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Star Control: Origins Review - Space Oddity

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 18:00

Star Control II was released in 1992 and remains notable for its bold amalgam of seemingly disparate ideas. It combined space exploration, arcade combat, resource management, trading, questing and chatting with aliens in a way that suggested its creators were still eagerly discovering what a game could be. This reboot, from strategy game developer Stardock, is a mostly faithful adaptation. It delivers an expansive galaxy steeped in mystery, knowing sci-fi winks and modern interface convenience, but as a genre mashup it can at times feel shallow and the overall experience is uneven.

Star Control: Origins begins with the human race donning its crisp and immaculately tailored Star Control uniform and making first contact with alien life. Within moments you find yourself appointed captain of the only ship in the human fleet equipped with a hyperdrive and thus entrusted with representing your species in the fledgling field of galactic diplomacy. This is no lavish 3D space sim a la Elite Dangerous, it should be noted. Most of the time you'll be looking at a flat 2D starfield as your ship putters around the galaxy. In combat, it looks much the same, and all conversations are shown as cartoonishly animated 2D scenes with plenty of text. Elsewhere, there are sector maps to analyze and ship upgrade blueprints to pore over--even a hyperlinked captain's log that records all your discoveries. The presentation definitely leans heavily into the strategy portion of its genre mashup.

It quickly transpires that there are a lot of aliens in the galaxy, many of whom are well aware of the existence of humans and, let's be honest, seem surprised we're capable of rubbing two sticks together, let alone piloting a vessel between stars. Some of the aliens you meet will be friendly and keen to support your endeavors with advice, extra ships, and fuel top-ups. Others will be less friendly, interested in either taking advantage of your interstellar naivety by sending you on errands in exchange for their favor or shooting you on sight.

Aliens are painted in broad strokes, each species distinguished by their physical appearance and one or two glaring personality traits. The Mu'Kay are squid who are good-natured but really hate (and eat) fish, for example, while the Tywom are hapless but well-meaning slugs who have resigned themselves to being the most boring species in the galaxy. There's little nuance to the way each alien species is portrayed--they're all glib sketches with one element exaggerated for comic effect. Despite this, the writing is consistently excellent, regardless of whether you're hearing from an important quest-giver or generic NPC. A nice line about quirky details, good comedic timing, and the odd genuinely good joke elevates each alien beyond mere caricature. Encounters, even those that end in violence, are always played for laughs, resulting in a lighthearted, almost jovial tone that belies the starcharts and spreadsheet-style presentation elsewhere.

When you're not chinwagging with your new extraterrestrial friends, you're probably being pelted with laser fire by the Skryve or the Drenkend or one of the other new enemies you've offended by poking your helmet beyond the Milky Way. Combat plays out on a discrete 2D arena where you battle one-on-one with an enemy ship. There's some strategy here as you weigh up the odds of your weaker ships winning versus the likelihood you might need to save your better ships for the next fight. And there's some skill required to make effective use of each ship's weapon loadout and handling, as well as managing the power-ups scattered around the arena.

But for the most part, as a top-down shoot ‘em up duel where you only control one ship with two weapons, combat feels too slight, too simplistic, a deficiency exacerbated by the frustratingly erratic AI behavior that sees it veer between unerring accuracy and blundering idiocy for no discernible reason. It's as infuriating when a weaker enemy ship hits you with every single missile as it is hilarious when the next enemy ship blows itself up by repeatedly crashing into asteroids. You can't skip combat if it's not to your taste, though you can outfit your ship with an upgrade that leaves combat to the AI--and leaves you to suffer through watching it. I spent an hour or so saving up to buy the AI-controlled fleet upgrade, only to disable it immediately after despairing at how its idea of an effective combat maneuver was to follow the enemy ship in a circle and hurl itself at every proximity mine the enemy dropped.

Throughout, Star Control: Origins is at its weakest when trying its hand at arcade-style action. When you reach a new planet or moon, you can launch a lander to explore its surface, quite literally dropping you into a mini-game where you have to guide your vehicle through the atmosphere to the target landing zone. It's all over in a matter of seconds, and the only challenge is that sometimes a strong wind will blow you off course--a hazard that can be mitigated through lander upgrades.

Once on the surface, you drive across the dinky sphere, collecting resources and avoiding or shooting hostile droids and creatures. Much like the combat, it's a simple affair, but there's a certain fastidious pleasure to be had from strip-mining every last trace of neutronium from the earth. Yet it can also become tedious as the limited cargo capacities of your lander and your ship conspire to force frequent (and lengthy) trips back to the nearest spaceport to sell your loot in order to maintain the grind.

Soon, however, you'll stumble upon a point of interest on one of these spherical excursions and find yourself triggering a new quest to investigate a crashed ship or a mysterious distress call or pick up a lead as to the whereabouts of a post-human sect known as the Lexites. Before you know it, you're charting a course to a new system, filled with optimism about what you'll find on the next planet, what ship upgrades you'll soon be able to afford, what adventures the next alien you meet will inspire.

At its best, Star Control: Origins urges you to poke and prod into every corner of its intimidatingly vast galaxy, searching out ancient secrets and pun-filled absurdities. At its worst, it drags you through mediocre arcade sequences and generic grind. Genre mashups are far more common today than they were in 1992, but striking the right balance between adventure, role-playing and arcade action remains as tricky as ever.

Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse Review

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 17:48

Editor's note: Almost five years after its PC debut, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse has come to the Nintendo Switch, bringing its challenging variety of point-and-click adventure puzzles and complex but compelling narrative to the portable system. With it comes some elegant touch screen controls that make poking around the beautifully drawn and detailed environments feel more natural, though you can jump back to using the Joy-Con at any time, switching between the two methods without opening a menu.

As you progress through the familiar but still fascinating story you'll also unlock Switch-exclusive bonus movies from a making-of documentary about the game's development, including some great looking concept art. Even now, Broken Sword 5 still looks gorgeous, and although its murder-turned-conspiracy story feels somewhat rote these days, its characters and dialogue are still great fun to watch as the drama unfolds. The pick-up-and-put-down nature of a point-and-click adventure works especially well on Switch, and the excellent use of touch screen controls enhances the experience even more. -- James Swinbanks, 9/20/18 [We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Nintendo Switch version. The original review follows below.]

You mainly play as George, but you switch between him and Nico while investigating.

A murdered art gallery owner, a helmeted assassin, and a missing painting. It's just another beautiful day in Paris, and for George Stobbart and Nico Collard, a brand-new case to be solved. After a seven-year hiatus and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the best-selling Broken Sword series has reemerged. Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse ushers the return of the franchise's protagonists, along with a host of favorites.

It has been quite a while since George and Nico have joined up to solve a case, and in that stretch of time, the two seem to have pursued their own ventures: George has become an agent for an insurance company, and Nico is continuing her career as a globetrotting journalist. But a tragedy strikes, leaving a man murdered for a painting that was worth considerably less than others in the gallery. Since it was George's company that insured the showcase, he feels obligated to uncover the reason behind the theft and find out what makes this painting important enough to kill for. The crime-solving duo are soon reunited and thrust into a murderous conspiracy, armed only with George's astute problem-solving skills and Nico's feminine charm and sharp wit.

The story weaves a smart, fascinating, and often humorous tale. George and Nico's latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair, with just enough room for an ex-Russian mobster and an assassin or two to be thrown into the mix. You switch between the two characters as they follow a trail that has them trekking through France and London chasing down leads. As you progress, the plot begins to revolve around an age-old conflict between Gnostic and Dominican Christians, and at its epicenter is the painting: La Malediccio. The painting hides more secrets than what can be seen on the surface, and may be the key to an impending epidemic that threatens all life.

Broken Sword 5 follows the series' roots as a point-and-click adventure; you use the mouse cursor to control movement as well as to manipulate objects in an area, speak with people, or use items in your inventory to solve a puzzle. Like in many games in the genre, you pick up items and bits of evidence and store them. You use evidence to drag the truth out of people or suspects, while other items, even the most miniscule, such as a paper clip, 1970s cologne, or nail clippers, can be used or combined to solve puzzles down the line.

The two sleuths hop back and forth between Paris and London.

The order in which you procure these items is up to you. At times, you may only have a few clues, leaving you to scour the environment for more evidence necessary to drag information out of your target. Typically, all the evidence required to move the plot along is in your vicinity, if not already on hand. Any and all items in your inventory can be used in a conversation, sometimes to humorous results.

The puzzles in Broken Sword 5 are not too strenuous. Most of the time you already have everything in your inventory needed to complete a puzzle; otherwise, a quick hunt around the area yields what you need. The game plays a musical note when you're making progress in a puzzle or in your interrogation, cluing you in on when you're on the right path. The plot doesn't advance until you find every item or piece of evidence in the area, press the right series of switches, or receive an answer to all questions available. But if you do find yourself stumped, there's an optional hint system. The first hint or two gently nudge you in the right direction. If you still come up empty, the final hint presents the puzzle's full solution.

The various settings are designed with colorful, hand-painted graphics, and the cel-shaded characters blend effortlessly into the gorgeous scenic backdrops. Though Broken Sword 5 is aesthetically pleasing, it's hard not to notice the stiff and somewhat primitive animations, which are distracting compared to the game's overall beauty. Broken Sword 5's rich and vibrant world is complemented by characters who are interesting, entertaining, and often hilarious. The subtle nuances of their personalities shine through every conversation, and a great vocal cast makes each character believable and memorable.

George and Nico's latest adventure is fraught with murder, sabotage, and a seedy love affair.

Some of the standout characters include the returning Sergeant Moue, who plays lapdog to the bumbling Inspector Navet. There is also a stereotypically snooty Frenchman who stands guard at an empty cafe while quoting philosophical advice. Also starring are a lecherous art critic and a young man who needs presentation advice for his mobile shop of trinkets and collectibles. The many varied and unique characters reinforce the depth of the game's narrative, and the two protagonists demonstrate a particular chemistry that makes their longtime history feel convincing.

You are provided with an in-game map, but Broken Sword 5 keeps aimless wandering down to a minimum. There was never a moment when I stared at the map screen not knowing my next destination. Even when you choose the wrong direction, the game comes up with a reason for you to turn back and try the opposite route. Some adventure game fans may be turned off by the linear focus, but I felt the design allowed the narrative to move with a strong pace and clear direction.

George Stobbart is back with a new mystery to solve

Just how deep the rabbit hole goes is the one mystery Broken Sword 5 doesn't shed light on. After about six hours, the game abruptly ends just as things start heating up for our stalwart heroes, leaving more lingering questions and theories than hard answers. The game is the first episode of a two-part adventure, meaning we won't get to the bottom of the conspiracy until sometime early next year.

Smart, occasionally funny, and immediately charming, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse is easy to recommend based on its strong narrative, memorable characters, and artistic merit. The game is a vibrant return to form for the series, and should easily please the series' and point-and-click adventure game fans alike. The answers to the most pivotal questions remain on the horizon, but it's still good to see George and Nico back in action--they have been missed.

The Gardens Between Review - Dance Among The Stars

Wed, 09/19/2018 - 16:00

A game that can be completed in a single sitting is an opportunity to experience an idea from start to finish without external factors getting in the way. It could be a boss rush that's just a gauntlet of the meanest brutes around, or it could be a touching tale that makes the most of its brief runtime by getting to the heart of the matter. A short-format game risks wrapping up before its time has come, but paced properly, it can be the perfect fit when the right idea comes along. In the case of The Gardens Between, the heartfelt interactions that play out on-screen between two friends on a sentimental adventure make the game the definition of short but sweet.

It begins one dark and stormy night, when as if by magic the two friends are pulled into a strange world while hiding from the rain in their cozy treehouse. They materialize on a planet dominated by water, and the islands they sail between using their treehouse-turned-boat are manifestations of their memories, recreated with real-world objects. Supersized couches and knick-knacks function as structures and obstacles in the imaginary dimension, and sometimes as mechanisms used to solve puzzles. Your goal on each island is to reach the end of a path and deliver an orb of light--a process that solidifies the friends' memories as constellations in the night sky.

Though you can influence each character's actions, you don't directly control their movement. Rather than move them to and fro, you can shift time forward and backwards, and the two characters will walk along a path in kind. They each possess a distinct ability--one can carry a lamp to transport orbs of light, and the other can activate switches that reconfigure puzzle-related elements in the environment.

The environmental puzzles run the gamut from simple cause-and-effect scenarios to unorthodox headscratchers that require the use of dreamlogic. In practically every case the necessary hints are right before your eyes; shifting time to and fro and paying close attention to the way things change is often all you need to deduce a solution. The trick is usually the manipulation of objects that are free from time's grasp in conjunction with finding the right moment in time to let them loose.

Without these puzzles The Gardens Between would struggle to last an hour, yet despite being modestly challenging and inventive, they somehow feel unimportant in the grand scheme. There is no context for their existence as obstacles other than being opportunities for two friends to cooperate, but the tiny doses of narrative at the end of each island reflect the objects in the scene rather than the efforts used to pass through it. Puzzles are the "gameplay" that allows you to play a part in the two characters' journey and in a way make the realization of each memory feel earned, but they fall by the wayside when the spotlight is focused on the two teens.

Though the world they venture through is full of creative touches and small magical moments, the two characters own every moment. From the way they subtly peep at one another while crossing paths, to the adorable gestures they use to point out helpful objects in the distance, their body language clues you in to their special bond. They say so much without ever uttering a word. Their cute and quirky selves are infectiously adorable, and before you know it, you've tumbled head over heels into their world and ultimately the formation of a new, unforgettable memory by the end of their journey.

It may only take two to three hours to see everything The Gardens Between has to offer, but the warm and fuzzy feelings from start to finish ensure that your memories of playing it will live on. The expressive faces of the two teens and the relatable memories they share will speak to anyone who's ever had a close childhood friend, and while the puzzles won't go down as the most ingenious or demanding, they nevertheless give you more time to spend frolicking in a nostalgic and heartwarming world where friendship is all that matters.

Wasteland 2: Director's Cut Nintendo Switch Review

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 01:27

One of the most beautiful facets of Wasteland 2 is its wistful, austere writing. Taking lots of inspiration from tabletop RPGs, Wasteland 2 masterfully brings the best bits of open-ended roleplaying games to the digital realm, bringing the genre's hallmark nuanced scenarios, deep roleplaying, and rich, atmospheric description along. Several years after its release, it's coming to Switch, and even now it's among the best in the recent roleplaying crop.

The Director's Cut, an updated release that was a free upgrade for most console players, is the edition getting the Switch treatment. There are thousands of lines of added spoken dialogue, but the text still does most of the heavy lifting. The bigger additions are the smoother graphical presentation as well as having more minutiae with which to customize your characters. Perks and Quirks, for instance, give you the option to swap a boon for some persistent disadvantage. While that sounds counterintuitive in a video game, it pays dividends in the actual role-playing: It gives you the ability to further refine your squad and encourage yourself to think a bit outside the box as you work around the traits. For some, that might be a turn-off, but Wasteland 2 embraces it.

You are, from the start, invited to craft your own troop of folks with whom you will travel the wastes. You can (and probably should) come up with your own backstories and use those to build out your squad. You don't have to, of course, but having a written paragraph or two, as well as hand-crafted motivations, Wasteland suggests, will help tie you to the world and your team of avatars. And damned if it isn't dead-on. While Wasteland 2 definitely offers up a decent chunk of narrative assistance for those who want to keep things simple, this is an adventure that pleads for you to give your all and is willing to reward the effort.

As you might suspect, your squad's goal is to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And, as is so often the case, it's obvious that the end of civilization came in the nuclear flavor. Soon after the opening, your crew joins up with the Desert Rangers, one of the only semblances of civilization that has emerged from the chaos.

Your group struggles alongside the people you encounter, and you can be assured that their lives are exactly as dour as they seem. By giving the people you encounter such depth--which, admittedly, still can often descend into cartoonishly exaggerated moral extremes--it can be a genuine struggle to be cruel. Still, kindness isn't the panacea you'd perhaps hope.

One moment stood out to me when I first played Wasteland 2, and it's just as haunting today. As I wrote in my original review: "One particularly tough scene had me slowly watching a woman die as she begged my squad to put her out of her misery. Trying to show an ounce of mercy in an otherwise cold and macabre place, I agreed. A child saw me and ran to tell his family--another group I had agreed to help by finding their stolen pigs. They were terrified of me, and left their home without food and water. They probably died."

Those consequences are made all the richer by your investment and your choice to engage with what the game has to offer. There is an unusually broad number of solutions to just about any problem, and it's often better to examine as many possible angles as you can before acting. Still, there's an anarchic resignation that underpins everything. No matter how you act, you'll often cause collateral damage. That posits a rather severe world, but then again, this is a hypothetical where people really did poison the planet and vaporize one another.

The fuzziness of it all tests your characters, too. And they can (and should) be rewritten as you go. Wasteland 2 doesn't just hit you with these conditions to wear you down, but to see how your characters respond. This is trying, it is exhausting emotionally for your crew. How do they handle that? Will their spark of optimism be ground away by the relentless struggle, or will it live on? More importantly, why?

The breadth of options to approach any given scenario or various other challenges is vital to backing that up. While the game has been touted as one where you can kill absolutely everyone, that really isn't wise and is a self-indulgent waste. In much the same way, it is possible, however unlikely, to make it through just about all of the game without killing people. That's less exciting for many, but it highlights the real point. The array of choices you can make are a means to an end--how would your character respond to this grim world?

To that end, combat is also remarkably diverse. In much the same way that your team can flex to meet the needs you encounter, combat, too has a lot of different ways to approach problems. At its most basic, when you shift into fights, you'll be arranged into a turn order and you proceed maneuvering through the area until all hostiles have been dealt with. Non-lethal options exist, but many of your foes are mutants, robots, and other rough-and-tumble, battle-hardened mercenaries. Maintaining control of the field against enemies willing to pull out high-yield explosives is a challenge, to say the least.

But that also hints at the relevant outcomes from the fight. Wasteland 2 is an RPG first, and your battles will have narrative consequences. As a result, your goals are often a little more refined than "blow it all up." And those going that route will be hard-pressed to care for the members of their team, who are just as vulnerable to the searing hot shrapnel from a stray grenade as your target is--so what you have is an array of options that are constrained by practical considerations.

Wasteland 2 seamlessly translates the myriad diplomatic and social options into a wide set of combat styles and approaches.

How much collateral damage are you okay accepting? How much risk are you willing to accept? When your crew starts bleeding out, will you run a medic over to patch them up, putting both at risk, or press the offensive? These options also have their own contexts within the narrative. How you use your party's skills to address puzzles and challenges in the main arc will have a big effect on if and when someone comes after waggling their creaky, rusted rifles.

Wasteland 2 seamlessly translates the myriad diplomatic and social options into a wide set of combat styles and approaches. Once again, more investment in the weapons your team carries and uses yields dividends. Having a few different types of weapons and the ability to support each, as well as an understanding of how to use them, allows your group to tackle just about any problem--regardless of whether they marched into or couldn't talk their way out of it.

In fact, the only substantive complaints are longer-than-comfortable loading times and the lack of extensive touchscreen support for the Switch edition. Given that much of the combat is tactical, and that a touchscreen works as a damned fine substitute for a mouse, the feature is an apparent omission that prevents the Switch version from being the best yet.

Wasteland 2 is still a very special outing. If you haven't spent your time in this irradiated desert just yet, this is one of the best times to do so--especially since the portability of the Switch reissue lets you take the journey on long treks of your own, or as a dense RPG to curl and nestle in with, as you might with an excellent book. On such a screen, the interpersonal dramas feel a bit more intimate, the tension of sneaking your way pay this or that NPC a bit more tangible. Plus, in the Switch's handheld mode, the rather dated-looking visuals aren't so grating. All-told it's a phenomenal port and still one of the better RPGs in recent years.

Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner - MARS Review

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 23:00

Zone of the Enders got a bit of a bum rap as a series overall, being more famous as the game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo than anything else. Those with the patience, however, would discover one of the most distinct mech games of the day, with more than a heaping dollop of trademark Hideo Kojima madness therein. The 2nd Runner is an improvement on the original in many ways, to be certain, but held against modern standards, Zone of the Enders comes off awful rusty.

There is a story, but it's nigh incomprehensible, even with the caveat that Kojima's fingerprints are all over it. Having prior knowledge of the original doesn't help much either. Basically, two years after the events of the original Zone of the Enders, a miner named Dingo Egret on one of Jupiter's moons finds the frame-mech hero, Jehuty, buried beneath the surface. When the evil army BAHRAM nearly kills Dingo trying to retrieve the armor again, Jehuty is forced by a rebel spy to join with Dingo, keeping him alive using the mech's life support until they complete their mission of blasting the army straight to hell.

Ideally, you'd be able to simply barrel past the story and get to what's good, which is the mech combat, but The 2nd Runner's pacing stutters along. Every stride the game hits is interrupted to deliver more nonsensical ranting on unstoppable power, duty, and the nature of war. Soured even further by English voiceovers that are one step removed from Symphony of the Night-level broad theatrics, the story is a irritating rash all over what should be a fairly straightforward mech combat experience.

Simplicity, really, works in the game's favor. You have a sword, a laser, a rocket-assisted boost, and a shield. Each stage progresses on a fairly linear path, with tiny corridors and loading areas opening up into massive arenas where, for the most part, you're expected to kill everything that moves. Your enemies are generally either flying grunts around Jehuty's own size that go down easy, or swarms of tiny annoyances you can take down en masse by using a special missile barrage. That's generally the gameplay loop, and it only gets more exhilarating the more cannon fodder the game throws at you.

ZOE shows its age most is in its control scheme. It's not necessarily unworkable, but it involves unlearning 15 years of developers figuring out elegant ways of moving around 3D spaces. Two face buttons control elevation, while the dash button is unintuitively set to the shoulders. Despite much of Jehuty's moveset relying on dashing, and fast counter-maneuvers to get in and out of an opponent's space, the motions required to do so feel awkward, even in the new “Pro” configuration that remaps the shoulder buttons and subweapon selects.

The 4K bump in resolution and soundscape enhancements are certainly noticeable, but aside from introducing brand-new textures to the mix, ZOE was always going to wear its PS2 roots rather boldly. Honestly, the game would lose something without that trademark Kojima Productions cinematic judder during intense moments. Instead, Konami went the next step, allowing the entire game to be played in VR. It's a great idea, one that'd be a welcome experiment for a lot of older titles--there's certainly an extra level of immersion, and the aforementioned new soundscape really comes to life in VR, forcing you to use your ears more than your eyes to figure out where enemies and projectiles are coming from.

ZOE shows its age most is in its control scheme.

The control scheme still mucks things up quite a bit, however, and not being able to see your special moves as you use them is a pretty big detriment in busy stages. The game does try to mitigate this, keeping a holographic representation of your avatar as it would be in the regular game on the right-hand side of the cockpit, but taking your eyes off the action is a bad idea, especially during the game's frantic boss fights. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to; bosses have a bad habit of getting up close and personal. In a crowded area, the only thing stopping you from being cornered and slashed to death in three hits is the kind of situational awareness the VR mode doesn't inherently give you. There is a special VR difficulty mode that makes dealing with enemies easier, but it swings the game too far in the other direction towards cakewalk territory.

While Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner pushed the envelope when it first launched, it's more admirable for the ways in which it tries to inject depth into a formula that never required it to be successful. There are certainly ambitions to be appreciated, and Konami has at least put some effort into preserving the experience as it was, for better or worse. Still, those ambitions aren’t enough to fight the feeling that it hasn’t been outclassed several times over in the years since.

Undertale Review - Nintendo Switch Update

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 18:53

Editor's note: Three years after its initial release on PC, Undertale has found its way to the Nintendo Switch--and of course, the game is every bit as charming, challenging, and harrowing as it was the first time around. Undertale may seem like a straightforward retro-style RPG, but it subverts player expectations every chance it gets, which never gets stale because of clever writing and an evocative chiptune soundtrack. Thankfully, it plays just as well as it does on other platforms without any performance hitches or bugs after putting about four hours into this version. Like its console counterparts, you can fill the screen with an adaptive border that thematically fits with the location you're in (Undertale plays in a 4:3 aspect ratio). Dodging enemy attacks in the bullet hell-style defensive phase in combat works just as well with the Joy-Con analog sticks.

Undertale isn't afraid to break convention, and because it does so in a way that's thoughtful and humorous throughout, the result is an emotional rollercoaster that fills us with determination. -- Michael Higham, 14 September 2018 [We have updated the score to reflect our experience with the Nintendo Switch version, in addition to the PC, Mac, and PS4 versions. The original review follows below.]

Undertale's opening cinematic hints at a cliche RPG where you awake in a mysterious world and embark on a journey in hopes of returning to your normal life. Despite the familiar premise, you quickly discover that looks can be deceiving. While many games can take a heavy-handed approach to teaching you the basics, Undertale does so in a way that not only introduces you to the tone of the game, but teaches you not to accept anything at face value. The first character you meet compels you to play nice, but as the cheerful music turns to sinister laughter and your new "friend" declares you an idiot, you get it: expect the unexpected. Undertale makes a name for itself with unusual storytelling techniques and combat mechanics, setting itself apart from the games it seems to imitate. It's also cleverly written and constantly subverts your expectations. There are so many wonderful experiences in store that are tempting to spoil, but to go into too much detail would ruin the element of surprise: one of Undertale's best assets.

While it seems to be a game that's designed for RPG fans first and foremost, a lot of Undertale's jokes have universal appeal. A pair of comically incompetent skeletons regularly spout puns and jokes while attempting--and failing--to halt your progress, and the social ineptitude exhibited by one character when they try to express their feelings for another is a regular source of laughter. With clever characterization and unexpected responses to actions we've been conditioned to view as predictable, Undertale elicits laughter and delight with ease.

You're encouraged to stop and engage with NPCs rather than charge through the story, and you should, because the varied and entertaining cast of monsters reveal valuable information about the wider world. This quality isn't unique, but here, it leads to unusual exchanges that are filled with great quips, simultaneously poking fun at games and human nature alike. The script tip-toes into parody, but an air of earnest thought lifts it above mere mockery. Silly as it can be, Undertale delivers poignant observations that challenge the status-quo.

It's also the sort of experience that encourages you to come back for a second or third round. This is especially true because, over the course of roughly five hours, you make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The importance of choice is often felt during combat, which lets you pick between fighting or talking your way out of conflict.

Sometimes the secret to winning is a little bit of love.

Trying to pacify opponents is a far more rewarding experience than simply fighting, and its a process that's unique to each type of enemy. To earn their favor, you have to analyse an enemy's behavior and figure out the right course of action. In one scenario, you can attempt to befriend a violent dog, in another, you might want to cheer up a ghost with low self-esteem; your success will depend on your ability to empathize and react. Navigating social puzzles is a refreshing change of pace for what seems like traditional combat, and the variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Because not all enemies are easily wooed, you eventually need to defend yourself regardless if you intend to fight or not. Undertale handles this with a quirky mechanic that feels out of place at first, but it eventually grows on you because it makes combat engaging and unpredictable in a good way. Enemy attacks appear as waves of projectiles that fly within a square pen, and as they fly by, you have to steer a small heart icon out of their flightpath to avoid taking damage. It's an unusual mechanic, but it's simple to understand and rewarding in the sense that it lets your reflexes-rather than statistics or dice rolls--dictate the outcome of a fight.

The variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Even within combat, Undertale layers on the humor. Sometimes you're dodging bullets, but you also need to watch out for frogs, arms with flexing biceps, and even the tears of a depressed opponent. Linking the shape, size, and behavior of projectiles with enemies' personalities keeps things challenging, and opens the door for even more laughs as you fend off absurd attacks.

Hey, what are friends for?

It would be a crime not to mention Undertale's soundtrack, which is loaded with beautiful bit-based melodies that blend perfectly with the action on-screen. Each boss gets its own theme song, which do a great job of enhancing their particular personality. These tracks in particular bring energy and vigor, putting you on the edge of your seat as you try to fight or befriend your opponent. Outside of battle, tracks set the appropriate mood, too, from the quirky jingle in Temmie Village, to somber melodies that build tension near the end of the game. Regardless of its retro style, Undertale's soundtrack has timeless appeal and is great at evoking emotions.

Without spoiling the many ways it will screw with your expectations, it isn't possible to truly capture how wonderful Undertale is. You wouldn't know it with a passing glance, but it's one of the most progressive and innovative RPGs to come in a long time, breaking down tradition for the sake of invention, with great success.

NHL 19 Review -- A Barnburner

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 23:01

With its brand-new pond hockey mode, introduction of legendary players like Wayne Gretzky, superb controls, and multitude of ways to play, NHL 19 successfully and impressively captures the spirit and culture of ice hockey. It has issues, including a lack of meaningful changes for veteran players, but the solid foundation makes NHL 19 an excellent hockey game.

One of the biggest new additions to NHL 19 is "World of Chel." An evolved version of the EA Sports Hockey League, World of Chel is an online hub featuring multiple modes, with character progression for your skater tied together in one place. The most notable mode within World of Chel is Ones, a game of 1v1v1 played on ponds and lakes. With shivering spectators in heavy coats on the sideline, no whistles, imperfections on the ice, and numerous collectibles like hoodies, beanies, and parkas to unlock and equip (that you can only get via regular progression), NHL 19 effectively captures the general aesthetic and vibe of playing outdoors. An over-the-top and colourful announcer who makes many silly quips and references to hockey culture helps the experience feel appropriately lighthearted. The 1v1v1 setup makes each two-minute match satisfyingly tense and highly replayable, though there are some downsides. For example, it's only half-ice, so the puck frequently gets jammed where the walls meet. With matches only running for two minutes, it's frustrating to spend time digging the puck out of corners. It is also disappointing that Ones is online-only; there is no local play, an omission that stands out when NHL 19's numerous other modes support couch co-op.

Returning from last year, and remaining the franchise's most exciting and engaging mode, is the ridiculously over-the-top Threes. This mode pits teams of three against each other in fast-paced and chaotic games with arcade-style scoring multipliers and the ability to play as the league's different mascots. NHL 19's standard modes feature true-to-life professional teams, players, stadiums, announcers, and visuals with an impressive attention to detail, but I kept coming back to Threes more than anything else for its constant action and delightfully wacky tone.

Aside from Ones and Threes, new this year is a Pro-Am mode that lets you take on NHL legends of past and present in a series of challenges. This mode, in addition to the impressively robust Franchise, along with Ultimate Team, Shootout, Be a Pro career, and online head-to-head, combine to give you numerous distinct and compelling ways to play. Be A Pro serves as NHL 19's career mode, and it delivers a satisfying path from low-level hockey to the pros. It lacks the depth found in the story modes of other EA Sports games like Madden and FIFA, but it is rewarding all the same to build your character and grow and expand their skills over time.

Franchise mode returns, and it remains a deep experience. New for NHL 19 is a more involved scouting system within which you can recruit, hire, and fire amateur and professional scouts to look for new talent by player, region, and team. A further layer to the new scouting mechanic is a "Fog of War" system that hides a player's true rating if you don't scout enough. These new features, as well as the numerous returning ones like morale meetings, trades, salary cap considerations, and more, combine to make NHL 19's franchise mode possibly the deepest in the GM experience across EA Sports. Ultimate Team is also back, and with Legends like Gretzky and Lemieux now in the mix, creating a dream-team is even more absorbing, though its inclusion of microtransactions may irk some. Given that there are so many different modes in NHL 19, it's nice that the menu lets you pin four different modes to the home screen for quick access.

The on-ice action in NHL 19 looks and performs better than last year. EA's new Real Player Motion tech that was used in Madden NFL 19 and NBA Live 19 is also implemented in NHL 19, and it helps add a strong sense of realism to the animations and physics. Skating in particular looks incredibly lifelike; some of the standout animations include seamless transitions from forward to backward skating, fluid crossovers, the kick of the leg during a fake shot, and how a player will situationally chop a puck out of mid-air or into the goal. The hitting physics have also been updated; a well-timed open-ice check will now deliver a crushing blow that causes the other player to crumple to the ice. The system is sophisticated enough to dynamically adapt to the awareness of the other player, meaning hits are gnarlier when the targeted skater doesn't see it coming and can't brace for it. On the presentation side, NHL 19 looks like a TV broadcast with finely detailed character models and crowd animations complete with rowdy fans holding red Solo cups, along with NBC Sports hosts Eddie Olczyk and Mike Emrick back providing excellent commentary.

NHL 19 nails the controls with a weighty and responsive feel. Moving the puck around is easy and intuitive, and with vibration feedback for passes and hits. Possessing the puck is critical in NHL 19, and the controls give you the tools you need to do so at a basic level and also with a huge amount of style and skill. The Skill Stick and Hybrid controls provide an amount of depth that allows more dedicated players to show off their skills with superstar dekes like windmills, spin-o-ramas, and advanced toe drags, to get around defenders and light the lamp. These dekes, of which there are many, can be strung together, which creates fun scenarios--especially in online games against other humans--to keep the defenders guessing. Alternatively, the two-button NHL 94 control setup is a fun return to basics for hockey fans looking for a simpler experience. Whatever scheme you're using, NHL 19's excellent controls make it feel wonderful to move players around the ice, complete tape-to-tape passes, dangle around opponents, and rip shots into the net.

NHL 19's drive to become a complete hockey game is further helped by the addition of NHL "Legends" as playable characters. Thanks to EA reaching a deal with the NHL Alumni Association, the names and likenesses of numerous hockey icons like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, and Mark Messier, as well as even older players like Jean Beliveau, are now in the game. There is a great attention to detail; Gretzky's trademark half-tucked in jersey is replicated in the game, while there is period-accurate gear, too, as players from the '50s and '60s like Beliveau do not wear helmets and use wooden sticks with no curve on the blade. With its use of legendary players, NHL 19 delivers the fun fantasy fulfillment of pitting Gretzky against current NHL superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Connor McDavid.

NHL 19 further expands its reach by faithfully incorporating and letting you play as teams in other real-world hockey leagues. The AHL, national teams, and numerous international leagues from Europe and other parts of the world at different levels of professionalism are represented. This contributes to help make NHL 19 feel like more of global hockey game that represents the sport at more levels and in more regions.

NHL 19 succeeds mainly because of its best-in-class controls, authentic presentation, multitude of different ways to play, and its overall excellence in capturing the essence of hockey culture. The pond hockey mode is a fun new way to play with friends in beautiful outdoor environments, but it's the only brand-new feature, and that may disappoint veteran fans.

Frozen Synapse 2 Review - Cool-Headed

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 17:00

With a futuristic, digitized look and rhythmically pulsating soundtrack, Frozen Synapse 2 is every bit as stylish as its predecessor. It's a deliberately slow and cerebral experience meant to be learned and played at your own pace. While some technical issues and annoying limitations to the campaign result in frustration at points, Frozen Synapse 2's compelling take on tactics and strategy makes up for this. Whether in single or multiplayer, its highly tactical combat requires patience and wit to grasp, but the steep learning curve is worth it, with every engagement brimming with brilliant tension.

While the game's style is undeniable, with gorgeous, procedurally-generated urban environments, Frozen Synapse 2's tactical, turn-based gameplay is the main draw. You control every movement of a squad of up to six Vatform units--repairable humanoid mercenaries hired for use in combat deployments--to take down enemy teams. Units are controlled by the strategic placement of waypoints, which you mark on the battlefield as you plan out your next turn. Once your plans are primed, you hit the play button and watch as the next five seconds of your movements, and those of your enemy, are played out in a real-time concert of bullets and shotgun blasts. It's a violent game of chess where, refreshingly, logical rules dictate the outcome of a gunfight, not the roll of a random number generator.

When making your plans, plotting out waypoints and moving units from one place to another is the easy part. Where the real effort comes in is predicting the movement of your enemies and anticipating what they're going to do next. At any point along a unit's path, you can add any number of commands, from "wait" or "engage on sight” to asking them to duck and stay low when moving. Your options are plentiful, letting you get as complex as you need to. Helpfully, you're able to plot out enemy waypoints as well, letting you test out theoretical counter-attacks that they might set up in response. But there's no certainty in war, and it's this uncertainty that makes each engagement feel wonderfully tense and unique. Even your best-laid plans can go horribly wrong, while at the same time, a hail mary might see things line up in the exact way you needed it to.

The lack of random chance makes planning out your moves more meaningful, as there is always an optimal solution for any given scenario. A stationary unit will always have a faster time-to-kill than a moving one, for instance. However, different units have their own time-to-kill stats, as well as effective ranges and reload times. These need to be taken into account when marking out your next move, as even well-placed units can struggle to make an impact when they're outgunned and vice-versa; shotguns are devastating in close quarters but are sitting ducks when left out in the open. Learning the intricacies of Frozen Synapse 2's combat is an exercise in both dealing with and overcoming the frustration of early mistakes, of which you'll make many. It only makes it all the more satisfying when the mechanics all finally click, which they will after a few hours of experimenting.

Frozen Synapse 2's single-player mode adds an intriguing real-time strategy layer to the game's strong combat systems in the form of the city map. The city is broken up into several districts, with the different factions operating within them. Both the districts and factions directly contribute to your overall budget, increasing funding as you complete contracts on their behalf, and decreasing it if those actions affect them negatively. Contracts are also time-sensitive, so if you fail to act in time or ignore it completely, another faction will jump at the chance, costing you precious funding and faction reputation. It feels like you're forever on the back foot, which can be a jarring experience at first.

Aside from the occasionally menu-heavy UI, the city has a gorgeous cyber-minimalist look to it. This is backed by a superbly written futurist sci-fi story, told through smart and occasionally funny character dialogue between Mettem, chairman of the city municipal council, your gleefully dry AI helper named Belacqua, and the various faction leaders, each with own clear sense of purpose. You are given the reins of the city's security forces as it deals with an increasing level of factionary violence as well as the outbreak of a sentient AI named Sonata that's also causing a fuss.

The campaign has some issues, though. It struggles to maintain stability at times, unexpectedly crashing to the desktop on rare occasions. Checkpoint contacts involve keeping a squad deployed on a street corner for an allotted time period, except immediately after a deployment, you're prompted to send the squad back to base. If you're not aware of this, you'll fail the contract and your time spent in combat there will be for nothing. There's also no autosave prior to mission deployment, so if your squad's too small or underpowered on a mission where failure is not allowed--a condition that isn't explained beforehand--you're forced to choose between trying to progress through impossible odds or restarting your campaign entirely. This mode is made to be replayable, but given the relatively slow pace of progress, a forced restart is a hard pill to swallow.

Thankfully, the game's superb multiplayer makes up for this. While single player AI is a good challenge, nothing quite beats the feeling of out-thinking a human opponent, and there's far more pressure to plan out your movements with total precision. Multiplayer is also built intuitively into the UI, allowing you to request opponents with a single mouse click or move between multiple games you have going on at the same time. The load time between each game is short, so if one opponent is taking their time, you can always run along and start a new game with someone else, mitigating any frustration at being made to wait while someone plots out their next move.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you.

There are six different modes to choose from, each with a light (enemies are always visible) and a dark variant (enemies are invisible unless they're within your unit's line of sight). While there's the standard deathmatch mode called Extermination, other modes are much more interesting. In Hostage, one squad attempts to hold the hostages placed in a square in the middle of the map while another moves in to free them. Charge sees the battlefield laid out like a football pitch; both players bet how far they think they can get their squad to the other side of the field, and the winning punter gets the chance to prove themselves while the other defends. No matter the game mode, every multiplayer encounter is fantastically suspenseful, with a palpable air of uncertainty surrounding the few seconds prior to your plan's outcome being played back.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you. While the single-player mode ambles through both high and low points, the multiplayer remains a steadfastly enjoyable experience. The anticipation as squads approach in preparation for battle is both thrilling and nerve-wracking, and the ability to switch between multiplayer games on the fly makes tracking multiple games elegantly simple. Technical hiccups aside, Frozen Synapse 2's incredible style and strong tactical combat make it wonderfully gratifying.

Nintendo Labo Vehicle Kit Review: The Most Fun Labo Yet

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 14:00

Nintendo Labo's Vehicle Kit is the latest variant available for the Switch's paper crafting/video game hybrid, a separate retail product that features completely new builds, games, and activities. You could, if you wanted to, describe it as the series' latest piece of DLC--if DLC stood for Da Latest Cardboard, that is.

If you thought that last dad joke was bad, it's at least appropriate, given Labo remains an outstanding shared activity between parents or caregivers and the little squirts in their lives. At times intricate and yet appealingly simple, Labo sits in that gaming gap between juniors just starting to evolve beyond simple experiences on a tablet and jaded pre-teens who laugh at you for not knowing what the Fornite floss is. Its mix of real-world cardboard crafting and on-screen activities remains a winning one to experience with a child, although as with the first two Labo kits (the Variety Kit and the Robot Kit), there's really not much here for grown-ups to latch onto.

That's because, despite Vehicle Kit's stronger focus on more traditional gameplay-like modes, what's included still leans more onto the simplistic side and is more geared towards appealing to younger kids (both in scope and gameplay challenges). As the name implies, vehicles are the focus for this Labo experience, and you'll be building your own cardboard controllers for three different vehicles: a steering wheel for the in-game car, a flightstick for a plane, and a… third one featuring rotating dials to control a submersible. You'll also have to build an accelerator pedal, which is used across all three vehicles to control your speed.

Nothing has changed when it comes to the quality of the components you're working with in this latest Labo kit compared to the previous two, which is to say that putting together these cardboard complexities is as satisfying as ever. There's something immensely gratifying about handling the crisp sheets of paper, punching them through their perforated edges, and assembling them using the clear, concise on-screen instructions. As a grown-up, it's meditative to spend the hours needed to build the most complex creations in Vehicle Kits, but it can be slightly less so if you're building it with a junior partner (and how capable, amenable to instruction, or grumpy due to a lack of naptime that junior partner is). That said, while putting together the various Joy-Cons (the term Nintendo uses for the various cardboard creations) can be a fun solo project, it really shines as a shared activity with a child. Most of the builds are just complex enough that some adult supervision will be required, so there's real joy to be had in making Vehicle Kit a joint project with someone younger.

While the Vehicle Kit creations may literally just be stiff pieces of paper, they're still remarkably durable. In our hours of testing, all of the various Joy-Cons managed to survive the overexcited attentions of a nine-year-old and a four-year-old without breaking. And it really is impressive to see a thing you just put together from various pieces of cardboard work as a fully-functioning steering wheel or as an accelerator that detects even slight amounts of pressure. But while the tech and build behind these Joy-Cons are neat, they're still DIY creations, so there's not as much control finesse or nuance here that you would otherwise expect from dedicated, manufactured steering wheels or flightsicks.

This lack of fine control suits Vehicle Kit just fine, however, as the games and activities included don't really ever require you to pull off things like hairpin manoeuvres at high speeds around rain-slicked roads. To its credit, Vehicle Kit is a leap forward compared to other Labo variations, as there's actually a decent amount of gameplay to be found here (as opposed to tech demos as was the case with the Variety Kit). There are racetracks to compete on, rally modes to enter, and more. Vehicle Kit's main game is dubbed Adventure Mode, and is a fairly expansive, open world area that can traversed by car, plane or submersible. Dotted throughout this world is a substantial amount of tasks: you may be asked to fly your plane through five clouds in quick succession, use your submersible's hook to break open a cage, or drive a curious tourist around many of the world's sights. None of these challenges are particularly taxing, with most solutions presenting themselves after a little careful exploration. The challenge level--along with Adventure Mode's bright yet basic presentation--is aimed squarely at younger gamers, and there's probably not much here that will prove engaging in the long run for anyone older.

But if you're in that target demographic, then these otherwise rote activities become a little more engaging. My nine-year-old son was my primary partner in this review (occasionally joined by his four-year-old sister, who just really wanted to fly that plane), and from his perspective, the gentle pace and steady exploration afforded by Adventure Mode was immensely appealing. Nintendo Labo's Vehicle Kit certainly isn't for everyone. But if you have a curious, excited child, then it might be just for you.

Lamplight City Review - Cold Case

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 05:00

Lamplight City is a high-concept adventure game that will win some players over on premise alone. You play as Miles Fordham, a former detective turned disgraced private investigator following the death of his partner, Bill, during a case. The game is set in 1840s New Bretagne (a borough of Cholmondeley, England) and follows Miles as he takes cases off-the-books to try and keep busy--and block out the voice of Bill, which now haunts him wherever he goes. There are five cases to solve over the course of Lamplight City, but there's an interesting twist: It's possible to either accuse the wrong culprit or find that the case is unsolvable because of errors you've made.

Lamplight City is not the first game to do this--Frogwares' last two Sherlock Holmes games, Crimes and Punishments and The Devil's Daughter, tried something similar--but this time it's all wrapped in a comfortingly familiar adventure game aesthetic, with pixel graphics, a simple point-and-click interface, and great-looking environments. The script is socially progressive and critical of the racism and homophobia of its 1840s setting, and Miles, for all his faults (he takes sleeping pills and drinks heavily to shut off Bill's voice in his head), is a likeable character. What the game lacks, unfortunately, is depth. It's full of great ideas, but isn't quite able to pull them off effectively.

The ability to fail a case is an interesting mechanic that is never actually explained or really commented on in-game. I accused the wrong suspect in the first case, having exhausted my other options; I said the wrong thing in a conversation and a character that could have given me vital clues stopped talking to me, meaning that I only had one suspect to accuse. For the rest of the game I saved regularly so that I could reload and avoid a situation like this again, but the only concrete indication that I'd arrested the wrong person was their denial during the arrest cutscene. Later, in the third case, I wasn't able to enter a certain area because a family member of the formerly accused threatened me, but otherwise, there were no repercussions or even explicit confirmations that I'd made the wrong accusation. I only know for sure that I picked the wrong culprit because of a Steam achievement I did not get.

But there was no room for misunderstanding in the other four cases. If you put in the work, you'll likely never find yourself in a position where there are multiple plausible suspects--it's very clear who the culprit is once you find all the evidence. The game will reward you, sometimes, for going the extra mile--if you locate the culprit in the second case before reporting their guilt, for instance, you'll earn a new lead in the fifth case--but doing so isn't particularly challenging, and a wrongful accusation is more likely to come from impatience than incompetence. These cases are fairly staid, and lack the spark of a good Agatha Christie mystery or the lunacy and twists of something like Phoenix Wright. While the final case--which sees you, inevitably, on the trail of Bill's killer--is a bit more exciting than the others, Lamplight City squanders a very good idea on mediocre cases where there's little room for error.

With this gimmick deflated, you're left with an okay adventure game that's low on exciting puzzles. You can brute force your way through most cases, visiting each location and clicking on everything and everyone to see if new interaction options have opened, with few real puzzles to solve. There's no inventory management, so you don't get to use 'X' on 'Y'--everything is context sensitive, and Miles will use items or ask questions automatically if it makes sense for him to do so. This means that it's easy to miss objects that can only be examined at first--signified by a magnifying glass when you mouse over them--but which become collectible after an objective is reached. The game's sense of logic is extremely fair, and there are no ridiculous or irritating solutions, but it's easy to disengage when cases involve asking the same questions of each character to see what turns up.

The characters are interesting, at least. The game's dialogue is mostly well-written, and having Bill's ever-present snarky voice in Miles' head is a smart way to provide flavor to endless item descriptions as you click on everything in a room. Miles' wife, Adelaide, is also a great character, and a subplot about their marriage issues is one of the more compelling strands. Sometimes the game asks you to make changes that have a proper payoff, and how you handle Miles' marriage is a prime example.

There are many little aspects of the world of Lamplight City that exist mostly on the periphery of your experience. You often encounter characters engaged in steampunk experiments, looking to harness a new form of energy called "aethericity," and there's an undercurrent of political turmoil running throughout much of the dialogue in the fourth and fifth cases. The divide between the working class and the aristocracy comes up often too, but a lot of the observations the game makes only skim the surface. These details flesh out the game's sense of place and give some context for the wider world Miles lives in. It's a shame that few of these end up being important to the actual cases, though--there are running plot threads that ultimately go nowhere and cases that seem to involve some of the game's kookier elements ultimately end up having mundane explanations behind them.

Lamplight City has a hell of a concept behind it, but unfortunately, the cases don't deliver on its promise. When you strip away the idea that the game will let you fail, and that you need to pay particularly close attention to what's happening, you're left with an adequate adventure game that is low on great puzzles. It's certainly not without charm, but the game's inability to make a strong delivery on its fantastic central gimmick casts an unfortunate shadow over its unique setting and likeable cast.

428: Shibuya Scramble Review - When Fates Collide

Thu, 09/13/2018 - 00:14

The past few years have seen a rise in popularity for narrative-driven games in the West. Many of these games owe a lot to Japanese adventure and visual novels, which have enjoyed a long history in their home country. One of the most revered examples is 428: Shibuya Scramble, which originally released in 2009. Now, almost a decade later, players in the West can see what all the fuss was about--and that it was very much worth the hype.

428: Shibuya Scramble takes place in the titular Shibuya, a major area of Tokyo. It's a routine day for most people, but for five individuals, what's happening is anything but ordinary. Young detective Kano is currently caught up in the midst of a mysterious kidnapping case: Maria, the daughter of reclusive scientist Kenji Osawa, is missing. As Kano sets up Osawa's other daughter, Hitomi, to deliver the ransom money, a street punk named Achi wanders into the picture, fleeing with Hitomi when the sting goes awry. Meanwhile, freelance reporter Minorikawa is called by a suicidal editorial manager who needs to put together a magazine by day’s end to save himself from financial ruin, and a young girl named Tama finds herself trapped in a cat mascot suit, hawking dubious diet drinks for a scam artist at the famous Shibuya Crossing.

The story's five central characters--Kano, Achi, Minorikawa, Osawa, and Tama--all find their fates intertwining through five unique stories told over the course of a single day. What begins as a routine kidnapping soon reveals itself to be something far more sinister, turning into a thrilling story of colliding fates, character drama, and international intrigue. It's up to you to put together the pieces and save these characters, and perhaps all of Japan, from a potentially terrible (and occasionally ridiculous) fate.

428 is a visual novel game in the same vein as Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. However, the emphasis here is definitely more on the "novel" part; the game is written out like a lengthy story, with most of the gameplay centering around multiple-choice branches that influence how the characters behave in certain situations. What's also noteworthy is that multiple stories from different characters' points of view run parallel with each other, and if two characters witness the same event, it may affect them in very different ways.

This ties in with the multiple-choice system; sometimes a seemingly insignificant choice you make can have far-reaching effects. For example, if one character runs into the street to avoid pursuers, another character might wind up in a traffic jam caused by resulting car accidents and be late to a meeting. You can also "jump" into the thick of another character's story by highlighting certain onscreen words that tie two characters' stories together, even if they're not in the same location. While zipping around the stories is fun, you also have to be mindful of your decisions, as incorrect choices can often lead to a Bad End that'll force you to jump back in time a bit.

What makes this work so well is that all of the characters are engaging and well-written. Kano is a hardworking, earnest cop who is being distracted by a surprise visit from his would-be father-in-law. Achi's hotheadedness and desire to help Hitomi stems from family drama and his falling-out with a local gang. Minorikawa's a colossal jerk, but he's a jerk that gets results, and his brashness disguises a genuine passion and desire to aid those important to him. Osawa finds himself in a very dark place, questioning his relationships with his family and his business partners in some tense, introspective moments. And Tama… well, her particularly bizarre situation leads her to some unexpected places.

One of the particularly unique and memorable elements of 428 is its use of still photography to illustrate much of the story text. The thousands of real-life photos taken to illustrate the story accentuate the text perfectly, as does the impressive staging and use of close-ups, color, and camera pans. The text is delivered in a way that can't be replicated on the printed page: big, loud words appearing suddenly for emphasis, slow text crawls or fade-ins for tense moments and terrifying revelations. Music and sound effects are also used to highlight particular scenes and events. Occasionally, a clip of FMV or an animated image might show up to emphasize something, such as a serious event or a more comedic moment.

The wonderful blending of text, photo imagery, and sound in 428 is showcased especially well in several scenes throughout Osawa's scenario. Osawa is unbelievably stressed due to Maria's kidnapping and a conflict with his wife, and the combination of clever photo staging, sparse use of sound, and careful text presentation really helps to communicate the anguish he's going through. As he finds himself becoming irritated with the frequent butting-in of a police detective stationed in his home, you start to see intense colors and extreme close-ups in the photos that emphasize the rapidly increasing annoyance he feels. It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.

It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.

The vast majority of the time, the storytelling in 428 is top-notch, drawing you into the character drama and adding an air of tension to your choices. Occasionally there are parts that take you out of the narrative--an oddly misplaced comedic bit after an emotional or action-laden sequence, or a plot contrivance that feels a little too convenient. The game's interface can be a struggle at times as well. If you go back in time to fix some of your bad choices, you may wind up having to replay a chunk of certain scenarios to reach a stopping point you had previously opened, and whether or not the game lets you skip past already-read text seems arbitrary. There are also a fair few text display bugs, a handful of which cause serious formatting problems, and one I encountered actually softlocked the game.

A few bugs, however, don't ruin the game. 428 is a truly rare beast, a special and unique experience that would have once been completely passed over for a Western release. While it's not without its flaws, it's hard to think of many other games that blend text-driven storytelling and well-constructed visuals and sound this well. From the first hour of the in-game day, you'll be riveted by this story's unexpected twists and turns. If you want a story- and character-driven game with a presentation you won’t see anywhere else, 428 is a game not to be missed.

NBA 2K19 Review - Another Year, Another Baller

Wed, 09/12/2018 - 14:00

Every year, NBA 2K comes around to hype up basketball fans for the upcoming season and provide an avenue for living out dreams of dominating the court; this year’s iteration is no different in that regard. NBA 2K19 dishes out what you'd expect from the franchise: accessible yet deep core mechanics that often work just right and occasionally falter. Beyond that, there’s a full roster of ways to enjoy the sport thanks to a robust package of game modes. Unfortunately, microtransactions loom over everything, much like last year’s game, with a problematic system of virtual currency. Still, 2K19 remains an admirable representation of basketball itself.

NBA 2K19 is a basketball simulation at its heart. As with previous games, you're given nearly full control of footwork, ball handling, and defensive maneuvers with the Pro Stick scheme that puts both analog sticks to use. If there's a fundamental move in the sport of basketball, chances are you can pull it off in the game. Moreover, it's advantageous to understand when these fundamentals are most effective. For example, driving to the basket from the post with a quick quarter-circle on the right stick in the proper direction could help you blow by an inside defender; if a big stands in your way in the paint, knowing how to put up a floater gives you a better chance for a bucket than a simple layup. Pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops are simple to draw up and an important tool for executing plays, but they don't guarantee success on every possession; the best players have to adapt to how the field develops.

Much of the game is in your hands, from game plan customization when controlling an entire team to execution on the court when assuming the role as an individual player. It induces a high skill ceiling, especially when playing competitively. Momentum is also manifested in the new Takeover mechanic; if a player catches fire, a few extra moves become available and slight stat boosts are applied for a short time, depending on the player's archetype/position.

We're still getting used to seeing LeBron James in purple and gold.

While it's good to know that you have so much control considering the potential for challenge, it's disappointing when things break down. Of course, you should be punished for mistakes, like over-committing on defense while the opponent exploits an opening with a quick pivot or cut towards the basket. But frustration starts to settle in when there's a lack of responsiveness. Cutting across to lead the defender into a crowd is smart basketball, and if you're the defender, getting stuck on other players without controls appropriately responding to a change in direction highlights some inconsistencies and overall sluggishness in player movement. There are more hits than misses in how NBA 2K19 functions, but the times when it falls apart hold it back from true greatness.

Much of the game is in your hands, from game plan customization when controlling an entire team to execution on the court when assuming the role as an individual player. It induces a high skill ceiling, especially when playing competitively.

NBA 2K19 has the advantage of including top personalities from professional sports media; this includes renowned sideline reporter David Aldridge and the iconic voice of sportscaster Kevin Harlan. It's unfortunate, however, that while 2K has TNT's charismatic crew of knuckleheads from Inside The NBA--Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal, and Ernie Johnson--their part in the game's presentation fails to capture what makes them great broadcasters (it's also missing Charles Barkley). Generally, commentary gets redundant even with specific anecdotes and callouts to players' history. The soundtrack curated by hip-hop artist Travis Scott includes a few of his own songs along with other artists/groups like SOB x RBE, Migos, P-Lo, and Toro y Moi make for a fun vibe throughout the game.

As for game modes, MyCareer takes the spotlight again, combining a personal narrative and an RPG-like progression system around a player you create. Not only do you have to choose your position wisely, but you'll pick out a primary and secondary skillset that carves out specific strengths for your player, much like character classes in an RPG. This new story, dubbed The Way Back, tries for a more heartfelt tone this time around. Your created player goes undrafted after college, and you have to prove yourself in China and in the NBA G-League--it's worth noting that the chapters in China feature authentic Mandarin dialogue and commentary. An old college teammate acts as a throughline, drama follows you everywhere, and betrayal is just around the corner. While it's more gripping than last year's journey at times, it often falls flat due to nonsensical story beats with superficial drama permeating pivotal moments. Despite this, the performances and voice acting from the likes of Haley Joel Osment and Anthony Mackie are top-notch and frequently strike a natural conversational tone; it's a good execution of a bad script. At the very least, it breathes life into your player, providing a backstory that's carried on throughout your time in MyCareer.

There's something special about having your player succeed on an NBA team.

The story mode is just an appetizer in MyCareer, and if you want to get straight to the main course, you can skip cutscenes and simulate outcomes for games. After signing to an NBA team and getting a house to call your own, you're dropped into a slick MMO-like social hub known as The Neighborhood with random players online. From here you have access to several ways to build your player and ball up. Continuing the journey through the NBA will put you through full NBA seasons that sprinkle in a bit of personality by incorporating events from The Way Back--this includes sideline interviews and faux-taped conversations that look true-to-life. You'll work your way to the starting lineup over time after riding the bench for limited minutes on the floor, and it feels pretty good to see my player work up the ranks of the Lakers roster and drop dimes to LeBron James for clutch baskets in close games. Between each game, there are also team practices where you run drills to fine-tune your ability to execute in certain in-game situations, driving home that sense of being part of the team.

Building out your player's stats and rising up in overall rating is satisfying nonetheless, especially since you can't strictly buy your way to maxed-out stats.

Outside of becoming an NBA star, you'll use The Neighborhood to customize your player with sweet tattoos, new kicks, or fresh outfits at shops. More importantly, street ball in The Playground has random roaming players or squads matched up in 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 pick up games. These are a ton of fun with a grounded atmosphere that'll feel home to amateur ballers, but there aren't sensible matchmaking tools to help players join in a snappy way. You can hop into the Jordan Rec Center, which is just as enjoyable, to get matched up, but it can take a while to get going.

The MyCareer ecosystem all feeds into character progression, so you're constantly working towards something and earning rewards whether you spend time in the NBA season or grind away in street ball. But at the end of the day, virtual currency (VC) rules everything around NBA 2K19--VC is used to upgrade stats, buy cosmetics, and purchase boost cards that provide a temporary ratings bump. Despite a slight shift towards rewarding those who grind for VC compared to 2K18, the system still feels as if it prefers you engage in microtransactions and buy VC with real money. It's also a bit tasteless that players can wager VC in basketball matches in the lavish casino-like Ante-Up building that is bordering on gambling.

Building out your player's stats and rising up in overall rating is satisfying nonetheless, especially since you can't strictly buy your way to maxed-out stats. When the general experience bar (MyPoints Cap Breaker) fills up, you unlock the potential for higher ratings in certain skills. But you're required to spend VC to actually acquire those stats, as if VC were skill points.

For something a little different, MyGM offers a visual novel-esque story experience that picks up right where 2K18 left off. It takes your player model and puts them into the role of general manager to essentially build a team from scratch (ahem, or basically bring back the Sonics). MyGM can be a nice change of pace with some hilariously hammy moments and conversation options, but be prepared to read a lot of inane dialogue as none of it is voice acted. You'll make personnel decisions and manage the team's location, but it's less than glamorous with a few inconsequential playable scenarios on occasion.

For those who are into card collecting and building a fantasy team, the MyTeam mode is another avenue to play ball. Here, you start with a modest pool of players from a few card packs to create a lineup, then use them in challenges scenarios and games against NBA teams. You'll earn MT coins, a currency only earned by playing, which is used to purchase additional card packs. But because you can buy card packs with VC, a lot of the grind can be undercut. Aside from that, an extra layer of objectives are set to earn tokens which give you options to pick up NBA stars from the past. It's another significant time investment, but it's neat to make the most of what you're given under the mode's unusual circumstances.

It's impressive that the game of basketball has translated to controllers and screens in the way it has. If you want to immerse yourself in the sport and culture, NBA 2K19 has you covered with a breadth of content. But even that has its limitations after several years of iterations. Although those willing to grind for everything will eventually get rewarded, the system of VC still comes off as exploitative. But there's a lot of fun to be had in NBA 2K19 despite its flaws, especially if you have a strong love for the sport.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 Review - Soar High

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 14:30

Valkyria Chronicles 4 marks a forceful but necessary return to the franchise's strategy roots, much in the vein of resetting a broken bone. The most recent Valkyria Chronicles game in the industry's memory is Valkyria Revolution, which had a decidedly action-RPG outlook and ultimately paid the price for its experimentation. Revolution was a jagged pill to swallow, but Valkyria Chronicles 4 more than redeems the spin-off’s mistakes. It retreads the central thematic conflict of the original Valkyria Chronicles, which makes for a story that is poignant and comedic in turns without losing sight of what made the series so popular to begin with: guts.

You're deposited straight into the hot-seat of the Second Europan War as a Federation soldier, Claude Wallace, with your rag-tag bunch of friends including an adorable dog and a number of potential anime love interests. Unsurprisingly, your enemies are the Imperial Alliance, who all sport quasi-Germanic or Russian names and have an overwhelmingly burgundy color scheme for their uniforms. Any real world resemblances here are likely intentional; this is a fictional take on a world war that we've all read about in some way, shape or form in our own history books. Valkyria Chronicles has always drawn from a hodge-podge of WWI and WWII to create its own canon, and that mix is more pronounced than ever here. The timeline broadly overlaps with that of the first Valkyria Chronicles game, so be prepared to notice mentions of conflicts that series veterans will already be more than familiar with.

The similarities between the two games are much more substantial than that, however. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is alike in almost every single way to the original except in name. The series continues to stay true to its blend of classic artistic European landscapes; there's rolling hills, snowy mountains, and vast bodies of water. The gameplay is still a unique take on traditional strategy RPGs which does away with the grid movement system of stalwarts like Fire Emblem, instead preferring to rely on a mix of turn-based tactics and real-time movement and fighting, creating ample room for reactive play and tense skirmishes. You deploy your troops in advantageous positions, move them until their action points are depleted, and fire at the enemy--it's a satisfying cycle.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 also hones in on the way that the war affects a core group of childhood friends and former innocents, simultaneously decrying violence whilst also thrusting you headfirst into situations where it's unavoidable. It's in those moments, where you're backed into a corner with nowhere to go but through faceless enemy ranks, that the senselessness of the conflict really stands out, and those are some of the game's strongest moments.

Accordingly, making sure that you have a squad that will be able to survive those skirmishes is key to your enjoyment of Valkyria Chronicles 4. You'll take command of a whole host of different soldiers throughout your journey, and each of them is special in their own way. Whether it's a brash Shocktrooper who gets an attack buff when he's around the ladies, or a timid Sniper who can't quite shoot straight when she's alone, each person that you deliver orders to is unique in some way. Soldiers have a chance of activating Potentials based on those personality quirks, which are buffs or debuffs affecting anything from unit accuracy to how terrified they are in the heat of the moment. This leads to plenty of friendly chatter on the battlefield that adds depth to your interactions with troops; in the absence of a formal social link system, these moments feel honest and raw when set against their backdrop of percussive gunfire and chaos.

Chaos is really the name of the game when it comes to the broader military campaign, and your first few fights will probably feel that way until you get used to how the game's battle system handles. Valkyria Chronicle 4's first few hours serve as a lengthy tutorial, and you'll still be learning things even after you're multiple chapters into the main story. Troops work the way you'd expect them to--snipers, anti-tank units, and grenadiers do what they say on the tin, and there will be almost no surprises to those who have played similar Japanese-flavored military titles before. Mechanics are built around things like cover, return fire, and ammo management, and balancing all of those are key to victory. There are some improvements from the original Valkyria Chronicles, primarily in troop variety and quality-of-life niceties, but it isn't a significant overhaul. Getting accustomed to the way the quirks of your soldiers work in battle is the primary challenge of the game, and figuring out just how you can push the combat system to its limits is another. Those who know the system will find it easy to create overpowered combinations of troops, which can trivialize the early to mid-game experience to a point, if you can be clever enough.

The overarching chaos also comes from the enemy's single-minded pursuit of the Federation's destruction, and you'll meet this beast at every turn possible. The Alliance is both an immediate, militaristic threat and an ideological one that overshadows every encounter and every non-combat interlude. It's not just a matter of turning the tide on the SPRG field and winning. The narrative drives you into increasingly hostile and inhospitable situations with odds that appear ever tipped in the Alliance's favor.

You don't have the luxury of picking which battles to fight, and loading into a battle with flames as high as a barn licking at your troops and screaming coming through the static whirr of your communications device is confronting each and every time. On Nintendo Switch, HD rumble is employed smartly with vibration patterns changing depending on the type of weapon used, and sounding off both on impact and when you fire. Immersion can be affected somewhat by small issues with hitboxes, pathing, and line of sight displaying oddly in cramped conditions, but these instances don't really detract from the weighty atmosphere that the game works hard to perpetuate.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 really excels in those sobering moments where it makes tough choices and leaves you to pick up the pieces. You feel like a cog in the Federation war machine because you are merely a cog in the war machine, and the story does a good job of hashing out age-old debates around ethics in wartime, necessary sacrifices, and whether or not there are truly any victors. That being said, the day to day operations of the game doesn't always carry the same big-picture weight, and the pacing is stronger for it. Much of your active time will be spent embroiled in a military conflict of some kind; your superiors point your squad in the direction of something that needs killing, and you do it. Some may see this as a lack of opportunity for true role-playing, but the absence of freedom of choice is arguably necessary in a game where the military hierarchy is a key component of the history that it seeks to reinterpret.

Ultimately, this is a return to form for the Valkyria Chronicles series as a whole. It stays so true to the franchise's first iteration that it'll feel as if almost no time has passed in the decade or so since the original game first came out. In revisiting the concerns and the environments of the first, it makes the most of those parallels and invites comparison in a way that highlights its strengths. Valkyria Chronicles 4 doesn't necessarily tell a new tale, but it doesn't have to; for all of its clichés and expected twists, there's a charm to the game's unwillingness to let up as it drives you and your friends forward at a rapid clip towards its bittersweet end.

Shadow Of The Tomb Raider Review - Guerilla Girl

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 14:00

The Lara Croft who appears in Shadow of the Tomb Raider has made a ton of discoveries, lost a lot of friends, and killed countless living beings. She has incredible drive and self-confidence, and her enemies fear her. It's taken a lot for the character to get to this point, and if you've been along for the ride since her excellent revival in 2013's Tomb Raider, you may be pleased to hear that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the same style of experience we first saw in 2013, only bigger and with more added to it. In fact, there's seemingly very little, if anything, that's changed dramatically or been discarded from the formula. But while that means Shadow retains a lot of the components that give Tomb Raider that fantastic, timeless sense of wonder and discovery, it also means that Tomb Raider's interpretation of blockbuster action-adventure mechanics is starting to feel half a decade old.

It's a little unnerving to spend time with the seasoned Lara of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, because her experience has changed her into a hardened, obsessive, and selfish individual. She's reached true colonizer form, determined to get the game's McGuffin, blind to the collateral damage, much to the concern of her lovable partner Jonah. Her demeanor is reflected in a renewed focus on stealth, where the new mechanics and the jungle setting give Lara the opportunity for Predator-style ambushes. She can cover herself in mud for additional camouflage, string enemies up from a tree, and craft Fear Arrows, which cause humans to freak out and attack each other. You're also now able to transition back into stealth after being discovered, provided you can get away and break line of sight. There's a big emphasis on these new abilities, as tooltips throughout the entire game will continually remind you that they exist. But while her expanded skillset gives you more options to confidently and quietly hunt everyone on the map, it also highlights the cracks and inconsistencies in Tomb Raider's enemy logic and the limitations of the game's relatively unsophisticated core stealth mechanics.

Sound still does not play a significant factor in Tomb Raider's stealth. While firing at someone and throwing objects will draw attention, moving through rustling vegetation and making loud footsteps don't seem to phase anyone even though the game suggests that it will, nor will taking out a soldier right behind another with his back turned, but those rules also seem malleable. There were times when my attempted stealth approach went wrong, a gunfight broke out, and after the dust settled I was shocked to discover an additional patrol of guards in the same area, only a few seconds away from the action, carrying on with a conversation as if nothing had happened.

Lara's Survival Instincts ability once again will give you information on which enemies are safe to quietly take down without alerting others, but it can also reveal puzzling inconsistencies in enemy AI. There were too many times where I was able to get away with taking out a guard with one of his coworkers staring right at us, only meters away. Other times, the game will tell you it's unsafe to take out an enemy because of someone with line-of-sight halfway across the arena. You can't always trust your own perception of the map, even if it seems obvious, and using Survival Instincts feels necessary to constantly verify that the game agrees with your idea of what is safe or unsafe--expect to be taking out a lot of bright yellow men in monochromatic environments. When playing on Tomb Raider's hard combat difficulty, which removes enemy highlights, this uncertain behavior makes stealth tougher than you might think.

The new abilities also have their quirks. Though camouflaging yourself with mud rightly makes you harder to notice, you can abuse it to the extent where you can roll right under the nose of a guard--it's thrilling for you, but makes you pity the enemy. Mud is also typically available at the onset of major stealth sections, or very close to hiding spots that require it, making the mechanic feel more like an innate ability rather than a tactical option you need to seek out. Fear arrows have disappointingly varied results, too. More than a few times I would find myself stalking a patrol of men from a tree, shoot a fear arrow at the shotgun-toting soldier, and watch as he proceeded to miss every point-blank shot.

There's still some satisfaction to be gained in Shadow's stealth, though. Waiting with bated breath for patrols to move on, and figuring out the order in which to eliminate guards like some kind of violent logic puzzle, is still enjoyable. But the new mechanics don't really add anything significantly interesting to that baseline experience--the big spotlight on them suggests a more sophisticated stealth system that isn't there. You get the feeling that Lara is a cold-blooded predator, that much is true. But it's not satisfying when the prey is so dumb and easy.

There's a cutscene in Shadow of the Tomb Raider that mirrors Lara's first kill in her 2013 outing--in both, she's caught off-guard by a soldier and is thrown to the ground. But despite being at a severe disadvantage, the 2018 Lara confidently blocks and counters his attacks, and when she eventually kills him, there's no emotion on her face. She barely even sighs. The game wants you to know that this Lara is fearsome. However, this depiction is betrayed by her actual abilities in the game's toe-to-toe combat, where it's often tough to get Lara to act like that efficient killing machine.

The game's guerilla angle calls for more close-and-personal encounters, and the greater number of small combat arenas means that when things get hostile, soldiers close the distance quickly. Additionally, there are new melee enemies who focus on rushing you down with overwhelming numbers. Tomb Raider's existing combat mechanics do not service this particular style of hostilities well. Lara's dodges are still the hurried scuttle and roll from her early days as an amateur survivor, and her climbing axe is still largely ineffective as a melee option--most enemies will simply dodge her knockdown attempts, especially on harder combat difficulties. Melee doesn't become a viable close-quarters tactic until you unlock a dodge and counter skill later in the game, and most of the weapons in Lara's arsenal are inefficient as close-range keep-away tools until the events of the story give you a shotgun.

Additionally, Shadow of the Tomb Raider still doesn't communicate damage direction--if you're getting overwhelmed and are being attacked from the sides or behind, you won't know exactly where from, meaning it's more difficult to make smart evasive maneuvers on the fly. With so few certainties and reliable tools to assist you in close-quarters combat, these encounters typically result in making Lara scurry clumsily in whichever direction doesn't have enemies coming from it and frantically trying to create enough space to effectively use your weapons.

When Shadow throws you into its few mid-range combat encounters, though, the difference becomes clear. Fighting suppressing fire, scampering from cover to cover, throwing improvised Molotov cocktails, and pinging out headshot after headshot after headshot feels empowering. The combat mechanics feel much more suited to these scenarios, as was the case in previous games, and it's only here where Lara can feel like the ice-cold killer queen she has become.

But the game keeps reverting back to close-quarters encounters, and there is one battle that's particularly frustrating and seemingly never-ending. One enemy will charge at you relentlessly, teleport if you create distance, and has a large, damaging area-of-effect attack which Lara's double dodge will only just avoid. Other enemies in this battle can also, unfairly, knock you off the side of the level, but you can't do the same to them. The environment is not your friend, and it's an infuriating way to remember a grand adventure.

What the environments are, though, is beautiful. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is nothing if not a gorgeous game, and it features some stellar level design, both aesthetically and mechanically. Exploring the impressively dense locations in Mexico and Peru is a joy. Jungles feel imposing and endless, ruined tombs are intricately detailed, hub cities are enormous and lively, and it's easy to be completely distracted by discovering new paths and areas. Hunting down the game's artifacts, treasure chests, and numerous other collectibles--however meaningless you might think they are--is also still enjoyable, as they give you a reason to go sightseeing. There's a lot of emphasis on underwater exploration in Shadow, too. And while underwater sections can be frustrating as part of story missions (instant-kill piranhas that require you to hide in seaweed get old fast), it's hard to resist swan-diving into a huge body of water when you get a chance to explore on your own.

But it's Shadow of the Tomb Raider's numerous challenge tombs and crypts that are the undisputed stars of the show. The impressive design of ancient mechanisms and the obscure solutions to using them and unlocking the path forward feel amazing to decipher after minutes of head-scratching. Some of the answers can appear straightforward if you've tackled a number of these in the past, but it's always satisfying to watch the complex parts come together regardless. Shadow of the Tomb Raider also rewards you for completing these activities with exclusive skills and gear, making them more than worth your time.

Traversing the treacherous environments in these tombs, as well as during the game's story missions, is thrilling in its own right too. Despite there always being an expected sense of peril, the designs of Lara's foolhardy paths between locations never gets old--there's always some kind of dicey maneuver at a terrifying height that makes you hold your breath.

But these exciting traversal puzzles also feature their own unique moments of frustration, because though the locations have changed since 2013, Lara's platforming ability has seemingly not. Her jumps across gaps still feel floaty and inconsistent, meaning she'll sometimes get a mysteriously divine boost in the air to make sure she latches onto a faraway edge, but sometimes she might not grab onto a ledge at all even if she's easily cleared the gap. The same goes for tool-related maneuvers--there were enough instances where Lara completely (and amusingly) whiffed a grapple axe or zip-line that caused her to plummet to her death, prompting me to check that my controller was still connected and that I still had my primary motor functions. Her jumps and traversal maneuvers still feel loose in general and lack a strong sense of weight, which makes them feel imprecise--the way she unconvincingly flops her climbing axes directly into solid rock faces after jumping onto them always raises an eyebrow.

Altogether, these elements bring a dire uncertainty to Shadow's more demanding traversal sections--every time you try and make a jump, it's a gamble. The result you get after jumping the first time might not be the one you're supposed to get. But while that adds to the perilous nature of the task, and everything works out fine most of the time, it's annoying when it doesn't. It's especially demoralizing while playing on the hard exploration difficulty, which completely removes the subtle white paint that hints at the forward path. This difficulty setting is great--having to pay such close attention to your surroundings is engrossing, and there's a small pang of delight and relief every time you discover the first step. But sometimes you'll try a jump, the right jump, and Lara won't latch onto the ledge for whatever reason. Because you don't know any better, it discourages you from trying the jump again until you've pointlessly tried every single other option and decide to come back to it. When you can't completely trust Lara's abilities to jump and grab a ledge that she's supposed to jump and grab, that's a problem. It's these kinds of moments make you incredibly frustrated that Tomb Raider's core platforming mechanics don't seem to have been refined in the past five years.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider adds so many more pieces to the formula of previous games, but there are also so many little things that it just doesn't quite land. The game's obsession with collecting crafting materials has only become more profuse--there are now 21(!) different items to gather--causing everything to seem less valuable and the act of gathering them to be more of a chore. The side quests are poorly paced, as each will lead off with roughly 10 minutes of fetch quests across the game's huge hubs and watching talking heads before getting to the meat of things, making it easy to lose motivation. The game has an option for immersive voiceovers which causes NPCs to speak in their native languages, but Lara continues to speak to everyone in English, which feels like a missed opportunity.

And perhaps most sad of all is the fact that Lara herself, with her single-minded selfishness, is a harder character to empathize with in Shadow. Her attitudes and obsessions are intertwined with the game's plot, and you might find yourself in disagreement with her a lot, which is a big deal when trying to overlook the flaws in her abilities. Jonah is the one you'll be rooting for in this game because he acts as Lara's centre, he'll likely echo a lot of your own sentiments, and he has a more sympathetic arc. It's a shame that the Lara you grew so incredibly fond of in the Tomb Raider reboot, and the scrappy skills you used to help her survive Yamatai, have both grown to be some of the most frustrating parts of her latest adventure. Shadow of the Tomb Raider makes you long for the days of a Lara that was easier to empathize with, where being inexperienced and imprecise made sense, and there was only one crafting resource to gather.

Thankfully, the parts of Tomb Raider that make it really fantastic--uncovering the mystery of ancient ruins, solving impressive challenge tombs, and exploring exotic environments--are still here in Shadow, and they are just as outstanding as they have always been. But the core mechanics that have been with the series for half a decade are starting to show their limitations. Making the journey to Shadow of the Tomb Raider's peaks is certainly an attractive goal, but like the challenging terrain Lara needs to traverse, the path there is getting rougher and more unpredictable.

NBA Live 19 Review: Dribbling Forward

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 05:01

With tight controls, a more engaging career mode, numerous reasons to invest in your character, and fine attention to detail, NBA Live 19 is a surprisingly big drive forward in many aspects for EA's pro basketball franchise. However, its numerous animation and AI issues and lack of significant updates to Franchise mode make the newest entry ultimately feel like only an iterative update on last year's game.

Basketball is a fast and fluid game, and NBA Live 19 excels in replicating this on the court. The game uses the Real Player Motion technology that EA implemented in Madden NFL 19, and this helps make player movement and animations look better and more realistic. There are a number of impressive details that NBA Live 19 replicates authentically, including the transition from jog to run to sprint, how bodies collide when you drive the lane, and the way a player falls to the ground in embarrassment when they get their ankles broken by a well-timed crossover. Players jockeying for position in the post or making a quick cut to get free for a shot look better than ever, while defenders closely guarding an opponent with their hands replicate the kinds of motions you'd see on TV. What's more, player-specific moves, like Steph Curry's step-back jumpshot and Joel Embiid's windmill dunk are all brought into the game with a fine attention to detail. The player models are for the most part more realistic-looking.

The animations have their ugly side, though. Bounce-passes almost never look right, with the ball zipping to the recipient at an inhumanly fast pace and sometimes at impossible angles. During some free throw animations, the player may grip the ball in a way that science says would prevent them from releasing it cleanly or at all. There are also odd sequences related to AI logic. AI players can make strange decisions like fouling on threes consistently and making obviously errant and silly passes. There were also times when AI players would stand in the paint and get called for three-second violations as if they didn't know it would get whistled. These abnormalities are unfortunately common, and take you out of the game.

On the brighter side, NBA Live 19 impressively captures the atmosphere of professional games and basketball culture in general. In professional games, the crowd noise soars when you make a big shot; shoes squeak as players enter scramble for position; players slam into the stanchion after a big play; and you hear the announcer talking about everyone getting free pizza or tacos if the home team scores X number of points. It's impressively close to what you'd see on an NBA broadcast. Street games also faithfully capture a very different subset of basketball culture. There is something special about playing outdoors, and NBA Live nails the presentation of its blacktop courts and atmosphere of fans crowded around the edges trying to get a glimpse. One of the nice new tweaks is that the camera cuts to a cell phone video of someone in the crowd livestreaming the game after big plays. These changes and improvements contribute to an impressive presentation package that pulls you in.

The controls in NBA Live 19 are relatively simple but contain enough depth to give you ample opportunity to play with your own style. Moving the ball around to create scoring lanes is a fine way to play, but there's room to emphasize more stylish and exciting moves. Ankle-breaking crossovers, behind-the-back dribbles, step-backs, and spin moves can all be performed with the flick of a stick in the right direction at the right time. It's also nice that the game recognizes when you're in the paint or when a hole opens up, and it guides you toward making the right play under the circumstances at hand. In past games, you might have pulled up for a jumper two feet away from the rack, but now the game better understands where you are in the key and turns it into a layup or dunk. Executing a play requires strategy and timing, and it all feels fluid as your teammates will, for the most part, make smart cuts to get free. It's up to you to recognize those cuts and runs and make a pass at the right time. NBA Live 19's on-the-court gameplay is the best it has ever been.

NBA Live 19's broadcast presentation is one of its strongest components. The game continues to use the ESPN license, which brings the big-time sports network's graphics, trademark music, and commentator Jalen Rose to the game for halftime highlights and breakdowns in a further bid for realism that enhances the experience. What's more, EA brought in a new commentary team for NBA Live 19 composed of Ed Cohen, who does play-by-play for the New York Knicks in real life, and former Chicago Bulls player Jay Williams. They have a natural-sounding and mostly pleasing back-and-forth, with Cohen making precise comments about statistics, positions, and schemes in his play-by-play role and Williams on color making quips that draw from his years of playing experience. The commentary eventually grows stale, sadly, and this is particularly apparent when playing in Franchise mode where you stick with the same players all the time. Did you know that Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes grew up in Australia playing rugby, and that contributes to the physical nature of his play style? You will, as Williams repeats this line again and again. As it does with the Madden series, EA plans to update NBA Live 19's commentary throughout the season to keep things fresh, and that's fortunate because new and different lines are what the game needs.

One of the most substantial and noteworthy additions to last year's game was the career mode, The One, where you create an amateur player and build them into a superstar. It returns in NBA Live 19 and genuinely feels like it has improved with a globe-trotting story, a deep new mode called Court Battles and the ability to create your own court.

Your journey in The One takes you to notable real-world street courts like Tenement Square in the Philippines, Cherashore Playground in Philadelphia, Quai 54 in Paris, and Parque De Rio in Brazil. The diversity of courts and their related aesthetics--like the Eiffel Tower in the background and colourful structures in Brazil--give you the sense that you're going on a journey as you try to become, well, the one. There are also some fun narrative choices you can make with your mentor and agents, including playful banter about your performance on the court as well as more substantial decisions, like where you want to compete next. This kind of control helps you feel more connected to the player you create and more attached to their journey.

Progression in The One is akin to an RPG where you'll spend skill to increase attributes like passing, rebounding, dribbling, and shooting. In the early stages, you'll notice deficiencies in your player; they might lack dribbling skills to blow by a defender with a finesse move or be unable to catch-and-shoot as fast and effectively as a more accomplished player could. Toughing it out and cutting your teeth in early games, then eventually upgrading your skills to become a more well-rounded player, makes The One's progression system feel rewarding. On the customization side, the character creator finally lets you make a female character, which was a notable absence from last year.

Winning tournaments in The One lets you recruit NBA and WNBA players to your team, and it's a wonderful fantasy fulfillment for basketball fans to build a team of players that can be comprised of any professional player. Another noteworthy element is The League, which sees you taking your created character through the NBA Combine to Draft Day and eventually to the NBA where you can play a full season as your fantasy character on any team you want, and it's exciting to play as your created character alongside NBA superstars.

One of NBA Live 19's deepest modes is the card-collecting Ultimate Team, which fans of EA Sports games will know well. There are a mountain of fantasy challenges available right at the start--more than one thousand in all. had fun earning new players and completing the challenges, but the overall experience feels very grindy. To build your team you can slog away at these challenges or pay real money for "NBA Points" to buy new players that you can use immediately. The Store page where you can buy NBA Points is front and center in the Ultimate Team menus, and this feels like an unnecessary and gross, if unsurprising, push towards microtransactions.

Franchise mode sees some noteworthy new updates, including a pre-draft preview, while the introduction of "Bird Rights" expands and improves on last year's shallow contract negotiation options. However, with no player editor or online functionality, Franchise remains a barebones experience that comes nowhere close to what EA's other sports games offer.

NBA Live 19 also offers numerous online modes including the standard head-to-head matches and deeper, more interesting ones such as Live Run and Live Events. In these, you team up with other players online to take on co-op challenges like winning street court games in 3v3 and 5v5 setups. In addition to acquiring more progression points for your character, you can earn customization items for yourself and your court by completing these challenges. Part of what I like so much about playing basketball in real life is the community aspect of playing together with friends--or strangers--on a court down the street. NBA Live 19 captures that feeling and delivers a rewarding experience for engaging in it.

NBA Live 19 is a capable and competent basketball game that offers a multitude of different ways to play and numerous reasons to keep coming back. Its impressive attention to detail complements the strong foundation set by its presentation and gameplay. However, the AI logic and animation problems are impossible to ignore given they're at the heart of the experience the entire game is based on. These issues, combined with a lackluster franchise mode and a push towards microtransactions, detract from what is an otherwise solid basketball game.

Two Point Hospital Review - Laughter Is The Best Medicine

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 22:08

Back in 1997, Theme Hospital laughed us all back to health with its acutely tongue-in-cheek approach to hospital management simulation. 21 years later, Two Point Hospital pulls at the same nostalgic heart strings, channeling Theme Hospital’s brand of brash, British humour and mixing it with some surprisingly deep economic management gameplay. Two Point Hospital simultaneously pays homage to its predecessor while surgically carving out its own place in your heart.

Two Point Hospital puts you behind the administrator’s desk and charges you with both the grander and finer aspects of managing your new hospital empire, from designing the internal layout of each building down to hiring staff and researching treatments. You’ll start out small with only a single hospital and a handful of illnesses to worry about treating and slowly build your way up towards managing larger locations with multiple buildings and a vast range of wacky illnesses that require special rooms and equipment to treat. Its goofy style--bright colours and characters with big, bulbous heads--belies the depth of its management simulation, finding a good balance between both aspects. Helpful tutorials in each mission ease you into the concepts behind new objectives at a comfortable pace, and as you complete them, you’ll earn stars to unlock new missions as well as room types.

For your hospital to run smoothly and make lots of money, patients need to be diagnosed and then treated as quickly as possible. For some that means a quick trip to the GP’s office, then a jab in the injection room. But for most, this means long stays and visits between different rooms for tests and eventual treatment. For these patients, as well as your staff, you’ll need to make sure there’s plenty of things around to keep their mood up, placing importance on how you make use of your space. Getting it right can make the difference between having the best reputation in the business, or causing an innumerable number of patient deaths, dropping your reputation and bank balance into the toilet. Helpfully, you’re given lots of colourful graphs and floor charts to work out what needs improvement, so you’re not left out in the cold trying to work out why all your patients are rage-quitting and storming out the hospital doors before being treated.

The tools for drawing out rooms and placing furnishings feel intuitive and robust; rooms are drawn out like blueprints on a floor plan, then once you’re happy with the layout you can place your items like desks, bookshelves and coffee machines. Items help add prestige to a room, and are unlocked using Kudosh, a reward currency that’s awarded for completing objectives. The larger the room and the more you fill it with items, the higher its prestige and happier staff and patients will be when using it, meaning staff work longer and for less money and patients will pay you more. This creates an interesting dichotomy between saving available space for a bigger variety of rooms, or building larger, higher-level rooms and seeing the effects that both have on your staff and patients.

Later missions go out of their way to shake up the established gameplay loop by throwing machine-damaging natural disasters like storms and earthquakes at you. You need to draw on everything you’ve learned up to that point as mission objectives broaden and your funds start to spread thin. You also have to consider the mind-boggling number of different treatment rooms to research and prioritise which to build and which patients to turn away. While some diseases only require a pharmacy to cure, others require their own rooms with expensive equipment, and putting all your money into the wrong treatments could leave your bank account reeling.

Thankfully anything that’s researched in one mission becomes available in all others, so if you get stuck somewhere and don’t have the funds to research what you need, you can always go back to a previous hospital and get them to front the research bill instead. This grander focus across all your hospitals extends to a light multiplayer portion in the form of leaderboards. All of your stats like cure rates, money earned and reputation are saved to online leaderboards, where you can compare your successes and failures against your friends. It’s only good for bragging rights, but it’s a nice addition regardless.

Part of Two Point Hospital’s overwhelming charm is its sense of humor, which permeates every corner of the game, from the fantastically funny radio station--complete with fake ads and feature segments--to the pun-laden disease names like Jest Infection or 8-bitten. Someone suffering Mock Star shuffles about with the look and swagger of Freddie Mercury, requiring a session with the psychiatrist to pull them out of it. Equally funny are the contraptions used to cure some of the rarer conditions. The Extract-a-Pan treats Pandemic and is a giant magnet on the end of a tube that pulls the pan off the top of the patient's head. The writing throughout is sharp and witty, with the descriptions of various ailments being a particular high point.

But just discovering those diseases and their often darkly funny symptoms, as well as watching your staff and patients go about their day, feels rewarding enough. Everything moves with the look and flow of a cartoon pantomime; patients will die only to come back as ghosts and haunt your hallways until a janitor can come along and suck them up with a vacuum cleaner. At one point my receptionist got up from his desk, vomited in front of patients because he was disgusted by something, then left to pour a coffee in the break room before demanding a pay raise. It nails the Theme Hospital nostalgia and is so good that even the 20th time you hear the announcer ask patients “not to die in the hallways” is hilarious.

Part of Two Point Hospital’s overwhelming charm is its sense of humor, which permeates every corner of the game.

The one area where the game does suffer is in the minor grind of starting a brand-new hospital for each new mission. After spending hours perfecting several locations, going through the early phases of a new hospital starts to feel more like a chore than it should. It’s not a long process, but it quickly becomes a section you want to rush through to get to the things you haven’t seen yet.

It’s remarkable that it’s taken so long for a spiritual successor to Theme Hospital to show up, but now that it’s here, it feels like it’s been well worth the wait. The exaggerated, cartoon look and relaxed approach to management make it inviting enough for most players, while the deeper aspects of its economy are enough to keep seasoned players engaged. Two Point Hospital not only re-works an old formula into something modern and enjoyable, it also iterates on the classic brand of irresistible charm and wit, making something that’s truly wonderful.

Destiny 2: Forsaken Review In Progress - Story Time

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 04:14

A year after Destiny 2's launch, its third expansion, Forsaken, is now live. I've played around 12 hours so far, completing the story missions, trying the new Strikes, and messing around in the new Gambit mode. Like with the base game--and unlike with the previous two expansions, Curse of Osiris and Warmind--there's a lot to sink your teeth into in Forsaken at launch. Stay tuned for updates as we go and the final review once the Raid drops.

If you played the last two expansions, you shouldn't have too much trouble coming back in. I started the Forsaken campaign at 337 power and was able to fight my way up to over 460 by the end of it, helped along by grinding Heroic Strikes and Gambit matches. As usual, the solo grind is the toughest, while Fireteams of two or three can run the story missions cooperatively to speed up the process (even if you're all underleveled). For newcomers, you'll be able to auto-level one character and start the Forsaken campaign right away, though you have to own all the previous content to actually play.

Forsaken isn't necessarily the best entry point for new players, though, mostly because you won't care about the story at all if you don't know who Cayde-6 is. His death is the catalyst for your whole journey, and the goal this time isn't saving the world; it's revenge. But if you do like him at all, it's Destiny 2's most engaging story yet. The crux of the campaign is hunting the eight Barons, powerful boss-like enemies from the new Scorn race, who helped kill Cayde. The Fallen hate the Scorn, too, which puts you in a shady partnership with a mob boss of an alien named Spider who can help you track them down (for a price). The darker motive is refreshing after taking on the objectively, obviously evil Red Legion in the base game, and the boss-focused structure cuts down on the busy work that plagues other Destiny 2 campaigns.

Each of the Barons has their own style and traits, with some being more memorable than others. The Rider is, unsurprisingly, a big vehicle fan, and you spend most of that mission and fight zipping around an open-ish area on a Pike instead of locked in an arena. The Trickster's level is rife with bombs that look like engrams and a lot of creepily playful taunting. A few of the Baron missions follow the more traditional Destiny level structure, with minions to mow down until you reach the boss room. All together, it's an interesting and rewarding campaign--it has both variety and an overall sense of cohesion, and each step feels significant in building toward the conclusion.

The new Scorn enemies are a welcome addition, too, and feel distinct from the other enemy types. They generally move quickly and can overwhelm you if you're not careful; one crab-like type scuttles around and explodes upon dying, while another charges you with a flaming mace-like weapon and is very intimidating up close. You don't have to change up your approach too much, but learning to fight them--finding their critical points and figuring out how to maneuver around swarms of them--further sets Forsaken's missions apart.

Though we haven't had too much time to dive into Forsaken's new weapons and gear, the new weapons system, which launched just ahead of the expansion, can force you to try new things. The cost of infusion is higher than before, so if you're trying to go as quickly as possible to get Raid-ready, you'll have to give up your old exotics and legendaries for basic gear that drops at the new, higher power levels. The standout addition is the combat bow; it's surprisingly powerful, versatile, and very fun to use. You can shoot accurately from impressively long distances if you hold down the trigger, and you can do decent rapid-fire damage up close, helping the new weapon type hold its own among flashier space guns.

New Strikes are always welcome for those who are tired of running the same ones, but the Forsaken Strikes (including the PS4 exclusive) aren't terribly different from any other Strike--you kill a bunch of mid-tier enemies and then fight a boss. Like in Destiny 2 as a whole, Strikes become more interesting with Nightfall modifiers that increase the teamwork necessary for success.

The better side activity is the new Gambit mode. It's largely cooperative PvE with the occasional PvP twist; you're split into two teams in mostly separate maps, racing to collect and bank a certain number of motes from fallen enemies, and if conditions are right, one team member can "invade" the other team's map to screw with their progress. I still have to play it more to see if it can really keep my interest, but it's a creative combination of elements that are usually kept separate in Destiny 2.

After being let down by Curse of Osiris and Warmind, I'm enjoying Destiny 2 again. The biggest question right now is how long that will last, but there's plenty to keep me occupied before the Raid drops.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 Review - Definitive Edition Update

Thu, 09/06/2018 - 00:53

Editor's note: We originally reviewed Divinity: Original Sin II in September 2017, when it received a 10/10. This review has been amended to reflect our experience with the Definitive Edition on PS4, which is (unsurprisingly) also a 10. You can find our impressions of the new content, console controls, and more at the bottom of the existing review. -- 9/5/18

About midway through Divinity: Original Sin II's campaign when it was first released on PC, I was called on to visit the family farm of a heroic colleague named Gareth. On arrival, I found him mourning his murdered parents and calling on me to help him take revenge. Pretty standard RPG stuff.

But when I went to the farmhouse in search of the killers, I was greeted by paladins who prevented me from going inside. I tried to change their minds during dialogue with the in-game persuasion skill. No dice. I was facing a brick wall with this quest. The only choice I had was to kill the paladins. So that's exactly what I did. But after I stepped over their bodies to proceed into the farmhouse, I discovered that the murderers inside were possessed innocents. No way of releasing them from this magical mental bondage presented itself. The most expeditious way of moving forward with the quest was to kill them. I did that…and then discovered a love letter from a possessed woman to one of the paladins that had stopped me at the door.

Hello, guilt. It took me a long time to get over how bad I felt about killing these people. Part of me wanted to load a save and replay it all. But my victims were already dead. Going back and trying to change what I'd done wouldn't wash the blood from my hands. I eventually moved forward and went on to kill a lot more people in even more heartbreaking ways. Still, I never forgot this scene at the farmhouse, because that was an "innocence lost" moment that opened my eyes to how affective and surprising Divinity II: Original Sin can be.

I don't know if I've ever felt so emotionally wrapped up in a game and its characters, and pulling at your heartstrings is not all that the game does well. Larian Studios has crafted one of the finest role-playing epics of all time, both in its original form on PC and in its Definitive Edition released for PC, PS4, and Xbox One (for specific comments on this version of the game, see the bottom of this review). Meaningful choices, evocative writing, and superb acting in the fully voiced script make for a wholly believable world. The detailed and free-flowing combat engine provides challenging and rewarding turn-based tactical battles that add tension to every action. Character depth includes seemingly endless options for creation, customization, and growth, making every member of your party more of a real individual than the usual collection of buffs and numbers found in most RPGs.

As with its predecessor from 2014, Divinity: Original Sin II's setting remains the D&D-infused fantasy land of Rivellon, but the clock has been moved forward centuries from the original game so you don't need any familiarity with the backstory to quickly get up to speed with what's going on. You take on the role of a Sourceror, a name referring to those that draw arcane power from a mystic material called Source. This substance is controversial in Rivellon, because using it seems to inadvertently summon interdimensional monsters known as Voidwoken. Deploy Source powers and these bizarre creatures show up to kill everyone in sight. Because of this, you're viewed as a danger to society by the Magisters, a governing body of inquisitors and warriors who claim to serve the Divine Order and protect society by rounding up and "curing" Sourcerors.

The story begins with you and the other members of your four-person party (that's the maximum--you can play with any number of companions or even go solo) being sent off to the island prison of Fort Joy with Source-blocking collars around your necks. You soon realize that you have a greater destiny to fulfill, however. Much of this is tied to your past role in a war serving Lucian, sort of a god-king whose legacy has been taken up by Alexander, his son who now leads the Magisters. Eventually, you and the other members of your party discover that you are Godwoken, demigods who have a chance to ascend and basically replace the seven gods under threat by creatures from the Void.

This epic saga is a big undertaking. Expect to use up the better part of 60 to 70 hours to complete the main quest line and a good portion of the many side quests. The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs. Moral ambiguity is with you every step of the way as you progress from a prison boat to Fort Joy, to the sandy beaches and forests of Reaper's Coast, to the tropical Nameless Isle, and finally the besieged city of Arx.

But while you start off with persecuted Sourcerors on one side and oppressive Magisters on the other, events soon carry you into a world of unrelenting grey where most people are trying to do the right thing, yet failing miserably. Some Sourcerors are criminals. Some Magisters are conflicted about what they are doing and want to change the system. Voidwoken may have good reasons behind their actions in Rivellon. Gods have enough hidden agendas that mortals may be better off without them. Even the paladin faction that shows up in the game as heroes turns into blinkered zealots, overseeing the siege of a city, leaving bodies overflowing atop buckling wooden carts in their wake.

Basically, nobody can be trusted or measured at face value; not even your comrades, as only one of you can ascend to godhood. You're left wide open when it comes to determining a course of action, with very few moments forcing you down a particular path. Play good, play evil, play something in between. This approach is incredibly freeing. It lets you guide your character and party according to your own moral compass, or lack of one. I don't believe I've felt this attuned to a role-playing experience since I played pen-and-paper D&D many years ago.

The story isn't just extensive, though; it's detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs.

Freedom with character design and development really boosts this feeling. Character depth is tremendous, and with every hero in the game comes with a wide range of core attributes plus civil abilities, combat abilities, skills, talents, Source abilities, and more. Five racial choices blend the expected--humans and dwarves--with the offbeat--elves who consume body parts and self-conscious undead who hide their faces to avoid scaring NPCs.

You can roll your own protagonist or choose from one of six predefined characters representing each race. Each one comes with a specialized storyline that immerses you deeper into the saga. Even then, you're allowed a free hand to customize everything. You're even able to tell those joining your party what sort of adventurer you'd like them to be. Next to standard classes such as Fighters and Clerics are more innovative options such as Metamorphs and Shadowblades, and a slew of talents that dictate even more nuanced capabilities. So if you want to take on, say, the arrogant lizard Red Prince or the sinister elf Sebille, you're not locked into a set class as you would be in most RPGs.

At a glance, combat is not much different from many computer RPGs. Battles are turn-based, with an allotment of action points governing your decisions. But Divinity: Original Sin II differs from its peers by consistently taking terrain and environmental elements into consideration. Pools of water can be frozen into slippery sheets of ice. High ground gives boosts to damage and low ground restricts it. And enemies turn these battlefield features into advantages, too. Hang out too close to a pool of oil and you can guarantee that an opponent will set it on fire. Evil archers and spellcasters always run or teleport to high locations so that they can snipe from relative safety.

As a result, battles are damn tough. You may have to play and lose some battles at least once in order to assess how the enemy can strike and determine a way to counter their advances. Thankfully, there are a number of difficulty options that let you control the pace of victory. The Explorer option nerfs enemies and boosts heroes to emphasize story over combat difficulty, so you get the flavor of the game without the serious challenge. Classic is the standard mode of play--tough but not insanely challenging. Tactician ups everything a little more, and Honor is the ultimate challenge, where you have just one save slot that gets deleted if everyone is killed. There is something here for just about every level of commitment and ability.

Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

I freewheeled in Classic mode as I went, directing characters into roles and training them based on what worked best in battle. Character progression felt as if I was moulding real warriors through an adventure, pitfalls and all. I truly empathized with my party, to the point that I couldn't let any of them go later on to try one of the other heroes on offer, like the witty and talented undead Fane. There's one reason for a replay, but it's not the only one.

Quest design in Divinity: Original Sin II is closer to a pen-and-paper feel than any computer RPG that I've ever played. The biggest reason for this is that you can screw up. An NPC can be randomly killed, shutting down a quest before it starts. Sometimes you simply cannot succeed at a skill check necessary to move a particular adventure along in the way you desire. Failing persuasion checks, as noted above in that farmhouse story, is fairly routine, forcing you to figure out another way forward and damn the consequences. Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

Quests are not perfect, though. The journal system of tracking them isn't nearly robust enough to keep up with how many you have going at any given time. You can't search it, and even worse, key elements are frequently not included in the text descriptions. As a result of this quest confusion, I got lost more often than I should have. I spent too much time not sure what I was supposed to be doing due to vague journal entries, or wandering around searching for a key location that for reasons unknown was not noted on the map. I know some will believe this to be a good thing, that we finally have a serious RPG that doesn't hold the hands of its players. But this issue seems more like a disconnect between how quests are offered up during the game and how they are tracked in the journal than any commitment to old-school difficulty.

In addition to the expansive single-player campaign, you can also play with friends cooperatively or dive into an even truer pen-and-paper role-playing simulation with Game Master mode--a section of the game that can live on potentially longer than Divinity's own campaign. This is the kind of game that you're best off playing online with friends; the involved story and the necessity to use teamwork in combat make the game too challenging if you're adventuring with uncooperative strangers.

All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II.

All of the above has been enhanced with the release of the Definitive Edition of Divinity: Original Sin II, which also sees the game making its console debut on PS4 and Xbox One. Larian Studios was kind to PC owners as well, offering a free upgrade that lets you launch either the original or new versions (old saves are not compatible with the new game). This revamp makes it worthwhile to play one of the greatest RPGs of the past few years all over again. Comprehensive work has refined the plot, quest journal, interface, balance, difficulty, and more. New content has been added, like new encounters in Arx, an expanded tutorial, more informative tool tips, new battles, and a Story mode (which lowers difficulty) for those who want more adventuring and less reloading.

The console version of the Definitive Edition is an almost entirely seamless port of the original PC game. I have to admit that I had my doubts playing the game on PS4 due to concerns about navigating such a complex RPG without the benefit of mouse and keyboard. But Larian has done a superb job of moving the control system to a gamepad. Everything can be accessed readily, mostly using the left stick and the shoulder buttons to open a radial menu where you access character stats, equipment, inventory, skills, and so forth. While this control system lacks the immediacy offered by a cursor and keyboard hotkeys, it is remarkably smooth and soon becomes intuitive.

My only lingering gripe would be with using the control bars for abilities, gear, and spells during combat. You need to flip past a lot of icons over five pages to access all of the skills that your characters need to utilize in order to survive the game's demanding tactical combat. At the same time, the game's mechanics are simply too big to convert from the standard mouse-and-keyboard combo to a gamepad with just a handful of buttons and not encounter some awkwardness.

Other altered elements cut down the amount of busy work required when adventuring through this vast game. The user interface has been enlarged for TV screens, making everything clearer and more distinct. Inventories now encompass the entire party on a single screen, making it easy to check out all of your gear and handle common tasks like learning new skills from books. Items can be transferred between party members with a couple of button presses. Holding down the X button on the PS4 allows you to search large sections of the landscape on a single screen for goodies to loot.

The journal has been comprehensively rewritten with the goal of making the storyline and quests clearer. According to Larian, more than 150,000 words of text have been rewritten or added. Instructions still leave something to be desired, though. In the main quest log now, directions have been condensed to brief sentences that are more to-the-point than in the original version of the game. While it's a more direct approach, the short descriptions rarely tell anything aside from the bare bones about going to certain places, helping NPCs, delivering items, and so forth. It comes at the expense of some of the game's flavor without making quests all that much easier to follow than they were before, in that they lack a lot of specifics. As a result, I still found myself bewildered every now and then with regard to where to go and what to do.

The closing chapter in Arx has been reworked in a similar fashion to increase clarity. Where the original game sort of just threw your heroes into this devastated city with no stated goals other than to find chief villain Dallis, several plot threads have now been expanded, like the one with the dwarves and Deathfog, with new NPCs, extensive dialogue, and new battles adding to the apocalyptic mood. There is definitely more going on in the city, and I felt connected to a bigger picture. There is also a steadier narrative drive to the conclusion. Still, the Arx changes don't make a tremendous difference, as most of the city and its quests are nearly identical to what they were in the original game. And Arx still seems out of place coming after the penultimate Nameless Isle chapter. That puzzle-heavy section of the game continues to feel more like the proper setting for the finale, due to its singular focus on the protagonist's ascension to the ranks of the gods.

A lot of other little changes make appreciable differences. Persuasion appears to be easier, which let me open up quests that walled me off with failure before. This time around I could succeed in swaying NPCs to my point of view much of the time, and I felt that I was able to experience more of the game as a result. Story mode adds resurrection as a skill, includes the ability to readily flee combat, and dramatically reduces battle difficulty. The latter made it easier to tolerate lengthier encounters that I didn't want to slog through again. At the same time, Story Mode doesn't turn the game into a total cakewalk. Gruelling scraps can still be a challenge. But if you do find it too easy, you can shift back to tougher difficulty settings on the fly.

Divinity II: Original Sin will always have a strong degree of complexity, regardless of design changes. The Definitive Edition remains a complicated affair where your path has been left almost entirely wide open. Definitive or not, console or PC, this is a game that remains true to its inscrutable CRPG roots. Once again, though, even while I have to gripe about being left in the dark at times, the freeform design makes it all worthwhile. I'll accept some confusion and uncertainty if the trade-off is a wonderfully realized and almost boundless fantasy world.

From lonely farmhouses through pitched battles with gods in far-flung dimensions, Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the most captivating role-playing games ever made in both its original and Definitive incarnations, with the latter proving that even the most complicated role-players can be ported successfully to gamepad-limited consoles. This immaculately conceived and emotion-wrought fantasy world, topped by brilliant tactical combat, make it one of the finest games of recent years, and it remains an instant classic in the pantheon of RPG greats.

Disclosure: Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd currently works at Larian Studios, serving as a writer on Divinity: Original Sin II.

World of Warcraft: Battle For Azeroth Review In Progress

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 01:00

Teldrassil has been burned to the ground. Sylvanas Windrunner steps over the corpses of slain rangers and civilians alike who were impetuous enough to get in her way, only to seal the fate of more innocents in fire and blood as her lithe frame is backlit by an inferno of destruction. The tone of your introduction to Battle for Azeroth is as clear as day: The Horde is evil, and this is no longer a fight about old territories or grievances. This is wartime, and nothing is sacrosanct. Well, apart from the planet that we reside on, the right of foisting faction politics upon new civilizations, and the art of constant, grave misunderstandings.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth swoops in on a plaguebat right where the previous expansion, Legion, leaves off. Everyone is ecstatic about sending the Legion back into the realm that spawned them, and people are getting on with their lives. However, in the closing moments of the last expansion, we saw the introduction of a new resource for Anduin and Sylvanas to butt heads over: azerite. This is key to the central narrative that unfolds; no one really knows what azerite does, but Sargeras left it behind and everyone's convinced that it should be harnessed for destruction. Battle for Azeroth's pre-patch content painted the Horde as warmongering and the Alliance as the bulwark against the violence, and to that end, this new resource is just another symbol for the two to take a moral stance on--a dance of power around yet another weapon that has power beyond our reckoning.

That dance of power is crucial to the initial motivations of both factions and plays out neatly in the narrative that guides you to the expansion's new zones--it's the reason that your various leaders send you out on reconnaissance missions that bring you to those areas. That said, you pivot almost immediately from the big picture concerns of your faction's war effort to the wants and needs of relative strangers. Those familiar with the World of Warcraft canon will have some insight into the motivations of the new allied races you meet--the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari. Both new allies have their own power struggles to contend with before they display any interest in assisting either the Horde or the Alliance, and predictably, this spawns the cycle of fetch quests, reputation gains, and achievements required in order to gain their trust.

The ebb and flow of questing in the zones feels very much like the experience in Legion. It took me around 25 hours to get from level 110 to level 120 on one character, which feels like it keeps pace with solo leveling from the last expansion. Regardless of whether you're Horde or Alliance, you'll get to cherry pick which one of three distinct zones you want to start in. The Horde get down and dirty with the Zandalari trolls, investigating everything from political intrigue to the wrath of blood magic. The Alliance deal with fan-favorite Jaina Proudmoore and the legacy of resentment that her father's death left behind (did we mention the pirates?). In either regard, all these zones have their own self-contained stories for you to see to fruition that indirectly speak to powers beyond our comprehension, meaning while they're equal parts comedic and captivating; they most certainly do not stray from the World of Warcraft formula.

The fact that these condensed stories are so engaging actually works against the impact of the wider expansion's narrative. After spending hours in the desert with the vulpera and the sethrak, and dealing with everything from shepherding cubs to thwarting the plans of long-sleeping god puppets, it's hard to take orders from Sylvanas' right hand. Your faction's leaders seem so far removed from the daily bloodletting and the weariness of dangerous diplomatic relations that doing their bidding starts to feel like a chore. The inhabitants of these new zones are so colorful and so full of life that you feel incentivized to do the myriad of side quests that they tantalizingly offer up to you. It's all too easy to put the main story quests on hold to just spend a couple more minutes in eerie Nazmir, or to risk scurvy in the Tiragarde Sound.

This lack of a coherent, meaningful connection to the overarching azerite panic that serves as Battle for Azeroth's main narrative tension can be frustrating. At the time of writing, three weeks after launch, we're at a point where no raids are out yet, and we're still waiting on plenty of content, so nothing truly definitive really happens to tip either faction's hand after Sylvanas' initial massacre. In the meantime, you passively hoard power and skills without really knowing what good they'll do you later on. For example, you'll power up azerite armor in place of artifact weapons in this expansion, but your armor automatically levels up as you quest, and the selections you make as to quality-of-life skills don't feel as impactful as before. You also don't have to do anything special to get your hands on this armor, which in turn cheapens the gearing experience as you're leveling. The same could be said to some extent about raising your professions; gone are the days of having to sit by a campfire to grind out every godforsaken recipe before you could learn the latest dishes. You can crack into Battle for Azeroth's crafting right away, even if you're a complete novice, which is convenient. But it's hard not to be nostalgic for the days where the trek of profession leveling brought some sense of real achievement.

Once you get to 120, it's a bit of a coin toss as to what you should do while you're waiting for the next batch of content--you're probably best served by doing world quests and improving your reputation in order to unlock the Allied Races. There are other things to cut your teeth on, but the narrative doesn't instill in you a pressing desire to do (or to know) more. At this point in time, Battle for Azeroth offers War Mode and Island Expeditions as tidbits to tide you over until its next patch.

War Mode basically paints a giant bullseye on your chest, slaps you on the back and says "Venture forth, you poor sod." This mode grants you an experience bonus, but the price you pay is drawing the attention of players from the opposing faction. If you're someone with bad memories of Alliance players performing drive-bys on you as your friends scramble to get into Shadowfang Keep, then you may want to stay away from this mode. You may luck out if you're on a server that isn't particularly bloodthirsty, but even those who embrace the chaos will find that it is too much of a double-edged sword; doing well in War Mode ups the ante by letting others know that you're a threat to be put down. If the hounds of war don't sniff you out immediately, then the game's intervention definitely speeds up the process.

Island Expeditions offer their own brand of excitement. While the name suggests that you'll be relaxing on a beach somewhere and enjoying mojitos with Genn Greymane, the reality is the exact opposite. You can participate in Expeditions with AI or other players, and the focus is to undertake a mad dash for azerite within a territory where randomness controls the obstacles that you face: everything from regular to elite mobs, enemy NPCs and players, and the main affair, picking up a whole heap of azerite. While the first few expeditions can feel like a fresh change of pace, the cyclical nature of the activity means it starts to grow old fairly quickly. There are various difficulties of expeditions which offer better rewards with each tier along with tougher enemies, but it feels a like a bandage slapped over the Mythic+-shaped content hole in our hearts.

This expansion wields its central conceit of a dying world with a lack of finesse; something is Badly Wrong but not so wrong that it can't wait for you to gallivant around collecting battle pets for a century before you deal with it. That said, the expansion is rivetingly effective at telling tales about underdogs, witches, family curses and pirate fraternities in ways that make you care. It's in the strength of these segments that cause you to see the cracks in the other aspect of the game--even though we know there's going to be a lot more content made available as the expansion gets patched over time. In the wake of the latest Warbringers visual, it's certain that we'll have some Old God-flavored questions answered sooner rather than later, and a host of new things for the factions to unite over that aren't the giant sword splitting the very realm into pieces.

Battle for Azeroth features the exciting culmination of the intimate character storylines for some of the franchise's most famous heroes and villains, the Allied Races themselves are so well-crafted that it's almost worth it for lore aficionados alone, and visually, World of Warcraft looks the best that it has been in a long time. But the expansion feels like it sometimes relies too heavily on the days when both factions were at each other's throats--the conflict now feels too manufactured to truly incite the war both leaders appear to be gunning for. It's clear that Battle for Azeroth tries very hard to balance the needs of new players with those of long-time fans, and as was the case in Legion, it demonstrates that the line between refinement and oversimplification can feel very thin. It's an overall good addition to World of Warcraft's current state, but it's a gamble as to whether its upcoming content will make it truly special.

Editor's note: This review reflects the state of Battle for Azeroth in the weeks immediately following its launch, and will be updated once we've spent sufficient time with its first major content update, including the new Uldir Raid, Warfronts, and Mythic Keystone dungeons. -- September 4, 2018.

Strange Brigade Review - Co-op With Style

Tue, 09/04/2018 - 21:20

While it definitely carries the troubling legacy of colonialism, there's still something indelibly appealing about the adventure genre--which is to say the genre of adventure broadly, not necessarily adventure games. The trek, the hunt, and the questing through ancient ruins all make a compelling foundation for any journey. That spirit is one that Strange Brigade carries well. It cribs iconography and ideas from the likes of Indiana Jones and its thematic kin for a cooperative romp through unknown jungles packed with zombies, magic, and mysteries--all while nailing the fun-loving wanderlust and, unfortunately, flubbing some of the basics.

The premise is simple enough: a cooperative third-person shooter where you beat down mythical monstrosities. Often these will take the form of a cadre of mobile, combat-hardened mummies or the legendary Minotaur. Your mission, as given to you by the English secret service, is to conquer these foes and help lay to rest the soul of a millennia-old queen whose spirit rampages through the region.

Your crew of four is a raucous bunch, each with their own thematically-appropriate skills and story. Tough-talking Gracie, for instance, provides the industrious muscle for the squad, and Frank is the experienced leader. The pair of magicians include the classically styled Archimedes and the vaguely racist Nalangu, an amalgam of tribalist stereotypes of indigenous shamans and warriors that does Strange Brigade no favors. To be fair, there's little hint of mean-spirit in Strange Brigade itself; it's more a natural consequence of the genre and a failure to adequately or actively push back against some of those tropes. Problematic elements aside, there's plenty of stylized presentation and jovial pomp to keep you entertained--though you'd be more than forgiven to not overlook those touchy aspects, too.

Beyond its setting, it can be a bit tough to nail down what precisely Strange Brigade does that stands out. Gunplay is straightforward, as are its foes--most of whom are either big baddies or swarms of mooks. But the '30s radio serial tone actually works well to create a solid premise for its better elements. Traps and puzzles feel like logical extensions, and the cooperative nature helps you better manage the chaos. While you've no doubt mowed down your share of zombies while an NPC scrambles to unlock a door, shifting that role to another player adds a little something extra. When those panicked shouts come through the headset, you feel imminently responsible for your friend's safety and they trust that you'll have their back.

All of this works with the game's relatively straightforward inventory system. Alongside the spread of traps and obstacles throughout the stage to create an unusual method of traversing and battling, an array of bonuses and upgrades encourage traversal of these branching worlds. You can, and are encouraged to, for instance, manipulate traps to squash, pierce, and dismember teeming hordes of monsters. These battles play out in labyrinthine stages, too, offering a few different ways to guide and control enemies along the way. Everyone in the group will get a chance to flex their skills and contribute at some point.

While the variety of locales is a bit limited--they're all Egyptian-themed to a degree--there's quite a bit of variability within that. Desert areas offer much more open battle spaces than the caverns of an ancient tomb, which will funnel you through cramped passages packed with swinging axe blades and pressure-plate flamethrowers. All-told, you can spend upwards of 10 hours exploring each of them with a crew, and while they're all a bit similar, they don't wear out their welcome too soon.

Each character will have items and supplies they can buy with the loot they collect along the way, and all carry a magical amulet that can absorb the spirits of the baddies they've conquered to unleash super-charged attacks. Other gear, like specialized and temporary weapons--akin to the turrets or miniguns you might be able to wield in more traditional shooters for a time--help break up the pacing a bit more, and offer up a few more chances to coordinate with the team.

Despite the extra fluff, it's hard to shake the sense that Strange Brigade isn't much more than a snack. The tongue-in-cheek tone and setting are the big draws here, and while they facilitate some unusual and entertaining play, they don't do much beyond that. Puzzles are dreadfully simple--bouncing between connect-the-pipes and basic matching games--and upgrades just don't provide a lot to play around with. Each weapon has a few slots, but even that's plug-and-play. For such an unusual world, more types of attacks, weapons, foes, would be a joy. And, unfortunately, what's there does have some significant technical problems. Texture pop-in can be jarring, and a bevy of other problems like clipping issues and uneven loot distribution give the impression that parts of Strange Brigade are in need for further refinement.

The grand result is an amusing adventure that makes a powerful case for more creativity with level design, setting, and pacing in co-op shooters, without thoroughly capitalizing on all of its own best ideas. Traps and their extensive use within many of the levels are a joy, and the underpinning gunplay is strong enough to warrant a sturdy recommendation, but it all comes to a head well before it should.

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