Links to stuff:
Friday the 13th: The Game
The Long Dark
Empire: Total War
Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines
The Secret World Legends
Total War: Warhammer
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...)
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.
Whelp, it's Halloween. Nearing the end of my rare vaction, so it's a double edged dildo. If you look at the site there's some fruits of my labor: three new reviews, two new podcasts, and some switching around and general maintenence. Some day maybe I should go through the reviews and proofread them. Today is not that day.
Well, new PC, new retarded problems. Thankfully they're minor: like "Oh yeah, I have to turn the screen saver off", and fucking with settings to make the podcast not save in FLAC quality. But... reviews are up, games run fucking fantastic, so let's celebrate the new, GTX 1080 era of Grunt Free Press with mutal masturbation. It won't be long before we're complaining about games running shit again, so enjoy it while it lasts.
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.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Review (PC)
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 should be the shining example of how not to do a sequel. The first Lords of Shadow game was a successful reimagining of the Belmont clan's eternal war against Dracula, with a solid combat system and gothic story that ended on a cliffhanger that easily teed up a continuation that would just have to stay the course to be enjoyable. Instead, MecurySteam seems to have dug deep to unearth the worst parts of the original, then added a pile of steaming shit on top of it.
I've never played a game that was so hellbent on taking control away from the player as this one. You start out in Gabriel's throne room, fighting back an invading army of armored foes. Every few steps you take, the game pauses to display tutorial text detailing moves you have available. It's a standard introduction to the controls, I thought, that's fine... Then I arrived at a section that required platforming, which was excellent in the prequel. Here, swarms of bats appear on handholds, and you just jump bat point to bat point, with no rhyme or reason to how high/far Gabriel can jump; often where you're jumping is completely off screen or doesn't make logical sense, you just jam jump to follow an arbitrary bat path. The movement in general just feels very stiff, linear, and unreliable. The camera is much too close to the character when “exploring”, and trying to jump a two foot gap could mean death in one instance, but you're deftly performing acrobatic leaps when the game wants you to...
Lords of Shadow 2 is more movie than game. After about the two hour mark of barely controlling the character, watching intolerably long cutscenes, taking two steps forward then triggering another obnoxiously long cutscene, I tried to grin and bear it, holding out hope that the game was setting the scene and would go off the narrow rails later. I was wrong. The reliance on movies to fill out the play time is persistent for the entire game. A few minutes of control, fighting a few small, easy demons... ten minute cutscene. Fight a boss for five minutes... ten minute cutscene. And the story is miserable; part emo, Dracula wants to kill himself, and part cartoon/anime cringe-y, Dragonball Z trash, every story beat somehow manages to be stupider and less cool than the last.
On the off chance you aren't watching a cutscene, you're presented with a poorly designed, fake open world to explore. It's only “open” in the sense that you can theoretically move among the levels at will without loading into them, but good luck with that. The environments are these super tight, twisting, confusing to navigate messes that's don't connect logically, and you're often forced to hit switches and wait for load-hiding mini-cutscenes to play out before you advance. It didn't take long before I completely abandoned any desire to look for optional power ups or secrets and just wanted to rush through the main path as quickly as possible. And even that can be a nightmare...
And then you'll hit the stealth sections. Oh, boy. They are really bad. Putting aside the idiotic narrative leaps where Gabriel can rip the heart out of a skyscraper-sized demon in one scene but will cower and automatically fail if a Strogg spots and shoots him the next, it's just a horrible, tacked on mini-game that you're forced to endure six times too many. Like the rest of the game, these horrible tests of patience expect you to play like a robot, using what powers they want you to use when they want you to use them. Experimentation is discouraged; there were a few instances where I thought I was pretty clever and found shortcuts around the unnecessarily long path they laid out, only to run into invisible walls or nonsensical fail states. You can transform into a swarm of rats if you activate set “dark spots” (because apparently Dracula is shy) which seems neat, but you're forced to watch more canned animation play out every time you do this, and you're often tasked with following a glowing skull bread crumb trail through narrow, linear vents, which is about as much fun as it sounds.
The one thing Lords of Shadow 2 has going for it is the visuals. I guess throwing player agency to the wind has it's perks, because the artists had the time to make a beautiful game. The demon and boss design in particular is excellent and creative. From fighting a Guillermo del Toro looking, tentacle-headed scientist to battling Satan riding a flying Cthulhu worm, the unique monsters and reimagined classic foes are pure, inspired eye candy. This ends the positive things I have to say about the game...
The “Ultimate Edition” includes all of the DLC, including a mode called Revelations that I think lets you play as Alucard in a new set of single player missions. I can't say for sure, because I didn't play it. I honestly couldn't wait for this game to be over so I could delete it off of my hard drive and be done with it. That might not be much of a review, but Lords of Shadow 2 isn't much of a game.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Review (PC)
Change can be a good thing. For a series like that comes out like clockwork on an annual basis like Call of Duty, if you played one you knew what expect for the most part the next year, and the next, and so on. The repetition brings comfort on one hand, but makes you question why to even bother on the other. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare makes some big changes to the established formula. Some of them work and lead to pleasant surprises, but the core gameplay still feels old and some design choices are just hot garbage.
The immediate, striking shift is the overall genre the game sets itself in; this isn't historical, modern, or near future combat. Infinite Warfare goes all in with it's science fiction theme, where spaceship design is ripped straight out of Aliens and Halo, and the Mass Effect inspirations don't even attempt to be subtle. I enjoy sci-fi so I am perfectly fine with the setting, and it's commendable how the game remains grounded for the most part despite the interplanetary travel. Ship to ship combat is treated as naval warfare, and once your boots are on solid ground it's still corridor shooting and setpieces, just with the added complications and tactical options zero gravity environments and the vacuum of space allows. Infinite Warfare remains the “Hoo Rah!”, Michael Bay, action movie the Call of Duty series is known for, they just took it to the stars. It's essentially Tom Clancy's Star Wars.
The campaign is an enjoyable, seven or eight hour experience that has enough variety to keep it interesting. It looks incredible. The polished, big budget, other-worldly landscapes, the blackness of space, and the cutting edge facial and motion capturing of the characters can be breathtaking. There are plenty of convincing environmental details and effects that sell the levels, although that attention to realism can lead to clutter that gets in the way of the gameplay. The smoke and shadows and rubble look great, but trying to pick out the slightly different colored enemy from that static can be difficult; they don't really pop out in any helpful way. I often found myself relying on looking for muzzle flashes or waiting to get shot first and following the damage indicator rather than taking the initiative. You could say their camouflage is effective, I guess, but I ended up shooting my allies almost as much as the opposition.
The story is throwaway, Saturday morning cartoon, overly simplistic bubblegum fluff. The bad guys are real villains that want power, and your side is fighting for freedom and everything good about humanity. The patriotic, PG-13 plot stands in stark contradiction to this really grim, dark tone that runs parallel throughout the game. One minute you're stifling groans from the cheesy tropes of an inspirational speech before a big battle or a robot having human emotions, then the next you're watching a graphic depiction of your squadmate's head being stomped on like a melon and his brains becoming a pile of meat. For whatever reason the split personality, dual nature ends up working really well. It's whimsical and grimy, and I kind of dug it.
When you're on the ground doing the traditional Call of Duty, linear shooting thing the game feels dated. Wallrunning and boosting feels sluggish, and the enemy AI is robotic and predictable (and not just the robots). If you reload a checkpoint you're guaranteed to see the same exact scenarios play out, the enemy placement is the same and they'll hide behind the same pieces of cover and react in the same manner, so it becomes a game of memorization. It's old school FPS design, and not in a good way. Fortunately, that's not all you'll be doing. The zero gravity fights are at least interesting as you can grapple to asteroids to take cover or perform some brutal melee kills. When you board ships it's quite the spectacle being able to shoot out windows and see dozens of bodies get sucked out into the void of space. Then there's the ship to ship combat, which almost feels like a completely different game. You can outfit your fighter with a few different options, but it's not a particularly deep dog fighting system. Most of the space/aerial combat boils down to locking on enemies and being auto-piloted toward them, with you just having to worry about fine aim and launching missiles. It's functional and fun for what it is; the Call of Duty of arcade space combat.
So the campaign is okay; certainly not the best FPS campaign out there, but it tries some new things and succeeds more often than not. Then I tried the multiplayer, the meat and potatoes of the series. It sucks. The perk/upgrade/crafting system must be aimed at long time annual players, because I found it to be a confusing mess. Presented with an overwhelming amount of options I tried my hardest to slow down and read the descriptions of each perk and attachment, but the information given is so vague and convoluted it's pretty much useless. There are shops to go to for crafting, and keys to open chests to unlock loot crates to upgrade weapons that have their own levels, but you still have to reach a certain level to use some of them. Not your faction level, your player level, or maybe your “Rig” level... Then I'm playing and I get a message saying my Claw is ready... and I have no idea what that is or how to use it, and the button prompts are wrong anyway if I did. What the fuck is all this shit? Just give me a gun and let's go.
Maybe it would be worth the hours it would take to decrypt all of that garbage if the core gameplay was any good, but it's really not. The maps are all woefully simple, boring, circular designs that somehow still manage to encourage camping and sniping, so the movement abilities that feel bad to use anyway are more or less moot. The respawn system is a joke, often placing you a foot away from multiple enemies with no invulnerability, so the spawn/die cycle is alive and well. Most of the persistent Call of Duty issues are still here, like snowballing kill streaks, questionable latency, abusable abilities, nonexistent balancing... all of that bullshit with none of the fun the previous games provided. It just looks, plays, and feels like crap.
As decent as the campaign is, I can't recommend Infinite Warfare on that mode alone. While there is a good amount of content in the game, and it's refreshing to have a complete, functional product that's basically three games in one, two thirds of it is awful. And the big one, the multiplayer that would have provided the most replayability, is borderline unplayable. Kudos for the ambition and taking chances, but the main course stinks.
Final Fantasy XV is one of the hottest upcoming games. I'm not going to play Final Fantasy XV. I think it looks incredibly stupid and embodies just about everything I hate about JRPGs. So, rather than ignore the title completely, here's Conan O'Brien and Elijah Wood playing it and giving one of the most honest and well reasoned reviews I've seen from a mainstream source in years:
Doom (4) Review (PC)
Doom likes it's reboots. In a bold move that's sure to confuse everyone later, the 2016 Doom game is simply called “Doom”, and it's not a remake of the original or even a sequel... it's a game with the same name that has you murdering hellspawn as the Doom Marine. If that sounds familiar that's because it should; the series had already been rebooted in Doom 3 (and the mobile Doom RPG games), but here we are again with a fresh start and reimagined classic demons just waiting for a chainsaw to the face.
Doom (4) is a different kind of game that seeks to preserve the essence of the older titles, but update it to sit well with a modern audience. The retro camp can marvel over what's not there: no weapon reloading, no sprint button, no story of any consequence. Then there is enough fluff on the periphery to make sure new players feel welcome: RPG-lite upgrades, collectibles, waypoints. For the most part Doom finds it's balance, combining old and new to create something altogether different.
You play as Doomguy, awakening from some sort of coffin and seeing visions of people that seem to worship you. Right away there are zombies shuffling toward you, so you murder them. Then you find your green armor and a shotgun and go to town painting Mars a deeper shade of red. Any deeper layer of the story is tucked away in PDAs, but who has time for that? There are hints of mankind's foolish attempts to solve it's energy problems by importing a new source of fuel... from Hell. The loudspeakers calmly report the current level of the facility's “Demon Possession Level” (they're usually unsafe), and there are secondary characters urging you to be careful around the expensive mining equipment. But Doomguy acts like a silent Duke Nukem, expressing his distaste for civility through his absolute insistence on breaking, punching, and ripping apart everything he comes across. He could be called Doom Nukem.
The levels are designed as tight, twisting corridor sections that usually open up into combat arenas complete with powerups and ammo scattered about. The arenas aren't exactly subtle; oftentimes there's a switch you'll have to hit to trigger the battles, so you have time to stock up and scope the room out before you engage. Once the demons spawn in you're encouraged to constantly be moving, both to avoid incoming projectiles and to perform melee finishing moves on weakened enemies. These canned animations are critical to survival; they provide a momentary relief from the assault as you're invulnerable while executing them, plus ripping off an arm or shoving a Mancubus' heart down it's throat results in a shower of orbs exploding from your victims, filling your ammo and health. This creates a risk/reward layer of strategy to ensure you're never close to death as long as you keep up the murder. It also kind of gives the game a bit of a jerky pacing, where circle strafing gives way to beelining for weak enemies, and the awesome gory finishers do lose their luster after awhile. This also creates an intentionally exploitable system where you're never really “low” on supplies; just whip out the chainsaw for an instant fill up on ammo or use the BFG as an “oh, shit” button to clear the screen and suck up those health orbs. I'd recommend playing the game on Ultra Violence for the first time, as anything lower presents almost no challenge if you even have a passing familiarity with first person shooters.
There is plenty to do off the beaten path of the campaign, as well. It wouldn't be Doom without secrets scattered around the levels, so there's more than enough of those to find. You can partake in challenge levels called “Rune Trials”; short arenas with strict time limits and weapon and health parameters that grant you passive abilities in the main game if you can pass them. Then there are upgrades for your weapons and suit to find, and combat challenges for each level. You can “mod” your weapons with secondary abilities, and increase the maximum capacity of your health, ammo, or armor and give yourself bonuses like secrets revealed on the map or decreased damage taken from explosive barrels. I'm not sure how I feel about these RPG elements in Doom; they add to the replayability, but they also feel like turning cheats on and further slow down the pace as you open your menu screen and fiddle with your runes and upgrades.
The campaign is definitely a fun romp, a gorgeous depiction of Mars and Hell that almost looks like it's made out of clay. Once you're done with that, Doom (4) is certainly not lacking in options. There's a basic map editor to screw around with, snapping together pre-fab pieces and dropping weapons and enemies as you please. It's not Far Cry levels of good, but it's serviceable and some creative people have made decent levels. Then there's the multiplayer, which is incredible. It may have ripped it's aesthetics from Halo with it's armor customization, but it plays more like classic Doom than even the campaign. It's straightforward Deathmatches, full speed, mano a mano circle strafing with some smart touches; constantly move to pick up armor for an advantage to discourage camping, pick up the power weapons to increase your murder capacity, and go for the Demon Rune, which will transform you into a selectable demon with unique powers and wreck havoc on the enemy team. It's just good, old fashioned, arena shooting fun.
Titanfall 2 Review (PC)
The first Titanfall doesn't quite get the credit it deserves. The deck was stacked against it: an Xbox One “platform exclusive” at a time when it was trendy and safe to pour hate on the console and dismiss any games that were associated with it. Plus it was published by EA, the company that won Worst Company on the Planet awards because... I don't know, really. It was also a full priced multiplayer-only title, and that doesn't tend to go over well with the masses, either. They'd rather flock to the internet and bitch about how they don't have access to the internet. Granted, some criticisms were valid: for a game you could only play competitively, the number of modes and maps were limited, which led to people (including myself) getting bored and dropping off. Once an online-only starts declining in popularity, well, it's a domino effect of long waits for games and potential future players avoiding it because of long waits and a short lifespan. Despite the drawbacks, the core gameplay of the original game was completely solid: fast paced, wall running and double jumping movement, well designed levels that had to take into account both the vertical nimbleness of the pilots and the wide bodies of the titans, and a cat-and-mouse, rock-paper-scissors headgame between the two playstyles. It was an excellent shooter, the first and finest to embrace what's now the modern standard of faster movement and dashing. And robots. Since then, Halo 5 kind of beat them at their own game, and subsequent Call of Dutys have borrowed generously from the formula. Whether those games topped Titanfall or not in various aspects, they were certainly more popular, so the new IP was left in limbo, waiting to be refined and have a big second showing, or fade into obscurity. Titanfall 2 expands it's offerings to please the masses, but it does lose a little bit of it's identity with the focus turning away from online and only online, like it or not.
Titanfall 2 has a single player campaign, and it's the biggest surprise of all. Judging from brief trailers pre-launch, I had the impression this would be a throwaway, half-assed addition to make people shut the fuck up. It's actually very, very good. You play some generic soldier who stumbles across a pilot falling out of his damaged mech. The pilot dies, and relays to you his important mission about finding some enemy super weapon or something, and he gives you a promotion on the spot as his last dying order. You're then linked to the mech, and are allowed to pilot it yourself to finish what was started.
The relationship between you and the titan could have easily been mishandled into some sloppy, “boy and his dog” story about friendship, but Titanfall 2 thankfully has a sense of humor. The story proper, both in terms of the robot attachment and the mission, are secondary to just providing you with awesome fucking levels to run and shoot through. When you interact with the titan, BT, it's just stupid enough that you usually laugh as he gives you a bunch of thumbs up and plays on the Terminator trope of “why do you cry”. It all seems very self aware, and it's harmless fun. You're given choices to respond to certain dialogue, and there's usually a snarky, dickish option if you're so inclined. And the responses you get back are appropriately hilarious. It's good, and thankfully not sappy at all.
The developers at Respawn are made up of a bunch of ex-Infinity Ward employees, and the campaign makes that clear as this is probably the most fun I've had in a first person shooter campaign since Call of Duty 4. The levels are cleverly designed to highlight your destinations with certain colors and lighting, and they take advantage of the parkour footwork that makes the core game so much fun. It never devolves into corridor shooting, instead giving you plenty of variety and setpieces to keep you engaged. Sometimes you're in your titan, sometimes on foot, sometimes you have a choice, and BT is constantly getting new loadouts for you to experiment with and swap out at any time. Then there are some truly jawdropping moments, like a trek through an assembly plant where terrain is being mass produced. As you hitch a ride on pre-built houses in various states of construction you have to think fast to avoid machinery, then your world gets turned upside down and sideways as you try to make sense of the work of an uncaring assembly line.
There are plenty of surprises that you would not expect from this game, like time travel. Given a tool that can warp you into the past or present at the click of a button, there's an incredible sequence of Portal-like environmental manipulation where you're creating terrain mid-jumps and getting the drop on two sets of time-diverse enemies. Then there are the boss battles: they're also really fucking good. You're going up against a group of mercenaries responsible for the death of BT's original owner, and as you prepare to fight them they're given grindhouse/freeze frame introductions to highlight their unique personalities and the titans they pilot. Once again, it's all in good fun as one of them is some kind of robot and one is an Arnold Schwarzenegger stand in appropriately named “Richter”. These could easily have been bullet sponges or cheap tricks, but smartly they're just straight-up, titan versus titan battles, where you can wear them down as easily as anyone you'd come across in multiplayer. The last few are trickier, with a two on one fight and one against a sniper on a flying ship (which looks amazing), but they're fair and never frustrating. The campaign is just awesome, and even very replayable thanks to collectibles that challenge your pilot skills.
The multiplayer didn't fare so well in the transition to crowd pleasing. It's not bad, but it feels... off compared to the first game. The maps are very large this time and not as vertical, so in a six on six fight you end up spending a lot of time just looking for the enemy team. This also leads to players hanging back, not wanting to be seen first or sitting in corners waiting for someone to walk by. This makes it feel more akin to Call of Duty than original Titanfall, where the kills and deaths are quick but it's very rare that they're crazy/spectacular and a result of quick thinking and reflexes beyond who sees who first. The movement in general just feels slower, too, and the AI in the staple Attrition mode seem dumber. The biggest change is the titans themselves: they are now made out of paper. Calling in a titan used to guarantee a nice long life, now you can be shredded in an instant from pilot's anti-titan weapons, making it almost pointless to embark. The mechs are faster, sure, but their fragility often leads to teams with them deployed just hanging back with their backs against a wall, not wanting to get in the thick of the battles. The maps aren't as well designed, either, so if you're in a titan you're kind of just walking in a circle on obvious paths.
Running around on foot is still fun, but the flatter maps just don't really allow for the wall bounce hijinks that made the original so unique and fun to learn. Instead, there are a lot of dead ends, places that are inaccessible without a grappling hook (equipment that takes up a slot that would be better utilized for other perks), and plenty of empty space. There is a shit ton of skins, equipment, loadouts, factions, etc. for you to unlock, but in true Infinity Ward fashion (and I actually like this design philosophy), the loadout you start the game with is the all around best, everything else just seems to be there for the sake of being there to give the idiots who think “multiplayer” means “RPG” and bitch about not seeing numbers go up and shit unlocking something to do. It's fun, though not quite on the same level as the first Titanfall. Hopefully it has longer legs, though.
Battlefield One Review (PC)
Battlefield One is a war sandbox. The generic name is rather descriptive of the action you'll see: run across giant maps waging war on foot, in the air, in land vehicles, and even at sea. Like any good sandbox you're given plenty of toys to deal death, the environments change with the destruction inflicted upon it, and you're not likely to see the same scenarios play out more than once as players get creative. Yes, this is more Battlefield with only the change of the war differentiating it from the previous games, but that shift in available tools effectively rearranges the pace and overall feel of the game enough to warrant interest from fans both old and new.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Conquest is the only mode I give a shit about. The Battlefield games are at their best when every piece of the war map is in play and there's a randomness and feeling of helplessness involved. The sixty four player game type has been the staple, and it's no different in Battlefield One. You can join a squad of up to five friendly soldiers, and you use those allies as mobile spawn points as long as they are not under fire when you're trying to deploy. This in theory should keep you close to the action, and it adds a meta-layer of strategy as you can essentially hide deep in enemy territory and harass them with waves of reinforcements popping up out of nowhere. It's kind of a goofy system in practice and can lead to some real fucking bullshit spawn kills (either in your favor or against), but it does cut out much of the time that would be otherwise spent running to objectives.
And Conquest is all about objectives. Each team plays until they reach a score limit of 1000, with the points ticking up if you control more flags than the opposing team. Spawning in after a death also adds one point to the enemy. So it's a hybrid of Team Deathmatch and Domination, with the lettered zones directing and adding to the conflict. Some legacy issues still bother the shit out of me; average snipers become godlike on certain maps, the exact radius of the control points aren't represented visually on the map and aren't exactly clear, and once the buildings start crumbling it can be pretty easy for someone to hide like a faggot in a dark corner somewhere, basically invisible and guaranteed to rack up a bunch of easy kills. But these sore points come with the territory: war is chaos, and Conquest is all about chaos when it's at it's best.
Another pretty cool mode is Operations; an ongoing game of offense versus defense where one team advances to gain control of two points and hold them, while the defenders do their best to hold them back until their limited lives are spent. This even further leads to meat grinder death marches as the pushing army has access to tanks that the defenders don't, and climbing a hill can be incredibly harrowing as you could meet a trench full of shotgun wielding soldiers or get sniped from a line of rifles. It's kind of a progressive game of Rush, the other big mode people play with a victory from the attackers leading to progressive forward objectives. Here it's larger scale, with each push making up a round, and the winner being declared after multiple rounds depending on the Operation. It's a neat mode, striking a balance between the random nature of Conquest and the smaller TDM or other modes. It is a fairly significant time investment, however, with matches than can easily last an hour if you want to see it through. It can also take a little bit of time to find a good sixty four player game, too, since the bulk of the player base is playing Conquest or Rush.
The other modes... whatever. I was never a fan of Rush or Team Deathmatch, where the gunplay starts to break down in closer quarters. Battlefield is just not meant for small scale, and when you're right up on each other swinging melee weapons and spamming triggers it's obvious. Not terrible, but it's not as polished and tight as other infantry based first person shooters. There's also some other silly gametype called War Pigeons (really), with is just Capture the Flag with a bird taking the place of a flag. And you can shoot it out of the air. I played one game of it and the aforementioned CQC problems and maps that also weren't meant to be inspected close up made me say, “huh”... then go back to Conquest.
The multiplayer is as good as you remember it, just with shittier World War One weapons. That's not a knock on them; they're supposed to be shitty and it's hilarious and nerve wracking to shoot at someone five feet away with a sub machine gun and miss every shot. Then they do the same to you. Then you both pull out your pistols and after landing a few shots just run at each other like madmen and swing with shovels and clubs. The formula may be familiar, but the time period lends Battlefield One a unique identity.
There's a campaign, too. Don't bother. It's fucking absolute trash. The last few Battlefield's tried to go the setpiece, linear route with smaller conflicts on a narrow path. These were average at best, but had some standout moments that looked great and were memorable. Battlefield One tries to lean on stealth for some reason, and it fucking sucks. You control multiple protagonists that are introduced through prerendered cutscenes that look worse than the actual game, but who cares from a first person perspective? The introduction has you fighting in the trenches as your position is overrun, and you're sure to die and be placed into the boots of another soldier, who will die and so on. It's a grim and gritty take on the horrors of war, and should be an excellent tone piece for the rest of the game. Instead, you're usually given a pistol and told to slit the throats of a hundred brain dead enemy soldiers. It's super generic and terribly executed stealth, with the usual “mark the enemies, throw a lure to attract them, backstab them in a line...”. The A.I. Acts like they're from Goldeneye or any other number of laughably dated shooters of yesteryear, just hiding behind boxes and taking potshots until you zero in on them. I would have preferred a bot match to this garbage, it's useless. Truly one of the worst shooter campaigns I've played in years. Tedious, slow, plodding... like the trench warfare of WWI, I guess, but it certainly doesn't scream “Battlefield”... or “game I want to play, period.”
Battlefield One is all about the multiplayer once again, which should come as no surprise. It's easy to lose hours in the war, where you're just a cog in the wheel, dropping in and out and trying to make some small difference in the game of inches. The UI sucks for some reason, too, just to mention it... But when the mayhem gets going, war is a beautiful thing.
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