objects. Planning out how to move them around to get the shot you have envisioned, capturing the action over an extended period of time, takes clockwork precision. Whatever shooting method you use: be it laying out physical track or strapping a Stedicam to an operator, is going to require some serious foresight and manual labor. Add actors to the mix, who have to hit their marks and deliver lines with the added pressure of knowing a flub can't be fixed by a quick second take, and one shots that work well are indeed a marvel of controlled chaos.
Some of my favorite one shots from film over the years include Danny's tricycle ride in The Shining and Henry Hill's Copacobana entrance in Goodfellas. These two famous scenes use the trick for very different purposes: unease in The Shining, a peek into the glitz and privilege of a mobster in Goodfellas. Perhaps an even better example would be the more recent Birdman. I haven't seen Birdman... but I've heard it's essentially filmed in one take. Though I've also heard they hide some cuts, so... cheaters...
How does that translate to a video game? According to Cory Barlog, the director of God of War, it means the same thing: no cuts, no fades, one uninterrupted shot from the start to the conclusion. Okay...
While it's certainly a feat to plan the game out so cohesively, I'm not convinced this is something to get excited about as a player. To be clear: I have not played the game yet. I'm speaking conceptually, drawing conclusions from what IS known at this moment in time. Judging from the previews, God of War is straying from it's blood-thirsty, hyper aggressive roots in favor of a more story focused, smaller scale, emotionally driven, cinematic game, drawing comparisons to the likes of The Last of Us and Hellblade. It still looks like there will be plenty of action and deicide to be had, but don't expect combo counters and glowing orbs to soak up. It's more “grounded”, or as grounded as a game about a Greek god wearing the ashes of his dead family can be, anyway.
What will the restriction of having it be played in a long, continuous shot add? In an interview with The Daily Star, Mr. Barlog said it was his vision, something he wanted to do when he was working on the excellent Tomb Raider reboot (as the Cinematics Director). He was so dead set on having the game be uninterrupted from beginning to end, when Crystal Dynamics rejected the idea it sounds like he threw a bitch fit and quit, landing at Sony where he could fulfill his dream.
In a 3-D game, the player is usually in control of the camera. If you're playing an open world game with free camera control, you're creating your own “one shots” whether you realize it or not. They could turn out longer or more elaborate than anything ever captured on film, but hopefully you're engaged in actually playing the game so the thought would never cross your mind. I just played Sea of Thieves for five hours straight; I was dropped into the game world, sailed around, did a few voyages. No loading, no cuts until I got murdered by a skeleton three hours in and had to respawn... I didn't think, “Wow! That was just a three hour 'one shot'!”. But it was.
God of War is being marketed as the first game to use the technique for it's entirety. That's questionable. Deliberately doing it? Maybe. It's probably the first time a game director made a fuss about it, sure. But wasn't Pong a “one shot game”? There's no cuts, no fades... just a ball (square) and some paddles? What about Pitfall? Adventure? The original, NES Legend of Zelda, just to name a few classics. Any modern sports game or simulation, same thing.
“But that's reductive/outdated!”, you say? Or it “doesn't count” for one reason or another... “It only matters for cinematic action games!”. Why? Has that much changed, really changed from Link adventuring in Hyrule to Kratos babysitting his son in God of War? Better graphics, bigger budgets, a change in perspective... That's about it on the gameplay side. It's still a level designer crafting the play space, placing enemies, designing challenges, programmers are still setting the AI behavior and giving the player a tool set with which to fight and explore. Even comparing the game to something even more similar like Dark Souls: picture all that you can do from Firelink Shrine without loading into another area (after you've triggered all of the cinematics, if you want to get granular about it). Now just cut out the other areas that require you to travel outside that main landmass. One shot. Again... “Wow?”.
While digital cinematography for games is a skill, it's definitely no equivalent to producing a physical “one shot” on film. (Unless you want to count machinma, but that's an entirely different subject). There's no risk of screwing up the entire project because of one unpredictable mistake. Game makers are afforded the luxury of having their actors and non-interactive scenes prerecorded. Modern video game cinemas are created more or less like movie scenes, with live actors in motion capture suits pantomiming and the characters' voices recorded in a sound booth. There's really no pressure there (besides wasting time and money); they're not jumping in real time when you press the “X” button. You won't be watching Kratos fight the troll for the first time, like you're watching a play. God of War has undoubtedly gone through multiple iterations over the years, with the the scripted sequences getting reworked over and over, certain lines of dialogue getting rerecorded until it's right... all pretty much piecemeal until it works. The last boss isn't going to trip over a table and fart, and Cory Barlog isn't going to have to make the decision to either leave that in the game or program the entire thing over again from the Start screen.
The term “one shot” for a game seems disingenuous. For a game to be truly be continuous it would have to be completed in one sitting (and God of War is reported to be around 30 – 35 hours), there would be no fail state (and therefore it wouldn't be a game), and there could be no menus of any kind, including Options or Settings... In other words it would suck. It's an artistic choice to strive for, yes, but it's more of a self-imposed restriction the game director can jack off to than something the player should be thrilled about.
Castlevania Review (NES)
Nothing quite plays like Castlevania. It would be easy to look at the game and classify it as another run of the mill NES action/platformer, with the defining feature being the gothic horror motif. It has a reputation for being difficult, but that is almost expected from games of that vintage. Castlevania stands out because it is offbeat. It's not a reflex game, it's an exercise in observation and learning. Button mashing and rushing will lead to frustrating deaths, instead you progress by learning animations and searching for secrets that yield almost necessary power ups. You could say a more modern, popular series borrowed some of it's... Soul?
There's not much narrative framework to setup Castlevania; if you let the title screen with the flapping bat play out long enough it just switches to a demo mode. There might be some backstory included in the manual, but who reads that shit? Once you press Start, you're shown a cinematic that lasts all of five seconds; Trevor Belmont stands at the gates of Dracula's castle. Then you're in control for the short walk to the gate, hopefully getting used to the controls and whipping the few candles there to power up your weapon. Once you're inside, it's a classic monster movie museum. Zombies, bats, gill men, ghosts, torture devices, Frankensteins... You don't need much story, because this is a beautiful “best of” love letter to the horror genre. There are monsters. Kill them.
Of course the things that go bump in the night won't go down without a fight. Each level contains a fresh new Hell to contend with; tricky jumps to navigate while flying enemies attempt to knock you back into bottomless pits, one shot spike traps, enemy compositions that seem impossible to deal with... but each rage-inducing death is a learning experience. For the most part, Castlevania avoids the questionable level design/shortcuts of it's contemporaries; each stage is designed with a solution in mind, most enemies don't infinitely respawn, and it's more than feasible to continue after dying and losing all of your upgrades. All the tools you need are provided, it's just a matter of finding them and using them properly.
For instance, a particularly troubling boss can be defeated without much effort if you have the right subweapon and upgrades equipped. Vials of holy water combined with double or triple shot capacity (the II and III icons you ignored) can completely freeze enemies in place. Or a time stopping stopwatch can make a harrowing platforming section infested with Medusa heads a non-issue. Even when the game seems unforgiving and unfair, chances are the fault lies with you; either a candle you didn't bother whipping or bad timing on your part. It really is a brilliantly designed game that was way ahead of it's time.
Everything in Castlevania feels deliberate; from the power walking animation with a purpose, the stiff, “realistic” jumping, and the choice of the whip as your main weapon that forces you to hesitate and compensate each attack. It took me nearly thirty years to wrap my head around the nuance of waiting a beat before snapping the whip, but I finally got it. Some would say I'm a slow learner. I choose to see it as savoring and appreciating a wonderful work of art. The music is badass, too.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review (PC)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a fairly typical, open world game with a solid if familiar combat system and a good sense of progression. What really made that game stand out, however, was the Nemesis System: a hierarchy of bosses with randomly generated strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and relationships between each other that shifted and evolved over time. For the sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, that system has been upgraded and expanded upon, to the point that nearly all actions you perform are either directly or indirectly tied to building up your personal Orc army and attacking or defending strongholds against enemy Orc armies. This was a wise decision.
Shadow of War picks up right where the previous game left off, both in terms of story and the lethality of the protagonist, Talion. You're tasked with uniting the lands of Mordor, one region at a time. This may sound daunting, but within an hour Talion is single-handedly slicing down hordes of Orcs at a time, popping their heads to gain health, and downing giant beasts that would be final bosses in most action games. My initial fear was: “Where can they possibly go from here?”. It turns out: quite a few places. Shadow of War is almost badass overload; you earn ridiculous skills at breakneck pace. It's not very long before you're summoning dragons at will, which you can then point a bow at and mount and rain fiery death down below, picking up and devouring enemies to recharge your health. You can shoot a fire pit and make it explode, sure... but having it explode with spiders is much more fun. Fighting a Balrog multiple times, once on your own friendly, Balrog-like creature... that's just an optional side quest. No big deal.
Despite all of that, Shadow of War remains challenging throughout, thanks to an endless loot/upgrade treadmill and the pure chaos that occurs when multiple, randomized systems interact with each other. You may think you've had the “Batman” combat system mastered since Arkham Asylum, but when you're fighting a war chief who is immune to half of the attacks you're used to using, who is summoning henchmen that will throw spears at you from a distance, then ANOTHER chief shows up riding a caragor and laying poison traps on the ground, then a graug starts throwing boulders at you from half a mile away... it gets intense. Running away and finding some hapless peon to drain for hitpoints becomes a must.
Character progression seems spot on once again, even with the addition of several pieces of equipment to collect and upgrade, each with gems to slot into them and unique challenges to complete to unlock special buffs tied to the equipment. Even without buying loot boxes to give yourself an advantage new loot flows fast and often, so you don't grow particularly attached to any of your pieces. Another, better sword or cloak is always just around the corner. The grind is there if you want it, but you can almost completely ignore it if your combat skills are up to snuff. You can defeat war chiefs dozens of level higher than you, and while you won't be able to recruit them to your army you can “shame” them; dropping their level down to your own and increasing the chances of obedience the next time you encounter them.
Once you have an army at your back, you're ready to take over some strongholds. The assaults play out like a combination of a match of Domination in an online action game and tower defense. You select allied Orcs to accompany the storming, and can spend currency to buff them with advantageous perks like a squad of suicide bombers who will charge the castle walls and attempt to shatter them, or mortars that will hurl fire bombs into the courtyards. You then take the lead as you attack control points, clearing out enemy chiefs and soldiers and holding it until you can claim it. After a few of those the castle is yours, but you have to defeat the War Boss in an arena fight at the throne room to take control.
These stronghold missions are fun and certainly are a spectacle. Once you occupy all strongholds, you then have to defend them from increasingly higher level assaults that come in waves in the games fourth and final act, Shadow Wars. The defenses are just as fun... the first half dozen or so times you do them. The length of the final act is honestly my only big complaint about Shadow of War: it goes on about double the length than seems reasonable. After a few of them, they become mechanical as you hone your strategy; call a drake, ride him into the front lines and burn as many people as possible, go war chief to war chief and dominate him and have him fight for you, repeat until finished. Essentially the game is over at this point and you're only doing this to watch a single (though excellent) cutscene. In the age of YouTube, this seems misguided and pointless. But other than that, Shadow of War is excellent.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus Review (PC)
How do you top a successful, surprising feat like rebooting one of the most iconic series in the history of video games? Three years ago Machine Games did the nearly impossible by taking the granddaddy of first person shooters and adapting it into a modern classic that shouldn't have worked, but it did. They seemed to know precisely what magic combination of elements to draw from to make the game feel new while tricking your brain into believing, without question, “This is Wolfenstein.” For the direct sequel, all they had to do was make the game bigger, badder, and more badass, as the saying goes. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus sure is bigger... as in level size, which doesn't always work in it's favor. Unfortunately, they only got half of those other two bullet points right. And they're the same half.
B.J. Blazkowicz returns in a not-so-triumphant fashion. The entire first level of the game has him wheelchair bound, his body a stitched together wreck from his glory days of saving the Untied States from Nazi occupation. He didn't finish the job, so he wheels himself into action, setting booby traps and turning Fascists into various sizes of meat chunks. It's the kind of level that would be a welcome change of pace hours into a shooter campaign; the controls are wonky and jerky, it's full of gimmicks as you ride conveyor belts to circumvent your lack of climbing ability and try not to get yourself killed by your own sonic tripwires. As an introductory stage, when you're in control of the game for the first time, it's an odd choice. If you're trying to get a feel for player movement, it's a false start. If you find yourself getting lost in identical looking hallways and not having a clear direction on what you should be doing, that's more in line with what you'll be in store for.
You'll also get a glimpse into B.J.'s past via a grueling, barely interactive cutscene. Attempting to answer the question nobody asked or cared about (“What WAS B.J.'s home life like when he was a little boy?”), he's put through the meat grinder by his nigger hatin', wife beatin', antisemitic good ole boy father who makes sure to check off every white male, Southern stereotype in the book. B.J. gets a whoopin' just for talkin' to that darky down the road. Then his wife gets a smack for openin' her Jew mouth. Then he takes B.J. in the basement and makes him shoot the family dog because it's a coon hound. This is what a patriarchy looks like.
The New Order did a brilliant job of balancing pulpy heroics and humor with gut-wrenching horror. The New Colossus is tone deaf. The first half of the game wants you to take it deadly serious; there's not a moment of levity with the Blazkowicz family (later revisited in another scene that's just as dark, if not more so). Through readable collectibles scattered around the levels, you're drawn a picture of the U.S. that was practically begging for Nazi collaboration even before the alternate timeline the game places in. You're teamed up with not a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters, but radical militants with ideologies just as bad (if not worse) than the Nazis. As you meet each one you're forced to listen to them preach about the righteousness of black supremacy, Marxism, Communism, and how they'll be benevolent dictators once they are in control. These are truly despicable people, and when they are labeled “terrorists” it's hard to argue. The United States was always a Nazi nation according to them, so who are they trying to “liberate”, exactly? And wouldn't their own totalitarian ideals result in endless in-fighting afterward? In this “alternative history”, of course...
Right around the halfway point the narrative shifts, though not really for the better. It goes from dumb to retarded. From the masturbatory fantasies of a sexually predatory college professor to a party in a frat house. You may expect with a cast of extremists there would be some notable conflicts of interest or character moments, but after a cringy montage of the crew drinking and fucking each other you're suddenly supposed to treat them as cartoon characters. They've each had their turn at the pulpit, now let's have some fun, right? Right?!
You may notice the above is an inordinate amount of time to spend on the narrative of a game that should be about the mindless joy of killing Nazis. That's because the game spends an inordinate amount of time on narrative in a game that should be about the mindless joy of killing Nazis. It took me about ten hours to beat the game on one of the harder difficulty modes, and probably half of that time was either watching cutscenes, finding and reading collectibles, or wandering around the maze of your home base that is about three times the size it needs to be.
The combat is just okay. Most of the levels have the same flow as The New Order: you enter an area, an indicator on the top of the screen let's you know if there are any Commanders around who will call for reinforcements if you're spotted. Ideally you take them out before they raise an alarm and send waves of soldiers flooding into the level, making things much more difficult. You can sneak around, violently slitting throats or throwing hatchets into backs, but sooner or later things will go South and you have to go the loud route, dual wielding an assortment of heavy weaponry to turn Nazis into red mist. B.J. runs at a breakneck pace (*when he's out of his wheelchair), leading you to believe the game wants you to run and gun and use your twitch reflexes against enemies with low hitpoints, but that's not the case. Most of what you're shooting at is armor plated which you have to pick apart before landing lethal damage, but even skinheads walking around in wife beaters and suspenders can take an entire clip to the chest before they drop.
The high speed is more for collection and evasion. Most of the game you're disadvantaged, capping off at fifty percent health. You can “overcharge” past that by picking up health packs and eating food, but it will quickly tick back down so it's a temporary boost. Armor pickups negate damage as you'd expect, but early in the game you are going to get shredded very quickly and have no idea why. Part of the problem is you're desensitized to seeing your health tick down so you stop paying attention to it, but there is also a distinct lack of feedback when you are taking damage. You get the usual red indicator in the direction you are getting shot from, but it's often hard to decipher from the visual chaos happening on screen at any given time (giant muzzle flashes, explosions, etc.). There's no unique sounds when you're hit or camera movement or anything. You often end a firefight and have no clue why you're almost dead. Or you die and similarly question what happened.
The shooting improves as you progress and unlock gun upgrades and overpowered abilities, but the level design is a mess throughout. Whenever the game tries to stray from straightforward, linear corridors and into multi-tiered levels and arenas it falls apart. Even referencing a map and pinging a waypoint, there are too many instances where the game doesn't seem to make a lick of sense where they are directing you. One level has you riding a giant mechanical dog, burning people to cinder... and that's well and good. Then you wind up in a giant sewer with the game telling you to “exit”. You may think it's a maze you have to figure out, but it's littered with black doors to nowhere where Nazis endlessly respawn out of monster closets, and you're supposed to drop down some arbitrary hole in the floor in the middle of the level. Mazes are fine and Wolfenstein-y and all, but all too often in The New Colossus you're not sure where the walls of the maze are supposed to be, or where the exit is you're aiming for. And the few arena battles are flat out terrible.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus banks on you caring about a story that is not good or particularly creative. It abuses it's “alternate history” license, pandering to the crowd that seal claps and barks at Trevor Noah or Jimmy Kimmel, and it's just as entertaining. Despite a few sparks of life later in the campaign, it falls flat and ends on a wet fart of an ending... and the worst version of Twisted Sisters “We're Not Gonna Take It” I've ever heard. And I've heard a lot.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice Review (PC)
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is gorgeous. Character models and landscapes can approach photorealism to the point you question whether you're looking at a video game model or full motion video with a few filters applied. In some cases I'm still not sure of the process Ninja Theory used to create such convincing visuals, but it's an impressive graphical showcase if nothing else. Thankfully, playing the game is an emotional journey worth experiencing as well.
You control Senua, and in an immediate fourth wall breaking performance she is aware of that. Senua hears voices in her head, and you are one of them. Carrying her dead boyfriend's head in a sack, you must guide her to the land of the dead so he can properly be put to rest. She is cursed with the “dark rot”: mental illness that causes her to see runes and patterns everywhere, hallucinate, and her tribesmen claim it is responsible for a deadly plague. The dark rot is manifested in the game as supernatural beasts Senua must battle, geometric puzzles, and perspective warping mazes to navigate. Black corruption infects Senua every time you die, starting at her hand and creeping up her arm. If it reaches her head, she will have failed her journey.
Much has been made about Hellblade tackling mental health issues seriously. Ninja Theory hired multiple psychological experts to help out, previews for the game made sure to mention this, and there are warnings front and center in-game to warn anyone who may be triggered by such depictions. How all of that expertise is delivered... eh, it's a little overblown. While the research most definitely helped Senua's actress get into character and the developers to get in that mindset, the final product isn't that far removed from your average fantasy or horror game. Hellblade just adds a meta-layer of the player being aware of the disconnect between Senua and her reality.
Hellblade is artsy, bordering on pretentious but never quite crossing the line. Despite some extended cutscenes showcasing the expressive performance by Senua and the art team, the majority of the game is spent exploring large, fairly open areas and engaging in Dark Souls-lite sword battles. The environments range from beautiful, picturesque landscapes to nightmarish visions of Hell, dark claustrophobic crumbling castles and otherworldly, ghostly seas, all rooted in Norse mythology. One complaint here is that the levels can be a little too big, requiring excessive amounts of times jogging from one place to another and making it easy to get turned around on linear paths. So much jogging...
When you're engaged in combat, the simple system should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a modern third person melee action game. You have quick and heavy strikes with your sword, a block button which can parry enemies light attacks if timed properly, and a generous roll to avoid heavy attacks or position yourself at their flanks. Once shielded types are introduced you have to kick them to open up their defenses. You also have access to a buff that slows down time, increases damage and heals, so that is vital. While not exactly innovative, the combat is fluid, tense, and satisfying. If you're worried Hellblade is going to be another elitist non-game, just give it time. It's a slow burn, but the action ramps up and is actually helped by the connections forged from the narrative.
At it's worst, Hellblade is a masturbatory exercise for Ninja Theory to show off it's mastery of technical artistry and for Senua's actress to perform a one woman play in front of facial capture cameras. While this may cause the occasional douchebump to tickle the back of your neck, if you stick it through the game pays off with exceptional set piece after set piece and a memorable, affecting, personal journey through hell.
Get Even Review (PC)
Get Even is a weird game. It's a narrative focused mystery that has you questioning character motivation, truthfulness of the events you're investigating, and the sanity of the avatar you are controlling. Not content to lay the jigsaw pieces out and have you passively observe, the game is both extremely experimental in it's gameplay and at times very traditional when it's called for. The frequent shifts in genre and objectives can add to the experience when they hit, or can slow things down and become janky and unpolished (and occasionally crash-y). Get Even is a little... UN-Even, but it's an original title that tells a great story if you can push past the rough edges.
I usually don't give a shit about spoilers in games because most game stories are inconsequential or terrible, but in the case of Get Even the entire point of the game is uncovering the truth behind the events that led up to a young girl being kidnapped and victimized in an explosion, so I'll tread carefully. You begin by controlling a tough guy/hitman-type named Black, infiltrating a guarded warehouse armed with a silenced pistol and a smartphone. It seems like standard first person stealth gameplay with some forensic investigation elements; you can change apps on the phone to a map, which will give you enemy locations and show their cones of vision so you can try to sneak up behind them and silently take them out. Another app acts as a black light, revealing bloodstains or footprints you can follow or scan for more information. Notes, newspaper clippings, and audio recordings are scattered around for you to discover. When you finally reach the room where the girl is being held, the game does the slow down, action game/bullet time thing so you can heroically murder a couple guards and save the hostage... then you wake up in a rundown mental asylum and things take a turn toward the strange.
At this point Get Even becomes a full on horror game; a monitor flickers on to display a distorted face with a modulated voice, apparently your captor/torturer. He or she gives you instructions you're forced to follow, guiding you through the rundown maze like a take on the horror movie villain Jigsaw. There are other “patients” in the hospital, all with virtual reality helmets attached to their heads, and all quite clearly insane, most rambling about a “puppet master”. Some are hostile and you're forced to murder them, others may or may not be saved depending on your actions. You're also continuing to collect notes and photos of other events or cases, which are stored in a central room containing bulletin boards laying out the clues. From this room you can jump into other scenes or replay events, trying to collect more evidence and figure out what the fuck is going on.
An early example of the time travel/reconstruction warping is an infiltration mission of a high tech weapon manufacturer to steal a prototype for a corner gun... a gun that can aim around corners. It's basically just a frame that attaches your smartphone to your gun, so I don't know how “high tech” that truly is, but the device gives Black a neat mechanic for the action sequences, anyway. Get Even isn't really a shooter: it's a narrative game with shooting sections, so being able to fire from cover with very little risk to yourself is empowering and sells the whole professional killer vibe. The AI isn't great, the movement can feel a little stiff, but that's fine. It's just one piece of the greater puzzle.
The sound is incredible, though. The multi-layered, reactive soundtrack builds up tension like few other games. As you're crawling around dark, filthy hallways, snapping necks like a pro and the bass kicks in, growing louder and louder and more intense... it brings you right to the edge and gets your heart pumping. Then it somehow keeps ratcheting up the intensity even further. There's some audio magic going on here that does wonders to cover up some of the less polished elements of the game.
If you're looking for a dark mystery, narrative game with some meat on the bones in terms of gameplay, definitely check out Get Even. While it's hard to express why without getting into spoiler territory that would ruin it, the best way I can explain it is: Get Even has a lot in common with Black Mirror. Not a specific episode of Black Mirror, but an entire season of Black Mirror; some segments work incredibly well, some are kind of hokey and don't work at all, but overall it's a great experience if you're into weird, grim science fiction and horror.
Metro 2033 Redux Review (PC)
Metro 2033 takes place almost entirely in the Russian subway system (the Metro) post nuclear apocalypse. Designed as a massive, labyrinthian fallout shelter, the survivors of a war long past have built a ramshackle society in the tunnels, each station developing it's own personality, laws, and politics. Life is tough in the dark and filthy catacombs; crumbling infrastructure, limited or no electricity, scarce resources, disease runs rampant, radiation hot spots, clashing ideologies have lead to eternal war between certain stations, and to top things off there are mutant, ratlike creatures roaming the tracks, attacking travelers and trying to breach the outposts. Then a new threat emerges: the dark ones. Lanky, humanoid beings that attack a victim's mind, driving them mad may spell the end of the Metro and civilization altogether. You play Artyom, a young man tasked with executing a plan to stop the dark ones and save what's left of humanity.
Based on the novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 is the gold standard of linear storytelling in video games. Granted, the subway setting makes it easy to usher the player down the tracks on rails (literally), but 4A Games manages to tell a dense, multi-layered story full of moral ambiguity, political intrigue, and excitement while offering enough variety and player control that it seems perfectly paced. There's downtime when there needs to be downtime, the combat can get oppressively tense, there's so much ambient dialogue that it oftentimes runs together, letting you pick up on so many small details after multiple playthroughs. If this were a movie, it would be the template for how to properly edit a film. It's also a template for how to properly adapt a three hundred page novel into a video game.
You never step out of Artyom's shoes, to the point the game is almost an Artyom simulator. You can pull up a notebook and a compass to guide you in a general direction, a lighter to see in the dark and burn away the many cobwebs that will slow your movement, an electric light that drains over time, requiring you to manually crank the portable generator (which leaves you vulnerable to attacks). There are air powered weapons like a BB gun that need to be pumped up for maximum velocity, the pressure leaking over time. When you venture out of the Metro or in certain toxic sections underground, you need to equip a gas mask to breathe, and the air filters need to be swapped out periodically. Take damage while wearing a mask and it will start to crack, obscuring your vision before it breaks completely and you have to scavenge a fresh one. Blood, grime, and various other liquids can also be wiped from the mask with a push of a button. This fiddly survival plate spinning could be obnoxious if handled poorly, but in Metro 2033 they are core mechanics that make the game.
Like the rest of the game, combat is up close, deadly, and dirty. Mutants viciously attack in numbers, climbing the walls and using vents in the ceiling and holes in the ground to flank you. Your weapons are cobbled together pieces of junk, firing either homemade ammunition of questionable effectiveness or prewar bullets... that also act as your currency. So you have to make the decision to either spray and pray and hope for the best, or literally shoot your money away. Human enemies can either be easier to deal with or an overwhelming force depending on how patient you are. Sneaking through a Nazi or Commie stronghold undetected is ideal, taking advantage of the shadows and snuffing out lanterns to remain hidden. Inevitably shit will hit the fan, though, and the soldiers can be downright brutal, hiding behind cover and blinding you with headlamps while you pick apart their armor piece by piece.
The lighting in particular is gorgeous in Metro 2033. In a game that's not afraid to throw the player in the dark, the different lighting effects cast by so many variations of light sources and fires and glowing mushrooms is astonishing. The game looks great overall, too, with only the human faces looking a little waxy and unintentionally disturbing. Granted, the “Redux” version is a remaster, but nothing else quite looks like a Metro game. Probably because 4A Games made their own engine specifically for them, they stand on their own, and they are beautifully grim.
Metro may look like just another post apocalyptic shooter, but there is so much more here. The fiction, the survival mechanics, and the deadly serious but somber and science fiction tone are all wholly unique. This is how you tell a story.
Syberia Review (PC)
Syberia is one of the most emotional games I've ever played, which is quite a feat considering there aren't that many principal characters and many of them are emotionless robots. There are deeply cutting, overarching themes running through the experience that are timeless: destroyed beauty, flawed ideologies, infidelity, Peter Pan Syndrome, the inevitable march forward of technological progress and the loss of humanity. How Syberia manages to tackle such dark and depressing issues yet remain whimsical and keep you full of wonder is the mark of truly masterful writing and game design.
In a modern context, a video game about economic progress and relationship troubles should rightly illicit some skepticism and groans, as “mature games” have devolved into a sort of subgenre that usually treats it's audience like complete fucking morons with no ability to parse subtext and nuance. You could go down a checklist of cliches that would (and should) instantly turn you off: “the environment is a character”, “the protagonist really grows on her journey”, etc. Here they don't feel like buzzwords, however. Syberia is art and storytelling, minus the pretension and virtue signaling.
You play the game as Kate Walker, a lawyer from New York on a seemingly simple mission to get a signature from the last living heir to an obsolete toy factory. Arriving in what initially looks like a quaint European town, things quickly get very strange and her job gets exponentially more complicated. Not only has the heir died, but in her will she confesses that her brother is still alive, her family had faked his death, and his whereabouts are unknown. Kate goes above and beyond the call of duty, launching a one-woman investigation to find the mysterious genius/retard Karl Vorslberg. It's not a simple task, as Karl spent nearly his entire life designing intricate clockwork trinkets and automatons, up to and including a train to take himself to the fabled land of Syberia to look for the last living mammoths.
Kate boards the train, following the clues she's found and traveling from station to station, each stop more surreal and absurd than the next. All of the locations are past their prime, crumbling monuments ravaged by time and forgotten by modern society. The inhabitants she encounters haven't fared much better; lost souls either reveling in their past glory, going through the motions like automatons themselves, or driven mad from isolation and false promises. Kate interviews them, hoping to uncover more information about Karl and the impact he had on each locale. She also grows increasingly distant from the “real” world the further down the track she goes. Faced with majestic sights, essentially becoming the biographer of a genius who would not and could not let go of childlike wonder, her mundane, adult life fades into the background. Incoming calls from her friends, family, lover, and work become either uninteresting or tools to help her on her mission of discovery.
Gameplay consists of fairly standard adventure game interactions; you use the cursor to control Kate's movements, pointing and clicking to guide her. The circular reticle will light up when it's possible to move to another pre-rendered scene, or change icons if other actions are available. Talking to NPCs brings up a dialogue notebook with discussion choices, which will fill out as you obtain more information. All the voice acting is top notch, with a wide variety of accents and personality types. Kate especially is wonderful. You'll pick up items, add them to your inventory, and use them on objects... as is expected from the genre. This really is the sweet spot for adventure games as far as I'm concerned: there is some pixel hunting, but the fidelity is high enough that it's not in the literal sense. Solutions to puzzles are usually common sense, or the game actually wants you to tinker around with complex-looking machinery as part of the experience. There's nothing here that should stump you for days or have you running for a walkthrough; thorough exploration and observation is key, and it's still satisfying to solve the mechanical trials.
While graphically Syberia is starting to show it's age, the sense of awe and beauty still shines through in most cases. The 3-D character models look a little rough, but thankfully the point-and-click navigation saves us from having to deal with godawful tank controls of the era. The 2-D backgrounds are pixelated but gorgeous. Oftentimes you may wonder why certain screens exist, since there are no real gameplay reason for them to be there; just “empty space”. They're there because they're pretty.
Syberia is one of those games that's not technically “perfect”; you could nitpick some pacing problems or a puzzle or two that doesn't pay off, or some dialogue that's awkward or a bit too on the nose, but as a package it's absolutely fantastic. The unique, heartfelt story is something everyone should experience, and it's an adventure game you should play even if you generally don't care for adventure games. It welled me up with emotions, and I'm usually an old, crusty automaton.
Outlast 2 Review (PC)
Outlast 2 takes the first season of True Detective, Rosemary's Baby, and Sleepers and crafts a fairly standard, modern, first person horror game out of them. With a camera pressed against your face for the majority of the trek through a twisted cult's compound, it's part haunted house, part found footage film making simulator. You have no means of defending or attacking, so you have three choices to make: run, hide, or die. This loop is repeated throughout the entire game, maybe one or two times too many.
You start Outlast 2 as a passenger aboard a helicopter, a journalist/reporter accompanied by your wife/partner traveling to investigate a missing girl. Things go awry quickly when your ride is shot down and your woman is taken away by disfigured religious nuts who want to impregnate her in some occult ritual. Hate when that happens...
Your only friend in hostile territory is your trusty video camera. Most of the environments you enter are oppressively dark, so you almost always need to have night vision mode enabled. Being able to see comes at a cost, as the pale green vision will drain the camera's batteries levels. You only have two resources to worry about: batteries and bandages to heal yourself if you get injured. Taking damage just turns the edges of the screen red, so that's not a big deal, but if you run out of batteries you're fucked. This limitation can be a great source of tension when you're running low, being chased by emaciated freaks, and the “Low Battery” indicator is flashing red. Or it can be a pointless hindrance, because exploring the levels is discouraged; you need batteries to see, you need to see to look for... more batteries? Why bother? Rushing through each area becomes your best bet for survival, but that also feels kind of cheap and robs you of soaking in any atmosphere or admiring the ghoulish sights.
While most of the levels are spatially more open than usual for the genre, there's really only one set path you can go down. Once you discover said path, it becomes extremely linear through the occasionally frustrating trial and error gameplay. Oftentimes you're being chased by some ungodly creature, running for your life... and when those chase sequences work they are incredibly tense and the highlight of the game. When you inadvertently zig when you should have zagged and find yourself at a dead end, helpless prey through no real fault of your own... once or twice it's terrifying. After the third or fourth time, going through the same motions and experiencing the same sequence, it becomes annoying. Some paths are poorly signposted as well, like tiny little windows that don't look nearly large enough for your character to fit through or walls that he otherwise wouldn't be able to climb, but when there are no other options, up he goes.
There are some Silent Hillish psychological mind games in play, namely flashbacks to a Catholic school when you least expect them. One moment you're running through the woods from a knife wielding maniac, the next you're roaming the sterile halls of a massive teaching complex with some dark undertones of child abuse. The sudden shift in tone is jarring, from dirty, grimy, and bloody to the different but equally horrific environment of children's education. It almost feels like two games stitched together, but it works as your trips down memory lane get darker and more twisted with each visit.
The backwoods, Jonestown cult aspect of Outlast 2 is effective though it's one note in tone. Once you've seen one crucified body you've more or less seen them all. Upon first reading a note about child sacrifice and incestuous rape, it's very disturbing and hints at darker scenes to come. Those shocks never really manifest, though. Outlast 2 plays it safe almost to a fault. There's not too much here that's outside of other mainstream, focus tested horror games of it's ilk (namely Resident Evil 7). This may be a letdown to fans of the original game, which seemed to give zero fucks about offending the normies. The Whistleblower DLC in particular was... wow. By comparison this sequel is rather safe and by the numbers. It doesn't up the ante in that way.
That's not to say it's a bad game. It's not. Outlast 2 is uniformly successful at creating unease and providing horrific landscapes to run from freaks while filming them. It has it's highs and lows, though never really rises above what you expect a competent entry in the genre should be. If you like these types of games (and I do), here's another one...
Bayonetta Review (PC)
Bayonetta is a third person “character action” game in the vein of Devil May Cry. Focusing on spectacle and style akin to an anime, you are constantly subjected to ADHD shifts in gameplay, jump cuts, and over the top escalations of stakes. The bombast and variety keep things from getting boring, but there is so much cringe here it makes me want to puke.
I can't help but feel this is the third or forth game in a series that is past it's prime, run out of ideas, and is simultaneously paying heavy fan service to a fanbase that doesn't (didn't...) exist and trying way too hard in every other conceivable way. There's a focus on Bayonetta and the cast of rejected cartoon characters that surround her, and they're all terrible. Bayonetta herself is leggy witch of some kind who conjures powers from her hair, which causes her to lose her clothes (also made out of her hair.) She's part posh British librarian, part hyper sexualized dominatrix. If that sounds cool (or hot)... nah. Any “adult” aspect suggested by her is so juvenile and superliminal you can't take it seriously. The innuendo comes down to, “Let's fuck.” and the answer is “No thanks.”. It doesn't help that the supporting cast she's surrounded by; “cool” Blaxpoiltation dude, fat loudmouth Italian guy, metrosexual goofy ladies' man, and annoying little girl should all be D list background characters in another game. Here they're slapstick archetypes, or rejected action figures from the '90s.
The nonsensical/poorly translated story about angels and demons, alternate dimensions, time travel, left and right magical eyes, and familial betrayal that ends up in outer space is utterly incomprehensible. I could take the anime stupidity in stride if it was presented well, but the numerous cutscenes seem like they weren't even finished. Randomly switching from traditional CG to motion comic with voice over and a half-assed movie reel filter is jarring. It's a poor trick to try to hide a lack of a budget with “style”.
The saving grace of Bayonetta is the core brawling mechanics. When you are on foot kicking, shooting, and juggling the crap out of various angelic monsters the game is solid. Dodging attacks at the last second activates a slow motion Witch Time, which when combined with your unlockable combos and several weapon/gun combinations can produce an enjoyable combat flow and is visually appeasing. Chaining attacks while avoiding damage builds up a magic meter which can be spent on special moves or bloody finishers that award you with more currency depending on how quickly you can mash buttons during mini-QTEs. While there are some cheap hits and camera issues, it's an entirely competent fighting system.
Unfortunately, those bright spots are few and far between. Not only does the game break up the combat into super small arenas where you fight a dozen enemies at a time if you're lucky, but the majority of Bayonetta is spent doing other activities. From bad motorcycle levels to finicky platforming to light gun bonus stages to a Space Harrier clone, if you don't like what you're doing in Bayonetta just wait a few minutes. Then you'll be doing something much worse. Half of the time you won't know what the fuck is going on to begin with. Variety can be a great asset; random garbage is just random garbage.
The game also has a tendency to want to stop you from playing at any given chance. Aside from the ever looming threat of cinemas, pick up an item for the first time and the game will stop, giving you a description of what it is. That's fine... but there are A LOT of items, and to use them you have to enter a poorly designed submenu and concoct other items in a confusing minigame for some reason. Other collectibles are scattered around the levels as well, but I've never lost interest in collecting them so fast as I did here. Books are available to read up on the history of the witch versus sage battle, but the text is full of typos and doesn't make sense, so it just adds to the confusion.
Technically Bayonetta on PC is a very good port of an almost decade old game; it runs smoothly at 4K resolution with almost zero load time, and there's plenty of graphical and HUD options to mess around with. I wouldn't say the problem here is the game has aged poorly; it was never good even when it originally released.
Bad Ass Babes Review (PC)
Bad Ass Babes is the ultimate female empowerment fantasy. The colorful, well rounded cast of butt kicking women present themselves as the role models the fairer (and better!) sex demands be represented in video games. They're rude, nude, and full of 'tude! By “nude” I mean “body positive”...
In what would otherwise be the perfect world where all men have been killed or imprisoned, some alien invaders have to ruin the utopia and use the Earth's women as sex slaves. Though honestly not that different from the current patriarchal rape culture we live in, unlike the male monsters that just infect women with gross babies, alien sex (I mean rape) mutates the otherwise ordinarily awesome females into superpowered goddesses... The Bad Ass Babes!
Calling back to the Sega CD era of digitized beat-'em-ups and light gun games, Bad Ass Babes is like that game you'd hear rumors of your friend's uncle having that didn't really exist. Now it does. The majority of the gameplay is side scrolling fisticuffs reminiscent of Streets of Rage or Double Dragon, just with more boobs. The controls can feel a little stiff, but they're serviceable and offer more depth than necessary. Each babe has unique special attacks like splits and running kicks, as well as super attacks that require use of a meter which can be refilled by collecting alien goo. The supers are dazzling: ping pong balls are involved, nukes are ejected from asses, giant snakes are summoned through the power of rock.
As you fight through the imaginative levels and collect points by being a Bad Ass Babe your character levels up and gains a larger health bar and special meter, and can spend currency between levels on consumable items. The helpful, naked shopkeeper offers you a choice of blowup dolls, tasers, a basket of throwable dildos, or an overpowered mech/spaceship to murder everyone who dares to pay you less money than they would a man. Or you could just buy some extra lives, which you may need because the game can feel cheap at times.
The standard melee action is broken up by first person, on-rails shooting galleries and motorcycle levels. While these diversions are authentic to the retro style the game is going for, they're forgettable. Moving a crosshair around the screen to shoot rubber masked aliens is amusing for a bit, but whenever the Bad Ass Babes aren't visible you have to ask yourself, “Where are the Bad Ass Babes?”.
Higher difficulty levels and additional modes unlock after completing the main game, including a remixed campaign where enemies are shuffled and you're joined by AI-controlled allies. When all the Babes are on screen at once, shooting breast dragons, laying down bra spikes, and whipping their bikini tops around, turning enemies into bloody giblets... it's a chaotic sight to behold.
With a gripping, emotional, relevant story and a strong cast of characters, Bad Ass Babes is the voice of a generation. A true triumph of intersectionality and diversity, only the stiff controls and questionable difficulty lead to cognitive dissonance and hold it back from being a masterpiece. When a goddess disrobes and asks you to enter the interdimensional portal in her vagina, take the leap.
2Dark Review (PC)
2Dark deals with some taboo subjects most media wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Namely the kidnapping and abuse of children. It doesn't tread lightly into the crimes-which-must-not-be-named, either; almost the entirety of the game is spent witnessing young kids being tortured, murdered, brainwashed, or any variety of vile acts. Before you clutch your pearls and cry, “Think of the children!”, the goal of the game's protagonist, Detective Smith, is to save the victims and uncover the network of traffickers involved in procuring the children. While it's a shock to the system to see what you're not supposed to see, it's too bad the game itself is garbage.
Smith is having a lovely night camping with his wife and two small children, when a party crasher hacks up his woman and drives off with his offspring. Flash-forward a decade or so, and the detective is the stereotypical washed up mess; chain smoking and drowning his sorrows at the local bar, living in rat infested squalor, obsessed with finding the ones responsible for tearing apart his family. He's the foul-mouthed, hard boiled cop with a chip on his shoulder, as justified as that chip may be. Whenever he reads about missing children in the newspaper he goes full blown vigilante and rushes to investigate with just his firearm and a pack of smokes for backup.
2Dark is a top down 2D game, and it's dark. Maybe too dark. Most of the screen is often pitch black, so you have to rely on a variety of light sources to see where you're going and avoid death traps. You have the option to collect and use lanterns to illuminate a large area around Smith, flashlights for a cone of vision, candles barely help, and the last resort is your Zippo lighter. There's a fairly deep system for managing light, with each tool requiring it's own resource and enemies (in theory) reacting to seeing your light source. The lighting effects are pretty good, albeit out of place, for the otherwise retro, 16-bit art style.
Ideally you should be playing stealthily, recognizing patrol patterns, avoiding guards, using items procured throughout the levels in puzzle-y ways to slip in, save the kids, and escape without being noticed. This is not feasible. While there are systems in place that hint at a workable stealth approach (noise/light indicators, cones of vision, distractions, etc.), the AI is almost completely busted. I've walked into empty floors, started snooping around, then suddenly had dozens of enemies blink into existence randomly. If two guards run into each other they may freak out and start walking in small circles around each other, dancing. Or they might just stop in place with their scripts broken. Scripted events may or may not happen depending on the mood of the game. Half the time you're not sure if what you're doing is a smart approach to a situation or a glitch. Or the game might just crash, because that's always fun...
The only way I was able to power through 2Dark was to murder everything in my path, which is my preferred “stealth” approach, anyway. This is also a mess. It doesn't make the AI any less shitty, now you're just taking advantage of their glitchiness to beat them with clubs as they spin in circles. Not very satisfying. The inventory quickly becomes a bloated monstrosity, filled with not-so-different melee weapons, letters, items, and knickknacks that take up half of the screen space. It's such a convoluted, clumsy solution to what is a simple but janky game.
“Dead kids” is just about all 2Dark has going for it. As a horror fan, it checks that “shock value” box; you'll see eviscerated babies, spit-roasted children, Satanic sacrifices, etc. But the game is a mess and it's a chore to play.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review (Wii U)
The opening moments of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild seem eerily familiar... The game's hero, Link, finds himself awakening from a century long stasis, rising from a stone sarcophagus. He's in a dark cave, amnesia stricken, and half naked. You explore the small space, tinkering with the controls, getting your bearings, then you approach the door to the vault/prison/pod. As blinding light pours in from the mysterious outside world you tentatively take a few steps forward, drawn to a conspicuous outcropping that will grant the perfect view of the vast, wide open landscape that begs to be explored. This establishing shot (as seen in any number of previous open world games) is meant to instill awe, wonder, beauty, danger, possibilities... but your first thought is, “Man, this game looks like shit.”
And Breath of the Wild does look awful compared to contemporary games. Fidelity-wise, anyway. It has a “unique art style” to put it in more generous terms. The graphics are fuzzy and lack detail on first inspection, and the cartoon look seems to mask an otherwise ugly game. Once you get moving, however, and your eyes adjust to the abandonment of sharp textures and any semblance of realism, it really does ooze charm. It's a throwback to classic animation of yesteryear; a combination of Disney cartoon and anime with a rotoscoped look. After the necessary eye adjustment, little details stand out; individual blades of grass bending in the wind, horses that gallop convincingly and are aware of your sound and smell, thunderclouds rolling in on the horizon, Link's shivering and visible breath in cold environments... the shock of Wii U fuzziness fades and an appreciation of VHS-era cartoons comes forward.
Structurally, the game seems cut from the same cloth as any other open world game as well: climb towers to reveal portions of the map, visit towns and talk to NPCs for side quests in order to gain advantages to make the main quest easier, collect flowers and junk to turn into items, etc. The difference and the charm here is a unique mixture of falling back on classic Zelda mythology (music, story, visuals), abstract systems ala Dark Souls, and a few strong, original additions that solve age old problems in video games in general.
Link can climb just about any surface like a spider monkey. Barring specific puzzle areas that are designed with certain solutions in mind, if you're in the overworld you can literally go wherever you want. Sheer mountain cliffs are not a problem as long as you have enough stamina or stock up on potion/foods to replenish your meter, trees, rocks, any geometry, really... “If you see it, you can go there” isn't just marketing speak in Breath of the Wild. This standout ability more or less completely destroys the restriction of invisible walls that plague many games. Every surface in the game is a play space, adding to the sense of freedom you have in the environment. It's one of those systems that makes instant sense once you try it, and will be sorely missed in any similar games afterward.
When the game embraces it's openness, it shines. Interactivity is above and beyond what you'd expect, embracing it's physics engine over canned encounters and solutions. If you see a tree on top of a hill and are feeling playful, you have options. You can climb around it, collecting apples to cook into a health-boosting meal later. Or you can climb to the top to get a better vantage point. If you want to chop it down you can do that, too... but you'll need a bladed weapon (an axe works best) and be mindful of where you chop to get the tree to fall the way you want it. Once it's felled, you can move it around, roll it down a hill to take out enemies, set it on fire, chop it up further to turn it into usable wood Minecraft style, roll it over a river to form a makeshift bridge... it's a toy in the sandbox.
And the sandbox feels hand sculpted by a singular mind. Ditching the realism allows for old school, deliberate game design, where a rock that looks out of place is probably meant to look out of place. Secrets and collectibles nicely fill out the map, forgoing the “walk to the next icon” loop most games in the genre fall prey to. There are small dungeons called shrines dotted around Hyrule, which act as mini-dungeons, fast travel points, and the main means to upgrade Link's health and stamina capacity. The game gives you all the tools you need to complete any and all of these very early on; a magnet to manipulate metal objects, a freeze tool to create ice blocks on water, two kinds of remote detonated bombs, and a stasis ability to lock objects in place. Gone are the longer, more elaborate trials from previous Zelda games, replaced with these bite sized tests. They usually take five to ten minutes to complete, depending on your observational and reasoning skills, and you're rewarded with an orb for your troubles. Collect four orbs, trade them in for either a heart (life) or stamina container and you're “leveled up” and ready to find more shines in more hazardous parts of the world.
The world will kill you if you're not prepared. Weather plays a large role in Breath of the Wild; you'll freeze or burn to death in extreme conditions without the proper attire equipped or ingesting potions/meals to combat the effects. Enemies will murder you in quick fashion most of the time, often in one or two hits for the majority of your play time. Armor can be purchased and upgraded to ward off certain elements, but survival is an almost constant struggle. The combat itself isn't great, either; weapons break at an insane rate, you'll often have no clue how you even died because an arrow flew at you from off screen or some random bullshit, and swinging swords/shooting arrows/blocking/parrying... it just doesn't feel particularly good. It's sloppy and frustrating, and even after forty or fifty hours of playing it never clicked into something enjoyable. I just said, “Fuck it” and ran past encounters whenever possible.
The story and main quest in Breath of the Wild is exactly what you expect from a Zelda game: you're the chosen hero, you must visit towns inhabited by different races to regain your strength to ultimately take on Gannon. It's classic, nothing wrong with it, nothing to shake it up too drastically save for the structure. In order to fully flesh out Link's past you seek out “memories” that are dotted around the map. Find these to trigger cutscenes that look great and allow the art to shine, but man the voice acting is cringe-y. Also, because you're solving shrines the whole way through, the main dungeons are a bit underwhelming. You need to board four giant, mechanical beasts Shadow of the Colossus-style. Once inside a new mechanic is introduced where you can manipulate parts of the beasts from your map, and you use that to solve puzzles and access out of reach terminals needed to take control of the beasts. These “dungeons” are as spacious and complex as the game ever gets, but they're a far cry from previous Zelda temples. The first one you attempt may be disorienting as the entire structure shifts, but once you get a handle on that one added element you'll most likely breeze through the remaining three. It's not a bad change, just after spending hours with your five tools then figuring out these main challenges, it's like someone took the standard, expansive Zelda dungeons/temples, broke them apart and scattered them to the wind. Still fun to play, but the climax and length of the setpieces take a hit. Even the final battle with Gannon, which I was hoping would be an epic, lengthy reward for hours and hours playing this giant game... fifteen minutes or so and it was over. It looked phenomenal, but it lacked any kind of puzzle element or reward that felt fitting to the style of the game. Oh well, “the journey is it's own reward” or some hacky bullshit...
Breath of the Wild is true next generation Zelda. While that means (in Nintendo terms) it's still playing catch up in some areas, building off of other successful open world games that came before it, the game still retains that elusive Zelda magic. Plenty of other games have borrowed so many elements from the series that it's fitting for things to now come full circle. The climbing mechanic and sense of freedom sets a new bar for the genre. Certain aspects can be downright irritating, but taken as an experience it will suck you into Hyrule and you'll willingly get lost. In the woods. The Lost Woods. It's Zelda.
For Honor Review (PC)
Modern video games are often very predictable. As the medium matures, there are few surprises and fewer innovations to experience. Graphics haven't seen a big leap since 3-D polygons hit the scene, the visual fidelity of the games are improving at a steady clip, controllers are more or less standardized, genres are over saturated to the point they're borrowing from each other to create something even more homogeneous, we've been sold “innovation” countless times that usually pans out to be half assed gimmicks, we turn to “independent” games for changes of pace that recycle old ideas and pass that off to smug hipsters as rebellion against the static mainstream. To look at For Honor without putting your hands on it, there's nothing particularly new there. A medieval setting, melee combat, Mortal Kombat-esque fatalities... big deal, right? Even after a few matches you might be tempted to dismiss it as shallow button mashing and nothing more. Once you grasp just how innovative and elegant the control scheme is, and the amount of depth and strategy the brutal combat allows you start to see the genius in it's simplicity and the long road to mastery. For Honor is it's own beast, and it's angry and hungry.
The attraction to the game is entirely mechanics driven, which is of course the hardest and least sexy bullet point of a game to describe. The first layer of combat is using the analogue stick to decide where to hold your weapon: to the left, right, or overhead. This is the both the direction your character will strike from and where he/she will block any incoming attacks. At this basic level you're playing rock, paper, scissors: a quick shift in direction to attack a slower opponent can score a clean hit. You can perform a quick attack or a slower, more damaging heavy hit if you have the opening. Simple, right? Not when you add in a throw button, which will at a basic level break your opponent's guard and leave them defenseless for a free smack. So turtling, playing defensively isn't going to save you for long: the game wants you to attack, but not recklessly or you'll deplete your stamina bar. Once you land a hit you're going to try to chain some combos to take advantage of the enemy's mistake, and those are character and timing dependent; some are unblockable, some end up dazing the poor bastard on the receiving end, and some will apply poison... Not so simple now, is it?
You could call For Honor a third person, over the shoulder fighting game and not be too far off. Once you lock on to someone and you're going mano-a-mano, the basic concepts of the traditionally 2-D genre apply: footsies, headgames, multi-hit combos, etc. Another staple is the need to master the cast of characters and how they match up against each other. There are twelve warriors to choose from, each with vastly different stats, abilities, weapons, and movesets. They're not exactly brimming with personality, but they look badass and trying to play to each of their strengths is a commitment. They range from quick and agile harassers, massive but slow damage dealers, berserkers that should rush into battle, and trickier long range spear wielders. All of them are fine to pick up and play and their stats and roles seem balanced, with no one or two characters standing out as “top tier” or cheap. You can open a moves list to show their special combos and abilities, but figuring out the situational uses and timing of those is going to take practice. “A moment to grasp, a lifetime to master” is a fitting cliché.
Know that the online multiplayer modes are the bread and butter of For Honor. There is a fully fleshed out eight hour campaign, but consider that training before you take the game online. That's not to say the single player is bad in any sense of the word: some serious production value went into the faction/globe spanning levels. The game looks fantastic in general, even more so in the single player setpieces that depict near Braveheart-scope war and skirmishes atop ice flows or rivers of lava. The motion capture and voice acting is well above average, and the premise of some alternate history weirdness where Vikings do battle with Samurai and Knights is acceptably ridiculous. The story itself is Games of Thrones inspired fantasy minus the dragons, where life is all but worthless and some badass broad is trying to unite three culturally different clans. It checks all the boxes for “fantasy story”, but something about it still feels soulless. The constant character switching is great for introductions to the classes, but doesn't do any favors for you giving a shit about any of them. Again, not bad, but not memorable. I'd suggest playing it, though, if just for that training and to earn enough currency to unlock all of the multiplayer characters straight away.
Once you get into the multiplayer like you should, there are enough options and currencies and choices to confuse the shit out of you. You're first asked to pick one of the three factions, but that won't lock you out of any of the characters, it's just relevant to the ongoing Faction War metagame. After every match you play you're given “War Assets”, which is basically a point value based on your performance you can place on a Risk-like map, pushing your factions front in a season based war. That has nothing to do with the actual gameplay. You can choose from a one on one Duel, two on two Skirmish, or the main four on four mode: Dominion. The other options are Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, and Dominion is Domination with a couple twists: the first team to reach 1000 points wins, but capturing territories subtracts from the enemy team's score to allow for some back and forth comebacks. There's also a neutral point on each map where AI from both teams clash, and you have to clear all of the hostile, one hit grunts out of the way before you can claim that point. Dominion games are often delightfully messy; turning into a mosh pit where you're more likely to get clocked from behind than have an honorable one on one fight. It's metal as fuck.
After each match you're awarded XP for the character you picked, and he or she will level up and unlock perks and abilities. Balance is still key, so you can only have four perks equipped at a time; some are passive boosts, some need to be earned by good performance during the game and activated manually. There's always a trade off. You also have a chance to find loot after each match, which you can equip to change your stats or melt down into steel (or scrap or something) to upgrade other equipment. You have daily challenges to accomplish which will net bonus coins and XP, and there's a store to buy boosts and cosmetic effects... yeah, all that shit is a bit much for me, but there's plenty of depth and customization and it all seems balanced. The networking is great for the most part, bar some oddities with parties being disbanded after lobbies empty out and some synchronization pauses if anyone leaves a match. But the vast majority of the time it's solid.
If you've ever wanted to bash someone's brains in with a pike, check out For Honor. It uses a standard controller in unique ways to deliver the best brand of melee combat out there. Don't be fooled by the simplicity of what you see on the screen or scared away by the seeming lack of game modes; there's plenty of depth and a massive skill gap to conquer. If you're complaining about lack of innovation in big budget games and pass this gem up... go fuck yourself you hipster piece of shit.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard Review (PC)
Resident Evil 7 is a game of references. From the opening shot that is lifted almost directly from The Shining to the last minute cameo by a familiar face of the long running franchise, playing “spot the influence” is an ongoing metagame throughout the entire ten hour long campaign. It's hard to categorize the game as an honest sequel to the storied series; any ties to the established characters or lore are tangential at best and are almost hidden Easter eggs for hardcore fans to dig up. Instead, Resident Evil 7 acts as a greatest hits album of the horror genre in general, and completely abandons any convoluted baggage acquired from over twenty years of fan service in favor of safely bringing the series into the modern horror game landscape. It's not particularly original. It doesn't move the genre forward any great lengths. But it's a damn good first person survival horror game.
I've been waiting for a sequel to Condemned 2: Bloodshot for almost a decade, and Resident Evil 7 may as well be that game. The protagonist is even named “Ethan”... Played entirely from a first person perspective, you spend most of your time rummaging through trash and filth, battling goo monsters and psychopaths in dilapidated environments and searching for supplies to fend off the creepies. Your mission is to rescue your girlfriend from the clutches of an unhinged, cannibalistic, superhuman family that branched off the Texas Chainsaw Massacre genetic tree. Each family member acts as a gatekeeping boss and their personality traits dictate the hazards you'll face in each “level”; the father is a physical damage sponge, the mother is a supernatural stalker, the son likes to play games and set traps like Saw's Jigsaw, and the grandmother is a mental mindfucker. You'll dispatch each of them and solve simple puzzles to unlock wings of the Cajun mansion and some of the surrounding bayou, but the game remains intimate and small scale throughout.
Graphically, Resident Evil 7 is extremely impressive in it's depiction of rot and decay. Even when things get surreal and supernatural, with black slime undulating on the floor and walls and obese zombies projectile vomiting at you, there's a commitment to realism and polish that sells the setting. You can almost smell the rotting food in the cobwebbed refrigerators and being funneled into a realistically flooded basement elicits some real dread. There are filters and effects galore, including taking part in a few found footage style VHS mini-campaigns. Most of the horror comes from visceral gross out scenes, and it's only effective when this much attention to detail is payed to decapitated bodies and spider infested doorways. There's never really a pleasant moment to be had during your visit. The entire game can be played with a VR headset, though I wasn't able to try this (or wanted to, frankly). While I could see how the isolating nature of virtual reality could potentially add to the atmosphere, playing on a traditional television led to some cheesy situations; extended, gratuitous scenes of sharp objects being waved in your face or characters invading your personal space can reek of a tech demo. It's not overly distracting or a game breaker, but it's akin to watching a movie made with 3-D technology in mind on a 2-D set.
You enter the Baker mansion unarmed and vulnerable, but before long you're armed to the teeth with the expected arsenal; an always handy, box-breaking knife, a pistol, then a shotgun, a machine gun, remote detonated bombs, and the flamethrower from Alien: Isolation (you were warned about the references...). Ammo can be scarce and enemies take somewhat random amounts of damage before they go down for good. A single shotgun blast to the face of a standard enemy may blow his head off, or it may just bowl him over. The intentional clunkiness of the combat feeds into the Resident Evil mantra of deciding to spend either health or ammunition to get past a situation, and the save rooms and inventory management are critical to survival. The magic, bottomless inventory box returns from previous games, probably the most overt tie to the series' legacy. Combining herbs to produce healing items is also present, but the mechanics are more complex; instead of green herb plus red herb equals super healing item, you now use a chemical agent to mix with the herb and that same agent can be used in formulas to create handgun rounds or flamethrower fuel. Again, it's that health versus ammo balance. You have a limited number of items you can carry on your person, so there is some backtracking, experimentation, and fiddling involved. Toward the end of the game I was so stocked up on a half dozen types of weapons and items it became frustrating to manage, but again that's one of the most Resident Evil-y things about Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 7 is a celebration of all thing horror, which the series kind of was at it's roots, anyway. Part of me wants to... condemn the game for being Resident Evil in name and nebulous themes only, cashing in on the series' history, but I guess I'm not attached to the franchise enough to really care. It may not be the “scariest” horror game out there or the best example of first person story telling, but as a mass market, big budget spooky roller coaster ride it's quite impressive.
Hyper Light Drifter Review (PC)
At first glance, Hyper Light Drifter appears to be another pixel art, nostalgia fueled action/platformer that saturates the “indie” marketplace. After completing the game... yeah, that's pretty much what it is. Presented in the faux-retro, kind of 8-bit maybe 16 with way too many colors and digital audio we've come to know and accept, the good news is it's a good one of those.
Best described as a Zelda-like, after an ominous and perplexing cutscene you're thrown into an open world with little tutorial or direction. The controls are very basic: you can slash with your sword, dash, and shoot a gun. The game never gets more complicated than that, you can just purchase upgrades to strengthen those abilities (dash through/deflect projectiles, larger energy capacity for your guns, etc.). Exploring reveals four distinct paths you can take in each cardinal direction. Each path has a loose theme like desert or snow, and you can tackle them in order you choose. The goal is to thoroughly explore each area until you find four pink triangles and defeat the stage boss.
It's a simple, old school concept that expects you to be familiar with retro games. There is no text or dialogue at all, just the assumption that a store looks like store and an abstraction of an inventory menu is what you think it is. The minimalist presentation teases mystery and deeper meaning, but once you acclimate to the language everything is very straight forward. The same can be said for the story, told only through flashbacks and visual interactions with NPCs; it is what it is, and without even going into spoiler territory if you think of the cliché narrative of “artsy” games you know what you're getting.
Hyper Light Drifter is visually appealing. Simple yet detailed and colorful, it's a prime example of pixel art done right. Unfortunately, the viewpoint the game uses can make navigation a nightmare. From the three quarter perspective the environment can obscure your character and pathways. This makes for plenty of secrets, but searching for those secrets becomes tedious as you're all but required to hug every wall and object to suss out the play space. It can be a problem in combat as well when you get caught up on enemies and trapped. Even the critical path can come down to guesswork, and this isn't helped by the almost useless map. It looks like a mess of pixels at first, and after playing with it for hours and experimenting with how your position is conveyed it's still only reliable for general directions.
The combat can be fast and satisfying when you're warping around, using a combination of sword slashes and firearms, getting in and out of melee range to avoid attacks. It's a game of recognizing enemy behaviors and patterns, just as you'd expect from old school inspirations. Your firearm has a limited number of uses which can only be recharged by slashing foes, so you can't avoid close quarters for long. The boss fights are memorable, each having multiple behavior patterns and gimmicks that change once you whittle their health down to a certain point. It's equal parts challenging and cheap, as (once again) you'd expect.
Generic, expected, derivative... those are all adjectives I'd use to describe Hyper Light Drifter, but not really as a derogative. If you're in the market for another new wave “retro” experience, climb aboard. It's comfort food that's been prepared in it's own style.
If you see an SJW in the wild, the time for the kid gloves is officially over:
Wasteland 2 Review (PC)
Wasteland 2 is Fallout 3 is there never was a Fallout 3. To clarify: the original Fallout was a “spiritual successor” to Wasteland, a party and turn based 1988 RPG. After Fallout 2 Interplay (the company with the rights to the Fallout series) folded, and before modern, Bethesda developed Fallout 3 was released there were various other games in the series being worked on but ultimately fell apart. Wasteland 2 exists in an alternate timeline where the Bethesda deal was never made, and the evolution of RPG game design also stopped after Fallout 2. It's a game that tugs on the nostalgia strings of classic CRPGs, and makes very few concessions to accepted quality of life improvements that are now standard features of video games in general. While I certainly appreciated the initial joys of the throwback, the dated and repetitious nature of playing through the lengthy campaign eventually wore on me and I couldn't help but feel like I've done this all before... multiple times.
Despite the convoluted history, Wasteland 2 is a direct sequel to the first Wasteland as far as story goes. You're brought up to speed via a pretty slick live action video detailing the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. In Arizona, a group of order-loving Desert Rangers set up a base inside a prison, the released prisoners became roaming gang members and cannibals, mutated creatures and robots threaten the burgeoning communities, the Rangers battled an AI threat, and now they are set up in a new base and are back to their peace keeping duties.
You can create a custom party of four player characters, setting their stats, bios, and avatars, or just take a default, premade group. I took the default group, because going in blind, trying to make sense of attribute points and the dozens of skills available is a nightmare, and you'll quickly find out the game can and will screw you over with curve balls you have no control over and old school beginner's traps. Again... some may revel in the “difficulty” of min/maxing character stats, but I found many instances where I was perplexed at how a modern game could repeat the pitfalls of the past. While journeying through the wastes you'll also run into NPCs that are willing to join up with your group, upping your party count to seven. Your crew doesn't have much in the way of personality; aside from a few shout outs or unique interactions, they are basically defined by their stat spread. With so many available stats, you're forced to have each character specialize in one or two disciplines, so they devolve into “medic”, “sniper”, “tank”, etc. They are basically board game pieces rather than characters.
Your journey to expose and confront new threats to the Ranger's brand of law and order is a lengthy one, though the story isn't particularly compelling. The loop goes: enter a town, talk to the town's leadership to uncover said town's problems, fight bad guys, move on to the next town. That may sound overly reductive and could apply to most RPGs, but by the third or fourth town you've saved the strings are laid bare. Then the game continues for about twice as long as the story or mechanics are capable of holding it up. Wasteland 2 is a lower budget game, which is fine, but certain areas feel unfinished/unpolished. The quality of the voice acting is all over the place, sometimes just cutting out halfway through a character's dialogue. Avatars and sprites are used repeatedly, making it a chore to remember who is who in cities full of clones. There is a hard cut to a second act, with the dramatic shift told through text and still artwork. Again... old school? Sure. Acceptable in a modern video game? Ehhhh...
Most of the game is focused on combat. You battle mutated animals, gangs, and robots in traditional, tactical turn based battles. Cover is key, granting bonuses to both your chances of evading incoming fire and hitting your shots. Flanking and prioritizing your targets can mean the difference between a quick victory or your entire team falling apart, in which case you can practice the age old ritual of save scumming... Another blast from the past: there is no option to rest between battles. If you take damage, you better have a medpack handy to heal, otherwise it's going to be a long trek back to Ranger Citadel. Actually, it's going to be time consuming anyway, because any time you use Healing, or ANY skill (which you'll do hundreds if not thousands of times) you're forced to watch a five second animation play out as a progress bar fills up. Why the waste of time to see the results of a die roll? Nostalgia? And if the roll fails, well... save scumming again. Because nostalgia. Or poor game design.
As much as I love old CRPGs, they are old games that have been improved upon. I really wanted to like Wasteland 2 (and it's not a horrible game), but it felt like work more often than fun. It can't quite figure out how to fix old problems with party based games, like when a companion NPC up and decides, “I must go now because story reasons” and leaves you with a giant hole in your squad. That happened three times... After playing for about sixty hours, I was still holding out hope for a grand payoff either from the plot or mechanically, but it never comes. Instead the micromanagement and tedium took it's toll.
Steep Review (PC)
Steep is a weird game. A love letter to exploring the picturesque Swiss Alps by way of extreme sports, it toes the line between realism and Red Bull guzzling, MTV goofiness. It's built for scale and spectacle, but digging deeper to actually play the game can feel like you're on a team of beta testers, sharing challenges you pulled out of your ass and turning a blind eye to the glaring glitches and rough edges. It suffers from an identity crisis; one minute you'll be paragliding peacefully above a glacier while your avatar narrates a somber diary of conquering the wilderness, fighting oxygen deprivation and dehydration. Then you'll be following a literal ghost rider through the mouths of Ubisoft's Raving Rabbids mascots or being lectured by a stereotypical New York agent for not hitting enough “sick” kickflips. Or a mountain will try to intimidate you, reciting some Robert Frost style poetry. Steep is best played with an open mind. A really open mind...
The game can be stunningly gorgeous; the scale of the mountain range is very impressive and boasts some of the most realistic looking representation of snow I've seen. The glittering of the sun off of fresh powder in particular is approaching levels of photorealism. The detail of your character is quite sharp as well, especially considering the vast amount of unlockable accessories available to outfit him/her in. Traversing the frozen environment also leaves convincing tracks as you sink into the drifts, climbing steep slopes to reach points of interest. An applaudable amount of work and artistry went into the snow, but some of the elements surrounding it look out of place. Rocky surfaces can look like smears painted with a broad brush, often visibly, hastily thrown together at artificially rough angles and clipping through each other. Trees and glaciers are carbon copies of each other, leading to stretches of boring, repeating terrain. But the large scale picture is the reason for playing, and these are the compromises of a completely open, load-free playground.
You have five modes of transport at your disposal: skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, wing gliding, and walking. Skiing and snowboarding are similar and the challenges that feature them are interchangeable. You have very simple controls with these two: steer with the left stick, the right stick cuts sharply, you hold and release jump to ollie, and from there you can spin and grab. For the most part, though, you're at the mercy of the mountain; it's incredibly difficult to make quick adjustments and it can be a struggle to get your avatar to do what you want to do without serious effort. You have no control over the camera, and that becomes an adversary; jamming to the right trying to hit a checkpoint can easily be undermined by a wild, uncontrollable swing or zoom because the game felt like it. You certainly don't have Tony Hawk/SSX levels of control, which is fine, but what's in Steep is better described as “loose” than simulation. After about twenty hours of playing I felt adjusted to the game's quirks, but more often than not trying to get your rider to generally perform something specific still comes down to trial and error, combating the controls, and a good amount of luck. You're provided with a G-meter that is supposed to track how much punishment you can take before you spill, but in practice the game just does what it wants; a ten second free fall onto solid rock might be okay, but hitting what appears to be a pebble may or may not send you into a knockout faceplant.
Wing gliding is the highlight. Flying inches above the ground, weaving around snow covered trees and sharp rocks is exhilarating and it controls responsively. Most of the challenges in the wing suit revolve around passing through rings and gives a serious Pilotwings vibe. Paragliding is more relaxed and is the preferred method for exploring the Alps, allowing you to cover large swaths of land and soak in the sights while you're at it. You're given a very generous updraft system: get close and kinda/sorta perpendicular to a mountainside and there will always be uplift, essentially allowing you to glide endlessly. I'm pretty sure that's not how wind works, but whatever. Walking is where you put one foot in front of the other to initiate locomotion, and while on foot you can use binoculars to spot drop zones and places of interest.
The scale and freeform exploration is great, but the “game” part of the game, the challenges, are all over the place. These events are scattered all over the mountains and they generally races against the clock or score based affairs. They are categorized into Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulties, and you can earn bronze, silver, or gold medals depending on your performance, which awards XP to level up to unlock drop zones and currency to buy cosmetic items. The open nature of the game itself wrecks havoc with any scoring conventions; a single, bullshit trick pulled out of your ass can destroy a gold medal challenge in seconds. Alternatively, a glitchy camera can be a repeatable bane to finishing a race without ragdolling down a cliff face, and the difference between a gold medal or complete failure can either be a matter of minutes or seconds. There's very little consistency between which challenges will be a fun exercise in sharpening your skills or controller throwing frustration.
And that's Steep broadly speaking. It demands to be enjoyed with a relaxed demeanor and forgiving nature from a zoomed out perspective. If you can find that zen state it's one of the best extreme sports games that's released in years. Just don't look at it too closely.
Dead Rising 4 Review (PC)
Now on it's forth iteration, you kind of know what to expect from a Dead Rising game; comical amounts of blood and gore, thousands of zombies on screen at once, escalating stakes as you battle insane survivors of the outbreaks and government involvement. The question for Dead Rising 4 is, “Why play another one?”. There's really no good answer.
My first impressions of the game were that it was outright funny. Comedy is not a new addition to the series, but instead of over the top, gross out gore or the juxtaposition of straight faced B-movie horror with the protagonist's silly costumes during cutscenes, Dead Rising 4 goes straight, self aware slapstick and satire. Frank West returns from the first game, and he's essentially Ash from the Ash Versus the Evil Dead TV series; older, grizzled, unfazed by any undead threats and almost super human in his ass kicking abilities. The plot continues it's contemporary tone by teaming him up with a young female sidekick who shares his journalistic ambitions, though sees him as out of touch and lame because she's a dyed haired, beanie wearing millennial. It's Indiana Jones and Uncharted (basically the same thing) or Star Wars... the “passing of the torch” cliché because too many white men leads to racism and sexism, so let's do the same thing but slap a vagina on it.
But Frank has a sense of humor about the whole thing; after being framed in the media for breaking into a government facility, he starts teaching night courses under the name “Hank East”. There's a zombie outbreak in the same Willamette Mall (or a memorial in honor of that mall), so the Zombie Task Force calls on him to document the event with his special set of skills. There's also an Anthony Weiner joke thrown in there as well. Predictably his helicopter goes down in the quarantine zone, and Frank West is back to doing what Frank West does; killing zombies and taking pictures. Of killing zombies.
I'm a huge fan of the previous games. The first Dead Rising was the best Dawn of the Dead game you could ask for, with the sheer number of characters on screen being quite impressive, gore on the scale you'd never seen before, and a challenging and interesting game design that pushed your time management skills to the test and demanded either perfection or replaying the game several times to dig into the New Game Plus RPG mechanics. The second game upped the scale and introduced the concept of combining weapons into super tools of destruction, and the third tied everything together with a modern open world design and loosened the time constraints to allow more player freedom. Dead Rising 4 takes a lot away from the series and doesn't really add anything meaningful to replace what it has streamlined.
The main missions feel extremely linear. Broken up into seven cases, these are usually solved by walking to a waypoint, entering a closed off area, clearing the area of some zombies and maybe a pushover boss, and using your camera to uncover clues in canned investigations. At first I was optimistic that these unique, purposefully crafted areas could lead to imaginative setpieces and greater variety, but they really don't. While they do differentiate from the open world sandbox you otherwise play in, they're sterile and mindless to play through. I completed the entire game in about ten hours, and I did not die (or was even in danger of dying) once. Not every game needs to be punishingly challenging, but this is a problem.
After a few hours of rushing to objectives and worrying about micromanaging my weapons and health items, I settled into the type of game this really is; it's the mindless, pointless zombie killing sandbox that detractors of the series accused the previous games of being with almost none of the brilliant systems those games had. Combating a sea of the undead and turning them into red mist is fun, sure... for awhile. But without the pressing gameplay reason to do so, they're not obstacles in your way to an objective, they're not things to be feared... they're just fodder to waste some time bashing, and the joy of that process does not hold up nearly as long as a result.
Dead Rising 4 is a modern open world game, and not in a good way. There are collectibles scattered all over the world, you can buy maps to mark them on the map, but to what end? It's not long before the tired gameplay loop is laid bare: open map, set waypoint, go to waypoint, start marking off the checklist. There's just not much substance here. There's nothing wrong with the world or the mechanics (well, besides the occasional glitches but whatever), but it's another case of building an open game world and not knowing how to effectively populate it with engaging activities. Random encounters pop up in a select number of locations, but it doesn't take long to see the strings and curse the lack of imagination that went into their design. At one point I was driving in circles trying to find an objective, and driving past the same playground resulted in a “random” mission popping up each time revolving around a small shed; once I had to save a survivor, once it was kill a half dozen soldiers, once it asked me to loot the shed, then destroy a satellite on top of the shed... Zzzzzzz.... It's all the same shit, and it's all boring. Infuriating, even, when the survivors are fucking idiots who keep walking toward the wall of zombies in an endless loop while ignoring the gigantic safe space you've cleared out. Fucking millennials...
Keeping with the modern (useless) trends there's a robust skill tree to sink points into to make the incredibly easy game even easier. You get extra hit points, increased critical hits, more durable vehicles, the ability to carry more weapons and health items. Pretty uninspired stuff. The real shame here is they could have used the RPG progression system to balance the difficulty of the game to compensate not having timed missions or any other form of game structure. Instead you go from overpowered to inadvertently setting the game to baby mode. I'm certainly not a fan of grinding, but I didn't feel the need to explore the environment or improve my character at all when I could steamroll every psychopath and boss anyway. The lack of game structure may be appealing to some, but I enjoy games with rules and challenges and systems and stuff. I'm not looking for digital toys.
Dead Rising 4 isn't exactly “bad” by definition, it just seems pointless and soulless. Yep, you can get in a mech suit and rip zombies in half and do all sorts of crazy shit, but there's no answer as to why you'd bother. I like murder and gore as much as the next guy, but there are three better games in this series already. Play those instead.
Mega Man Legacy Collection Review (PC)
Mega Man Legacy Collection contains the six Mega Man games that were released on the NES. While this is only a small selection of the numerous games that are in the series in total, the focus on one system allows for a deeper dive and appreciation of how this initial run evolved and experimented within the limitations of the hardware. It's an interesting retrospective of a classic formula, and the games still hold up on their own as timeless action/platformers about robots killing robots and brutally cannibalizing each other for the good of mankind.
Along with the six main games there is a decent amount of extras to explore, like pages and pages of production artwork that illustrates the imagination and talent needed to transform hand drawn chibi images into pleasing pixel art. You can also choose from a variety of graphical options to either get the “best” picture quality or try to further emulate how the originals looked; I prefer using scan lines that do a pretty good job recreating playing the games on a CRT TV, but you can stretch the image and make it “pixel perfect” if you like. The game emulation itself is spot on as far as I can tell, complete with slowdown and flicker where I remember it from the NES and the same exploits and bugs (don't choose “Select Stage” in Wily's Castle...). Save states are a welcome addition if only to save time jotting down passwords. The biggest addition is the stand alone challenges; remixes of the games' levels that award you with medals upon completion and unlock tougher stages the more medals you earn. It's added value to an already meaty package. The challenges are neat to mess around with, but they're geared toward speed running so I'm not terribly interested in them. While you can lament the Legacy Collection for only including six games, it still has SIX full games plus all this other jazz.
Mega Man 1-6 follow the same basic structure: you're given a stage selection screen where you can choose to tackle stages in any order, fighting a boss at the end of each one. If you defeat the boss you absorb it's unique power, which you can then use yourself. Certain bosses are weak to other bosses' powers, so there is a strategy in which levels to confront in a certain order. There are also secrets and powerups in each stage that require certain weapons and abilities to access, so replaying levels can be advantageous as well. After the initial stages are clear you're transported to Dr. Wily's castle, a multi-level affair that ups the difficulty and culminates in fighting all of the bosses again and ultimately the mad scientist himself.
Playing through any of the stages for the first time can seem very difficult and frustrating; one-hit kill spike traps and pits abound and checkpoints can feel unfair. Mega Man is a game about patterns and memorization. Those levels that seem like gauntlets and those bosses that were “impossible” become muscle memory afterthoughts as you learn their timing and weaknesses. It's a satisfying curve that even gets expanded upon as the series ages. You can see the philosophy of adding “more” to each sequel; extra lives and E tanks (pickups that refill your health) go from bonuses to essential items that might require some grinding to stock up, adding a light RPG element to the simple arcade action. As the year of release increases, the graphical quality of the games gets noticeably sharper and the gameplay gets more complex.
The first Mega Man feels like an arcade game, complete with a score for no real reason and the controls are less precise and slippery to the point I was questioning whether this was a dreaded bad port... but no, that's just how the original game controlled. The sequel usually regarded as the best of the bunch and that's hard to argue; it's simple and straight forward, controls like you remember Mega Man controlling, and the soundtrack is excellent. Three is kind of more of the same, with some refinements to the weapon selection UI and this is where the reliance on E tank grinding appears to rear it's ugly head. I find four to be the weakest of the bunch, with some questionable level design decisions that place powerups at odd, useless places. Five and six tend to run together, though six does some cool things with your Rush powers (your robot dog companion), and gives you unlimited uses but puts them on a cooldown. They're honestly all great games (four is debatable), though I wouldn't recommend binge playing them back to back because of their similarities unless you're looking at them from a historical perspective. In that case they are invaluable artifacts, highlighting other genres creeping into a long running series to keep it “fresh” and shining a light on the programmers' increasing familiarity with the NES.
While I can only look at these games with some nostalgia having played them before decades ago, they are still a blast and I can't imagine anyone with a slight interest in 2-D action/platforming not liking them today. I even found myself yelling at the TV and giving my controller a death grip to the point of breaking, just like the old days. Good times.
Resident Evil 5 Review (PC)
Resident Evil 5 is designed to be played cooperatively from start to finish. For good or ill, you're either ideally playing with a human partner or you have an AI companion in tow throughout the entire game. This affects every aspect of the followup to the masterpiece, RE4: from the inventory system, the level design, the difficulty, the puzzles... it all revolves around two characters in play. It's a very different game from previous entries, veering more towards monster arena shooter than any type of horror or traditional tense atmosphere.
It's a very “brown” game, released in an era when that was generally used as an insult toward generic shooters with limited color pallets. Here it's fitting, with the majority of your time spent out in the sun bleached African slums and savanna. Playing as Chris Redfield with your partner Sheva, you're almost immediately assaulted by hordes of a new strain of infected locals. The enemies are numerous and nimble, testing your aim and keeping you on your toes as you try to avoid getting trapped in a corner. You still do not have the ability to aim and shoot simultaneously, so combat is a test of pinpoint accuracy and situational awareness. The first two thirds or so of the game feels very monotone in both look and action; you're fighting similar enemies in brown arenas, broken up only by the occasional on-rails shooting setpiece or boss fight.
The action isn't bad, just on the repetitive side and it doesn't hold up particularly well compared to newer titles that have improved and iterated on the formula. Most encounters boil down to popping some shots off while standing still, running away, doing a quick turn, repeat. Thankfully, the last two chapters add some variety and make the entire game better by proxy. Exploring a brightly lit, futuristic underground lab and a well realized cargo ship are nice visual changes of pace. Your tactics also get a major shakeup as armed infected now start to regularly shoot back at you with automatic weapons and come in armored forms, causing you to really think about where you aim before wasting ammunition. Mechanics like taking cover behind walls are also introduced, and the stop and pop pace is threatened by cattle prod carrying psychos slowly encroaching. The urgency and intensity explodes in the final act, moving the game's needle from fairly generic third person shooter to something definitely worth playing.
Resident Evil 5 would be unplayable if your AI companion sucked, but for the most part Sheva does what you expect her to do. While she does have the habit of getting in the way of your aiming laser from time to time or thinks it's a good idea to be up your ass when fighting a boss with an obvious weak spot on it's back, she's more or less competently autonomous. You have full control over her inventory, so equipping her with a sniper rifle and loading her up with ammo is a good idea as she'll provide decent cover support. The concessions to cooperative play actually streamlines the inventory system in a good way; the game does not want you to pause at any time, so hitting the inventory button brings up an easily accessible grid. Once you understand the options, using, dropping, combining, and swapping items between characters is ultra snappy and intuitive. If it went back to a Resident Evil Zero style system this game would have been a fucking disaster.
Like most games in the series, Resident Evil 5 is built to be replayed multiple times. Along with a New Game Plus mode that let's you play as Sheva in single player, experiencing her point of view during the limited times she splits up from Chris, there's also the straight arena, score based Mercenaries Mode. You earn points for playing the game in most modes which can then be spent to unlock characters for Mercenaries, costumes for the main game, collectible figures, visual filters, etc. There's quite a bit of game here. There's even a versus multiplayer mode, but that was garbage even when the game was in it's prime.
Included in the “Gold Edition” is two single player (well, coop...) DLC missions; one has Jill and Chris returning to the Spencer mansion from the first Resident Evil. If that sounds great, hold your horses; for some reason they took the time to model almost the entire mansion in the RE5 engine, then did almost nothing with it. You fight a total of four enemies... the same type of enemies... then have a shitty Wesker boss fight and the whole thing is over in an hour. That's disappointing. The other DLC mission, Desperate Escape, is better though not really essential. It's a side story with Jill and some helicopter pilot that was in the main game for two minutes, and you're bombarded with enemies the entire time. It culminates in a Horde Mode-style defense where you're tasked with holding out against increasingly difficult enemies while waiting for a timer to tick down. It's not bad.
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