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The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild - The Champions' Ballad Review

Sat, 12/16/2017 - 16:00

Slipping back into Breath of the Wild is typically a painless process; spirited moments are never far away, and tranquil scenery makes the time between finding treasure and hard-fought battles consistently captivating. With so many things vying for your attention, it's fair to say that the game doesn't need to be expanded. But as the Master Trials DLC showed us earlier this year, there are still pieces of this lost chapter in Hyrule's history to uncover.

For the game's final act, The Champions' Ballad, Link's ancient allies (Revali, Daruk, Mipha, and Urbosa) get their chance to retake the spotlight. The result is less impactful to the overall story that we're already familiar with, but the accompanying quests and new gear do a lot of heavy lifting, delivering over a dozen new stages to test your problem-solving skills in ever more interesting ways. They alone make a return trip to Hyrule worth getting excited about.

A big part of this new journey involves walking in the champions' footsteps, re-enacting feats they performed prior to the fall of Hyrule, to unlock long-forgotten memories--but you must first prove yourself worthy of the opportunity. Upon returning to the Resurrection Chamber, the cave where Link awoke from his 100-year slumber, you're given a weapon known as the One-Hit Obliterator. As the name implies, this short-range weapon allows you to kill an enemy in a single blow; but with your health consequently whittled down to a quarter heart, you're also more vulnerable than ever.

Similar to how you may have felt when tackling Eventide Island or the Trials of the Sword, the threat of an easy death when wielding the Obliterator is stressful, and it takes time to acclimate to being such a fragile warrior. You may have shrugged off an occasional bee sting before, but it's little incidents like these that teach you to think twice about every move during this phase of The Champions' Ballad. Sadly, it's a great setup that ends too soon. After clearing out four small enemy camps and the shrines that emerge from their defeat, the weapon returns to the resurrection chamber having "fulfilled its duty." Even after completing everything the DLC has to offer, the weapon remains unusable, which feels like a missed opportunity.

With this stage of the new journey complete, you're sent to the four corners of Hyrule on a glorified scavenger hunt. The accordion-playing Kass regales you with songs that hint at your objectives without completely spelling out the steps involved. Adding to the mystery are the visual hints that reference a specific part of Hyrule, but these pictures are limited, forcing you to pore over the map in search of your destinations.

In a very pleasing way, the goals set for you take great advantage of Breath of the Wild's numerous mechanics. You will take on a snowboarding challenge that tasks you to pass through rings in a limited amount of time, hunt Hyrule's elusive dragons, and re-engage the banana-loving Yiga clan, among other missions that test the breadth of your capabilities. And for each task you complete, a new shrine surfaces from underground.

The Champions' shrines force you to engage in mindfulness and critical thought. They typically involve a lot of moving pieces, veering away from combat in favor of puzzle-solving. So far removed from a life of shrine-hunting in the main game, returning to these creatively built challenges takes you back to a time when Breath of the Wild was this new and mysterious thing, an experience filled with surprises.

Upon completing the three shrines in a given set, you're able to tap into the memories of the relevant champion. You don't get the opportunity to directly control Hyrule's famous defenders, but as Link, you re-enact their battles against Ganon's four blights--the same four bosses you fight at the end of each of the game's Divine Beast dungeons. The difference this time around is that you are limited to a small selection of gear based on what each champion would have carried into battle. Oddly, you retain access to the powers bestowed to you by the champions' spirits in the past, which give you incredible advantages and somewhat negate what would otherwise be difficult battles. You can always turn off these powers if you choose, but given the context of exploring someone else's memories, it would have made more sense had they been disabled by default.

Your immediate reward for beating each blight is the ability to recharge Champion abilities in less time, and new cutscenes for each champion; each one shows a recollection of when they were recruited to join Zelda's anti-Ganon squad 100 years in the past. These vignettes are more playful than serious, which is a little disappointing considering the gravity of the calamity they're up against.

Thankfully, there's a bigger and better reward waiting for you once you've resolved every champion's quests: a new Divine Beast dungeon, complete with a totally surprising boss fight. In a similar fashion to other Divine Beasts, the final station requires you to manipulate the entire structure, rotating major components this way and that, as you work to resolve the four puzzles locking away the final area. It's another reminder of how clever, if non-traditional, Breath of the Wild's dungeons are. While shrines ask you to solve puzzles comprised of compact devices and easily conceivable constraints, the scope of the final Divine Beast (like the ones before it) is delightfully difficult to wrap your head around both for how big it is and how intricate its solutions are.

The parting gift for your efforts is one of the unlikeliest additions to The Legend of Zelda: an ancient motorcycle. Loosely modeled to resemble a unicorn, Link's new bike fits thematically if not logically into Breath of the Wild's mythical tapestry. On one hand, having a bike at the ready overshadows your stable of horses. On the other, tearing through Hyrule on a motorcycle is as ridiculously playful as it sounds. It even makes for a fun snowboard replacement on snowy hills, which helps escalate the sense of speed as you rocket down mountains and look for ramps to catch a bit of air. The only real disappointment: you can't summon the motorcycle in the desert nor travel there if you're already on the go. Attempt the latter, and an invisible wall prevents you from proceeding, exactly the same as if you tried to enter on horseback.

Who knows if Nintendo will continue to surprise us with fanciful new additions to Breath of the Wild down the road, but considering that The Champions' Ballad is likely the final world on this chapter in The Legend of Zelda, it's a bittersweet goodbye. There are so many wonderful quests and beautiful, tiny moments that make revisiting Hyrule's past feel like reliving your own memories, when Breath of the Wild was truly new and surprising. Nintendo certainly could have extended some of the aspects within The Champions' Ballad, such as giving you access to the Obliterator at anytime, and letting you ride your new motorcycle over sandy dunes, but these are minor blemishes on an otherwise great trip down memory lane.

Rumu Review

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 01:08

The moral and ethical dilemmas of engaging with ever-evolving technology isn't a new thing for video games. But in combining these weighty themes with a heartfelt story about family, loss, and love, Rumu brings a fresh and heart-wrenching perspective to some well-trodden thematic ground.

You play as Rumu, a tiny vacuum-cleaning robot who is as adorable as it is curious. Its one and only duty is to clean the futuristic house of its owners, David and Cecily. Said owners are nowhere to be found but the all-seeing sentient house AI, Sabrina, promises that they will be home soon. In the meantime, the only thing left to do is to clean and explore. Aided by Sabrina, as well as an eclectic mix of semi-intelligent home appliances and a house cat named Ada, everything starts off innocently enough. As you partake in chores, cleaning up some spilled tea here and some dropped toast there, Rumu slowly begins to grow self-aware. What starts off as a cute, whimsical adventure involving cleaning up spills soon gives way to a thought-provoking sci-fi tale.

Rumu is an isometric point-and-click puzzle game on the surface, but its strength doesn't lie in mechanics or aesthetics. Its puzzles are unchallenging and unexciting, and the discoveries that come from exploration play out in a linear fashion. The game instead anchors itself on Rumu and Sabrina's relationship and the underlying mystery of what happened to David and Cecily. Though the game is short--a full playthrough will last 2-3 hours--Rumu and Sabrina's complex dynamic and the central mystery is borne out in an engrossing manner from start to finish.

Rumu communicates with binary dialogue choices, while Sabrina is a fully coherent character. The little vacuum robot almost always "speaks" in variations of "I love you," and subtext is imbued into every line. Telling Sabrina "I love David, Cecily, and Sabrina" instead of "I love Sabrina, David, and Cecily" provokes contrasting reactions, and Sabrina possesses a sinister streak when provoked. She's surprisingly flawed for an AI character and prone to emotional vulnerability. Allegra Clark's excellent voice-acting gives extra weight to an already well-written character; little details like subtle breaks between words and slight pitch changes during heated conversations give the character a surprising degree of emotion and sympathy, and it's these finely-crafted moments that inject intriguing nuance into Rumu and Sabrina's relationship.

As pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, conversations with Sabrina take on a markedly more antagonistic tone. The I love yous become less frequent and more direct lines of questioning become the norm. The result is a fascinating look into emotional manipulation, familial relationships, and ultimately, loneliness. It's risky to focus an entire game around a single relationship since everything hinges on the strength of the characters, especially when both aren't even human. But both Rumu and Sabrina are well-written and surprisingly relatable during certain climactic moments. The experience is heightened by Rumu's beautifully poignant soundtrack, which perfectly evokes the game's futuristic setting and familial themes.

Events happen at a breakneck pace, and it doesn't take long for the story's conclusion to sneak up on you, but when you finally uncover the central mystery behind David and Cecily's absence, the emotional payoff feels well-earned thanks to strong character work and an impactful ending. It may be short and unchallenging, but Rumu's strong antagonist and its ultimately heart-wrenching journey make it one worth taking.

Steep: Road To The Olympics Review

Sat, 12/09/2017 - 16:00

When Ubisoft Annecy's extreme sports game Steep launched last year, it sold itself on the promise of big mountain exploration. In light of this, Steep's newest expansion, Road to the Olympics, feels somewhat incongruous with the rest of the game. Something as regimented, restricted, and well-defined as the Olympics does not fit well with a game that challenges you to break all restrictions and find every nook and cranny hidden in the mountains. However, despite its name, Road to the Olympics includes much more than just the Olympics; it adds a huge swath of beautiful and brutal terrain, as well as new events that are surprisingly entertaining.

Those parts of the DLC are hidden behind the story mode, however, which is not much more than a classic longshot narrative: You are an aspiring freestyle Olympian, and you have to complete a series of events in order to make it onto the Olympic team. Your ultimate goal is to become the first freestyle athlete to win the gold medal in all three freestyle disciplines: Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe.

As you progress through training and the various pre-Olympic competitions, the story is interspersed with actual video interviews with famous winter athletes. These are probably the best moments in the mode, as it's fascinating to hear Lindsey Vonn or Gus Kenworthy talk about their training regimen, what their anxieties are, or how it feels to win a competition. Generally, Olympic athletes only ever get visibility when they are actually participating in the Olympics, so it's easy to only think of them in the context of their sports. To see highly successful athletes sitting down in street clothes and talking about their experiences with obvious passion instills a sense of humanity and relatability that we rarely otherwise get.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn't match the interviews in quality. Each event feels bizarrely disconnected from the interviews, and the mode's narrator treats your character as a nameless, faceless competitor who is supposed to be taking snowboarding by storm. In addition, the actual competitions are frustratingly easy if you've played the base game. During my playthrough of the story, I never once came close to falling out of first place, and I'd routinely score two or three times higher than the other competitors. During some events, where the total score is the sum of the scores of three runs, my two-run score would be significantly higher than the competitors' three-run scores. Although its in-depth tutorial make it a great mode for newcomers, veterans of the game won't find anything particularly exciting or intriguing. Thankfully, it only takes three hours to complete, so you can quickly get through it and turn your attention to the much more rewarding parts of the expansion: the new open world and the various challenges contained within.

For all its problems, Steep does one thing particularly well: it imparts a sense of scale that's unmatched by any other winter sports game. The mountains you ski on feel immense, varied, and full of secrets--in other words, they actually feel like real mountains. They draw you in and make you want to traverse their entire breadth. Additionally, each mountain is distinct and has its own character; Steep's Denali map features massive, wide-open slopes, while the Alps are filled with craggy peaks, glacier fields, and Swiss villages. Road to the Olympics adds a Japan location, which is just as varied and, it turns out, is my favorite map in the game.

Japan's skiing is unique and very different from Western ski areas. The new map is filled with huge, sheer cliffs that bottom out into narrow ravines, glades full of small, scraggly trees as opposed to the tall evergreens of the West, and pillow fields of natural jumps and kickers that make you feel both exhilarated and slightly out of control. Steep's character models and small details have never looked good, but its scenery is gorgeous, and Japan is no exception. I found myself frequently stopping and staring out over the mountain range, or seeking out the small temples and villages that dot the mountainside.

It's also just an incredibly fun map to ski down. Steep has arguably the best video-game skiing ever made, from the sense of speed to the ease of pulling off tricks to the smoothness of the mechanics. And Japan encourages you to experiment with those mechanics and push the game to its limits. No other map in the game has rock faces as sheer, chutes as steep, or glades as dense, and you'll have to really work to keep yourself from crashing. But unlike the Alps and Alaska, I never felt like I was fighting the game itself or going out of my way to avoid particularly nasty terrain. The new mountain wants you to throw yourself down chasms and cliffs.

Of course, free-roaming around the mountain isn't the only thing you can do in Steep--it also has a Trials-like challenge system that encourages you to perfect your runs to increase your score. I've found Japan's normal challenges to be fine, but unmemorable; there's no challenge that stands out like the Cliff Jump events in the base game. It also has a distinct lack of freestyle events, which are by far the best challenges in the game.

However, Road to the Olympics also contains about a dozen different Olympic challenges that are a lot more satisfying than their story mode counterparts. Competing against yourself and the global leaderboards is more difficult and more interesting than competing against computer-controlled characters. These events do feature a commentator, though, whose lines are extremely repetitive and often unrelated to what you're doing.

The events themselves are novel and rewarding, featuring mechanics and terrain found nowhere else in the game. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new ski racing events actually work pretty well in a game that focuses so clearly on freestyle. In fact, the Downhill ski challenge has become one of my favorites of all the activities in Steep.

Struggling to control your character while going at extremely high speeds is satisfying and entertaining, especially when you nail a difficult turn while maintaining your velocity. Also, these ski race events finally justify the existence of Steep's first-person view. Although it's impossible to ski in first person while doing jumps and flips, ski racing is perfect for it: the smooth, open tracks keep the camera stable, and it's actually helpful to see the track from a closer, less obscured perspective. In addition, hitting a jump or carving a hard turn in first person felt way more real than I was expecting. For a few moments at least, I experienced the same stomach lurches that I do when skiing in real life.

The ski races provide some much-needed novelty to Steep's core gameplay, but most of Road to the Olympics is simply more Steep. That's both good and bad; the new playground in Japan is huge, varied, and enticing, it provides a wealth of opportunities to explore and try new tricks, and there are enough challenges to keep you occupied trying to beat your own and friends' scores. However, Steep does can get repetitive; a freestyle challenge is a freestyle challenge, after all, and eventually Japan's novelty does wear off. The ski races actually present new mechanics to master, but the expansion doesn't lean into these events hard enough. Even having just a few more Downhill courses would have gone a long way toward making Road to the Olympics better.

As it is, the moments where Road to the Olympics shines are when you're shredding through waist-deep powder at breakneck speeds through a picturesque glade, or careening from the very peak of a mountain down through ravines and all the way to the base far below. The new mountain is beautiful and features a good number of opportunities, and it's a welcome expansion of Steep's playable territory. The Olympic events, meanwhile, provide nice diversions when you really want to compete against yourself. The DLC's main feature--the narrative journey to the Olympics--is flawed, unfulfilling, and frustrating, but thankfully there's enough to do elsewhere that Road to the Olympics still helps bolster and revitalize Steep's main appeal. It's good to have a new mountain to throw yourself down.

Destiny 2: Curse Of Osiris Review In Progress

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 00:18

If you simply ran out of things to do in vanilla Destiny 2, its first DLC expansion, Curse of Osiris, adds a few new activities for you to take on. For the most part, though, there isn't enough to the expansion yet to justify coming back. My opinion is still in flux since I haven't played the Raid Lair yet, but so far, the story missions, Strikes, new Crucible maps, and Adventures feel like more of the same, despite the DLC's new settings and stories.

Curse of Osiris picks up right after the end of the base game's campaign, as far as your level goes. You could go directly from the end of the Red War story to Curse of Osiris' campaign, which requires a power level of 200 to 220, without having to grind much in between. For newcomers or PC players who've had less time with the game, it's a comfortable bridge for leveling up between the lower-level vanilla content and the high-level endgame activities like the Nightfall. (Those endgame activities are a different story, though. We'll get to that in a bit.)

As a result, though, Curse of Osiris' story missions feel like filler. The campaign sets up an enormous undertaking against the Vex, with infinite timelines and computer simulations and the mysterious Warlock Osiris mixed up in it all. But with a two-or-so-hour runtime, the missions rush through the interesting concepts and usher you into a simple final battle that is essentially scripted. It's also not enough time to fully understand Osiris as a character, which is disappointing considering he's only ever been mentioned in Destiny lore before now. The beautifully designed and varied Infinite Forest, a Vex creation designed to simulate timelines and their infinite permutations, is the most interesting addition in the expansion--but even then, the story doesn't task you with exploring it, instead shepherding you through areas to find codes and things that smarter NPCs can use to pinpoint your next destination for you.

Other than the Infinite Forest, the new destination, Mercury, is simply uninteresting to explore. It's a small circular map with one new Public Event to try out, a new vendor, and a handful of chests and Lost Sectors. The foundation of exploration established in the base game is still good here--having a variety of options to choose from does make things feel less repetitive--but it feels like busywork with little to do at the highest level. That extends to the new Strikes, which are almost direct copies of two of the story missions, nothing more than another way to kill time.

The biggest problem with Curse of Osiris is that it locks the hardest activities, including the Prestige Nightfall and the Prestige Raid, behind its new power level cap of 335. The recommended power for those activities is 330, which you can't reach if you don't have the Curse of Osiris DLC. So if you don't get the DLC, you suddenly don't have access to something you used to be able to do. It's also frustrating if you do get Curse of Osiris, because the higher level requirement doesn't fundamentally change these activities.

New Heroic Adventures add Nightfall-style modifiers to the Adventures on Mercury, but those missions aren't begging to be replayed. The main incentive to do it at all is to unlock the Lost Prophecy quest from the NPC Brother Vance, which eventually unlocks the Forge. From there, you can craft Legendary Vex weapons. But for anyone besides the most dedicated players, there's no compelling reason to do all this unless you want to redo old missions on harder difficulties in order to get loot to use when you do them again.

Excellent gunplay isn't enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside of busywork.

While some of the new loot is worth collecting--my favorite of the ones I've found is a Legendary automatic scout rifle--you'll likely get a lot of duplicates before you get anything you actually want to use. Because the main reward for everything you do is shiny new loot, the frustratingly high drop rate of duplicates makes grinding more disappointing than satisfying. The gunplay feels as great as ever, though, so it can be fun to experiment with new weapons, but it's not enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside of extra ways to occupy your time.

That being said, I still need more time to try out Lost Prophecies and the Forge as well as the Raid Lair when it launches. If they provide more of an endgame and have more of a purpose than just padding out the same kind of stuff, I'll be more inclined to return to Destiny 2 than I am currently.

Doom VFR Review

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 23:00

It’s one thing to step into 2016's Doom and witness its version of hell in all its modern, HD glory. It’s another thing entirely to step out of a portal in the new Doom VFR and suddenly find yourself inescapably surrounded by fire and death. Hell has been made more harrowing and real than ever before, and Doom VFR leverages this to present a new tale. But a big issue is that compared to last year's hit, Doom VFR is more conservative with its action, stingier with the bloody, brutal joys that were part and parcel of Doom's successful return to the stage.

Doom VFR is a pseudo-sequel set one year after the events of the last game, where a milquetoast UAC employee, Adams, finds himself knocked out after a face-to-face encounter with a demon after a portal to Hell opens. When he wakes up, he's connected to a virtual reality rig, allowing him to pilot a holographic representation of his body around the facility to try and shut the portal to Hell for good. Right off the bat, the priorities are different than before. Adams is a generic cypher whose voice is present only to tell us what piece of expensive tech is broken in the Mars facility and how to fix it. That meticulous fawning over UAC equipment is the kind of legwork that the Doomslayer--the series’ faceless Marine protagonist--never had a whole lot of time for. The guy who cocked his shotgun to the chugging beat of his own theme song has been replaced by a guy who's essentially reading a UAC instruction manual at the beginning of each stage, robbing the game of its familiar brutal charm.

Thankfully, when it's demon killing time, Adams knows to shut his mouth and let the guns and Mick Gordon's metal soundtrack do the talking. There're three ways to play on PSVR: with a DualShock 4, with two Playstation Move controllers, or with the gun-shaped Aim controller. The Dualshock 4 handles like the non-VR Doom, just with a Teleport button, which has become the standard mode of movement in VR shooters. There’s also a new Shield Burst ability, a crowd-control function allowing you to repulse all enemies halfway across the room with an overloaded electrical shield. The Dualshock 4 is certainly functional for the game, but it’s also the least immersive option available.

Playing with Move controllers fares the worst. Aiming with the right controller feels natural, but actual movement is handled by a quick dash function using the left controller's buttons as directional inputs, which leaves absolutely zero room for the kind of precision you need to survive.

The Aim controller is the ideal. It's not perfect either--for some reason, the PSVR's camera tracking on the Aim seems to drift more than normal, which is a problem if you're trying to use one of the larger weapons, like the Gauss Cannon--but it is by far the most gratifying way to play, using the same mix of movement controls as the DualShock 4 but with a prop in your hand that feels more inline with your actions. White knuckle clutching a physical rifle while the forces of Hell charge ahead puts you into the right mode to slay demons, and feels exactly like the kind of experience the Aim was made for.

For the most part, shooting your way through Hell's armies feels just as brutal as it does in the 2016 game. Demons explode into bloody, fleshy messes. Arenas are wide open, encouraging constant awareness of your surroundings, something made much more efficient with the Teleport function. The entirety of the enemy roster returns here, from the nimble, annoying Imps to the towering Barons, but VR puts them right in your face, making the physical act of pulling the trigger point blank all the more satisfying. The big missing element here is the Glory Kill system, where hitting the melee button on a blinking enemy let you demolish them with a quick, gruesome fatality. The replacement in Doom VFR is the ability to teleport into a blinking enemy and explode them from the inside. It mechanically gets the job done, but it's less impactful than it sounds, and pales in comparison to tearing enemies limb from limb.

Perhaps the ultimate complaint is that for a game that's so good at delivering fast-paced combat, it's strangely shy about letting you do so for extended periods of time. The campaign itself is only about 4 hours long, minus extra time spent exploring for collectibles and power-ups, with only the added bonus of playing some old-school Doom maps in VR--admittedly, a ridiculously fun, nostalgic bonus--to pad things out. Much of your time in the game is spent wandering the UAC facility, waiting for the chance to unleash wrath on Hell's inner circle. When you do, it can feel great, but Doom VFR feels like a game unsure of whether that's the case. The result is a game that feels tentative about its own considerable power.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 13:00

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is every bit as fantastical as you'd hope, an RPG set in a massive world where man and animal live on the backs of tremendous beasts in a sea of clouds. The world of Alrest, simultaneously Earthly and alien, with a mysterious history that even its major players fail to truly understand, is a magical place to inhabit. It appropriately sets the stage for an epic adventure that gets more interesting as it develops, but this greatness comes after dozens of hours filled with eye rolls and bewilderment. For all the good things Xenoblade 2 eventually introduces, the 80-plus hours it takes to complete the story won't feel like time wasted, but the bad taste of the its lesser qualities is never completely washed away.

The cliched hero Rex is a naive and upbeat salvager who gets wrapped up in contract work with the game's soon-to-be villains at the start. They seek a legendary sword, which in this case is the weapon-manifestation of a human-like being known as a Blade. When a human resonates with a Blade, as Rex does with his objective, Pyra, a lifelong partnership forms. Though sentimental to a point, these bonds are also a bit lopsided as Blades are forever bound to serve their masters. Xenoblade 2 does address this as the story unravels, one of the few smart instances when the game puts itself to task. Rex doesn't quite enjoy the same full-circle maturation, sadly, though his positivity at least grows more welcome as stakes rise and other characters' outlooks sour.

Anyone familiar with Xenoblade Chronicles will rightfully recognize the way Xenoblade 2 sets you up to be surprised in the end, as characters gradually reveal secret thoughts, unveil unexpected backstories, and make moves that catch you off guard. These thought-provoking revelations reshape your understanding of the world and the point of your participation. But long before the story delivers these compelling beats, you are thrust into predictable scenarios and presented with poorly voiced characters from one scene to the next. Once again, the stout and furry Nopon creatures are an annoyance on par with Jar Jar Binks, harming would-be dramatic scenes the moment they open their mouths.

Rex and Pyra seek Elysium, a sort of paradise atop a towering tree running through the center of Alrest. They partner with a small selection of comrades from different walks of life who surprisingly have more in common than they initially realize. You can only ever travel as a party of three, but with a Blade standing behind each character, or Driver, battles are frenzied displays. Still, Xenoblade 2 gives you a chance to breathe and strategize during its real-time bouts. Every character will dish out basic attacks automatically, which in turn fuel more advanced skills. You only ever have complete control over one character, but your allies will chime in with requests to perform certain moves. How you manage this process, and the numerous other battle mechanics, can make or break your success against the game's tougher enemies.

One of the major issues with Xenoblade 2 is that it fails to adequately educate you, with fly-by tutorials introducing cascading mechanics and terminology that's easy to mix up. The flow of combat works as follows: your auto attacks fill up a meter tied to abilities known as arts, arts fuel another meter for special attacks, special attacks can be linked from one character to the next to build up a Blade combo, Blade combos seal away certain enemy abilities, and team chain attacks--based on a meter that is also used to revive fallen teammates--can break these seals to create an elemental explosion that deals hefty damage, which successfully extends the chain attack for another round. Enemies can also be forced into tiers of vulnerability by breaking their defense, toppling them to the ground, launching them into the air, and smashing them back down, provided you execute these moves with abilities linked to cooldowns that you've hopefully kept track of, all before countdown timers close your window of opportunity. There are other systems that exist on a per-character basis, but those exclusions notwithstanding, there's already a lot to keep track of. Success comes from managing timers and meter charges and firmly grasping your available options, the latter of which is more demanding than the game initially lets on.

Thankfully Xenoblade 2 feels appropriately balanced to account for its learning curve. It's not until later in the game that mastery becomes paramount. The frustration arises, however, from the lack of reference material, which makes your desire to improve, or your ability to chase hidden paths with dangerous enemies and great rewards, difficult to realize at first. Take screenshots when the game presents you with a tutorial, because once you move to the next text bubble, that info is otherwise lost. The only other recourse is to purchase bite-sized tips from informants throughout the game, though linking partial tutorials to a merchant is hardly user-friendly, and they don't adequately cover the breadth of Xenoblade 2's mechanics.

Merchants in general even manage to be confusing at first, as one location will cram as many as a dozen in a small area. Characters can carry items in special pouches that buff certain stats, such as meter generation, and while some are incredibly useful to the point of eliminating the need to grind, it's a slow process to familiarize yourself with the dozens of options available to you, and the numerous merchants that specialize in one category apiece. This also extends to a vast selection of accessories for characters and Blades, which are difficult to keep track of and compare given the game's mediocre item-management interface. Variety is good, but Xenoblade 2 throws you into the deep end a bit too early for you to appreciate the value of everything at your disposal.

To build a formidable team, you're encouraged to regularly acquire new Blades by collecting and bonding with Core Crystals, which are found in chests and dropped by defeated enemies. Despite three tiers of crystals--normal, rare, and legendary--you're never guaranteed to get one of the game's elusive rare Blades from crystals you find in the field. Save for a few varying body types, the vast majority of Blades you acquire also look nearly identical.

Looks obviously aren't everything, and even common Blades are useful as they each come with randomized buffs and stat bonuses that can make a big difference in battle. But rare Blades have unique designs, their own side quests, and a larger selection of skills and stat bonuses than common Blades. It's easy enough over time to fill out your party with rares, but opening Core Crystals becomes less attractive as diminishing returns set in. Opening 50 towards the end of the game yielded zero rare Blades, despite having unlocked only half of the rare roster.

To combat the randomness of Core Crystals, you are joined by a Blade early on named Poppi, an artificial lifeform that you can customize to your liking. The concept sounds great, but unlocking parts to modify Poppi requires you to play a shallow retro game called Tiger Tiger, where you move a chunky character through a slow-scrolling stage while picking up collectables. More annoyingly, you can't play this game freely, and must return to an early-game location and likely play a couple hundred rounds to earn enough resources for desirable upgrades. This long-winded process isn't enjoyable enough to see through, and not worth sidelining your efforts elsewhere with Blades that you can raise organically through combat.

Blades outside of your core party can also be trained via asynchronous mercenary missions, and they return after a fixed amount of time with rewards and experience that goes towards developing their secondary abilities. Field skills, for example--traits such as lockpicking, focus, and leaping power--will allow you to access elite treasure chests and shortcuts. There are very rare instances when the game will gate you with a door that requires mastery of certain field skills, though these are exclusively linked to abilities shared among story-based Blades.

Even in these situations, you're never truly stuck. Xenoblade 2 lets you fast travel, instantly, to any major location in the game, regardless of the context in the story. This is great in a pinch, but it's also incredibly illogical. You shouldn't be able to warp out of a location to buy equipment across the world during a mission where your main objective is to escape imprisonment, but Xenoblade 2 affords you that option. No matter how silly it seems in practice, fast travelling makes it easy to hop back and forth from one incredible environment to the next. Alrest is gigantic, and following the story will only reveal a small part of what there is to see. Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X both set a high bar for world design, and developer Monolith Soft. has once again delivered a robust collection of dazzling environments.

On this and many other levels, Xenoblade 2 exhibits admirable depth. Adventurous types that enjoy complex combat systems can easily spend more than 100 hours uncovering Alrest's secrets and developing their team of Blades, provided they can come to terms with a handful of unavoidable shortcomings. It's equal parts pleasing and frustrating, but the struggle to keep up with everything thrown your way is more of a hurdle than a roadblock. It will be a tough pill to swallow for people who aren't accustomed to the typical cliches found in many Japanese RPGs, and its often clumsy nature keeps it from being the next groundbreaking Switch game, but Xenoblade 2 is worth pursuing if you've got enough patience to let it blossom.

Rive Review

Sat, 11/25/2017 - 15:00

Backed into a corner by curtains of laser fire, I hop and twist, curling my shots and grinding foes into nuts and bolts. After hacking a support drone to bring in some extra muscle to the fight, I battle my way out and continue my maelstrom of destruction. These moments are common in Rive, and they're emblematic of how the game melds sharp design and challenging encounters to reinvigorate the shoot-em-up genre. It's a chaotic game backed by explosive action, snarky cracks, and an affection for the ridiculous.

You play as a no-name, space-salvaging badass in a robust spider tank. It’s an armored, all-terrain machine with a giant machine gun for its basic weapon. As you progress, you’ll earn more upgrades like new weapons and armor, plus some gadgets that let you take control of everything from turrets to trains.

In the beginning, you stumble across a gargantuan derelict vessel ready for plunder. But, of course, there's a catch: As you explore, you’re accosted by countless drones and bots programmed to put you down. You'll learn to shoot, move, and use some other basic skills, but then Rive situationally limits how can use your newfound abilities by forcing you into a corner or into a zero-g bubble. These moments are as tense as boss battles, asking you to utilize your skills in novel ways, all while under the duress of constant, high-energy action.

Despite that, Rive rarely feels overwhelming. It's intense and taxing, but it doesn't often feel like it's asking too much. It's common nowadays to herald difficult games as intrinsically “good,” but that trend belies that fact that there's a tenuous balance between difficulty and frustration. Rive is challenging, but even if you die, you can instantly jump back into the action. You never lose more than about 30 seconds of progress, and death doesn't drain resources or knock down your overall score. The game includes plenty of tough spots, but it doesn’t take too long to acclimate to the challenge and wriggle through.

Along the way, you'll find some rather strange locales, given that the majority of the game takes place on a spaceship. Between giant lava lakes, oceans, zero-G bubbles, and the like, Rive gives you plenty of playgrounds to explore. Each area is bright, colorful and gorgeously animated. Creatures skitter along the floor while lights and backgrounds hum with life. That's all window dressing, sure, but each level is also distinct, presenting new sets of challenges every few minutes.

One of the few solid knocks against Rive comes from its protagonist. He's got all the corn and cheese of classics like Duke Nukem (without the crass misogyny). He has all the personality of a brick, and only a couple of his jokes hit their mark. It's a strange addition that doesn't seem necessary given the game's focus on action over storytelling, and is borderline cringeworthy.

Rive is demanding, but it pushes the kind of near-thoughtless play that shoot-em-ups strive to achieve. When faced with an onslaught of enemies and environmental hazards, you'll have to think fast or die. Rive also doesn't run all that long, but what's here is excellent, top-notch action, and the game delivers some of the most memorable moments in a shoot-em-up in years.

Editor's note: After a few additional hours of testing Rive: Ultimate Edition, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Switch version of the game. - Nov. 25, 2017, 7:00 AM PT

Batman: The Enemy Within - Episode 3: Fractured Mask Review

Fri, 11/24/2017 - 12:12

This review will contain spoilers for previous episodes of Batman: The Enemy Within.

In Episode 2 of Batman: The Enemy Within, Bruce Wayne found himself behind enemy lines working as a member of The Pact, a coalition of villains hatching a plan to wreak havoc in Gotham City. In Episode 3, Fractured Mask, developer Telltale pumps the brakes on high-stakes schemes in favour of something a little more intimate. The result is an episode that only inches the overarching narrative forward, but takes a big leap in exploring the fragile nature of Bruce Wayne's duality.

At the end of the last episode, Catwoman--who has been absent since Season 1--made a surprise return, and in Episode 3 it's revealed she's in league with Harley, Bane, Mr. Freeze, and John "Not The Joker Yet" Doe. But Catwoman is also driven to take revenge against The Pact--and the mysterious forces they represent--for the death of Riddler. Through her, Fractured Mask recontextualizes Riddler's actions somewhat by indicating that his plans may not have aligned completely with his villainous compatriots. The Riddler that Catwoman knew was a different, better person than the one Batman faced, and ultimately the one The Pact killed. With this in mind, she takes it into her own hands to seek retribution.

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Naturally, this places Bruce in a tricky spot. Since Catwoman's plans threaten to undermine his own efforts as an undercover operative for Amanda Waller, the two find themselves at odds professionally. Complicating matters even further is the burgeoning romance between them which, amongst the deception and subterfuge, allows them to find some comfort in each other and not completely descend into darkness. This dynamic is at the core of Episode 3 and, for the most part, it is depicted well. Although there are a couple of scenes where Catwoman's attitude pivots jarringly, these eventually culminate in a moment of genuine emotional payoff where the player can choose to develop their relationship in a meaningful way.

Bruce Wayne and Batman's other ties become equally messy in Episode 3. Most impactfully, his friendship with Jim Gordon takes a serious turn for the worse. Since Batman is playing nice with Amanda Waller, who is wrestling control of Gotham's law enforcement operations away from Gordon, the two begin to drift apart. Episode 3 presents a Gordon who has his back against the wall and is desperately trying to remain relevant. He clutches at straws hoping to grasp something significant and, unfortunately, this results in Bruce finding himself in Gordon's crosshairs. It's actually quite sad to see Batman's staunchest ally slowly becoming his demise. Although there is an opportunity to begin repairing this fracturing friendship, taking this step will damage another important one. There aren't very many big decision-making moments in Episode 3, but the few that are there carry enough consequence to make the player pause and think.

Episode 3 also sees old wounds reopened, with Lucius Fox's daughter, Tiffany, becoming embroiled in Batman and Bruce Wayne's activities. As a character, Tiffany hasn't had much screen time but the events of the episode raise her profile considerably. Without spoiling the story, Telltale seems to be motioning towards something that, if it happens, could be very exciting for fans of Batman and for this series.

And then, throughout it all is John Doe, the man being positioned to become Joker. He's a lingering presence that is both charming and unsettling, and Episode 3 hops back and forth between those two personas expertly. Doe continues to be a fascinating take on the character; unsure of who he is but very slowly dipping into the madness that will inevitably consume him. His need to find acceptance sees him craving Harley Quinn's attention, to the point where he puts both himself and his "best friend" Bruce in danger. As with the previous two episodes, John Doe is a standout character, providing levity with some excellently delivered one-liners, throwaway quips, and one hilarious sequence involving shadow puppets.

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While Episode 3 has strong characterization, its gameplay feels rather shallow. Outside of the fight sequences, which are well choreographed but a little trite, there's one big puzzle for players to solve. It takes place in Riddler's hideout and, given his love of flaunting his intelligence, you'd think it would be elaborate and challenging. However, it's actually trivial to solve, making Riddler seem a bit dull--talk about kicking someone when he's already down.

Nevertheless, Episode 3 of Telltale's Batman: The Enemy Within is well thought out and strongly written. Telltale has weaved together a complicated web of relationships that's becoming strained by the people tangled in it. After two relatively straightforward episodes, this is exactly what the series needed to carry it forward and ensure players are compelled to see it through.

LA Noire Switch Review

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 06:00

When it first released in 2011, L.A. Noire was an anomaly; its facial capture tech was an innovative showcase of animation, and it's focus on slower-paced interrogation puzzles widely contrasted the big-budget shooters of the time. Six years later, the game has surprisingly managed to make its way onto Switch. While a few sacrifices were made in performance and graphical fidelity to get L.A. Noire running, the ambitious spirit of this stylistic 1940s-era detective adventure remains.

L.A. Noire's principal 21 cases are all present, including all of its DLC cases. As budding LAPD detective Cole Phelps, you spend the bulk of your time gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, and making accusations. Phelps is a fascinating, yet morally flawed, character whose checkered past is compelling to see unfold as the story goes on. The cases you solve remain interesting and well-paced, balancing slower, more meticulous investigative moments with brief shootouts and vehicular/on-foot chases. On Switch, the game controls as well as it did on previous generation consoles, especially when playing docked with a Pro Controller. It also offers motion and touch controls, which are welcome additions that make L.A. Noire feel more involved. Motion controls allow you to use the right Joy-Con to control the camera and physically manipulate objects you pick up, while touch controls command Phelps where to go and what investigate by simply tapping the screen. However, both control schemes don't feel as functional as playing with a traditional gamepad setup.

Interrogations often lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments.

While L.A. Noire's story and varied pacing are some of its most exceptional aspects, where it truly shines is in its interrogation sequences. Armed with your intellect and the wealth of evidence you collect during your investigations, questioning suspects and seeing through their facial ticks to expose their secrets lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments. The facial animations hold up well, displaying a level of realism that's still impressive. And with top-notch performances from its facial capture actors, interrogations are just as absorbing and believable.

In a subtle change from the original, interrogation options have been changed from "Truth," "Doubt," and "Lie" to "Good Cop," "Bad Cop," and "Accuse." The new naming scheme helps to give you a better understanding of Cole's behavior towards a suspect's testimony, which was difficult to gauge in the original. The renewed context is particularly useful when a suspect is playing coy, where it makes sense that using the more forceful "Bad Cop" approach would root out more information. However, the new terminology isn't perfect. There are situations where it isn't specific enough; this is apparent when responding with "Good Cop", where the option seems to lean more towards believing the suspect rather than following proper police protocol. Despite this occasional issue, interrogations are consistently rewarding, often requiring critical thinking and sharp judgment to complete perfectly.

There still isn't much to do in the game's faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.

L.A. Noire's finer qualities are maintained, but its notable shortcomings also persist. Movement is a bit clunky during shootouts, and there are plenty of useless filler objects to sift through during crime scene investigations. But the most glaring issue lies in the game's recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles, which is authentic but doesn't offer much to do outside of main missions and random street crime activities. New hidden collectables in the form of books and records have been added to the Switch version to encourage exploration, but it's not made clear that these items exist nor does the game encourage you to seek them out.

These issues don't do much to detract from the experience at large, especially considering how well the game runs. Visuals have taken a slight downgrade compared the original version, sporting new jagged edges, fluctuating textures, and noticeably weaker draw distances and dynamic lighting effects. However, these issues are less apparent when playing the game undocked, where it runs and looks the best.

Even considering L.A. Noire's age, it's a wonder that the game can be played on Switch.

On the other hand, frame rate maintains a steady 30 frames per second, only drastically dipping when surrounded by multiple NPCs or vehicles while on foot. Though, it's not a deal breaker, seeing as the game consistently performs well during the moments where it matters, like during investigations, interrogations, and car chases.

Even considering L.A. Noire's age, it's a wonder that the game can be played on Switch. While nowhere near as technically striking as seeing Doom run on the console, there's still something special about playing what was once such an ambitious game on last-generation consoles in the palm of your hand. And the game lends itself well to the platform; the bite-sized length of missions makes it a great fit for playing on the go.

If sharp visuals and higher frame rate are huge factors in your enjoyment, then you're better off playing L.A. Noire on PS4 and Xbox One, which sport added bells and whistles that elevate the game's performance. But if you're charmed by the idea of experiencing it portably, then L.A. Noire on Switch comes recommended. It may not work the best under pressure, but it's well worth replaying or experiencing for the first time on Nintendo's convertible console.

Football Manager 2018 Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 14:00

With each passing year, Sports Interactive iterates on the long-standing fundamentals of its Football Manager series. A slight tweak here and there: applying some ease of use adjustments, or tinkering with the 3D match engine--like a manager moving pieces around a whiteboard. Some of these tweaks might not become evident until you've spent hundreds of hours entrenched in the virtual dugout, while others may only affect those eccentric enough to deploy a tactic featuring a Raumdeuter. In Football Manager 2018, minor refinements are similarly sprinkled throughout; but, crucially, there's also a significant new addition, and other impactful overhauls, that are palpable from the get-go, profoundly changing the way you manage and interact with your team on a daily basis.

The first of these is a new module called Dynamics that focuses on the topsy-turvy world of player morale. The concept of squad happiness has existed in Football Manager since the early days, but the cause and effect of your actions was previously hidden behind an algorithm we weren't privy to, which made managing your player's mood a case of pure guesswork and gradually learning through repetition. That all changes in FM 2018, as each interaction with your squad now has a clear, defined outcome that helps keep your chosen group of expensive primadonnas in check. A detailed hierarchy displaying your team leaders and most influential players advises you on who not to annoy; social groups determine which individuals sit around the breakfast table with each other based on parameters like their shared nationality and how long they've been at the club; and myriad other menus track your player's individual mood, their confidence in you, and the consequences all of these variables has on team chemistry.

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A harmonious squad generally leads to better results on the pitch, with the team's collective mental state contributing to the quality of their positioning, vision, and reactions during the course of a match--making it imperative for you to maintain your team's high spirits if you have any notions of success. Football is a results-based business after all, and player power is definitely a factor in FM 2018. If the squad is displeased with how you're doing on match days, or how you're handling their various personalities off the pitch, you're liable to find yourself unemployed. Thankfully, with the addition of a hierarchy and social groups, there's a surfeit of valuable information guiding your decision making that helps you understand how to handle different types of player.

If a rugged team leader comes into your office complaining about a lack of playing time, you're going to have to weigh up the risks of introducing him to the starting line-up when he might be off form, or face incurring a potential player revolt if you turn him down and piss him off. Conversely, if a player on the lower rungs of the hierarchy comes to see you with the same issue, telling him he'll have to remain patient is less likely to upset even a small portion of the dressing room, and may not bother anyone at all. Admittedly, conversing with players in FM still lacks the subtlety of believable human interactions, but with all of this new information on hand, player reactions appear more logical than ever, and keeping influential players onside will ensure there are fewer unhappy players knocking on your door. It's a fun, personable new module to toy with, and it emboldens Football Manager's recent focus on the human side of the beautiful game.

Meanwhile, an overhauled medical centre places an increased emphasis on Sports Scientists, with each one providing you with crucial information on how and why your players are suffering from injuries, and how you can counteract their pulled hamstrings and twisted ankles from occurring too frequently. If there's a busy period coming up where you've got, say, three matches in seven days, you'll be advised on which players are most at risk of sustaining injuries from the wear and tear of successive action. It forces you to be more proactive with your training schedules and player selection, as you're encouraged to adjust the intensity of training sessions on a week-by-week basis, and intelligently rotate your team in an attempt to keep your squad healthy without sacrificing results, (which also ties into Dynamics and how you can maintain squad harmony through frugal management of your team's playing time).

The 3D match engine does continue its steady progression after a poor showing in FM 2016--and the same can be said of this series as a whole.

Dynamics also factors into FM 2018's improved scouting system. When it comes to finding new players, you're now able to set a scouting budget: spend more and you'll cast your net wider; spend less and you can rely purely on the existing knowledge of your scouts. However much you spend, the process of unearthing new talent is slow. Your scouts will gradually build a picture of the type of player you're looking at, represented by a rating out of 100 that covers their attributes and also the type of personality they are. A player might be good enough from the statistical side of things, but will they gel with your squad? Maybe they don't fit into any social groups, or maybe they carry too much influence and will risk upsetting the balance of your dressing room. These are the types of things you have to consider when signing a new player, and it makes each transfer window much more engaging.

AI logic has been modified, too, ensuring other teams are smarter at handing their transfer business. You're unlikely to see the likes of PSG spending ludicrous amounts of money to stockpile talent they're only going to leave rotting on the bench--as has been the case in previous years. Transfer fees and budgets have also skyrocketed to reflect these astronomical times, with teams (particularly in the Premier League) holding out for more money for even the most marginal of talents.

When it comes to assembling your team on the pitch, the tactical interface is relatively unchanged. There are new player roles like the Carrilero and Mezzala, and more player instructions--such as the opportunity to direct your central midfielders into wider areas--that give you more options when it comes to establishing your team's playing style. But it's disappointing that this aspect of Football Manager hasn't seen any substantial developments. Building your tactical plan is still far too rigid and restrictive, and would benefit from giving you more control over how your team functions, particularly during specific phases of play. The current tactical interface is serviceable, and there's now a plethora of useful analysis that pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of your setup, but a more robust system would elevate this aspect of the series in a crucial way.

Once you emerge out of the tunnel, the 3D match engine is at least better at demonstrating how each team follows your tactical setup. Any adjustments you make mid-match are immediately tangible, and players have enhanced intelligence all over the pitch. You'll see strikers timing their runs behind the defensive line, players opening up their bodies to curl Thierry Henry-esque finishes into the bottom corner, and midfielders will generally play a more expansive brand of football--if you let them. There are still baffling moments where players will inexplicably stop dead in their tracks, which is particularly troublesome in defence. And goalkeepers are still inconsistent--one moment they're saving everything that's thrown at them, the next they're palming a daisycutter into their own net. It's certainly not perfect, then, but the 3D match engine does continue its steady progression after a poor showing in FM 2016--and the same can be said of this series as a whole.

For a game that's so consuming you might not even realise the sun's gone down, it feels almost irresponsible to proclaim that giving you more things to do is a resounding positive. Yet the way these new and overhauled systems coalesce with Football Manager's deep and emotional fundamentals is fantastic. The series' propensity for telling emergent stories has only increased with this emphasis on player personalities and morale, and it bleeds into every other facet of Football Manager 2018's design, from transfers and injuries, to team selection and tactical considerations. These are changes that tilt the simulation closer to reality with captivating aplomb, and ensure that the armchair managers among us are kept busy for another whirlwind 12 months of 40-yard screamers and cup final heartbreak.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Switch Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 11:01

Six years after its release, Skyrim still manages to be relevant. Between the 2016 remaster, the upcoming VR version, and now a Switch port, it's hard to forget about The Elder Scrolls V, and that's a testament to how absorbing an RPG it is. With the addition of instant portability on Switch, it's even harder to put this high quality port down.

Skyrim is one of the best Switch ports currently available, though it's not too surprising considering the game's age. It runs smoothly with a rock-solid frame rate both in smaller spaces and in the overworld. Text can be a little small when playing in handheld mode, though it still performs and plays as well as it does docked and with a Pro Controller. The newly introduced motion controls are all optional as well; wagging a Joy-Con will swing melee weapons, and you can use motion to fine-tune your aim with your bow. Skyrim does retain the glitches it has always been known (and loved) for, though, including bizarre NPC pathing problems. In our 10 hours testing the game, we didn't find any new bugs, so it's just the silly weirdness you might remember.

The main addition on Switch is Amiibo compatibility, which nets you extra treasure and works well within the existing game. Amiibo use is nested in the magic menu under powers, and you have to cast it the way you would any other power before tapping the Amiibo to the NFC reader. Like in Breath of the Wild, using an Amiibo isn't a guarantee of good loot--in this case, Zelda Amiibo give you a chance to get Link's Breath of the Wild tunic, the Master Sword, and the Hylian Shield, though you might get a chest filled with arrows, random weapons and armor, or an assortment of meats instead. You can use each Amiibo once per day, but we were able to get all the cool gear in one day using a few Zelda Amiibo around the office. As a bonus, the gear is better than any of the early-game weapons and armor you can get, and you can easily sell off the other loot you don't want.

The quality of the port aside, Skyrim has certainly aged since it first released in 2011. On top of the jankiness of movement and NPC interaction, there are a few outdated things that might be hard to contend with. Most glaringly, the oft-maligned sword-and-shield combat is still underwhelming, since it never felt great to clumsily swing a sword around to begin with. Certain recurring dialogue that has ascended to meme status can be grating, too, provided you've heard it enough. There's also no mod support currently, so if you're used to the user-created quality-of-life mods available on PC and other console versions, it can be weird to go back to regular old Skyrim, even if you still find its quirks and more old-fashioned aspects charming.

Skyrim is one of the best Switch ports currently available.

But everything great about Skyrim is preserved here as well. Pursue whatever it is you want to--whether it's just completing the main story or stealing as much cheese as you can carry--and you're all but guaranteed to find interesting stories along the way. Progressing through its still very deep skill tree is a huge but satisfying endeavor in figuring out exactly how you want to play (though magic- and archery-based combat specializations are preferable). There’s so much to do in Skyrim that it’s likely you haven’t done it all yet, and because it's now portable, you can pick it up and play for shorter bursts that can easily turn into hours.

The original version of Skyrim is still an immense, engrossing RPG, and the quality, number, and variety of its quests makes it as easy to become lost in its world as ever. With the addition of Zelda-themed gear that's actually useful--and the fact that you can play anywhere--the Switch version of Skyrim is a great excuse to revisit a much-loved RPG.

Ashes Cricket Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 02:00

Very few sports struggle to survive the transition from real-life to video game like cricket does. Cricket is perceived as slow and long; some might even call it a little bit boring. Cricket video games have often suffered similar problems, often weighed down by cumbersome, complex controls and glacial pacing when compared to the likes of a FIFA or a Madden. Ashes Cricket suffers some of these inherent problems as well as a few of its own making, but also manages to capture the heart of the game in a way that few have achieved before. Despite some poor presentation and a handful of bugs, fans of the sport will find Ashes Cricket a good way to enjoy the virtual sound of leather on willow.

For those of you not from Commonwealth nations, The Ashes is the name of a series of five, day-long matches held between Australia and England that has been going on for well over a hundred years, and serves as this game's flagship mode, with fully licenced men’s and women’s squads from both nations. If a full test series seems a little intimidating, there’s no shortage of other variants to play. Casual matches are quick and easy to set up, allowing you to get into a Test, 50 over, or 20 over match with total ease. You can go online and play a match with some mates, jump into the nets for some training, or if you want something completely different, you can create your own match type in the match editor, which lets you change up almost every facet of the game to your heart's content. You can even create your own stadium, defining everything from the grandstands and the pavilion, down to the individual roads that lead into the grounds. While I can’t imagine everyone getting a kick out of being able to make their own stadium, it’s great to see this level of customisation offered out of the box.

But when it comes to playing the Ashes series, the emphasis is on the licensed Australian and English teams, who all match their real world likenesses. However, it's on this visual level where Ashes Cricket's flaws start to show. Players lack any kind of nuanced facial animations, so they tend to maintain a steely, thousand-yard stare at all times. Animation quality varies throughout; while core actions like batting, bowling, and some field movements look top notch and smooth, transitions between animations can be problematic. On more than one occasion I had a batsman run out because they took too long to turn around and get their bat back over the crease, something which I had no control over at the time because they were on the opposite end of the wicket. Losing a key player in a moment like this can be not only hugely frustrating, but it can change the face of a match as well. This can also be a problem in the field, where slow animations when chasing down the ball can leave you begging for a little more effort from your players.

Lack of a full license means all the other national teams--any country that’s not Australia or England--as well as club and state teams are sadly filled up with fantasy players instead of their real-life counterparts. However, through the player and team editor modes, the community is encouraged to create their own squads, and this is backed up by the inclusion of a Get Best button which automatically downloads all the highest rated community made players for that team. It’s not as ideal as having fully licensed squads, but it’s one way to creatively circumvent the problem.

The worst part of the lacklustre presentation is the in-game commentary. It is irredeemably bad, to the point where I can only recommend turning it off and saving yourself the pain. When they aren’t busy making incomplete calls, they are making entirely incorrect ones, all while sounding bored out of their minds. What makes everything even worse is the fact that the team is voiced by professional, real-world commentators.

Thankfully, the act of playing the sport in Ashes Cricket is enjoyable. The full career mode lets you create a brand new player and skill them up through the ranks, from club and state/county level cricket all the way up to fighting for international selection. Playing and performing well in matches will reward you with SP, which is spent on raising your player’s skills, and in turn, helps raise your player’s profile and chances of selection for the national team. It’s one of the most engaging game modes thanks to its depth, modelling the full, real-world club/county cricket structure.

How you engage with career matches is also completely up to you. You can choose to take control of the full squad or just your player for each match, which significantly changes how a match plays out based on whether you’re a batter, bowler, or an all-rounder. While controlling a full squad gives you complete control, playing as a single player feels much more focused. A batter will rarely, if ever, have to worry about bowling, so you can elect to skip the fielding portion of the game entirely, taking control only when your player comes onto the pitch to bat their innings. Letting players focus on specific parts of the game works well as a way of keeping play progression moving along steadily, without getting bogged down by the sport's arduous match lengths.

And while the game’s worst moments make an appearance on the field, the parts that do work both feel good and capture the moment-to-moment nature of the sport that makes it so alluring. Controls for batting, bowling, and fielding feel intuitive, save some slight inconsistencies, with two distinct control variations available to pick from: standard or classic. While the standard controls rely more on timing your button presses when batting and bowling, the classic variety instead relies on use of the two thumbsticks to control the action. Classic controls feel just right for batting, giving you the most flexibility, whereas for bowling the standard controls felt more intuitive. You can mix up control styles however you please, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which you choose, because smashing a bowler to the boundary or taking a batsman’s stumps out of the ground with a swinging fastball feels nothing short of fantastic in either mode. Appealing for a wicket is left to the player to handle, though, and the game doesn’t do a great job of communicating this. Caught behinds, lbw’s and run outs all require an appeal and while I enjoyed being able to control this, more automated help could be offered for novice players in this regard.

A lot of the field work is handled semi-automatically, with the closest fielder chasing down the ball on their own, and the player then choosing which end of the wicket to throw the ball too. But the speed and trajectory with which the ball is flung back to the wicket feels inconsistent as sometimes the ball will come back hard and fast, other times it’ll be a harmless lob, despite nailing similar timings on the throw.

But the most enjoyable part of Ashes Cricket is when the ball is smashed towards one of your fielders and time slows down to a crawl, triggering a sequence where you need to quickly move a cursor into a circle then hit the corresponding button to safely take the catch. It puts the emphasis on the tension of the moment instead of relying on an automated fielder. Get it right and you’ll take the catch, but get it wrong and it could cost you dearly. It’s a shame this mechanic doesn’t trigger for catches that go straight down the fielder’s throats, as I like the idea of the player being responsible for the outcomes, but mostly because it looks and feels really good when you get it right.

Ashes Cricket has definitely got its issues; bad commentary, some rough presentation, only two licensed teams and a few bugs. But ultimately they can be shaken off, because the feeling of enjoyment I get when I’m playing Ashes Cricket is palpable. I haven’t played or watched the sport in over 10 years, but sitting down to play here feels intuitive and familiar in a way that’s surprisingly comforting. The batting, bowling and fielding all feel better than they have in any other cricket game before, and the sheer variety of game types and customisation offered makes Ashes Cricket, in spite of its issues, a sports game worthy of your time.


Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 Review

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 00:09

As an ode to the ever expanding Marvel universe, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is practically without peer. The characters you'll play, the locations you'll visit, and the references you'll come across span the length and breadth of the comic juggernaut's history in comics, TV, and film, extending to the genesis of Marvel as Timely Comics way back in the forgotten mists of time (the 1930s). In fact, outside of the exclusion of X-Men and Fantastic Four characters (for some undisclosed and surely byzantine legal rights reasons), this game is the most Marvel any Marvel game has been so far.

It's also pretty much the most Lego game any Lego game has been so far, which is to say all of the charm and wit and ease of play of this long-running series is here, but also all of its little faults and idiosyncrasies. Outside of the dizzying array of heroes and villains you'll (eventually) be able to play, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 adds little to the franchise in terms of innovation or transformation. There is only more, but more doesn't necessarily mean better.

What's here, though, remains appealing, particularly if you have some kiddos to share the experience with. The aforementioned charm and wit of the Lego formula is becoming predictable and creaky after almost two dozen entries, but manages to retain that sense of simple joy inherent in seeing Lego-fied versions of some of your favorite pop culture characters bash around in a brightly colored world, quipping their cute little quips all the while. Seeing a Lego Ms. Marvel embiggening while geeking out that she's fighting alongside Spider-Man is simply delightful, as is seeing teleporting Inhuman dog Lockjaw flopping onto his back for a belly rub.

The game is filled with little charm bombs like this, but if you read that previous sentence and came away with questions like "Who or what is a Ms. Marvel?" and "There are dogs in video games, now?", then perhaps some of this appeal will be lost on you. Needless to say, your familiarity with all things Marvel will impact just how cute you think all of this is. And the cuts here run very deep. From the inclusion of cowboy characters from old Timely/Marvel series like Kid Colt and Arizona Annie, to more recent characters like Spider-Man Noir from the Noir Universe (this Spidey uses guns, guys!), Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 seems tailor-made for the Marvel super fan.

That's not to say those whose Marvel knowledge comes only from the recent big budget films (but who did see the last Thor movie and thought the rock guy was pretty funny) will be left clueless amidst a series of complex comic references. The game anchors it's main narrative on the cinematic versions of the Guardians of the Galaxy, with Star Lord, Rocket, Groot (both baby and full-grown), et al racing to Earth to help stop megalomaniac-from-the-future Kang the Conqueror from doing his thing (ie, conquering). It's a doomed quest, as Kang quickly achieves his raison d'etre, ripping the fabric of the time-space continuum and creating Chronopolis, a mish-mash of worlds from different time periods and Marvel realities.

From here, it's up to the heroes of the Marvel universe to band together and stop Kang. The gameplay here will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played a Lego game in recent years; it's bash bash bash on enemies and the environment using simple combat mechanics, before solving various environmental puzzles that may or may not involve bashing things some more (or alternatively using a specific character's special abilities to progress). To its credit, the many characters in Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 do sport some interesting abilities, so much so that you can for the most part look past the cookie-cutter nature of most of them and find individual heroes with unique skills. The combat, though, remains stakes-free. There are no "lives", and dying simply means regenerating in the same spot not even seconds later. Dark Souls this is not.

But that ease-of-use has always been the main appeal of the Lego games, especially for parents. As is usual with this series, the entire game can be played in co-op, and it's fun to partner with a developing gamer through these relatively stress-free adventures. The puzzles here can sometimes get a little obtuse, but that's exactly why it's a great shared experience. Your little ones can have fun running around and mashing buttons playing as the Invincible Iron Man, while you do the legwork of figuring out how to actually progress through a level.

There's also an impressive amount of things to do in Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2. Apart from the hundreds of available characters (most you'll have to unlock) and the approximately dozen hours of the main campaign to work through, the "world" of Chronopolis is also expansive, functioning as an open world where your heroes can find little sidequests, missions, racing events, and other activities when you're not chasing the main storyline.

Of course, these other activities aren't all enormous fun, but if you're a Marvel nut or a completionist (or both), then this game's basic cheerful gameplay and demeanour will make all of those extra pursuits worthwhile. Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is reverential to its source material, even if the game that surrounds that adoration is starting to sag somewhat. After all these years, the Lego formula is still a winner--but only barely.

GT Sport Review

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 17:00

GT Sport may look and feel like Gran Turismo, but it's a very different beast under the hood. In place of an extensive single player campaign and an exhaustive car roster, developer Polyphony Digital have established a professionally sanctioned esport-focused racing platform under the watchful eye of The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. There's no denying that GT Sport hits a few bumps along the way, and struggles somewhat under the weight of Gran Turismo's legacy. But when viewed as something new, GT Sport accomplishes nearly everything it sets out to do. It offers a wonderfully detailed and responsive driving experience along with arguably the cleanest and most competitive online racing on a console to date.

The renewed focus comes at a cost, with GT Sport offering a meager 160 cars (far less if you discount variants) and 40 courses based on 17 distinct tracks. And because your progress, earnings, and reputation are linked to your competitive profile, GT Sport requires an internet connection for most of its content--single player included. The only exception are one-off races in arcade mode, but your rewards there won't be saved unless you keep the game running until servers are back online. It’s one huge caveat, and while maintenance and outage periods have been minimal post-release, losing access to most of GT Sport isn't unheard of.

Despite the relatively small selection of cars, each one is beautifully rendered with an incredible attention to detail. And while GT Sport's tracks lack dynamic lighting and weather effects, each real-world track has been laser scanned to an impressive degree of accuracy. Marry these qualities with the improved tire and suspension models, beefy engine tones and screaming tire sounds, and GT Sport makes a strong impression behind the wheel.

Online races are your ultimate goal, and come in a few different forms. While you can create a private lobby to race with friends, most of the action happens in the organized daily races. Daily races occur at set times--usually every 5 to 10 minutes, though this can change--and come in three options, each with varying rules and regulations. Place well and you’ll see your Driver Rating improve, which defines the skill of the drivers you’ll be placed into future races with. If you place poorly you’ll naturally see your driver rating drop, and be forced race with less capable and confident drivers.

Ranking highly isn't everything, and will mean nothing if you fail to race cleanly along the way. The overarching system monitoring everything you do is called the Sportsmanship Rating, which counts all incidents you’re involved in, regardless of fault. Shown as a rank of A through to F, put a wheel wrong by touching another car, leaving the track or, unfortunately, being rammed, and you’ll lose some of your sportsmanship rating. Drive a few clean laps and you’ll recover what’s lost eventually, though it’s clear the no-fault system is a sore point, causing needless annoyance at losing SR on top of having a race ruined.

On the same foot, though, it appears to be working. Although turn 1 tends to be a bit of a nightmare, once things are underway races are generally as clean as you’d hope for. Cars recovering from spins or looking like they’re going to crash will ghost, letting you drive right through them, though this can be a bit sketchy at times as you can’t really tell when a car will solidify. Thankfully there are plenty of assists like ABS and traction control to help racers who might struggle, which can also be turned off for the hardcore or those with wheel and pedal setups. These support systems are a boon beginners who may be intimidated by GT Sport's demanding races but nonetheless want a taste of competition.

Outside of the daily events are the officially sanctioned championship events, which in practice are run similarly to daily races, but with a few core differences. Each round runs five races at pre-scheduled times roughly once a month, and like the daily races there's a small window of time for you to sign up. The main difference is that you can only sign up and compete in a round once, so if you have a bad run in the first of the five scheduled races for that round, you don’t get another chance to improve your results. While intimidating, this also adds a palpable sense of tension to the beginning stages of each race.

The number of points you can earn per race is worked out using a few variables, but is mostly down to your driver rating; the higher your rating, the more potential championship points you can earn per race. Your final points tally is accumulated from your three best finishes, ensuring that a bad race or having to miss one because of other commitments won’t put you out of contention. In general, the level of competition is extremely cutthroat, making race wins--especially in the official championship races--very difficult to come by.

That said, there is plenty of satisfaction to gain from merely finishing races. Personal achievements aside, every race rewards you with in-game credits, mileage points--another in-game currency used to upgrade cars or purchase paint decals, wheel rims and the like to customize your car with--and experience points that raise your driver level. You’re given a new car for each driver level you attain, up to and including level 20, and the Daily Workout bonus also gives you a new car after driving only 40 kilometers (just under 25 miles) in a day, so it doesn’t take long to amass a personal car collection.

Where you fall on GT Sport will mirror how you feel about racing games in general. If you’re looking for a highly focused console racing sim, GT Sport is excellent, but don’t come looking for a robust "Gran Turismo" experience.

Given the focus on online races, the single-player campaign is more an elaborate training tool than any campaign from a prior GT game, geared to prepare you for the jump to racing online. Its three modes--Driving School, Mission Challenge and Circuit Experience--each cover a specific aspect of racing, be that the car handling, knowing the circuits or knowing how to race with other cars without running them off the road. In clear Gran Turismo tradition, hit the bronze target time for the exercise and you can move on. But although this is a good measure of your performance, a more detailed, visual breakdown of your runs would go a long way towards making these lessons more effective at making you a better racer. Accompanying YouTube videos give you an impression of how it’s done, but something that gives more feedback would be more welcome. Arcade mode is the closest you’ll get to the traditional style of campaign, letting you pick your car and track combo then race offline against the AI, who do a good job of racing cleanly but with a measured sense of aggression too.

Ultimately, where you fall on GT Sport will mirror how you feel about racing games in general. If you’re looking for a highly focused console racing sim, GT Sport is excellent, but don’t come looking for a robust "Gran Turismo" experience. You won’t find it. Casual fans will feel the pinch of the scaled-down offering and the intimidating push towards racing online. But for sim-racers with a competitive spirit, it’s easy to look past the smaller car and track roster and appreciate the incredibly detailed and responsive driving model, which is better than anything the series has offered before.


Hand Of Fate 2 Review

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 15:00

The original Hand of Fate succeeded largely on the strength of its concept. It combined the rules of a roguelike with a deck-building card game to create something unique, and the devious, ever-present Dealer made the whole thing feel like a single-player Dungeons & Dragons experience where the Dungeon Master was actively trying to stop you. It was a great idea, but had some major issues that held it back from reaching its full potential. It was a good game crying out for a great follow-up; thankfully, Hand of Fate 2 has delivered just that.

In each of the sequel's 22 missions, you select several encounter and equipment cards from your personal deck. These are then mixed in with the Dealer's deck to form the card base you're playing with. The cards are scattered onto a table face-down, although the shape and structure they form changes on a mission-by-mission basis. As you move across the table turning over one card at a time (usually either looking for or moving towards a specific card), you're issued challenges that might or might not help you achieve the mission's goal. The outcomes of several situations are dictated by games of chance and skill--rolling dice, perfectly timing a button press to an on-screen pendulum, stopping a spinning wheel at the right time--and there are various stats you need to follow and maintain, as your character can run out of money or starve to death. There are also several cards that throw you into combat, at which point the game briefly turns into a third-person action experience until all your enemies are downed (or you die, failing the mission).

While in the first game you were constantly on the hunt for the boss card, in Hand of Fate 2 there's far more variety in objectives, and the game is better for it. You usually still have to find and kill a boss, but each mission now has its own gimmick. These can include challenging you to work out which character of three is plotting a murder, or tasking you with escorting an innocent potato farmer. Each mission has a strong sense of identity and purpose, and many of them are clever.

However, while the game gives you plenty of opportunities to escape bad situations or reasons to rethink your deck if your current plan isn't working, the start-over-if-you-die structure can sometimes be excessively frustrating in certain scenarios. A prime example is the Justice mission, in which you travel around the 28 cards laid out on the table, gathering resources and dodging enemies through games of chance, continually traveling back to your base card to use said resources to strengthen your fort. It's tremendous fun, but less so when you're killed an hour into it, right at the end of one of the many, many intense battles you've been made to fight. It's hard to pull yourself back into retrying a mission when these things happen. It also took me many attempts to beat the Strength mission, which starts you at low health and takes away your ability to heal by eating food. In a typical roguelike, where heavy randomisation makes the game feel different each time you enter, this wouldn't seem like a big deal. But the individual missions in Hand of Fate 2 often ask you to fight the same battles repeatedly, and replaying the more difficult ones over and over is a strain. Thankfully, until you reach the very end, you'll have multiple unfinished missions unlocked at any given point; if one is giving you grief you can usually jump into another.

Hand of Fate 2's combat has gone through an overhaul. It discards the ineffective camera, clunky controls, and unclear parry cues for a system that feels much closer to the Batman: Arkham Asylum fighting system that so clearly inspired it. It's not a unique system, and the game lacks variety in both enemies and tactical possibilities, but it's now much more satisfying to take on a group of enemies. Parry and dodge cues are clear, and managing the timing of your attacks and moves requires active attention.

You can equip different weapons before battle, which are divided into three classes (heavy, two-handed, and one-handed), and what to equip largely depends on your opponent. Thieves, for instance, are weak against blade attacks, which do little damage but let you attack multiple times in quick succession, while several different kinds of guard are easier to fight if you're carrying a one-handed sword and a shield. However, the more hectic battles can still be hard to read, and the quality of the fights may vary depending on which equipment you've managed to source during your journey--if you aren't able to find or buy useful weapons, it can turn into a slog. Luck plays a big part in Hand of Fate 2, and while you can manufacture better luck with a good deck, there's always the somewhat frustrating possibility that random chance will strike you down.

In most missions you're joined by one of four unlockable companions who provide buffs during combat and specialize in improving your odds of victory in some specific circumstances. The mighty Colbjorn, for instance, can offer an extra die for you to roll should you need it in certain scenarios. These companions also add to the already rich incidental storytelling of the game. Playing through each mission, uncovering cards, and watching as conflicts and allegiances twist and shift depending on the story you're pursuing at any given point gives you a strong sense of the game's world, even if it's largely confined to text. The Dealer, who is once again voiced by Anthony Skordi, is a treasure of a character, repeatedly referencing events from the first game and hinting at the dark secrets he keeps stored somewhere within his robes. He's not an antagonist in the same way he was in the original game, and ultimately feels like a deeper, more mysterious character.

The moments of frustration in Hand of Fate 2 are worth enduring for the sweetness of its adventures, and getting to know the different cards and learning to build a deck that is perfectly suited for the mission you're entering is satisfying. Hand of Fate 2 is a realization of the first game's promise, and it's exciting to play a game that blends seemingly unrelated elements together so well.

Rocket League Switch Review

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 01:00

Rocket League was a phenomenon when it debuted in 2015, and two years later it shows no signs of slowing down. The unorthodox sports game is a mix of soccer and vehicular acrobatics that's immediately engaging, but a high skill ceiling ensures that you can put hundreds of hours into Rocket League online and continue to improve your control over car and ball alike. In our original review, editor Miguel Concepcion said "the promising concept of combining two wonderful things--cars and soccer--is equally magnificent in execution." It's unique, it's complex, and now that it's on the Nintendo Switch, it's wonderfully portable.

Rocket League makes the leap to handheld courtesy of developer Panic Button, the same team responsible for the respectable Switch port of Doom. And similar to that conversion, Rocket League's visuals have been somewhat stripped down to maintain a steady frame rate under the Switch's hardware limitations. The impact of the downgraded visuals can be seen in jagged edges and fluctuating texture resolutions, but unlike a game that relies on a world to set the stage for characters and narrative events, Rocket League's Switch scars are easily overlooked. The only time they can interfere is when playing handheld, where choppy models make it difficult to differentiate between objects in the foreground and background on Switch's small display. This, thankfully, is rarely an issue.

When you're focused on a handful of other drivers and protecting your goal from a fast-moving ball, jaggies are the least of your concerns. And when subconsciously calculating your trajectory as you ramp up onto a wall and blast your rockets for a last-minute boost to slam a ball into the back of a goal from mid-air, you probably aren't focused on a blurry texture here or there. Rocket League on Switch isn't always a pretty game, but that doesn't stop if from being every bit as exciting and competitive as it is on other platforms. As someone who has spent upwards of 200 hours with Rocket League on PS4, I was pleased to find that jumping into matches on Switch was just as easy as before, in terms of both matchmaking and controlling my car on the field--thanks in part to the rock-solid frame rate.

The game's Nintendo-exclusive rides and their series-appropriate sound effects are small if charming touches that make the Switch version feel slightly more special than it otherwise would have. But the big new feature is local splitscreen play on the go. Relative to the constraints of playing on a small screen, it works as well as you'd hope, to say nothing of the surprising effectiveness of controlling your car with a mere single joycon. Small and short a few buttons, they still cover almost every input on traditional controller setups. The one notable exception is the lack of a second analog stick for camera control when you aren't locked onto the ball.

Switch players can engage in cross-network play with Rocket League's Xbox One and PC community. As evidenced during our pre-launch tests, this system works without a hitch, and matches are readily available. The one minor caveat when it comes to playing online with others is that creating custom messages mid-match is less convenient than usual. This is because toggling chat brings up a window that takes up the entire screen, leaving you without the usual live feed that runs in the background in other versions of the game. You do have the option of connecting a USB keyboard if you want to type out messages while your Switch is docked, which can help speed up the process.

Save for its presentation, Rocket League on Switch is every bit the game it is elsewhere, and when you factor in its newfound portability, it's also the most versatile. That alone makes it attractive to regular Rocket League competitors.

For people new to the game, they have a lot to look forward to regardless, as it's one of the most fascinating sports games in memory. Nevermind if you don't like soccer or couldn't care less about the growing esports community. Rocket League is a unique game that redefines the concept of what a sports game can be, and Psyonix continues to support it with new content on a regular basis. It's been around for a while, but now that it's on Switch, there's no better time to give it a shot.

Editor's note: for a more in-depth analysis of Rocket League, check out our original review from July, 2015.

Pokemon Ultra Sun And Ultra Moon Review

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 14:00

Neither sequels nor remakes, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon take a mostly simple approach to updating 2016's Sun and Moon. Much of the previous games has been left untouched--the story once again takes place on the tropical island region of Alola and focuses on the Island Challenge, which differs slightly from the series' typical Gym Badge-based progression. But some key story details have changed, keeping things surprising for returning players even if the story itself is basic RPG fare. Most notably, there are small quality-of-life improvements and charming touches that make an already enjoyable Pokemon game a more endearing experience regardless of your skill level.

The original Sun and Moon brought new Pokemon, a break from the Gym formula, and a number of updates that make the seventh generation (Ultra Sun and Moon included) the most approachable and prettiest Pokemon games yet. With an overwhelming roster of monsters to catch, Sun and Moon's UI improvements made it easier to battle without an encyclopedic knowledge of every Pokemon, as well as train your prize fighters for the competitive metagame. But if you fell somewhere between newcomer and meta player, a mediocre story and pacing issues may have been disappointing.

Ultra Sun and Moon immediately streamline the originals' slow start. As a newcomer to Alola, you quickly get your first Pokemon and are initiated into the Island Challenge, a series of trials that Alolan Pokemon trainers undergo to prove themselves. Instead of meeting all the characters and going through a few cutscenes before picking your starter Pokemon, this time around you get to pick a starter right away and then go through the introductory story beats. The result is an opening that doesn't hold your hand in the same way it did before--though it still has the obligatory Pokemon-catching tutorial, among others--and lets you wander more freely, a welcome change for both returning and new players.

Even before the first trial, you'll have the opportunity to catch some pretty good Pokemon covering a variety of types and needs, including Pichu, Gastly, and Rockruff, meaning you can build a useful team early on without going too far out of your way. And you won't have to spend much, if any, time grinding to make it through the Island Challenge as long as you battle any trainers you encounter on your journey.

Some of the trials are slightly different this time, like the one where you have to find a series of ingredients to make a stew, which adds a more puzzle-like element to stave off the fetch quest feel. Most notably, though, the battles against the powerful Totem Pokemon seem a little more sophisticated; the ally Pokemon that join these extra-powerful opponents in battle will sometimes use doubles support moves like Sunny Day to throw a wrench in your plans, and the added challenge is more satisfying to overcome.

Other than the trial tweaks, the next 15 or so hours--roughly the first three islands--are essentially the same as Sun and Moon, but new, small details break up the stretches of repetition. Your Rotom Pokedex asks you questions and makes adorable faces as you get to know it (though it can be a little too chatty at times). You'll occasionally find a Pokemon in the world that just wants to play with you, and you can do things like play peek-a-boo and even walk through a meadow of playful Pikachu. There are also more side quests to take on, and though they're rather small requests like catching a specific Pokemon or finding a few Pokemon that are hiding in a particular area, they reward thorough exploration and provide fun distractions in between trials. Talking to everyone, too, has its benefits; there are tons of new silly and cute interactions to be had that add even more personality to Alola and its inhabitants.

While all of the best parts of Sun and Moon are present and accounted for and things in general get off to a quicker start, Ultra Sun and Moon's story remains underwhelming. And with the introduction of a new sort-of-antagonist in the robotic, mysterious Ultra Recon Squad duo, there's almost too much going on--especially since there's already two antagonist groups in Alola as is. By the time you've confronted Team Skull and are immediately thrown into a confrontation at the returning Aether Paradise, you'll probably wish you could just get back to your Island Challenge and become the Champion already.

Though they aren't very different from their predecessors, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon make enough changes to stand apart as the definitive version of the seventh generation games. An overly complicated story is offset by charming details that bring even more life to the most vibrant Pokemon region to date, and small fixes iron out the shakier parts of the original journey. If you make it through Alola a second (or even first) time, you'll be rewarded with a fun-filled and uplifting Pokemon adventure with its own share of spoilery surprises in store.

Star Wars Battlefront II Review In Progress

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 23:00

If there's one thing that Star Wars Battlefront II accomplishes well, it's the feeling of being in the universe of the legendary film series. Serving up the greatest hits of all things Star Wars, the follow-up to DICE's 2015 multiplayer-focused game presents a package that features a greater breadth of content, including an admirable single-player campaign. But the game overall is weighed down by an overbearing and convoluted progression system that doesn't value the average player's time, obscuring an otherwise solid Star Wars experience.

Set across the backdrop of the entire Star Wars saga--encompassing the prequels, the original three films, and the new trilogy--Battlefront II's online modes and single-player offerings expand the scope of its galactic battles to feature more variety in its locations. From taking part in aerial dogfights above Kamino to raiding the Death Star II and escaping before its destruction, the sequel puts its campaign and 14 multiplayer maps set across the 40-year history of the series to good use, showing a clear difference in aesthetics and tone from one time-period to the next.

Unlike the first Battlefront, the sequel contains a narrative-driven single-player campaign. Set during the twilight of the Galactic Empire after Return of the Jedi, the story sows the seeds for the First Order in The Force Awakens. You take on the role of Iden Versio, commander of Imperial special-forces outfit Inferno Squad. She normally works to undermine Rebel forces with wet-work missions and other forms of espionage. But after the destruction of the second Death Star, her loyalty to the Empire is put to the test when an increasingly desperate Imperial army takes drastic measures to ensure its future.

While the brisk 4-5 hour campaign features some strong writing and performances from its cast--with some standout levels that show off the visual luster and diversity of locations within the universe--the potential of its Imperial point-of-view soon becomes lost. Falling into some rather predictable twists, the story eventually turns into a familiar by-the-numbers Star Wars adventure, where the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, and with a lead up to the final act's confrontation that's signposted from a mile away.

On occasion, the campaign will switch things up with levels that feature familiar faces in entirely different scenarios, adding some moments of levity to the story. The downside of these missions is that they often veer into pure fan-service territory, leaving Iden Versio--who proves to be an interesting character with her unique view on the galactic struggle--standing in the shadow of more-established characters. This is made worse by an abrupt ending that teases future updates to the campaign, instead of delivering a strong conclusion for its hero's journey. The campaign does a decent job of showing the internal strife within the Empire's ranks, even allowing you to explore an eerily sterile and oppressive Imperial civilization on Iden's homeworld of Vardos. But it falls a bit short of making it a remarkable journey for its characters.

Outside of the campaign and massive multiplayer battles, there are side-modes that offer some interesting diversions. The Arcade mode makes a return, featuring themed levels where you battle AI bots as classic Light and Dark side characters. While it isn't a particularly deep mode to dive into, with each mission offering increasing tiers of difficulty for better rewards, it can be fun to try out the different heroes against increasing numbers of enemies. Moreover, the fan-favorite Heroes vs Villains mode makes a return. Cutting out unnecessary filler, players can choose their unlocked characters--such as the rocket wielding Boba Fett, to the unstable Kylo Ren--and compete in 4v4 battles in over-the-top and ridiculous fashion. Heroes vs Villains will be the mode to unwind and cut loose with, away from the chaos of the epic conflicts.

Battlefront II's main attraction is its expansive multiplayer content. From the 40-player conquest battles in Galactic Assault to the smaller, infantry-focused skirmishes in Blitz and Strike, there's a greater variety of multiplayer modes than before. Selecting from several infantry classes and hero characters--including Luke Skywalker, Rey, Han Solo, and the story campaign's Iden Versio--Multiplayer battles are usually intense affairs, especially at the full capacity of 40 players. Along with some stellar visual and sound-design, the large-scale battles have the same exciting flow as Star Wars' most iconic fights, where one heroic action can turn the tide of a conflict.

Over the course of each match, you'll acquire Battle Points, which you can cash-in for mid-battle rewards--such as piloting special starfighters or taking control of select hero characters to dish out punishment. While Galactic Assault will likely be the most popular mode for fans to see much of the game's systems in action, the upgraded Starfighter Assault deserves recognition. Now with more responsive and tighter controls for maneuvering your vessels, the aerial- and space-focused mode features Battlefront II's most intense missions. There's nothing more exciting than piloting an A-Wing interceptor through a tight space and pulling off a killer shot in the nick of time.

Your set of troopers, starfighters, and hero characters can be boosted with Star Cards. They can amplify stats, add bonus attributes, and even give characters alternate loadouts--such as replacing a Heavy trooper's energy shield for a grenade launcher. As you acquire more Star Cards and increase their ranks for a particular class or hero, the overall level for that character increases. The number of ways you can modify your characters is impressive, and the game gives you options to switch things up however you see fit. After each battle, you'll collect experience for your overall multiplayer rank and credits to purchase loot crates in the in-game store. Unfortunately, the focus on chasing Star Cards--and the prominence of loot crates--reveals bigger issues related to the progression.

"The biggest problem with this system is that it's never clearly explained."

Not only is this entire system confusing, it's also problematic that most of your unlocks and earnings come from opening loot crates. By relying on randomly yielded weapons, resources, cosmetic items, and Star Cards of varying grades, Battlefront II ties its progression to dice rolls. You can acquire and upgrade Star Cards on your own by using crafting components (also found in loot crates), but this also leads into the problem of gating. To upgrade a card, you have to ensure that your class level and overall multiplayer ranking meet certain standards--which in turn means having to rank up several levels in-game, and spending precious resources on loot crates for more resources and cards. Simply focusing on the characters and classes you like to play isn't enough.

Due to the randomness, and the inherent dependence on the loot crates, progression is often dictated by what these results are. This can steer you away from classes you'd prefer to use, and more annoying results in receiving cards for hero characters you have yet to unlock. With how progression is structured, simply spending time with the Heavy or Assault classes does not guarantee more loot for them, as advancing them is all tied to the luck of the draw. This is especially frustrating when you invest so much time in the game--coming across others online who've had better luck or purchased pre-orders copies to acquire epic cards for their characters--only to see your favorite classes fall by the wayside due to the overall systems working against your favor.

While the game gives you options to purchase premium currency in the form of crystals--which you can buy in bundles costing up to $100--these can only be used to buy more loot crates. This is all made worse by the cumbersome menu system, which prompts you to exit out of multiplayer games to collect your paltry rewards from milestones and challenges while also obscuring vital info such as player rank and class data.

The biggest problem with this system is that it's never clearly explained. While you'll eventually come to understand how credits, crystals, and crafting components are used, you'll still have to reconcile the fact that the time you invest in the game won't always be rewarded with progress, or at least in the way you want.

In this way, Battlefront II plants itself in the same territory as free-to-play games, with much of its content and characters tucked away behind progression walls and randomized loot crates. This is an especially disappointing reality for a full-priced release. Above all, it ends up doing a disservice to the core gameplay, which can still provide solid moments of enjoyment despite the looming presence of its progression systems. Many of these issues related to the meta-game fall by the wayside when you're in the thick of battle, as you're taking part in the massive struggle throughout the many locales in the Star Wars universe.

While its main narrative feels unresolved, and the general loop of the multiplayer carries a number of issues, Battlefront II still manages to evoke that same sense of joy and excitement found in the core of what the series is all about. But as it stands, the biggest hurdle that Battlefront II will need to overcome--for its simultaneous attempts to balance microtransactions with genuine feeling of accomplishments--is deciding on what type of game it wants to be.

Editor’s note: This will remain a review in progress until we’ve had the opportunity to test Battlefront II’s multiplayer servers on all platforms after launch. And in an unusual set of circumstances, we will also continue to put the game’s progression system through its paces as a result of EA’s rigorous pre-launch rebalancing of Battlefront II's in-game store.

Etrian Odyssey 5: Beyond The Myth Review

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 02:00

When a game series runs as long as Etrian Odyssey has, you usually start to see some sweeping changes and reinventions to its formula. But Etrian Odyssey has never really been about keeping with the latest gaming trends--after all, its core conceit of exploring a 3D labyrinth that you must carefully map out harkens back to the very earliest days of PC role-playing games. Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth continues in that tradition: It offers a big, challenging old-school-style adventure that has been carefully iterated on and improved over the past decade, with various enhancements and refinements bolstering a formula that doesn't need any dramatic changes to stay relevant.

Beyond the Myth plops you down in the continent of Arcania, which is home to a Yggdrasil tree whose mighty branches grow all the way up into the heavens. Surrounding (and within) this great tree is a sprawling labyrinth, with many a myth spun about what lies at the top. Adventurers from across the land come to the kingdom of Iorys, which has just recently permitted exploration of the great tree for the first time. You construct and take control of a guild of adventurers. But many hazards await you on your climb--twisting mazes, unexpected surprises, and myriad monsters, including especially bloodthirsty beasts known as FOEs.

Like previous Etrian Odyssey games, Beyond the Myth focuses on exploration and atmosphere over storytelling. It lets you create a team of adventurers to your liking before setting you free to explore the gigantic labyrinth, with little in the way of extraneous banter (beyond some expository text and events every so often). Your characters don't have much in the way of personality besides what you imagine, and the handful of non-player characters that you encounter outside of town aren't terribly chatty.

In a lot of ways, it feels like a tabletop RPG campaign, with a game master chiming in every so often to describe a character or elaborate on lore, while leaving much to your own interpretation. But Beyond the Myth has a fair bit of voice acting for NPCs and the narrator, as well as battle cries for your created characters. While this sounds like a potentially good thing, the voice acting at large ranges from forgettable to aggravating, ultimately doing more harm than good. Sometimes things are better left to the imagination.

Before you begin your long, treacherous climb, you must assemble a guild from several different classes of characters, ranging from variations on standard RPG classes like Fencer, Pugilist, and Warlock to more esoteric classes like the Necromancer (who can conjure up wraiths as additional party members on a whim) and the Shaman (who wields dual buffing/healing abilities). As you level up, you can put points into character skills as you see fit, to create a truly customized party. Once you get some ways into the game, you'll be able to hyper-specialize characters using Legendary Titles--a new system that effectively replaces the dual-classing system of previous games by allowing you to hyper-focus characters into a particular role (for example, your Dragoons can be unmovable, party-protecting tanks or hard-to-kill damage dealers). The option to hyper-specialize and micromanage your party to your heart's content has always been a strong point of the series, and Beyond the Myth continues that tradition.

A brand-new element added to the character management mix is the choice of races. There are four races of characters, each with distinct stat growth patterns and unique skills: the humanoid Earthlians, rabbit-eared Therians, elf-like Celestrians, and cute-and-tiny Brouni. Each race has unique skills (also powered with skill points), such as elemental resistance debuffs, and passive restoration skills. While this opens up some neat possibilities for additional min-maxing of stats to create superpowered adventurers, it's also kind of a pain to manage at times; not only do you want a nice, balanced mix of party members that work well together, you also want to make sure you have the correct race skills to make your crew run like a well-oiled machine in combat. Sometimes remembering who has which race skills available can get messy.

Once you've made a party, it's time to start the long, arduous hike up that big tree. A common element across Etrian Odyssey games are the grid-based, first-person 3D dungeons that you need to thoroughly explore and manually map out using the 3DS's bottom screen. This isn't an optional thing; you will need to make maps, or else find yourself terribly lost in a sprawling labyrinth of flora and fauna. Fortunately, you have a lot of mapping tools and markers available to you and a new automap feature that will save you from having to manually draw walls (a tremendous time-saver that I recommend turning on immediately). Don't expect automap to do everything for you, though; you'll still want to mark points of interest, hidden passages, and other potential hazards.

Speaking of hazards, the labyrinth houses plenty of them, mostly in the form of monsters that inhabit each successively more demanding floor. From the moment a member of your fledgling party gets one-shotted by a rabid flying squirrel on the first floor in your starting expedition, you know you're in for some grueling fights.

The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun.

Fortunately, a variety of improvements makes combat a lot more enjoyable. For starters, the "enemy radar" in the dungeons is more accurate, allowing you to know almost exactly when you can expect an encounter to pop up (and prepare if you need to). It's also possible to check enemy data mid-fight, meaning that you don't have to memorize a bunch of weaknesses and details over the course of the game. Finally, a "Basic" difficulty setting makes the game slightly more merciful, altering stats and damage by a small amount in your favor and increasing experience gains. Thankfully, you can turn it on and off at a whim.

The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun. Seeing your meticulously planned party finally take down a fearsome FOE that's been giving you trouble for hours is immensely satisfying, while little text-based side events that litter the dungeons as you explore are enjoyable in a different but no-less-engaging way. By focusing instead on small improvements to systems and ideas that already worked well, Etrian Odyssey 5 is a long and challenging RPG that sucks you in and leaves you determined to see what lies above.

Sonic Forces Review

Sat, 11/11/2017 - 04:05

From its opening stage, Sonic Forces displays a number of issues that are emblematic of the journey ahead: Its insistent tutorial messages interrupt your initial sprint down a winding road, the cinematic transition sequences that take you from one path the next that renders you an observer, not an active participant, and right as you're about to settle into the glee of your mad dash forward, the stage ends. In this 3D Sonic game, developer Sonic Team attempts to iterate upon the formula of games like Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, but it falls short due to frustrating design choices and inconsistent level design. Even its most entertaining moments come with caveats.

The game's story once again sees Sonic getting involved in a battle against Dr. Eggman--this time over the fate of the world. The conniving scientist recruits the expertise of a powerful entity known as Infinite, who he uses to make short work of the blue hedgehog. Six months pass and Dr. Eggman has nearly taken over the entire planet, leaving Sonic and his friends in a tough position. To combat the threat, a ragtag group of freedom fighters consisting of Sonic, a younger version of himself, most of his supporting cast, and a new character you personally create--simply named "the Rookie"--come together.

At first, Sonic Forces' emphasis on story seems like a refreshing shift from the predominantly simple plot lines of recent games in the series. However, even though the heightened stakes provide an interesting power shift, they never culminate into anything interesting or impactful. It's only in Sonic Forces' levity where it manages to be somewhat entertaining, turning to puns or brief comedic situations to elicit a snicker, but all too infrequently.

Throughout your adventure, you'll switch back and forth between playing as either Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, or your custom character. Both Classic and Modern Sonic play similarly to their past iterations, with some minor additions: Modern Sonic has a double-jump and Classic Sonic comes equipped with Sonic Mania's Drop Dash ability; both are welcome tools that better distinguish the two hedgehogs. But the biggest addition to the formula is your custom character, who sports special weapons called Wispons that grant unique offensive and movement abilities. For example, the Drill Wispon allows you to quickly charge through foes or ride up and down walls. All three characters play distinctly from one another, and there are fleeting thrills to be had in plowing through robots with a speed boost or using a homing attack on a series of flying creatures to quickly clear a path towards the finish line. However, the excitement of these high speed escapades are held back by clunky platforming and unwieldy movement.

Expect to repeatedly careen off the edge of a stage in your mad dash forward.

During platforming and speed sequences, you frequently plummet down bottomless pits due to how abruptly your character builds up speed before a jump or how a road's bumpers aren't made clear. While death is to be expected, the level design repeatedly miscommunicates the placement of oncoming hazards and the timing required to avoid them. Admittedly, practice means you inevitably develop the reflexes demanded of you over time, but even with experience, the game's inconsistencies mean you'll often end up stuck on a ramp mid-run or make a double-jump that simply doesn't flow the way you want. Sonic Forces' sense of control is erratic and unreliable, resulting in a wealth of unintentional deaths and bizarre collisions with environmental hazards.

Sonic Forces' level design does little to accommodate your need for speed. Although Modern Sonic and your custom character have abilities that encourage you to push forward at a blistering pace, it's often smarter to slow down. Telegraphing the right time to go fast has always been a major design issue in the series, but it's magnified here, where obstacles and platforming sequences that require slower, more methodical movements aren't as explicitly signposted as they should be. The game does a poor job of teaching you the flow of its design, instead relying on multiple frustrating and unfair deaths to educate you on the intricacies of a stage's pacing.

Set-pieces typically boil down to simplistic quick-time events that take you out of the high-speed action.

There's a pervading sense of monotony across Sonic Forces' seven unremarkable worlds. Nearly all the obstacles you encounter are rehashes of concepts and mechanics from previous games; lane-based level design, grind rails, speed boost sections, and side-scrolling platforming sequences all make a return. A set-piece sometimes breaks up the pace, but these encounters usually boil down to simplistic quick-time events that make you feel passive to the action happening on-screen rather than an active participant. Multiple routes or lanes in a stage create the illusion of branching paths, but they're so brief that they feel more like quick diversions than actual alternate pathways. It doesn't help that stages are also incredibly short, typically clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes. With cutscenes before and after each stage, you can't help but wish there was a little more ground to cover before reaching the finish line.

Your custom character's Wispons add some variety to the mechanics, but even those are limited, as there are only a couple that offer practical benefits. For instance, the Lightning Wispon allows you to zip through a line of rings, often leading you to alternate routes in a stage. Out of the seven Wispons available, you're likely to stick to using one or two, as there's rarely any incentive to experiment once you've grown accustomed to how a couple work.

In terms of performance, Sonic Forces runs smoothly at 60 frames per second on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The Switch version, however, runs at 30 frames per second and suffers from a downgrade in visuals comparatively while docked or undocked. While tolerable, the higher frame rate of the other versions gives them a significant bump over the game's performance on Switch.

It'd be fair to write Sonic Forces off as another weak entry in the series. It's numerous shortcomings make for an uneven, often frustrating gameplay experience. However, knowledge of its various flaws can make for a smoother second run through. In replaying for S-ranks it's possible to use your accumulated knowledge of a stage's hazards and its most illogical pitfalls, the growing pains of overcoming these obstacles slightly lessened. It was rewarding and enjoyable to go back to older stages to take the most efficient routes, knowing precisely when to increase Sonic's speed to earn faster times. That said, acquiring S-ranks and completing challenges isn't entirely difficult, which makes the endeavor of replaying stages short lived, especially considering how brief stages can be. And speed running or not, Sonic Forces' ill-designed stages and poor handling are still major obstacles that detract from your time spent playing.

For years the Sonic series has come up short in its 3D games. It wasn't until Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations that the series was able to grasp a semblance of quality that could change the perception of the series as a whole for the better. Sonic Forces ultimately fails to advance the mechanics of previously successful 3D Sonic games, or present them in their best light. A mediocre platformer at best, Sonic Forces manages to do nothing more than reinforce long held stereotypes against Sega's beloved blue blur.

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