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South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 12:00

In South Park: The Fractured But Whole, the fantasy theme of its predecessor gives way to the equally popular subject of superheroes, parodying the current state of comic book-to-film oversaturation we see today. This shift is complemented by the change in the combat system, which proves cerebrally satisfying despite the juvenile sight of your main character using flatulence to overpower and outsmart everyone from ninjas to a red wine-enraged Randy Marsh. And when you add town exploration that awards practical character benefits, the resulting game is a delightfully fart-tinged journey that delivers satisfying gameplay and surprising absurdity in equal measure.

Like many South Park episodes, The Fractured But Whole's story kicks off with Eric Cartman cooking up a self-serving scheme: the search for a missing cat so he can use the reward money to fund a movie franchise for his troupe of superheroes. Yet, this is South Park after all, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that what develops goes way beyond a simple feline rescue. We're talking about police corruption with Lovecraftian twists and having to stomach debased attacks by pedophile bosses. As you once again play as the New Kid, you promptly join Cartman's team, Coon and Friends, engaging in a host of bizarre stories that play fast and loose with crude humor and sensitive topics alike.

This is South Park through and through, where outrageous and unpredictable plot developments contrast against the day-to-day goings on of seemingly normal suburbanites. There's also the typical smattering of references to recent real-life events, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Morgan Freeman running a taqueria. But the game follows the franchise blueprint of lampooning pop culture and society without in-depth commentary, typified by the non-combat difficulty slider where being black is supposedly the hardest setting, and being white is the easiest. It's an opportunity to present something meaningful left half-realized as a flyby gag.

Seemingly more care was put into the game's more benign comedic touches, starting with game title itself. 'The Fractured But Whole' isn't a mere excuse to hide 'butthole' in a game title; it's also a clever take on Captain America: Civil War, relevant since the game's story involves two rival superhero teams. The Fractured But Whole is a consistent chucklefest where genuine laugh out loud moments are spread thin, which is forgivable for a playthrough that can last over 20 hours. Thanks to fast travel, completing missions comes at a steady pace, which means you're only minutes away from a new scene that would warrant a chortle at the very least. That could be Mr. Mackey's disturbing inquisitiveness about your sexual preferences or the City Wok staff moonlighting as ninjas. And even in the more private settings of a stranger's bathroom, the minigame of dropping a deuce offers its own flavor of hilarity.

Your arduous rescue mission is filled with hostile encounters against everyone from sixth graders to the elderly. As a welcome change to the precision demands of the Stick of Truth's RPG-inspired mechanics, Fractured But Whole employs tactics-style combat, prioritizing strategy-driven thoughtfulness over adept reflexes. While those new to tactical RPGs won't have to worry about the intricacies of terrain effects or improving chemistry between squadmates, you're nonetheless rewarded for thinking a couple turns ahead. Moreover, the modestly sized combat grids give the initial false impression that only rudimentary battle planning is needed for success. In actuality, these sometimes cramped spaces force you to think carefully on how to efficiently navigate your characters around the field, ideally to capitalize on their powers.

It's a superbly balanced combat system that values smart thinking while also offering the flexibility of personal preference when choosing your character's class and abilities. Whether you like supporting and buffing friends or want to be the most powerful tank possible, you can complement your strengths with the many superfriends you amass over time. While it's a stimulating challenge trying to make a great team, it's even harder to come up with a bad one. For every hero that has a potent attack that can knock back enemies, there's a buddy who can heal and buff. Another advantage is the accessibility of craftable health-restoring mexican food. This can turn the bulk of encounters into easy victories, though The Fractured But Whole offers its share of optional encounters above your fighting weight--as measured by your squad's Might level--not to mention a number of challenging boss fights.

Growing your team's Might is inextricably tied to every bit of forward progress you make, whether that's wrapping up a story goal or completing the myriad side quests assigned by familiar townsfolk. From building a follower count on social media via the Coonstagram app or collecting gay romantic manga for Mister Tucker, experience earned through those missions accumulate to increase your levels and unlock slots for Might-boosting artifacts.

As you head to any map-marked objective, the various unexplored homes and businesses along the way are well-peppered with practical crafting items and side-mission collectables. Thanks to a number of quality-of-life conveniences, exploring seldom feels like a chore. Accessible drawers are well-marked with yellow handles, backpacks you've sifted through remain open, and when you've completed various collection missions, you're rewarded by the quest giver immediately, saving you the trip to physically hand the goods. These benefits far outweigh The Fractured But Whole's slight annoyances such as not knowing what attacks in battle result in friendly fire and the tiny font of your app updates.

Aside from exploration and battles, South Park is loaded with environmental puzzles that--while hardly brain teasing--can elicit more than a giggle depending on how a hurdle is overcome. The most challenging obstacles are surmounted by your legendary farting abilities and select friends you can call in for an immediate assist. By combining your flatulence with the flight ability of Human Kite (aka Kyle's superhero persona), you can reach higher, previously inaccessible areas. Toilet humor transcends to depravity when you fire Butters' rodent out of your butt, launching it to reach and sabotage open electrical panels. While The Stick of Truth had its share of gassy gags, this sequel doubles down on farting as an essential multipurpose game mechanic, powerful enough to bend space and time at your whim. Not only does it prove useful in solving puzzles, it's also invaluable in preventing enemies from using their turn in battle.

Much like The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole can be appreciated as a standalone adventure, accessible to those who've fallen off the TV series over a decade ago. Fans who have kept up will appreciate the handful of recent call backs to the show plus at least one timely spoof that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone previous said they would not tackle. And if there's one aspect of the show that hasn't changed in its 20-plus years, it is the endearing qualities of the kids' reality-breaking imaginations. This is best exemplified in the classic pronouncement that the floor is lava, which is represented by initially impassible red building blocks strewn throughout the town.

Fractured But Whole succeeds as an interactive South Park mini-series, while effectively emulating the show's current style of adult-targeted entertainment and satirization of political correctness. In other words, it's consistently amusing and provocative without the edginess the series used to be known for. Both the game's combat and explorative strengths effectively bridge the many comical plot developments, which range from mildly amusing to downright hilarious. It's an accomplishment that this game will wholly entertain devoted fans while delivering a heap of jokes that won't fly over the heads of casual viewers.

The Evil Within 2 Review

Fri, 10/13/2017 - 03:24

Innovating within the bounds of horror's familiar tropes and rules is a difficult task, but one that The Evil Within 2 handles with grace. Developer Tango Gameworks cleverly introduces old-school horror design within the confines of a semi-open world that ultimately makes for a refreshing trip into a world of nightmares.

Picking up several years after the first game, we find the former detective Sebastian Castellanos in dire straits, still wracked with guilt over the loss of his family and haunted by his last visit into a nightmare version of reality. When a shadowy organization gives him the chance to set things right with his past and rescue his daughter from the dangerous and unstable world of Union, he willingly re-enters the haunting realm despite his residual trauma.

Right from the beginning, there's a sense of deja vu as Sebastian wanders the eerie and unreal locations in Union. Despite being one of the few survivors from the first game, he oddly finds himself falling for the same tricks and set-ups that the world and its inhabitants lay out for him. While this could be chalked up to a simple retread, much of these instances make a point of illustrating some key differences from this game and the last.

There's generally more of an adventurous feel compared to the original's isolated levels. With more side characters to interact with--opening up moments of dialogue that flesh out the story--and optional events scattered around the world, there's a level of freedom and variety in The Evil Within 2 that was largely absent from the first game. However, there are a few notable sections where backtracking is required, which slows the pacing and sense of progression to a crawl.

Despite this, exploration is consistently enjoyable, rewarding treks to the places tucked away, where you can find details about Union's history and meet other characters looking to survive the nightmare. With so many little details that add a lot to atmosphere, there's a clear respect for The Evil Within's world. The many nods to original game feel more impactful for it, giving a renewed appreciation for Sebastian's previous adventure.

Compared to its predecessor's singular levels in unique chapters, The Evil Within 2 possesses a more organic and interconnected set of places to explore--focusing on several large maps with multiple points of interest. While there's still plenty of mind-bending and perspective-skewing set pieces, such as a tentacle creature with a large camera for an eye, the explorable spaces are the real standout. In many ways, it's like traversing through a demented amusement park filled with hideous creations, forcing yourself to face past horrors. Adventuring to places not marked on the map often yields valuable resources, and also leads to some surprising encounters with obsessive ghosts and multiple unnerving, fourth-wall breaking events.

It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.

Over time, environments descend into chaos when Union inevitably grows unstable, turning a small town into a horrifying and unnerving shell of its former self. Streets vertically upend, and fire and blood exude from places they shouldn't. The visual design of The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While Sebastian felt more like a mere sketch of a hardened and weary protagonist in his first outing, he feels better realized and more grounded in this sequel, giving a certain gravitas to his struggle. Showing bewilderment and confusion throughout the first game, he's more confident and determined this time, even throwing in some fitting one-liners that poke fun at some of the dangers in the last game. The supporting cast of villains also feel more active in the ongoing events, and have a greater sense of place this time around--particularly with the eccentric serial killer artist who photographs his victims upon their deaths.

The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While there's occasional moments of cheese and humor throughout--such as the inclusion of a goofy shooting range and collectible toys related to other Bethesda games--the levity never feels out of place, which is an accomplishment considering the game's pervasive macabre atmosphere.

Putting a greater emphasis on the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within 2 demands resource management and bravery in its relatively spacious world. While common enemies are fewer in number compared to the original game, they're far more threatening alone and can easily manhandle Sebastian. There's a thoughtful approach to engagement and progression this time around, which means you'll have to think twice about whether or not to engage a group of enemies. With that said, you have a sizable arsenal of weapons and gear--including the return of the Crossbow with six different ammo types--to take on the enemies as you see fit.

Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.

Throughout his journey, Sebastian carries a communication device, allowing him to keep track of main objectives, along with points of interest and intel on the fates of side characters in the area. How you go about dealing with these characters and exploring is up to you. Similarly, whether you avoid conflict with enemies or take out as many as possible along the way is down to your preferred playstyle. The Evil Within 2 accommodates those that prefer action as much as those that like to be stealthy. Combat is robust, thanks to improved weapon handling and character upgrading that allows you to focus on the specific areas of Sebastian's skillset to enhance stealth, combat, and athleticism.

Sebastian can return to the safe haven of his mind to upgrade weapons and skills, and review case files and intel on various characters. With the Green Gel collected from fallen enemies--and the new Red Gel that unlocks upper tier upgrades--the core upgrading system has been greatly improved. Going beyond simply increasing damage of melee strikes and stamina length, new special perks can be unlocked such as the ever-useful Bottle Break skill that uses bottles as self-defense items when grabbed by enemies. Along with the expanded weapon upgrade system, using only weapon parts, the systems of progression feel far more nuanced and open.

Sebastian will have to scavenge for supplies and other materials to make up for the lack of ammo boxes and health items. While this may seem like it can make things easy, efficient crafting can only be done at dedicated workbenches, whereas crafting in the field via the radial inventory menu should be done a last resort as it costs twice as many materials. This crafting element adds a bit of a survivalist feel to The Evil Within 2, where you're scrounging around corners to find materials, all while avoiding packs of enemies looking to pummel you.

Though the game is challenging even on its standard difficulty level, it's not unfair, and there are options for multiple playstyles. The standard Survival difficulty mode is manageable, and you won't find yourself hitting a way due to lack of resources. However, the Nightmare mode raises the stakes, featuring slightly altered combat encounters, harder enemies, and fewer resources to find. If you're up for a challenge of a different kind, the unlockable Classic mode will disable auto-saves, upgrades, and limit you to a finite amount of saves. In addition to extra unlockables for completing the tougher difficulties, the experiences they offer is more in keeping with the true survival horror experience, where resources are hard to come by, and the enemies are deadlier than before.

There's a clear respect for the horror genre in The Evil Within 2, with a number of references to classic films and games. The game channels that style and tone into combat that feels brutal and raw, stealth that has an air of suspense, and unsettling confrontations with dangerous, otherworldly creatures. The Evil Within 2 doubles down on the core of what makes survival horror games great: the focus on disempowerment and obstacles, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes with surviving a harrowing assault.

Though there's some occasional technical hiccups that result in some particularly frustrating moments and weird pacing issues, this horror sequel elevates the tense and impactful survival horror experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting. What this cerebral horror game does isn't totally new, but it rarely feels routine, and offers plenty of surprises. Coming in at a lengthy and surprisingly packed 15-hour campaign, the sequel does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension and scares when it needs to, while also giving you the freedom to explore and proceed how you want. It's a tough thing to balance, but The Evil Within 2 does it remarkably well, and in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression after its touching conclusion.

The Flame in the Flood Review

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 23:00

Survival games challenge you to gain control of treacherous worlds. You typically start with very little, and need to scavenge for supplies and resources in order to craft the tools needed to help you avoid death. Success usually means having enough power to establish yourself in a higher place on the food chain, or hunkering down and building a fortified space strong enough to keep the rest of the food chain out. The Flame in the Flood doesn’t allow you to achieve either of those goals and is a consistently gripping experience as a result.

Set in a rural post-societal America, The Flame in the Flood is a procedurally-generated survival game that focuses on constant movement and improvisation. The entirety of the game’s world consists of a large, overflowing river that has engulfed the countryside, destroyed man-made infrastructure, and isolated parts of the geography, turning them into islands.

The Flame in the Flood’s audiovisual presentation is integral to establishing its strong sense of place. The art direction invokes the aesthetic of a gothic storybook. The atmospheric sound design is ever-present. The rush of the flowing river is refreshing, and the heaviness of the thunderstorms is frightening. The musical score is an excellent array of Americana, ranging from mournful blues harmonica, cheerful acoustic guitar fingerpicking, wistful mandolins, and rough alt-country vocals. Together, they give The Flame in the Flood an aura of both despair and quiet beauty.

Your protagonists are a seemingly immortal dog and a survivor whose main concerns are keeping her hunger, thirst, body temperature, exhaustion, and any major injuries under control. Because the survivor can die from neglecting any of these concerns, players must keep them at bay by either scavenging or by crafting a variety of items using resources obtained from the land. But because of the game’s narrative conceit, you’re only able to scavenge on small islands with severely limited offerings. Finding the right components to create items you need often means exploring multiple islands as you traverse the river on your makeshift raft.

Your raft can be upgraded at marinas, provided you have the right components.

There are two major constraints that make this task both interesting and difficult. The protagonist can initially carry only a dozen items in her backpack, and you’ll only be able to dock at one or two islands in a cluster of many before the current pulls you further downriver. This design is frustrating at first--the impulse to grab every item and explore every area will cause you to waste far too much time and energy rearranging your backpack and paddling against the current. But once you embrace the idea of “going with the flow” so to speak, The Flame in the Flood becomes an engaging exercise of short-term prioritization and impulsive decision-making.

Though it will take a number of failures to understand the ecosystem, learning which items are universally useful and avoiding long-term hoarding are the key to staying alive. For example, keeping uncommon fire-starting materials in order to have a method of staying warm, dry, and being able to build a safe place to sleep is more vital than hoarding food--food eventually spoils, and edible flora is common enough in certain ecosystems to snack on as you come across it. Working out your priorities and having the courage to leave valuable things behind is a stimulating challenge. The Flame in the Flood keeps you on your back foot at all times. This feels like true survival.

Unfortunately, the user interface can prove to be a source of frustration. Essential tasks, like sorting your inventory and getting a broad idea of your current crafting options feel unnecessarily taxing because of the number of steps required. All pertinent information is kept within multiple subcategories accessed from a single screen. Inventory management and crafting existing in separate subcategories, and the recipes for different kinds of craftable items are separated into subcategories under that. Finding out what components are missing for a particular tool can be tedious because of the need to flip between menus and scroll through multiple entries to reach the information. Even after hours of play, I was still wrestling with the menu system, especially when using a controller. In fact, I began switching to mouse and keyboard exclusively for menus to make navigation a little easier.

Sure. I'm cold, wet, starving, exhausted, and lacerated all over. But man, what a view.

But switching to mouse and keyboard is not something I want to do because movement, especially piloting your raft, is far more precise and satisfying with a controller. Travelling to new locations via raft requires deft avoidance of rock formations, remnants of human infrastructure and floating debris. Lightly flowing waters regularly turn into violent rapids, which are as treacherous as they are fun to navigate--impacts are devastating on both your raft’s integrity and your own vitals. Using the last of your stamina bar to push your raft just shy of a large, jagged outcrop is consistently thrilling, and when things quiet down, gently steering your raft through the remains of drowned towns at sunset while a haunting lap-steel melody plays is a sublime experience.

The Flame in the Flood encourages you to put long-term goals aside and live in the moment, to make choices and overcome short-term problems with risky but satisfying spontaneity. Despite the awkward menu system, it’s an absorbing game that lets you experience a journey in the present, and fully appreciate the sights, sounds, and joys of floating down the river in its alluring world.

Update: The Flame In The Flood’s arrival on Nintendo Switch as a “Complete Edition” comes with the mechanical refinements and feature upgrades that have been added since the game’s initial release. These include quality-of-life tweaks to crafting, an insightful developer’s commentary, and more importantly, an alternate dog companion to choose from. While the visual fidelity noticeably lower on the Switch and there are some minor hiccups in performance that aren’t present on other platforms, The Flame In The Flood still remains a unique and absorbing survival game. We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Switch version. - Edmond Tran, Fri. October 13, 2017, 9:00 AM AEST

Stardew Valley Review

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 22:17

On the surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, but there are more adventures awaiting curious players beyond cultivating a rich and bountiful garden. From mining and fishing to making friends and falling in love, Stardew Valley's Pelican Town is stuffed with rewarding opportunities. As modern day woes give way to pressing matters on the farm and within your newfound community, Stardew Valley's meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world. It’s a game that tugs at your curiousity as often as it does your heart.

Your journey begins in the field, cleaning up a neglected and rundown farm. Plotting and planning your garden requires care and attention to detail. What fruits and vegetables do you grow? How much room does each plant need? How do you protect your crops from nature's troublemakers? You learn through practice, and while the basics are easy to grasp, you quickly need to figure out the best way to outfit your budding farm with new tools and equipment.

Upgrades help speed up essential tasks like tilling the earth and watering your plants, but advanced equipment becomes a necessity when the time comes to break down large rocks and stumps that stick out in your garden. The crafting menu also entices you with optional time-saving tools; automated sprinklers that water the crops every morning, artisan equipment to make preserves or beer out of your harvest, and refineries, such as a furnace for turning ore into metal bars. If you want something, you can make it, you just have to scour your environment for the necessary components.

As your farm improves, you gain the ability to raise livestock. Animals are expensive to buy and maintain, and the barn they live in isn’t cheap either. You start small, with a barn just big enough for a few chickens and ducks. But if you run an efficient and bountiful garden, you can eventually afford to upgrade to a bigger barn and keep hearty livestock like pigs, cows and sheep.

You have to feed your stock every day, which can get expensive, but they will eventually begin to produce eggs, milk and other rewards for all your hard work. Beyond their monetary value, animals are simply endearing to be around. Give them a name and work a little petting time into your routine; before you know it, your commodities have become your friends. Like your crops, the goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

The goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

When your farm is healthy and your equipment set, Stardew Valley opens up and your routine expands: after you water your plants, feed your animals and tidy up in the morning, you get to head out in search of adventure and friendship. There’s a mine north of Pelican Town with a seemingly endless bounty of buried treasure, but also danger. Combat is simple--a plain swipe of a sword will brush back most common monsters--but the dangers you face grow as you delve deeper into the mine, pushing your basic tactics to the limit.

There’s a risk/reward relationship to seeking out valuable treasure, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to defend yourself from procedurally generated creatures the deeper you go. You hit checkpoints--in the form of elevator stops--every few floors, which both encourages you to keep going and to return in the future in search of grander rewards as checkpoints allow you to skip past the mine's early levels. The precious gems you find can be sold for profit, donated to a museum that will conduct and share research, or simply hoarded in a chest to be fawned over down the road.

When you grow weary of toiling underground, you can also spend time fishing on lakes, streams and coastal beaches. Fishing in Stardew Valley is straightforward--you use one button to reel in a fish and let go when the line is tense--but it gives you a chance to soak in your surroundings and experience the joys of catching a wide array of fish unique to specific seasons and locations. It’s a calming experience at sunset after a long day that gives you a chance to reflect on your progress and daydream about adventures to come.

Stardew Valley constantly encourages you to explore, be it mining, foraging for fruit in the woods, or collecting seashells, and your curiosity is amply rewarded. Every hidden area you find, every train track you follow, leads to new sights and discoveries that add detail and color to the world around you. Yet as fulfilling as farming and exploring are, visiting Pelican Town's community center pulls you ever deeper into your new life. Like your farm at the beginning of the game, the community center needs a little attention at first: you’re sent out on fetch quests to gather the necessary materials to fuel its reconstruction.

Outside of the community center, the rest of Pelican Town's inhabitants also need your help. In working together to achieve small goals, you grow to understand your neighbors' personalities and identify what makes them tick. Some are pursuing their hopes and dreams, while others fight day to day to overcome personal obstacles; others are quirky creatures of habit that round out the community's overall identity.

Relationships are gauged by a heart meter, and getting to a certain number of hearts results in a cutscene that offer a closer look into your new friends' lives. Offering gifts and completing tasks from a board in the center of town are easy ways to increase your connections, and slowly but surely you’re allowed in the inner circle of people’s otherwise private lives. You may befriend a father named Kent who’s dealing trauma after years at war. He’s working on his temper and trying to bond with his child after being away from home. The child, whom you meet in hiding in his parent's basement, is quiet and introverted. But when you put the time in to get to know him, he reveals that he actually doesn't mind being alone, even though he believes that he's at odds with his parents. These personal moments are touching, and encourage you to spend more time getting to know the people around you.

And if you decide to enter Pelican Town's dating scene, don't be surprised if you end up with butterflies in your stomach. Giving your crush the right gift and seeing the joy on their face makes you genuinely happy, but you have to put yourself out there first. Sure, working with townsfolk in general is a good way to understand the ins and outs of potential suitors, but no amount of preparation diminishes the impact of anxiously delivering a heartfelt gesture. Because you've invested so much time and energy into forging relationships, you get nervous when you expose your feelings, regardless of the fact that you're courting a pixelated crush. Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings: when your date shares his umbrella in the rain, you know he's the one.

Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings

Romance often buds during community events that take place each season. In spring you’ll attend a dance and try to get someone to be your partner. At the summer luau you’ll have to bring something delicious from your harvest for the community potluck. At each of these events you’ll have time to get to know the people within the community and see them in a different light than usual. Although it’s lovely to see them outside of their usual activities, it’s a shame year after year the comments and actions of the villagers remain the same. Still, you can learn from previous years, adding better food to the potluck and finally earning the affection of your favorite dance partner.

Mastering farming and earning the affection of your special someone in Stardew Valley are fulfilling journeys filled with surprising and rewarding challenges. But when you have those accomplishments under your belt, it's hard to know where you go from there. Divorce is an option, but if you put a lot of yourself into finding a spouse, dumping them merely to extend your game doesn't seem like an attractive path. Besides, with your money-making farm, cash isn't a concern either.

Ultimately, Stardew Valley's eventful world is so inviting that you may opt to simply start from scratch and forge a new life. For anyone who played Stardew Valley earlier this year when it launched on PC, the new console ports capture the same magic that made the game special all those months ago, and allows you to play from the comfort of your couch. Controls on console are essentially identical to what you get from the PC version's controller support. Console versions also get the fully updated version of Stardew Valley, which includes the aforementioned divorce option, new farm maps that focus on different skills, and a handful of new mechanics that add appreciable wrinkles to life on the farm and about town.

The sheer number of things to accomplish in Stardew Valley can keep you interested beyond the original three in-game years you need to reach the end of your story--you may just want to start over rather than continue on. You’ll work quite hard to gather enough money for your first horse, so that you can quickly move to the mines to get a mineral to complete a bundle at the community center. It’s all centered around whatever it is you want to accomplish that day. And that’s truly what makes Stardew Valley such a lovely experience, it encourages you to go out and be the best you can be, in whichever task that brings you the most joy. Stardew Valley motivates naturally, with blissful optimism.

Editor's note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Stardew Valley. - Oct. 6, 2017, 2:17 PM PT

A Hat In Time Review

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 01:54

Though it's not apparent at first, A Hat in Time has all the best ingredients of an N64-era 3D platformer. It's cute and colorful with a wacky cast of characters; it offers a variety of collectibles to find on each level, some far easier to get than others; its worlds hide cheeky secrets and delightful details. While t he first of its four main worlds is disappointingly generic, once it opens up, A Hat in Time offers creative, charming areas that make it feel true to its beloved predecessors without getting stale.

A Hat in Time begins with you, a young girl and captain of your own spaceship, losing all the hourglass-like Time Pieces you need for fuel to get home. 40 of them cascade out your window (never mind that there's a window in a spaceship) and scatter around a mysterious planet, meaning you have to venture down there to find them. Your first stop is Mafia Town. It's a basic island level populated by identical, burly men who speak broken English, and the mafia theme is half-baked on top of that. But hopping through the seaside town, past "in cod we trust" graffitied on the walls, and using your special top hat's objective-highlighting powers to find one of the missing Time Pieces is enough to get acquainted with everything--even the over-the-top voice acting, which you'll probably mute as soon as you have a spare minute to flip through the settings.

You'd think time would be the game's core conceit, but your hat is the star of the show. In addition to Time Pieces, each world also has balls of yarn for you to collect; once you have enough, you can knit a new hat with its own unique powers, like the ability to sprint or use short-range explosives. The yarn itself provides an incentive to explore, and in turn, each hat grants you access (or easier access) to new areas. For the most part, each world is separated into chapters with a Time Piece each, but the worlds themselves are open for you to explore so long as you have the right hats. If that wasn't enough reason to look for all the secrets, you'll also collect gems as you go that can be used to buy pins for your hats. Each pin gives you an extra buff, like magnetically attracting all pickups in your immediate vicinity, and they are definitely worth having in the later, trickier areas.

Once you have all that sorted out, you'll have moved onto the next world, where A Hat in Time comes into its own. You start out in a movie studio, where an owl and a penguin are competing to win an award. The world's chapters are split between their movie sets: half on the owl's old-timey train and half in the penguin's New Orleans-esque party town. You're given a score based on the collectibles you get in each chapter, and the bird whose chapters you perform the best in is named the winner. It's absolutely adorable and unexpected, and your reward for being a completionist and returning to the world later is a clever ending to an already interesting twist.

Each of the worlds in A Hat in Time unravel like this. You explore initially to get balls of yarn for new hats and gems for pins, but if you look hard enough, you'll find more and more rewards. Sometimes it's just a cute reference in a random book or a cheeky remark from an otherwise unimportant NPC. But there are also things you'll have to work harder to find. Tricky platforming can lead to special collectibles called artifacts; you might find a crayon in one area and a box in another, and you have to arrange the full set in your spaceship. Once you combine them correctly, you unlock a special side level where you collect photographs that tell a story about the world. The complete photo albums are cute and flesh out the antagonists just a little bit, which is a treat after beating each of them in their boss fight. There are also bonus levels hidden in each area that take away all the side distractions and present you with clean platforming challenges (and beautiful, almost melancholic music).

While the platforming in A Hat in Time never gets terribly difficult, movement is smooth, and there are plenty of just-barely-made it moments that are simple but satisfying. Once you get the hookshot pin, you'll be able to transition from the ground to a jump to swinging off a hook and back down to the ground seamlessly. Getting from place to place just feels good, and the challenge levels are legitimately fun places to show off the grace in movement you've developed. They are pure and fun and blend well with the more inventive landscapes you're traversing for a 3D platforming homage that doesn't feel by the numbers.

A Hat in Time is slow to start, but it's brimming with the charm and collectible-finding joy of classic 3D platformers. Collectibles are both fun to find and help guide you to the game's best secrets, and seeing everything there is to see is its own reward. The platforming isn't particularly challenging, nor does it do anything especially new, but A Hat in Time's cleverly themed worlds and witty quips lend it a more contemporary feel that's just right for satisfying a 3D platforming craving.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions Review

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 23:00

When Nintendo announced a Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga remake for the 3DS, I wasn't sure I needed it. The beautiful 2D art, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and blend of action- and turn-based RPG gameplay of the Game Boy Advance original still feels every bit as vibrant and engaging today as it did when it came out 15 years ago. But after playing through Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions, I'm absolutely convinced that it is the definitive way to experience one of Nintendo's best RPGs.

The premise is the same: The evil witch Cackletta and her talkative minion Fawful have devised a scheme to conquer both the Mushroom Kingdom and the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom, starting with turning Princess Peach's voice into an explosive force. Bowser, angry that he can't abduct Peach in this state, teams up with Mario and an (unwilling) Luigi to give chase in an airship, only for the brothers to crash-land in foreign territory. Mario and Luigi must brave the strange lands of Beanbean to stop Cackletta's plan. And while that's going on, Bowser's armies are on their own quest to figure out just where the heck he vanished to.

While the core game remains the same, the already great visuals get a gorgeous update on 3DS. The art has been completely redone, from the core sprites of Mario and Luigi to the tiniest of background details, and the result is some of the most beautiful and vibrant 2D art around. Various character animations have also been touched up and expanded upon, giving the brothers and their foes a lot of extra personality through their movements. (Sit back and watch some of the duo's idle animations during combat when you have a spare moment-- – it's a real treat.) The music has also been revised and expanded, with longer melodies and higher-quality instrumentation adding an additional spring to the step of the bouncy, energetic tunes from ace composer Yoko Shimomura. The only disappointment in the audiovisual department is the complete lack of a 3D option;: we've seen how good other “2D- art- in- 3D” games look on the 3DS, and given that the game has its fair share of perspective and platform puzzles, it would have been both a big help and a great visual enhancement.

The silly story of Superstar Saga is brought to life through dialogue and events that evoke the whimsical, humorous nature of the Mario universe. Characters like the elegant Prince of the Beanbean Kingdom and the wicked Cackletta have memorable quirks that make their personas stand out. Even some of the more minor side NPCs, like the Chuckola Bros, have a notable amount of care and attention put into their speech. That still shows through after all these years--though the most memorable character, Fawful, doesn't have quite the impact he once did, coming off an era where nonsensical JRPG translations were common.

The core gameplay remains primarily the same as the original game, with a few enhancements. You explore various environments from an overhead view, using special skills to navigate and solve puzzles when necessary. When you encounter an enemy, you enter a battle sequence that blends turn-based commands with timing-based button presses to both deal extra damage to enemies and evade or counter their attacks. Some subtle improvements from later games in the Mario and Luigi series have been added, too: The pair can now perform an emergency guard during combat by pressing the X button, reducing damage from enemy attacks if you're not confident in your evasion skills. You can also retry boss fights on an easier difficulty if you get a game over. Story scenes can be sped up by holding down the R button, making some of the dialogue-heavy scenes zip by faster if you've seen them before (or if you're a speed reader). These additions help streamline the experience, but by and large, if you remember the events of the original Superstar Saga, you're going through the same motions in the remake.

Most the brand-new content is in a sub-game that opens a little over an hour into the main story. Called "Minion Quest," this is a separate adventure with no bearing on the main story that follows a gallant Goomba who wants to find and rescue his Lord Bowser. To accomplish this, he needs to find other minions from Bowser's army, convince them to band together, and fight against Fawful's brainwashed hordes.

Instead of a traditional RPG, Minion Quest plays like a simplified real-time strategy game: You assemble a small army of troops from characters you've recruited and send them to battle against other armies. It feels pretty hands-off. Most of what you do is just watch characters bop each other and press buttons when prompted, since you can't really control your army the way you would in a proper RTS (for example, you can't tell troops to fall back and guard your commander if enemies break through your lines of defense). It can also get very frustrating and grindy--some quests practically demand you use a specific character type to counter a specific opponent, requiring you to either replay previous quests until you either randomly recruit enough of that character or get your levels high enough that it doesn't matter. And sometimes even when you do bring a counter to the enemy's forces, you can lose for reasons that feel completely arcane. As cute and charming as the cutscenes depicting the power struggle among Bowser's army are, several of the fights in Minion Quest can really test your patience and willingness to continue.

Even though Minion Quest falters, it's still an optional outing that doesn't detract from what's fundamentally an excellent adventure. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga has aged astonishingly well, and the various improvements offered in this remake only serve to make an already great game even better. Whether you're a series veteran or visiting the Beanbean Kingdom for the very first time, there's no better way to experience this classic RPG.

Gundam Versus Review

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 20:00

It’s hard not to get a kick out of watching giant robots slug it out, and that’s precisely what Gundam Versus is all about. It's a celebration of all things Gundam on the surface, with over a hundred playable mechs from the many Gundam anime series since 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam. It's a hybrid fighting game at heart that puts you in the pilot’s seat, tactically flying at enemies, dodging attacks, and slamming opponents through buildings. Undoubtedly it’s one for fans of the Gundam universe, but for those unfamiliar with the series and its origins, there’s still a whole lot of enjoyment to be had.

Gundam Versus plays more like a beat-em-up than a traditional fighting game, and depending on which game mode you choose, you’ll play as either a lone wolf or in a group with one or two CPU players--real players if you take it online--and team up to take down the enemy. In the single-player modes you’ll face pre-defined waves of enemies or a team of Gundam. Just beware: most dialogue is left untranslated. It won't prevent you from knowing what to do, but you can't easily follow what most characters have to say, save for your navigator.

Competitive multiplayer is more raw, focusing solely on Gundam-versus-Gundam bouts, which feel more dynamic and dramatic than merely facing off against AI. PvP is not just the most exciting way to play, but also the most gratifying. This is assuming you have a strong connection, as any server issues, which feel particularly prevalent in 3v3 modes, hurt the frame rate and render matches nigh unplayable.

How you go about dispatching the enemy is largely dependent on the mech you choose to pilot. Not that selecting a particular style of Mobile Suit aligns you to one playstyle; thankfully you are free to attack opponents how you see fit. You can lay down cannon fire from long-range then close in for a quick melee combo, or take advantage of your Suit’s maneuverability, waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. But whether you’re effective on the battlefield comes down to how well you learn each mech’s particular behaviors.

Despite the Gundams' impressive power, they are relatively simple to control. You can fly straight up into the air and change direction on a dime using power boosters; you just have to govern them appropriately to avoid overheating. Melee and ranged attacks typically require one button to activate, though you can often combine them for slightly more advanced attacks. However there are some subtle and not-so-subtle variations of this, which means there’s a heap of variety, but it can also feel inscrutable at times. Sometimes pulling back on the left stick and hitting your melee attack throws a block, using the Gundam’s giant shield for protection. But for others, this same move can unleash a devastating attack instead of providing the protection you’re seeking.

Hitting with ranged attacks is more about precise timing--and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s no free aim; everything offensive is governed by a locking system that cycles through enemies by tapping a button. Without a way to lead your target to make sure your shots are landing, often you can get a little lost when trying to cycle through to latch on to the one you want to take down. It could be a little smarter too, as it doesn’t take distance to the target into account when cycling. That split second can be the difference between nailing a sweet combo, or being on the receiving end of deadly flurry of blows that ends the round in a fireball. More annoying--and borderline unfair--is that enemies don’t take any damage from attacks while they’re staggered, but they can seemingly knock you about while you’re in the same position. Feeling like you’re at such a disadvantage under attack can lead to some incredibly frustrating defeats.

Having your mech shot down is something you get used to pretty fast, but it doesn’t mean the end of the battle. Respawns aren’t governed by a number of lives, but rather a Battlefield-style ticket-based system, where the number assigned to your Mobile Suit (as seen on the character select screen) represents the number of tickets respawning in that Mobile Suit will cost. Given the number of tickets you’re allotted changes on a per-battle basis, weighing up that cost versus the level of firepower they provide should factor into your choice. It’s all good and well to default to some of the more powerful suits, but they can be slower and more unwieldy, leaving you open to attack more often than you might be prepared for.

The arenas within which you unleash robot hell give the appearance of being much larger than they really are; the playable area in each is pared down to only a small portion of the map. While this is somewhat disappointing, each of the environments has its own aesthetic style, from a space colony split in half by an asteroid that’s still embedded in its side, to the more familiar surroundings of a large earth city or an open forest or mountain range.

Some of the less spectacular ground and surrounding building textures are highlighted by nice lighting, but the overall scope and size of each arena does enough to make up for the missing detail. And many of the buildings and objects within each arena are destructible, crumbling to chunky pieces as you and your opponents launch all manner of missiles, lasers and big robot fists at each other. It’s a nice touch but also gives the impression of kicking over a tower of foam blocks, lacking the kind of visual quality and wow factor that would bring it up to par with many of the mechs' attacks--some of which, by the way, look devastatingly powerful, with huge flashes of lasers, lights and explosions dominating the screen when they hit their target.

Gundam Versus is dedicated to the Gundam universe, and the treatment of the source material is easy to appreciate, even for someone unfamiliar with the series. That said, some loose mechanics, the paltry localization, and multiplayer's inability to deal with less-than-perfect network connections aren't easy to ignore. A smarter locking system, better demonstration of the differences between various Mobile Suits and the ability to attack downed enemies like they can to you would make for an improved experience, on the battlefield at least. But Gundam Versus nonetheless offers some light-hearted, robot smashing fun.

Middle-earth: Shadow Of War Review

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 14:14

One of the first people you meet in Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a woman with midnight black hair and a dress torn in intentionally strategic locations. You'll then learn that she's a version of Shelob, a giant deadly spider creature. The game explains her mysterious human form in time, and while fans of Lord of the Rings lore might have trouble embracing this unique interpretation of Tolkien storytelling, it shows that Shadow of War is a game that's willing to take risks with its source material. And, in a way, this example represents the full arc of the game: off-putting in the beginning, disappointing in the end, but seeing how they explain it all is an exciting ride.

Like its predecessor, Shadow of War is populated by powerful Orc Captains that have specific strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits defined by the game's Nemesis system. The number of fears, special abilities, and beneficial powers are much more robust than the first game, making it important to find a strategic approach to taking down some of the game's more powerful foes. The amount of information you get about each Orc once you've revealed its vulnerabilities can feel almost overwhelming, but you quickly adapt to the game's shorthand and what traits to look out for.

Your primary goal is to raise an army against the forces of Mordor by recruiting every Orcish leader you meet. These characters strike the perfect balance of humor and absurdity against the dull seriousness of the human cast, and you'll wish the quirkier denizens of Mordor could be constant companions instead of the brief vignettes that flash across the screen when you either kill or are killed by one. One especially colorful character I met was an Orc prophet who yelled at me about some serpent cult he was a part of; I ended up killing him, but it left a lot of questions in my mind about how Orc religions work.

Most of your time in Mordor is spent killing Orcs. Building off the first game, Shadow of War has a free-flowing combat system that lets you dominate creatures one-on-one but still stay in control when surrounded by a dozen or more adversaries. That momentum slows when too many things are happening on-screen at once, though. When an enemy captain is ready to be coerced over to your side an icon above his head turns green. Incoming attacks can be countered following a flashing prompt, and you have a slew of different abilities to take out legions of enemies. But the chaos of battle can make targeting opponents frustrating.

That's a shame because Shadow of War's most memorable moments revolve around its large-scale Siege battles, where you take over Orc-controlled fortresses using your own loyal followers. With an army of Orcs at your back, both pressing the offensive on a castle and protecting it are equally exciting, and the final entrance into the main hall of a fortress for the final fight feels as reverent and grand as walking into a towering cathedral in real life.

In the moment, these tense battles are the core of the Shadow of War experience, but the overarching narrative outside of the broad "tour Mordor, fight Sauron's forces," feels directionless. Part of that's because you don't spend enough time with any secondary characters (except for Gollum, whose brief appearance is somehow still too long). Characters you meet in the game have relatively short asides that range from the absolutely boring "save some Gondorians" to the furiously funny "learn how fight pits work with Bruz the Orc." It's hard to get invested in the stories of less interesting characters, and once you've completed a few of their quests, they disappear forever anyway. And, like most open-world games, after you've spent a couple hours running around collecting trinkets, it makes an NPC's entreaty about an imminent enemy invasion feel less immediately pressing.

But, narrative problems aside, some of the setpieces are breathlessly fun. You ride a drake, team up with some ridiculous Orcs, fight an imposing, flame-winged Balrog, battle the Ringwraiths. It's a greatest-hits compilation of the most bad-ass moments from The Lord of the Rings. After a slow-building introductory act, the game gains momentum as it crashes toward what seems like a final standoff against the forces of evil. And this fight addresses criticism of the previous game; it's an epic multi-stage battle that does still have QTEs, but no more than the ones you find while playing through the game normally.

Bafflingly that battle isn't the end of the game. Shadow of War continues on, but with its momentum drained completely. What should be an exciting climax instead descends into a tedious slog for a cutscene that doesn't quite feel worth the time and effort. In the game's actual final act, you cycle through the four fortresses you explored previously for a total of 20 more defending siege battles. If you haven't upgraded the Orcs you met early in the game--and up until this point, there was no reason to--you have to replace and upgrade your entire retinue of Orcs to match this more powerful invading force.

It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer.

The enemies you face level up with each encounter, so you're also forced into upgrading each castle over and over again, either by building up your current Orc army or finding new fighters and replacing the old. This Sisyphean quest has no corresponding significant characters to keep you company or explain why it's important to tackle the defense missions in the order you do. It's not even clear, exactly, why you want to do them at all.

More than once I felt like giving up on this quest thinking I'd stumbled onto some optional side content that was clearly only made for obsessed completionists. But enduring on, I found that finishing every stage unlocks the final cutscene and credits. It did not feel worth it.

It's an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer. But although the game's final act is the most egregious, there are several other systems that Shadow of War fails to justify.

Almost every item and Orc has some type of associated rarity (which scales from Common to Rare to Epic to Legendary), and with higher rarity comes more abilities. For Orcs, this means that they have additional, more powerful attributes that aren't available elsewhere. For weapons, it includes perks like "48% chance that a headshot lights enemies on fire." The buffs are useful, but the effects aren't so amazing that you'd keep a significantly underpowered weapon or Orc just for its benefits. It feels like a system tacked on purely to add another set of items to collect.

The menu systems for your Orcs and weapons is the part that feels most overburdened. It's grating that there's no way to sort or search through your own army if, say, you need an Orc with a cursed weapon and an immunity to beast attacks to take out an especially tricky opponent. But to find out what skills are active based on your current weapon loadout, you have to go to each item in your menu and read up on what you have equipped. There's no overview screen that lists out what effects you currently have active.

Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.

And buried within the weapon screens is yet another separate item menu, this one for gems. Gems are stat-boosters you find throughout the game that give each item yet another upgrade like increasing the chance that enemies killed with that weapon drop in-game currency or a 12.5% increase to the amount of experience you earn. They're helpful, but managing the upgrades for yet another set of items that are nested as a menu within your own equipment amounts to busywork.

Even with the Russian nesting doll of item menus, the most initially intimidating and complex of Shadow of War's systems is its skills menu. There are six primary skill tracks with points that have to be unlocked in order, and each skill has a separate unlockable set of 2-3 sub-skills (only one of which can be activated at any time). The ability grid is so dense and spread out that it's a chore to read through and decide what to put your points into every time you level up. And reallocating in the middle of battle (say if you want an area of effect attack to shoot out flames instead of poison), involves too much work and slows down battle too much to be practical.

As an example of how overwrought with options the skill system is, there's an upgrade that unlocks the ability to "collect items by walking over them." In normal play, you actually have to manually push a button to pick up every item you come across. It's an ability worth prioritizing when you're looking to spend skill points, but it's nonsensical that such a basic quality of life improvement isn't just the default way item collection works.

Despite the bloated feel of its systems, you earn all of these skill points, weapons, and Orcs at such a frantic pace that the game doesn't feel dragged down in the same way as it does by the final act.

Going beyond skills and menus, one of Shadow of War's more controversial additions is its online storefront where you can pay real-world money to earn loot boxes that have guaranteed high-rarity Orcs and equipment. One early quest in the game gives you a small sum of the paid currency to purchase some loot boxes, but you can also buy them from the store using an earned in-game currency called Mirian.

Although loot boxes that are purchased with in-game currency only go up to Epic tier rewards including gear and Orc followers, instead of the paid currency's Legendaries, the difference in quality between the two, in practice, isn't substantially different. And after finishing the game, even with buying a dozen or so 1,200 Mirian loot crates over the course of my adventure, I was still left with over 70,000 Mirian in reserve. Like so many of the other game's systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.

And that addition sums up several of Shadow of War's additions--things like the storefront and the menus and loot system don't make the game terrible, it just would've been better without them. It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less. But at its core, it's a fun experience with brilliant moments that provide fascinating insight into some of the untold stories of Middle-earth. I just wish it had known when to stop.

GameSpot has updated the penultimate paragraph in this review to provide further clarification on the types of drops available through paid loot boxes.

FIFA 18 Nintendo Switch Review

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 23:00

FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch is a tough game to categorize. When compared to the likes of FIFA's past PS Vita, 3DS, and other mobile versions, it's easily the best portable FIFA ever made. But compared to its current console cousin--FIFA 18 on PS4 / Xbox One--it's lacking features and much of the shine that makes that version so appealing.

On the pitch, it actually replicates the other editions' gameplay pretty well. Dribbling feels responsive, crosses are accurate, and overall match speed is faster than on PS4 / Xbox One, a change that better suits the Switch's immediate pick-up-and-play sensibilities. Commentary is also just as impressive, and animations look as smooth as they do on current-gen (though you're better off not looking at the cardboard cut-out crowds). Shots don't pop like they do on PS4 and Xbox One, and the omission of player instructions is a frustrating and bizarre one. But playing a match of FIFA 18 on Switch is an enjoyable experience.

The problems arise when you consider the game as a package. FIFA's Switch port is missing Pro Clubs and The Journey, meaning the only options to play offline are the bog standard Kick Off and aging Career Mode. I say "aging" because the Career Mode here is not the one included in FIFA 18 on PS4 and Xbox One--it's more like the Career Mode seen in FIFA 16. It does not include the latest additions of dynamic news clips or interactive transfer negotiations because--like The Journey--they are powered by the Frostbite engine, which FIFA 18 on Switch does not use. With such a faithful recreation seen on the pitch, it's disappointing that attention to detail is not reflected off it.

This means that, despite feeling good when you're in a match, FIFA 18 doesn't really offer much to do when you're not connected to the internet. The Journey in particular would've been a perfect fit for a portable FIFA--a match on the way to work, another on the way home--but its omission leaves the only proper mode, save for the aforementioned Career Mode, as Ultimate Team.

FUT is, again, replicated well--it looks and plays like the real deal, and contains much of the live content the other versions boast, like Team of the Week and SBCs. However, once again, the Switch edition is missing the mode's big new feature for this season, FUT Squad Battles. Ironically, Squad Battles are the feature that would have fit this version of Ultimate Team best--as a single-player portion, it would've been perfect to play a couple of matches while on the bus and have the game sync when I get home. Unfortunately, they're missing from this version, and you can't even access FUT's menus when you're not connected to EA's servers. Of course, you can play it when you get home, but you'll be playing a version of Ultimate Team missing many of the PS4 / Xbox One versions' innovations from the past couple of years.

One advantage the Switch version has over the home console edition is the ability to play with a friend while on the go. FIFA 18 supports single Joy-Con play, meaning I was able to play football on my Switch against my brother on the way to an actual football match this weekend. It works, but I always felt l was struggling against the controls--fewer buttons and only one stick means there's no way to use finesse shots, threaded through balls, knuckle shots, manual defending, skill moves, or driven passes. EA has come up with a clever workaround to allow you to knock the ball ahead--double tap the right trigger rather than using the absent right stick--but it's a shame similar solutions haven't been found for the other missing moves. It remains a convenient way to play a quick match against friends while on the go, but you'll be fighting to get both Joy-Cons back before long.

Unfortunately, the ability to play with friends is not reflected in FIFA 18's online offering on Switch. While you can play online--in FUT or in the standard Seasons mode or a single match--there is no way to matchmake with friends unless they happen to be in the same room as you and have their Switch on them. It's a glaring omission, and doesn't do justice to the community EA has cultivated so well on Xbox and PlayStation.

FIFA 18 on Switch delivers some enjoyable soccer when on the pitch, but without Pro Clubs and The Journey, and in restricting all access to FUT when you're not online, it shoots itself in the foot. Being able to play FIFA on the go or with a friend is gratifying, and if you're happy to just play through Career Mode for the next year, then this port will satisfy your needs and is the best mobile FIFA you can buy, but compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions, this port is inferior in every other way.

Forza Motorsport 7 Review

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 03:00

In Forza Motorsport 7, the familiarity of driving your favorite cars on beloved tracks goes hand in hand with the joys of discovery. It's about owning sporty cars priced just out of reach in real life, whether that's a Mazda RX-8 or an Infinity Q60. There's exhilaration in taking those sweet rides down roads you've visited countless times and still finding something new around familiar bends. And whether you're preoccupied with a pack of assertive Drivatars or fiercer real-life competitors, Forza 7--much like the other installments in developer Turn 10's mainline racing series--is decidedly abundant in different ways to compete.

The first thing you'll notice about Forza 7 is that it strips away the often amusing glorification and ostentatiousness of motorsport that decorated the series' last few games. Granted, I loved the dulcet voice over of Jeremy Clarkson when he dispensed with insight and trivia on cars and courses. Forza 7 relies less on wooing you with superficial spectacles and instead lets the cars and courses speak for themselves. This break from the ceremonious aspects of motorsport is a welcome one, especially when all you want to do is race.

The career mode alone--dubbed Forza Driver's Cup--encourages you to get down to business in a wide array of competitions spread across six championship series. Since you don't need to enter all the races to win the cup, you're offered the flexibility to compete with the types of cars you're most used to. That said, the opening races effectively remind you of Forza 7's vehicle variety, encouraging you to play outside your comfort zone. You can spend a dozen hours beelining for the cup, or more than double that if you want to get first in every race. There's no clear theme to distinguish one series over another, but it's easy to go along with Turn 10's seemingly arbitrary playlists of tournaments, given the wide variety of cars and courses lining your journey.

Even after you've raised the final trophy in the Forza Driver's Cup, the quest to build a respectable collection of cars goes on. As always, the draw of browsing the hundreds of cars in Forza is the tease of purchasing a new model like the 2017 Nissan GT-R or scratching that nostalgic itch with a Pacer X from the now-defunct American Motors Corporation. And while the recent withdrawal of Lexus and Toyota production models from racing games leaves a void in this robust roster, Turn 10 helps cushion the blow with a hearty selection of Porsches, a manufacturer that was missing from the launch version of Forza 6.

Competition takes many forms in Forza 7. The friends-as-AI Drivatars return as a pleasing alternative to age-old CPU racing behaviors like rubber banding. Online you'll find, more often than not, disorderly strangers who are as impolite as they are careless. Your best hope of winning is placing near the front of the starting grid. The alternative is, of course, participating in a private race, provided you can convince other friends and Forza players--ideally enough to fill a 24-car grid--to play fair and do their best at avoiding crashes. For the least chaotic approach to measuring and comparing greatness, Rivals presents a host of tough yet worthwhile asynchronous contests where you attempt to beat other players' lap times. Unfortunately, the traditional Forza outlets of aggression like zombie or tag are not available in the launch version of Forza 7. The same goes for Forzathon and Leagues modes, unique timed events that enhance the replay value of Forza Motorsport 6 and Forza Horizon 3.

Like many Forza Motorsports before it, Forza 7's greatest strength is its diversity of driving experiences, which says something for a series that relies mostly on circuit races, rather than adding point-to-point and off-road competition. The challenge of weaving a Mini Cooper through traffic at 45 miles per hour can be as thrilling as navigating your way through the various slopes and dips in Dubai Circuit of the Emirates. These moments are made all the more rewarding thanks to the 122 finely detailed and authentic track configurations spread across its 32 locations.

The last couple Forza Motorsports, along with Forza 7, are engrossing due to their true-to-life tracks and how surrounding environments are enhanced by changes in weather and time of day. Yet whereas Forza 6 had a premade rain condition for select tracks, Forza 7 has an impressive 16 variations of inclimate weather like thunderclouds and summer drizzle. Road Atlanta on an overcast day can exude the secluded quaintness of a course in the U.K. like the Top Gear Test Track. Suzuka--one of the oldest circuits in video games, dating back to Pole Position II--has never looked as good as when it's accentuated by the sun as it breaks through clouds during an early morning race. The ability to set multiple changing weather states in a single match further adds character to these riveting tours. The right combination of car and weather conditions can give you a newfound appreciation for a track you've raced on hundreds of times in other games.

What has always set Forza Motorsport apart from other racing sims is the depth of its newcomer-friendly accessibility options. Forza 7 continues this tradition with an array of adjustable assists and difficulty settings. Naturally, many of Forza 7's challenges arise when you've tweaked your settings just right so first place wins are hard fought. And with the return of mod cards--originally introduced in Forza Motorsport 6--you can self-impose other performance incentives for greater rewards. It's mildly gratifying to receive bonus currency for great passing or cornering even if the game didn't notice you shoved a couple cars when executing these supposedly graceful maneuvers.

Mods are unlocked as part of Forza 7's blind card system, known as Prize Crates. These packs evenly mix practical items like cars and mods with cosmetic goods such as badges and driver outfits. When you spend most of the game encased in a car's cockpit, these detailed jumpsuits and helmets might seem like throwaway gear, but when you see your decorated driver in a convertible or the pre-race menu, envy blooms. After opening a dozen packs, I felt like I broke even, feeling elation when spending little to win a rare car, as well as heartbreak for buying the most expensive crate and ending up with only common items. While cars are now organized by loot-inspired rarity--based on their price ranges--you can still buy cars no matter the rarity without relying on the uncertainty of chance with the Prize Crates. And it should be added that having access to the Ultimate Edition gave me a VIP mod that doubled my earned XP over five races. While this perk temporarily accelerated my progression, it did not impact the quality of my overall experience.

By the time I had logged a couple dozen hours in Forza 7, the confluence of environmental and driving realism unexpectedly inspired me to recreate real-life racing events like the famous 1996 Zanardi pass at Laguna Seca. These are the kinds of experiments that Forza 7 inspires, thanks in part to the game's variety and flexibility. Even with an imperfect roster and a selection of modes that doesn't compare to the comprehensiveness of Forza 6 at launch, Forza Motorsport 7 is still a feature-rich and competition-diverse bundle of racing events that keep you coming back for more. The ability to control the weather to create rich, painterly cloudy backdrops goes a long way in making up for the lack of zombie modes and the Toyota MR2.

Battle Chasers: Nightwar Review

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 21:00

Based on a hit comic book series from the late '90s, Battle Chasers: Nightwar successfully translates the look and feel of a comic into a video game. The mesmerizing animated intro shows exactly what you're in for: a wild world where steampunk meets Dungeons & Dragons, rendered in beautiful, deep-shaded colors. It's only when the turn-based RPG gets down to business that its greatest spell wears off.

The premise of Battle Chasers is that a girl named Gully has taken a pair of magic gauntlets, along with a motley crew consisting of a sellsword, a wizard, and a kindly robot, on a journey to find her missing father. The Nightwar chapter, however, is a minor sidetrack from that journey. The crew gets shot down from their airship over a mysterious island with serious problems of its own. Supposedly, the island is home to a motherlode of mana, which has prompted something of a magic-based gold rush. Mercenaries, thieves, unsavory merchants and, most worrisome of all, the attention of an evil sorceress named Destra, are drawn to the island. The crew's plans to depart dissolve into a trek that goes deep into the island's darkest regions.

Everything is captivating and breezy early on. The game's overworld is dotted with opportunities to battle oozing slimes, vicious wolf men, and surly prospectors. Dilapidated little shanty towns pop up along the way, as well as the occasional side quest, which usually impart a bit of lore before asking your band to thwart a high-ranking enemy in a dangerous place. The bread and butter of the game, however, is its major dungeons. Eight in total, the dungeons are procedurally generated, but each room and its layout is so impressively detailed, the puzzles so smoothly executed, that most of the time it's impossible to tell every dungeon wasn't meticulously laid out until you reset one, and re-enter to find an unrecognizable location.

From the outset, combat is fairly standard turn-based fare, though every character also has a special skill to affect enemies within dungeons--pro-actively stunning, ambushing, or igniting them--just before a fight kicks off. But the big gimmick is the Overcharge system. Basic attacks contribute to a special pool of red mana points that can be used to cast magic and tech attacks, rather than actual mana points. Even as the game progresses, MP remains in short supply, so you're forced to be mindful about whether to build Overcharge or expend mana when using abilities. This gets increasingly tricky, but in a way that keeps you engaged in every battle no matter how small.

Battle Chasers endears you in the process of establishing its world, characters, and combat systems. Garrison, the mercenary, is exactly what you might expect from a square-jawed warrior with a tragic backstory: his terse personality keeps him at arm's length from his cohorts. On the flipside, the hulking mech, Calibretto, is a gentle soul who acts more as the defacto healer, and the beating heart of the story as it goes along. The cast at large brings infectious personality and energy to every scene, and all of this is underscored by a delightfully diverse soundtrack, flavoring typical medieval adventure anthems with everything from Chinese string instruments to bassy, trip-hop backbeats.

The sour notes start to hit around the third dungeon. Where just minutes prior an enemy could barely manage 100 points of damage per hit, suddenly you find multiple basic enemies hitting for 200-plus points in the same wave, leaving debuff effects like Poison and Bleeding in their wake. And then, as if to cut you some slack, you meet a dungeon boss shortly after who struggles to make a dent in your party.

But what do you do when you're overwhelmed? Logically, it's a good time to step back, grind a bit, maybe even attempt one of the bounty hunts from town. This works for a while, but proves to be an inadequate means of levelling up in the later portions of the game.

Instead, dungeons can be replayed for faster XP gains, and each features higher difficulty levels granting better rewards. But dungeons are also slow and rather sizable undertakings that (despite the procedural generation) leave you fighting the location's same enemies ad nauseum, and for the same paltry amount of XP. On PS4, it's a problem exacerbated by long load times, which between the overworld and dungeons--and occasionally before fights on the world map--can last upwards of 30 seconds, making the process of exiting a dungeon to swap characters or visit stores an eye-rolling annoyance. Thankfully, these issues didn't appear on when playing on PC.

Despite the potential for loot within dungeons, it's also disheartening to see that most pieces have strict drawbacks that are difficult to counterbalance. Armor typically raises a character's HP, stamina, and speed, but drastically lowers physical and magical defense--stats that matter against stronger enemies. Weaponry and accessories are more balanced, but typically, what drops from battles or treasure chests doesn't offer the boosts you need.

Shops tease you with plenty of options, but buying new gear is easier said than done. Gold is a strangely rare commodity, no matter which enemies you beat or dungeons you go to. Killing an elite enemy in a dungeon set to the highest difficulty may net you a small bounty and a low level set of armor for Gully. To get the item you really want, you turn around and sell that armor for a pittance, along with a slew of other items, to try and afford good armor from the blacksmith. And quite often the armor you need is restricted to a level three or four above your own.

Hours upon hours, this little passion play repeated itself throughout my playthrough. Even after stopping everything to grind for experience, the next major area would present another drastic difficulty spike, with help nowhere to be found. Stacking debuffs on enemies was often the only effective recourse, forcing the enemy to unwittingly murdering themselves, rather than handle the task through my own attacks. While effective, it's also the least enjoyable way to experience a turn-based RPG.

Despite these issues, Battle Chasers is sustained through the strength of its story, a rollicking tale that takes our heroes literally to hell and back. It's bolstered by some sharp dialogue, gorgeous artwork, and an ensemble that plays extremely well off of each other. It's also a long game, but considering its relatively few major beats, it feels unnecessarily drawn out. It's too bad, because Battle Chasers is otherwise one of the rare comic-based games to have this many pieces in the right place.

Batman: The Enemy Within - Episode 2: The Pact Review

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 08:01

In Episode One of Batman: The Enemy Within, the tragic loss of a friend and stalwart ally threatened to undermine Batman's crusade for justice, while also throwing Bruce Wayne's personal life into disarray. As someone that loves to see the duality of DC’s Dark Knight used to unravel him I was eager for Telltale Games to pull at this narrative thread, but Episode Two allows it to slip away. While this is certainly a missed opportunity, Telltale makes up for it by thrusting Bruce Wayne into situations that begin to blur the line between right and wrong, and it proves to be just as compelling.

Episode Two is perhaps the strongest indication that Telltale is done drudging up Bruce Wayne’s past trauma to torment him, and more interested in giving him new demons to face. Though perhaps “new” is a bit of stretch, since the villains Bats goes up against are familiar faces from his rogues gallery, mostly unchanged from the way they've been depicted in the past, albeit with one major exception. Harley Quinn, who is the standout character in the episode, exhibits a drastic shift in her power dynamic with Joker.

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Traditionally, Harley has been depicted as Joker's long-suffering right-hand woman, doing all the hard work and receiving very little respect for it. She's always been infatuated with the mentally deranged Clown Prince of Crime, even though he treats her like a disposable tool, reciprocating her love only when it suits him. Telltale has turned this dynamic on its head, placing Harley in the position of power instead. John Doe, the man that the series is setting up to become Joker, is still very much on the edge of his madness, yet to leap into the insanity that transforms him. As such, he's still unsure of himself and finding his way, which Harley takes full advantage of. This time around, he's the one fawning after her, and she relishes in toying with his emotions. This subversion, for longtime fans of the Batman mythos, is fascinating to watch and an interesting new take on the character.

But it's not just Joker that Harley has at her beck and call. With The Riddler taken care of, she assumes control of Gotham City's cabal of new villains. In Episode One John Doe offered Bruce an opportunity to meet his "friends" and, under direction from Amanda Waller to infiltrate their ranks, Wayne finds himself having to win their trust.

This setup paves the way for Episode Two's most tense and defining moments. As Bruce Wayne, you must weigh up the need to curry favour from dangerous criminals against the inherent risk of dealing with devils. While the decisions you make therein generally resolve themselves in a way that keeps the narrative on script, in the moment there's plenty of drama in directing Bruce to toe the line and attack an innocent so that the nogoodniks trust him. Telltale asks fans to violate the principles they know Bruce holds dear, effectively twisting their own image of the character. The various decision-making moments in Episode Two are very effective realisations of that classic "doing something bad for the greater good" trope.

This sense of being between a rock and a hard place extends to Batman's new working relationship with Amanda Waller, and the strain it puts on his friendship with Jim Gordon. The cliffhanger in Episode One revealed that Waller, true to form, knows much more about Batman than most, giving her leverage over him. Since her investigation is undermining Gordon's, Batman finds himself stuck between two people on the same side of the law but with different objectives. Again, this is another instance where Telltale has set you up to either make life harder for Bruce by siding with Waller, or betraying someone you know is an ally to Batman. This early in the series, it's difficult to say whether these decisions will pay off in a way that's gratifying, but in the moment, it really sucks to have disappointed Gordon.

While Episode Two is filled with strong characterization and writing, one person stands out as a weak link. Alfred's involvement in the story thus far has been entirely forgettable, serving mostly to parrot back the events that happened in the scene preceding his appearance, or doing the worried father-figure routine. Alfred is a tricky character to make valuable, especially when Bruce is out of his moping, woe-is-me phase, when he can serve as the emotional anchor for Batman. As of yet, his inclusion in The Enemy Within doesn't feel justified; he feels like dead weight against the rest of the cast.

Episode Two also continues to push further away from the slower paced, investigation sequences from the first season. One bomb defusal section aside, the majority of gameplay is made up of action driven set-pieces controlled through quick-time button presses. It's a shame that Telltale seems to be playing down the clue-hunting and puzzle-solving elements featured in the first season. Although this keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, those moments were key in delivering a well-rounded Batman experience. Fans that like to see the cerebral side of Batman are going to be left wanting by Episode Two.

Nevertheless, Batman: The Enemy Within Episode Two builds on a strong opening to the season. It raises the stakes for Bruce Wayne by throwing him into a shark tank and asking him to turn bloodthirsty enemies into friends. Along with an empowered Harley Quinn and the unnerving powder-keg that is John Doe, the second episode provides drama and excitement in equal measure.

Star Fox 2 Review

Sat, 09/30/2017 - 16:00

With the launch of the SNES Classic, Star Fox 2 gets the official release that was originally planned for 1995-96. The game was finished but ultimately scrapped during this transitional period for game consoles, when both the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were on the brink of delivering richer 3D experiences. It’s a game that’s hard to evaluate in 2017 without contextualizing it in the time it was created. But out of its 22-year limbo, Star Fox 2 is both an expression of technical limitations of the SNES platform and laudable modern game design.

At the start of a playthrough, you choose two pilots to embark on the campaign. The original cast of anthropomorphic critters--Fox, Slippy, Falco, and Peppy--returns with two new female characters in Miyu and Fay. Each character has their own special item, shield strength, speed, and ship design. The overworld map is where you swap between your two pilots, in case one is low on shields and needs a break between battle sequences. This approach detracts from the feeling of camaraderie present in the squadron-style premise of past Star Fox games, especially since you engage in fights as a duo or on your own. It does, however, make you responsible for managing characters’ statuses.

Star Fox 2 breaks from tradition as it's structured more as a game of base defense than a pure on-rails shooter. The overworld map operates in real time as you send your pilot duo off to defuse a multitude of interplanetary threats in the embattled Lylat system. And the core of the game is to take down Andross (again) before Corneria reaches 100% destruction at the hands of incoming forces. In order to get to Andross, you repel attacks in familiar locations like Macbeth, Titania, and Fortuna. His cronies and high-ranking pilots Star Wolf, Pigma, and Leon will intercept you at times; it’s in these instances where you engage in free-flowing 3D dogfights in space.

Free-roam planet missions differ slightly and offer Star Fox 2’s best moments. Your Arwing ship can transform into a land-based walker. Doing so causes the game to switch to manual acceleration and an alternate aiming system. It’s a showcase of rudimentary third-person shooting that feels surprisingly contemporary, especially with the 16-bit era as your frame of reference. The L and R shoulder buttons control your aim and the D-pad controls forward and backward movement and strafing. Swapping between air and land vehicles as you take down planetary bases is a highlight and peaks in the final level when the game opens up branching paths. But like the game itself, these moments come to a close very quickly.

Each run of the campaign is built around obtaining a high score, and making it to the final stage takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Since actual battles eat up real time, and the ultimate goal is to take down Andross before Corneria is destroyed, you’re encouraged to accomplish everything as soon as possible; plus, you get more points for faster mission completion. It’s a deliberate design decision, but it sacrifices the more intricate boss fights seen in the first Star Fox, which results in a game that feels too thin overall.

To the developers' credit, the systems in place that make up the base-defense segments in Star Fox 2 instill a valuable sense of player agency. You decide where to go, what to defend, and how to juggle multiple threats; it’s in contrast to the distinct paths you choose in other Star Fox games. You’d be hard-pressed to repel every enemy, and you have to put a bit more foresight into your approach through the campaign, despite its brevity.

However, the biggest factor that holds back Star Fox 2 is its poor technical performance. While we can boil it down to the lack of system resources the original developers had to work with on the SNES, knowing this doesn’t negate the fact that the sluggish framerate and rudimentary visuals make dogfights laborious. You’ll find yourself mindlessly following target indicators since it’s nearly impossible to track enemy ships in the game. It’s hard to enjoy the pace of fights when Star Fox 2 runs almost like a slideshow.

Star Fox 2 can be praised for the ambitious structure that seemed to be ahead of its time, but the enjoyable moments are hamstrung by modern standards and expectations. Framerate issues and tech that wasn’t suited for this style of game prevent Star Fox 2’s vision from being fully realized, but it’s an important piece of gaming history kept alive with an official release. This game alone isn’t the driving force to seek out an SNES Classic, and you’ll want to consider the more time-tested games in the package.

Cuphead Review

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 08:01

Everything you've heard about Cuphead is true. It is a difficult side-scrolling shooter with relentless boss battles that demand rapid-fire actions and reactions. Think for too long, and you won't stand a chance against the game's toughest enemies. Battles may only last three minutes at most, but they feel far longer when you know that you can only absorb three hits before you have to start from scratch. When you are navigating your way around bullets, smaller enemies, and pitfalls, while simultaneously trying to damage your primary target, toppling Cuphead's imposing bosses is both a monumental and rewarding task.

But difficult battles only tell half of the story. Cuphead's 1930s cartoon aesthetic is endlessly charming, popping with color and expression unlike anything seen at this scale in a video game before. The sheer variety of characters and settings yields consistent delight as you go from one stage to the next, with everything bearing the telltale signs of grainy '30s film and rudimentary production techniques. Cel-shading means something to a lot of people, but Cuphead truly re-creates the look of hand-drawn cel animation.

The characters and bosses that are clearly inspired by cartoon legends like Betty Boop break free from the expected to surprise you with something new. Never mind that Betty's lookalike is a mermaid now; it's the moment her head breaks free from her body and spews caustic skulls that gives you pause. If you can appreciate the unique animation style, you will be doubly impressed when you see what developer Studio MDHR has brought to the table. If its technical execution wasn't enough, MDHR's creativity puts Cuphead in a league of its own.

A world map sets the stage for your adventure. As a Cup-thing who gambled with the devil, you now must go around collecting debts from the devil's other acquaintances--the game's bosses. Outside of one-on-one fights, you also have a few opportunities to run and gun through less-imposing platforming stages. These help break up the action and give you a chance to collect coins that can be cashed in for "weapons" and passive buffs. Coins are in short supply and can only be collected once, so farming to gain an advantage is out of the question. These stages don't compare to Cuphead's main attractions, but they add valuable substance nonetheless.

The mix of ammunition for your hand gun--character fire from their fingers--includes the likes of a spread shot, a charge blast, and a boomerang round. There are six in all, and each comes with a secondary attack that's tied to a meter that fills when you successfully land shots on enemies. You can also earn meter by parrying pink projectiles and enemies, a task that requires you to jump towards an enemy and then tap jump again at just the right moment before impact. These range from a fireball and a ring of damaging gems to a burst of bulky, short-range arrows. Finally, you have a super art, which can only be fired when your entire meter is full, as opposed to spending one section of that meter to fire your weapon's secondary attack. The one catch here is that when your meter is full, you can't perform a secondary attack--you are inconveniently forced to unleash your super art, which isn't always desirable.

Given that you are able to equip two weapons at once, the variety of loadouts you can equip before a fight allows for flexibility on your part. While you may benefit by bringing a specific set of arms into some boss battles--say, using tracer rounds to pick off minor enemies swarming overhead--you can still carry whatever you wish into battle so long as you have the confidence and knowledge meet the challenge ahead.

Learning the bosses' attack pattern is oftentimes half the battle, and it's typical to run through a fight multiple times until you see everything that might get thrown your way. Every boss fight consists of multiple stages or forms. Bosses will change shape, position, and behavior with each new phase. And within an individual phase, you may see as many as four different attacks, though you aren't always guaranteed to see them all during subsequent fights. When bosses begin to mix multiple attacks at once, the potential for various deadly combos keeps you on your toes no matter how familiar you are with the fight in question.

The fear of the unexpected is part of what makes Cuphead such a thrilling game, beyond the frantic moment-to-moment tension. You only have three hit points per stage by default--you gain a fourth if you equip a charm that also weakens your firepower. But when the only question in your head is, "In what order will the boss' attacks appear?" fights take on less-appealing light after the dozenth attempt. It's in these moments you start to identify a few places where Cuphead could do a slightly better job of keeping you informed of your own progress and capabilities.

You never can tell exactly how close to death--or a phase change, for that matter--bosses are. At best, you can see a plotline of the battle after death, to loosely gauge your relative progress. In the face of defeat, you may begin to question if you're carrying the right tools for the job. Beyond revisiting old fights, which is more arduous than it should be as you traverse the map slowly and can't fast travel, there isn't a great way to familiarize yourself with new weapons. And there's unfortunately no way to tell exactly how much damage one weapon does compared to another. Vague descriptions are all you get.

If Cuphead's fights were indeed puzzles with one correct solution, this would be incredibly frustrating. As it stands, there's only a small amount of frustration to be found while fumbling with new weapons and dying in the process. It may sound like a minor thing to praise, but the fact that boss battles reload in one or two seconds is a godsend when it comes to trial-and-error tactics. And no matter how frustrating a boss may be, you can't escape the draw of their expressive animations.

Cuphead does support two-player local co-op as well, but it's pretty evident that this makes life more difficult for you and your partner. Despite the intricate chaos that you face alone in any given fight, when you add another character and more projectiles on screen, playing with a friend makes it far more difficult to discern your surroundings, and much easier to slip up. You do have a small window of time to revive a fallen comrade by parrying their ghost, but it's a mere few seconds while it floats up to the top of the screen before disappearing for the remainder of the fight.

For anyone interested in getting a taste of Cuphead without facing almost-guaranteed defeat, there are simpler versions of every boss that you can fight--but you won't be able to access the final battle unless you beat every standard boss on the normal difficulty. And in reality, you may as well stick with the standard fights as Cuphead is relentless no matter how you play.

Cuphead has been a longtime coming, and it's great to see that it lives up to its initial promises. It's beautiful to look at, and with a pitch-perfect soundtrack, it flawlessly captures the era its developers so clearly revere. It's also an intense action game that pulls no punches. It could benefit from a few tweaks, and two-player co-op doesn't feel like the valuable addition you might imagine, but Cuphead remains a rare, unique game that truly stands out.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 01:18

When I describe Danganronpa to people, I usually start with the murder part. The series' main draw is its battle royale-style killing game, its participants high school students trapped in a school (or an island, in the case of Danganronpa 2) and unable to contact the outside world. The game master is a sentient teddy bear named Monokuma, and he tells them that if they want to leave, they have to get away with murder. But, if they're caught red-handed, they'll be executed, leaving the innocent ones to survive and continue the killing game.

Solving each murder in Danganronpa's bizarre, darkly funny world has always been my favorite thing about the games. But the mysteries extend beyond the murders to the fate of the outside world, the truth of the killing game, and whether hope can truly defeat despair. While the first two games are mostly light on details about the world at large, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony focuses much more heavily on the bigger-picture questions. A surprising twist in the first case is followed by a series of rather lukewarm murders, but they're a slow setup for greater mysteries that lead to a fantastic and unpredictable ending.

Like the first two games, V3 is divided into chapters, each with visual novel storytelling, first-person exploration of the school grounds, a murder investigation, and a trial. It takes a while to get to the first murder, mostly because the students need time to wrap their heads around the killing game, and there's a lot of back-and-forth as they decide what to do. Of course, that also gives you time to get to know the characters and figure out which ones are suspicious (or most likely to die). Once each murder happens, you're launched into a point-and-click investigation, where you gather evidence in the form of "truth bullets" that you can use to literally shoot down contradictions and false statements during the ensuing trial.

Mechanically, Danganronpa is a bit all over the place. It looks best in its dialogue sequences and while exploring its 2D environments, its characters like cardboard cutouts that follow you wherever you look. 3D exploration is a bit more janky, reminiscent of an old corridor shooter. But the trials, especially, mix in a series of minigames and a ton of instructions designed to help you select answers. An anagram game has you spell out murder weapons or methods; a driving game cleverly called Psyche Taxi has you drive over letter pickups to form questions; the debate sections have you shooting down "white noise" statements to clear the path for your truth bullets. It's a lot, but it's charming in its weirdness and gets easier to handle with practice.

The biggest addition to trials is the ability to lie. Holding down triangle will convert your truth bullet into its opposite--for example, you can take the truth bullet containing someone's lack of an alibi and turn it into a lie claiming you saw them, if you don't think they're the culprit. The idea is to use lies to direct the debate toward the truth, and it adds another dimension to the trials that keeps you on your toes.

Danganronpa's murder cases are always extra bizarre in some way, and that often comes from its eccentric cast of characters. Each has an "Ultimate" talent, like the Ultimate Detective, that drives much of their personality, though they're all deeper than that--and most are hiding something. V3 is no different. At first glance, even, V3's characters seem a lot like reskins of past ones. There's the gung-ho leader, the mysterious tsundere, one that's so creepy that it almost makes them less threatening, the pervert, and the chaotic evil lunatic. The parallels aren't just there, they're suspiciously overt, down to the over-the-top dialogue that hits anime archetypes hard. It feels off somehow.

But in true Danganronpa fashion, anything that feels wrong is almost definitely that way for a reason. The first trial is proof of that; because the characters seemed so familiar and therefore predictable, I saw the false conclusion the game was trying to lead me to and figured the twist was obvious. The actual explanation for the murder, though, completely blindsided me. It was fresh, completely changed my perception of the characters, and set the stage for a shocking, exciting series of murder mysteries. That's why the next few chapters were a bit disappointing.

Compared to the first two main games, V3 feels exceptionally long. The "daily life" sections, where you get to know everyone around the academy while you wait for another body to turn up, take up more time than they need to. Most chapters took around eight to ten hours to complete in total. The cases in the middle of the game are drawn out, the trials long and winding (though not slow or boring, at least). Even when the culprit is totally unclear, the explanations lack the revelatory feeling of the first case. There are a few standout moments, especially when revealing the hidden depth to different characters, but it mostly plateaus.

It's hard to explain why that works without spoiling the ending, but it becomes more clear when you focus less on the individual details of each case and more on everything else around them. There are a few things that still don't work regardless, like the unrelenting, grating vulgarity of one of the characters, but the things that felt almost great turned out to lead somewhere much better. The ending payoff is more satisfying for it, even if it takes 40 hours to get there.

Danganronpa V3 doesn't top the first two games overall. Its murder cases generally aren't as memorable, and its slow pace can make it feel flat in the middle. But as a sequel to those two games, it does a great job of tying the loose threads together and remaining surprising to the very end. The characters are interesting, their collective story very long but still engaging, and unraveling the mysteries of Danganronpa is ultimately satisfying--even if, at times, its unpredictability seems predictable.

WRC 7 Review

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 23:00

Rallying is not only stunningly difficult, it’s terrifying. Barreling down narrow stretches of bumpy, loose-gravel roads lined with huge rocks, trees or sheer cliff faces at speeds nearing 140mph is about as butt-clenching an experience as you can imagine. It’s a sport that requires pure talent, but those who do it professionally manage do so with the same elegance and grace as a dancer performing a heavily choreographed routine. Watching them react to their co-drivers calls with a flick of the wheel and some fancy footwork can be mesmerizing. And with WRC 7: World Rally Championship, KT Racing has delivered a solid and focused test of off-road skill that, despite a few rough edges, puts you firmly in those dancing shoes whether you’re ready or not.

For the unfamiliar, Rallying is a series of time-trials run over three days, with each day consisting of a number of stages. At the end of the event, the driver with the fastest time across all three days takes home the championship points and the glory. Set on treacherous, narrow roads which can combine snow and ice, tarmac and gravel, teams utilize co-drivers to describe the road ahead using pace notes. It’s a tough, challenging sport that requires total concentration as missing a call can easily see the car launched violently off the road. WRC 7 leans hard into this mentality, taking it more towards the simulation end of the spectrum, and it shows.

Cars themselves can be a real handful. Without assists, of which there are few, you’ll need to be on top of your braking and steering, which feel very sensitive by default. Turning down the sensitivity helped alleviate this somewhat, but even with the assists on, you’re still in for a huge challenge. A few more player assists like stability control, or stronger effects applied to the ones already available, would have gone a long way in making the game feel more accessible.

In a time where video games focus on making themselves pop with fancy special effects and extra side content, WRC 7 takes a more direct approach to both its presentation and gameplay. All the real-life teams, cars and sponsors are represented across the three tiers of competition; Junior WRC, WRC2 and the WRC, giving you the full gamut of options to choose from when taking on a single rally stage, an entire three day event or a full custom championship.

You can jump into a multiplayer rally, but chances are you’ll need to find some friends with the game in order to get the most out of it. Otherwise the best option for those who want to test themselves against others is via the leaderboards and the challenge mode, which picks a car and track combo and challenges you to put down your best time compared to others. The difference between this and the standard leaderboards being that you potentially earn the most points for your first attempt, and fewer points for each subsequent shot you take. It’s by far the easiest way to get your multiplayer kicks.

Each of the 13 different rally locations from this year’s World Rally Championship are represented, and they are easily the stars of the show. From the densely lined, snowy forest roads of Sweden to the rocky, sun-drenched gravel of Argentina, each of the different locales and stages has a real feeling of character that, while proving an incredible challenge, also serves to visually satisfy. Special stages are deeply packed with foliage, adding a quality and detail to the environment seldom seen in other rally games. Despite some minor shadow pop-in and objects in the distance lacking finer detail, it’s hard not to be impressed by the individual character of each venue.

While not quite as awe-inspiring as the numerous locales you plow through, each of the game's 55 different team cars have all been modeled to accurately reflect their real-life counterparts. Slightly less spectacular are the cockpit interiors which, while matching the bare-bones structure of a beastly rally car, fail to live up to the finer level of environmental detail. Similarly, weather effects are present but unspectacular, particularly when driving in snow, which never manages to stick to your windshield.

WRC 7’s mainstay game mode is the career, which lets you create a driver and sign them up to a team in the Junior WRC category with the goal being to rise up through the ranks. If you do well enough, you might be given an early shot for a single rally at a team in one of the higher tier championships. Better yet, earn a good finishing spot in the championship and rival teams from the other categories will swoop in and attempt to sign you up for next season.

There’s no upgrading your team, car parts or skills. You are a driver, and that’s what you’re here to do; drive. Your performance can change your team's morale, which affects how efficiently they perform car repairs in the service area at the end of each day. Team morale is also affected by how well you match their preferred approach to racing: some want you to go all-out, pushing hard to go as fast as possible without too much cause for concern about damage. Smaller teams, though, may want you to protect the car, asking instead that you make sure to bring it home in one piece.

Although this is a nice idea in theory, in practice it doesn’t show much of an effect, if any, and it would be good to see more in terms of consequences for either failing or succeeding in sticking to the game plan. In line with this, car damage is forgiving both visually and mechanically, despite the ease of which you’ll find yourself rolling end-over-end after clipping an embankment. If you beat it up enough, parts will eventually fail or fall off entirely, but the cars can generally take a good beating before you need to worry too much.

For all its minor faults and bare-bones nature in comparison to others, WRC 7 is still an enjoyable, but seriously challenging rally title. It’s not the most welcoming game for newcomers, and even experienced racers will find some of the rougher stages tricky. But ultimately, that’s also the point. Rallying isn’t easy, and KT Racing have taken that much to heart.


Figment Review

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 20:00

Figment taught me that it's often easier to fight the phobias in our heads when they're singing catchy ditties and while dancing and spewing pseudoscience. Consider “Plague,” a spindly boss representing a fear of filth.

"I've got a vaccine for germs like you, full of autism, nausea, and flu," he chants. How rude.

But that’s why the fight’s so satisfying. Figment literally lets me toss his filth right back at him and vanquish him by forcing his big, toothy mouth to take a shower. I'm pretty sure this isn't what generations of philosophers had in mind when they told us to face our fears, but I imagine they’d be hard-pressed to disapprove.

So goes a typical five minutes in Figment, a colorful isometric puzzler that’s gently reminiscent of Bastion. Beyond that, it's a psychological study that invites you to spend around six hours puzzling through the left and right halves of the brain of a person struggling with depression and trauma, all while tolerating horrid puns and manipulating fart clouds with windmills powered by dragonflies. Suffice it to say, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice this is not. That's not to imply that Figment doesn't pack a similar emotional punch in its commentaries on mental illness, but its methods differ. It's short enough not to outstay its welcome, but long enough to craft a believable tale of deliverance from mental squalor.

Figment doesn't spend too long on the details of the background--only a few seconds of audio without visuals; a family's car wreck that ends in a child's screams. The vagueness feels intentional, as it lets you see the following hours as a metaphor for our own (potential) struggles with depression, inadequacy, and apathy. As such, it seems determined not to scare away any players who might benefit from its message, slamming you not with graphic imagery but with vividly colored storybook landscapes channeling Escher, Dalí, and Maurice Sendak. Personality abounds, whether it's the bright greens of the creative side of the mind or the clockwork and steam of the logical left. It creatively embraces music beyond the song-and-dance routines of the bosses, right down to French horns jutting from cliffs or ukelele plants that strum in harmony with the soundtrack as you pass. By the time it decides to get gloomy as you’re navigating through stacks of unpaid bills and spilled coffee near the conscious mind, you’re ready to face it. It’s a beautiful transition.

Our hero? A mopey fellow named Dusty, who's decked out in what looks like Max's getup from Where the Wild Things Are. He’s the personification of the mind's courage, but when his gushingly happy bird friend Piper shows up, he's got little desire to do anything besides find some ice for his cocktail. Above all, Figment is the tale of how he regains his confidence, and the action kicks off after a nightmare runs off with Dusty's scrapbook that's been keeping him mired in the past.

It's not a hard puzzler, but neither is it easy. Figment generally achieves a nice balance, apart from times when the aforementioned "waves of despair" seem a little too difficult to dodge.

Dusty and Piper’s extreme personalities would get annoying on their own, but they serve as foils for one another, and their contrasting banter is one of Figment’s great charms. Brace yourself, though, for lines like "The diarrhea dude is close" and "I smell the ending of this." Figment also gets a little heavy-handed when it wants to make sure you understand this is all happening in the brain, as when Piper explains how picking up little metal orbs from fallen enemies will help increase Dusty’s health pool. “Look, the mind’s reward system just released a bunch of endorphins,” she exclaims. Pipe down, Piper. We get it.

Dusty does a bit of fighting with a wooden sword and some dodge rolls against creatures like "barf rats" infesting the mind, but these moments are rare and a little simple, serving mainly to provide a respite from the game's puzzles--the meat of the gameplay. They're remarkable in that they rarely repeat and fit the themes of the three big regions of the mind Dusty journeys through. Sometimes he'll have to push around enigma blocks or figure out how to scare a thieving bird by tying a maraca to a snake's tail. Sometimes he'll have to shuffle batteries or help a train barge through multiple zones, or use "shell creatures" to block literal "waves of despair." The best moments, though, are the boss fights, where the puzzles and combat all neatly work in tandem while the boss belts out a tune with off-color lyrics that might make Disney cringe.

It's not a hard puzzler, but neither is it easy. Figment generally achieves a nice balance, apart from times when the aforementioned "waves of despair" seem a little too difficult to dodge. Most of the puzzles demand more patience than brainpower, and the approach fits the theme. Again, this is the tale of someone who's learning how to have faith in himself again, and punishing puzzles that leave us banging our heads on our desks likely wouldn't have the intended effect. As it is, it's easier to believe Dusty's relatively quick transition from mopey drunk to nightmare-slaying guardian because we've experienced those little mental victories along the way as well. Much as in Portal 2, the beauty of Figment’s puzzles is that they make you feel smart.

Some bugs still skitter through the mind, and not just the one representing arachnophobia in the middle act. On five different occasions Figment's loading screens locked up while I jumped from one zone to the next, and once a floating platform I was on suddenly became intangible, sending poor Dusty to his doom. Nothing a reload wouldn’t fix, though. You shouldn't take that as an excuse to miss out on Dusty's journey, particularly since it ends on a surprisingly moving note after all the fart clouds and puns like "Holy molar!" Worth pursuing, too, are the little hidden items you can hunt down after finishing the game, which offer glimpses into the life of the person whose head you've been travelling through the whole time.

Figment is at once lighthearted and deep. It reminds us that dark things may lurk underneath otherwise pleasant surfaces, that grumpy egos may populate the shuttered houses of an otherwise beautiful mind. Sometimes Figment seems a little too silly for its ambitions, but that frivolity never manages to fully drown out its overarching message--that if we persevere and have a little faith in our abilities, things will likely turn out well in the long run. Or, at least, we'll learn how to live with the pain.

NBA 2K18 Review

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 18:00

NBA 2K18 is a hardcore sports simulation. If you want to get good, you have to put in the work. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to improve your skills no matter how you want to play. And the fact that there's so much to do is a bonus, because on the court, NBA 2K18 is also an amazingly well-crafted experience.

The first thing that strikes you is how it looks and feels like a real-life professional basketball game. The 2K series' attention to detail has always been incredible, and this year is the best yet. Using the default camera, it's almost hard to discern between the game and an actual NBA broadcast. Great, varied commentary and the three-way chemistry of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal during halftime make it feel like a Thursday night ballgame on TNT.

NBA 2K18 is also on Nintendo's less powerful Switch, but don't discount that version: it still looks great for what it is, even if it falls short of its bigger brothers. Of course, there's the added bonus of playing in portable mode, which also helps diminish graphical flaws given the Switch's small screen.

NBA 2K18's controls remain largely the same since the introduction of the Pro Stick setup in 2K14. Movement is handled with the left stick, and the right stick controls things like shooting, where you finish your lay-ups, and ball handling. Alternatively, buttons can also be used to pass and shoot, so if you don't like shooting with the stick, you don't have to. But the stick controls are satisfying, especially when you cross over your defender and drive to the hoop for a layup. You feel like the ball is completely in your control.

Succeeding in NBA 2K18 has always taken a certain level of basketball IQ. You need to not only be able to spot open teammates but also know when to pass and what type of pass is best for the situation. It's also about setting screens, running hard defense, and understanding your players' strengths. Thankfully there is a great way to learn everything you need to know through 2KU. This tutorial and training mode lets you learn everything from bounce passes to screen plays. It's very robust, with freestyle and scrimmage options, and is super helpful in perfecting your game without having to rack up losses in one of the other modes.

There are numerous ways to play, with each game mode having several choices to ball. Play Now has choices to play one-off games against the AI, online, in the streetball Blacktop mode, or against friends. MyCareer lets you compete against other players in what was known in previous NBA 2K games as MyPark, a game of pick-up streetball now found in the MyCareer Neighborhood. They serve as fun ways to hone your skills, take some pressure off, and advance your experience and VC earnings.

MyTeam is a card-trading fantasy league where you build a team by unlocking cards with players, boosts, playbooks, and uniforms. It's still the same solid NBA 2K18 basketball on the court, with the added twist of deck building. It's also place to spend real-world money, if you so desire.

This year's big hook is the expanded MyCareer, the story-driven create-a-player mode with the new Neighborhood central hub. You pick your position, favorite team, and then tweak the look of your player before the story begins. MyCareer starts off with a streetball tournament, where you try to prove your worth to team scouts. It has the same teammate ranking system as in past years, where your grade with your team goes up or down depending on your performance.

Outside of the court, MyCareer has a fairly typical rags-to-riches story, with you guiding your player from unknown rookie to much-hyped superstar. When you aren't playing, you're in the Neighborhood, a new addition that lets you wander around a few city blocks, playing games, practicing, buying clothes and shoes, and more. It almost feels like an MMO when you first drop in. You're surrounded by other 2K18 players and their avatars, wandering around the neighborhood and working on achieving the ultimate 99 overall rating, known as OVR.

There are two general ways you can climb your player to the highest NBA 2K18 heights: you can train, play, and practice, or you can just spend a bunch of virtual currency and skirt the whole thing. A 99 OVR puts your player on-par with LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and perhaps the greatest to ever play the game, Michael Jordan. But getting there requires an enormous amount of work--unless you're willing to pay, of course.

There's a gym--excuse me, a "Gatorade Power Center"--in the Neighborhood that lets you build level and experience towards badges and increasing your next OVR level. The mini-games in the gym are exceptionally un-fun. They mostly involve alternating button presses or stick movements. Just starting a mini-game takes longer than actually playing it, as your character shakes their arms and gets into place in an excruciating, unskippable animation each and every time you do any of the workouts. If only there were a better way to build up your OVR and boost levels.

Oh right, microtransactions. You build up VC by playing games in MyCareer, which is standard 2K fare. But the amount of VC and experience you earn feels miniscule, even during sessions where you play at the top of your game. In past years, VC flowed more freely, so buying VC with real money feels almost like a necessary evil now. The game is too stingy on its own, which makes earning enough to advance your character a long and lonesome hill to climb.

Past iterations rewarded skilled players with difficulty multipliers. NBA 2K18 does away with all that. You can increase your earnings by having a great game, making baskets, sticking to your defensive assignment, and generally playing well. But there's no reward for playing at the higher difficulties.

It's also hard to build up your earnings early on in the MyCareer season because, as an unproven rookie, you don't get a lot of minutes on the court. That lack of playing time severely limits your earning opportunities. There are other chances to earn VC, like answering trivia questions in loading screens, but the most you might earn is 500 VC if you manage to get every question correct. It's not just stats that cry out for VC. Shoes, shirts, tattoos, even haircuts require you to spend virtual currency. It's impossible to ignore how much easier it is to break out your credit card than to play your way to the top. It's the difference between walking miles to work, or hiring an Uber.

Basketball is a way of life, and each year, NBA 2K is a big part of that cultural movement. Real NBA players worry about their NBA 2K ratings. This year's entry is incredible in so many ways, from graphics, to soundtrack, to the different modes and ways to play hoops. It becomes clear early on that the fastest and easiest way to progress is by spending real money, slightly marring an otherwise tremendous experience.

Total War: Warhammer 2 Review

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 22:00

Stepping back into the world of Warhammer is always a fantastical journey, and with Total War: Warhammer 2, never before has an adaptation of the source material felt quite so natural.

With the second installment in its massive strategy game trilogy, developer Creative Assembly has begun flexing its design muscles. Battles are bigger and more expressively animated, and scores of soldiers of all different types--be they ghastly undead or blood-thirsty dinosaurs--sound impeccable, but the improvements run well beyond the aesthetic and into the fineries of tactical and strategic play.

Where the first entry in the series kept to standard Total War form with an open-ended, Risk-inspired campaign of territory control, now there's a directed focus--a vortex which is said to seal away legions of Chaos Demons.

Within the context of the Warhammer universe, Chaos is an all-consuming malevolent force that corrupts and distorts. Long ago, a ritual helped quarantine the forces of Chaos behind a seal so that normal life could thrive. Now, though, you, and a number of other forces across the map will be racing to take control of that seal--to whatever end.

Your target takes the form of a swirling Vortex comprised of magical energies. As you progress through a pre-made set of special quests, you'll be able to start performing rituals that will, in time, allow you to wrench control of the Vortex from everyone else. But, since all the other races of the world are pushing towards the same end, your progress will be marked along a track with five milestones. Each time you (or anyone else) performs one of the five successive rituals, the pace of the entire campaign picks up.

This mode still balances Total War's signature dualistic design. As you're worrying about the stability of the Vortex, you'll also need to manage cities and tax your people, as usual. You'll research new tactics, weapons, and monsters, and conduct diplomatic consorts with the various races of Warhammer. And, should talks break down and two or more armies meet, you'll be ushered into a tactical view that will task you with micromanaging your troops.

Rituals often take quite some time to complete, and, in the interim, three of your most powerful cities will be marked. Opposing factions will try to sack, capture, or raze any of them. And, if you don't control all three by the end of the ritual timer, you'll have to try again; and still deal with the invaders you directed to your lands.

Completing rituals marks major steps in the game, in part, because you'll need to ensure the safety of your home front while you presumably press battle lines across the map. It complicates play with an interesting, macroscopic challenge that every player will be able to approach a little differently.

The global quest tracker/countdown has been seen before in Masters of Magic-descended strategy games, but here it's backed with specific quests that play to the lore of each race within the Warhammer universe. Lord Mazdamundi, for example, is struggling to revive the great Slann mage-priests who once guided the feral Lizardmen on the fields of battle. And your quests will revive and recruit the long-slumbering Slann to use in your own armies. That's quite distinct from the approach the Dark Elves or the rat-like Skaven will take to victory, for example. The former specializes in naval combat and tailor-made invasion vessels known as Black Arks, while the chittering clan rats of the Skaven are better suited to hit-and-run attacks. Their whole civilization being subterranean means they need not worry so much about foes razing their ritual sites.

As you progress through the campaign, your foes become more numerous and the evil forces of Chaos will filter onto the map in an attempt to stop you. During the late-game, after 50 hours or more of play, they will be monstrously powerful. These are tests, in a sense, as they'll gauge how well you've distributed your forces and managed the challenges posed to you thus far. And they encourage you to seek help from your neighbors, as it's difficult to pull together the might all on your own. That brings up one of Warhammer 2's most engaging consequences of the Vortex rituals.

Progression yields huge impacts for diplomacy, encouraging you to forge alliances with those of your own faction. This make sense, in play, because each group's broad goals are distinct within the lore. Lizardmen, for example, believe themselves to be the only ones following the will of the old gods and they are among the closest this universe gets to an unambiguous "good." Dark Elves, by contrast, are fueled by torture and slavery and causing pain to others. Should they wrench control of the Vortex, they will, of course, use it for their own violent ends. This confluence of goals can lead to the creation of confederations, which are a fancy name for one of the most useful ways to build your empire. Like minds can, over time, be persuaded to let themselves be absorbed. This merges politics, economies, and research trees, and gives you a quick, sudden expansion of territory, often with a new legion of eager soldiers for your command.

This keeps the game from chugging in the middle and latter stages, where you'd have to take back razed cities from marauders only to carry the dead weight of a developing province for a while before seeing any return. The new system both fits thematically and boosts the importance of diplomatic and factional ties on the map. Generally you'll get along with your own groups better, but you'll also find yourself stepping into long-standing political alliances, many of which aren't always the easiest to navigate. The focus, of course, is still on the battles, but this breaks up long stretches of action with some careful maneuvering from time to time.

As you pick up more subjects and commission larger and larger armies, you'll no doubt unearth some of the other major new additions to play. Choke point maps, for instance, give you a lot more to consider in your approach to special in-game locations. Some will funnel your forces through a bridge, giving you a very narrow front on which to concentrate, others will use different types of land to give bouts more depth.

Through a thousand tiny tweaks, they've refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.

The effect on play with that alone is huge, as it means many powerful strategies aren't always applicable. At the same time, you may find that a holdout army formed of all cavalry can repel a far stronger force in the right conditions. In time, you'll learn where these battlefields lie on the map. That, in turn, opens up countless other broad-scale strategies designed to guide foes to the points where you've got the strongest defenses. You could always do this to a degree, of course, but the results are far starker here, on top of adding much-needed variety to play. Combined with the pacing changes that the race to control the Vortex brings, Total War: Warhammer II feels fresh, even though you'll be stepping into the same universe as last time.

Eye of the Vortex, as the single-player mode is called, is among the best a campaign of this type could be. It encourages the right amount of conflict to keep you moving, paces itself well, fits plenty of in-universe lore for diehard fans, and fine tunes about every other facet of its predecessor. Plus, as the game wears on, you can rest assured there's a definite, clean ending. Someone's going to complete the rituals--even if you don't. At the same time, the multi-part and complex victory conditions can often lead to some of the most nail-biting matches around, made that much better by diverse maps that encourage novel tactics with each bout. Nothing feels quite as exhilarating as holding a key province against multiple unsuccessful assaults thanks to your own cunning.

Every piece in Total War: Warhammer II is designed to force you to innovate and create new plans on the fly, testing your prowess over and over in new and exciting ways. In fact, Warhammer II surpasses its predecessor in nearly every respect. Everything except the camera--which doesn't zoom out far enough and has been a source of frustration for several Total War games now--and multiplayer..

The complaint with its online multiplayer is simple: there aren't enough factions for competitive play. At present, you can only use the four groups featured in the Eye of the Vortex campaign--Dark Elves, High Elves, Lizardmen, and Skaven. Given that the first game started with five for multiplayer and rapidly expanded from there, it feels like a step backwards to have so few options for now. Not being able to pit vampires against dinosaurs is a shame. And it'd be cool to see how Elven dragons fair against the mighty Dwarves, but that'll have to wait. There are some planned free content expansions coming, including a massive campaign map that spans the lands and races covered in both games, but that's some time off. Those fans who were put off by the monetization of content in the first will likely have the same complaints, though they can rest assured that the base game is robust on its own.

With Warhammer II, Total War doesn't reinvent anything so much as it iterates on the ideas that made the first so special. At its heart there's still the marriage of Total War's big-scale strategy and Warhammer's precise tactical play. But, through a thousand tiny tweaks, they've refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.

NBA Live 18 Review

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 05:00

When it comes to bringing back some competition to the basketball video game genre, EA took inspiration from non-sports genres to mold its progression and character customization systems with NBA Live 18. These outside influences--which are represented in the game's career mode called The One--help overshadow EA Sports' standard issue modes like Ultimate Team and Franchise. And with the long-overdue inclusion of the WNBA, NBA Live returns to the court from a one-year hiatus with a respectable game, even if it's not a complete package at the levels of EA's more stable sports franchises.

The One follows EA Sports' positive trend of featuring story-driven single player career modes. Although its premise of a derailed athlete making a comeback echoes this year's Madden campaign, don't expect a similarly heartfelt narrative and Telltale Games' inspired designs. The One is less about physical recuperation and more about the rebuilding of one's personal brand, based on how well you respond to trash talk and court challenges. It underscores how professional basketball culture has evolved with social media.

NBA Live 18 is the product of the times in more ways than one. While there is a specific path to greatness, The One is loaded with optional opportunities to build your cred and improve your skills beyond amassing wins throughout an NBA season like taking your talents to street courts. Picking a play style is akin to picking classes and subclasses in other genres. If you're interested in being a guard, for example, you'll have to decide if you're a playmaker like John Wall, a backcourt defender like Mike Conley, a slasher like Russell Westbrook, or a point shooter like Steph Curry. With a total of 11 subclasses to choose from, The One delivers considerable replay value. There are also customizable trait loadouts to further gamify your career. Equipping and unequipping powers like improved shot blocking or better stamina isn't authentic, but swapping and trying out different capabilities is nevertheless engaging.

Another riveting aspect of The One is how you're persistently evaluated with every ball touch, whether you're penalized for giving your assigned man an open look, or credited for a ferocious block. Even a missed layup turns out to be a positive if you showed effort by making an assertive drive to the hoop. While not new to basketball video games, this grading system motivates you to make every possession count.

Experience gained through wins and by building your reputation feeds into your character's growth. These points can be spent to make your baller well-rounded or specialized in one skill. It can be satisfying to max out the Dunk ability to help insure high percentage shots, even if it means other scoring talents don't get better until later. The One excels for the depth at which you can customize your player with the talents you wish you had in real life.

It's a journey enhanced by the fiction-building connective tissue found between games. Smartphone chats with best friends or your agent, and even impromptu interviews with reporters offer a simplified version of the life of a 21st century basketball player. Adding to this moderately immersive fiction is the tiresome exuberance of ESPN First Take's Stephen A. Smith and his more tolerable co-host Max Kellerman, who both comment on your career milestones in unskippable cinematics. The more insightful intermissions are the videos that remind you of American basketball culture that exists beyond the NBA, like introductory videos on Rucker Park in New York and The Drew League in Los Angeles.

The One, as its title implies, is a predominantly solo career but this mode does present online opportunities to team up with others in five versus five matches. Playing with other people is as unpredictable as it is enthralling but a bigger draw of multiplayer is its team-based scrimmages against CPU-controlled legends like Allen Iverson or Gary Payton. These side matches add variety to a campaign already stacked in diverse activities and prove worthwhile as another avenue to grow your character.

Yet out of all the ways EA Sports pays respect to basketball, the inclusion of WNBA players and teams stands out. While it was disappointing that these women don't get opportunities in the other modes or even online, it was satisfying to play as the LA Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike and Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm.

To some surprise, these new facets become the main draws of NBA Live 18, overshadowing the shallow Franchise mode and unremarkable Ultimate Team, both of which are serviceable but lack the engrossing richness of what you find in other EA Sports series. While you assume the role of a GM in Franchise, you lack the engaging power to negotiate complex contracts, customize players, or scout prospects before the draft. Ultimate Team is similarly simplistic, as the mode where you can experiment with dream teams online or against the CPU, but giving you little reason to come back after you've exhausted your wishlist of matchups.

Whatever your mode of choice, keep your highlight reel expectations low. While the faces of NBA starters are impressive and do their real life counterparts justice, animations fall short compared to what you find in NBA 2K18. Still, these visual shortcomings don't get in the way of the solid controls, which work well whether you're a team player or a ball hog.

You can go far against the AI by using the basic moves, but there's greater gratification found when mastering the more complex techniques, 12 control disciplines in all. Thanks to sufficient input responsiveness, you have the potential to dominate the low post as well as Dirk Nowitzki and handle the rock with flare on the level of Chris Paul. When you're on a court of ten players and opportunities to score come and go in fractions of a second, the last thing you want to worry about are limited ball movement options. NBA Live 18 arms the player at any position with the weapons hold your own against others online.

NBA Live 18 is a welcome return for EA's basketball series, but doesn't come close to matching the greatness of NBA 2K11 or 2K16. By contrast, the strengths of The One underscore the uninspired designs of Franchise and Ultimate Team. These mainstays are fine and functional, but feel dated when held up against their deeper counterparts in Madden and NHL. That's not to say this game is short on replayability. Between the WNBA matches and the position variety of The One, NBA Live 18 succeeds--albeit barely--as a viable alternative to NBA 2K18.

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