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