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Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength Review - Staunch Surveillance

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 03/29/2018 - 15:00

2016’s Orwell tapped into our collective fears about online surveillance, the manipulation of information, and our fast-eroding sense of personal privacy in the digital age. In 2018, these problems are more pronounced and have manifested in new ways. Orwell: Ignorance is Strength has launched upon a world where the term "fake news" carries very specific connotations, and where political divisiveness is, in many parts of the world, leading to mass-protests and widespread unease, a lot of which is being channelled through the internet. The Orwell games are very much a product of their time, but unfortunately Ignorance is Strength does not resonate as hard as its predecessor did.

The events of Ignorance is Strength occur concurrently with the first three episodes of the original game, but while there's some occasional overlap you're primarily focused on an entirely separate case. Barring one new element, the gameplay is mostly identical to the first game, which you should play first if you have any interest in this follow-up--some knowledge about the "The Nation" (the fictional country the game is set in) and the technology you're in charge of is assumed. You play as an investigator, charged with digging through the internet for information that will serve the interests of the country's corrupt government.

Initially you're searching for details about Oleg Bakay, a missing military officer from neighboring country Parges. Soon--and for the remainder of the game--your focus shifts to Raban Vhart, a blogger whose anti-government sentiments and campaign against the leadership of The Nation (which is, yes, run by a man who looks a bit like Trump) must be thwarted. You are, essentially, the bad guy, running surveillance for a dictatorship that demands absolute fealty from the citizens it so closely monitors, but Ignorance is Strength is less explicit about the meaning behind all of this than the first game was. While Orwell stretched across five episodic instalments, Ignorance is Strength runs for just three, which winds up being too little time to build upon the previously established mythology of the game's world. The broader political climate of The Nation, the appropriately Orwellian setting for both games, isn't expanded upon much by Raban's war against it, and while a conflict with Parges is discussed it's never quite explored enough to feel like a proper plot point.

Your job is to find chunks of data online using the computer interface of the Orwell surveillance system, then throw as much dirt as you can at Raban. If a piece of information on a page can be collected, it will be highlighted, and you can drag it to their profile on your screen. You find this information by scouring websites (although annoyingly you can't "search" for sites; you either find links on sites you have already accessed or gain a new site for your database after grabbing a data chunk), and when you manage to find someone's phone or computer details you can snoop through their private screens too. Pages that haven't been fully explored, or which have data chunks you haven't lifted, are highlighted on your list of pages visited. Each piece of information you collect will eat up ten minutes on your in-game clock, and in each of the game's three episodes you're working towards a specific time limit, so you want to focus on the important information and skip over any data that does not add to the case you're building.

Sometimes data will contradict with other chunks, and as the Investigator it's up to you to choose which one to submit. The "Ethical Codex" mandate means that your supervisor is only privy to information you submit, and will make informed decisions based on that. The way the plot progresses will be influenced by which statements you decide are more valid, as you can't submit two contradictory pieces. It's an implausible system, but from a game design perspective it's a clever one, forcing you into regular moral dilemmas.

The stakes feel muted this time, though. In episode 2, for example, if you gather too much useless information without finding a specific important detail, Raban will publish an anti-government blog post before you can stop him. Raban isn't a talented writer, and while he has a following, his posts largely read as hysterical, which is a strange tone to hit. He drops a genuine revelation in the first episode, but for the remainder of the game Raban seems like someone who is fast unravelling, and who the leaders of The Nation could probably comfortably ignore, having successfully implemented a surveillance state and perfected the dissemination of propaganda in ways that make Raban's stand largely ineffective. It also doesn't help that the game, which is so text-heavy, has several issues with grammar, punctuation and sentence syntax, at least some of which seem unintentional. They're minor problems, but over time they become distracting.

It's up to you to discredit Raban by investigating his personal life and past, which becomes the driving force of the second and third episodes. You're essentially asked to destroy a man's life, and it can be distressingly satisfying when you dig up the appropriate dirt on him. The human drama at the game's heart is the most compelling aspect of its plot, especially once you start to investigate Raban's wife and brother. A few twists in the story are telegraphed too heavily to have an impact, but the experience of taking available information about a man's life and using it to destroy him--by any means necessary--is just the right level of disturbing.

The third and final episode introduces a new wrinkle: the Influencer Tool, which lets you gather information and broadcast to the world, obscuring the truth by cherry-picking certain information to reach conclusions that ignore specific inconvenient details. The Influencer Tool taps into our worst fears--our secrets and our private conversations being exposed against our will, and our moments of weakness being read as our true selves coming out. The balance between your personal satisfaction over achieving in-game goals and the horror of what you're doing, coupled with the plausibility of these tools being used against someone, can lead to serious self-reflection, even if the man you're taking apart isn't the most compelling figure. It's a shame that these moments are fairly fleeting--Ignorance is Strength would have benefited greatly from a few extra chapters to really emphasize the tragedy of what is happening.

Orwell: Ignorance is Strength does not leave as strong an impression as the first game did, even if the central mechanics are still inherently compelling. There's not quite enough space for the game to breathe, and the interesting ideas, like the Influencer Tool, could be taken further. As a series, Orwell is brimming with potential, but it feels like the sequel was rushed to ensure that it could comment on the state of the world in early 2018. But extensive private data collection, political turmoil, and pervasive surveillance aren't going anywhere, which is why the game's namesake, George Orwell, has remained so perpetually relevant. If there's a third Orwell game, hopefully Osmotic Studios will find more to say about it.

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MLB The Show 18 Review: A Home Run

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 03/27/2018 - 17:00

This year's MLB The Show pushes the franchise's visuals, mechanics, and authenticity to new heights. Marginal updates to the Franchise mode and some of the same quirks in Road to the Show persist, but overall this is a shining baseball game that's worthy of attention.

America's pastime is all about the details, and MLB The Show 18 proves to be an authentic sim thanks to small but impactful touches throughout. There are new crowd animations like the "Judge's Chambers" cheer at Yankee Stadium. Spectator logic is also updated so that fewer people show up for a Tuesday game or when one or both of the teams is out of the postseason hunt. One of the better and more notable aesthetic additions this year are situation-specific home run animations. If you hit a dinger in an important spot, the player will celebrate accordingly instead of just jogging around the bases like it was an inconsequential home run during a blowout.

Batting stances are also customizable now, giving you options to tweak things like the positioning of your hands and elbows. Want a little more bat-wiggle? You got it. It's fun to tweak a stance and find something that is aesthetically pleasing and uniquely yours, even if it doesn't have an impact on your overall attributes. What's more, the crowds for the most part are no longer just bland, boring background elements, and the stadiums are replicated with an incredible attention to detail. From top to bottom, MLB The Show is a gorgeous-looking baseball game.

All the core mechanics and fundamentals of baseball--hitting, fielding, catching, throwing, and pitching--give you the kind of control that you would expect from an advanced sports sim. Mechanically, Sony San Diego's commitment to refining and improving mechanics continues this year. In particular, hitting remains a challenging thrill. The hitting mechanics never feel unfair, as you only have yourself to blame if you're going for a power swing when you should be protecting the plate. It takes some work to get the hang of hitting--and you'll want to try the three available control options to find the one that works best for you. Connecting with a pitch and sending it ripping through the gap or over the fence--or even picking up a single in the clutch--remains one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.

In the field, particularly the outfield, players move like actual humans with inertia, so if you don't get a jump on a fly ball or take the wrong path when playing a ball off the wall, you might find yourself giving the baserunner extra time or even make a costly error. Like the hitting mechanics, this never feels unfair or overly difficult, thanks in part to controls that reward practice and responsiveness.

The commentary team this year adds MLB Network analyst and former player Mark DeRosa--and he is a very welcome addition. DeRosa takes the place of Harold Reynolds, who is out after just one year, and the broadcasts feel more informative and entertaining as a result. DeRosa does color alongside Dan Plesac, and they're joined by play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian. The three recorded lines in the same studio space this year, and this pays dividends; the back-and-forth conversations feel more natural and organic. Baseball commentary is never going to be exciting in a way that it is for other, faster sports, but these three do a good job. That being said, after only a few games, you'll begin to hear the same lines again and again.

The returning RPG-like Road to the Show mode builds on the narrative, documentary-style "Pave Your Path" from last year's game. You can import a character from MLB The Show 17 or start anew on a fresh journey from AA to the big leagues. Notably, you aren't a top prospect this time around, but rather a dark horse. You're not on scouts' radar to begin with, so it's imperative you perform well from the start if you want to get called up to the bigs--and it can be a struggle. You start by creating a character (you can customise loads of things, down to the number of pimples on your face or creases on your forehead). But new for MLB The Show 18 is that choosing an archetype for your character that has pros and cons. I went with "Good Hands," which meant my path was more focused on fielding and making contact at the plate with speed as my weakness. Once you get started, RTTS plays out in the familiar fashion: with scenes narrated by a Sam Elliott sound-a-like and narrative sequences that are quite cheesy and overly dramatic.

In previous years, you assigned training points to level up your character that you could purchase with real money through Stubs. But training points and Stubs are completely gone from RTTS (and so are microtransactions), and instead attribute points are automatically added--or subtracted--based on your performance during AA and AAA seasons. Make an error in the field or fail to make solid contact at the plate and your related skills will fall. You'll even have points subtracted if you swing at a pitch way outside of the zone. You do still have some amount of manual control of your character's progress, as "Focus Training" opportunities will pop up throughout the season to improve your skills of choice. MLB The Show 18's overall drive to be an authentic baseball sim extends to RTTS. It shouldn't be easy to go pro--and it isn't. It took me four seasons of AA and three of AAA before I eventually got the call.

At various stages you'll have sit-downs with your manager to talk about your progress. You can make light dialogue choices, and these serve to flesh out your character's personality. Generally speaking, you can choose to be brash or reserved. In one case, I was asked to switch from shortstop to left field. I was told it would be good for my professional development and to show I was a team player, but I refused--and was benched as a result. Actions have consequences (you might even get traded if you push back hard enough). If you want to make it to the big leagues, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities, but also to listen to advice and make reasoned choices about your future.

One change I appreciated is the inability to max out your character to level 99 in all areas. In the past, you could essentially create a super-player if you worked hard enough (or spent enough on microtransactions). But now you can't, and it feels more realistic as a result. Some players will never be big-hitters or the best fielders. Ultimately, it was rewarding to see my character grow and evolve, and by the end of my journey I felt satisfied to have brought my guy to the league. RTTS lacks the kind of overall polish and refinement of similar modes in other sports games such as The Journey (FIFA) and Longshot (Madden), but it is still an engaging, challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience when you get through it. Given how many different archetypes there are to choose from and positions to play, it's exciting to think about starting over again and again to see the story play out in different ways.

MLB The Show 18's Franchise mode, which lets you run as team as its GM and control all organisational decisions over a 162-game season, doesn't add much to the well-established formula from previous years, and in fact it removes something--online play. One of the only notable new additions is the ability to play through a Franchise season in Retro mode, which is the 8-bit mini-game mode that was added last year. Beyond streamlined and more aesthetically pleasing menus, one of the only other other new feature is "phases," which is a system that allows you to track specific points in a season like Draft Day, Spring Training, All-Star Race, and the Postseason. It's a nice addition that gives you yet another way to manage your team and follow their progress on a more granular level. Overall, MLB The Show 18's franchise mode remains a deep experience that gives aspiring managers a lot to work with and enjoy, even if they can't take things online.

The card-collecting Diamond Dynasty mode adds new reasons to keep you coming back. There are more legendary players this year such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Nolan Ryan, and Chipper Jones, among others. Elsewhere, Diamond Dynasty has more missions you can complete to earn extra items, while the head-to-head online mode is a fun way to test your squad. Diamond Dynasty doesn't add much new or particularly interestin, but it remains a unique thrill to put together a fantasy team with players from past and present on the same roster. Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr. were never even alive at the same time, but in MLB The Show 18 they can be teammates, and the sheer number of dream combinations provides a reason to keep playing and keep collecting.

Sony's flagship baseball franchise has never been better. With its best-in-class controls and visuals, and impeccable attention to detail for the small stuff, MLB The Show 18 is worth catching for any baseball fan.

Sea Of Thieves Review: Set Sail With Trepidation

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 03/27/2018 - 16:00

Sea of Thieves conveys nature's beauty and wrath with aplomb, and sailing across the open ocean in a creaky vessel can make you fall in love with its impressive presentation. This romantic connection can be felt most when sailing alone, but Sea of Thieves is primarily designed to be played with a trusty crew. Doing so allows you to revel in buffoonery and appreciate the value of teamwork, delivering an entirely different perspective on what it means to be a pirate.

These awesome moments make the initial hours of the game feel like you're embarking on a special journey, but this love affair is quickly tested both by the game itself and other players, some of whom on PC are already employing hacks to put your interactions on uneven footing. Sea of Thieves is just that: a game that belongs to conniving robbers, who see fit to disrupt well-meaning players despite gaining no prize other than gold for purchasing cosmetic items. This is to be expected to a degree, and I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments when I screwed over someone else for the sheer delight of asserting power and punishing another player's naivety.

Even so, sabotaging others didn't make me happy for long, and certainly didn't provide me with anything meaningful enough to warrant developing my underhanded side. To that end, playing as a trusting do-gooder is often more fulfilling, though the aforementioned aggressors and a surprising lack of depth to missions curtailed this approach, too. After 30 hours, I'm left wondering when I'll jump back into the game again. A part of me feels like I've seen it all; another part of me knows I'm using that as an excuse to take a break from grinding through another shallow quest in search of gold.

The ostensibly ultimate goal is to become a legendary pirate captain, a prestige that comes with a supposedly notorious-looking ship meant to instill awe. To reach that level of notoriety, you have to increase your reputation with the game's three factions, each to the maximum level, by completing a series of quests. These include defeating reanimated skeletons of fallen pirate captains, digging up buried treasure, and capturing very specifically colored pigs and chickens. If hunting small animals sounds boring, you're right on the money; the fact that it's a dominant activity in the game is mildly baffling. The other two pursuits have their charms at first, but once you realize that the basic requirements of each faction's quests are forever the same, monotony quickly sets in. Given that, maybe it's not surprising that people opt to rob others of their treasures as a means to impress factions.

Again, the only reward for earning reputation--even for sticking it out and becoming a legendary pirate--is looking fancy. New guns are always only as good as the ones you started out with, and expensive attire is designed to impress, not to protect you from harm any better than a basic set of rags. This might be enough for some people to stick it out through the repetitive quests and often frustrating engagements with other players, but I can't imagine why a dash of color here and a new collar there would inspire the ardent perseverance required.

All that said, I can still appreciate the dynamics of working with a friendly crew, and if I ever return to Sea of Thieves in the near future it will be to recapture those special moments. There's almost no better way to kill time during a voyage than to act like an idiot on deck. Chugging grog to the point of vomiting is a regular occurance, as is catching it in a bucket to toss on a crewmate, clouding their vision with bile and booze. The drunker you get, the less stable you are, and the higher the chance that you'll accidentally stumble overboard, much to the delight of everyone.

Coordinating with a team of three other sailors to properly stock your vessel and manage its equipment is the most immediate venue for skill development. The only time you're truly tested is when engaging in battle against another ship, where you're required to manage the speed and orientation of your boat, load and fire cannons on deck, and patch up holes from enemy fire before your ship fills with water and sinks. It's great when you can fend off an attacker, but conversely demoralizing when stripped of your riches. Just because you sign up for that risk when you dedicate yourself to the game doesn't mean losing all your treasure is any less of a hit to your enthusiasm when another crew takes over your ship.

Sea of Thieves offers other notable surprises, such as the appearance of a cloud-skull in the sky with glowing eyes, signaling a "raid" consisting of waves of enemies nearby. You can tackle these well enough with a four-person crew, but you are free to team up with others as well; just be prepared for them to turn on you when it comes time to collect the bounty of treasure.

You may also run into the infamous, massive Kraken mid-voyage, a moment that is exciting the first time around, but subsequently one worth avoiding. The Kraken's gigantic octopus arms writhe out of stained black water--really, a trick to prevent you seeing that the kraken is just a group of disconnected arms without a body in the middle. Its arms can either grab your ship or pluck sailors from the deck, and you've got a limited amount of time to pummel it with cannon fire to free would-be victims. In the end, all you can do is damage it enough so that it slinks away--a deflating discovery that makes you think twice about future engagements, especially given that there's no tangible reward for your victory.

There may come a time when Sea of Thieves is able to entice me back, and I imagine that will be with a mix of new mission types and hopefully the promise of rewards that allow for new types of interactions, if not improve my character's capabilities. For now, it's a somewhat hollow game that can be fun for a handful of hours when played with friends, and something worth trying out if you happen to be an Xbox Game Pass subscriber. Even though it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend, I like enough of what I see to hold out hope that things will eventually improve as the game continues to be patched and updated with new content.

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