Rise of the Tomb Raider Review (PC)
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a near perfect sequel to an incredible reboot. 2013's Tomb Raider set a solid foundation for Lara Croft's modern, gritty, slightly psychopathic action/adventure career. The followup takes the fluid platforming, satisfying combat, and rewarding puzzle solving from the previous game and makes it bigger, better, and more polished. While it lacks the shock and awe freshness for returning players, it definitely ups it's game in just about every aspect and that was no small feat. It's also arguably the most gorgeous game I've ever played.
Lara's story takes a darker, more mature tone in Rise. No longer the wide eyed adventurer just trying to survive, she becomes driven to obsession following in her disgraced father's footsteps. Pouring over his notes and maps, uncovering a mystery involving some mythic source of power that may grant eternal life and power, she is assaulted in her mansion by a goon from a shady organization called Trinity. Taking the robbery as a sign that she's on the right track, you're soon controlling her journey across frozen mountains and ancient ruins as she tries to discover the fabled artifact before Trinity does. It can be a bit Indiana Jones cliché at times with the bad guys either one small step ahead or behind Lara at every junction, but woven into the adventure narrative is a more personal mystery surrounding the events of her father's death. The accepted, public story is the elder Croft committed suicide, but that doesn't sit well with Lara and she looks into possible foul play involving a conspiracy, double crossing, and ties to Trinity. The two narratives intertwine, and I was impressed how realistically Lara dealt with a childhood trauma; the wounds aren't fresh at that point so while she wants the truth, she's not crippled by it or moping around the entire game.
While the story is linear and mostly told through cutscenes that are extremely well done though a tad on the long side, the meat of the gameplay is made up of small, open hubs that connect to each other and can be explored further after upgrading Lara's equipment. It's Metroidvania-lite like the previous game, but some new tools make the optional backtracking breezy and enjoyable. A grappling hook can make a time consuming series of jumps almost instantaneous, the ability to make your own footholds in certain surfaces is great, and the spiderweb of ropes and platforms is extremely impressive in their thoughtful design. It's critically important that in a game built around traversal that the platforming is just plain fun to execute, and it certainly is here. It's also not overtly automatic or on-rails, either, so it's rewarding and exhilarating to pull off some crazy stunts. It almost feels like a rhythm game at times. And I'll just say the ending sequence is some of the most intense, jaw dropping shit you've ever played...
The combat/stealth options remain reliable and give the player plenty of options to savagely murder anyone that gets in Lara's path. Like a cute little Agent 47, she'll strangle, burn, eviscerate, drown, crush, and explode a small army and look good doing it. There are a good number of weapons to choose from; multiple handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, and the signature bows, and they can be upgraded and fitted with different types of ammunition to cause all sorts of chaos. While once upgraded you may feel overpowered, the enemies are generally just as deadly, dropping Lara in a few shots. Craftiness is rewarded, with improvised molotovs and bombs that can be created from junk laying around the environments. Rise of the Tomb Raider is the rare case where a game spreads itself across multiple disciplines (platforming, puzzle solving, and combat), and none of them suffer. It just plays like a dream.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review (PC)
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a video game time capsule for the year 2010. Although the Castlevania series is about as classic as it gets, the previous attempts to modernize the games into a 3D space had been... iffy. So rather than reinvent the wheel to directly translate the Belmont's 2D action/platforming, MecurySteam took a long look at what was already out there and popular and generously borrowed elements from proven sources; the platforming is Prince of Persia, the combat is God of War, the puzzles are... pretty standard puzzles. Even some of the monster designs are ripped straight out of another property that shares the “Lord of” title... Throw some Zelda and Portal in there for good measure, and you've got Lords of Shadow.
Even though you can't accuse the game of being original, it's still excellent. A surprisingly epic and involved story has the protagonist, Gabriel Belmont, on a quest to bring his deceased lover back to life. Told through highly produced and sometimes a little too long cutscenes (chock full of quick times events. Another mid-to-late 2000s staple.), you make your way through spooky forests infested with goblins and werewolves, dark caves, Frankenstein's booby trapped electric lab, hellish dreamscapes with shifting geometry, and a misleadingly minor stop at a vampire's castle. The rouge's gallery of Universal monsters and mishmash of creeps and haunts are well represented here. Even if the scarcity of classic gothic architecture is noticeable, it looks incredibly atmospheric and iconic when you're allowed to play in it.
Fighting back the creatures of the night is enjoyable if a little shallow. You use your whip to strike either directly at an enemy or in an arc, and use experience points awarded throughout the game to unlock more advanced moves and combos. While the pages of upgrades looks intimidating and impressive, I didn't find much need to commit any complex combos to memory beside specific moves needed to manipulate the environment and progress the game. You're fine just focusing on timing rather than fancy buttonwork, dodging and blocking as necessary and parrying and getting damage in when you have a window. Getting hit usually drains an alarming portion of your healthbar, but you can regain some of it back by activating one of your two gauntlets (the other one increases damage) and striking back. It's certainly competent, though I don't think the system ever really hits it's stride and the difficulty tends to be all over the place.
Navigating the sprawling levels is a highlight. There are secrets hidden everywhere, some of which you'll have to get to on a replay once your abilities have been upgraded. It's light Metroidvania, which is expected because of the later half of that genre. None of the backtracking is required, it's just bonus content for completionists or buffs if you're having trouble progressing straight through. The camera is fixed, which predictably leads to both beautiful shots and frustrating movement problems. The environments are almost uniformly gorgeous in a dark fantasy kind of way, although the proliferation of invisible walls can dampen your curiosity. You'll also be blocked by many puzzles which vary from gameplay mechanics quizzes, adventure game-type static screens, and a variation of chess. A few of them seem a bit too complex and involved, forcing you to completely stop for long stretches and shift gears to an entirely different genre, but they are satisfying to tinker with. There is also the option to basically skip them with a massive hint, which will forfeit your experience rewards for solving them.
Lords of Shadow is an all around solid game, a massive old school single player adventure that puts it's massive budget on the screen. It is a bit of an odd duck with it's nebulous genre hopping and shifts in tone, but the upshot to that is you're never doing the same thing for long. If you value variety, Lords of Shadow won't disappoint. The only truly negative things I have to say is about the DLC included in the “Ultimate Edition”; it's clearly much lower budget than the main game with unfinished “motion comic” story boards replacing the previous beautiful cinematics. And the last boss is absurdly difficult; a multi-stage nightmare that will remind you why you avoided aerial combat before and curse some poorly placed checkpoints and the game's refusal to refill your life after each chapter. Oh, and those chupacabras... probably the worst enemy to disgrace any game I've ever played. Not only do they steal all of your relics (temporarily to the point of it being useless but still annoying), but they're some awful failed attempt at comic relief in an otherwise deadly serious and straightfaced game. They'll taunt you with an obnoxiously high pitched, grating voice as you hunt them down and they don't stop. And you can't kill them. Seriously, fuck those things.
Gears of War 4 Review (XB1)
Gears of War 4 is more Gears of War. There are no major tweaks or changes to the decade old formula, and the minor ones are hit or miss to the point of it being a wash. Taking cover behind waist high walls to shoot monsters and turn them into giblets is just as fun as it ever was... but we have done this three times already. If you've played the previous games, you can stop reading this review right now. Just ask yourself two questions: 1. “Did I enjoy Gears 1-3?”, and 2. “Do I want to do that again?”. If you answered yes to both of those go for it. If not, seriously consider playing something else before you trudge down the same locust-infested streets again.
The immediately noticeable and biggest difference here is the shift in tone and aesthetic. People complained about the original games being too “brown” because they're racist, and the developers of Gears 4 apparently took that took heart. Half of the campaign takes place in broad daylight because they're sexist, with bright primary colors exploding from the seams. Even the flashlight-lit dark areas are injected with neon before too long in the form of glowing locust goo that splatters the characters and paints the walls. There seems to be a price to pay for the cartoon look, however. While most of the nighttime scenes are sharp, during the day the textures look muddy and blurry, like the game's cinematographer had trouble keeping the shots in focus. More obnoxious in some levels than others, I honestly can't say whether this is an issue with the game presenting itself as a 4K/HDR showcase that has been downscaled for my peasant 1080p television or what, but graphically I was not very impressed by Gears of War 4. It doesn't look bad, just soft and confusing to make out details. This problem transfers to the multiplayer as well, where matches look like someone smeared Vasoline all over the TV.
The new protagonists in the campaign are also pretty dull. J.D. Fenix is the main playable character, and he does his best Nathan Drake impression in both looks and “witty” quips. And he succeeds, because I don't give two fucks about him, just like Drake. Then there are two other autistic millennials, some chick who's super smart because girls can do science, kids, and some black guy who's black. They're a regular McDonald's commercial of diversity and as boring as hamburger buns. Previous games also hit this note with broad caricatures of meat heads in bulky armor doing the dude bro thing, but here (like the rest of the game...) it just feels so safe and going out of it's way to be unoffensive and soft. I never had any attachment to Marcus Fenix other than as a generic avatar, but when he shows up in Gears of War 4 he's a comparative bundle of fucking personality and humor.
I don't really give a shit about the story, so par for the course there. There's a series of dumb excuses to bring back almost all of the elements and characters of the older Gears games; the locusts are dead... long live the locust. And Cole. And Baird. And some helicopter lady? There are a few types of elite enemies and mini-bosses, but the majority of the time you're fighting variations of the standard drones and wretches you've chainsawed since 2006. New boomer-types just make the foot soldiers slightly more powerful and carry new weapons like a Half Life inspired saw blade launcher and a dropshot that fires ordinance over cover and explodes. Neither of those new tools feel creative or particularly fun to use. Then there are robots, which are new to the franchise... but they're robots. Don't get me wrong, I like The Terminator as much as the next guy, but in a cover based action game they're not very fun to fight. Taking a cue from Halo's latest faction, The Promethians, the bots have very basic, simple, mechanical design and the A.I you'd expect from machines: they just walk toward you head on like they came out of a bad '90s shooter. Variations of the T-1000s include balls that roll at you and explode or hovering drones that require you to take down their shields, but in a game about gore and blood they all spark and excrete oil like you're playing the SNES version of Mortal Kombat.
To mix up the repetitive small scale firefights, you're thrown into a few one off sections which aren't done very well, save for the last one where you're piloting a mech that preserves the core mechanics at a much larger scale. In one instance you're driving a motorcycle, shooting at a plane in a very basic on-rails cheesefest. Then you're riding an elevator cable, just shooting barrels and junk. Not too exciting. What really slows things down, though, is the shoehorned small scale Horde mini-games. A few times you're asked to defend a point from waves of increasingly difficult enemies, which would be fine. But they add in the tower defense, resource management from the cooperative mode. As I moved the shitty 3D printer around and set up barbed wire and turrets (complete with the giant outlines) and fiddled with a set pool of money, I couldn't help but be pulled out of the campaign completely as a timer ticked down and I was told to “Press Back to start the next wave.” It just feels cheap.
So, overall the campaign is mediocre, leaning heavily on a story that's pretty garbage and trying way too hard at slapstick comedy and failing. But Gear's legs has always been it's multiplayer. And that's pretty much unchanged as well. You get all the highlights: flat, completely symmetrical maps, a heavy reliance on the gnasher shotgun and wall bouncing, getting gibbed from blind corners... it feels like the same game you've played for a decade. It's slow by modern standards and not exactly smooth, and most of the game modes go on for about twice as long as they should, compounding legacy problems like quitters, lag, and uneven teams. The one highlight is a variation on Gun Game where your team has to get three kills with each weapon in the game, but when you realize that it's played as best of three rounds you appreciate/despise how many weapons are included... Having played the series' competitive modes heavily, I can't muster the enthusiasm to play what I've essentially already played for more than a short session at a time.
So Gears is Gears. I'm conflicted about my opinion on it: it's not bad, but it's not a game that I'm impressed by in any way. It takes considerable effort for me to have anything more than lukewarm feelings about what I played, and the more I think about it the more I'm disappointed they didn't evolve the tired formula further. Only for the hardcore Gearheads who think the gnasher is anything other than a cheap, boring piece of shit.
Alien: Isolation Review (PC)
The xenomorph is an iconic, popular horror figure. Having been the titular monster in countless films, games, comics, and books, the sleek, black, slimy, acid-blooded perfect killing machine is as recognizable a slasher as the likes of Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers. Being lumped in with that new class of terrors, it's easy to look at the nightmare from the mind of H.R. Geiger and forget why it was a thing of pure panic; we watched colonial marines mow them down by the dozens, it's been literally cloned into some stupid albino thing, it's fought Predators on more than one occasion... but that towering, silent, spiny stalker that can get into the walls and abduct you from the ceiling... Alien: Isolation gets it.
Continuing the tradition of “Alien” means a Ripley must be involved, Isolation ties directly into the first film with you playing as the daughter of Ellen “One Shot Swish” Ripley, Amanda. You're coaxed into accompanying an investigation on the space station Sevestapol with the promise of answers to the disappearance of the USS Nostromo. Using the time period and nepotism as a convenient excuse for fan service, most of the technology and environments look like they're ripped stripped straight out of the 1979 sci fi/horror classic. CRT monitors display black and green text, there are plenty of giant red buttons and ducts that probably serve no purpose, and you save your game on a giant, corded phone. It's part art asset museum, part “what if...” sequel, and it works incredibly well to set the tone.
Of course things go downhill almost immediately once you arrive at the station; things break and explode, communications are predictably cut off, the locals have turned into crazed survivalists, and the security androids do what A.I. tends to do in these stories. Luckily Ripley is a master class engineer and born survivor like her mother, so you're tasked with breaking things that need to be broken and fixing things that need fixin'. From a gameplay standpoint this means Metroidvania-like objectives that require you to find and upgrade tools to progress or unlock optional areas, and plenty of smart mini-games to hack into '70s future computers. The game is really good about presenting you with screens and challenges that initially look like gobbledygook, but make sense after poking around and understanding the mechanical language of the station. It's certainly true to form for the genre, where people just hit buttons and pull levers while a countdown is happening... you'll do that more than a few times in Alien: Isolation.
Stealth is your best option for survival as you navigate around hostile humans, droids, and maybe something more dangerous... spoiler: I mean the fucking alien. The early hours of the game have you observing patrol patterns of enemies, hiding under desks and in lockers, hoping they don't spot you and murder you in a few shots or a robotic stranglehold. Avoiding the humanoid threats is okay, serviceable first person stealth; it's fairly predictable and can be cheesed rather easily. You do get weapons to defend yourself eventually, but direct combat is either a last ditch resort or a special case scenario.
So the game is a slow burn at first. Then a wild xenomorph appears... and holy shit. The entire game seems built for the sole purpose of being a shit your pants as you're being hunted by the alien simulation, because it works so well. You've seen the thing a thousand times before, but from a first person perspective, knowing any noise you make can send it pouncing for a brutal one hit kill, seeing the back spines rise from above a desk or it's goo dripping from a vent above... it's seriously terrifying. It also helps that they made it incredibly loud, too. You'll hear it stomping around in the vents like an elephant, screeching like nails against a chalkboard if it spots you... even when you don't see it, you know it's a constant threat. Even closing an elevator door or waiting for a save to register doesn't guarantee your safety, and it's this ever-present, singular monster that's seemingly playing it's own game in tandem with yours that elevates Alien: Isolation into something special. It's a horror game that's actually horrifying.
Tomb Raider (2013) Review (PC)
Lara Croft has been around the block a few times. From the blocky, triangle-titted, weird looking sex symbol of the '90s in her debut on PS1 to the soft reboot of Legend and Anniversary in the mid-2000s, Tomb Raider exploded in popularity from the outset and has had roller coaster ups and downs in terms of quality and relevance ever since. In the current climate of remakes and remasters where saying a long running franchise is going to get a “gritty reboot” is more often than not a hack joke, it would be easy to dismiss the 2013 game (simply titled Tomb Raider) as a cynical cash in on a once popular series. It's a gritty reboot, but it's a fantastic game that sets the standard for the action/platforming genre. Lara Croft reinvents herself against all odds and deftly, confidently defends her crown against any imitators and challengers.
Tomb Raider is an origin story of sorts; the young Lara seems barely twenty, fresh faced and eager to see the world and follow mystic legends. As she travels on a sea vessel with a college professor-type, bumbling and dangerous YouTube celebrity and a small crew, her ship gets caught in a massive, supernatural storm and is capsized on a Japanese island. Right away she's isolated and thrown to the wolves... literally. The island is overrun with a militarized cult that worships a Sun Queen, and is looking for a young woman to sacrifice to their ancient god. They set their sights on Lara's friend, so she takes it personally, and her journey from wide eyed rich kid to seasoned, murderous sociopath is a brutal trial that has her hunting for food, wading through rivers of blood, and leaves her previously perfect skin looking like ground hamburger by the end.
Drawing inspiration from Metroid, as you progress through the main path you'll come across inaccessible side paths and secrets that require equipment upgrades or new gear to explore. The game is structured as pockets of small open areas that can be revisited by backtracking or fast traveling at camps. The environments are littered with relics and GPS caches and notes detailing the history of the island and journal entries from your crew mates. Collecting these fills out the backstory and motivations of the characters, and also rewards you with experience points to beef up Lara's arsenal and tools. It's a very light crafting/progression system; there's only one currency to worry about (scrap) and XP is doled out generously by performing most actions you'd do playing the game normally (hunting, killing enemies, progressing the story, etc.). The results are very satisfying, however, as your bow evolves from a rickety wood toy that takes half a dozen arrows to down a deer to a death machine that launches grenades, sending armored enemies flying through the air behind a giant explosion like a cartoon.
The simple act of getting around the game world is incredibly engaging. Each area is set up like a giant puzzle, with smaller puzzles tucked away in little corners. You may enter a cliff side jungle with the goal of just getting to the top, jumping across bridges and ruins to achieve the main objective, but you can slow down and use your rope bow to construct an impossibly complex web of traversal options and shortcuts. It's that interconnected, well crafted (Croft-ed?) level design that I find so impressive. There are also one off, optional tombs to plunder that up the challenge a bit and reward your observational skills and encourage you to have fun with physics and fire. The key here is you always feel in control of Lara; the most routine of jumps never seems automatic or on-rails, and the little touches of animation like holding up a hand to steady yourself or feel around a dark cave never take priority or control away from the player. If you fuck up and Lara takes a sharp stick through the throat it's on you. And you don't want to see that because Lara is awesome. Or maybe you do because the death animations are fucking brutal...
The gunplay is solid. You have the option to stealth through most encounters, using your pickax or bow to silently dispatch enemies before they can react. Or you can go full Rambo and scramble cover to cover using a machine gun and shotgun to blow dudes away. The guns sound as crisp as the cover based shooting feels; it's immediate, fast paced, and appropriately violent.
Tomb Raider is the full package; an interesting story that stays visceral and grounded even when it turns supernatural, the tightest platforming system in adventure gaming, rewarding combat, gorgeous graphics, just the right amount of challenging puzzles... It's an amazing, must play game. A survivor is born... then thrown into the meat grinder immediately.
Forza Horizon 3 Review (XB1)
The Horizon series sits at a crossroad between the real world simulation racing of it's mainline Forza Motorsport games and fantasy arcade racers like Burnout or Mario Kart. Gifting the player an open world map (in Horizon 3 it's a miniature Australia) and sprinkling it with activities, it's structured like an average open world action game with cars taking the place of parkouring protagonists. As you bomb through the outback, jungle, or city you rack up credits and experience points to level up and earn spins on a slot machine with cash and cars as the payout. It's the kind of loot grind and climbing numbers and flashing lights that's designed to appeal to the addictive personality who would gravitate toward MMOs or pay-to-win mobile games. The constant gratification and “just one more level” hook is strong, and the moment to moment racing is fun in it's own way, but this dumbed down Forza still doesn't have the on-the-track perfection of Motorsport proper which I still prefer by an Australian mile.
The core physics engine and car models are ripped straight out of Horizon's older brother and it shows; it certainly feels like Forza... at first. Cars have their own personalities, but they aren't quite as sharp or pronounced. They feel floatier, more forgiving, less precise. It's a necessary sanding down; you're trading millisecond changes in tire temperature and the weight of the gas in your tank for that gorgeous open road. You can't really have both without some sacrifices, I suppose. Drivatars carry over from previous Forza games, as well, but again they are compromised. The AI can be easily tricked in head to head challenges by going off road and just bee lining to the finish. There is also noticeable rubberbanding. Opponents will suddenly gain nitro boosts and make impossible turns if you get too far ahead of the pack, and they'll also act as bumper bowling guardrails if you take a corner at too high a speed, sacrificing their car bodies to ensure you don't slam into a wall. It's all in the name of casual fun, which is the way to approach a Horizon game.
When you start your career down under you're the boss of the titular Horizon Festival; a gathering of car lovers and the douchebag, rich boy rave culture that goes along with that. Neon lights, thumping techno, and hipster indie music all combine to make sure I tune all the Fast and Furious bullshit out. What I can't ignore is your blabber mouth “assistant”, who acts as the game's Navi and makes sure to interject unskippable dialogue and tutorials every chance she gets. Charming in spurts, like when you can make her call you a nickname like “Abroham Lincoln”, she's also a real buzzkill that makes getting around and doing what you want to do take way longer than it should. In a game that's going for a “ultimate vacation” vibe, it's tough to relax with some bitch in your ear that won't shut the fuck up.
As you complete races, stunts, and just drive around wrecking people's property for XP you gain fans of your festival. Get enough fans and you can unlock new festival hubs or upgrade the ones you already built, which dots your map with more shit to do. And like most open worlds, looking at the map is just an avalanche of shit. Drive to an activity, do that, gain fans, unlock more shit, repeat until you whittle down the amount of shit and make it go away. There are standard races, drift and speed zones where you have to maintain a certain score or speed to earn stars (and fans), speed traps, stunt jumps, and the main events are “showcase” races where you're driving against seeming impossible machines. You'll beat planes, trains, speedboats, and helicopters in loud, spectacular fashion that's mostly for show. These races aren't particularly difficult or satisfying, they just look cool. Once you do about a half dozen of those the credits roll to make the professional reviewers feel like they can play racing games, but there's still plenty to do for the completionist.
The problem is once you do the “crazy” shit, what's left isn't exactly exciting. As noted earlier, the regular circuit races don't hold a candle to real Forza, and the open challenges are flawed in their design. Trying to hit the speed traps in your fastest car is a nonissue. You'll get the full three stars without much effort. So you could just drive around in your Ferrari and hit every one at once, but that would be tedious, so you mix in some races that force you to switch to another class of car... then you're stuck with that car afterward. Why isn't there an option to set a “free roam” car that you'd keep driving outside of those races? It's very inconvenient having to drive to festival hubs to change vehicles; I've done that, then driven a quarter mile to an event, which forced a change, then left me in the middle of nowhere with a piece of shit. Taking advantage of the variety of events ensures you'll change your car more often than a whore changes partners in a gangbang. Horizon works best when you're content just to “do stuff”, no matter what that stuff is or how good said stuff is.
One welcome addition to the series is the custom soundtrack, which I've sorely missed as a feature in most modern games. While you can't simply rip songs to your Xbox and play them locally like you could in the last two generations of consoles, Forza Horizon 3 gives you two options to play with. You can stream your own songs from your OneDrive folder online, but I had issues getting this to work. Songs would skip like a scratched CD or I'd get error messages, so that was no good. I could have been doing something wrong, I don't know and I got frustrated enough to try option two: use a Groove music pass to build a playlist from approved songs. This seems to work as intended and the swath of available music is surprisingly adequate. The only issue here is the game will play your songs in order and there's no way to randomize them unless you manually go into the app yourself and play the metagame of moving tracks all over the place one at a time, because there's no way to just select everything and randomize it, or better yet use the built in functionality of Groove to populate it's own radio stations with suggested music.
I may sound overly negative on Forza Horizon 3, but it's fine for what it is. It's an entry level racing game with the concessions a casual fan expects. Australia looks beautiful and has a great variety of environments to smash your car around. The online play is a mess, but whatever. If you zone out and use it as a radio station that happens to let you drive cars, it's great. I wish it went further in the arcade genre, but as a stopgap between the two extremes it's fine. The cars go “vroom”.
Resident Evil: Zero Remastered Review (PC)
Inventory Management and Backtracking: The Game. Resident Evil: Zero is a prequel to the popular survival horror series as the name suggests, and the game mechanics are more archaic and frustrating than the older entries' already infuriating systems. Whether that's an intentional, meta decision or just experimentation gone awry, I couldn't say for sure. The end result is a bad game either way.
RE0 starts out strong. As S.T.A.R.S medic Rebecca Chambers, you're separated from your squad (as tends to happen) and find yourself searching a train for an escaped convict, Billy Coen. The train is a great introductory stage; essentially a long hallway with impressive environmental details and an ever-moving backdrop. You quickly find your liberated prisoner, and he's a real corny douche. Billy's tribal tattoos, spiky hair, and cringy one liners are more than enough to get Rebecca's girl juices flowing, so the two partner up and you're introduced to the concept of playing in tandem with an AI partner. You can set the computer controlled character to follow you, stay put, attack enemies or be passive, and you can exchange items as long as they are on the same screen. The idea is novel and leads to the type of puzzles you would expect, and they each have minor differences and special equipment (Billy can push heavier objects, Rebecca can mix herbs, etc.). Judging by this first stage, things look great in the confined train as you pass objects through dumb waiters and separate to trigger time sensitive switches. As the scope of the game expands, everything quickly falls apart.
Rebecca and Billy both have painfully small inventory slots, so neither of them can be the badly needed pack mule. Struggling with limited space is a staple of the genre, but Resident Evil: Zero pushes it to insufferable levels. The game goes crazy with multiple key items that need to be hauled, combined, and stored and those all eat up precious slots. Anything larger than a handgun (and some key items) take up multiple of your eight squares, plus the ammo needed... add a healing item and you are constantly fiddling and juggling and dropping and swapping and it's obnoxious. Previous games in the series gave you access to a storage box in save rooms that would magically transport items to other save rooms; video game-y? Sure, but it worked to alleviate the finicky nature of what you're doing to a degree. In the aptly named Resident Evil: Zero you just throw crap on the ground.
The dropped objects are physically represented in the room, though you have to take the games' word for it sometimes when your ink ribbon is obscured by foreground objects and you walk in circles jamming 'A' trying to find it while the character remarks over and over about the vintage of the furniture. Even when you can see the items good luck picking up what you want when multiple items are next to each other. Another issue with the floor garbage is it multiplies the need to backtrack exponentially as your weapons, health, and ammo end up scattered all over the entire game as you drop them for key items and are subsequently blocked off, shuffled forward, or split up. It's an inelegant solution to a problem that had already been solved, and the game suffers for it.
After the train the stages devolve from the familiar (another mansion...) to the boring (a sewage treatment plant?), and the story and characters go from cheesy to familiar to bad as well. It all culminates in a boss battle that frequently interjects little cutscenes to throw off your flow; a climax of the bad game design. Then Billy spouts a '90s action movie one-liner and your eyes and the credits roll. Resident Evil: Zero feels like a by-the-numbers Resident Evil game that doubles down on all the worst parts of the genre. It's a real... zero.
ReCore Review (PC)
ReCore is a retro game that escapes the trappings of homage and faux nostalgia. It takes the mechanics of a 2D platformer and translates them to a 3D space better than any other, including those made in the 32/64-bit mascot platformer golden age. The double jumps and dashes are so precise and predictable that pixel perfect jumps are natural in a way previously thought impossible in the long abandoned genre. The combat is just as second nature, and when those systems combine it feels as close to a modern Mega Man game as you could imagine. As someone who enjoys the classic Mega Man games, this long awaited update is a must play for the mechanics alone.
Set in a large open world covered mostly by sand dunes and mysterious robotic ruins, ReCore asks the player to explore the environment to recover collectibles called Prismatic Cores, which are needed to unlock further areas and progress the story. While some of the cores can be found out in the wild either in pods that immediately give them up once you reach them or as rewards for defeating tough enemies, many of them are found in underground dungeons. These linear levels can be straight, puzzle-heavy areas like a Zelda dungeon, a combat arena, or a difficult platforming endurance run that encourages perfection through time limits and hidden keys and switches. The better you do in these repeatable instances, the more cores (or loot) you gain and the further you progress in the game. While I'm not a fan of typical “open map, run to collectibles” structured games, the balance of the exploration of the open world and the tight and tense dungeons to amass the titular cores allows for enough variety and showcasing of the game's strengths that it never felt tedious.
To help you both traverse the environment and fight enemy robots, the main character Joule is accompanied by a few mechanical buddies. Starting with a dog-bot named Mack, you get used to calling the friendly AI to dig for secrets under the sand and perform lethal attacks to hostiles. Your main weapon is used as an auto lock-on tool that does moderate damage to enemies as long as you match your ammo to the conveniently color coded foes, but your bots make a world of difference as they provide support fire or allow for air juggling. You're eventually equipped with two additional bots; a spider that allows access to rail grinding and an ape that can smash barriers and enemies. The managing of the AI does take some time to come to terms with, especially when you start digging into the crazy upgrade and customization possibilities the crafting/loot system allows.
When you get an enemy close to death, you have two options. You could just continue blasting him until he explodes in a shower of crafting material and money, or you can go for a finishing move with a grappling hook that initiates a fishing-like, tug-of-war mini game. If you win by pulling when you can pull and giving the line some slack when it turns red you gain that enemy's core. You can use those cores to upgrade your AI's stats; attack power, defense, or maximum energy needed to execute special moves. The maximum value of those stat numbers, however, are limited to what gear the bots have equipped, and what gear they have access to depends on blueprints found in chests scattered around the game and their level which increases by a traditional XP system. In order to construct the blueprints you need specific crafting material dropped by defeated robots and/or money... yeah, it's rather overly complicated and I was lost for most of the game.
Once you unravel the web of currencies and upgrades, though, it's a neat system. You can track specific blueprint requirements on the map, highlighting where enemies that drop what you need spawn. Once you start constructing parts you can get creative and mix and match different limbs and body types, resulting in some Frankenstein, multicolored monstrosities with crow heads or propeller beanies. To further confuse things, you can remove the cores of the bots at any time and swap them with another; so Mack, who started out as dog-bot, can be inserted into the gorilla-bot's body where he'll keep his core stats. This becomes essential toward the end when you'll have to juggle four frames with the three available cores. If you build a full set with four named parts you'll get bonuses like more damage dealt or greater chances for rare dropped loot. I'm not a fan of that conformist system. I don't want matching, sleek robots, I want junkyard shit piles...
At first glance the game looks good, though certainly not jaw dropping. The open dunes and cliffs and scattered junk are reminiscent of Mad Max, and Joule definitely takes some cues from The Force Awakens' protagonist, Rey. On a high, cursory level the amount of freedom you have to climb and jump and explore is very impressive. What would be invisible walls and kill boxes in most open worlds have floating loot boxes on them, encouraging you to trick jump and fall and dash and Elder Scrolls hop up rocks and structures. You're more often than not rewarded with cores or hidden chests for your efforts, and once you have a full accompaniment of bots and their abilities, backtracking and getting to that impossible chest is very satisfying. Once you start getting granular, however, some jank starts to show; there are those invisible walls and you can get “outside” the map where you're punished with large doses of radiation. They thought of almost everything. Almost... How the world connects to itself is incredible overall, though, with seemingly impassible gaps made by a last single pixel ledge grab being common and exciting.
The story starts out strong, with Joule waking from a cryo sleep to find she's one of the last humans alive on a half-constructed planet named Eden. Most of the AI meant to build her colony is hostile and being led by some Darth Grevious style bad guy. You collect audio logs to try to fill in the blanks and start searching for your father and answers, but uh oh... robots. As the game draws to a close the narrative drifts further into the background and the ending seems rushed and abrupt. There is also a strange structure decision where you defeat the established antagonist, then are dumped at the foot of a tower which requires more of those Prismatic Cores to ascend. They aren't difficult to find and I was happy to continue playing the game for several hours after what seemed like the climax, since the core (pun?) gameplay is so damn good, but it's puzzling why they just didn't roll the credits after that boss fight and presented the additional exploration and tower ascension as bonus content for completionists. While that wouldn't fundamentally change the game, the current roll out results in a ending that feels off and rushed. But the final challenges in the tower push the mechanics to the breaking point and walking away after each floor of the tower is conquered to resume more laid back, relaxing core hunting works fine.
ReCore is the rare B-tier game that's been thought dead for years; it has some really good ideas and a nice aesthetic that at times was so colorful it gave me a headache. It doesn't have the budget and polish behind it like a AAA title that would wow you with the latest, shiniest graphics and effects. It's not a dime-a-dozen indie game with a skeleton of an idea, but lacking the chops to make a fun, meaty game. ReCore lies between those extremes, absolutely perfecting it's mechanics and level design, then adding a stumbling story and a bunch of extras on top that has some rough edges sticking out. If you value gameplay above all this is a must play. If you're looking for a modern, narrative driven, hand holding experience you might have some shit to deal with and look over. For a budget game at a budget price, though, I honestly couldn't ask for more.
Rage Review (PC)
Rage was the best Mad Max there was before the newest Mad Max game released. Drawing inspiration heavily from the film series as well as other works that were in turn influenced by Mad Max in one form or another (Fallout in particular), there's this odd, circular back and forth tangled web of shared assets and tones that's as interesting as it is confusing. For instance, I was shocked how similar some early enemy and level design in Rage was to the Warboys from Fury Road, a film made some years later. I picked up some Vault Boy bobbleheads and was reminded that the game released in a post Fallout 3 world and had connections through the same publisher. Even the music from Rage is eerily close to the score from Fury Road... That's a lot of outside references, I know, but if you're a fan of the post-apocalyptic wasteland genre Rage is exactly what you think it is. And it's a great addition to the classics that I feel has been wrongly forgotten.
Having established that Rage is comfortable in familiar genre territory (cars, guns, raiders, scavenging, etc.), how it gets to that point is fairly unique. When as asteroid is headed toward Earth, a corporation called The Authority sends nanobot-infused people into space aboard Arks, which then come down once the fallout has stabilized to repopulate and rebuild. The plan goes a bit haywire and you end up the only survivor in your Ark capsule, and you find a planet that is not quite barren of life but a wasteland dotted with ramshackle settlements and survivors fending off roving bands of raiders and mutants. Okay, maybe that's just a slightly altered version of Fallout's vaults, but still... The high tech science fiction angle allows for a different blend of subgenres; there's some Blade Runner and steampunk thrown in there for good measure.
Crawling with nanobots means you're hard to kill, aka there's a narrative reason for your regenerating health and second chance defibrillator resuscitation. That also means NPCs are going to ask you to do quests for them. Structured like a modern RPG, you have two main hubs that are full of quest givers, job boards, side missions, and vendors. These main settlements are visually stunning and you can easily get distracted/lost exploring them. There are quite a few minigames to try out, and they range from simple dice rolling gambling games to a full, fleshed out combat racing circuit that could almost be a game unto itself. You can chat and play five finger fillet with the locals, and trading goods is absolutely vital to your survival.
Most of the main missions will take you to a linear, corridor shooter stage. These are where you are reminded that Rage is made by id Software; the FPS combat and level design is done how only the people who made Doom can do it. While the heart of the shooting is standard, pump bullets into enemies until they die/take cover when you're hurt stop and pop, the flavor and finer details are incredible. Nimble mutants will crawl on the walls and ceilings, rushing you from all angles. Damage is location based, so shooting someone in the leg will cause them to limp toward you utilizing animations that seem so natural I think they've yet to be surpassed. Getting up close and personal with a shotgun results in a screen covered in blood and gore. You have to deal with armor by dismantling it piece by piece or using specialized ammo, and Rage forgoes the trope of enemies dropping ammo that they're weak against; if you aren't mindful to keep yourself stocked up at all times you can find yourself in some desperate situations. And the levels themselves are the finely tuned yet artfully gussied up mazes that you expect from the creators of those other legendary one word franchises.
You'll also spend a lot of time in vehicles. Starting with a utilitarian ATV, parts of the wasteland are gated by deadlier enemies that require hardier cars with heavier weapons attached to survive. The driving is serviceable; on par with an average arcade style racer, but not quite as tight as you'd want in a dedicated car combat game. You earn upgrades by participating in the circuits in town, with races escalating from time trials to rocket and rally types. The AI is lackluster and they end up being very easy or frustratingly robotic depending on the type of race (rally is kind of bullshit). Still, as a sort of game within a game, the dedication to fleshing out the vehicle portion is admirable (still waiting for you, modern Fallout...).
The main drawback to Rage is the glaring technical issues the game suffers from. It's a real bad PC port of a console game. The graphical options are severely limited, so you'll have to experiment to find the combination of poor framerate, muddy texture pop in, and/or horrific screen tearing that works for you. My modest PC would be considered a super computer five years ago, but even with helpful mods and running the unsupported 64-bit version of the game that should alleviate the issues, it's schizophrenic at best, a slideshow at worst. These issues have plagued the game since launch, and have unfortunately been the main contributing factor to why Rage is (somewhat) unfairly maligned and is a borderline obscure title. That's a shame... if any game deserves a remake or a full blown sequel, it's Rage.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review (PC)
Deus Ex is a series known for choice. While saying, “Play the game however you want!” is more often than not a marketing ploy rather than a reality, Deus Ex balances it's RPG system in such a way that there are no wrong choices or beginner's traps and the player is rewarded for just about every action they choose to take. Refusing to take the easy route of linearity masked by ever growing numbers or simple branching paths, the game design and progression on display here is simply a marvel. Mankind Divided is the dense, intertwined world other games strive for but usually just fake.
Being a direct sequel to Human Revolution, the latest chapter in the Deus Ex saga just drops you in the middle of an alien, complex cyberpunk world with little explanation or hand holding. Sure, you can watch the lengthy recap video for a refresher if you haven't played the previous entry, but even as someone who did play that game (and enjoyed it immensely) I had no idea what was going on when the game started. The lore seems like an impenetrable, convoluted mess: get used to acronyms, double crossing, splinter groups, corporate and political power struggles, alternate history time lines and the like. It's a mix of James Bond spy thriller, unabashed '90s hacker culture, and Metal Gear if Metal Gear made any sense. Then as you become immersed in the world and pick through people's emails, listen to radio broadcasts and news reports, and just live in protagonist Adam Jensen's shoes things come into focus. The Deus Ex world is a logical one, and it's an interesting fiction to pick apart and absorb.
Despite the mish mash of global issues and civil rights, the main plot of Mankind Divided is extremely small scale and simple: as special agent Adam Jensen find the root of a terrorist bombing and try to stop further violence. As powerful as Jensen is, he's just a robotic cog in a wheel. Your actions will save lives and have an impact, but the story never escalates to saving the world, the city, or single-handedly changing the public disdain for the augmented. You just do your job. By the time the credits roll you've only moved the needle slightly in the grand scheme of things, but the way every loose end has been wrapped around the side quests then tied up neatly is admirably master class.
Side quest come about organically and they can be just as lengthy and engaging as the critical path. Boldly cutting through some police tape by your apartment can set you on an investigation into the mind of a serial killer with a grudge against augs. A glitch on a subway advertisement can trigger a mission that sends you across Prague to help a mysterious AI. This is a game about exploration and observing details, then being rewarded for it with more gameplay. The environments are ridiculously rich in detail; you can search a small room for a long time with a fine-tooth comb and be one hundred percent positive there's nothing else to find, only to discover some little Easter egg or secret chamber by accident on the way out.
Most of Mankind Divided is played from a first person perspective, immersing you fully into Jensen's aug eyes. Taking cover will cause the camera to pull out to third person to allow greater situational awareness and mobility as you jump cover to cover ala Splinter Cell, or stopping and popping like a Gears of War game if you choose the violent route. The “open” nature truly leaves just about any option viable, or any combination of options. If you choose to sink points into your cloaking ability you can very easily become a ghost, bypassing enemies and reaching your objective without leaving a trace. Alternatively you can pump points into health and physical protection, turning Jensen into a bullet absorbing psychopath and leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. From there you have choices to play lethally or as a pacifist, play the game straight faced or just be a dick and throw trashcans into civilians faces and break vendor's necks. The world is your robotically opened oyster. And it's a very pretty and tasty oyster.
Along with the forty hour campaign there are a few extras to check out in Mankind Divided. There is a standalone mission called “Jensen's Stories”. I honestly don't know how I came about that mission; either through preordering the game or if it's free... no clue. But it's a nice little addition on par with the rest of the game. It starts you off with a brief explanation for infiltrating a security firm, gives you some upgrade points to spend, and you're on your way for a couple hours. Nothing too crazy, but it's worth checking out. Then there's Breach mode... meh. There's some setup about hacking into a server or something, which translates to playing a bunch of mini-missions in a simplistic virtual reality aesthetic. The interface and speedrunning and grinding nature of this mode didn't hold my attention for too long. It feels tacked on for replaybility's sake, but ultimately I was so satisfied with the main campaign I don't want to ruin that high with this middling, mediocre mode.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes what made Human Revolution and the series as a whole great and upgrades it, modernizes it, and refines one of the best RPG systems ever created. Player choice is the keyword, and here it's capitalized, bolded, and underlined. Adam Jensen may be a relic of the past with his cool dude trench coat and gold shades, but he's a badass in his world and he doesn't break a sweat suplexing a guy over a table and stabbing his throat to prove it.
Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair Review (PC)
Earth Defense Force is dumb. Earth Defense Force is fun. I'd even go so far as to say Earth Defense Force is dumb fun.
Harkening back to the days of cheesy science fiction movies like Starship Troopers or the kind you'd see on MST3K, in Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair you're a single soldier tasked with eliminating droves of giant insects, towering robots, dragons for some reason, and... Godzilla? Taking a kitchen sink approach to enemy design, there's really no rhyme or reason to what you're shooting at, but honestly who cares? If it's big and dumb and can be lumped into the general “sci fi” genre it's fair game.
There's a loose story about aliens attacking Earth, and you're humanity's last hope because you have a rocket launcher. Despite the mission briefings before starting a level (it's usually the “biggest threat you've yet faced”) and battlefield chatter, most missions have the exact same objective: kill everything. Kill the monsters by any means necessary, even if that results in entire cities being razed to the ground.
Turn your brain off and keep your finger on the trigger; this is essentially an old school arcade game. Hundreds of enemies will mindlessly swarm your position, and you're doing your best at crowd control as they assault from the ground, sky, and the sides of any buildings you haven't destroyed yet. The scale of the battles are truly impressive. At first glance the graphics are bland and outdated, PS2-era quality. However, once the shit hits the fan you appreciate the trade off; massive environments and enemies, decent explosions and effects, almost fully destructible structures... and it all runs buttery smooth.
The old school nature of the game bleeds through to the presentation as well. Menus have little personality, they are just there to get the job done. Select what you want to do from a list of options and be on your way. After a few missions it's easy to see how the overall game has been structured: the developers made a sandbox, then populated different sections with enemies to create the scenarios that make up the missions. There's nothing wrong with this approach, it just once again feels decidedly PS2, almost simulation game design. Truth be told I think any other method would fundamentally break the game and rob it of it's charm.
Despite the simplistic nature, a few niggling issues I found got in the way of achieving complete arcade zen. There's a grind to be endured: weapons and armor upgrades (that increase your maximum health pool) are dropped from defeated enemies in the form of physical loot boxes. The weapons are RNG, so if you want better/specific ones it can become a time sink. Some people may enjoy playing the same stages over and over to “level up”, but I find it slows down the otherwise frantic vibe the game is going for. The same type of issue is a result of having to walk over to boxes to collect them; after fighting through an army of bugs and robots with heavy metal blaring to get your blood pumping, it's quite the mood killer having to march through those barren, massive levels to collect loot while keeping the last enemy alive. It just seems like an unnecessary slog. Why not just award XP or credits for kills? There's also a fair amount of enemy types that enjoy slowing/stunning/tripping you, and that's always annoying.
Don't be fooled by the low budget dressing Earth Defense Force wraps itself in. There's a lot of game here: almost one hundred missions that can be tackled on a half dozen difficulty levels, four unique classes to pick from, and the entire game can be played cooperatively. It took me about twenty hours to complete on Normal with one class, and there's hundreds of hours of replayibility beyond that if you're inclined toward the grind. What a gloriously stupid game.
Decade old first person stealth. Trial and error gameplay. Clumsy first person shooting. Game breaking bugs that were never officially fixed by the developers, making the vanilla game you just purchased all but completely unplayable. The only way to (currently...) make the game run without crashing that I found was to download and install a fan-made patch (http://www.moddb.com/games/call-of-cthulhu-dark-corners-of-the-earth/downloads/dcote-unofficial-patch-v15), download and run video capture software called Bandicam (http://www.moddb.com/games/call-of-cthulhu-dark-corners-of-the-earth/downloads/dcote-unofficial-patch-v15), and also go into your video card settings to turn native V sync on. You probably want a walkthrough handy as well (http://www.gamefaqs.com/pc/470998-call-of-cthulhu-dark-corners-of-the-earth/faqs/39789) to make sure any problems you run into aren't bugs, and there are some solutions to puzzles that are not so much too difficult or counter-intuitive as you'll walk past key elements a hundred times due to muddy graphics or poor signposting. I say that as someone who is very anti-walkthrough in most cases, but trust me... unless you want to turn a ten hour adventure into forty hours of walking in circles use the fucking guide when you're stuck.
Still with me? Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is an excellent survival horror/adventure game and I highly recommend it. I had to start off with the negative points to put it into perspective: to get to the good parts of this game you're going to have to swallow some shit, but it's worth it.
You play the game as Jack, a hardened, somewhat stereotypical detective of the Elliot Ness variety. It's 1930's American prohibition era New England, so take the tough guy attitude and film noir/Dragnet speak to the extreme, calmly making strictly factual observations about the world around you, even while being tortured with a car battery by J. Edgar Hoover or staring into the unspeakable eyes of fish monsters and ancient gods. In a game explicitly about Lovecraftian horrors and utter madness, the one note voice acting of Jack provides endless comic relief. Whether it's intentionally funny or not is up to debate. Nothing phases this guy...
Jack is on the case of freeing a prisoner from the eerie, not-quite-right town of Innsmouth. The few sane inhabitants of the town warn him of cult activity and that the fishy smell that permeates the streets might have a more malicious point of origin than the cannery. What follows is quite an adventure into increasingly alien, hostile environments that is surprisingly ambitious in scope. While the first third or so of the game takes place in Innsmouth, you'll be boarding a Navy vessel under siege by Dagon's minions and exploring impressively sprawling, twisting caverns as well as an underwater city. If you just gasped and muttered, “Spoilers...”... The game is called Call of Cthulhu. Read some Lovecraft.
The game is a true eclectic mix of genres: stealth, FPS, old school adventure and puzzle solving, exploration, what would be considered some light modern “survival” elements. You can converse with NPCs and complete optional side quests. This is a true jack of all trades, and like most times that cliché is used not many of the gameplay mechanics are “good” in the traditional sense. Stealth is unreliable and usually frustrating as enemies seem to spot or hear you when they feel like it. The weapons you get early on feel almost useless with either a random spread pattern and/or a cockeyed aim down sight perspective, but there are instanced where you are forced to fight. Good luck. The most consistent thread is the adventure elements where you're using items from your inventory to solve puzzles and combing the playspace for clues. Though, with some poorly placed checkpoints combined with the aforementioned shaky stealth and combat you'll have to repeat in many instances... see above for a walkthrough link.
There are a few standout systems, most notably how the game handles health and sanity. When you take damage it is represented both by the bodily location of the wound and the type of injury. You might get grazed in the chest, which can be fixed by applying some bandages from the inventory of which you usually have plenty. Something deeper might require sutures to close a gash, otherwise you'll bleed out. If you fall from a good height you will break a leg (or two), and you'll physically limp, causing a sickening crunching sound and snail paced movement until you attach a splint. The healing items are all tracked separately so there's no Cure All to speak of save a shot of morphine which won't actually heal you, just provide temporary pain relief while you desperately search for a medkit. I really like this system: yeah, it's kind of goofy that Jack goes from a bloody mess with exposed bone and torn clothes to a-okay in five seconds, but it's the perfect compromise between nitty gritty hardcore micromanagement survival and typical hording.
When you get injured or see anything particularly unnerving (which you will), Jack starts to lose his mind. He's no longer the monotone detective; as his vision distorts and he loses control he sounds convincingly terrified as he mutters to himself, questioning his sanity and his purpose and his will to go on. Sanity effects aren't new or rare for these games, but whatever filter they are using to convey being disorienting is extremely effective. Something as simple as looking down while descending a ladder brings out Jack's vertigo, and let him freak out for too long and you'll get a gut-churning empathetic feeling yourself.
Again, I may sound overly negative when picking apart certain aspects of the game, but overall it rises above it's shortcomings. The janky, low budget nature can work in it's favor; you don't entirely trust the game to play by the rules. While not a jump scare/gorefest, it's does not shy away from generally taboo subjects: dead kids, an upside down take on beastialitality, torture, sacrifices, all that good stuff. Just when you're laughing at Jack's oblivious take on fishmen, you'll bear witness to something genuinely unsettling. When the game hits, it hits hard. And it's paced impeccably; curse repeating the same chase sequence all you want, once you go further down the rabbit hole there just seems to be a reason for everything. It's one of those games that you question why you're playing, but you can't stop. You have to see it through to the end, whether it drives you mad or not. Even the very last sequence took me many, many tries to the point where I was ready to give up and just watch the ending on YouTube and write a damning review about how broken the game is (and I already wrote one before taking the time to patch it), yet I persisted. And then as the credits rolled I just sat back and though, “What a great game.” It's fitting, I guess.
When Marvel Ultimate Alliance was originally released a decade ago it was a dream come true for comic book fans. Featuring dozens of playable characters from Marvel's lengthy history and providing deep dives into the lore, it was both an incredibly fun brawler/RPG at a time where good licensed games were rare and a reference tome for comic nerds. With smart variations to the gameplay to keep the standard beat-'em-up formula from getting stale, hours of optional content, secrets, and unlockables, and near limitless replayability, every inch of the game was a testament to Raven's love and care to the modern mythology of Marvel. If only an inch of that care went into this re-release/remaster... whatever this is...
If you were to look at the price of this game and the release date, you could reasonably assume all of the optional, platform specific content was included, the graphics were improved, maybe the entire game had been rebuilt from scratch in a new engine, or any combination of those. Proving the age old adage about assumptions true, none of that is present here. The only notable improvement to this re-release is an upscaled resolution, everything else is the same if not worse. If you looked at the game and took the more pessimistic, cynical attitude of a cashgrab that was rushed out the door to cash in on the current superhero craze that's riddled with bugs you're on the right track.
Being a massive fan of Ultimate Alliance (previously playing the hell out of it on Xbox 360), I bought this more or less on blind faith the day it was available. It was almost comically broken; the very first button prompt (“Press 'A' to Start) didn't work. Figuring maybe you had to fiddle with some button mapping to sort out using a controller I went into the settings menu, and even that was a mess. Getting hung up on options, being unresponsive, it amounted to guesswork to get anything to register. To top it all off, the controller diagram used for the menu was the same one I was attempting to use: an Xbox One controller... so they went to the trouble of making that picture, but didn't bother trying to get past the first screen of the game using it. After some time fumbling with that, I switched to a wired Xbox 360 controller that I keep handy for playing older games with similar issues with modern hardware, and it worked fine. Good for me (?), but this isn't an excusable issue in 2016.
The game itself is still amazing! Part '90s arcade brawler, part Diablo dungeon crawler RPG, and a lengthy, epic cosmic story that is constantly escalating in scope, Marvel Ultimate Alliance is dumb fun defined. Like a good Saturday morning cartoon it's unapologetic in it's absurdity. From fighting a dragon on a giant heli-carrier, to battling mermen in Atlantis, going to Hell to fight demons, and to Asgard to save Thor and Friends, the variety in locations and enemies is inspired. While the core loop of punching people in the face to level up so you can punch more people in the face is present, there are just enough loops thrown at you to keep it from getting stale. There are some simplistic puzzles to solve, platforming challenges, then there's Murderworld where you're tasked with playing fully realized versions of Pitfall and Breakout. You can take a break from the main game at mission hubs where you can talk to a large cast of NPCs to flesh out the story or answer hundreds of obscure Marvel trivia questions for bonus XP. There is a lot of game here, and it's all worth experiencing.
A big chunk of the side content of the game is trying to complete Simulation Missions: one off scenarios for either your team or a specific hero that are unlocked by finding collectibles scattered around the main game. Not only are these missions nice breaks from the story, they are a great way to level up your team and are how you unlock certain costumes for them. Oh, and they're broken in this version. Not only will most of them cause the game to crash consistently, but once it even deleted a couple of my saves. So that was cool...
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is a classic game, but this version is riddled with asterisks. The only thing you can currently do without holding your breath and hoping the game doesn't crash is play through the main story. There are no extras here, and there's actually more content in the original release (*DLC characters are “coming” at the time of writing). The joke of controller support has been more or less fixed (*except when you have to press a key on the keyboard on the upgrade screen), but let's not forget that it was an issue on release, and this wasn't an Early Access game. So if you can take all of that nonsense into account, swallow the price tag, and you're still interested you have a great game waiting for you... a couple patches down the road.
I love Dark Souls. That may be a strange way to start a review for Demon's Souls, sure, but I played the newer spiritual successor first so I can't help but draw comparisons. I recently just bought a used PS3 from eBay for the sole purpose of seeing where the series got it's start (well... it's modern start, anyway. Several King's Field games came before this, but more on that in the future...). I'd heard dismissive scuttlebutt that Dark Souls fans could skip this game completely and not miss much because the newer title was better in every way that mattered. Upon trying it for myself, not quite. Demon's Souls is it's own game with it's own identity. While I don't quite think it's the masterpiece that the first Dark Souls game is, it's definitely a worthy curiosity for fans of the series to see where some of the heavy call backs originated. It's a good game. Is it worth buying a console for? Eh... if you can find one cheap like I did and if you're pretty hardcore I guess.
Demon's Souls is a dark game, both thematically and visually. The story is surrealist mumbo jumbo: after a cool cinematic intro with dragons and knights and demons, you start the game in a ruined castle murdering zombified knights and trying to get a hold on the odd control scheme. Messages on the ground serve as a tutorial, and you should probably pay them heed; attacks are on the shoulder buttons, healing is square, evading is circle... I know I've played this series for hundreds of hours at this point, but if this is your starting game it's fucking weird shit. Eventually you encounter a giant, kind of goofy looking demon who wants to kill you. And he will, or he's supposed to. Upon death you're transported to The Nexus, your main hub for the game where you can level up, buy, sell, and store items, and talk to NPCs who have muddy, insane storylines. You can also warp to different levels from here. There are five stages in total, and they can be accessed in any order (maybe the first one is mandatory?), lending to a semi-open world even if the stages themselves are very linear.
At it's heart, Demon's Souls is a boss rush game. More specifically: the entire game is a lead up to gain enough power to defeat the last boss, who is a total asshole. It's an action RPG with unique and perplexing character stats and an odd but compelling system for leveling up. When you kill enemies you absorb their souls, which act as both XP and currency. If you die, you lose all the souls you're currently carrying. However, you will leave behind a blood stain at the point of death, and if you can reach and retrieve that blood stain you'll regain all you lost. The Souls genre is born... A couple things that bugged me here, though: the game is so dark it can be hard to see your blood stain, and when you pick it up the “You have retrieved your Souls” message is huge and it stays on the screen for way too long, obscuring your vision. I know, baby steps...
To spend your souls you interact with a character called The Maiden in Black. She has wax on her eyes because. You have several attributes to choose from, and where you spend your points depends on the class you chose from several options during character creation. You get the usual: an armored knight/warrior, a dexterous rouge, a mage or cleric... I just picked a knight because I want to hit shit with swords. I'm not going to snipe enemies or cast magic like a faggot, so I don't know how those other classes play out but I'd imagine it changes your play style significantly. As a knight I started with a full set of heavy plate armor, which was the best armor I came across for the vast majority of the game. The kicker comes from weight limits: you can only wear and carry so much, and as stated the armor is fucking heavy. At half your weight limit (determined by your Endurance stat) your character won't roll effectively, which is a death sentence. This meant most of the game I was running around shirtless/pantless, pumping every spare point I could into Endurance until slowly, throughout the game I became more clothed. It's a novel balancing act, though it can be a bit micromanagement leaning. Also rather tedious is a limit to item weight, which is a separate stat altogether. The scourge of pack rats like myself, everything you pick up adds to the number until you're shit out of luck and have to go back to The Nexus to shove everything in Stockpile Thomas' asshole. This includes upgrade material, which you need and is incredibly heavy. You'll spend a lot of time in The Nexus...
The five stages themselves are nice and varied. The first one is very straightforward medieval, where you plow through enemy knights and dragons like a one man siege engine. Next is a mine, home to many needed crafting materials, and it's fucking dark and full of normal enemies that take way too many hits to kill. At the end of the mine stage is a massive dragon that you need to kill in order to proceed further in any other stages (or that's how I did it, anyway). Stage three is a creepy dungeon, filled with tortured prisoners and Lovecraftian squid monsters. This is almost survival horror: iron maidens drip with blood, spiders and tentacles grasp at you on the bottom, and there's a massive Caligula death trap blocking your progress. The forth stage is full of plague and poison, flies and shit cast a nasty film over everything to the point even the framerate shits itself. Lastly is a strange sky castle, where flying stingrays harass you almost constantly and grim reapers conjure up phantoms. Each stage has it's own flavor, and they're all very entertaining to explore. It's worth noting that they do feel very much like proper, video game “stages”: they're split into mostly narrow, linear sections with a boss at the end. Once defeated you'll gain an access point back to The Nexus, and you can continue from that point in the future. And most of the bosses are awesome, be they skill based monstrosities or gimmicky, puzzle bosses. They're incredible to witness and a joy to battle.
The open nature of progression can lead to some strange difficulty spikes. Going into the game more or less fresh, I figured it would make sense to start at the first stage (or headstone) and conquer it completely before moving on to the next. Of course it got more difficult at the higher levels, but why wouldn't it. I soldiered on to the third stage and was met with a magic wall that informed me I couldn't proceed until a killed a Great Demon or something. Okay. So I moved on the second stage, which was tough but gave me plenty of crafting materials to upgrade my weapon and souls to level up. I cleared the second stage, which ended with a Great Demon, a gimmick fight that you could probably complete at any level. My way forward on the first stage cleared, I fought my way to the end of that. Again, not easy, but it's a Souls game so why would it be? The final boss is at the end of the first stage... I had no clue. I beat my head against the last stage for longer than I probably should have, but it became progressively easier each time as I gained more XP and levels from the high level enemies there, and they also drop a crazy amount of healing items. This run up became almost automatic after a time, and it was very lucrative for my character. Then the aforementioned asshole last boss... he beat my ass. Time and time again. Eventually I had enough and tried the other stages... and they were complete tit because I was almost geared up to face the last boss of the game, which I had no way of knowing was the last boss of the game... That's the downside of the openish world: it's easy to break, even if you're not trying. The rest of the game was just slaughtering enemies, scraping together an advantage to beat that cunt. And I did eventually. And it was sweet revenge.
Demon's Souls is a cool game.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is more Uncharted. The familiar loop of traversing cliffs and ruins, stopping to get into some sloppy combat with a couple dozen enemies that take too many bullets to kill, then solving some simple puzzles is in full force here. A series that sticks to it's tried and true mechanics isn't unique to Nathan Drake and Co., and it isn't necessarily a bad move. If you liked the previous Uncharted games you're probably going to like this one. Even if (like me) you only thought the second game was hitting the right notes and the others were ass, A Thief's End is worth playing. It may be more refinement than evolution, but the game certainly knows how to deliver on popcorn summer movie blockbuster in video game form.
Like the newest, shiniest film in the box office, Uncharted 4 dazzles with visual fidelity. One of the best looking games to date, it's an impressive mix of both technical wizardry and smart art direction that's gorgeous yet unassuming. As you ascend a cliff side and are presented with a stunning vista the game doesn't linger, draw attention to it, or take control away from the player to rub their face in the art. It's there to enjoy, or you can just move on because there is plenty more eye candy down the line. It thankfully doesn't fall prey to tech demo status and feels that much more confident for it. There's a nice variety on display, too, from tropical islands to ruined mythical cities, an old mansion and a densely populated market, underground caves and the open ocean during a squall... Every scene is loaded with new palettes. It's not exactly aiming for photorealism: there's a cartoony brightness to everything, and at times there's some proportion distortion like the issues there were with early 3-D graphics or like you're looking through a fisheye lense, but aside from a few minor graphical hiccups it's undeniably solid.
Most surprising about the game is the story. It's actually fairly strong and serves as an overarching driving force to continue playing. I found the previous three games to have plots that were uniformly garbage and forgettable, but A Thief's End shies away from convoluted Indiana Jones or James Bond globetrotting for the sake of adventure and instead draws (very heavy) inspiration from another cinema classic: The Goonies. And I mean it rips it off completely to the point I wonder how they aren't getting sued by Warner Brothers. Early in the game you take control of a young Nathan Drake (again, though this time it's not nearly as obnoxious...) and he looks suspiciously like a young Sean Astin: jean jacket, freckles and all. We're also introduced to his older brother, Sam, who has never been mentioned in the series at all until now, but he's more of a Josh Brolin/Kevin Bacon hybrid than an outright Poochy. They are searching for their deceased mother's diary that contains some notes about One Eyed Willy's treasure.
Further on, they're locked up in prison together where they hatch a scheme to get the pirate gold which involves a third person who turns into the game's villain. Sam is shot and presumed dead, conveniently ret-conning him into the Uncharted canon. In the present, Nathan is a somewhat washed up adventurer, working nine to five at a salvage company and living with what's-her-boring-face from the previous games. His brother shows up out of the blue and convinces him to continue their search even though Chester Copperpot failed, and what follows is a genuinely interesting story about Henry Avery becoming a Pirate King and convincing other pirates to pool their resources and build a utopian city in the middle of nowhere. They're pirates, of course, so they end up stabbing each other in the back and robbing the city's colonists in the name of more treasure. So the Drake brother's motivation seems justified: a massive collection of treasure from some of the most prolific and legendary pirates in history gathered in one place. How they find the city is a bit of the usual ridiculous clue inference, including following massive arrows imbedded in rocks that could easily be seen from passing aircraft and such, but somehow it seems less egregious here. Particularly when the puzzles and traps are kept small scale and local, and the Goonies callbacks are barely masked. When the last action scene is almost a shot for shot remake of the ending of the film, you'll want to shout, “Hey you guyyyss!” as the cave crumbles around the sinking pirate ship. Sully is Chunk, I guess.
As much as the grander plot is improved, there also is an excessive amount of downtime in the game. Clearly critic bait after the praise the previous titles and The Last of Us received for portraying mundane, everyday tasks, there's a worrying number of instances of scenes just dragging on too long or feeling like filler. Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with character building or explaining relationships or fleshing out the fiction or any of that. I bought into it during the tutorial with Nate and Sam running through an orphanage and conversing; they're introducing a new character that's absurd to spring on people and they did a pretty good job of it to boot. When they depicted Nate and whoever's boring marital home life early on, I was okay with it because I was sure it was to provide juxtaposition between that and the crazy shit that was to come later. About halfway through the fifteen or so hour game when we get another flashback of young Drake and Sam wandering around a mansion, picking up every art asset they find for an hour, the pacing just grinds to a complete halt and I started to get annoyed. Add some way too long stretches of Jeep driving or climbing where nothing is going on but “snappy” dialogue (including a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire reference... in 2016) and exposition dumps, and I was wondering if the editor fell asleep. Then it all concludes with an extended epilogue that hammers home every problem with this type of storytelling: you wander aimlessly around a house, picking up anything with a prompt that has no payoff, and the payoff is a cutscene that should have just been the entire scene. It's boring, and even turning a blind eye to how it bogs down the pace still doesn't alleviate the damage it does to replayability; if I think about the awesome setpieces in the game and the highlights, these nothing scenes are nowhere to be found and it deters me from wanting to play through again just knowing I'll have to deal with them. Video games aren't movies...
But Uncharted 4 is definitely worth playing at least once. The plot is engaging and Goonie-rific. Every aspect of the gameplay is refined; the puzzles aren't retardedly simple, the traversal is still almost automatic but rewarding, and the combat is still sloppy but at least stealth is a viable option for most encounters this time so you don't have to deal with it as much if you play your cards right. There's a multiplayer mode, but I haven't played it because I'm just not interested in taking the shit combat online, but it's there if you like bad gunplay. Regardless, I really enjoyed the campaign. Goonies never die.
Dark Souls has a reputation for being extremely difficult. Masochistic, even. If you go by the subtitle of the PC version, “Prepare to Die”, you could reasonably expect a painful, torturous time and wonder why anyone would subject themselves to hours of punishment. The dirty little secret of Dark Souls is it's a fair challenge that just about anyone can complete with some patience observational skills. It's systems are mysterious and obtuse for sure, but underneath the layers of fog and grime is a masterfully woven open world, amazing artistic craftsmanship, and rock solid gameplay that makes most modern games seem like lazy, uninspired cake walks. Dark Souls at a conceptual level is almost a meme at this point, and for good reason.
Equal parts action game and role playing game, manual skill and pattern recognition can conceivably be all you need to make your way through your adventure. The world has certain rules it always adheres to; enemy placement is static, your attacks are measured and predictable, and because it takes place in an open world sequence breaking is not only possible, but all but unavoidable when you're presented with multiple paths to take with no guidance. People have beat this game without getting hit once, with Guitar Hero controllers, and not leveling up at all. For the rest of us, the heavy RPG elements are here to help. Like most RPGs, “difficulty” is really a matter of time investment. Your character will get stronger as the game progresses, eventually making boss monsters trivial standard enemies. How far you go down that progression tree will determine in pure numbers how many hits you can take and how much damage you can do, and comparatively how difficult the game will be. When you hit a wall (and you will), you can keep at it with pure will or go farming to ensure a statistical advantage. The option is yours, and Dark Souls is a game of options.
There are many ways to approach the game. Do you set out as a mage, using magic projectiles and weapons and buffing yourself? An archer, keeping distance from your enemies and picking them off one by one? You can create a dexterous character, dual wielding fast blades that cause bleeding and having a fast, light roll speed that renders you invincible for long periods. Personally I'm partial to knight characters, wearing heavier armor and either using a shield for added protection or two handing giant strength weapons and running into battle like a dumb animal. The choices are almost endless, the open leveling system allowing you to spend points as you please and mix and match archetypes until you find what works for you. There really aren't any “wrong” ways to build your character, another hallmark of good RPG design. Oftentimes what stats you strive to increase will change as you discover gnarly weapons that have certain stat requirements, and there's a shitload to choose from. It's all about personal preference rather than min-maxing your way to boredom. Or you could do that too, if you're boring. Choices...
Uncharacteristic of many role playing games, the story is nebulous. This is by design. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Dark Souls, has said he drew inspiration from his experiences as a youth reading Western fantasy novels but only being able to understand bits and pieces of the narrative and having to fill in the blanks with his imagination. Using that as an artistic vision, the game fucking nails it. At a glance you could mistake it for standard Tolkien high fantasy, with fireballs and knights and dragons. But the morose nature that permeates everything, the feeling that things are always just off kilter like you're stuck in a David Lynch film, the Lovecraftian creatures wandering around, the moments where you're walking through a heavy metal album cover... Dark Souls is so much more. It's dark fantasy and horror and monster movie. You never quite know what is motivating you or what NPC's cryptic dialogue to trust. You keep pressing forward because you want to see what's around the corner, and that's motivation enough. Digging deep for lore is almost a metagame in itself, and trying to piece together logic through item descriptions and inference is a fun exercise that is ultimately a fool's errand. The history of the land and lords and how your character changes the game world is something that must be personally discovered, and when it makes sense to you have fun debating your findings with others that got something different out of the game that completely contradicts your theories. It's brilliant.
Lore aside, the physical world you explore is incredible. On my first playthrough it seemed imposingly, impossibly gigantic. And it is big no doubt, but it's honeycombed with shortcuts, secrets, and completely skippable areas that will be burned into your brain once everything clicks. Adventuring into a new area is harrowing; surprises both hostile and advantageous wait every few steps you take. Death can come in an instant, either through enemy attacks, traps, or the biggest threat of all: player stupidity or complacency. Inching your way through the levels, you're required to make mental notes of every small detail, because death can go from devastating setback to a minor inconvenience as long as you can make it back to where you died and recover your souls (XP/currency). Backtracking and repetition as a punishment shouldn't be a good thing, but when just about every death is your fault alone the system works perfectly. And the environments are so intricate that your second or tenth time through an area usually leads to some profound discovery. The game world is made for replayibility and exploration, and it's one of the most memorable you're likely to come across. The variety is bewildering; from pitch black catacombs, dark forests, blinding lava rivers leading to underground ruins, a snowy mountain village... If you don't like the environment you're in, step through the next fog gate.
I really can't say enough good things about Dark Souls. It's one of the best games I've played in the past decade or so. There should be something for everyone here: exploration, action, role playing, PvP, co-op, giant monsters, giant broads with huge, heaving tits... It's just awesome.
Dark Souls is a series of legend. Notorious for it's difficulty and obscure systems, those who spend the time and effort to learn the games are rewarded with tough but fair challenges and rewards with a healthy mix of combat and exploration. Those scared off or defeated by the overblown “prepare to die” marketing lines are missing some of the most satisfying encounters and gorgeous, dense vistas in modern gaming. The latest entry in the franchise, Dark Souls 3, has tremendous expectations to live up to, but the series is known for overcoming the seemingly impossible.
The game almost plays as a Greatest Hits of Souls, cribbing areas and themes seen previously in both the Souls series proper and the spin-off, Bloodborne. There are call backs to the older entries both overt and subtle, and it treads the line between fan service and innovation and refinement with masterful balance. You'll see a boss or NPC from a prior game, but the encounters still manage to feel fresh thanks to the smoother, faster combat and quality of life improvements. From Software knows Souls, and Dark Souls 3 boils that formula down to it's purest form. The massive, interconnected world from the first Dark Souls was super impressive but could get daunting, so Dark Souls 3 splits the difference between linearity and branching paths. Each area is like a twisting maze, with shortcuts to unlock and secrets to find that may fold into other areas or simply be a dead end. To alleviate backtracking or frustration, warping between bonfires is unlocked from the outset, and is necessary for progression. While the elegance of being able to explore the entire world on foot is absent, there are still connections as you march on; you can spot a bridge or structure far in the distance at the start only to end up there hours later, peering up to your origin point. It's a more focused experience, but it still maintains the design excellence that sets the games apart from just about any other games out there.
And those areas are absolutely gorgeous and creative. The medieval fantasy trope crumbling castles and dragons are present here, but they somehow manage to feel unique thanks to clever enemy placements and the world's beautiful decay. Everything has a signature “look” to it; tall, sharp edges and darkness, glowing eyes and wonderful skyboxes. The world of Dark Souls is a dangerous one, and around every corner there is something to drive that point home. When the game wants to invoke a certain feeling from the player it goes all in; be that the claustrophobia of the Dungeon or the breathtaking, otherworldly mystique of The Boreal Valley. It might not be the most technically advanced game out there and you could nitpick some effects or textures, but the art direction is absolutely incredible.
Another example of Dark Souls 3 splitting the difference between overwhelmingly obscure and oversimplified is the variety of builds and weapons the game presents the player. You can pick from about a dozen starting classes, but this only affects your starting gear and attributes. You'll be picking up more gear than you know what to do with before long, and most of it you won't be able to use effectively. You can either role play a specialist pumping your upgrades into a few select paths, or spread them around and be a generalist. There are very few “wrong” ways to level up, be it a glass cannon mage, a hulking tank, or a balanced warrior with pyromancy and a few healing spells. Armor is not upgradable, so it's essentially a give or take between weight and protection. This makes what you choose to wear almost cosmetic to an extent. The weapons are fairly balanced as well; bigger, slower swings mean more damage, and you can't go wrong with any weapon really once you upgrade it and get used to it's attack patterns. Except whips for some reason. They're useless. Most weapons have unique “Focus Attacks” as well; special strikes that consume a mana bar that must be replenished with Estus. These could be a spin attack, sharpening your blade to vampire drain enemy hit points, or a boss killing blow. I found Focus Attacks more gimmick-y than useful, but they're a cool option, nonetheless. And Dark Souls 3 is certainly not lacking in options.
As for the story, well... Fuck if I know. Some vague nonsense about linking the fires again or something. Your main hub, Firelink Shrine (again) houses giant thrones where you're meant to place trophies from the defeated main bosses. Do that, fight a final boss, and the game ends. Don't confuse the fact that Dark Souls 3 is an RPG with grand, linear, cohesive storytelling. There is some definite deep lore tucked away in item descriptions and the insane ramblings of NPCs with perplexing story lines, but don't play this game for narrative. Play it for the action and exploration. It's like a Zelda game for adults.
Dark Souls 3 is incredible. It's the best playing game in the series, mixing the epic scope and environmental variety of the first Dark Souls with the speed and smoothness of Bloodborne. “Soul-like” may be it's own genre at this point, but this is the pinnacle of how it's done. It's nearly infinitely replayable thanks to the ridiculous amount of variety to builds and playstyles and the unique and sometimes terrifying PvP. Dark Souls 3 is a welcome evolution to an almost perfect formula. Praise the dark.
Quantum Break is a pretty game. Not quite “photo realistic”, there's a definite look to the game that's consistent and technically sound. There's a mix of convincingly dirty cityscapes and clinically sterile corporate offices, and the recognizable real world actors are... well, recognizable. It's a game about time travel and the end of time itself, so there's plenty of artistic interpretation of what rips in the fabric of time would look like as alternate timelines collide with each other. Jack Joyce, the main protagonist, is given time-altering powers from the start more or less, so there's plenty of fun with physics and tech demo levels of interaction with enemies and the environments. Fortunately, Quantum Break doesn't hang it's hat on graphics alone to deliver a shallow actual tech demo, instead opting for a narrative heavy, highly polished full game that presents the player with multiple options to affect the story and gameplay. The whole package is supplemented by four twenty minute live action cutscenes presented as television episodes. If that sounds dumb, I'll surprise you by stating these FMV productions are actually of above average quality even by modern cable TV standards. The game itself, however, is below average and I'm reviewing the game as a whole. It's not great.
Time travel stories can get real messy, real quick. With potential paradoxes, plot holes, and the need to explain the theoretical science while avoiding bogging down the more interesting narrative, it's a tough genre to do right. Quantum Break doesn't seem to know how to approach the potential pitfalls; it's kind of tounge-in-cheek at times, seeming to throw it's hands up and concede to being corny sci-fi pulp. It over explains it's science, throwing out multiple acronyms for the same devices and over complicating simple concepts as if to excuse some space magic. It dabbles in some cultish parallels, setting up the main villain as a time traveling prophet but not committing to the arc. Early in the game you power up a time machine and it's pretty nifty, then the game has you doing the same process multiple times on different machines and it just gets old. The cast of characters is large and the perspective and focus is constantly shifting, so the story is spread so thin you don't end up caring about any of them, including Jack Joyce. The main plot points aren't that intricate or complicated, but the game does indeed turn into a mess.
Most of the core action in Quantum Break is standard third person shooting, with some time powers taking center stage as the main hook. You start out with a bubble projectile that freezes time within, making for some spectacular setups where you can fire a shit ton of bullets into an affected enemy then watch him get torn to shreds when the bubble collapses. There's also a defensive version where a protective shield surrounds you, absorbing fire and allowing you to regenerate your health. If you charge your shot you project a bomb that can do serious damage to groups. For mobility, you have a quick dash that can trigger slow motion bullet time afterward, and a sustained version where you essentially run super fast. All of these powers are on individual cooldowns, so the flow of combat boils down to spamming whatever's handy until everybody dies. A few enemy types mix things up in minor ways, like soldiers with some of your abilities, backpack wearers that mute your powers, or shotgun/minigun heavies that are basically bullet sponges. When you're zipping around the arenas popping off powers and sending lifeless enemies spiraling into the atmosphere it's really enjoyable. It's too bad any meaningful, memorable encounters are so few and far between, and your abilities are never really challenged in true puzzle-like fashion. Most of the flashy moves are fairly interchangeable, and it turns into a spam fest with no real tactics involved.
It's tough to even categorize Quantum Break as a straight action game when it has so little action. Most of the playtime is spent walking around while other characters talk to you, opening doors or solving easy puzzles for them, or picking up collectibles to flesh out the story. And Quantum Break is just fucking rotten with collectibles. You can ping areas with your “time vision” to spot highlighted objects (as is the trend...) which can be “narrative objects” (random shit), radio broadcasts, TV shows, e-mails, quantum ripples that effect the cutscenes in small ways, or upgrade points to increase your powers. These things are fucking everywhere, and they completely kill the pace of the game. There's nothing worse than playing a game where you have to stand still for several minutes at a time, watching a TV show or listening to the radio (which is not interesting), or reading a novella worth of text. More often than not there are secondary characters you're following, and boy are they quick to repeat the same lines over and over while you're trying to read an e-mail. “Come on”, “This way!”, “We need to hurry up!”.... How about go fuck yourself? Fucking obnoxious shit. This should not exist in modern games. Either pause the game when there's something to read or watch (you know... in this game about stopping time...), or better yet... don't have a million fucking collectibles in your narrative/action game. It's a shitty way to tell a story. Why didn't you put this shit in the live action cutscenes? Fuck... Granted, they're “optional”... but some of them are pretty fucking important to the story, while others are incredibly long winded and redundant. Then some are jokes that may or may not hit. You just don't know, so you end up staring at walls of text. At one point I was in an office building with probably a dozen rooms open, one after the other, and each room had two fucking long ass e-mail chains to read through... one after the fucking other... Fuck that shit. It sucks.
The game is just all over the place. It doesn't know where it's strengths lie (hint: the half dozen action scenes are pretty cool...) so the end result is scattered on the floor. Counterintuitively, the TV “episodes” are the most consistently entertaining aspect. They're well written, competently acted, and they're so well produced that I received a warning for streaming them because a Hitbox moderator was convinced I was re-broadcasting an actual television show. It's a shame that Quantum Break: The Show has very little to do with Quantum Break: The Game. The episodes focus primarily on a group of secondary characters, acting out their own storylines that barely connect with the game proper. They'll pop up in-game for a brief second or two, like, “Hey, remember that hit show you watched?”, but they have very little actual impact. It's perplexing why there isn't a bigger crossover between the two mediums, or why they didn't just take the live action bits and use them to tell a more cohesive, focused story.
Quantum Break is a mediocre game that's bogged down in some real bullshit. It's an action game without enough action, a narrative game that spins it's wheels, and a collect-a-thon that shouldn't exist. I would say that the best way to play it would be to skip any secondary distractions and check out some cool time powers, but it would be quite anemic in that case. To top things off: the first instance of platforming in the game (where you're allowed to jump) resulted in my character glitching out, stuck in a falling animation inches above the ground. Then when I got to the end of the game, debating whether to replay it to see what the branching paths offered, I was treated to a bullshit cliffhanger ending trying to set up a sequel or DLC, leaving plenty of loose threads hanging in time and space. No.
I grew up on movies like Pet Cemetery, the Friday the 13th series, and I never liked Freddy much because I thought he was a goofy pussy. When kids my age were playing with G.I. Joes or race cars I had a collection of Aliens action figures and was trying to find the right combination of food coloring and corn syrup to make fake blood. That is to say: I was never a horror averse person or one to shy away from the spookies. When the survival horror games were huge in the '90s with mass market titles like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, I never found them particularly “scary”. They were video game representations or interpretations of mediocre to bad horror movie cliches, usually relying on jump scares and other cheap tricks to unsettle the kids. Silent Hill scared the shit out of me. It's dark, dirty, grimy, and is generally unpleasant enough to stick with you after you turn the game off. Revisiting it now, the purity of it's horrors has withstood the test of time far greater than any ordinary game should.
You play as Harry Mason, a fairly ordinary guy who awakens from a car crash to find himself trapped in a perpetually foggy, snowy/ashy, and more or less deserted town called Silent Hill. Your daughter was in the passenger's seat, now she's gone. Following shadows, footsteps, and blood trails you wind up in a decrepit, rusted alley where you discover a rotted corpse wrapped up in barbed wire and hospital gurneys soaked in blood. A distant siren wails and it suddenly turns to night, so you light a match and are attacked by amorphous gray figures the size of children. They are wielding knives. You can try to make your way back through the twisting alley, but the door is chained shut. You're trapped, and more of the nightmares keep appearing, holding your legs and slashing at you. You eventually drop dead.
Then you awake inside a diner. There's a police woman there, one of a handful of humanish characters locked in the town. She explains about the collapsed roads out of town, the monsters running amok, and the general bad situation you're in. Your only real motivation is finding your daughter, so you take the pistol she offers, arm yourself with a radio that broadcasts white noise when there is danger around, and a flashlight and set off. Or try to... because a fleshy winged creature with a dog's head bursts through the diner window and attacks you. Here you come to realize that Harry is not a fighter. Shooting at creatures is sloppy and ammo is a fairly limited resource, and swinging away with a knife or a pipe is a gamble. You're going to spend a lot of time juking like a football player because fighting is a last resort when cornered (or when your healing items far outweigh your ammo count). It would be easy to write off the combat as “bad”, and just as easy to justify bad combat as “adding to the tension”. Silent Hill feels deliberate. The environments are all fully rendered 3-D spaces where you're free to zig, zag, and move the camera behind you as needed in the open, and the tight interiors have enemy placement that allows for choices. Almost all encounters are tense, but they never feel cheap.
The town of Silent Hill itself is impressively large, open, and full of secrets. You can't enter most of the buildings, but exploring off the beaten path can yield some extra health items, ammo, or something more enticing or cryptic (that may require other cryptic items to use...). Trying to navigate an entire town shrouded in thick fog and sometimes oppressive rusty darkness could be an unintentional nightmare of a different, gameplay variety, but James is smart enough to make notes on his map to keep your main path crystal clear. All the dead ends get squiggled and the places of interest get circled. Checking the map regularly is a quickly learned and necessary habit. If you didn't find the area map... the nightmare is real.
You find clues indicating your daughter's whereabouts scattered around so you follow them with little choice on account of the locked doors and sinkholes. You'll visit now-standard landmarks like a school and hospital, solving puzzles to get items that allow you to progress once you've sufficiently explored each location. Each location can morph into a “dark” version of itself, where previously just disturbing or strange ambiance twists into pure nightmare fuel. Rusty pipes and grimy floors turn to hanging, boxed bodies and gory chains. Children's drawings of monsters manifest into actual nameless beings you have to fight. There's an ever-present, ominous screeching, clawing sound that really worms it's way into your gut. Just when you learn to block it out it gets louder or changes pitch, then when you think it will drive you insane... it stops. For the moment.
The constant delve into deeper, darker depths of the town's history involving cults, a still-burning coal fire, and hidden secrets lends the feeling of falling down an endless, unstoppable spiral. You may be repeating the basic steps over: open map, check doors, repeat... but the atmosphere and story is like a train constantly gathering speed. The details are nebulous or questionable, and that works to it's advantage. James is questioning his sanity, you're questioning who is a reliable narrator or what is “real”, and everything is fucked. It's great.
Silent Hill is a textbook case of working within limitations to make something amazing. The graphics aren't technically any less shitty than any other PS1 game, but they work marvelously to deliver deliberately shitty, unexplainable creatures and a town with a narrative and claustrophobic gameplay reason for not being able to see ten feet in front of you. Grimy graphics are great, but add the grating sound design and surprisingly good/off voice acting with some disturbing notes laying around and fuck... For my money this is still one of the most effective horror games out there. I've probably played through at least a dozen times over many years, and it still manages to get to me each time. It's a masterpiece of terror.
Friday the 13th: The Game In-Engine Alpha Trailer:
Heavy Rain is an interactive movie about a serial killer who drowns kids. The “interactive movie” genre has become rather wide in scope recently, so to clarify: you usually have full control of your character as far as movement goes, and are free to walk up to objects you can manipulate with an analogue stick or button prompt. Most of those actions are Duke Nukem-esque extraneous details that help the environments feel real, so there is a lot of peeing. Other times you're asked to perform quick time events for more action oriented scenes, or there are Telltale-style branching dialogue choices that affect how the game plays out. The “serial killer who drowns kids” genre is somewhat more straight forward.
As pure spectacle, Heavy Rain's production values are extremely impressive. This is a remaster of an early PS3 game, but if you didn't know that it could easily pass itself off as a new title for the system. Skin textures are strikingly realistic, the voice acting is convincing, and when everything comes together it looks as good as newer games of similar ilk like Until Dawn. Some cracks in the facade shine through with low polygon vehicles or stiff animations, but overall it's quite a looker. Certain scenes seem to have been given more attention than others, but whether that's the result of an uneven remaster or the original game I can't say for sure.
I'm a fan of games that use the standard controller in unconventional, innovative ways. Heavy Rain tries this over and over, and is successful about sixty percent of the time. Using Street Fighter quarter circle moves to open doors and drawers makes sense and really pulls you into the game, giving a tactile feel to ordinary, otherwise forgettable motions. Alternating between R1 and L1 during a foot chase or flicking the stick left or right to avoid oncoming traffic while driving a car can be tense. When the prompts work, they work well enough that you wonder why other games don't rip them off to expand what is possible for interaction in their stories. When you fail one of these controller quizzes, however, the results are either frustrating or unintentionally hilarious. Whenever you're asked to use motion controls by moving the controller around you may as well flip a coin to see if the game will register what you're doing, because it controls like ass. If you've ever wanted to see what it looks like when a grown man fails at brushing his teeth, well... it's pretty funny when he looks at himself in the mirror, defeated. Similarly, simple acts like walking can be jerky and come off as goofy, effectively breaking the illusion and undercutting the serious emotional tone the game is aiming for.
And Heavy Rain is not afraid to get dark, which I appreciate. You control a few characters, the main one being Ethan Mars. A twenty- or thirty-something suburban architect with a fairly normal life, he's thrust into turmoil after he is struck by a car while trying and failing to protect the life of one of his dumbass kids. This splits his marriage and he's afflicted with depression and bouts of blackouts. When his surviving son disappears on his watch, he is sent messages and instructions from The Origami Killer, a serial child murderer fond of putting kids in drains and letting them fill with rain water. Ethan goes through a series of trials not unlike a Saw film, while at the same time questioning his own involvement in the incident in a touch of Momento. You'll also view the events through the eyes of an FBI agent with some high tech sunglasses, a private investigator hot on the Origami Killer's trail, and a journalist who randomly gets caught up in the mess.
The multiple protagonist storytelling technique is largely well done. Each character is fleshed out and has a unique perspective on the unfolding drama; from the P.I.'s old school noir approach to Ethan's decent into madness and sacrifice, they all have interesting through lines. The weakest is the female journalist, who just seems there for misplaced romantic subplot reasons or to act as a deus ex machina. She's never really fleshed out, and seems unbelievable: ready to help out and cover up for a famous fugitive she met hours ago just because, even when he confesses he's probably a kidnapper and child murderer... but the motel clerk downstairs is real creepy because he looked at her ass. Want to kiss?
The branching paths presented aren't as cut and dry or as obvious as a Telltale game or something similar. You can fail multiple QTEs seemingly without consequence, then a random one may result in a main character's death. It's never quite clear what is or isn't important, and that winds up being a strength of the game. In my particular playthrough, shit went wrong and got dark. Ethan's kid died. The Origami Killer got away. The FBI agent was executed. But the game continued on to a dreary conclusion (which I was happy with), but some of the puzzle pieces didn't quite line up. Ethan had drank a poison that was supposed to kill him in an hour, but one of the last shots of the game was him blowing his brains out. Why? It felt like a string of cutscenes pulled from a well based on the choices I made, most likely because that's what it was. An impressive amount of options and conclusions and paths for sure, praise the Sun, but the end result still feels a bit rough. And since this is such a narrative heavy and fairly lengthy game I feel very little desire to replay it anytime soon, so what I got is my story... a story that I liked the tone of, but couldn't help but feel wasn't the “right” story.
Heavy Rain is a high mark for big budget interactive fiction. It's not afraid to get dirty or let you run a bit crazy in it's world, which is welcome in the genre. The cost of letting you tinker with the character's stories, interactions, and animations can be downright goofy and hilarious and the motion controls suck, but at it's peaks the game is up there with some well written television shows and films, even if it does pull heavily from some known material. Now if you'll excuse me I have to run full speed into every empty mall store in sight and yell, “Jason!” into the face of some very confused clerks.
Dune is widely regarded as the first real time strategy game ever made. I'm sure this is somewhat debatable and I really don't feel like going down Google search rabbit holes of internet “facts” and theories and definitions, so let's at least give credit to the game's unique and abundant systems and litany of anomalies contained in the game both impressive now and especially so considering the time it was released. It's based on the classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, with some tenuous connections to the David Lynch film, specifically the likeness of Kyle Maclachlan and some of the artistic design. So it's a licensed game, based on a movie, and it tries to invent a new genre... sure recipe for disaster? No. The spice is life.
For anyone unfamiliar with the property: Dune revolves around the Atreides family arriving on the planet Arrakis, which is completely covered in sand and unremarkable save for it being the only place in the universe to produce spice- a drug used to navigate through space. The Atreides are tasked with mining enough of the resource to appease the Emperor, and this involves recruiting local tribesmen to do the manual labor while keeping them safe from attacks by native, gigantic spice worms that are attracted to the rhythmic droning of the mining machinery. Their rivals, the Harkonnens, are also present on the planet and they want nothing more than to see the entire Atreides clan wiped out. As the Duke's son, Paul, you must rally the local Fremen tribes and convince them to help you turn the tables, while you gain personal power through continued exposure to the spice and may or not fulfill the Fremen's ancient prophecy of an outsider arriving to set their people free and turn Dune into a lush jungle planet. If this sounds like narrative used to justify conventional RTS gameplay trappings... well, you've got that reversed.
The early stages of Dune are very story heavy and linearly focused. You have very few options available to you, mostly consisting of talking to your family and mentors who will direct you to your next destination. These can either be adding a member to your party and taking him or her to another character to initiate dialogue, or stepping out of your palace and taking to the skies in an ornithopter to visit with the local population, who in turn may direct you to other places to visit and people to talk to. Traveling is usually done by flying to locations across the planet-wide desert, where an FMV loop of dunes and rocky planes plays until you discover something noteworthy. The visuals and accompanying CD-quality soundtrack is at once rather bland (it is a desert planet) and a kind of soothing, zen-like experience as you watch the endless Dunes roll by from a first person perspective. These flights can also be the source of genuine stress and tension as the game is constantly on a ticking clock, and you have to plan for return trips to the palace to send the Emperor his weekly shipments of spice or else face the consequences.
Once the premise is set and you understand the basic loop of visiting sietches (local towns), recruiting Fremen, and outfitting them for mining efficiently while exploring for more of the population and story-specific locations, the rug is pulled out from under you. Goals get rather vague, the Harkonnens start attacking so you need to build an army for defense and attack, and the end game of covering the planet in vegetation and attacking the main Harkonnen palace is left up to you to figure out. This consists of strategy staples like micromanaging your troops' gear, moving spice harvesters to dense areas for maximum resource gathering, and guerrilla attacks on the weakest enemy camps to bide time while your forces improve. Most of this is controlled through the top down planet map, where troops and buildings are represented by what look like standard 16-bit sprites that stand in sharp contrast to the excellent, detailed character portraits seen in the rest of the game. It's not nice to look at, and while it's great that you eventually earn the power to contact anyone on the planet through this map without moving, you still end up traveling to random spots just to make the game clock move.
What I find really funny about Dune is just how representative it is of any and all real time strategy games made since. It seems like a genre that hasn't changed at the core for twenty plus years, for good or ill. There's still the trial and error battles here: send forces to attack, micromanage in the meantime, then if they fail you're pretty much screwed so you're forced to reload a save from thirty minutes prior and try other tactics. Pray to the sun that you don't fuck yourself with a bad save or plan to start the entire game over again... You start off underpowered and overwhelmed in comparison to the enemy, but after a few key battles the tables completely turn and the enemy is screwed. At that point you just have to go through the motions of gathering your army, moving your harvesters, planting your bulbs, back to the palace... rinse and repeat for way too long until there's no opposing force on the map. They're genre problems for sure, but considering Dune is the template and these problems haven't been definitively solved since... Dune was way the fuck ahead of it's time.
Despite the end game grind and the story taking a backseat toward the finale, Dune is surprisingly still fun to play today. The narrative is classic, the gameplay is literally genre-defining, and it strikes a nice balance between stressful and meditative. There's satisfying exploration, great music, and you get to ride a giant worm. See it through to the end to behold one of the most perplexing and hilarious “The End” title cards in existence.