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Yakuza Kiwami 2 Review: Double Dragons

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 08/23/2018 - 15:01

The Yakuza series sits at a unique place in 2018, juggling two different points in the series timeline. The western release of prequel Yakuza 0 in 2017 was a dazzling gateway for a new wave of players and flowed naturally into a remake of the very first game later that year. The next title that followed, however, was Yakuza 6, which bid farewell to mainstay protagonist Kazuma Kiryu while debuting the brand new "Dragon" game engine. Yakuza 6 was a great finale to a saga that began in 2006, but now, the series has taken another 10-year leap backward in terms of narrative chronology but has taken its latest technology with it. And it's fortunate things worked out this way, because Yakuza Kiwami 2 combines the best parts of both timelines, as we simultaneously revisit the point in time where the series hit its stride, while being able to enjoy the superior benefits of a seamless world and fluid combat system afforded by the latest engine.

The original Yakuza 2 is more than just a personal favorite; it's where the series became more ambitious in terms of its world and narrative by introducing an additional location for the first time, the iconic Osakan strip of Dotonbori (stylised as "Sotenbori"), in addition to Kabukicho (stylised as "Kamurocho") in Tokyo. This not only added variety and scope to its geography and narrative, but memorable personalities with its Osakan characters. Their demeanor contrasts greatly to Tokyo natives, and this plays into the tensions between the major crime organizations in the Kansai and Kanto regions, respectively. Kiryu teams up with ace Osakan detective Kaoru Sayama for the majority of the game, who is a strong, likable character--their odd-couple pairing and growing relationship are some of the things that make Yakuza 2 so exceptional. Supporting them are the familiar Makoto Date and his hardened former mentor, Jiro Kawara, who all play interesting roles with great performances. It's here where you can see the strong foundations for the multi-protagonist approach that the series would later take, and in general, Kiwami 2's script is tweaked slightly to be a little more self-reflective from the lens of a present-day retrospective.

In typical series fashion, the majority of the story is told through highly charged, emotional cutscenes that lean heavily on the beats of Japanese drama, and they are as slow-paced as they are impressive to look at. However, Yakuza 2's plot has the benefit of being one of the more exciting and memorable of the series--there's an unforgettably gruff and showy antagonist in Ryuji Goda, the "Dragon of Kansai" that stands in staunch opposition to Kiryu's "Dragon of Dojima" moniker, a number of intriguing twists as a multinational blood feud is uncovered, some heavy-set themes about the value of loyalty and being shaped by your past, as well as some of the series' absurdly excellent moments, like punching a lunging tiger in the face. It's truly wonderful to see this PlayStation 2-era experience elevated to modern standards; sharp cinematics and high-fidelity models really amplify familiar performances through subtle facial expressions and body language.

But unsurprisingly, character models featured in secondary cutscenes and the game's numerous substory side quests exhibit a perceptible drop in quality. But to Kiwami 2's credit, the baseline fidelity of secondary models has notably improved--they aren't as jarringly awful as they were in Yakuza 6, but Kiwami 2 sadly doesn't feature full voice acting in all of its scenarios as 6 did. There are a few nice exceptions to these rules, however, as a few of the game's most infamous substories (series fans will nod knowingly at the mention of "diapers" or "fat Kiryu") get full cinematic treatment.

Kamurocho remains a fantastically atmospheric environment, full of pedestrians and neon lights, exuding a strong sense of true-to-life identity. The Dragon Engine continues to allow for seamless transitions between the street, stores, and combat encounters--it's also nice to revisit a more complete, "classic" version of the area after only seeing an abridged version in Yakuza 6. Sotenbori does suffer some minor cuts from the original version of Yakuza 2, and a smaller third area, Shinseicho, is cut altogether. But while these omissions are disappointing from an enthusiast perspective, it doesn't detract enough from the overall experience to be a significant stain, and certainly not for new players. The five-category experience system for character progression returns, and so does the emphasis on eating and drinking for experience points, which continues to be a positive change for the series that helps encourage a grounded connection and familiarity to the urban environments you roam through.

The Dragon Engine's version of Yakuza's crunchy combat also continues to be incredibly satisfying. While relatively straightforward in terms of its move set, especially when compared to the multiple disciplines featured in Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, the momentum and fluidity of techniques combined with the emphasis on collateral, physics-based damage makes fights exciting--it's difficult to return to the characteristically stiff combat of 0 and Kiwami once you've spent time with it. Small but noteworthy classic mechanics have been reintroduced, including charge moves (which you can now buffer while continuing to move and perform regular attacks), a returning focus on weapons (which you can now collect, store, buy, repair, and equip via quick-menu), as well as a number of location-based Heat moves, where befriended neighborhood denizens help you humorously and viciously assault bad guys.

In addition to the series' substories, Kiwami 2 also has some welcome minigame activities that give you ample opportunity to play with the versatile combat system in a variety of different situations. The best of these are the Underground Coliseum, which returns from the original and pits Kiryu in a series of one-on-one cage matches with fighters from an entertainingly diverse background of fighting disciplines, and the new Bouncer Missions, which throw you into gauntlets of increasing difficulty overstocked with weapons, environmental objects, and dozens of enemies, making for exciting group brawls. On the other hand, some of Kiwami 2's story missions have holdover mechanics from the original that never really gelled well to begin with and feel even more outdated as part of the modernization--immovable brutes that soak damage and pound you with couches and enemies with automatic rifles that you need to block with a medieval shield, of all things, feel like uncreative and unnecessary additions.

Other minigame distractions include Japanese and Western casino games, Mahjong, Shogi, darts, batting and golfing challenges as well as the always-fabulous karaoke. The Club Sega arcade selection is a little weaker in Kiwami 2; Virtual-On seems like a great addition, but it hasn't aged well despite the option for twin stick controls, and Virtua Fighter 2, despite its balancing tweaks, just doesn't impress as much after Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown was included Yakuza 6. UFO Catchers are a fleeting distraction, and the Toylets minigame, based on a very real-life Sega amusement which asks you to use the speed and quantity of your urine flow to affect on-screen action, is as strange and uncomfortable as it seems. Also new is Gravure Photography, where you can watch videos of real-life softcore glamor models flaunt revealing outfits, while you, as a creepy Kiryu, attempt to construct coherent sentences while photographing them. Gravure Photography is Kiwami 2's entry into the list of series activities that feel at complete odds with Kiryu's honorable and respectful nature.

But Kiwami 2 also features two more impressively substantial minigames featuring real-life Japanese personalities. One is the Cabaret Club Grand Prix, a refined version of the hostess club management concept seen in Yakuza 0, and the other is a much-improved version of the underwhelming Clan Creator top-down strategy minigame from Yakuza 6, now with a tower-defense twist. Both of these minigame iterations have been altered to have a bigger focus on fast-paced, real-time micromanagement and quick decision making, making them more involved and much more exciting as attractions to potentially invest in.

As was the case in Yakuza Kiwami, fan-favorite character Goro Majima is more tightly woven into this remake. As you progress through the main story, you'll gradually unlock the three chapters of Majima Saga, an entirely separate mini-campaign, which explores how Majima comes to arrive at the position and disposition that you find him in during the events of Kiryu and Sayama's story. While you're able to freely roam Kamurocho and Sotenbori with Majima, there are some major differences: Majima has no character progression of his own and cannot earn XP. There are no substories, and enemy encounters are predetermined as large group battles at certain roadblocks on the map, as well as one-on-one battles with Street Bosses, which you'll also find in Kiryu's campaign.

Without long-term purpose or flexibility, Majima's flamboyant knife fighting style, which dazzles initially with a couple of entertaining heat moves, becomes stale fast. His acrobatic moves don't have the same satisfying impact as Kiryu's, and it rarely feels like you're in complete control. While that may suit his character perfectly, without the ability to pick up items or throw enemies, it's difficult to keep things interesting for yourself here. The money you earn from defeating enemies in this mode can be transferred to Kiryu in the form of valuable items, and Majima has his own unique karaoke song worth seeing. But the interactive parts of his mini-campaign feel like an unnecessary grind to see story cinematics--which are the places where he really gets to shine, and the only good reason for swapping to Majima Saga. Overall, it's a missed opportunity.

The tale of Tokyo and Osaka, Kiryu and Sayama's partnership, and Kiryu and Goda's rivalry remains one of the Yakuza's best stories, and Kiwami 2's minor missteps don't affect the heart of that experience. The modernization of its presentation and its mechanics elevate it, making it absolutely worth revisiting or experiencing for the first time. Yakuza is an exemplary, if flawed series that does an incredible job of steeping you in contemporary Japanese-style crime drama, and establishing an evocative sense of place. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is an excellent example of the series at its best, coupling its most memorable stories and characters with its most sophisticated mechanics yet.

Guacamelee 2 Review - Ready For A Challenge

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/21/2018 - 15:00

The mighty luchador Juan already had a devil of a time in the first Guacamelee, but that's nothing compared to his second round. Guacamelee 2 is the best kind of sequel, doubling down on everything that worked in the original. Though it's diabolically challenging, it always feels fair, letting its meticulously crafted level design and self-aware humor shine through.

It begins a few years after the original, with Juan, now married to Lupita (El Presidente's daughter), raising two precocious kids in a tiny house on the outskirts of Pueblucho. At least, that's what's happening in the good timeline. In the Darkest Timeline, one of dozens of parallel dimensions in--ahem--the Mexiverse, Juan actually dies trying to defeat the previous big boss, Carlos Calaca. A hulking meatslab of a lucha named Salvador is the one who finishes the job, and he hopes to use a sacred, arcane guacamole recipe meant only for the gods to merge the land of the dead with the realm of the living. That has dire consequences, of course, and Juan once again must mask up and trek all across Mexico for the power to defeat Salvador and his minions.

Though there are some new additions, the fundamentals of Guacamelee haven't undergone any sweeping changes. The clean look of the first game has been upgraded with some beautiful, evocative lighting effects, and the score has more variety, weaving hooks and catchy breakbeats with a wider range of Latin melodies, but that's about it, aesthetically. The atmosphere is still firmly in the realm of eye-catching and dazzling cartoon aesthetics, but even just those minor tweaks add just the right touch of looming dread to fit Guacamelee 2's intensity.

Structurally, Guacamelee 2 maintains a balance between Metroidvania and side-scrolling beat-'em-up, and it doesn't feel like either genre is being lost in the mix. Just strolling into a room to lay the smackdown on skeletons still feels big and brutal, the way a wrestler slamming an opponent into the pavement absolutely should. A split-second fiesta in the upper right-hand corner that rewards you for big combos is the chuckle-worthy cherry on top of a savage job well done. Hours upon hours later, it never gets old watching the numbers rack up.

The magic lies in how the deadly physicality of your moveset directly feeds into where and how you can explore. Every new move--a frog slam, a flying uppercut--is more than just a way to lay waste to the undead menace, but the keys to mastering your environment. Taking care of a stone barrier between you and the next room, where the solution isn't some key you picked up clear across the map but the overkill of a big, booming punch or a massive headbutt, is satisfying like little else--especially coupled with the innate Metroidvania joy of being able to backtrack into an area and open up a route you couldn't take before with extreme, gratifying prejudice.

Guacamelee 2 retains the physicality of the original, but it focuses more on letting you use your physical moveset as a means of traversal and staying off the ground. Along with Juan's punches, kicks, and grab-and-slam maneuvers, a new magical grappling mechanic can shoot Juan off into different directions, which, until you earn the ability to fly, is the primary way you get through vertical sections of the map or areas where the ground is a hazard. Juan is once again able to turn into a chicken, but what was a cute, occasional gimmick is now integral to gameplay and the touchstone of all of the most delightfully absurd elements of the plot. Chicken Juan now has a high-powered moveset of his own, including firing himself diagonally into enemies and obstacles, sliding through tight spaces, and floating through the air.

As it turns out, staying off the ground is a job requiring more finesse than fight, and finesse is a trait for far more lithe and wiry wrestlers than Juan. The challenges of traversal you face are demanding, but it can absolutely be done, and the greatest challenge of Guacamelee 2 is looking at every obstacle and determining how to execute each of Juan's abilities--only some of which were designed specifically for traversal purposes--to get to a very precise target. Later challenges even require you to change from lucha to chicken Juan and back again for the same obstacle. Guacamelee 2 will frustrate those who don't cultivate the skills, but the exhilaration of succeeding and opening up a giant chunk of the map as a result is a wonderful motivator.

While you can now access upgrades at any time--rather than only at checkpoints--obtaining upgrades isn't just a matter of having enough gold but also performing feats in-game. Want to upgrade your health? You'll need to have found and opened a certain number of chests. Want more power out of a certain move? You'll need to have killed enough enemies with the basic version first. The side effect is that you're given further motivation to explore your environment and engage with even the easiest fights. Gold is still needed to make the purchase, however, and things do get mildly unbalanced there as the game goes on--after a few key upgrades, you'll be able to earn more gold than you can spend just from getting into one fight with a low-level goon.

Straightforward hand-to-hand fights usually aren't terribly difficult. Every enemy has a weakness, and once you figure out what attack leaves them wide open, it's just a matter of you learning how best to capitalize. The danger comes from the placement. To the game’s great credit, no gauntlet of enemies in the game is unfair or unbeatable, they just require a keen eye for picking up the numerous, sly visual cues that tell you exactly what’s possible in a given area.

There is, however, another way to earn the enhancements you'll need to take the fight to Salvador: Challenge Rooms. These tricky, self-contained obstacle courses with a treasure at the end are numerous in Guacamelee 2. The challenges themselves are wickedly conceived and executed, often designed to get you bouncing off walls, flying across rooms, and barrelling towards the ground at maximum speed, just barely missing a fatal hazard. Typically, you'll need to use every single available move in your repertoire to emerge victorious--anything less than surgical precision and command over the physics and minutiae of everything Juan can do will get you instantly killed.

The issue with the Challenge Rooms is that the reward at the end can vary. When you survive a rough room, and you're rewarded with a heart piece that extends Juan's life, you can walk away knowing it was all worth it. Getting through a difficult room but only receiving 400 gold, can feel like a slap in the face, especially when money is no object.

Thankfully, with infinite lives and the game's generous checkpoints, you're never too far from where you started should you fail. You will scream and curse at the screen often, but there's no luck, glitches, or happy accidents involved in conquering Guacamelee 2's most stringent tasks; there's only deft, acquired, well-practiced skill.

But there's more than just steel-hearted challenges waiting in the dark corners of Guacamelee 2's world, and many of its secret areas hide the best jokes in the game. There's an RPG dimension where all of Juan's fights are turn-based and, probably the best of the bunch, a hilariously spiteful take on lootboxes where Juan must spend enormous amounts of gold to simply open a closet door in a poor family's home to get his reward for saving their lives. Choozo statues--calling back to Metroid's Chozo statues--are still where Juan gets his main powers, and the script consistently has fun with the idea that smashing each statue is smashing up Uay Chivo's private and precious property.

Everything about Guacamelee 2 comes off as smarter and more thoughtful than the first game, even while indulging in its self-aware shenanigans and Rick & Morty-esque dimensional hijinks. The game never stops finding new ways to hook you in, to the point that even the most painstaking and intensive playthroughs feel like they just fly by. Saving the numerous timelines in Guacamelee 2 is just as much about partaking in a marvel of devious, meticulous game design as it is about saving Juan and his family from peril.

H1Z1 Battle Royale PS4 Review: All Kills No Frills

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/18/2018 - 20:00

Battle royale games have established themselves as more than just a fad, and as the space becomes more crowded, games strive to carve out their niche. With the console port of H1Z1, focusing on simplicity and streamlined mechanics is how it stakes its claim. Significant changes were made to H1Z1's original formula on PC to get you moving and encourage more action, which is further supported by intuitive controls. Where H1Z1's lacking is in variety, due in large part to an uninspired map that's missing interesting setpieces for its most intense firefights. But if the thrill of besting 100+ other players is what you seek, H1Z1 delivers just that.

As with many battle royales, your first objective is to quickly scavenge the dropzone for anything to improve your chances of survival. H1Z1 limits what's available on the ground and in abandoned structures to common loot, but you'll find enough to stay competitive in the opening minutes of a match. It's not too difficult to get equipped with a pump shotgun, basic assault rifle, a few healing items, low-level armor, and small backpack, which alleviates the frustration of coming away with nothing even after combing through buildings. However, the good stuff is tucked away in supply crates that litter the map as the match progresses. Boxes of high-level equipment dropped from the sky is a genre staple, however, H1Z1 focuses on this element by strictly keeping the best items exclusive to crates.

By cranking up the frequency of supply drops and shining brightly colored beacons on them (that are visible in the distance), crates serve as hotbeds for action. The risk-reward nature instigates tense firefights, and encourages improvising a tactical approach; will you stake out the crate from a distance and use it as bait, or do you rush to loot it and get out of dodge before you're preyed upon? When powerful weapons like the RPG, scoped burst rifle, or automatic shotgun are likely within grasp, it's impossible to ignore these drops. Even if you're unfamiliar with the effectiveness of specific gear, traditional color-coding to indicate rarity--white, green, purple, gold--makes it easy to identify what's worth swooping up. It's not groundbreaking, but H1Z1 devises a way to sensibly deliver the better elements of battle royale.

It also helps that H1Z1 doesn't hide much from you as it conveniently plots out nearby vehicles and supply crates on the map. While it takes some of the mystery out of this style of game, it's another tweak that gives you the tools get to the fun parts without delay. Especially because the deadly gas zones close in on the remaining players quickly, it's nice that the means for mobility are readily available. Considering that players parachute into the map at random locations (there's no choosing where to drop), making resources available and visible upfront mitigates the feeling of getting the short end of the stick.

The systematic changes to the core of H1Z1 would be all for naught if there wasn't a practical control scheme to tie it all together. Thankfully, the changes to gameplay mechanics feel as if they were done with a gamepad in mind. Support items like grenades, bandages, and first-aid kits have dedicated buttons, and swapping out weapons or changing your armor is as easy as picking up a replacement. Small backpacks open a third weapon slot, while the rare ones grant a fourth slot in a simple weapon wheel, effectively negating cumbersome weight management that'd be tough to incorporate for gamepads. Most significantly, item crafting has been nixed altogether. As a result, combat flows smoothly, and you're a lot less likely to fumble around with the controls under high-pressure situations since there aren't any clunky menus to navigate.

As with the PC version of H1Z1, though, there's a dissonance between its military-sim DNA and quirky rules of engagement. Movement and weapon behavior are still very much in line with what you'd see in a tactical shooter. But being able to instantly pop out of cars at full speed without taking damage itself seems incongruous, and using that as a tactic to close the distance for shotgun kills adds further dissonance. To top it off, vehicles don't inflict damage when ramming players. The wide-open design of the map makes these oddities stand out in a way that feels both thematically incoherent and disparate in a gameplay sense.

H1Z1 also falls short in its single map that's largely made up of open fields and a scattering of deserted buildings. There's a striking lack of features or interesting backdrops to stage the frantic firefights and make encounters feel fresh from match to match. The more dense locations like Pleasant Valley, Ranchito, or Dragon Lake offer some of those tense moments when you don't know if enemies are weaving through buildings or peeking around corners. But overall, even marquee locations are visually uninspired and plainly laid out, which makes battles grow stale over time. Outside of outlandish cosmetics, the distinct lack of style or variety to how the game presents itself makes it hard to want to stay for long.

As a free-to-play game, microtransactions come part-and-parcel. Crowns work as purchasable in-game currency, and Credits are solely earned through playing the game and completing daily challenges. Here, H1Z1 has evolved with the times by incorporating a Battle Pass which unlocks an exclusive line of rewards--like cosmetics, emotes, and in-game currency--to earn as you level up (though nothing that provides gameplay advantages). It may be irksome that a loot box system remains the prevailing method for rewards, but it's worth noting that each box spells out the rarity of the items you'll receive.

H1Z1 doesn't shake up the battle royale formula in any big way, but instead offers a simple, streamlined experience. It differentiates itself from its PC counterpart to its benefit by revamping the core systems at play, giving you just enough to work with in battle without being overwhelmed. But it's still missing diversity in its action that would create lasting appeal. Bare presentation aside, the only map available isn't the best vehicle for solid gameplay as its largely made up of uninteresting locations. In a crowded space of battle royale games all vying for your attention, H1Z1 makes room for itself by just focusing the action-packed moments--nothing more, nothing less.

F1 2018 Review In Progress

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/17/2018 - 09:00

Despite the cars being the quickest they’ve ever been in the sport’s history, Formula One in 2018 is about much more than pure speed. Impressively, the technical nature of driving the fastest, most advanced cars on the planet is something Codemasters goes to great lengths to portray in F1 2018, and the experience is all the better for it. Behind the wheel, an updated, more intricate tire model and the new Energy Recovery System controls push the game closer to a realistic simulation than the series has ever been before. This shift complements some smart changes to career mode around upgrades and media interaction that expand and broaden the game's appeal beyond a single season.

F1 2018 returns to the starting grid with a huge number of different game modes. Take control of your favorite driver in a single Grand Prix weekend, or lead them to the title in one of numerous championship events across varying disciplines. If racing against other players is more your thing, F1 2018 includes both ranked and unranked multiplayer lobbies, along with a full, 21-race online multiplayer championship that can be raced with strangers or friends alike. But where F1 2018 shines brightest is in its Career mode, which sees you assume the role of a custom-created rookie who’s new to the F1 paddock, freshly signed to a team of your choice.

Who you sign with will dictate the performance expectations laid out in your contract for the coming season. Sign with a first-class team like Mercedes or Ferrari and you’ll receive a car that’s both capable--and expected--to challenge for wins every race weekend. Sign with a lesser team like Williams or Toro Rosso and you’ll need to adjust your expectations to something more realistic to their performance level, and help the team move up the order through building performance upgrades to improve your chances.

New performance parts come quickly in F1 2018 with the upgrade system having been overhauled to give you more resource points for completing team goals. A steady flow of good performances now mean you can afford to bring multiple upgrades to subsequent races, giving you a noticeably better performing car, and a greater shot at a better finish in future events. The faster flow of upgrades feels far more rewarding than the slow trickle of past games, letting you make tangible gains on the opposition over a season. To keep things interesting in the long run, regulation changes at the end of the year can completely wipe out an upgrade tree, resetting the grid order in the process, making it possible for new teams to rise to the top, and the current dominant teams fall to the midfield.

Each team has a unique upgrade path for each of the four performance departments, and each can be directly influenced by your interactions with the media, who will hound you occasionally after a session with questions on your performance. Keeping your team morale high will keep upgrade costs down along with decreasing the chances of parts failing during development, while saying the wrong thing and upsetting them will have the opposite effect. Although answering the same questions regularly gets tiresome fast, the resulting morale changes to your team make the hassle worth it.

Performing above expectations puts you in a stronger position for contract negotiations, which thanks to the changes to the upgrade system, feels like a more relevant and rewarding process than before. A high driver value gives you more room to push for a deal that will generate more resource points, including the new addition of contract perks, which can grant strong bonuses from extra resource points for upgrades up to faster pit stops.

The only disappointment remains the muted damage system, once a marquee feature of Codemaster’s titles, once again looking like it’s been unchanged since the series' early days.

Eight new classic cars join the twelve from last year’s F1 game, representing a gorgeous range of vehicles from the sport’s history in addition to the monstrous beasts of the 2018 season. All of the game’s cars look impeccably recreated; the meticulous detailing of the winglets and carbon fiber on the modern cars being a highlight, despite the much-maligned ‘halo’ surrounding the cockpit. Each of the game’s 21 locations has been given a lick of paint, too, and look gorgeous whether under lights, baking sun or a heavy downpour. Joining the calendar for the first time is the new Circuit Paul Ricard in France, a labyrinthian maze of tarmac and colored lines with a slightly confusing layout, and the return of the mighty Hockenheimring in Germany, a personal favorite. The only disappointment remains the muted damage system, once a marquee feature of Codemaster’s titles, once again looking like it’s been unchanged since the series' early days.

The difference in driving feel between the modern and classic cars is huge; where the modern cars demand a certain finesse with the controls to get the most speed, the older cars let you slide around and wrestle with the wheel a lot more. But the real enjoyment comes from driving the 2018 hybrids, with their unbelievable power and grip being bolstered by two new simulation elements in the form of the ERS deployment controls and the new tire carcass temperature model.

While both sound minor on paper, they make an incredible addition to the element of strategy through a race. The ERS system controls the amount of power deployed from the car’s hybrid battery, giving you six different settings to play with, from zero to full deployment. You can change it on the fly to attack the car in front or defend a move from behind, adding an extra tactical element at your fingertips. It can be overwhelming to manage initially, requiring a little thumb dancing on the control pad--it’s much easier with a wheel. Although if that all sounds too much for you, it can be fully automated so you don’t have to worry about changing it while trying to focus on driving.

The tire carcass temperature model is more complex and is the series' biggest step into simulation territory yet, measuring both the surface and inside temperatures of a tire to give a more accurate simulation of how it should wear while you drive on it. If you drive them too hard, or use the wrong compound in the wrong conditions, the tire will overheat and you’ll have to slow down to bring them back into their working temperature range. It puts a stronger emphasis on managing your tires through different driving styles, especially in the longer races, and the way overdriving the tires has an adverse effect on car handling and grip is superb.

The simulation-like additions to the driving model bring you closer than ever to the feeling of sitting on the grid with 1000+ horsepower at your feet.

The racing AI feel more aggressive than ever in F1 2018, and it makes for a noticeably more intense racing experience. Drivers not only defend the inside line into a corner, they will generally make more of a nuisance of themselves when trying to overtake you, rarely conceding a corner unless you’ve managed to put them in a bad position. Multiplayer has been revamped to include a new safety rating, which measures how cleanly you race in ranked lobbies, and a skill rank to matchmake you with other racers of like skill level. However, due to the pre-release nature of the build, we have yet to test the robustness of these rankings.

F1 2018 is brilliant, and the most complete Formula One game to date. The changes to career mode make it the strongest and most appealing it’s ever been thanks to the revamped upgrade system, while the simulation-like additions to the driving model bring you closer than ever to the feeling of sitting on the grid with 1000+ horsepower at your feet, without overwhelming those who just want to jump in and drive.

Editor's note: This will remain a review in progress until we test F1 2018's online modes at launch.

The Walking Dead - The Final Season Episode 1: Done Running Review

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/14/2018 - 20:00

Editor's note: The review contains spoilers for The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. Throughout Telltale's The Walking Dead, we have seen what living in a zombified hellscape can do to people. The one perpetual ray of hope was in Clementine, the little girl whose soul you've been trying to protect since the first hour of the first season, and the character you control in Telltale's latest chapter. She was one of the depressingly few children left, now forced to grow up in a hostile world of zombies, desperate survivors, treacherous backcountry, deathtrap cities, and, above all, rampant, indiscriminate, ignoble death. We've seen, in New Frontier, what this world does to her. It has robbed the music from her voice. She carried the tragedies she has endured like a ball and chain wrapped around her neck.

It's worth mentioning that sad, storied history to understand just how strangely heartening it is that The Walking Dead's final season kicks off on a note of… well, hope is a strong word. Acceptance may be closer to the truth. Having known so little else of the world before, Clementine having pushed past her broken, bloody adolescence into early adulthood with her sanity intact may be the greatest blessing Telltale could've possibly given her character.

Without a doubt, much of that likely comes down to necessity. While we never see the how of it all, when Done Running begins it is at least six or seven years after the events of A New Frontier and Clementine has found A.J., the ersatz adopted son who was taken away by her authoritarian caretakers in Richmond, Virginia. The episode starts with Clementine behind the wheel of a muscle car, racing through the backroads with A.J. in the backseat. If we didn't know that walkers could be literally anywhere, it could just be a young mother and their son on a road trip to see family. There are smiles, Clementine jokes around with toys to make A.J. laugh in the face of his hunger, and the trials of figuring out the next move or where the next meal is coming are treated as facts of life rather than crushing burden. Life among the walkers is now a simple truth, and both Clem and A.J. have grown into people who have adjusted accordingly.

The same can be said of Telltale itself, which has also evolved the long-stagnant gameplay of the series. The camera is now fully controllable in action sequences, over Clementine's shoulder. QTEs are still a core element of gameplay, but you can now face walkers more proactively, walking up and choosing whether to go for a stab to the head directly or target its kneecaps before destroying the head. Walkers that get too close still need to be fought off by spamming an action button, but extra care has to be taken now--if more than one walker catches Clem off guard, it's game over. Later in the episode, environmental traps can be triggered, which help give Clementine a little more breathing room. While not a problem on PC, there is a little bit of confusion when going from the third-person camera to having to use the classic cursor for certain segments on consoles, and not being able to separately adjust how the camera and cursor control is a missed opportunity. Still, the complaints about Telltale's games being little more than Dragon's Lair with branching dialogue have been somewhat muted.

The art style and the graphics have seen a similar once-over, stepping ever-so-slightly away from trying to be a 1:1 translation of the original Walking Dead comics. Character models are handled as usual, save for the updated lighting system introduced in The Walking Dead Collection. However, much of the background details take on a rougher, more abstract nature that grants a beautiful, lurid contrast to the sharper character models in the daytime, and makes the horrors that visit at night even harder to see in the distance. A cellar sequence late in the episode may be one of the most legitimately effective pure horror sequences in the entire series due to lighting that obscure whether a walker is on the other side of the room or literally right behind you.

It's such a rarity that the responsibilities of motherhood are treated with care and respect in a video game, and the stakes are sky high when so much of Clementine's motherhood revolves around how to best avoid or deal out death.

The game still plays to Telltale’s greatest strength, which is branching storytelling. The tables have been turned somewhat, however most of Done Running isn't necessarily about furthering the plot, or creating tense scraps for Clementine to shoot her way out of, but sheer exploration and observation in a unique scenario we’ve never seen in the series. After an encounter with a group of Walkers goes sideways on Clementine and A.J., they convalesce at Ericson Academy, a long-forgotten, isolated, boarding school where the adults are either dead or have abandoned their young charges. Clementine is surrounded, for the first time, by well-written, fully-fleshed out children and teenagers. A couple of them had lives before the walkers, but most don't. There is no old world for them to miss, as many were too young when the dead started turning to mourn having parents at all.

Much of the dialogue, then, is focused less on deciding how Clementine will survive going forward, but seeing exactly how other kids have adjusted in this insanity and deciding how much she wants to join them. How you've played Clementine in the past may determine how much distance you want to put between Clem and this community. Everyone knows what happens to tight-knit groups in this world, and while the kids may have some measure of grace about "the same thing that always happens" happening to one of their own, it begs the question of how much you want to get invested. One of the big moments of the episode is meeting the leader, Marlon, and his big burly, walker-mauling pit bull named Rosie. Series veterans will remember very, very well what happened the last time Clementine met a dog, and the memory of that horror is all over her face when Rosie appears. Choosing to get over that fear goaded by Marlon's assertions that she's a sweetheart of a dog when there aren't walkers around may very well be one half of the Rosetta Stone to how you should play Clementine for the episode.

The other half, however, is A.J., and it's in him that much of the tension of the episode and, you can guess, the season will come from. Much of the series thus far has been about you playing caretaker and benefactor over Clementine's soul, keeping her sane throughout unfathomable terror. A.J., on the other hand, is not only younger than Clementine was when this all started, but hasn’t had nearly as much exposure to people as she did at the same age. And like every young child, A.J. is an information sponge for the world around him.

One of the first prompts you get in game states "A.J. is always listening.". It's true. A.J. sees every action Clementine takes, takes everything she tells him as gospel, and generally follows her lead. So much of his life has been just the two of them; however, many of the lessons come back to literally bite them (or, rather, vice versa). Once they arrive at Ericson, A.J. instinctively attacks people who try sneaking up behind him, bites people who approach him the wrong way, and tends to scrounge for materials, not caring whether they belong to someone else. One of the big decisions of the episode is whether to allow him to sleep on the floor their first night, with A.J. explaining that it would help him hide from walkers, and he could help protect Clementine better from a place of safety. It's a little heartbreaking, and yet, it's up to you whether that sad fact of his existence is worth breaking knowing that it might come in handy later. A much bigger, more lethal lesson is imparted early on that could majorly turn around on you in the last moments of the episode if you play it a certain way. It's such a rarity that the responsibilities of motherhood are treated with care and respect in a video game, and the stakes are sky high when so much of Clementine's motherhood revolves around how to best avoid or deal out death.

The full scope and breadth of The Walking Dead: The Final Season has yet to be laid out, though perhaps the best hint can be found in the game's fancy, HBO-esque title sequence, showing Clementine and A.J. walking into Ericson, but also showing a silhouetted dead walker rotting away in the front yard, being overtaken by ivy, and, eventually, sprouting a yellow flower. Beautiful things are possible in the new world and the new ways to play that Telltale has laid out in Done Running. But something ugly and horrifying is likely to happen first, and it is going to be captivating to watch.

Phantom Doctrine Review: Tactical Espionage Action

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/14/2018 - 16:00

It's 1983. The Cold War is underway and there's a global conspiracy being perpetrated by a mysterious organization called Beholder. Fighting against Beholder are you and your rival organization, The Cabal. In Phantom Doctrine, you have the choice of playing as either an American CIA or a Russian KGB agent in charge of their own group of spies, but regardless of your alliance, every move you make needs to be carefully considered or there will be world-ending consequences. This feeling of high stakes strategic decision-making and a constant sense of urgency will become second nature as you progress through this engrossing campaign.

Tension and suspicion are ingrained throughout Phantom Doctrine to great effect. Its isometric turn-based combat system is rewardingly complex, steeped with the feeling of paranoia, where every variable decision and tactic needs to be carefully considered--even before a mission begins. The sprawling narrative is full of intriguing characters and plot twists befitting of a spy epic, with a distinct sense of distrust in voice performances (both Russian and English), and a noir soundtrack to perpetuate the overall atmosphere.

The isometric turn-based tactical combat system may look outwardly similar to other games in the same genre--action points, cover, and overwatch will be familiar concepts--but there are also many unique intricacies to internalize, and it will take some time to learn due to a large number of options available when it comes to completing objectives. Going in loud and hard is a viable option, and Phantom Doctrine even features an exciting room-breaching mechanic. But it is far more rewarding to use stealth tactics due to the wealth of strategies available. You can send in a couple of disguised spies and do everything underneath the enemy's nose; you can use your supports to help scout out an optimal path, snipe troublesome minions, or send in a smoke grenade as a distraction; you can silently eliminate everyone and hide the bodies before anyone notices; you can even send in sleeper agents to do your dirty work for you.

You can also choose to sacrifice some of your mission time to conduct a reconnaissance run, which will place you in a much better position during the subsequent mission since it opens up the options of strategically placed support agents and disguises. But if you find yourself in a time-sensitive position, then no support options will be available and the margins of error are much narrower. While you can still complete missions in whatever manner you see fit, a single false move can carry greater consequences to your campaign, compared to the relatively leniency that proper preparation and contingencies can give you. Should a mission go sideways, hard decisions must be made, such as whether to leave an agent behind and risk them getting captured, or trying to evacuate everyone at the risk of no one surviving. These field missions are exciting because Phantom Doctrine manages to balance many complex, variable mechanics with a welcome flexibility in tactical decision-making, making it satisfying to play, characteristically distinct, and thematically appropriate.

The base- and character-building elements of Phantom Doctrine are just as well realized as the combat systems. These utilize a familiar ant farm-style perspective that splits your base into distinct areas, such as a workshop and analytics department and interrogation rooms, all of which are available to upgrade through the course of the campaign. The most noteworthy room, however, is the intelligence boardroom. Here, Phantom Doctrine takes the well-known investigative trope of "corkboard covered with photos and strings” and turns it into an enjoyable minigame.

As your agents uncover intelligence and find secret files from missions and informants, everything will be collected and pinned to a corkboard, requiring you to decipher the procedurally-generated clues in order to unlock bonuses or progress the narrative. It's the perfect mechanical expression to amplify Phantom Doctrine's espionage themes, and figuring out how a collection of clues relate to one another by linking them all together with yarn is immensely satisfying.

However, don't think that your corkboards and HQ are entirely safe from harm. Enemy spies are constantly looking for you during more macro-oriented strategy sections, and if you send your spies to participate in more attention-grabbing activities, you risk your location being discovered. If found out, you'll be forced to relocate your entire base of operations and be set back in your campaign, or be hit with an ambush. It's a compelling consideration that keeps you cautious and thinking twice about every move you make.

As a senior agent, you're also in charge of hiring, training, and assigning jobs around the globe to your fellow spies. The character-leveling system is deep, and it requires careful strategic planning to build and grow a team of agents while making sure you have access to a wide range of skills and abilities that can be applied across various mission types. You will also occasionally need to make executive decisions that can affect a fellow agent's relationship with you, for better or worse. They may be caught in a tough situation abroad and you're given the choice to leave them, dedicate some resources to help them, or launch an all-out rescue. Depending on your choice, the agent may become more loyal to you, go AWOL, or even defect.

But the game will also sometimes throw unexpected events at you that occur beyond your control, such as a spy that you've employed for a majority of your campaign game revealing themselves to be a double agent the whole time. More shockingly, there's the potential to discover that one of your best spies is a brainwashed sleeper agent in the midst of battle, and have them turn against your team. Traitorous surprises can happen procedurally in addition to being part of the plot, and they brutally emphasize the Cold War paranoia that Phantom Doctrine conveys, creating genuinely upsetting, but incredibly effective, moments.

While all-encompassing paranoia is perfectly encapsulated in Phantom Doctrine's mechanics, writing, and voice acting, the visual presentation leaves much to be desired. Cutscenes are sparse, and still images are the primary narrative delivery device, but neither is particularly easy on the eyes. The cutscenes are drab, and while the still images fare a little better, most are unimaginative. The most egregiously noticeable elements are the character models, which all look unnatural and outdated, and the monotonous location design which makes most places look unremarkable and virtually identical.

In spite of the lackluster visuals, Phantom Doctrine succeeds in making an incredible impression with its intricate and engaging mechanics. There is a lot to admire, with a single-player campaign taking about 40 hours to complete, full of varied and interesting mainline missions and procedurally-generated side content. The ability to play as either a CIA, KGB, or Mossad agent (the latter unlocked after one complete playthrough) also offers the tantalizing prospect of different narrative perspectives. Phantom Doctrine takes the familiar framework of isometric turn-based strategy and confidently repurposes it into a unique and satisfying experience. It wholly embodies the paranoia and tension of the 1980's Cold War setting in every aspect of its numerous gameplay systems, and completely immerses you in that all-encompassing state of mind.

Flipping Death Review: The Scythe Life

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 08/13/2018 - 06:00

Despite its focus on death and the afterlife, Flipping Death is a charming and wholesome adventure. Its zany and often eccentric characters bring the well-paced story to life with fantastic voice acting and a gorgeous 2D art style. Despite some frustrating platforming elements, its campy humor and satisfying puzzle mechanics make it a delightful journey throughout.

Flipping Death puts you in the shoes of the recently departed Penny, a young girl who is accidentally thrown into the job of covering for Death. The role turns out to be rather elaborate, and you’re quickly tasked with helping ghosts resolve their unfinished business. In addition, you’ll have to help the wonderfully sassy Penny attempt to figure out how to return to the world of the living.

In order to give these dead folk a hand and solve various puzzles, you’ll be frequently switching between the worlds of the dead and living by using your trusty scythe to possess mortals and take advantage of their special abilities. Some actions need to happen in one world before the other and vice versa, such as using a person's extraordinarily long tongue in the world of living to paint the boat of a deceased captain, or using a doctor's set of defibrillators to bring a recently passed ghost back to life. You'll need to constantly flip between the two worlds and experiment with character abilities in order to find the right solutions.

Although a majority of solutions are distinct, the repetition of a few mechanics makes some puzzles predictable towards the end of the game. But at the same time, there are some that require a few too many flips in order to figure out the absurd logic behind the game’s ludicrous world. One such puzzle requires a young girl to fall down a chimney to be covered in ash, and in her new darkened state scare a fireman watching horror movies--literally to death--so he can then come to the afterlife and put out the fire on top of a ghost's head. There is a hint system which can help you when you hit a roadblock, but the clues aren’t very subtle and don’t leave much left for you to figure out. However, seeing these strange events play out is enjoyable for the spectacle alone.

The possession mechanic means it’s easy to get sidetracked, testing each ability on other characters and the environment to see what odd results occur--which is convenient because that’s exactly what you’ll need to do to complete the wacky side challenges in each chapter and unlock Ghost Cards. These collectible cards give a pleasant layer of insight into the lives of the ghosts you’re trying to help and mortals you’ve been manipulating.

And the interactions you have with each character, whether it be with the awkward police officer who lacks confidence or the local “superhero” whose power is to literally just poke people, are silly and humorous. It’s hard not to smile at all the bizarre situations they get themselves into. It helps that the voice acting is performed well, with every line delivered with a devotion and passion that makes sure there’s never a dull moment, as well as ensuring the humor lands. Some jokes can be overplayed, but for the most part, I was chuckling from beginning to end, and it was always a joy to meet a new set of characters.

Penny herself seemingly embodies the voice of every person who has played a point-and-click adventure game, as she's constantly questioning and being bewildered by each character's thoughts and actions. Acting as a foil to the many antics happening around her, she provides much of the humor and is a rather refreshing protagonist. She keeps the story engaging through each chapter with her smart quips and unyieldingly sassy personality.

The world of Flipping Death also feels lovingly crafted, filled with intricate details and diverse color palettes that bring each scene and character to life like a magnificent puppet show. The sprawling environments of Flatwood Peaks are occasionally reimagined to tell the story in interesting and unexpected ways, and a fast-travel system helps to make sure backtracking never feels like too much of a chore. A diverse instrumental soundtrack also accompanies your adventures, filling in the quieter moments but never intruding or distracting from conversations or puzzle solving.

The one area where Flipping Death really falls flat is when you’re forced into annoying platforming sections in order to collect wandering souls and other odd currencies required to possess each character. These sections feel as if they exist solely to pad out the story and act as a break from puzzles, but the game’s controls aren’t accurate or satisfying enough for them to be any fun. Platforming quickly becomes an annoying gatekeeper that stops you from continuing to enjoy the rest of the game.

Flipping Death's logic is sometimes too ridiculous for its own good, and frustrating platforming sections add some tarnish. But the game’s silly puzzles, self-aware humor, and crazy characters still make a wonderful experience filled with plenty of chuckles, which help to leave you satisfied as the credits roll.

We Happy Few Review - Joyless

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/11/2018 - 01:23

Just like the forcibly stretched grins of its inhabitants, the joy found in We Happy Few is a facade. The game's fascinating setting of a drug-fueled society wasting away in fake happiness is squandered on repetitive environments, poorly paced and downright boring quest designs, and a variety of confusing mechanics that never find harmony with each other. Its three individual tales of survival manage to deliver some surprisingly poignant moments, but We Happy Few does its best to dissuade you from wanting to play long enough to see them through.

We Happy Few takes place in a timeline where Germany reigned victorious after World War II and has England bowing to their whims. Children are sent to the German mainland without reason, and the quiet town of Wellington Wells is plunged into a drug-induced mirage of peaceful, happy co-existence. With pills called "Joy" helping citizens forget the atrocities of the past, uprising is far less likely. But this fake sense of tranquility brings about its own problems. Citizens refusing to live under Joy's medicinal spell are outcast to the borders of city, forced to live in decrepit, crumbling houses while they wait to starve to death. The citizens of Wellington Wells are always happy to see you, but only if you abide by their rules.

Enter Arthur, Sally and Ollie--the three characters you'll control throughout three acts that show all sides of this horrific society. Arthur suffers from post-traumatic stress, reliving the moments where he lost his brother to the German kidnappings. Sally hides a secret within the walls of Wellington Wells while also providing black market drugs to those who pay enough. Ollie is just a confused war veteran, disturbed by events of the past that have shaped his future. The more personal aspects of each character end up being more interesting than the mythos surrounding them. Each new perspective lends context to previously puzzling interactions to create clever "aha" moments, and the stories have powerful themes of abandonment, parental sacrifice, and overbearing guilt. Each finds a satisfying (if not always happy) end to their journey, despite the mechanics fighting actively against you reaching their climax.

In Early Access (where the game sat for nearly two years), We Happy Few was a survival game. That's mostly stayed the same, despite the structure of its design changing around it. As any character, you'll need to manage meters for hunger, thirst, tiredness, and more (Ollie actually needs to watch his blood sugar, of all things), which impose penalties and buffs on your fighting and movement abilities. Early on, managing these statuses is difficult, with a scarcity of resources while you're still coming to grips with We Happy Few's many rules. But they soon end up being just frustrating. The resources to replenish them aren't hard to find, but constantly having to tend to them when you're just wanting to get along with the story is arduous.

There is an unbelievable number of items to pick up and carry in We Happy Few, but only a small handful end up being useful. You’ll frequently be forced to pick up flowers to craft healing balms or bobby pins for lockpicks, for example. But vials of toxins that can knock out or kill enemies don't give you a reason to choose one or the other. The crafting menus for each character change based on their abilities, but the core items that are shared between all three are likely the only ones you'll actually utilize--the specialized items hardly necessitate their complex requirements. It feels like such a waste having a vast crafting system attached to a game that never puts you in a situation where it feels necessary. We Happy Few has many ideas strewn across its menus but nothing mechanically that requires their use.

This frustration is only exacerbated by the lack of interesting quests to undertake in We Happy Few's relatively large open world. Its inhabitants treat you as their delivery boy, never giving you anything more complex than walking to an area, picking something up, and walking all the way back. Quest design works counterintuitively to the idea of having to scrounge to survive. Even if you wanted to reach into the world's nooks and crannies to find something interesting, inquisitive eyes are rarely met with any rewards aside from the plethora of items you probably already have stashed in your inventory. There's a point in Arthur's story where he exclaims, after a multi-staged questline, "All that, just to reboot a bridge?" and it feels like he's crying out for help from you directly.

What attempts to break up this straightforward structure are the rules of Wellington Wells. Outside of its walls you'll be forced to don tattered clothing to fit in with the rest of the depressing crowd, as well as fighting off temptations to steal from their strewn-about dwellings. Inside is another story entirely. The inhabitants of Joy-infested cities will be quick to throw up arms should you do anything but walk. Haunting guards and eerie Joy-sniffing doctors pose a threat to your blending in, which can force you to pop some pills from time to time. Their effects keep you hidden for a time but have devastating withdrawal symptoms that prevent you from masking your depression, which can have an entire city on your tail in mere seconds.

The setting sounds intriguing on paper: a system where stealth is managed by social interactions and conformity. But its execution is lacking. Obeying the strictly imposed rules is trivial and only slows down your progress towards the next quest marker, negating any sense of tension they might have imposed. Outside, the rules are looser, but there's also far less to look at. You'll spend a lot of time simply sprinting through empty fields with no discernable landmarks, only to be greeted by another bridge into another strict state that brings progress to a crawl. It's a disappointing misuse of a system that might have otherwise been engrossing.

It feels like We Happy Few understands many of its mechanics are a chore to begin with.

The character progression system is even more underdeveloped. While each of the three characters has some unique characteristics, the abilities you're able to purchase are largely shared between them, and many give you ways to turn some of We Happy Few's rules off entirely. One allows you to sprint through cities without rousing alarm for example, while another lets you ignore annoying night curfews entirely. It feels like a concession--like We Happy Few understands many of its mechanics are a chore to begin with.

When rules aren't being (mercifully) stripped away, they often just don't work. The night curfew, for example, will have guards turn hostile should they spot you. But conceal yourself on a bench, and they inexplicably ignore you entirely. Melee combat is monotone and predictably boils down to you exhausting your stamina swinging your weapon and then simply blocking until it recharges. When you're not being forced to contend with that, you'll be sneaking around enemies with a barely functioning stealth system. Enemies are inconsistent in their ability to spot you, sometimes walking across your path without a whiff of suspicion. Their patrol lines are easy to spot and never deviate, making the reward of a successful infiltration feel remarkably hollow. Most times they're just far too predictable. They'll stare for extended periods at distractions you conjure and fail to search an area after spotting you briefly. We Happy Few's stealth is so transparently binary that it just feels like you're cheating the system most of the time.

It's a shame that so many of these systems never fit together in a cohesive way, especially when the world itself is overflowing with potential. There's some rich environmental storytelling in We Happy Few, even if its visual variety is shallow. It's striking to transition from dilapidated walls with mad ravings written across them to neatly structured hollows parallel with rainbow roads. The way We Happy Few mixes up its visual representation based on your character's mental states is clever, too. On Joy you'll witness double rainbows as far as the eye can see, with a shiny veneer encapsulating the overly cheery nature of your character. Withdrawal sours this into a dreary grey world where the sounds of flies and visions of decay replace usually unremarkable facets of the environment.

This blends well with We Happy Few's interpretation of the era. Monochrome television screens hang from awnings and play the propaganda-filled ravings of the enigmatic Uncle Jack swing towards you as you pass with a startling red hue. The stretched faces of Wellington Wells' most behaved citizens are off-putting in a brilliantly creepy way, even if there's such a lack of distinct character models that you'll find multiple identical faces hanging out on a single street corner. Cartoonish robotic contraptions mingle in more strictly secure areas and whistle off cheery tunes as they pass by. They also tend to mess about with the pathfinding for Wellington's human inhabitants, which is hilarious only the first few times. For everything that We Happy Few gets right in terms of world building, its gameplay leads it astray.

For everything that We Happy Few gets right in terms of world building, its gameplay leads it astray.

Technical issues plague We Happy Few too, ranging from mildly annoying to borderline game-breaking. Characters will often clip through the floor or disappear entirely as you approach. Shifts between night and day see characters appear and disappear from one second to the next. The framerate suffers on capable PC hardware. Quest logs will sometimes not refresh, while getting an item at the wrong time failed to trigger a quest milestone, forcing me to reload an older save. Audio can disappear from cutscenes entirely for long stretches of time. From numerous angles, We Happy Few is in rough shape.

But even if you are able to overlook its technical shortcomings or perhaps wait for more stable patches in the future, We Happy Few's biggest problems are ones that are hard to remedy. Its entire gameplay loop is underpinned by boring quests and long stretches of inaction. And even when it forces you to interact with its world beyond just walking to waypoints, combat, stealth, and otherwise fascinating societies fail to impose the right balance of challenge and tension. There's a clear lack of direction that We Happy Few is never able to shake, which wastes its intriguing setting. It does manage to weave each of its three stories cohesively into a larger tale, but it's also one that's never critical enough to earn the right to repeat "happiness is a choice" any chance it can. There are just too many hurdles to overcome to enjoy We Happy Few, and not enough Joy in the world to cast them aside.

Unavowed Review: Dressed To Possess

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 08/09/2018 - 04:00

Unavowed sounds straightforward on paper. It's a classic-style point-and-click game about demonic possession set in New York City with people to talk to, and puzzles to solve. However, as you get to know its characters and fall further into its mystery, it becomes increasingly clear that Unavowed is much more than it appears: it's a brilliantly written adventure that makes you care deeply about its inhabitants and subverts your expectations.

Many tales involving demonic possession typically conclude with the entity being banished from its host, but in Unavowed, this is where the story begins. Your character wakes up on a rain-soaked Brooklyn rooftop with a hazy memory, surrounded by people you've never met. To your horror, they inform you that you've spent over a year slaughtering people throughout New York and there's a citywide manhunt for your capture. They are the Unavowed: an ancient, hidden order of demon-hunters dedicated to protecting the city from all kinds of supernatural threats. With the spirit seemingly gone, you join their ranks and work to piece together the what, how and why of your demon's bloody murder spree across the city.

It's a good setup for any mystery, but Unavowed sets itself apart with charismatic, fascinating characters and stellar writing. From the members of the Unavowed to bystanders you encounter on street corners, every inhabitant of this version of New York is a compelling character study. A struggle with alcoholism, the burden of generational history, and deep sadness of personal obligations are some of the powerful ingredients that are deftly woven into future quests and conversations in ways that organically reveal themselves to be integral to the game's fiction.

For your own character, three origin stories--bartender, actor, or cop--factor into your interactions. Not only does this change how you're able to interact with people in certain situations, but entire sections of the game will be entirely unique based on your initial choice. There's a surprising replayability to Unavowed--on my second playthrough as an actor, I experienced numerous conversations and encounters that I had no idea even existed the first time around as a bartender, and these lent new perspectives to the overarching narrative.

As you recruit and develop relationships with your team members, they'll quickly grow into well-rounded characters, complete with their own fears, desires, and vexes. These personalities are fleshed-out through incredible writing and voice-acting that genuinely conveys a human experience. It's a strength that permeates the dozen or so hours of the game; their individual histories and shared trauma inform how they interact with you, the world, and each other. In Unavowed, getting drawn into a lengthy conversation is a joy.

But it is the overall mystery that is at the forefront of your adventure here. Investigations lead you all over the city--Brooklyn, Staten Island, Chinatown, Wall Street, The Bronx--and locations are beautifully realized in the colorful 2D artwork. As you progress, you'll need to navigate delicate relationships with business owners and neighbors as you journey to discover the true intention of your ex-demon, who has been manipulating the fear and anguish of these same people.

You'll also need to solve puzzles to defend yourself against ghosts, release tormented souls, and uncover layers of the mystery. The quests you're tasked with are varied and often unpredictable. You might be trying to decipher a hand-written code for an office keypad one minute, and trying to release an interdimensional dragon before it devours you the next. Some puzzles are satisfying to solve through deductive reasoning, and others serve as narrative tools that absorb you into the story. A number of branching choices also arise throughout the game, and they never feel fleeting--even the smallest moments often prove to be consequential in some respect. In addition, because you're limited in only taking two members of your team on any given mission, you have to weigh your choices carefully. Who you bring impacts your puzzle-solving and dialogue options, as well as possible outcomes based on a character's history with an area, their individual talents, and the existing relationships they may have with people you encounter--the number of possibilities here is impressive.

But Unavowed's greatest strength is that it maintains an admirable focus on incredible characterization that feeds into every quest and conversation. Every question you ask, every decision you make, and every sacrifice you make carries you and your team members on an impassioned journey that epitomizes the best qualities of an adventure game. It never rests on tropes, a strong sense of empathy is present through its entirety, and not only do you come to wholly understand character motivations, the way these people deal with supernatural situations helps to build a bond between them and you as a player. From its wonderfully realized locations and its inviting, three-dimensional characters, Unavowed will have you eager to discover the captivating stories lurking in the demonic underworld of New York City.

Monster Hunter World Review - Deadliest Catch

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/07/2018 - 17:37

While some fans of the series were disappointed when Monster Hunter XX came to the Switch as a Japan-only exclusive, the good news is that we don't have to suffer in region-imposed torture any longer. The latest big fish in the franchise's pond, Monster Hunter World, is finally here, and it blows the previous western releases out of the water.

For seasoned players, the gameplay loop in Monster Hunter World is immediately recognisable. Your job is a cycle that involves crafting weapons, bulking up, killing monsters, and looting them for materials. However, a well-crafted narrative has not traditionally been a part of that gameplay loop, and that may have been a deterrent for those looking for a foothold into the franchise in the past. Luckily for them, the first major point of difference here from the previous mainline titles is the way that the plot and gameplay are grafted together. A spinoff, Monster Hunter Stories, stepped off the beaten track by introducing a simple yet satisfying narrative, and now Monster Hunter World solidifies that step by using the building blocks of previous narrative concepts to deliver a well-paced experience that spends more time focusing on the bigger picture.

While you spend a lot of time chasing an Elder Dragon that wouldn't look out of place in the movie Pacific Rim, Monster Hunter World's choice to integrate Guild and Village quests into one coherent story cuts out any confusion or ambiguity that new players may feel when it comes to figuring out which quests progress your journey. The fact that everything is tuned for a rewarding solo experience is a plus--it's entirely possible to pump through 60 hours of quests without ever interacting with another player online. And when combined with more intelligent monster AI, facing off against a fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus-like creature on your own makes the stakes feel even higher.

On top of the story, which revolves around the mystery of why the aforementioned Elder Dragon has appeared in the game's new region, there have been some quality-of-life changes that ease your transition into the world of monster hunting. Instead of frontloading a lot of text-based tutorials as in previous titles, you now have a Handler who doles out helpful information to you as you progress through zones of increasing complexity. It can feel a bit like having an annoying younger sibling tagging along on otherwise deadly adventures, but her vocal cues and vast knowledge about monster types are helpful when encountering new enemies for the first time. This assistance ceases when you start cutting your teeth on High Rank monsters, but hearing about new skills and immediately putting them into practice in the field is an excellent way to learn about the game from the ground up.

Monster Hunter World feels like an open-world game to some extent, with fantastically large maps of a scale that we haven't seen before (both vertically and horizontally), no discernable game-pausing loading screens between zones in hunting areas, and a wealth of beautifully rendered environments to slaughter colossal monsters in. A helpful addition to this new world is the swarm of scoutflies that serve as a way to track monsters and other objectives.

Navigating the vastness of those areas without scoutflies would have been incredibly tedious. Once you've located a few traces of a monster's path in a zone, your scoutflies automatically track it to its current location. Gather up enough clues over time and soon your insectoid minions will be able to predict where a certain monster is located based on past movements. This is very useful for investigation missions with tight time frames at higher ranks and sticks to your canon characterisation: a seasoned hunter who understands their prey. Except, perhaps, when said prey glitches through two stories' worth of foliage and can't be attacked with any weapons that you've got on hand. Fortunately, those instances are few and far between.

Part of the ability to capitalise on a monster's weakness is the smart use of all the tools in your hunting arsenal, with the most important being your weapon of choice. The Hunter Arts from Monster Hunter Generations have been removed, and the game's focus is solely on your ability to dish out ridiculous amounts of damage using your respective weapon's combo. Light weapons are still the most mobile while the technical weapons are still the most difficult to understand and master, but there are ample opportunities to get experience with whichever blade, bow, or lance you've decided on. Weapon upgrade trees are all viewable at a glance, and the ability to make a wishlist of parts for your next upgrade makes the process more convenient, and helps you decide which expeditions to focus on.

Bowguns in particular have received the most notable facelift: it appears that there has been an effort to mimic the kind of playstyle you'd have in a third-person shooter, and this is most apparent when you're firing from the hip with the light bowgun. That doesn't necessarily change the strategy needed; you'll still have to make effective use of environmental hazards, traps, barrel bombs, and dung in order to chase down your quarry. There are now more ways to get a leg up on monsters, which make combat encounters more accessible to different playstyles. Elemental effects are all the rage once more, with weapons boasting essential new perks that have evolved alongside the enemies that you forge them from, and the benefits of bringing water to a firefight is a lesson you'll learn early.

Of particular necessity is the ability to mount monsters through aerial combos, or through the slightly less coordinated mad scramble off a cliff onto a creature's back; you're given the opportunity to knock a monster down, which will buy you time to slice off a tail or a claw. While the game will reward you no matter what strategies you take, knowing a monster's weak points is still a must if you strive to upgrade your gear. It's best to nail down your favourite weapon in the Arena--a mode where you test your mettle with specific gear against a monster that you've fought before.

Multiplayer integration is, for the most part, seamless. As mentioned above, there's no distinction between Village and Guild quests anymore, so missions can be done alone or with a friend, and you'll both only have to do it once to complete it. You can start a quest alone in an online session and wait for more hunters to pop in to assist. Alternatively, you can seek out an online session for people of a certain hunter rank, and just go along for the ride if they need a hand with anything. The only qualifier is that some story-focused missions require the leader to either watch a cutscene or discover a monster before others can join.

You can be in the same online session as someone else without having to do the quests that they're doing, which is useful for those who might want to keep an eye on a friend who's new to the franchise. Players who are struggling solo can also send out an SOS flare that lets their friends put together a little rescue party to save the day. In the downtime between adventures, you can do anything from arm wrestling to challenging each other's times on the killing leaderboards.

Getting together with your mates takes a couple of extra steps compared to loading into a multiplayer session on the fly with a stranger. To play with friends alone, you’ll have to join in on their fun via the friends list on the console dashboard, or by sharing a 12-digit session ID. In a game that’s all about momentum and sprinting off into the horizon at the next challenge, getting your hunting posse together is manageable but slightly tedious. That being said, a few minutes to specifically set up a multiplayer session doesn’t necessarily make or break the game.

As expected, Monster Hunter World scales the difficulty up if you're not the only one embarking on the quest. Up to four people can go out into the wilderness at once, and the beta experience has already demonstrated to many how exhilarating group combat can be. The more targets available for monsters, the more unpredictable their movements. This means that while you may have more firepower, it can be harder to lock down a monster that's particularly prone to relentless charging or rapid aggression. Luckily, playing with others gives you the opportunity to try out different weapon compositions, and while unusual weapons like the hunting horn might see minimal use in the solo campaign, its sweet, party-buffing tunes and your teamwork abilities will become crucial to helping your friends take down the most savage of beasts.

While it may seem like quite a bit has changed, there's a hell of a lot in Monster Hunter World that's stayed the same. Whether it's the appearance of draconic series regulars like the Rathalos and the Rathian or the presence of tried and true weapons, the roots of the Monster Hunter franchise are strong with its latest release. Apart from the overall sprucing up of graphics and the cutscenes with full voice-over, the standout improvements really come from the simplification of the existing systems in a way that welcomes newcomers without alienating existing fans. A lack of loading screens makes exploration a pleasure, and tracking new and improved monsters through areas as they rank up means that you've got plenty to conquer once the story quests are complete. There may not be any new weapons, and there may be a Hunter Arts-sized hole left in the hearts of players who spent hours getting good at the various Styles. However, the removal of those old mechanics feels less like a funeral and more like a necessary streamlining.

The PC version of Monster Hunter World, on a superficial level, doesn't exhibit any critical differences in performance compared to the console versions of the game. While running on the highest display settings, we noticed a marked amount of pop-in during some of the more graphically intensive cutscenes, but it wasn’t enough to be off-putting. Some trees in the distance take a little longer to come to life, but you’re often too preoccupied with killing a slavering, townhouse-sized animal to care. The Hunters themselves also generally appear to have warmer, more realistic flesh tones on the PC, but the overall difference in aesthetic mileage is otherwise minimal.

One area where the contrast is stark, however, is in multiplayer accessibility. While the PlayStation 4 version had its hiccups with getting the squad together, those aren’t present at all in the PC version, which makes the most of its integration with Steam to get you playing together in under a couple of minutes. It's refreshingly simple compared to laboriously typing out a string of numbers, or fiddling with the PlayStation 4’s subpar native interface.

Another pleasant difference which you’ll notice while preparing for multiplayer missions is the fact that there’s almost no downtime at all. This might vary based on your network and PC, but in our experience the time between posting a quest and having it ready to go when others join was instant. In comparison, the PlayStation 4 version seems to take its own sweet time when preparing quests within both individual and multiplayer sessions. Like the aesthetic differences between platforms, this is relatively minimal in the grand scheme of things. However, an improvement is still an improvement, and the overall quality of life differences in regards to multiplayer on PC are definitely welcome.

In terms of how the game handles mechanically on PC, the answer is positive. While PC ports of console games have the potential pitfalls of unwieldy control schemes and unintuitive keyboard shortcuts, Monster Hunter World has gracefully avoided these. The default keyboard and mouse combination works well, even when stress-tested under combat situations that require plenty of frantic directional and dodge-rolling inputs. Using the mouse to control both attack inputs as well as overall steering took us the length of the tutorial to get used to, but it never presented an issue in itself. There’s no need to play Twister with your fingers to execute deadly combos here, though fans of the controller input will likely gravitate to the same for efficiency at the end of the day.

Ever since the title was first announced, it was clear that Capcom was gunning for something grander than Monster Hunter Generations. It has succeeded, and this is likely the biggest and best that the franchise has ever been. It's not just the comparative depth of the narrative; it also boasts almost seamless integration between combat systems that were previously incomprehensible for amateurs. The Monster Hunter formula has definitely honed its claws, and all the above factors play their part in making Monster Hunter World a meaningful evolution for the series at large.

Editor's note: This review has been updated to include our experience with the PC version of Monster Hunter World -- August 7, 2018

Overcooked 2 Review - A Great Second Course

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 08/07/2018 - 09:00

Following 2016's co-op cooking hit, Overcooked 2 introduces a fresh set of kitchens and recipes to conquer. Like in the first game, simple controls and a cute, cartoony style lend levity to intense dinner rushes where one mistake can lead to culinary disaster. The fun and chaos of playing with friends is preserved in the sequel, as is the far less exciting reality of playing solo. And while the added online play can't compare to in-person antics, the new throwing mechanic and a host of ridiculous kitchen layouts make for a delightfully frenetic follow-up to a couch co-op favorite.

Like the original, Overcooked 2 takes you from one poorly laid out kitchen to the next, tasking you with cooking as many dishes as possible within a set time limit. Whether alone or with friends, each kitchen poses its own set of problems and hurdles; conveyor belts make basic movement more difficult, floating rafts and hot air balloons cause kitchens to shift under your feet, and the sink is usually nowhere near the dirty plates. It can be hard to figure out how to approach each level, but it's very easy for even the best strategies to devolve into chaos.

Failing is just as fun as success, and Overcooked 2 still serves both the party crowd and more competitive players beautifully. Nothing about cooking is simple except for the controls--each task, like chopping ingredients or washing dishes, requires a single button. The rest is a balancing act that demands precise communication as well as adaptability, because things usually go wrong. The urgent beeping of food that's about to burn can quickly turn into panicked yelling and possibly a fire. It's often a comedy of errors, especially with the max of four people, and successfully serving up dishes at all is a triumph worth celebrating.

Once you get past the initial stress of cooking in a nonsensical kitchen, you can actually start to strategize. With two players, you'll probably put more mental energy toward juggling various tasks, while with more co-chefs, you'll need to be careful not to run into anyone else. There's a very different kind of satisfaction in settling into a groove with your team, timing things perfectly, and maximizing your score. (Plus, calling out "Order up!" just doesn't get old.) It's also an enticing reason to chase higher and higher scores in the arcade mode and challenge another experienced two-person team in the versus mode.

While much of the basic formula remains the same, Overcooked 2 adds the ability to throw raw ingredients. It's a relatively small addition, but it smartly adds to the chaos without overcomplicating it. A block of cheese flying by as you're chopping a tomato makes the kitchen feel more hectic, but it's actually extremely efficient--you can throw meat directly into a frying pan to save time or toss some fish across a moving platform that's blocking your path. Many of the levels take full advantage of the new mechanic, with kitchens split into two parts that intermittently come together. It often makes more sense to station one team member in one part of the kitchen, tossing ingredients over as needed, so you don't run the risk of trapping everyone in one area while things shift.

Overcooked 2 also adds online play, a fine idea that's far less compatible with the best parts of the game. It's a different kind of challenge to cook with limited communication--especially on Switch, thanks to the lack of built-in voice chat--but playing online lacks the urgency of playing with people in the same room. A bit of lag, too, can ruin the flow or cause you to misclick. It's a welcome feature if your co-op partner is far away, though, and better suited for completionists rather than those looking to goof off.

Playing alone is also the domain of completionists, as it's kind of a chore--you switch between two chefs, and it's a matter of smart task management without the fun of communicating and screwing up with other people. While the more complicated kitchens seem impossible to tackle on your own, a lower score threshold means you can still get the full three stars even if you only served a few dishes. Nothing is out of your reach alone, but success just isn't as satisfying.

Overcooked 2 undoubtedly shines in local co-op and the versus arcade modes. New recipes and obstacles provide a fresh challenge for veterans, but it remains approachable for new players with simple controls and short playtimes. The new throwing mechanic, too, adds a new dimension to both strategy and the inevitable chaos without overcomplicating things. It's a strong foundation, and with the right friends, Overcooked 2 is one of the best couch co-op games around.

Dead Cells Review: Rise From Your Grave

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 08/06/2018 - 17:00

Tucked away in a long-forgotten prison lies a corpse. From time to time, a sticky mass of green goo slips into the cell and gives the body a burst of life. Stomping forward, the armored mass of carrion charges through zombies and hordes of undead on a vain quest to find the way out. Fans of Dark Souls will notice… more than a few similarities, for sure, but this particular outing isn't what it appears to be.

Dead Cells is a fascinating amalgam of several of today's most popular indie genres. It juggles elements of tough-as-nails action games and Metroid-inspired exploration platformers, with the procedurally generated levels and random item allotments found in roguelikes. It's impressive how it all comes together without a hitch, especially given that the persistent character growth found in games like Dark Souls or Metroid squarely conflicts with the randomized resets emblematic of Rogue-inspired games.

The balance struck here is one of unlocked opportunities. Each time your avatar stirs back to life, you're given a fresh chance to press through the stages. You encounter them sequentially, so you have an idea of what to expect, but your choices in each will determine your ultimate path. So, for example, while the first stage is always the Prisoner's Quarters, your next hop could be the Promenade of the Condemned or the Toxic Sewers. At first, only the former will be available. But, in time, you'll earn runes that confer permanent changes and open up new routes.

So, while some roguelikes and even Dark Souls could, in theory, be completed in one run without dying, that (so far as we've found) can't happen here. You must progress, die, and then restart to worm your way through the different routes, collecting critical upgrades that give you even more options.

Along the way, of course, you'll have a shuffling inventory with new weapons and skills found in chests or shops. You can also pick up stat upgrades that you lose upon death as well as "cells," which, if you survive your current stage, can be banked for unlocking rare items that will be added to your potential gear lottery pool and permanent bonuses like additional healing items.

Besides the inventory and stage shuffling, combat and platforming are the most critical aspects for you to master. And while Dead Cells executes on all of its mechanics, these two shine brightest. For starters, traversing levels is a smooth, quick process once you've got the basic feel for it. Your movement is precise, with just enough forgiveness to make exacting jumps feel demanding, yet achievable. And this meshes seamlessly with the action.

Enemies will respond to your presence in different ways. Some are unable to see you or react unless you're on their platform and in their direct line of sight, while others will lob grenades at you from across a gap or through platforms, but can't attack directly. Your goal is to read the screen and understand the different abilities of each enemy type, and to use that information to strategize and execute your optimal approach.

Countless other variables such as the presence of doors (which can be opened slowly for a stealth attack or kicked in for a stunning blow) work together to mix things up. Toxic pools, spiked floors, etc. all come together to give the right mix of obstacles and challenging foes. This also plays well with Dead Cells' overall look and tone. Each enemy glows a bit and has a different color scheme and silhouette. The same is true for the stages themselves. Together, these easily identifiable coding systems make it intuitive to read the room and remain focused on the ludicrously quick combat without losing sight of your next target.

That's especially critical because of the zippy pace of bouts, too. Most of the time, you'll have two weapons or a weapon and a shield. This, combined with jumping and dodging, forms the core of your skill set. Once you get the hang of it all, you can effortlessly combine attacks and dodges, and, for instance, freeze an enemy with a spell before rolling behind them and unloading with a quick set of slashes. All of this seems like a chaotic mess at first. And it is--to a degree. Each piece of the combat puzzle is introduced gradually, so you very naturally learn how it fits into the larger picture.

Your nascent exploration through the Prisoner's Quarters and other early-game maps may take around 10 minutes during your first few trips. It feels agonizing, too. You are vulnerable, largely powerless, and unfamiliar with your very dangerous surroundings. So much is left unexplained at the outset that the choice to just go and worry about the rest later comes as second-nature. Still, the going isn't easy and you'll struggle. At least at first.

But each round gives you a different set of toys to play with. The stage will change each time. One route comes and goes, perhaps a new treasure or den of foes takes its place. But that doesn't really matter. The Prisoner's Quarters, while unique with every run, keeps to a certain, persistent theme. The wistful music and basic ideas are the same. Through repetition, you earn not rote memorization of layouts, but the ability to take whatever weapons you get for that run and utilize them to their fullest. In short order, what took 10 minutes at the start takes 30 seconds once you've found your bearings.

What doesn't always quite workout the same way, though, are the latter areas. Fewer opportunities to practice with tougher enemies means that they never quite develop the same level of familiarity. It keeps every attempt feeling tense and exciting, but it can also lead to some frustration. Spending a whole run trying to make it to one spot only to die and have to restart a 15-minute stretch of play again can be grating, but the backstop there is the permanent upgrades.

Even if you can't make it all that far, Prisoner's Quarters is simple enough that you'll have plenty of opportunities to "bank" cells for the aforementioned upgrades. That gives you a sense of constant progress, even when you bomb a run. In fact, the only real issue with the adventure is that some of the better upgrades can take substantially longer than they should. It stalls progress in the mid-game a bit and can lead to a feeling of grinding your wheels. Besides that, though, Dead Cells is a phenomenal effort to blend together some very disparate genres into a tight, cohesive whole. It's one of the better examples of how to remix ideas without losing their individual strengths.

No Man's Sky Next Review: You Are Not Alone

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/04/2018 - 16:00

Nothing about the hype, release, disappointment, and slow, disciplined redemption of No Man's Sky has been typical. As such, the great paradox of the Next update isn't exactly a surprise. It introduces some drastic improvements to the base game, not to mention a great deal of what Hello Games' Sean Murray promised and was pilloried for not delivering at launch. It is a grander, more cohesive experience that makes the infinite expanse of space feel much less lonely. But what Next really ends up emphasizing through all of its quality-of-life improvements and additions was that the game we got on day one was always going to be "the game."

You start out as an amnesiac astronaut stranded on a random planet with a broken ship that, once repaired, takes you on a potentially neverending search through a near-infinite universe. What you seek can vary; it may be answers that explain your identity crisis and the odd state of the universe or a wealth of natural resources to fund an extended tour of strange, far-off planets. Though you begin as a disadvantaged lost soul, it's entirely possible to study your surroundings, take advantage of what they have to offer, and become a social and military force in the eyes of No Man's Sky's alien races.

Through multiple updates, this has always been the very soul of No Man's Sky. Ever since the Atlas Rises update, "You are not alone" is the first phrase another living being speaks to you after you manage to escape your starting planet. There is an enormous amount of fear, hope, and power in that moment, especially after spending a couple of hours scouring your ersatz home planet for the resources to repair your ship.

The power of that statement diminishes, however, the more the game gives you command and comprehension of your environment. Without a doubt, No Man's Sky has become a veritable sandbox. In fact, after a few initial goals are met, you receive a message asking if you'd like to continue the story, or define your own path--whatever that may be. Through a combination of new mining and terraforming tools and the freedom to build how and where you wish, it has never been easier to make any planet into a home. Finding the raw materials to do so and refining them into their most useful form is now a quick and relatively painless fact of life. Multiple land-based vehicles now exist, making traversal even less of a dangerous hassle. As for space, frigates and fighter crafts are easier to obtain. There are more missions available to haul in incredible amounts of resources or, if you're looking to play the role of a space pirate, seek out traders and fleets in other galaxies and ransack them for sweet loot.

All this is made more enticing by the fact that Next fulfills the much-touted promise of true multiplayer, where up to four people can now party up and take on the universe together. It's not entirely seamless. Multiplayer tended to create random stutters and bugs more than anything else I did in game--even when playing the otherwise technically astounding Xbox One X port. That said, you can still wander around, help people farm resources, and have backup while breaking into a well-guarded facility. Portals and teleportation devices are now a staple in No Man's Sky, and showing off your new home has never been easier. Altogether, No Man's Sky's universe finally feels like, well, a universe. It feels like a fine place to live a digital life, while simultaneously being the least innovative or interesting thing the game could become.

With Next, No Man's Sky becomes a competent space-faring sandbox. It's definitely good enough to turn some of the heads who angrily ranted against the game that released in 2016. Creatively, though, No Man's Sky neither gains nor loses anything by trying to become a mining colony sim. It greatly excels when it embraces being the No Man's Sky we've always known.

The things that make No Man's Sky a great experience are the things that have been there since the first version. In that game, you are well and truly alone. You were a drifter in a universe where the chances of meeting a stranger who spoke your language were in the single digits, and the chances of meeting one who said something coherent were even lower. In that game, you're not being led on by loot or having the best house. Your concerns are material inasmuch as if you wanted answers, if you wanted to see what new creations the procedural generation gods had bestowed on the next planet, you needed to barter, trade, and mine.

The good news is that side of the game is still very much here, and it has seen its share of improvements, most notably to the pacing and presentation. It's rare that graphics can make or break a game, but Next's visual upgrades truly make a difference. The worlds are vastly more detailed, with breathtaking new lighting and physics effects enhancing everything from pollen flying off plants as they sway in the breeze to gravity and light being vacuumed into the yawning void of a black hole. The third-person camera not only grants the game a sense of scale, but also gives you a better understanding of exactly who you are in the universe, especially since the look and species of your character is now customizable at space stations. The improved effects in space make an already magnificent environment even more amazing, especially with ringed planets now a common sight.

Where much of the game's initial hours are still spent introducing you to the core mechanics, they are now far more deeply embedded in narrative conceit; you are a newborn wholly unaware of who you are, your place in the universe, and who is guiding you along. Every new bit of information is found by you, clued in by anomalous broadcasts from derelict equipment strewn across the universe, learning from the failures of other explorers. There are aliens, but their help is unreliable until you put the time and effort into learning their language. You do this either by getting one of the aliens to teach you new words or finding the species' codices scattered in foreign monuments. There are many more of these opportunities now, especially in space stations which have been redesigned as wide-open forums where one might find friends bragging about new discoveries, hulking armies on furlough, or scavengers hawking their new finds. You're a stranger to them all at first, and it's only in choosing to take the risk of ingratiation that you can find yourself in a species' favor, with their representatives willing to offer help in your hours of need.

All of this is in favor of the Artemis and Atlas Path storylines, introduced in the Atlas Rises update. The narrative beats of each story are largely unchanged, but they are both now far better integrated into the flow of the game as rewards for your curiosity rather than staunch waypoints impatiently waiting for your arrival. That said, players returning to old saves will find it's not as easy as just picking up where they left off, and much of what they already own gets shuffled around at random. It doesn't break pre-existing games, but it's a less-than-welcome relearning curve, to be sure. Both narratives still have their positives and negatives, though the original Atlas Path storyline is now a minor footnote in a journey much wider in scope, but what matters most is that both narratives encourage the things that distinguish No Man's Sky.

At its absolute best, No Man's Sky is a measured, gentle experience where you are rarely the agent of change, but a perpetual visitor who's constantly dwarfed by the magnitude of a universe neutral to your presence. It is not your job in these stories to colonize the universe. Your job is to comprehend it. Your job is to recognize the spirituality in it. The primary gimmick of No Man's Sky, since day one, has been awe. The best things about the Next update feed that gimmick. While features like multiplayer and base-building certainly put more proverbial asses in seats, they're also the least memorable additions to an otherwise thoughtful experience.

Madden NFL 19 Review In Progress

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 08/02/2018 - 06:01

The Madden series aims to be a true-to-life representation of the popular American sport, and Madden 19 is a refined step forward with advancements across the board. There are some issues hanging over from past games, and the Franchise updates are not as big and exciting as you might expect, but Madden 19, with its capable Frostbite engine and its compelling Longshot story mode, remains the best, most complete Madden game to date.

On the field, Madden's gameplay has never looked or handled better, and this is due in part to a new system EA calls Real Player Motion. One of the biggest pieces of this is the new "one-cut" feature for ball-carriers that allows them to change direction quickly and with a burst of speed to get around a defender. An appropriately timed cut, coupled with an acceleration boost, lets you make tight, fast, and precise turns that help you get through the line or to the edge when making runs. You can also perform hesitation moves that can make a big difference in those crucial moments when you see an opening or a gap, and it's thrilling to successfully execute a run, even if it's only for marginal yardage. Establishing the run game can be critical, and it's nice to see Madden 19 make running responsive, fun, and representative of what you see in real NFL games.

To balance out the new tactics for ball-carriers, Madden 19 adds a new strafe burst mechanic for defense. If timed appropriately, this can help you get into position faster than normal and improve your chances of stopping a big run. EA has always strived to give players more control and better responsiveness on the field, and the advancements this year are nice, even if they are only granular in nature. And in a further step towards emulating actual NFL games, Madden 19 lets you choose a custom celebration after a touchdown or a big defensive play with individual and team-based celebrations. Whether you're performing a simple spike on your own or doing the spoon-to-mouth dance with your team, it gives Madden a more authentic feel.

This is the second year of Madden using EA's Frostbite engine, and it has indeed made strides to make the game look better. Character models are now more lifelike, while small things like player sweat (yes, really), the way bodies crunch and recoil after big hits, sunspots pouring onto the field at dusk, and weather elements like rain and snow get even closer to replicating an actual NFL broadcast. While the graphics looks better, the physics can still be really weird at times. I saw things like arms bending in ways they absolutely should not, mid-air collisions causing the ball to launch through the air at an angle and speed that makes no physical sense, and balls that disappear into the ground for no reason. Crowd animations can also be odd at times. The Madden franchise has always been replete with bugs and weirdness, and I tend to agree that this is part of the charm; none of the issues I encountered were enough to completely break the immersion. Also new in the presentation department are the menus, which now look sleeker and are less cluttered.

Madden 19's commentating is a big bright spot. The play-by-play/color duo of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis return, and they have an excellent rapport. Their banter succeeds thanks to their football acumen, as well as their willingness and ability to emulate real NFL broadcast booths and shoot the breeze on topics like stadium food and Seinfeld references. While Gaudin and Davis turn in excellent performances, the Texas high school commentators from Longshot mode really steal the show with their over-the-top, homer play-by-play calls that left me laughing and wanting more. Another commentating update this year is former ESPN anchor Jonathan Coachman as the pre-game/halftime host; he replaces Larry Ridley. Coachman is enthusiastic and fun to listen to, but most Madden players are likely to skip these segments. Madden 19's commentary will be updated on a regular basis with new dialogue lines that reflect what happens in the real NFL once the season kicks off later this month, though it remains to be seen if the commentators will tackle controversial subjects.

One of the deepest modes in Madden 19 is Franchise. Last year's game was frustratingly light on advancements and improvements, but the new Madden thankfully adds more to the mix to give you a different kind of control over shaping your franchise--and the individual players on your team. One of the more notable new features is what's called the Archetype Progression system which adds different styles to positions and lets you continue to build and expand your players over the course of one or multiple seasons. The XP you earn in games gives you skill points that you can then spend to upgrade one of the archetypes for your player instead of assigning them to specific attributes. This can feel frustrating as it effectively limits the amount of fine control you have to shape your players as specifically as you were able to previously. This might have been done to help balance teams in online play, but whatever the case, it's a bit of a bummer to have that kind of precise control taken away.

Madden 19's new custom draft class creator for Franchise is another welcome addition. At launch, you'll be able to download draft classes made by the community, so you can expect some dedicated player to create the latest real-world NFL mock drafts in real time.

Another way to play Madden is through the card-based Madden Ultimate Team mode, which remains Madden's deepest pursuit--and it's stocked with things to do this year. In addition to the standard challenges, of which there are more than 100, there are Solo Battles where you can go up against other fan-created MUT squads in weekly tournaments, while there will also be a playlist for MUT squads made by EA Sports developers, NFL players, and celebrities. It's a thrill to take on a different squad each playthrough in Solo Battles, and I can see myself returning again and again to this mode to see how my team stacks up. Already a deep and robust mode, MUT adds the brand-new MUT Squads Challenges, where you and two others take on the CPU in a series of challenges. I am currently testing this mode on pre-release servers, and I'll have more to say about this when the public servers go live. MUT still pushes you towards microtransactions, and that may be a concern for some. But it remains as exciting and satisfying as ever to put together a fantasy team where Tom Brady can throw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.

Returning from Madden 18 is the Longshot mode, which was arguably the biggest, most impressive, and fleshed out new feature that the franchise had ever seen. It wasn't perfect, and neither is this year's version, Longshot: Homecoming. The story picks up with Devin Wade having a tough time in the Dallas Cowboys training camp, with Colt Cruise struggling through life in Mathis and getting blindsided by a major life event that puts his entire life and career into question. The voice acting and performances of all the major characters, Wade in particular, are solid. EA also recruited celebrities like frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Rob Schneider, Ron Cephas Jones (This Is Us), Jimmy Tatro (American Vandal), and Joey King (The Kissing Booth) for the mode, and they turn in memorable performances.

Homecoming's story is one of pain and struggle, loss and redemption, and how football really doesn't matter when compared to issues at home and in life. Homecoming, like Longshot before it, has bold ambitions in terms of the story it tells and the feelings it wants to evoke, but it doesn't always work. At one point early in the story, Cruise remarks to a character about "some of the most cliched stuff I've ever seen," and this could also apply to Homecoming's story. At times, it can be uneven and inconsistent in its tone, coming across as very hokey and ham-handed.

And in what is a surprising move, EA (almost) completely dropped the Telltale-style dialogue options from the first iteration. It was fun to make choices and steer the conversation in the original Longshot, even if the story never really branched, so it's a real shame that EA moved away from this in favour of a more traditionally structured story. That being said, the narrative will pull you through and, at just about four hours in length, you may finish it in one sitting. Unfortunately, I experienced a significant difficulty spike at the end of Devin's story where he goes up against a much better team and has to make all the right plays to get the win. A lack of variety in this sequence and the upswing in difficulty made what should have been a climactic conclusion a boring and frustrating affair. Those issues aside, I had a fun time playing through Devin and Colt's story, which reached a satisfying and heart-warming end.

Madden 19 is an excellent football game that improves on last year's entry in almost every way. There are problems, but there has never been a football game that more authentically represents the NFL than this in terms of presentation, controls, and depth. Madden 19 servers go live on August 10, and GameSpot's final review will be published after we've thoroughly tested their stability.

WarioWare Gold Review - Worth Its Weight

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 07/31/2018 - 16:00

WarioWare, one of Nintendo's strangest and most inventive series, tasks players with completing increasingly quick and difficult 'microgames,' each just a few seconds long. It's a pure expression of one of Nintendo's strengths--its games are often overflowing with abundant ideas that are all quickly experienced and equally strong. WarioWare Gold is positioning itself as the ultimate WarioWare experience--one that mixes together the three play styles that have defined the series' previous handheld releases.

The 300 microgames are split between Mash games (which use the D-Pad and A button, like in the Game Boy Advance original), Twist games (which are controlled by tilting the console, à la WarioWare: Twisted!), and Touch games (that use the touchscreen, like DS launch title WarioWare: Touched!). There are also a handful of games that make you blow into the microphone, making the playlists that incorporate them slightly more embarrassing to play on public transport. Just under 40 of these microgames are new, with the rest being pulled from previous games in the series.

When you start one of WarioWare Gold's microgame playlists, you'll be hit with a cavalcade of tasks in quick succession. In the space of a minute you might find yourself hammering the A button to snort up a dangling snot bubble, using the D-Pad to guide Wario as he jumps on Goombas, or navigating a short maze to find a treasure chest. You could be tilting the system to ward off samurai attacks or to extract a dead tooth from an open mouth; if your stylus is out you might be guiding a needle through a thread on the touch screen or slicing flying food, Fruit Ninja-style. You'll be given a very brief instruction at the start of each game ("Avoid!," "Stack!," "Remember!"), and a few seconds to decipher and complete the task.

In Story Mode, each supporting character is given a playlist with a control type and game theme. Most of the games are divided between Sport, Fantasy, Nintendo, and That's Life (essentially miscellaneous) categories, although these are mostly aesthetic distinctions, as a lot of them play similarly. When you select a playlist for the first time you only need to beat a handful of microgames and the character's Boss game--a slightly longer, more involved event that is closer to minigame than microgame--to clear it. The next time you play, you're going for a high score, with the games increasing in difficulty and speed as you go. The Nintendo-themed retro games are a highlight, as always, although the boss levels for the Mash and Touch playlists are disappointing (thankfully the tilt-controlled version of Super Mario Bros. you'll get to play in the Twist section is fantastic).

You can comfortably complete every character's playlist and "finish" the game within two hours, and unlock all the microgames in five, but WarioWare is all about the long tail. Over time you'll want to build up familiarity with each microgame to get a high score--the best way to succeed is to immediately know what to do when the instruction pops up. There's a lot of repetition involved, but thankfully it's extremely fun. The three WarioWare games that Gold most directly pulls from--the original GBA game, plus Twisted and Touched--were all fantastic in their own ways and having all three play styles in a single game is a delight.

The challenge playlists that unlock after you beat the story, which allow you to play microgames under numerous different conditions, offer even more immediate thrills than the story playlists, which can take a while to heat up. Playing with only a single life, or testing your mettle in a mode where games switch between the upper and lower screen with very little time in between, can be tense and exciting. Sneaky Gamer mode, the one excellent mode from Game & Wario, returns here too. In this mode, you play as series staple 9-Volt, who plays microgames on the bottom screen but must occasionally hide under his blanket on the top screen if his mother comes into the room to check if he's asleep. Keeping track of your game progress while also looking out for the telltale signs that your mum is about to burst into the room is a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience. There's great variety in these lists, and you can choose which control styles you want to focus on--in the extremely fast Very Hard challenge mode, for instance, you're given separate leaderboards for Mash, Twist, Touch, and Ultra (which mixes every control style) modes.

WarioWare is also where Nintendo lets its freak flag fly, and Gold gets beautifully weird. The artists interpret Wario in different ways throughout the game--one microgame might render him in janky polygons, while another might draw him as a downtrodden everyman working in a factory. He might be fat, thin, or absurdly ripped--it feels like each microgame was designed with a huge degree of artistic and creative control. The cutscenes before each chapter in Story mode are legitimately funny--WarioWare has a firmly established cast of characters, all of whom have separate personalities and backstories, and they're a delight to watch. Wario is given far more spoken dialog than is typical of Nintendo's characters, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find another game with so many lines delivered by Charles Martinet, who imbues Wario with a sense of pride and malice here that's a delight to witness. You can also unlock the ability to redub each character's intro and outro cutscenes with your own voice, which is perfect for anyone who thinks Wario doesn't swear enough.

Outside of finding all the microgames, there's a long list of extras to unlock within WarioWare Gold. They're available through what is essentially a loot box system, although, thankfully, it only uses currency earned in-game. You can spend coins to crank the handle on a capsule machine, which will drop one of several prizes ranging from oddities (character-themed alarm clocks and collector cards) to educational props (a gallery of past Nintendo consoles and inventions), through to more enjoyable and substantial offerings, including soundtrack albums and larger, more fleshed-out minigames. Those minigames vary in quality and complexity, but a few of them are truly great, and they're really what you want every time you crank the wheel. While there's a lot of filler in the capsules it's also not too difficult to earn coins, which are handed out through regular play and whenever you achieve any of the goals set out in the game's Mission screen (which include several demanding high-score goals that should keep you engaged for a while). This means unlocks are tied to persistence rather than skill, and that anyone who sticks with the game for long enough can reasonably unlock everything.

WarioWare Gold might not be entirely new, but it's the best representation available of what makes this series special. It's a true greatest hits package that showcases Wario's unique weirdo vibe, and this style of play remains inventive and thrilling 15 years after the original Game Boy Advance game. We're still hoping for an entirely new title on Switch in the future, but for now Gold is a compelling, generous victory lap.

Chasm Review: The Battle Below

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 07/31/2018 - 13:00

Although Chasm offers a rare procedurally generated spin on the classic Metroid formula, its demanding combat is what makes it stand out from the sea of imitators. Monsters roam among the twisted confines of an underground lair, demanding deft swordwork and stubborn determination to survive. And it's in that deadly dance against lurching zombies, scurrying rats, and all manner of creepy-crawlies that Chasm truly shines. The tense fights leave you with sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate, keeping you glued to the action as you venture ever deeper below ground.

As a recruit stationed in a castle far away from civilization, Chasm hints at a greater world just waiting to be explored. But after you're chosen to investigate the disturbances at a small village, it soon becomes clear the world's mysteries have to take a backseat to more pressing dangers. Journals uncovered as you explore the mines, temples, and jungles explain why evil beings are being summoned, but the story doesn't offer an interesting spin on a ho-hum premise. The little narrative appeal comes from the citizens you release from cages. Each person has their own tale to tell and errand for you to run, giving you someone to fight for as you eradicate the enemies.

Thankfully, combat is the main draw of Chasm. Melee is the predominant manner of attack, and there are a wide variety of swords, hammers, knives, and other short-range weapons to find throughout the adventure. Fighting relies heavily on timing as you must learn the behaviors of each enemy to have a chance at survival. Wights, for example, lunge at you with a sweeping sword strike that can be avoided if you know what to expect but could spell your doom if you're too slow. The clear signs from every enemy ensure that it's your skill that determines fights and not cheap tactics.

Once you learn an enemy's attack patterns, patience is often your toughest foe. Monsters can take a half dozen strikes or more to die, but just one mistake can drop your life bar down to nothing. Trying to get one more hit on a bouncing Grilla or boomerang-throwing skeleton can be a suicidal strategy. The enemies take advantage of even the tiniest mistake, and there's no worse feeling than dying because of your own hubris.

The first half of Chasm offers a tough-but-fair challenge that is every bit as intense as you'd expect when there are demons and ghosts milling about. Save points are few and far between. Trekking across unknown places with little health makes every encounter agonizing in all the right ways. Even a mere bat--among the weakest of all video game enemies--can strike terror in your heart. I died more times than I'd like to admit from a swarm of flies when I got cocky that no insect would be the end of me. Whenever I came across a branching path, I would poke my nose in every new area, hoping that a save point would relieve me from the pressure. More often than not, there was an undead knight or green slime waiting, and I'd have to calm my nerves as I prepared for another life-or-death battle.

Bosses pose a formidable threat during those early hours when you're still weak and inexperienced. Like normal enemies, bosses telegraph every attack, so it's on you if you take too many hits. The first boss in the game--a Wendigo who can become invisible and cling to the ceiling--killed me over and over again before I mastered its attack pattern. Finally tasting victory was incredibly fulfilling because I knew I earned the win, and I was eager to see what new challenges awaited.

Chasm emphasizes the "vania" in Metroidvania, giving you experience points for every enemy you kill. There are dozens of weapons to collect and pieces of equipment to wear, so you can tailor your character to your playstyle. Like slow but powerful weapons? Grab an ax! Prefer quicker ones with less range? Go for a handy knife instead. In addition to melee weapons, there are also ranged items that use your magic meter. Hurl shuriken at faraway enemies or throw a Molotov cocktail to set the ground aflame. None of these are as satisfying to use as a sword, but they can be mighty handy when things become overwhelming and you need a little help to progress. There are also food and potions to stock up on if you're feeling acutely vexed by a particular enemy.

All of these extra items, though, lead to an unbalanced difficulty as you get deeper into the adventure. Although I never set out to grind, I did backtrack frequently and killed every enemy I encountered as I retread the underground world. By the end of the game, I was so powerful and the enemies were so easy, I never felt threatened. I defeated the last two bosses on my first attempts, which would have seemed impossible after I struggled for hours to kill those early bosses. The last boss was so easy it was almost comical. I just stood underneath it, never bothering to avoid its many attacks, as I hacked and slashed at its glowing weak point. I had more than half my health left when it died and felt the dull ache that only an anticlimactic final fight can produce as I watched the credits roll.

I did start again from the beginning, this time on Hard difficulty, but couldn't find that sweet spot I had been hoping for. Hard is, as you'd expect, hard. Not needlessly so, or even unfairly so, but harder than I could have endured as a novice. It's a real shame that the difficulty balance is so out of whack. I enjoyed playing every second of this game, even when I was killing enemies without breaking a sweat, mostly because the combat mechanics are so satisfying. But I missed that creeping danger from the early goings when I could die at any moment.

The randomly generated levels also sound more impressive in theory than they are in practice. Yes, the layouts of the stages were different the second and third times I started over, but not so different that it felt like an entirely new adventure--the rooms were mostly the same, just located in slightly different positions. This isn't to say the random element is bad--my first time through was so fun that any extra incentive to start over again is appreciated--it's just not as noticeable a change as I was hoping.

I'm a sucker for beautiful pixel art, and Chasm is bursting with rich backgrounds and well-realized enemies. It's the little details that make all the difference. The rats eagerly wag their tails as their sprint toward you, making them seem almost cute as you thud them hard on the back with a hammer. The human-sized Meatman is every bit as gross as his name implies, and it almost felt like a mercy kill when I struck it through its muscled heart with my sword. Every new creature brought with it its own delights, so I was happy that there are almost 90 different enemies to meet and kill.

Even when its flaws are obvious, Chasm is a well-crafted adventure, and during the more than 12 hours I spent playing through my first time, I got lost only once. That's a huge bonus in a genre where getting lost is often the most frustrating aspect. Even after I finished, I was eager to venture forth on a new adventure, to test my combat mettle against harder foes and find the one secret that eluded me the first time through. It's a shame the randomization of the world isn't that big of a deal and the challenge could be better balanced, but the superb combat and visual design ensure your time with Chasm will be well spent.

The Banner Saga 3 Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 07/26/2018 - 14:00

Note: Care has been taken to avoid major specific spoilers for The Banner Saga 1 and 2. The broad narrative setup for The Banner Saga 3 is discussed.

The Banner Saga 3 begins just like the last installment did: by throwing you into the middle of the series' ongoing story, Chapter 16, specifically. It is a seamless continuation of the series that began four years ago, meaning this third and final chapter is not a good entry point into the series--even its recap cinematic relies on a lot of assumed knowledge. But Stoic Studio's Banner Saga formula--featuring lavish hand-drawn art, a satisfying turn-based combat system, a beautiful Austin Wintory orchestral soundtrack, a compelling Nordic-inspired story, and branching choices with consequences--is still as successful as it was in the first game, and this final chapter provides reassurance that the trilogy has maintained its strength from beginning to end.

Where the first two entries in the series revolved around war and refuge, respectively, The Banner Saga 3 focuses on desperation. As an all-consuming darkness slowly destroys the world, the story again follows the perspectives of two different groups. One is a large, mixed-race clan who have fortified themselves in the city of Arbberang, which serves as the final bastion of all who still remain. The other is a smaller group of mercenaries traveling towards the center of the darkness with a magical escort, hoping to reverse its effects. There's no longer one particular race or group that serves as the primary enemy. Rather, the primary adversary is the infighting between everyone as the situation worsens--different clans war over power in Arbberang, unable to see the bigger picture, and interpersonal conflicts plague the mercenary group, who also have to deal with new enemy creatures warped by the darkness. There's a time limit until all is lost--the series' visible day counter which previously counted up will now eventually tick down to zero--and the high narrative stakes will also see major characters take riskier actions, with greater chances of having them being lost permanently depending on the choices you make.

Although the inherent satisfaction of the game's combat system can exist without context, nearly every other aspect of The Banner Saga 3 relies on having some prior knowledge for meaningful enjoyment. For example, combat units who enjoyed significant character arcs in The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2 may only have a small handful of lines in 3, which can give the mistaken impression of flimsy characterization. Starting a new game from within 3 will let you make a major binary decision that arose at the end of The Banner Saga, but the multitude of other choices and potential consequences from the first 20 or so hours of the series are made for you, and the game doesn't spend time re-explaining the complex relationship between characters, unique races, and the world itself.

But if you have played through the first two games, and ideally imported save file through them both, then you'll have a good idea of just how catastrophic things are going into The Banner Saga 3. In this situation, the final game does a wonderful job of taking the discrete set of experiences you've had with your roster of surviving characters (as well as the collective long-term resources you've strategically acquired over the course of two games) and using them as emotional leverage, creating meaningful, personal impacts as the story climaxes and concludes.

Desperation also informs the additions to the turn- and grid-based combat system. The signature mechanics remain: Strength is a value that informs both your health and attack power, meaning the less health you have, the weaker your attack. An armor value protects against strength damage, and units can choose to focus an attack on either strength or armor. Willpower returns as the limited resource that fuels unique character abilities, as well as allowing you to overexert in basic actions to either move further or hit harder. But a significant number of scenarios are now wave-based, helping to characterize the relentless tides of enemies trying to lay siege to Arbberang and stop the mercenaries at all costs. Failing to stop a wave in a set amount of time results in enemy lineups stacking together, resulting in an overwhelming number of adversaries and all-but-certain failure. Successfully defeating a wave gives you the choice of continuing to fight or fleeing the battle, as well as an opportunity to substitute characters into your active force. Completing the entire battle will reward you with a high-end item to equip.

The thematic appropriateness of the wave-based battles makes the fights themselves incredibly compelling, despite perhaps seeming rudimentary on paper. The higher narrative stakes and stronger enemies mean that you need to fight diligently; the circumstances mean there aren't many opportunities to give characters time to recover from debilitating injuries after battle if they fall, and even when those opportunities do arise, it's at the cost of precious time before the doomsday clock runs out. Failing or fleeing a battle after a wave or two can also have negative consequences in the plot. The substitution system is engaging because it not only asks you to draw from the sizable roster of characters you may (or may not) have collected and kept alive over the past two games, but it demands you keep them all upgraded, equipped, and battle-ready rather than letting you rely on a small stable roster, lest a wave battle surprises you. The Banner Saga 3 calls for all hands on deck and motivates you to make the most of what you've gathered in the past to stay prepared for the worst.

The worst will come in the form of the new Warped enemies--mutated and more powerful versions of the series' existing units, including the incredibly ferocious bears--whose behaviors add a new emphasis on spatial considerations. All Warped enemy variants explode upon dying, creating hazardous squares and requiring more careful movement around the battlefield. Other environmental elements, like spreading fires and exploding ice shards, feel like bigger considerations this time around and are more inviting to take advantage of strategically (by using displacement abilities, for example) given the more numerous opposition. One significant holdover annoyance remains from previous games, however: The fixed isometric perspective of combat means units can often obscure the contents of the grid tiles behind them, which is especially troublesome given this game's increased numbers of foes and hazards.

While you're given the opportunity to utilize a handful of new and exciting units yourself (depending on your choices), there's a lot that's become absent since The Banner Saga 2--though it fits the narrative. Combat training and challenge missions have been lost, as have some of the series' clan management interactions. While you'll still need to keep an eye on each group's overall morale, supplies, and population, there are very few opportunities to bolster these resources. The Banner Saga is no longer a game that revolves around traveling and recruiting, but one that's a constant task of trying to stave off attrition as best you can during the last stand.

As things come down to the wire the two separate groups become more and more interconnected, the consequences of one group's choices directly affecting the potential of the other. This exemplifies the best part about The Banner Saga 3: the feeling that every action you've made in regards to your clan for three games--the friends you've kept and lost, the decisions you've made, and the battles you've picked--will likely influence how well this finale is going to fare. The Banner Saga 3 won't have the same kind of meaningful impact if you haven't experienced the rest of the series. But if you've taken the time to journey with these characters from the very beginning, this finale is a worthwhile and cathartic end to your long journey.

Semblance Review

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 07/24/2018 - 18:00

Semblance is a game that relies on your enjoyment of the satisfying feeling that comes with the act of reshaping objects and environments. The game's world and its unnamed blobby protagonist are as malleable as playdough, and it's up to you to restore this world after it is infected by another harder, sharper race of blob. It's thin on plot justification, but that's fine--Semblance is a solid puzzle-platformer with a great hook and well-designed levels.

The game has you solve level-manipulation puzzles to collect numerous scattered orbs floating just outside of your reach. When you come across an orb, the camera will zoom out so that every piece of the landscape you need to solve the puzzle fits within a single screen, and it's up to you to figure out which platforms and walls to bend and shape to reach the orb. Levels are decorated using limited color palettes, but if a platform or wall has one consistent color tone, you can squish and deform it with your body.

Your character, a small indistinct blob, can move, jump, dash, and "reset" shifted pieces of the environment. Dashing allows you to shift or reshape platforms and dig crevices into larger parts of the level. You might need to dash into a suspended platform from below to push it up, creating a hump you can use to reach a higher ledge; alternatively, you might need to dash into the ground to create a hole so that a dangerous object moving on a set path through the level will pass over the top of you. At several points you can wall-jump by dashing into the platforms around you, creating little crevices to move between. It's all about finding ways to bend the environment into the shape you need it, with some mild platforming elements thrown in.

The puzzles in the game get much more complex over time with the addition of new obstacles and mechanics. In later levels, you're able to squash yourself flat, horizontally or vertically, which allows you to jump higher or further (like you're a frisbee being thrown around) and fit through narrow gaps, which leads to some great puzzle designs but also highlights the game's slightly fiddly controls. The blob's inertia is hard to come to grips with, and it's a little harder to move sideways in the air than it is in most platformers. It's easy to dash in the wrong direction during a jump, and on a few occasions, a platforming section seemingly became more difficult than necessary, because during a dash I'd deformed the platform I was meant to land on. Thankfully there's an option to reset the screen, but this can mean repeating a lot of steps during the more complicated puzzles.

Semblance is often frustrating, but solving a puzzle, and figuring out which step you've been missing in your process, can be very rewarding. Mid-way through the game you'll start to encounter lights that can snap objects back to their original form if they touch them. These lights are used for several clever puzzles; for example, you might need to press a platform down so that it touches a light below you, causing you to shoot into the air when the platform springs back into its original shape like you've just jumped on a trampoline. The game finds lots of inventive ways to deploy this trick throughout the game. There are a few moments where puzzle solutions are immediately obvious, or ideas get reused, but most screens require lateral thinking from the player. Insta-kill laser beams and fields that block your dash ability are also used to clever effect throughout.

Semblance is a charming experience, with a cute protagonist and nice sense of visual style, even if it never quite tips over into being properly beautiful. The art and sound design are both perfectly fine, but also quite repetitive over the course of the game. The game also tries to deliver story through vague cave paintings scrawled throughout the world, but there's not enough sense of place to make them worth paying close attention to. I also encountered a few glitches--I once got stuck inside a wall, and on another occasion I fell through the floor, hurtling through an endless void. A quick reset fixed these issues and I did not lose much progress, but there's a general pervasive stickiness to some of the game's surfaces that feels inconsistent, and this can be frustrating.

Semblance is a short game--you'll likely be finished within two or three hours, with the final area feeling particularly brief. This is a length that works perfectly well for some games, but Semblance feels like it should have more to offer--the ending arrives much faster than you'd expect after some build-up in the final level, and while the puzzles are clever and fun it feels like more could have been done to diversify the experience. Upon finishing the game it felt like something was missing.

Because it's so short, and the puzzles never get particularly fiendish, Semblance is an enjoyable but light experience. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--it's a relaxed game, a good one to clear over a few sessions in bed or on the train if you're playing on Switch--but it also means that it doesn't feel like the game realizes its full conceptual potential. But the fact that I desperately wanted more, and that I was disappointed when Semblance abruptly ended, says more about the game's strengths than its weaknesses. This is a good idea realized and executed well, even though you're likely to come away from it wishing for just a bit more.

Mega Man X Legacy Collection 1 + 2 Review: Mega Museum

Game Spot Reviews - Tue, 07/24/2018 - 08:01

Mega Man and Mega Man X are related, but only just. Whereas Mega Man is plucky and wholesome, Mega Man X is often melodramatic and grim. The two series are joined by some loose themes and for being peak action-platforming in the '90s when competition was fierce, but Mega Man X has always been a little more complex and experimental, for better and worse. The Mega Man X Legacy Collection pays homage to the series in its near-entirety, with only a few shortcomings to detract from the overall quality of the compilation.

True to its name, this set captures the legacy of MMX--from the original Super NES classics, to their natural progression onto 32-bit systems, to the somewhat disastrous journey into 3D on the PlayStation 2. Only missing are a handful of Mega Man X curios: the pair of Xtreme Gameboy titles, the Maverick Hunter X remake for the PSP, and the strangely endearing spin-off RPG Command Mission. Three of those four were remakes or retellings in one way or another, so their absence is understandable.

With such a wide variety of emulation represented, technical proficiency becomes the key to a successful collection. The Switch version, where I spent most of my playtime, performed on-par with expectations, with no more slowdown on the Super NES titles than I remembered, and consistently smooth quality on the more technically demanding PlayStation- and PlayStation 2-era games.

The original Mega Man X is still a blast 25 years after its debut, with its combination of classic Mega Man gameplay with increased speed and agility feeding off of a soundtrack that pops and fizzes with the energy of a synth-heavy 80s rock band. Collections like this give a chance to appreciate just how unique its ideas were: Stages that shift based on which bosses have already been defeated build the world in subtle ways; Optional power-ups that center around proper mastery of the dash-jump combo, and give a special sense of accomplishment that favors especially skilled play; Special secondary functions for charged boss weapons that add another layer of strategy. It all holds up spectacularly, and still feels enjoyable from start to finish.

Mega Man X2 built on the original concepts and took those high-level skills for granted. This makes it both a natural progression and, sometimes, too clever for its own good. The upgrades require more backtracking, and the punishment for missing a power-up is often instant death. The addition of optional super-bosses, the X-Hunters, was a concept that would continue across several games, but the genesis here may be the best implementation of it. Mega Man X3, by comparison, suffers sequel fatigue with a few too many collectible doodads and boss animations that are noticeably less detailed and flowing than their other SNES counterparts. Fortunately, it’s one of the rarest Mega Man games, and one of the easiest to have missed back in its day, so having access to it again at all is a small prize.

In a way, the entire collection itself is the museum--an entire series, with all its beauty and its blemishes, on display for its audience to judge and assess years later.

Mega Man X4 is where the series transitioned to PlayStation, and serves as a refresh. The new platform gave an opportunity for reimagined sprites, introduced the ability to play through the entire game as the popular character Zero, and somehow, miraculously, didn’t lose a step for the transition. It serves as a rare example of a platform-crossing sequel that didn’t shed any of the original magic.

Mega Man X5 builds upon that firm foundation with some novel ideas like two collectible sets of armors. The classic guesswork of sussing out boss weaknesses is diminished somewhat by splitting the sets of bosses in two, thereby halving the possibilities. But it features multiple endings, and adds the ability to duck for new wrinkles of platforming complexity. It’s also the most narratively coherent, intended as a farewell to the character Zero. Obviously, that didn’t last. Mega Man X6, like X3 before it, is the third game on a platform and starts to diminish in some ways that are hard to ignore--namely weaker animations and a lack of English voiceover in cutscenes. In fact, all of the PS1-era cutscenes look worse for the wear on an HD screen.

And while Legacy Collection also includes Mega Man X7 and Mega Man X8, these are the lowlights for a series that unfortunately stumbled its way across the finish line. The less said about X7, the better. It was a clumsy experiment in taking the franchise to 3D, at the cost of all the exacting control for which the series had deservedly earned its reputation. It also famously introduced Axl, a young new Hunter who is as over-designed as he is obnoxiously voiced. Axl’s weapon is more suited to 3D than X or Zero, which is itself a concession to the impracticality of it all. Mega Man X8 finishes the series by learning hard lessons and going back to the side-scroller genre, albeit in 2.5D. Despite the half-baked attempt, it’s just not the same. It’s as if X, Zero, and Axl are wearing lead boots. It fails to capture the seamless speed and agility that made the older games so special, so it’s a sour note to end on.

In sum, then, the first half of the collection is significantly stronger than the second. That serves to emphasize how strange it is that the collection as a whole is bifurcated. The split gives some flexibility for purchasing, but it would have been nice to have an option in which all eight games are housed under a single roof. As it is, the collection is split into two distinct pieces of software, and jumping back and forth between them to sample the various games is inelegant.

The “X Challenge” mode is the most substantial new feature in the Legacy Collection, challenging you to take on a gauntlet of bosses, two at a time. These are curated fights, and at the beginning of each set you can choose a set of three special weapons to bring along. Since it’s mixing and matching bosses from across separate games, it takes some experimentation to find weapons that are effective against the widest range of enemies, and which ones will have to be taken down with the simple X-Buster. The challenges in each half of the collection are similar to each other, but include a slightly different boss line-up and separate leaderboards.

The other features added are to be expected from a retro compilation. A smoothing filter actually bucks the trend of muddy processing effects and looks crisp on the handheld Nintendo Switch screen--though for big-screen play, classic pixel-perfect is still the way to go. A Rookie Hunter toggle reduces the difficulty for a more relaxed experience. A set of Hunter Medals track and reward the full breadth of Mega Man X challenges, from completing armor sets or finishing games to more obscure ones like receiving Zero’s Arm Part in the original MMX. Some are even devilishly difficult, offering challenges that seasoned veterans may not have realized were even possible. It grants some extra longevity to a set of games that are, ordinarily, known for going by quickly.

A separate Museum feature details a treasure trove of artwork, music tracks, merchandise, and marketing from throughout the series’ history. It could stand to be more complete, but the material that is present archives the series’ history well.

In a way, the entire collection itself is the museum--an entire series, with all its beauty and its blemishes, on display for its audience to judge and assess years later. Parts of this legacy have aged horribly, but they’re still undeniably a piece of Mega Man X history. We’ve been told that the upcoming Mega Man 11 was greenlit thanks in part to fan interest in the original Mega Man Legacy Collection. If Capcom follows with a proper sequel to Mega Man X, this compilation provides valuable lessons on what the series is, what it isn’t, and what it can be when given the chance.

Earthfall Review: An Inferior Invasion

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 07/23/2018 - 18:00

It’d be easy to dismiss Earthfall as nothing more than a Left 4 Dead clone, and you wouldn't be wrong to do so. Despite riffing on well-known and beloved source material, Earthfall drags, with unremarkable missions and mediocre gunplay weighing down almost every action-packed setup. Any potential it shows is ultimately undercut by one thing or another, and your enthusiasm suffers along with it.

As one of a group of four players fighting back against an alien invasion, you will blast through gruesome swarms of enemies while completing simple objectives and hopefully make it to the next safehouse to catch your breath and resupply. You regularly encounter choke points during missions where your team gets surrounded by enemies, and Earthfall attempts to make these familiar moments interesting by giving you mobile barricades that can be used to create holding points. But frustratingly, it feels like there’s no rhyme or reason to these encounters as enemies just keep coming at you randomly, making it very difficult to strategize as you attempt to fortify your position.

There are rare moments when Earthfall settles into a groove, such as when you get the chance to blow up a group of enemies with a well-placed shot to a gas tank on the back of forklift. Most of the time, however, your encounters are far less impactful. Enemies are usually bullet sponges, especially some of the special varieties. And despite there being a variety of firearms, including shotguns and rifles, they generally sound flat--thin as a hand clap at the end of a long hallway.

The alien designs, particularly a lot of the drone enemy variants, look like rejected models from the film Pitch Black--large, muscular creatures with glowing heads. Some of the special types, despite being highly derivative, do look cool, however. There's the Blackout, a floating octopus-like creature that can shield itself and swiftly dart about the map, and the Enrager, which looks like a giant levitating brain mass that emits a pulse which makes enemies more aggressive. The rest come off as either uninspired or just a bit silly looking, lacking the kind of fearsome quality that you’d expect from a race that’s forcefully taken over the planet.

If there’s any part of Earthfall that you can latch onto, it’s the schlocky story that puts your rag-tag group into a position where they are directly responsible for standing up against the invaders. It’s dumb fun in the way that any B-grade action film can be; you won’t care about what’s going on or which character is doing what. It’s mindless--if temporary--fun. Similarly, the level design helps this along by being interesting enough to want to explore. Each of the maps feel large, which is good given that there are only 10 of them. There isn’t enough there to warrant coming back and seeing the same things time and time again.

Unfortunately, Earthfall’s online experience can be summed up as non-existent on Xbox. Not even once was I put into a public game with another player, nor did anyone join my public lobbies over the entire 12 hours I spent playing it. When I finally did manage to invite one other random player to a game, the connection seemed fine except for one shaky moment that dropped both of us out to the title screen.

Earthfall follows a proven concept, but its delivery feels outdated, derivative, and woefully underdeveloped. The thought of a new game in the style of Left 4 Dead sounds great, but you would hope that whatever comes out surpasses its inspirations or at least matches it. Earthfall simply doesn't have the content or concepts to make a case for itself in a world where the two Left 4 Dead games are still viable options, and far better ones at that.

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