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When Is Black Friday? And How To Shop The Sales Like A Pro

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 05/27/2016 - 15:02
Black Friday, the biggest (and most daunting) day in the shopping year, is over and Cyber Monday is here - so get clued up on the fashion, beauty, home and lifestyle brands taking part in the epic sales...
Categories: Fashion

Kirby: Planet Robobot Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 05/25/2016 - 18:10

With plenty of wonderful games tied to his name, I'll never understand why Kirby isn't paraded around as prominently as Nintendo's other mascots. Kirby: Planet Robobot is the perfect example: it's another great Kirby side-scrolling platformer, and yet it's been largely flown under the radar since it was announced.

Like so many of his past outings, Kirby's latest adventure is about partaking in a lively world filled with charming monsters. Kirby can inhale these creatures to acquire new abilities; you can go from swinging a sword to throwing bombs to riding a wave of poison all in the span of a few screens. Kirby has more than 20 transformations in Planet Robobot, and it's an impressive feat that each one offers a distinct skillset that redefines how you move, attack, and defend.

Kirby's natural ability to flutter into the sky, swallow enemies and take on their powers make him a force to be reckoned with--even more so when he hops into Planet Robobot's mechs. When Kirby suits up, he trades agility for strength, earning the ability to punch through substantial objects and knockout enemies in a single blow. These heavy suits appear in the middle of levels and feel like a direct translation of the Ride Armor suits from Mega Man X games. I say "suits" because like our little pink friend, Kirby's mech can acquire extra abilities from enemies: he can blast enemies with sound waves as a massive boombox, wield two massive swords, or make use of a massive propellor that lifts his mech into the air while slicing through unsuspecting enemies.

With access to so many tools, you can get through most levels without much trouble. However: unlocking the final stage in each of Planet Robobot's six worlds requires you to collect a certain number of code cubes, three of which are hidden in each stage. Though some code cubes are easy to stumble upon, you will have to go out of your way to access--let alone locate--most of the cubes in each stage. This is when Kirby's powers prove uniquely useful, as some cubes are only attainable if you're packing the appropriate abilities.

The hunt for code cubes is made less tedious than it sounds by wild variations in level design that affect how your environment looks and how you navigate its challenges. You spend most of your time running and jumping about, moving not just to the left and to the right, but into and out of the background as well. Kirby also takes on side-scrolling shooting missions, which play similarly to arcade classics like R-Type or Gradius. With Kirby's inherent design that encourages you to play in different ways, these segments aren't a saving grace--they're the icing on the cake.

Planet Robobot features reimagined versions of classic bosses.

This sentiment extends to the extra modes in Planet Robobot, which range from short diversions to generous unlocks, such as Meta Knight Returns. This mode in particular is enticing as it allows you to replay the entire game as Meta Knight, Kirby's long-time frenemy. This marks the third chapter in the Meta Knightmare saga, which began on Game Boy Advance with Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land. Though you are essentially replaying Planet Robobot's levels over again in this mode, Meta Knight plays drastically different than Kirby: he can't take on new powers, and instead relies upon his speed and trusty sword to surpass obstacles and enemies. Where the base game is about finishing levels and collecting code cubes while relishing in a wealth of powers, Meta Knight Returns is a time trial mode. The race against time and the added challenge of more difficult bosses is enough to warrant a second playthrough without fear of succumbing to deja vu.

The other standout extra mode is unlocked from the start: Kirby 3D Rumble. This is a top-down, fully 3D Kirby game where your goal is to destroy every enemy on a map using as few moves as possible, achievable by inhaling multiple enemies at once. Like Captain Toad's levels in Super Mario 3D World, these stages feel like part of something bigger that could very well constitute its own game. I only wish there were more of them here: there are just over a dozen stages total. At least when you're done with them, you can look to Team Kirby Clash, which allows you to team up with AI or nearby friends to tackle bosses in a medieval fantasy-themed setting. Planet Robobot is a game about variety, not only in Kirby's innate copy ability, but also in its wealth of extra modes.

Planet Robobot's meager difficulty may feel like a turn off at times, but it's not a reason to write it off. Once you spend time sampling the large selection of powers in each stage, taking in the detailed visuals, the catchy soundtrack, and exploring the wealth of extra modes on hand, you are so focused on the game's pervasive charm that you're looking forward to the next delightful surprise, rather than praying for a grueling test of skill. Planet Robobot is another great feather in Kirby's cap that shouldn't be overlooked.

Categories: Games

Overwatch Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 05/25/2016 - 14:00

Overwatch is an exercise in refined chaos. There are multitudes of layers hiding beneath the hectic surface, and they emerge, one after another, the more you play. This is a shooter that knows how to surprise, one that unfolds at a frantic pace, one that takes a handful of great ideas, and combines them into something spectacular.

At first glance, it's a simple formula: two teams of six vie for control of mobile payloads, capture points, and key strategic positions. Each of its four modes are easy to grasp, serving as the foundation for the various maps and the powerful heroes colliding within them. That apparent simplicity is deceiving, though. Overwatch is an amorphous, shapeshifting organism that mean different things for different players, depending on which hero you choose, and what role you assume within the context of your team.

The quality of Overwatch, as a hero shooter, relies on its fighters. And these 21 heroes, both in terms of personality and design, compose one of the more distinct and diverse casts in recent memory. Their dialogue hints at relationships among the group. Their art design conveys a stark visual vocabulary. Their abilities set the stage for multidimensional firefights with explosions, energy shields, and bursts of sonic energy. There's an enticing balance between mastering one character and trying someone completely new.

Each of these characters could be the center of their own game. There's the dwarf engineer Torbjörn and his upgradeable defensive turret. There's the ape scientist Winston, with both superior intellect and animalistic rage. Then there's Tracer, the British pilot removed from the rules of space and time, warping around the battlefield and reversing her actions to correct mistakes she might have made seconds before.

Like Tracer, Overwatch functions as a sort of time machine, borrowing elements from the shooter genre throughout its evolution over the years. Some of Overwatch's characters display the arena combat of Quake, while others capture the dynamism of the more modern Titanfall. Overwatch's cast also includes a more archetypical military-shooter character, Soldier 76. He serves as a gateway for players more accustomed to Call of Duty or Battlefield, ushering them into a more nuanced and versatile overall experience.

These heroes may be the bricks comprising Overwatch's structure, but the map design is the mortar in between. Skirmishes play out across 12 locales in a futuristic version of Earth, from the foundries of industrial Russia to the shrines of rural Japan. These arenas mix high walkways and low pits, narrow sightlines with wide avenues. Battles change constantly, choke points become virtual morgues, and learning to use your character's range, damage, and special abilities is contingent on what the environments dictate. Variety in map design is one thing--precision in their layout is another entirely. And Overwatch is precision incarnate.

What's impressive isn't Overwatch's ambition--its attempt to bring all these different factors together under one roof. What's impressive is that it fits these characters and interactions into an organic being, with ever-changing scenarios that keep Overwatch fresh through each match. It helps that you can switch heroes mid-match according to the ebb and flow of each situation.

There's an enticing balance between mastering one character and trying someone completely new, and watching new layers unravel.

But even more vital is the ease with which Overwatch teaches you valuable lessons. Playing becomes a digging process, and as you discover new ways to use each character on each map, how better to serve your team, and how to counter your most dangerous opponents, Overwatch's deepest layers begin to emerge.

Imagine defending the last waypoint in Japan as the attackers escort their explosive payload to within yards of victory. Your team is spread around the room, on the upper catwalks and out in the open, standing in the way and keeping the opponents at bay. As the explosive expert Junkrat, you're launching grenades into clumps of enemies. You're laying bear traps to cover the walkway at your rear. You're disrupting the position of shield characters with the blast from your remote mines.

But you're also watching your teammate's back as she snipes with Widowmaker. You're calling out enemy positions to Pharah as she glides above the fray with her rocket launcher ablaze. You're coordinating with Zarya, waiting until both of your ultimate abilities are ready. And as she launches her Graviton Surge into the room, sucking every enemy into one concentrated mass, you release your RIP-Tire explosive, steering it into the group and killing them all, buying your tank characters precious seconds to reverse the payload as the timer reaches zero and you win the match with bated breath.

Overwatch's maps depict a science-fiction utopia on the brink of conflict.

This is what Overwatch does to your brain. These are the thoughts that race through your head. These are the scenarios that encourage you to play the game in such ways. There's even a post-match voting period in which you congratulate individual efforts, whether it be the amount of hit-points Mercy healed, the number of warp portals Symmetra erected, or the percentage of damage Reinhardt blocked with his shield. In these moments, Overwatch is telling you one important thing: there is no single way to play.

Unfortunately, it sometimes ignores this mantra. The end of each match initiates a "Play of the Game" highlight, which showcases the most impressive moment from the perspective of the player who performed it. However, unlike the post-match voting period, the highlight video almost always focuses on killstreaks. These are flashy--especially when the player shows a clear mastery of Reaper's close-quarters attacks, or Genji's ninja-star barrages--but they don't recognize healers or tank characters enough. It's a minor complaint, and only stands out because the rest of Overwatch is so accommodating to individual playstyles--but it's jarring nonetheless.

It's also disappointing how, for every way Overwatch rewards mastery of your favorite characters, it stumbles with its randomized loot system. These awards are all aesthetic, to be clear--a new character skin here, a new celebration stance there--but too often loot crates contain unwanted items. More importantly, they delay the process of outfitting your favorite characters, the ones you use most often, the ones you grow attached to. You can accrue Overwatch gold to unlock specific items, but like the items themselves, gold is strewn throughout random loot crates. In this respect, Overwatch uses gambling to undermine your desire for specific unlocks.

There is a genuine learning process here. There is real value to the time you spend understanding these overlapping systems.

But in almost every other way, Overwatch encourages a more tangible sort of progression: that of filling a critical role on your team and understanding its intricacies the more you play, adapt, and grow. There is a genuine learning process here. There is real value to the time you spend understanding these overlapping systems.

It's that intoxicating path of discovery that makes Overwatch so varied, so rewarding, and ultimately another seminal release from developer Blizzard. Overwatch is an intelligent cascade of disparate ideas, supporting one another, pouring into one another, and coiling around themselves as they flow into the brilliant shooter underneath.

Categories: Games

Fallout 4 Far Harbor Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 05/25/2016 - 02:11

After dozens of hours in the rough-and-tumble Commonwealth, the coast of Maine sounds like the perfect place for a sojourn in Fallout 4. Enjoy a boat ride; meet new people; solve a mystery with your best synthetic friend--what's not to love?

Who am I kidding: Far Harbor is just as overrun with radiation, desperate factions, and mutated creatures as Fallout 4's main stage. Along its rocky shores and in its foggy woods lie odd characters and rewarding side quests, along with a bounty of new gear to acquire. Visiting Far Harbor is an excellent way to extend your enjoyment of Fallout 4's brand of combat and casual role-playing, but it doesn't succeed in all of its attempts to build on the foundation of the base game's story.

In many ways, Far Harbor seems like a trip down memory lane. You once again set out in search of a missing child, and ultimately discover a society in the throes of a complicated conflict. The crazed Children of Atom worship radiation, taking refuge in the dense irradiated fog that covers the island. They are at odds with the citizens of Far Harbor: the seafaring town reduced to the only swath of land not overrun by fog. Elsewhere, synths who want to live in peace and isolation watch from the sidelines, though as you soon discover, a murky past brings their motivations into question.

Shortly after you arrive on the island and help defend townsfolk from invading monsters, you're whisked away to the synth refuge in Acadia. Not long after, you're guided to The Children of Atom's sanctuary, called The Nucleus. Unless you deviate into side quests right away, you'll have met most of Far Harbor's big players in less than an hour, and these meetings deliver a rapid-fire procession of seemingly major events and revelations. Unfortunately, this eagerness backfires.

That's some helmet you've got there.

Far Harbour isn't shy about asking you to join a murderous group of religious extremists, or attempting to make you question your own identity. While these moments have potential, they aren't given the time and space they need to spur a meaningful response. The biggest twist of all is so mired in logical inconsistencies that it practically feels like a joke. After the dozens of hours it took to form a position on the various players and problems in the main campaign, the abrupt propositions in Far Harbor feel cheap, to say nothing of how familiar the narrative's themes are at this stage in the game.

The biggest risk Far Harbor takes is a trip into the memory banks of a synth, where you use Fallout 4's settlement-building toolset to recompile broken pieces of data. With a limited number of items at your disposal, you have to redirect lasers to break down barriers and place armaments of your own to defend the flow of information from cannon-toting viruses, all while trying your best not to walk into pitfalls. These sequences are visually distinct and put your abilities as a craftsman to practical use, but they come off as a half-baked puzzle game concocted to drum up variety. Up to the last puzzle, the solutions are easy to identify and execute. The final test, on the other hand, is sprawling and requires tedious exploration, made worse by the limited amount of resources you have to build bridges to and from the maps' various islands of data.

On an island filled with exciting combat and weird characters, the last thing I want to do is struggle with awkward puzzles.

As I dug my heels in and meticulously worked for a solution to the final puzzle, I yearned for adventure. For all the baggage in Far Harbor, it successfully upholds Fallout's tradition of combat, driven by odd requests from locals or by your own lust for loot. New weapons like the harpoon gun empower you to take on new creatures that are fast, resilient, and challenging enough to test seasoned survivors. The only hiccup that gets in the way comes from the fog that permeates Far Harbor, at least on PlayStation 4 and PC at launch--these versions suffer from optimization issues, with the PS4 version suffering the worst during fog-laced combat. The fog and the light that sneaks through it creates a great visual effect, but it's a shame that it comes at the cost of performance.

For its new locations and weapons, the turbulent waters of Maine are a satisfying compliment to Fallout 4. But where Far Harbor succeeds in delivering more of the same great gameplay and oddball characters that made the main campaign such a joy, it can't muster an interesting story. It over-confidently asserts twists and conundrums, without doing enough to earn your investment in the outcome of your decisions. If a moving story is what you're after, steer your ship back to the shores of the Commonwealth.

Categories: Games

Hitman Go VR Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 05/23/2016 - 22:50

Hitman Go is an excellent example of a game that takes core elements from a franchise and turns them into something wholly different, while feeling through and through like it belongs. As you solve its puzzles, you feel like you're making your way towards an assassination target, completely undetected. It's marvelous how a simple and engaging puzzle game can be nothing like its precursor yet maintain a similar spirit. It's something that carries over to virtual reality but isn't helped by it--instead, it makes a poor case for why you should play it in VR at all.

Hitman Go is presented like a board game, where you move an Agent 47 piece around the board, trying not to get caught in an enemy piece's path. You eliminate enemies like you would pieces in chess while making your way to the marked destination. Each level has three objectives: one is always to slip past the level's enemies and make it to the end, while the other two can be anything from completing it within a certain number of turns, grabbing an inconveniently placed briefcase, or making it through without killing anyone. Cleaning up every objective often requires you to play through the level more than once, and although not every level is as good as the last, figuring out the solutions is enjoyable enough in most of the levels to make them worth visiting a second or third time.

Hitman Go's puzzles embody the spirit of the core Hitman games.

Hitman Go also does a great job of introducing new concepts as it progresses. New tools that help you get through Agent 47's covert operations--such as sniper rifles and Agent 47's signature Silverballers--are brought in, but you'll also go up against new enemies, typically right when you think you've got everything figured out. By taking what you've already learned about an enemy and throwing in a new variation with a different set of behaviors, Hitman Go remains engaging throughout.

Unfortunately, VR doesn't add anything of import to playing Go in VR. You're sat inside a bland room where the lighting changes on occasion--hardly an interesting addition or reason to play Go in VR. It's kind of cool being able to get a closer look at certain levels, but it's in no way impressive. With movement based on your perspective, controls can sometimes be finicky and frustrating, too. You control your piece with the left stick, moving it in the desired direction to slide Agent 47 across the board. However, as you move your piece away from its original position, the directions will change if your perspective stays the same. Moving your piece up now requires you to move the stick diagonally, as that's how it now appears to you. You can change your perspective by moving your head or sliding the board around with the right stick, but pushing up on the left stick and watching Agent 47 stand still makes the game feel unresponsive. On top of that, there were times when I felt a little bit motion sick after rotating the board close to myself. It was never anything major, but it was definitely noticeable.

As good as the board looks, the VR environment that surrounds you is bland and uninteresting.

Virtual reality requires a commitment: you need to put aside time to put the headset on and cut yourself off from the world. Unfortunately, Hitman Go VR doesn't provide enough of an escape to make it worth the extra hassle. It's also a game that works better in short bursts, and VR headsets aren't always the quickest and most convenient things to jump in and out of. And no matter what device you play it on, whether it be on PC with an Oculus Rift or an Android phone with Gear VR, you have a device that can play the non-VR version of the game, which is almost the exact same experience. Additionally, Hitman Go VR doesn't offer a non-VR option--if you buy this version, the only place you'll be playing it in is virtual reality.

Hitman Go VR feels unnecessary. It's an excellent puzzle game, but it's already available on a bunch of different platforms where it plays very well; the non-VR versions will be enough to enjoy everything Hitman Go has to offer. Solving its puzzles is as satisfying and enjoyable as eliminating a target without getting detected, but the VR version shouldn't be your first choice to experience them.

Categories: Games

Shadow of the Beast Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 05/23/2016 - 21:53

Those of us who read our game manuals cover to cover in the '80s were often treated to verbose backstories that help set the scene. These introductions provided context that was often missing within the game, and a deeper understanding of the hero’s motivation. In its modern reimagining of Shadow of the Beast, Heavy Spectrum brings one of these decades old text descriptions to life. To finally witness the premise of the Psygnosis classic in modern, animated cutscenes is to also explore the creators’ disturbing and inhumane vision. It is of a kidnapped human baby subjected to experiments, trained to be a thoughtless killer, and ultimately transformed into a veritable beast.

The beast, Aarbron, begins the game by helping his master Zelek hunt for another infant subject. In doing so, Aarbron subsequently learns of his true past and proceeds to lash out, severely wounding his master in the process. It turns out that cutting Zelek without finishing him off was a mistake--Zelek throws his blood on the ground in order to summon minions throughout the game.

Shadow of the Beast's levels are structured around clunky combat encounters.

Even though this isn’t a scene-for-scene remake of the original Shadow of the Beast, this new version retains the original’s then-unusual mix of linear and exploratory sections. It’s more segmented this time, where each area is self-contained. Today's Shadow of the Beast leans into the allure of replay incentives, including hidden areas, expanded narrative moments, and medal ranks for each encounter.

Within each chapter is a set series of fights, with exploration sections serving as the connective tissue. Combat plays out like a puzzle of space management, where you have to deal with two processions of would-be assailants--enemies pour in from both sides of the screen at once. You soon learn that you have to be simultaneously efficient, and aware of each enemy's specific weaknesses. It's difficult to cope with being attacked from two sides at once, especially when engagements can involve as many as 30 enemies. Later in the game, some are impervious to certain attacks and it becomes a tiresome process of figuring out a foe’s specific weak point to get the job done. Like a poorly designed fighting game, there are ways to exploit certain fights by repeatedly using the basic attack, while there are other instances where the same foes are inexplicably invincible during particular frames of animation. This can easily put you in a combat mindset where you hope for the best rather than go in confident that your knowledge and skills will be sufficient.

Shadow of the Beast never looked so good, but looks aren't everything.

The substandard controls also extend to the platforming sections, where every leap feels sluggish. It’s the kind of mild irritation that isn’t pronounced until you fail a platforming sequence and have to repeat it multiple times to get it right. Aarbron is also gifted with wall running abilities, which is needed for the mainline paths. What’s frustrating are the advanced moves, particularly when you’re trying to run up a wall immediately after missing a jump. Even if you think you hit the climb button at the right time, you can still fail.

For every environmental puzzle that makes you feel smart in Shadow of the Beast, there’s another that demands the kind of obtuse thinking that doesn’t feel rewarding. You can lose a dozen lives and half an hour trying to navigate through a nearly pitch black area only to realize that you had to take another path first to find an illumination device.

Having direct access to the original game as an unlock is a blessing, if only to revisit the preposterous and quaint enemy designs within. From self-propelled rocks to obese bats, one couldn’t help but laugh at the charming diversity of the bestiary from 1989. There’s more cohesion and consistency in the remake's bestiary, with some room made for the original creatures to get an update.

Zelek bleeds. He bleeds a lot.

Large bosses played a meaningful role in the original game so it’s not surprising that similarly-sized gatekeepers would appear. One of the more memorable foes spends the majority of a chapter chasing and taunting you in the background before the actual battle. It’s a menacing sequence and one of the game’s few highlights.

Shadow of the Beast also comes with a stacked social component, built on the premise that you will be motivated to replay chapters upon seeing friends’ scores in the leaderboard and their various accomplishments through the in-game live feed--a big ask, given the disappointing platforming and combat. There's also a button-mashing mini game where you can try to dismember and decapitate your colleague’s beast in a race against time. The novelty of this Mortal Kombat-style brutality--and the satisfaction of beating friends’ times--wears out quickly.

From the visuals to the strict adherence to the original game's story, this reimagining is not bereft of fan service. Its failings come from the features one doesn’t associate with the series, such as the social hooks and the segmented structure of the world. The well-intentioned replay incentives are nearly rendered irrelevant by pedestrian level designs and rough combat. For a remake, it's not a good sign that the best part about the modern Shadow of the Beast is revisiting the game that inspired it.

Categories: Games

Party Hard Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 05/23/2016 - 16:28

After a long day of work, you come home exhausted, make yourself dinner, take a quick shower, watch some television or play a video game. Then you try to get some sleep. After a few unsuccessful hours of tossing and turning, it’s already 3AM. You lie in your bed wide awake. The massive college party next door, with its obnoxious electronic music, isn't letting up. Do you complain? Do you call the cops? Nope. Instead, you put on a hockey mask, grab a butcher’s knife, and kill everyone at the party.

The premise for Party Hard is disturbing. You play as a psychopath, Darius, who goes on a nationwide killing spree just because he can’t get any sleep. Darius seeks out the biggest parties around the United States, repeatedly stabbing and beheading people left and right. But developer tinyBuild sprinkles much-needed levity and dark humor throughout--Party Hard, thankfully, doesn’t take its premise seriously.

Across the country, with your knife close by.

Party Hard plays from a top-down perspective, and is separated into several types of parties. Each level consists of five or six different areas, from kitchens and bedrooms, to private VIP balconies and dance floors. Your objective is always the same--kill everyone at these parties without getting caught by the police. Beyond taking out partygoers with your knife, there are several different ways of getting the job done: you can also set off traps, and have other people kill for you.

Setting rooms on fire, poisoning people’s drinks and food, and rigging dance floors with bombs are a few colorful options. During one level inside a famous Los Angeles nightclub, I was able to summon a UFO. A few aliens started abducting people for me while I hid backstage. In another level, on a boat party in Miami, I dispatched a smoke bomb, which allowed me to quickly stab a group of people while remaining hidden. Party Hard is slowly paced, requiring you to constantly strategize and analyze your surroundings. Rushing in, and killing people without any thought and care put into your attacks will likely get you caught.

This slow nature reflects Darius' disturbingly dispassionate nature. He wants to enjoy every one of his murders and leave the crime scene without any trace. It's challenging and enjoyable to plan your kills, and make full use of your environments. Party Hard is like a deadly game of cat and mouse, always testing your ability to adapt and observe. Should I carry this drunk person to a hidden bush? Should I set the kitchen on fire now, or wait for more people to come in? Will I able to kill all four of these stragglers before someone spots me and calls the police?

Look at that water slide!

The levels are well designed and visually distinct, giving you enough room to breathe while also making it difficult to slip away unnoticed. The LA night club level, for example, has a pair of hidden stairs that allow you to swiftly move from the kitchen, all the way to an abandoned alley on the other side in mere seconds. But be wary of an eccentric man dressed as Mario at this nightclub, because he'll demolish the stairs if you use them too much.

But for everything Party Hard gets right mechanically, it suffers from being repetitive. It's a shallow affair. While the first few levels are engaging, they introduce everything Party Hard has to offer. In every level there are always the same traps and items you can utilize, and the overreliance on your knife grows monotonous. I spent a lot of time waiting for people to fall asleep, or for them to move to an isolated area. When cops give chase, they can easily be exploited by employing basic tactics. I quickly found out that circling large fences, pools, and stages confuses the AI, forcing the cops to give up after a few seconds.

Party Hard employs a beautiful neo-noir, pixel-art aesthetic and ‘80s soundtrack. It's similar to Hotline Miami, with heavy doses of purple and pink. The parties are frenetic spectacles replete with neon lights, eccentric character designs (the aliens look pleasingly weird), and plenty of blood and gore. The pixel-art visuals are another source of levity, as everything looks a bit fantastical. The folks you're killing are pixelated messes, without any facial details. This layer of abstraction is needed for a game about murdering innocent people.

Hey officer, look at this!

The up-tempo, funky soundtrack juxtaposes the slow gameplay, and there's a great variety of tunes for every party. Party Hard also tells a story of a detective chasing after Darius, with short cutscenes sprinkled in between each level. Both the writing and voice acting are awful, but they successfully come off being intentionally bad. It complements Party Hard’s silly tone and premise, and thankfully, storytelling isn’t the game’s focus.

Your entertainment will come from planning deadly attacks in outlandish scenarios and environments. There’s enjoyment to be had with Party Hard’s dozen or so levels, despite the game’s lack of imagination in its later stages. It’s a wacky, bloody affair that never aspires for more.

Categories: Games

Total War: Warhammer Review

Games Spot Reviews - Thu, 05/19/2016 - 14:00

Screeching gears, rhythmic boot steps, and the soft crunch of fresh snow. These were the first notes of my invasion. I sought the Dwarfen capital of Karak Varn. The Dwarfs, hardy and resilient though they may be, were a thorn for my new allies, the green-skinned Orcs and goblins. I held my siege for weeks, and while my foes’ numbers dwindled, mine grew. After each clash, I wrenched the newly dead from the earth and added them to my fiendish, Vampire hordes. Siege engines ready, and carried yon by fresh Dwarfen zombies, I steeled my undead warriors for the final assault.

When the battle started, I surrounded my enemy's commander with Vargheists--monstrous, man-eating bats--and sent battering rams for the gates. But that wasn't enough, not nearly. Dwarfs are hardy. They rarely break ranks or flee in terror no matter how ferocious their opponent. I needed more. When the gates broke, I rushed in with ethereal cavalry, immune to normal weapons and equipped with scythes that bypassed even the sturdiest armor. In minutes, my ghastly corps had torn through Karak Varn's defenders. This was Warhammer, and this was Total War.

The Total War series has, until now, balanced historical realism with strategic play. During campaigns (which you can play either alone or with others) you’ll refine your statecraft, research technology, and manage your economy to keep your armies well-supplied. All this takes place on a continent scaling political map detailing borders, important landmarks and troop detachments. Should two opposing forces meet, the game will pull in to show the skirmish. Here, you’ll micromanage movement and use battlefield tactics to out maneuver foes. Your decisions and political position throughout the game would have major effects on the sorts of troops and supplies you could field for any given battle. Warhammer, however, has always been about tactics, and for more than 30 years, it's been one of the most popular fantasy settings around, with a rich lore and vibrant tournament scene for its tabletop miniature game. Mixing the two raised a lot of questions about how Creative Assembly's attentiveness to historical detail would work with vampires, demons, and magic. But, the result is a sight to behold. Not only is it one of the most faithful adaptations of Warhammer's mythos, it is also far and away the best Total War has ever been.

That is, in no small part, due to the natural marriage of Warhammer as a setting and Total War's gameplay as a foundation. While troop movements and formations have always been an essential part of Total War, you were always playing with human beings as your pawns. That foundation in real-world history kept the series somewhat limited. Yes, it was a joy to see elite Celtic warriors square off against Caesar's legions, but there are only so many ways those fights can go.

Warhammer shakes that up in a big way. With the addition of irresponsibly large cannons, apparitions, gyrocopters, and powerful spells, the amount of time you need to spend learning what you and your foes can bring to bear on the battlefield is staggering. But it's worth it. Skirmishes are an artful dictation with two (or more) minds jockeying for control, prodding weak points, breaking lines, and exploiting new fronts of attack. These fights don't get old.

Total War: Warhammer is an interlocking network of smart decisions. Integrating the Warhammer universe with Total War's systems was the first of these.

Part of that comes from how distinct all of the main factions are. The Empire is a Roman-esque monolithic force. They're organized, effective generalists. Bretonnians, an Arthurian band of humans, use pegasi and holy lances to cleanse evil. The Greenskins pull from Warhammer's own brand of classic fantasy orcs and goblins. Silly, obnoxious, and blood-thirsty, they come with complex internal politics. If you're not waging enough war, measured by a stat called "fightiness," other factions will sprout and make with the killing that you haven't.

Vampire Counts are a genuine undead faction. They bolster their lines by draining life from others and reviving the dead from massive battles. They can swarm the field with countless warriors and can even raise more midway through a bout. In exchange, their units usually fall apart. They will never run in fear, though; instead, they crumble as their will to press on after death fades. Dwarfs are their opposite, with heavily armored and armed troops. They pull in staunch defenders that will hold a battle line long enough for their enemies to be ripped to shreds with machine guns and cannon fire.

Like its tabletop namesake, Total War: Warhammer balances these disparate forces well. Each faction has a bevy of gameplay options that mesh, but there is no one right way to play--leaning into their strengths and mixing it up with the occasional oddball tactic works here. That's supported with magic, which can turn the tide of all kinds of fights. From chasing down an opposing lord and sapping his life with a Vampiric curse to causing an enemy unit to chafe and itch, magic augments formations and movements and only ever broadens your scope of tactical choices.

Because most magic users are lords and heroes, this also means your leaders play a critical role in battle. They can often handle entire battalions on their own, and when you lose one, it's much more akin to losing a queen in chess than a beefed-up soldier. While protecting a lord was important in prior games, now it's vital, and maneuvers tend to reflect that. Because of their strength, it's advantageous to have them at or very near the front lines. So you're faced with a choice in how you protect the lord and maximize his potential without risking a loss.

That, in turn, influences your other choices. As the Vampires, do you want to take ethereal cavalry and press against enemy lines thereby leaving your often less-than-mobile lord undefended? Or, based on the spells you've taken to battle, will you charge in with your leader, summon a few squadrons of zombies to hold your foe, and sweep with your support units? Your choices are augmented and modified by everything else at play--such as the terrain, which you can use for surprise attacks--as well as the minutiae of your foe's plans. Everything matters, and every choice has an impact.

Click to view in gallery

Campaigns throw even more variables into that mix. Like previous Total War games, you can take command of a country and balance your strategies (economic, cultural, etc.) and your tactics (individual battles). Here things go from beautifully intricate to elaborate master stroke.

Each of the four major factions (that is Empire, Vampires, Greenskins, and Dwarfs) have their own campaigns with major battles, quests, and goals. Unlike previous Total War games where you'd have a smattering of small distinctions to separate each group, these races are distinct. Vampires are reviled by the living (for good reason) and have a hard time with diplomacy. To survive and remain stable, they have to poison and corrupt the land. Dwarfs and Greenskins can travel underground, and have constructed settlements that only they can capture.

The Empire is all about forming tight diplomatic bonds and working together with the other nations of men. Collectively, each of these groups is preparing for the coming Chaos--an absolute evil corrupting force that marches from the north. The Warriors of Chaos have some of the most powerful and devastating units. They also spread their own corrupting force, which can, on its own, cause rebellion and terror in living and unliving empires alike.

Again, each of these pieces works together and helps texture the overarching narrative. At first, these races push their own petty agenda. But as the Game of Thrones-y threat grows in the north, you can try to band together with the others and hold off the impending invasion. At the same time, you'll have proximal, race-dependent goals for victory, which strain how you'll manage these larger threats. Vampires, for example, not only have to help stop the Chaotic onslaught, but also conquer the Empire and spread their vampirism. And holding off one monstrous, powerful foe while chipping away at your so-called allies is no easy task. As the campaign progresses, you'll have to manage multiple conflicts on many fronts, putting your skills to the test.

Taken together, the campaign is brilliant insofar as it forces your hand and pushes you to take bigger risks, which, in turn, taxes your abilities as a tactician. As with many similar games, armies require upkeep, but in Total War: Warhammer, many of these are expensive. It's often more advantageous to build up rather than out. You can fortify and hold, but after a while, you'll need to start pushing back. Doing that means pulling soldiers away from your main settlements, opening up holes in your defenses that other races will be quick to exploit. Managing that conflict becomes a core concern in the late game, and it's a stellar way to test your mastery of your race's key traits.

The campaign is brilliant ... it forces your hand and pushes you to take bigger risks, which, in turn, taxes your abilities as a tactician

Total War: Warhammer is an interlocking network of smart decisions. Integrating the Warhammer universe with Total War's systems was the first. Massive battles are more challenging because of the addition of magic and flying units, which can flank and break battle lines if you're not attentive. New brands of artillery and different types of units are engaging and keep you changing up your approach. Total War: Warhammer has also seen a massive upgrade to its AI. Where before you might see a AI opponent rush you when you had strong defensive position, now the CPU will employ advanced flanking maneuvers, or use cavalry to pull away key defenders.

Audio design too has picked up an interesting overhaul. The Total War series has always had excellent sound effects that help sell the scope of its battles--especially with a base heavy system and a camera zoomed down to the troop level. But here it’s even more noteworthy because of the fantasy elements at play. We know what a Roman gladius striking a rawhide shield sounds like. We can create that sound here in the real-world. But what about Dwarfen organ guns? What about the off-kilter shuffle of Orcish armor? There’s no proper equivalent, and that goes for the Vampire Count's monstrosities and the demons that form the ranks of the Warriors of Chaos. In every case, these combatants sound glorious.

Everything here hasn't just been improved, it's been damn near mastered. Total War has always been about balance--between strategy and tactics, realism and engaging play. Warhammer's characters, its history, and its creativity is a shot in the arm for a series. My complaints from a few years ago with Total War II's camera still hold. When pulling the camera out to get a better view, you can’t go very far before the game switches to a full overhead view. That be somewhat troublesome and limit how much of any give battle you can see at once, but it’s a minor frustration.

When you're in the middle of a siege and you're coordinating an assault with a friend, Total War: Warhammer approaches perfection. You’ll be tested on all fronts and asked to manage complex battles with broad, nuanced outcomes. Every system and piece feeds into others, and your choices make all the difference. It's a triumph of real-time strategy design, and the best the Total War series has ever been.

Categories: Games

From Hair Whipping To The Michael Cera, Why Willow Smith Is Everything Right Now

In Style Fashion News Feed - Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:09
Willow Smith just released your lo-fi summer soundtrack - with Michael Cera?! Here's everything you need to know about the rising star
Categories: Fashion

Homefront: The Revolution Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 23:49

Somewhere within Homefront: The Revolution--beneath the choppy framerate, the hackneyed narrative, and the half-explored mechanics that are hastily introduced then forgotten just as quickly--exists a solid, cinematic shooter. All the ingredients are there. It casts players as American resistance fighters--outmanned and outgunned, but resourceful and resilient--which naturally paves the way for both novel gameplay and daring political themes. Unfortunately, Homefront doesn't quite deliver on either one.

Its attempts to explore those political themes feel clumsy and superficial. Its mechanics embrace the scrappy nature of guerilla combat, but technical shortcomings generally force you into rudimentary run-and-gunning. The lengthy story campaign packs plenty of impressive moments that make good on the promising premise, but the game's myriad flaws turn what could have been a thrilling yet thoughtful shooter into a derivative, mediocre also-ran with serviceable shooting and plenty of unrealized potential.

Despite its name, Homefront: The Revolution is largely unrelated to the original Homefront.

If there's one thing Homefront absolutely nails, however, its variety. The game's near-future version of an occupied Philadelphia is broken into eight districts, each of which is large, open, and dotted with dozens of ambient tasks like outposts to capture and supply caches to uncover. While these activities remain largely the same throughout the game, the districts themselves vary both visually and in the play style they demand. The first area I experienced was basically an open war zone filled with bombed out buildings and on-going firefights. But later on, I found myself in a tranquil, tree-lined district where unholstering a weapon at the wrong time could mean instant death at the hands of watchful, well-armed security officers.

Homefront also never cuts corners when it comes to world building. When I was sent to hijack a super weapon, I got to see it in action and revel in the volley of explosions. When the occupying army ordered blimps to gas the entire city, I saw blimps overhead as green fog filled the streets. And anytime my crew of resistance leaders needed to organize a new plan, there was a full (albeit unskippable) cutscene displaying the debate. Homefront never leans on empty exposition; it actively shows you the world and events surrounding the gameplay, and that, combined with the varied districts, imbues the campaign with an unexpected richness.

Unfortunately, the story stringing it all together fails on several counts. Most notably, there's no relatable hero, no substantial plot development, and no discernable villain beyond the faceless, undeveloped occupying army. You never see or hear protagonist Ethan Brady, and none of his actions imply any kind of personality. He's purely an empty vessel, and while that's fine, there's not enough other story substance to fill the void. There are three characters that stick with Ethan all the way through, but you only interact with them between missions as they lament the latest setback. While I did develop some connection to my comrades, most of their dialogue was trite action movie banter.

Homefront never leans on empty exposition; it actively shows you the world and events surrounding the gameplay, which imbues the campaign with an unexpected richness.

The minimal plot is similarly generic. There's no real arc to the narrative; rather, each new story beat is just another excuse to send you on an errand in the name of gaining some ground for the resistance. This feeling of running in circles stems, at least in part, from the absence of an obvious villain. Not every story needs a Darth Vader, but even the game's most important adversary--the fictional Korean People's Army--remains an entirely abstract entity throughout. You never once hear a KPA officer speak. You're never given any insight into their mindset. All you know about the KPA is you're fighting them, and frankly, it's hard to feel motivated to destroy an enemy you know nothing about--especially when the characters you're intended to empathize with constantly spout a thinly veiled racial slur.

Homefront's mechanics don't do the campaign justice either. As a resistance fighter faced with impossible odds, it makes sense you'd rely on stealth and subterfuge, and while the game attempts to accommodate that approach, it also constantly undermines itself. The biggest issue is simply the inconsistency of detection. More than once, I was spotted while fully concealed behind a wall. Other times, I would open fire on one guard only to round a corner and find another guy blissfully unaware of the gunshots that rang out just moments before. Because you can never be sure if your attempts at stealth will actually work, it's generally not even worth trying.

But even if you're seriously committed to sneaking, Homefront may not be able to satisfy your inner Solid Snake. Though you're given some helpful tools like diversion-creating firecrackers, certain essential stealth mechanics--like the ability to hide bodies--are missing. Other tools, while helpful in theory, end up being kind of pointless. You can tag enemies using your smartphone's camera, for example, but enemies (and their vision cones) are almost always visible on your mini-map, so why bother? The most effective stealth technique I discovered: awkwardly sprinting away from anyone who's awareness meter was starting to fill.

That just leaves combat, which is unremarkable but still enjoyable. The core shooting mechanics prove satisfying, with reasonably responsive aiming, punchy sound effects, and gruesome enemy death animations. Thankfully, enemies are not bullet sponges, so a few well-placed shots will reward you with an easy kill. You'll also have to contend with armored vehicles and attack drones, but these end up being a welcome sight, not only because they naturally escalate the tension of any conflict but also because they're immensely satisfying to take down with a makeshift bomb or hijack with a hacking device.

More than once, I was spotted while fully concealed behind a wall. Other times, I would open fire on one guard only to round a corner and find another guy blissfully unaware of the gunshots.

The crafting and currency systems--which allow you to create those bombs and hacking tools--are relatively simplistic, but they do allow you to unlock some memorable weapons later on, including a tactical crossbow and jerry rigged mine launcher. You can also modify all your weapons on the fly, adding attachments or swapping major components to convert, say, your pistol to an SMG. In practice, it's not hugely different from simply selecting gear from a radial menu, but it at least fits Homefront's themes.

Weirdly, you can also find mechanics that seem almost abandoned or incomplete. For example, the game never mentions it, but I discovered you can approach allies and recruit them to follow you into battle. Doing so doesn't fundamentally alter the gameplay, but...it's there. This particular mechanic, though strangely superfluous, might have added more to the experience if Homefront's enemy and ally AI were stronger. Currently, their behavior is unpredictable at best. Some enemies would smartly head for cover during firefights while others would mindlessly run towards me despite the pile of dead bodies practically blocking the doorway.

Homefront is mainly guns and carnage, but you'll also encounter a few platforming puzzles while exploring its districts.

Unfortunately, spotty AI isn't Homefront's only technical problem--far from it. You can find rough edges basically everywhere you look, and on all three platforms (Xbox One, PC, and PS4). The screen freezes momentarily each and every time the game autosaves. The framerate is inconsistent, frequently dipping slightly and occasionally stuttering egregiously. The audio sometimes stumbled as well, blasting tense music during non-combat moments or cutting out when a character is speaking. I also encountered several random difficulty spikes and respawn locations that placed me perilously close to the fray.

These issues also extend to the game's co-op component, which is separate from its story campaign. Visually, it can't compare to the decent-looking solo mode, but worse still, it offers an anemic amount of content: six 10- to 15-minute missions. You can select any of three difficulty levels, but the objectives and map layouts don't change, meaning the only reason to replay the missions is to challenge yourself. There is a loot crate system that allows you to randomly unlock gear from the campaign, but you'll have beaten all six missions long before you get lucky enough to acquire the equipment you want.

Ultimately, co-op adds little to the overall package, which is a shame since Homefront definitely needs some help. Its substantial story campaign is impressively rich and its shooting can be tense and fun, but half-baked stealth, an unfulfilling story, and a vast menagerie of technical inadequacies drag the overall experience into disappointing mediocrity.

Categories: Games

11 Reasons Why Heels Are WAY Hotter Than Flats

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 19:34
Heels? Always (even on slippers). Acting Beauty Editor, Lisa Haynes puts her case forward for boycotting the flats
Categories: Fashion

What Happened When Team InStyle Hosted An Exclusive Lunch In Cannes?

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 13:23
Lady-in-the-know Karen Hockney takes us behind the scenes...
Categories: Fashion

*Sigh* This Weather... Is A Yellow Raincoat THE New Camel Jacket? (We Think So)

In Style Fashion News Feed - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 09:44
Pashing on a yellow raincoat? You aren't alone...
Categories: Fashion

Doom Review

Games Spot Reviews - Wed, 05/18/2016 - 03:16

In Doom, I see a world brimming with demons, explosions, and hellfire. I see familiar faces screaming, with bloodthirsty eyes and unwavering stares. Playing it delivers the same cathartic craze the original Doom and Doom II did in the early '90s: overwhelmed by the horrors around every turn, but empowered with an impressive collection of weapons at the ready.

But the new Doom is louder and faster than the old model. Its battles ask more of you, and its heavy-metal soundtrack causes your body to quiver from turbulent surges of adrenaline. From the outset two things are made immediately clear: you were born to kill demons, and you'll do anything it takes. You will wrench countless jaws from their joints and eviscerate the swollen flesh of your enemies between bouts of furious gunfire. These powerful moments carry what, at its core, is a simple game. The cadence of Doom's campaign is unwavering to the point of predictability as you make multiple round-trips between Mars and the depths of hell. Each location bears its own distinct but static identity, and your return trips inspire more deja vu than surprise as you tread familiar ground on either side of the dimensional portal you're charged with dismantling.

Into the belly of the beast we go.

You rarely take an unexpected turn, but any bothersome feelings this gives you are washed away the moment you enter battle. Doom equips you with a range of weapons that start simple and grow ever more elaborate. Not all are created equal, and there are some you will ignore for their lack of stopping power, but many are formidable, and a near constant stream of upgrades allows you to tweak your favorites in order to give them greater functionality and strength--more cause for attachment to, and wonder in, the power at your fingertips.

This power extends to Glory Kills, Doom's contextual dismemberment techniques that can be triggered when you cause an enemy to stagger. They are the embodiment of gore fetishization, offering multiple ways to tear enemies into pieces, dependant on your angle of approach. Glory Kills are also strategically valuable. Enemies occasionally drop health items and ammo when felled by a gun, but you're guaranteed an injection of health when you flay your opponents using your bare hands--and occasionally with a body part of their own. This incentivizes you to rush in even when on the brink, offering hope at the end of a potentially deadly tunnel. Similarly, you also collect a chainsaw that can rip demons in half as a one-hit kill, which causes ammo to spout from their corpses. Your chainsaw requires precious fuel and should be used sparingly, and figuring out the best time to use it becomes a tense mind game of its own.

The rhythm of combat--which almost always begins as a plainly presented lockdown in a room--grows increasingly hard and fast over the course of Doom's thirteen missions. Larger and more dangerous demons appear over time, and in greater numbers. As you weave and leap around maze-like arenas to improve your vantage and search for much-needed supplies, you function like a magnet, drawing enemies toward you. As you do, the once-disparate groups in an arena become concentrated. The effect of this is that you can put your explosive munitions to good use and inflict heaps of damage to multiple enemies at once. But there is a downside: you can quickly back yourself into a corner as you retreat. Despite this danger, herding enemies is par for the course in Doom as it's often the most viable tactic. This plays into the cyclical murderous bliss of Doom: round and round we go.

The tension of facing increasingly durable enemies gives this system longevity despite its repetitiveness. Bipedal imps give way to towering, bloated monstrosities, powerful stampeding beasts, and disembodied flaming skulls. To keep up with the horde, you must use resources earned for your past feats to modify and upgrade your weapons with new capabilities. This steadily feeds into your brash and violent persona in order to maintain the high of combat in the face of your growing tolerance for all things brutal. Where a shotgun blast to the face was once satisfying and effective enough, you ultimately desire the thrill and power of unleashing a mortar-like cluster bomb from your double-barrelled best friend. When he's spent, you'll be thankful you upgraded your heavy assault rifle with micro-missiles that pierce the air with a subtle whistle before lodging under the skin of a demon and exploding, one after another.

Where a shotgun blast to the face was once satisfying and effective enough, you ultimately desire the thrill and power of unleashing a mortar-like cluster bomb from your double-barrelled best friend.

Upgrades can be earned by sweeping maps of demons, or discovered by exploring every inch of Doom's environments. Both techniques demand diligence. Secrets and hidden areas aren't new to Doom, but the variety of rewards you can reap are greater than ever. Every bit of hardware, including weapons, armor, and their underlying software, can be augmented in multiple ways. Nevertheless, you come across your fair share of upgrades even if you stay on the beaten path, and you'll probably want to as the thrill of combat gets under your skin. The process of awkwardly platforming your way across Doom's maps grows increasingly tiresome as your pulse drops to a murmur, and your patience for anything other than combat wears thin. The advent of Rune Challenges mixes this up a bit, offering self-contained tasks that momentarily take you out of missions and into tiny arenas where you need to defeat enemies under strict conditions. As enjoyable as these can be, they don't hold a candle to mission combat and eventually become an afterthought as you seek your next battle.

When Doom funnels you from one location to the next, it introduces brief moments that tell your story, and the story of the energy-obsessed Union Aerospace Corporation. It's the UAC's ill-conceived decision to tap into Hell's energy resources that created the portal between dimensions in the first place, and though you are an agent of the UAC in a way, yours is a reluctant enlistment. The tale of your involvement carries a certain gravitas in the way it speaks of legends and dark messiahs, but it ultimately amounts to little more than window dressing to justify your actions.

Say "hello" to my not-so-little friend.

When your journey comes to a close, you will have spent close to a dozen hours in the thick of it, the last of which are punctuated with riveting boss fights and seemingly impossible odds. With a flush arsenal and enhanced physical abilities, you may opt to return to previous missions and find items you may have missed, or lay waste at higher difficulty levels, but multiplayer awaits those who seek something new. Apart from a few multiplayer-exclusive weapons and the ability to play as demons during portions of a match, there's actually very little new about Doom's multiplayer. Its modes are few, delivering the expected assortment of match types, including team deathmatch and domination challenges, and a couple fun diversions like freeze tag. By and large, you won't find much in multiplayer that hasn't been done before, but what's there is enjoyable in small doses thanks to the fast pace of combat and the explosive nature of Doom's weaponry.

Doom is straightforward and simple, but it serves its purpose: to thrust you into increasingly dire scenarios fueled by rage and the spirit of heavy metal.

More impressive than multiplayer is Snap Map, a mode that allows you to create and share both multi- and single-player maps online. Tutorials walk you through the steps involved in creating a map, which is intuitive to begin with. Beyond ease-of-use, Snap Map will live or die through the creativeness of the community, which has already made a strong showing, delivering a range of maps that range from brutal to absurdly entertaining. More than multiplayer, Snap Map is the cherry on top of the new Doom.

But without a doubt, the loud and chaotic campaign is Doom's strongest component. It's straightforward and simple, but it serves its purpose: to thrust you into increasingly dire scenarios fueled by rage and the spirit of heavy metal. Many shooters chase the thrill Doom delivers, but few are as potent in their execution. It captures the essence of what made the classic Doom games touchstones of their day, and translates it to suit modern palates with impressively rendered hellscapes and a steady influx of tantalizing upgrades. Doom is the product of a tradition as old as shooters, and while it's not the model to follow in every case, modern shooters could learn a thing or two from Doom's honed and unadulterated identity.

Categories: Games

Stellaris Review

Games Spot Reviews - Mon, 05/16/2016 - 20:32

Serenity and wonder fill my ears when I first open Stellaris. Pulling from the same lived-in future aesthetic of games like Mass Effect, Stellaris opens with an invitation. It wants you to explore, it wants you learn, to unearth secrets your galaxy has held for millennia. As I do, astral outlines and nebulae dot my galactic map. Carved out into large chunks are the cosmos' remaining empires. The Kalaxenen Order. The Sibulan Core Worlds. The Bruggan Consciousness. And my own nascent superpower--the Reaper Commonwealth.

We'd coexisted with our neighbors peacefully for centuries, but we were out of space and desperate for some breathing room. Our scientists yearned to comb through the rest of the galaxy's hyperspace lanes and long-forgotten ruins. And our priests were compelled to spread the will of the divine. So the galaxy erupted in war.

War always seemed to follow me in Stellaris. That's partly because it's hard to expand indefinitely without frustrating someone, but also because there's a few hitches hiding within the layers of Paradox Interactive's latest grand strategy game.

If you've ever played Civilization or any of its 4X descendants, you'll be familiar with Stellaris' basics. You helm a new civilization at the start of its journey. You can choose how they'll govern, what their guiding principles are, and how they'll develop technologically. If you choose to play alone, each of your opponents will have a randomly generated set of traits all their own- ranging from despotic fantastical pacifists to xenophobic materialists. Human players are just as likely to come up with creative personality combinations too. When you start a match, you're dipping your toes into an ocean of possibilities, eager to yield as your people explore and grow.

That principle is reflected in Stellaris' pacing. Before locking down your starting solar system and working to build out its infrastructure, you'll scour neighboring stars for potential colony sites and resources. Then move in with settlers and engineers to start exploiting virgin territory.

Along the way, you'll find all manner of long-lost technology, pre-industrial civilizations and other space-faring races. Each often comes with a "quest" line of sorts that develops into its own narrative thread. On one of my first planets, I discovered an advanced subterranean people. I had to decide upon a diplomatic strategy for them, whether I wanted to give them access to technology, and if I'd be willing to bail them out if they ran into trouble.

It was a small piece of Stellaris, but my relationship with these people became one of my most valued. In time, they paid me back for all the favors I'd done, and supported the empire at large. But even if they hadn't, I felt connected to them. I caught myself roleplaying my interactions with them, trying to live up to my empire's own benevolent spiritual collectivist beliefs. It's this kind of ongoing, deterministic narrative scaffolding that forms Stellaris' backbone. Where most other strategy titles are content to focus on conquest and victory, Stellaris wants its relationships and the story you weave as your people grow to be the focus.

That runs straight to the core of Stellaris, too. As you encounter new species, you'll be able to integrate them as citizens in your civilization. And you'll have to balance their prejudices and ideologies against those of your own citizens, decide whether they can vote, and even help them settle new planets that might be tough or inhospitable for your own race. These dynamics can have massive effects on intergalactic politics as well. If you enslave or purge (read: genocide) another race, other civilizations will remember your sins and hold centuries-long grudges.

If you catch yourself sandwiched between two stronger empires, you'll have a tough time of advancing the game without creating some powerful alliances or risking a costly war.

These dynamics start coming into play when you hit the mid-game. After you've got your basic group established, as your borders and those of your neighbors start grinding against one another, you'll have to find more creative ways to keep up the early game's strong momentum. If you're not careful, you can be boxed in by ancient and powerful civilizations. Grand strategy games often devolve into war at some point, but conflict with these giants is a quick path to eradication. Instead, it helps to build a multi-racial empire with several disconnected settlements. When one front stalls, you can push another and keep your populace moving so that there's always something to do and someone to manage. It also helps to play on a map with few other empires so you can grow a quite a bit before you start running into problems.

It's not easy, and it's a bit strange that you have to finagle the game into maintaining a solid pace, but those problems also stem from some of Stellaris' best decisions, even though they don't always work out the way they should. For example, research in Stellaris works quite a bit different than in most 4X games. There's no static tree you climb, moving from agriculture to calendars and then to crop rotation. Instead you'll receive several "cards" from a deck of possibilities. Some, like sapient artificial intelligence, are rarer than others and represent major leaps forward in tech that can also help you break away from the pack.

Others are weighted to show up more often to give everyone the same basic tools to start with. In theory, this keeps any one game from feeling too similar to any other. That works to a point, but it also means that you can pass up some critical piece of infrastructure tech and you might not see it for a while, or if you're unlucky, never again. It forces some tough decisions that, while engaging, don't always make sense. There doesn't seem to be any real reason that I have to lose out on colony ships for a better research facility. On balance, though it's a welcome change, and I got more out of it than I lost.

Stellaris is filled with intrigue and promise.

Technology plays into galactic diplomacy as well. Some hyper-advanced civilization may find your development pathetic and offer to bring you under their wing as a protectorate, giving you major bonuses to research and a benevolent overseer that can keep you safe from the big bullies on the block--or at least try. The catch here, is that if you develop past a certain point, you become your overlord's vassal. With that, they can, in time absorb your civilization completely. Or, you can request--and likely fight--for your independence, often at a time when their resources are spread thin with another war or even a recession.

It's here--with warfare and diplomacy--where Stellaris takes the most risks, and their payoffs can vary from match to match. Those with pacifistic civilizations might try to form strong bonds with others and form powerful peacemaking coalitions. Others will, no doubt, flex their muscles and conquer all the can. Bringing everything from psychic warriors and specially designed war ships to bear down on their foes. And while these two outlets for Stellaris' systems each work well on their own, their dependent upon so many of the game's other novelties that they don't fit together all the time.

Stellaris is strange in that it wants you to play on its terms, but within that you have amazing latitude.

The semi-random nature of research means that you won't always be able to guide your people to what they need. Plus, negotiating federations can be difficult when meeting new races depends upon you breaking out of your starting area--something that can sometimes be impossible if you're surrounded by super-hostile enemies. When it works, though, an alliance can help you leap ahead and match your elder rivals. Trade with someone who pities you can provide a massive influx of cash to fuel your economy, and, within short order you might have a diverse enough population to colonize a dozen or more extra planets. That, in turn, gives you more people to crew ships, drive research, and more complex internal politics to manage. But that's just it, it's based on chance. You can tilt things in your favor and increase the likelihood of a more exciting game, but that's never a solid guarantee.

Stellaris is strange in that it wants you to play on its terms, but within that you have amazing latitude. Its emphasis on exploration is exhilarating. It makes each run feel inviting and special. But that doesn't always hold. Some games run through to the end and hit all the right notes at all the right times. Others are best left running in the background as you crunch for better technology so you can break free of your narrow corner in the galaxy. This could be helped if you could sneak, or stealth ships through enemy territory to colonize far-flung worlds. Or, if you could have finer control of research. Or, if you could overwhelm enemy fleets with superior tactics, despite a massive technological disadvantage. Instead, you're at Stellaris' mercy. It is fortunate then, that more often than not Stellaris doesn't just work, it excels, but that makes its breaking points feel that much more agonizing because it wouldn't have taken much tweaking to smooth them out.

Categories: Games

Blake Lively's Maternity Style

In Style Fashion News Feed - Mon, 05/16/2016 - 10:10
Now THIS is how you style out your bump...
Categories: Fashion

Soft Body Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 05/14/2016 - 17:02

Soft Body is a playable kaleidoscope, an ever-changing symphony of motion, color, and sound. It’s a mixture of different genres, combining the best aspects of bullet hell games, puzzle games, and Snake to create a challenging and mesmerizing experience.

You control two snakes that either move in unison or independently, dependent on the given level. The control inputs typically only require the left and right analog sticks. Using them, you guide snakes around a geometric landscape filled with angular enemies that emit waves of projectiles. You have to complete a collection of small objectives in order to beat each level, which usually involves moving a small ball or circular object around a maze, “painting” borders by touching or merely coming close enough to them, and destroying nearby enemies. The objectives remain simple and straightforward throughout, but the layout and challenges vastly differ from puzzle to puzzle. Despite their variance, none of the puzzles stray too far from Soft Body’s established rule set, and each design features the similar visual stylings and effects while also introducing new colors and contrasts.

While minimal, Soft Body’s controls can be disorienting, particularly when you have to control each snake independently. It is a game of trial and error, requiring precision and careful navigation. In its worst moments, some puzzles devolve into a series objectives with no apparent connective tissue, including levels with two maze-like objectives located at opposite corners of the screen and divided by a large barrier that needs to be “painted” in order to complete the level. The void in between each of these objectives was basically a minefield of projectiles and enemies that felt added in for sheer navigational challenge alone and gradually grew more tiresome. These moments are rare, but their design still comes across as haphazard when compared to more organized levels whose puzzles follow a more logical flow.

Tiny visual and aural flourishes breathe life into Soft Body's two-dimensional stages. When the snakes under your control come into contact with objects, particle effects spout onto the screen. When you complete your objectives, decorative background shapes spin and shake in excitement. These elements are enhanced by Soft Body's sound design, which is just as minimalist yet striking as the visuals, adding impact to each interaction between snakes and their environment. Every touch, hit, or movement around borders generates electronic chirps, and both the sights and sounds blend together to create a captivating, Zen-like experience.

Visual and aural flourishes breathe life into Soft Body's two-dimensional stages.

For such a bizarre, abstract game, Soft Body has a consistent visual language that communicates when and how enemies will act. Your foes take the forms of circles, squares, and triangles, each of which has a specific animation telegraphing its upcoming attacks. One circular “turret” latches its aim onto your snake and follows its movement for several seconds before the line representing its aim solidifies and the turret fires a projectile. Squares have a core that slowly swells toward the borders of the full shape, releasing a wave of deadly, circular projectiles once it reaches its edges. These enemies never break from Soft Body’s established rule set and language, making it consistent to solve despite its ever-changing presentation.

Experimentation and identifying the reactions of the environment are essential to solving Soft Body’s puzzles, since new elements are sprinkled in throughout, often without any explanation. In one level, I saw a triangular border surrounding an enemy inside. Despite not having seen triangles in the game prior to that point, I swam up alongside it and discovered I could paint it to be my color. This speaks to the strength of a well-designed puzzle game: when the rules are consistent and the challenge is set up around that core rule set, solving puzzles remains satisfying in the long run. Soft Body embraces that concept while refusing to limit itself to being one predictable string of levels.

Soft Body is captivating. It’s the fish tank to my inner cat, a fascinating display of methodical movement, clever sound, and unusually satisfying puzzle solving. It’s a minimalist, meditative arcade throwback whose simplicity sometimes backfires into chaotic design, but more frequently delivers challenging and beautiful puzzles.

Categories: Games

Tastee: Lethal Tactics Review

Games Spot Reviews - Sat, 05/14/2016 - 17:00

In Tastee: Lethal Tactics, your plan is more important than the action that follows. It's a game of bets and bluffs, and if you telegraph your next move, you'll likely lose. Tastee doesn't always communicate its ideas effectively, and there are frustrating barriers to hurdle, but there's a tense, layered, turn-based strategy game waiting on the other side.

It all revolves around simultaneous turn-based combat in two phases. In the planning stage, you direct the stance, movement, vision cones, and attacks of four individual mercenaries fighting your opponents. In the action phase, you watch your plan unfold--all while the enemy does the same.

This forces you to think on several levels as you extract briefcases of money, defend control points, and eliminate enemy soldiers from an overhead view. You not only have to plan out your own attacks--you also need to consider the route your opponent might have in mind. So while your sniper may have one doorway covered, and your grenadier is ready to move around the corner of that building to get in position, this could all fall apart in the action phase if your opponent anticipated it. The resulting clashes are whiteknuckled displays of who saw the bigger picture in the planning phase.

This structure isn't new--Tastee borrows from games such as Frozen Synapse and Laser Defense Squad, which use similar phase-based combat systems that emphasize careful planning over reactionary tactics. As was the case in those titles, you spend most of your time in the planning stage, your squad members frozen in place, trying to think two steps ahead of the opponent. Facing another human exacerbates the tension of the missions. Tastee's AI performs well, but matches become cutthroat poker games when you can relate to, and exploit, another player's perspective.

Vision cones are essential to your battle plans.

Considering the numerous mechanical layers at play, and the nuance they display on each level, there's a steep learning curve to Tastee's combat. In fact, its tutorial only teaches the bare fundamentals of movement, aiming, and attacking before thrusting you onto the battlefield, either in multiplayer or the single-player missions. Because of Tastee's unforgiving difficulty--characters can die from only one bullet--most of your learning is based on trial and error. I spent almost two hours before I completed a mission without any casualties.

The 30 single-player missions focus loosely on a band of 12 misfit mercenaries fighting against the drug cartels in a desert wasteland. The story is sparse and and repetitive, and serves mainly to introduce new characters, complete with unique abilities to use on subsequent missions: flashbangs, door breaches, ricochet grenades, and enhanced sniper rifles, to name a few. They're some of the game's best aspects, as they create stronger attachments to their respective owners.

The loss of each soldier isn't permanent, but reverberates throughout the rest of your mission --losing a mercenary means losing a useful superpower, as it were. Augustus' Scout ability, for instance, lets you spot nearby enemies through the fog of war. If you can deduce which direction a soldier is running, and where he'll emerge from behind cover, you can set a sniper's sights on that exact spot. These abilities seem simple at first, but reveal deeper uses as you learn them.

There are numerous mechanical layers at play at any one moment.

Tastee's stellar map design is the catalyst for all of this planning and subsequent action. Missions span a variety of sandswept urban locales, from construction yards to abandoned shanty towns. Concrete walls funnel soldiers through choke points, wooden boards create complex sightlines, and low barriers provide opportunities for cover. The environments present a fine attention to detail, both in how they force your squad into precarious scenarios and how they allow you to master your surroundings. There's a sadistic thrill to circling your opponent's squad, eliminating them one by one, and setting up ambushes to stop their attempts at escape.

Maps can become something of a conundrum, however. Tastee's bigger arenas play host to numerous smaller encounters and nuanced skirmishes, lending a sense of cohesion to the separate huts, garages, and gas stations. The problem is, these bigger maps add to the confusion that sometimes rears its head in Tastee.

During the action phase, it's usually useful to zoom out from the map to see your overall plan unfolding. But the bigger the map, the less I understand the tactics of Tastee's world. There are more opportunities for distant snipers and random grenadiers to kill you on a whim. Often, I have no idea where I went wrong--what mistake sent things south. These sprawling locales are well designed in how they encourage tense individual encounters, but when they keep you at a distance from the action, it's hard to see what's happening on a minute level. The grasp I usually have on the tactical situation dissipates, leaving me confused.

Tastee's user interface doesn't do it any favors either. Instead of crowding the edges of the screen, characters' abilities and commands manifest in an arc above their heads. While this streamlines the process of selecting a mercenary, giving them a chain of commands, and setting waypoints throughout the map, it leads to several more frustrations. For one, characters' selection boxes often overlap. In close-quarters battles, it's often tough to target the wrong character. Secondly, cancelling commands or waypoints is laborious, forcing you to parse through tiny buttons on a small list for sometimes minutes on end, in an effort to finalize your plan.

Despite these annoyances, it's hard to deny the thrill of Tastee's firefights: moving your mercenaries into position, covering almost every sightline, worrying about that one you can't cover, and wincing as a shotgunner misses his target by a few inches--this is Tastee at its best.

Tastee is also clever in the way it disguises its systems in order to teach you through experience. It's an intelligent, difficult game with a high barrier of entry, and without patience, you might not see how great it can be. But once you see the layers hidden beneath the surface, Tastee Lethal Tactics becomes an intricate game of cutthroat poker. It just takes a bit of frustration to buy in.

Categories: Games

Nail Your Signature Festival Style At Our G-Star RAW Shopping Evening

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 05/13/2016 - 15:03
Join us for festival fashion advice, free personal styling and the chance to win G-Star’s hottest new product…
Categories: Fashion
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