God of War Review

 

Back in 2010, it seemed like the book was as good as closed on the God of War franchise. Not due to quality issues (that year?s God of War III and Ghost of Sparta were critically acclaimed), but because it seemed that there was no place else to go. Kratos? quest for revenge had led him on a rampage through the pantheon of Greek gods and culminated with the death of his father Zeus. We had performed hundreds of QTEs, killed dozens of gods in the grisliest of manners, and heard plenty of angry Kratos screams. We were done.

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When Ascension was announced a few years later, you could almost hear the collective groan from the gaming world. It was yet another prequel, it didn?t introduce much in the way of new gameplay, and Sony confusingly led its marketing with a multiplayer mode that no one was asking for. It wasn?t a trainwreck of a game, but it was far from eventful and didn?t necessitate the return of the neatly tied-up series.

At E3 2016, we saw our first glimpse of yet another return to God of War. Unlike Ascension, this reveal felt like far more of a departure from the franchise?s past. Kratos wasn?t screaming at the heavens or tearing a minotaur?s horn off and using it to disembowel him. Rather, the nearly ten-minute trailer focused more on dialogue between the protagonist and an as-yet-unknown son.

I was excited about the prospect of taking God of War in a new direction, but I also wondered if I?d enjoy it as much. I had always loved the over-the-top brutality in the same way that I enjoyed Mortal Kombat?s cartoonish fatalities. My favorite moments included beating Zeus to death until the screen was covered in blood, tearing the massive fingernail off of a titan, and in perhaps my favorite moment in the series, slamming a metal door onto the head of Theseus for way too long. God of War was a hilarious, over-the-top, violent revenge story, and I loved it for that. I worried that a more ?mature? take on the series would be like remaking Commando with an emphasis on the relationship between Col. Matrix and Jenny instead of an emphasis on rowing a boat up to an island and killing tons of bad guys.

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Of course, God of War wouldn?t have seen the massive success it enjoyed if it were based solely on blood and guts. Rock-solid gameplay ensured that it was more than a one-trick pony, so I hoped this PS4 reboot would satisfy on the gameplay front even if the ?screaming and killing? tone had changed.

The games of the original trilogy began by impaling the head of a Hydra on the mast of a ship, destroying a rampaging colossus from the inside, and poking out Poseidon?s eyes and throwing him off a cliff. By contrast, Kratos spends most of his time in the early hours of the new game by chatting with his young son. Compared to the seemingly intentional lack of nuance in the series? past, it?s handled extremely well this time around. Kratos is no longer a screaming avatar of rage that expresses himself via quicktime event. He?s older and sadder, with a quest of fulfilling a loved one?s dying wish instead of exacting vengeance on every god that crosses his path.

At the outset, he seems to be simultaneously preparing his son Atreus for a life as a warrior while also trying to steer him away from the path he took for himself. He?s harsh and humorless in the face of Atreus? childlike playfulness and inquisitive nature. If the topic of conversation isn?t about focusing in combat or removing emotion from killing, Kratos seems to have no time for it.

If this were the tone for the entire game, it could quickly become tiresome. Thankfully, this new world (set in Nordic mythology for the first time) is populated with plenty of characters that aren?t amused or intimidated by Kratos? gruffness. There are several new characters (including Atreus) who call him out on his attitude or poke fun at how much of a ridiculous grump he is, and he never really seems to know how to respond.

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We spend several hours getting accustomed to the new world, characters, mythology, and father/son dynamic. These hours aren?t without the occasional skirmish, so you?ll also have some time to get accustomed to the new over-the-shoulder camera and completely overhauled combat system. The new perspective and Kratos? Leviathan axe instantly feel more deliberate than the iconic, crowd-clearing Blades of Chaos. Your abilities are limited in use early on, with little to do other than light and heavy swings, bare-handed attacks, blocking with your shield, throwing the axe (with a boomerang-like return), and commanding Atreus to fire his bow in the general direction of the camera?s view.

Combat has changed in more fundamental ways than ?it?s over-the-shoulder and you have a kid now.? Rather than the face button-centric combat of the past, the majority of attacks are now handled via some combination of the triggers. Instead of a directional evade controlled by the right analog stick, you can now block (or parry) with L1 or roll out of the way by double-tapping X. It takes some time to get used to and I found myself messing up for many hours before I acclimated myself to the new system. Once everything clicks into place and you?ve earned some upgrades, combat feels as intense and responsive as ever.

I felt limited in my axe attacks in the early hours, but your combat capabilities continuously evolve over the course of the game. By the end, I was utilizing my weapons, bare-handed techniques, two special Runic attacks, a talisman ability, a rage meter, tons of unlocked combos, and numerous Atreus abilities to control and defeat large groups of enemies. Once you know what you?re doing and you have plenty of moves at your disposal, combat becomes more satisfying than the mash-friendly encounters of the past.

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Atreus is just as critical to combat as he is to the game?s story. You can use him to pull enemy attention and deal damage via his arrow attacks, and it never feels like he?s in the way or requires babysitting. It?s an even-better implementation of a companion than Ellie in The Last of Us. While she didn?t require a lot of protection either, she?d sometimes break immersion by running around in plain sight during a stealth sequence. That isn?t an issue in God of War, as Atreus fits in perfectly at all times, whether it?s a combat encounter or a father/son chat while rowing across the Lake of Nine.

Hopping into that boat with Atreus is the first real taste of just how open and different the format is this time around. Previous God of War titles were strictly linear, with only the occasional branch off the main path (almost always to find a hidden chest). A story objective is clearly marked once you reach the lake, but it?s immediately clear that you?re free to explore at your leisure. The Lake of Nine almost feels like Hyrule Field in a 3D Zelda game, serving as a central hub that connects a wide variety of smaller locales and challenges. Between almost every story beat, I loved sailing around to side areas to see what I could find. More often than not, my exploration would be rewarded in the form of side stories, clever puzzles, hidden collectibles, or new gear.

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I was initially excited about the prospect of a robust customization system in a God of War game, but it doesn?t quite work as well as I hoped. You can discover and craft a wide variety of armor, talismans, axe pommels, runes, and more, but everything from the interface to the inventory management feels a bit half-baked. New crafting materials are constantly being thrown at you (especially late in the game) with little explanation of what they?re for. A ?resources? tab in the menu doesn?t always clear things up, such as when I started finding things like Symbols of Perseverance in treasure chests but no mention of them anywhere else in the game.

Some materials are tied to rare enemies, so I had no idea if their supply was inherently limited or if the necessary enemies would respawn at a later time. I also found little reason to change out gear or runic abilities unless it was for a significant, obvious step up in rarity. Once I found something I liked, I?d funnel tons of materials and currency into upgrading it. I?d eventually find some new base-level gear or ability, but I?d already be so invested in whatever I was currently using that I wouldn?t want to start the process again with something that was untested.

God of War?s first gear system doesn?t knock it out of the park, but it?s at least cool to see new armor represented visually on Kratos. Each element of this game?s visual design is impeccable, melding the stunning scenery the earlier titles were known for with technical brilliance that rivals the best we?ve seen from Naughty Dog. Titles like Uncharted: Lost Legacy and Horizon: Zero Dawn have made great cases for a PS4 Pro and a 4K television, but God of War?s visuals are a bigger selling point than anything I?ve seen on Sony?s platform to date. Dark caverns and blinding ethereal locations make great use of HDR, and the art design of the various environments is bound to look amazing regardless of what you?re playing on.

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I was excited for a new take on God of War, but I don?t think I could have expected what Sony Santa Monica pulled off with this one. Those first three games are among my favorite games of the 2000s thanks to their visceral combat, stunning environments, grand scale, satisfying upgrades, and memorable boss fights. I even loved the skin deep, silly nature of its narrative and violence. This new entry proves that it can provide all of the positive qualities of the franchise?s past while expanding on and evolving them in every conceivable way. The new combat system is excellent, the numerous puzzles are clever and rewarding, a more open format gives you plenty of reason to explore, and the entire adventure is at least three times longer than any of the original games without ever feeling padded out.

Perhaps most importantly, I didn?t know how much more ground could be covered with Kratos as a character. The new Nordic mythology obviously gives Sony Santa Monica plenty of new material to play with, but it?s the new Kratos that?s responsible for the game?s most striking evolution. I?ve played through five God of War games as this character, and never saw him as much more than ?the tough screamy guy that?s gonna kill all these gods in hilarious ways.? Now, I find myself just as invested in the quiet conversations Kratos has with Atreus as I do with my newest weapon upgrade. God of War grew up, and the result is the best entry in the series.

 

Far Cry 5 Review

 

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The setting and ideas of Far Cry 5 have a ton of promise that don't bear much fruit in the final product. There's probably a great story you could tell around a Christian Doomsday Prepper Cult that has you fighting them off as they prepare for the End Times by murdering everyone around them and stealing all the resources they can. That's meat that few games even attempt to chew. But the ambitious setting doesn't pay off in this story that seems to want to hedge every chance it gets. The end result is a story that goes nowhere, says nothing, and fails to live up to the previous settings and villains in the franchise. If you can get past that... the rest is pretty much fine if you're up for another Far Cry game.

The cult you're fighting has four leaders. Three control territories, and once you've executed enough missions in those territories, you can take that area back. Take over all three territories and you'll trigger the game's final mission against the Father, Joseph Seed, who looks and acts like a C-tier Matthew McConaughey character. Each cult lieutenant gets a bit of screen time as the game very much overuses the idea of you getting captured and hauled off to listen to a bunch of rudimentary rambling from the torture guy who looks like a low-rent coke dealer, the lady pumping hallucinogens into the water to ensure an orderly flock, or the ex-military guy who wants to train people like they were Pavlov's dogs. I found that most of the long speeches from these characters just go in circles and don't actually give any of them any real weight. They aren't charismatic the way Pagan Min was, they aren't menacing the way Vaas was, either. They seem flat. Monotonous, even.

The lack of conviction in Far Cry 5 permeates the entire product. It doesn't just make its bad guys feel like generic, uncharismatic cultists. The militias and other characters you befriend along the way are also just... there. Maybe it'd be interesting to know why this particular valley in Montana has multiple militias and what their whole deal is beyond "we're a militia and we hate this cult." Maybe it'd be nice if you occasionally met a meaningful character who wasn't already armed and talking about what's up with "their squad" mere days after the cult started going nuts. For as much as it's disappointing that the villains aren't given enough dramatic weight, the way the game portrays rural America is somehow even darker. Everyone is either crazy, stupid, or both. Multiple missions involve "getting someone's truck back, aw shucks, we sure loved that truck." Meanwhile, after you've rescued dozens of people including a guy who owns a freakin' airplane, no one thinks to revisit the game's first idea of "we should drive to Missoula and get on the phone to someone about this." In the end, most NPCs are just people holding guns, wearing distressed American flag T-shirts, telling you about some paramilitary shit they got into or want to get into. Meanwhile, the first "good" prepper you meet is a vet with a USA jacket and a Canadian accent. It doesn't feel like a believable portrayal of rural life, even rural life under extreme duress.

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Because so much of the game traffics in mindgames, either via Faith Seed's drugs or Jacob Seed's brainwashing--large parts of the game's biggest moments are spent with the screen all filtered or wavy because you're "not right in the head." You'll see things that might not be there, you'll do things that would definitely be impossible, you'll see stuff that couldn't possibly be happening. That's fine, up to a point. Beating one of the cult lieutenants who can seemingly teleport around at will, control minds directly, and both fly and shoot fireballs at you during her boss fight is a decent departure from reality, but with so much of the game leaning on this seemingly supernatural stuff, it's hard to take any of it seriously.

I guess I won't get into specifics, but did the earth-shaking events of the final confrontation even happen? Considering you're able to load back into the world after the credits and play like nothing happened, I want to say that it was all just another drug trip in a game with far too many drug trips. It only further undermines the potential of setting a Far Cry game in Montana and taking on a religious cult. At one point the leader of the cult gives the generic "free will is an illusion, maaaaan" speech and I nearly started just skipping cutscenes. The story leans on altered states and empty words too heavily and feels utterly weightless as a result.

The rest of it is fairly par for the course when it comes to Far Cry. Some changes have been made around the edges, some are improvements, some aren't. The more organic way you happen upon side missions and fill out your map is a nice touch. You'll find friendly AI characters out in the woods who will tell you "hey, this youth camp has been turned into a cult outpost, we should go kill 'em" and that will pop an outpost marker on your map. Or you might just stumble into the outpost while going from place to place. The cultists like to hold hostages, and saving a hostage usually gives you a person who will fill in another point on the map. This is a meaningful step up from the old "climb tower, populate region" style.

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Despite multiple missions dealing with truck recovery, the missions usually feel like they fit into the world more organically, too. The game feels less like a set of checklists while also helpfully contextualizing the overtly checklist-y quests like "destroy all cult equipment in this region" or "save X hostages in this region." There are interesting little "prepper stashes" that require a bit of puzzling out to unlock. The game has its share of goofy side characters, some of which work, while others most definitely do not. I'd also argue that the goofy side characters further take away from the potential for a weighty main story, but considering how far off the mark the game is with the tone of its main quests, the idiots on the side were a lot more welcome.

Player progression has been rebuilt via an in-game achievement system instead of the standard experience points and perk trees. Doing specific things, like getting 10 pistol kills, gives you points that can be spent on perks. Most perks don't have any prerequisites, so you can more or less grow your character as you see fit. That said, being forced to play the game in stunty ways, like getting flamethrower kills even though the flamethrower isn't a particularly great or fun or useful weapon, is pretty lame. The crafting system of hunting to get specific skins to build specific upgrade is also gone. Instead you'll sell skins for money and there are achievements (and, thus, perk points) for skinning a set number of each animal. The old system better rewarded you for playing the game the way you want to play it while making hunting feel like it mattered, and this system feels like a real step back.

The weapon selection is also weirdly weak. It's broken up into categories, but you'll see multiple weapons in some categories with the exact same stats, like different models of an AK-47 and such. This is made even weirder by the game's gun customization options, which offers skins and attachments for everything. Why have two of the same rifle for sale in the menu? Why isn't one of them just a skin for the other? The arsenal feels light, as a result. Also, getting into a store seems to take an extra second or two, like it's hitting a server or something. Considering there are "prestige weapons" and other skins that you can optionally buy with a premium, real-money currency, maybe that's why it takes so long to get into the store. While some of the skins, vehicle paint jobs, and outfits are fun, Far Cry 5 is a first-person game. You barely ever see that stuff when you're playing the game.

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Far Cry 5 is, at times, very fidgety and glitchy. I ran into multiple quest-bearing NPCs who ran off mid-sentence and refused to activate again, forcing me to quit and restart. One such character was in the middle of telling me that he couldn't swim, then he got into an actively scared "there's an enemy nearby" state and immediately swam away. Pretty good form, too. One boss fight simply instructs you to kill the boss, so I pulled out my sniper rifle and smoked him. But he'll pop right back up, awkwardly, if you do it that way. You need to get up close so you can trigger a cutscene death. At one point in the game you're being constantly hunted by planes, but getting spotted by a plane doesn't activate enemies on the ground, so I was able to stealthily take over an outpost while also being bombarded and strafed from above. Characters flop around the environment, your AI helpers use their loud voices in stealth situations and sometimes use their stealth voices in open combat... while some of these glitches are funny and all, there are a few too many of them. They've been making these games for years, you'd figure some of this stuff would have been cleaned up a bit better by now.

The game has a map editor and a whole separate mode called Far Cry Arcade that lets you share, play, and rate user-created levels and multiplayer maps. Some of the outposts and assault missions I've seen in these early days have been pretty good, and you'll earn some cash and perk points to take back into the campaign, but after 20 hours of finishing Far Cry 5 and messing around a bit with some arcade maps, I'm just not sure that I need an infinite array of mini Far Cry levels. The campaign was more than enough. The Arcade mode is well-made, though the competitive multiplayer doesn't feel great.

A big part of the cult leader's final plea to you as the player is a large speech about how you're the real monster, running around the environment and murdering everything in your path. He even goes so far as to say that there are some problems that can't be solved with a bullet. But aside from a good ending/bad ending choice, a gimmicky fake early ending that was done better in Far Cry 4, and one or two minor points along the way, Far Cry 5 isn't a game about choice--unless you count the choice of which cult leader you're going to kill first. You might not be able to solve every problem with a bullet, but when the game only gives you bullets to work with, you aren't left with too many other real options. It seems like a dumb move on the writers' part to shine such a bright spotlight on how inflexible their open-world game actually is, but that's Far Cry 5. A decent video game undermined by bad pacing, weak characters, and a wishy-washy world view. Play it cooperatively with a friend, ignore the characters and their motivations, and you'll probably have a good time.

 

Burnout Paradise Remastered Review

 

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There has been a Burnout-shaped hole in video gaming for the last 10 years. Other games have attempted to fill bits and pieces of that hole with varying degrees of success. You can see a smidge of Burnout in Split/Second's huge destruction-focused racing. Forza Horizon's open-world collectibles are a strong reminder, too. You can also, of course, see little pieces of it in a few of the Need for Speed games that have been released in Burnout's wake, especially the ones that come from at least some of the people behind Burnout. But nothing has put all the pieces together in a way that surpasses Burnout Paradise. So EA's re-release, Burnout Paradise Remastered, still somehow feels fresh and exciting a full decade later. Playing it pulls me in a lot of different directions. On one hand, it's great to just play Burnout Paradise all over again and the higher resolution and texture touch-ups make this a somewhat better version of the original game. On the other, being reminded of just how terrific Burnout Paradise is really underscores just how gutless and underwhelming driving games--especially EA's Need for Speed series--have been since.

I reviewed the game in 2008, and the vast majority of what I said then still holds true. The remaster doesn't make any meaningful changes to the gameplay, world, or structure. The main thing that happened since that review was written was that a boatload of add-on content was released for the game. A handful of free patches added new modes to the online and additional cars and a new landmass, Big Surf Island, were sold post-release. BPR includes all of that DLC. I mean, of course it does, it would be silly to release a collection and try to sell DLC all over again... but having all those special cars right out of the gate actually nullifies some of the game's core progression. You're supposed to work up to the fast cars, getting better at driving and learning the city as you go. Being able to leap into some of the game's fastest rides without earning it spoils the progression a little bit. Of course, if you jump into the faster cars without having learned the curves of Paradise City beforehand, you're probably going to have a little trouble.

There are aspects of Burnout Paradise that felt deliberate and understandable at the time, but these days they're the things that remind you that this game is 10 years old. There's no fast travel in the game. Since each race starts from a different intersection across the map, that means you'll have to cruise around before you can get into a specific event. This ends up feeling OK for awhile since the collectibles and other emergent parts of Paradise are probably more interesting than the events are, anyway. But once you smash all 400 of the shortcut gates and crash through most of the billboards, you eventually just want to get on with it and start finishing races. The game doesn't even meet you halfway by letting you set a waypoint to the next race and guiding you there, even though there's a rudimentary guidance system in place during races.

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Events that have a finish line all end at one of eight locations, all spread around to the different edges of the map. This is pretty neat, but the upshot here is that there are only a couple of ways to get to some of these locations. So any race that has you heading west in the direction of the ranch is almost always going to take you over the same bridge every single time. There are only a couple of ways to get to the wind farm, so you'll know the curves leading up to it better than most other roads in the game. In retrospect, a few more finish lines would've gone a long way.

The "new" island add-on tries to get away from the set finish line concept in favor of checkpoint races, which I never really enjoyed very much. The island is neat, but it feels like too many things packed together in a small space, so I never much cared for it when compared to the base game. Still, there are some fun new cars to unlock there and the huge jumps are pretty cool. The motorcycles that were also added post-release feel a little hollow. They're fast and come with their own new challenges, but don't smash up the way the cars do.

Expectations from an online game have changed. That doesn't make the game's "freeburn challenges" any less cool, but it does make the way they're structured feel a bit more like a hassle. These challenges are cooperative in nature. Some of them will have a full team of eight racers doing donuts around the same fountain, some are as simple as getting a little air or boosting into oncoming traffic for a few seconds. But there's a set of challenges for each player count, so the two-player challenges are different from the three-player challenges and so on. This makes playing with strangers kind of a hassle at times, since one player leaving can cancel a challenge, forcing the host to start a new one for the new player count or, if you're trying to get some specific ones finished, you'll need to wait for someone else. I managed to complete all of the non-timed freeburn challenges in the first game, but it took a whole lot of patience and a fair amount of coaxing strangers over voice chat to help get things done. I'm curious to see how it goes these days, but a firmer way to cluster these challenges together and sort of message to players that they're joining a co-op session might've made this process a bit smoother.

The game looks good on a 4K TV on either a PlayStation 4 Pro or an Xbox One X. The resolution helps you see cars clearly when they're far away, perhaps giving you a split second longer to identify and dodge oncoming traffic. Or maybe I've just gotten better at the game since then. Learning the city helps with that, and that's one thing that hasn't changed. Paradise City is expertly designed, with curves that lead to long, terrific drifts. The shortcuts are fun to find and use in events. The whole city just fits together in a way that helps enable all that amazing high-speed action.

That's maybe the most striking thing about Burnout Paradise. Every aspect of the base game feels designed to work well with every other aspect. The cars are fast and most of them drift at the tap of your brake, and there are sweeping curves ready to accept those drifts. The shortcuts lead you some wild places, jumping and smashing your way ahead of the pack. By comparison, most driving games feel like a compromise between trying to design a real city for you to race real cars in while also trying to make an exciting video game. Burnout Paradise evokes reality but never at the expense of gameplay. That's something that other racing games could still stand to steal from this one.

 

Metal Gear Survive Review

 

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The name on the box attempts to tell you what Metal Gear Survive actually is. That is, it combines elements of Metal Gear with the elements more commonly found in a survival game. The catch is that it doesn't actually take enough of the right Metal Gear stuff to evoke that long-running franchise in a meaningful way while also layering its style of survival with just enough microtransactions and late-game surprise energy timers to make the whole thing feel pretty skeevy. So the end result is a game that manages to be both a bad survival game and a bad Metal Gear game.

Survive feels like a mod of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It uses the same engine and a lot of the same assets, so the basic look and movement control will seem somewhat familiar. But the scenario and combat is vastly different. Here, you're a created character sent through a mysterious wormhole into a far-off land... is it an alternate dimension? That's one of perhaps two questions the game asks and answers in its story, so perhaps I'll just let that one hang. It should suffice to say that most of the inhabitants of said area are crystalline zombies that aren't too bright, but can become a hassle if you alert a pack of them to your presence. You'll craft weapons to fight them, the most effective of which is a simple spear-type weapon that lets you thrust damage into the zombies from a slightly safer distance than most of the other options. As you play, guns and bows also become an option, but the upkeep on ammo crafting and limited inventory space for bullets and arrows make guns and bows special-use items, best saved for when enemy numbers swell beyond your control.

Upkeep is how Metal Gear Survive earns the "survive" part of its name. All your gear deteriorates, requiring you to collect and expend resources just to keep your existing stuff in working order. You have fairly harsh hunger and thirst meters to keep up, and your maximum health and stamina is determined by your current hunger and thirst levels. So as your hunger meter drops, so does your maximum health. These meters drop quite a bit more quickly than seems reasonable. You'll also venture into clouded, low-visibility areas called "the dust" on a regular basis. When you're in the dust, you also have an oxygen supply that drains until you return to base and refill. Some of these worries get mitigated, but they get mitigated in ways that manage to make them even more of a hassle, not less. You can eventually find and build a portable oxygen station that you can deploy in the world, so you'll only need to return to that point and refill, rather than teleporting all the way back to base from a fast travel point. But once you're forced to run back to a safe zone to refill your oxygen, you might as well just teleport back anyway.

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Base-building will eventually get you farms and water collectors, helping to keep your meters filled. But you'll also start recruiting other survivors into your base, which then requires you to supply food, water, and medical supplies directly to the base, so your team can stay up and functioning. It's a system that adds some needed complexity to the game, since without any base-building the game would feel even more pointless, but keeping everything up and running creates a lot of busy work, such as moving water from one inventory closet to another so that it can be "mutualized" for use by your group. The entire post-game is built around this base and finding survivors, making you wonder if the developers of this game thought that stuff would be fun? It isn't.

Metal Gear has been widely known for its over-the-top stories and long cinematic sequences. When compiled in the proper ratios, those two things have combined to make some fantastic Metal Gear games. This one relegates most of its mindless story to static screens filled with character dialog, coming from a cast that can't bring life to the game's lifeless script. The story has very little to do with the pre-existing Metal Gear universe and the areas where it does tie in seem like they're only there to justify the re-use of some old Phantom Pain assets. The few cutscenes that do pop up are light on story content and only serve to remind you that the Metal Gear name used to really mean something.

The game also has a lot of wave-based survival sequences, where you must protect a piece of equipment from incoming hordes for a set amount of time. These parts of the game can really drag in the story, but once you're done with the story, repeating this sort of activity is one of the few things left to do. The game lets you take on these challenges with three other souls, should you want to engage with the game's co-op mode, but back at base you can also set up longer-term survival missions for yourself. These come with timers that last 12 or 24 hours between waves, and the zombies attack whether you're playing the game or not, so if your base defense team isn't very good you'll need to make sure you remember to fire up the game and do it for yourself. The online co-op is far shorter, but not really any more engaging than the solo stuff. In the end, this is the way to get some of the game's best crafting recipes, but once you've finished the story, why would you care about finding shotgun ammo that shocks enemies or a quiver that lets you hold a slightly higher number of arrows? It's wild to see in practice.

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On top of all this, the game layers on some microtransactions. Want an additional character slot? That's 1000 "SV coins," which is around $10 in Actual Money. Want to speed up this lame, long timer between the zombie attack waves that comprise the bulk of what I'd probably call "endgame content?" Drop some cash. Want some emotes for the co-op mode that isn't much fun in the first place? They'll sell 'em to ya, no problem. It has all the trappings of a game that should probably be free-to-play, but Konami is asking $40 for it up front. That's a bad deal.

After Phantom Pain was released and the split between publisher Konami and series creator Hideo Kojima became public, some folks lamented that we'd never see another game on Konami's Fox Engine ever again. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

For more details on our time with Metal Gear Survive, check out the Quick Look embedded above or last week's Giant Bombcast, where the game was covered with some additional, post-Quick Look detail.

 

Star Wars: Battlefront II Review

 

When Electronic Arts revived the Star Wars: Battlefront name two years ago, it laid the groundwork for what could have been a successful new take on the series. A new trilogy of films was about to hit theaters and enthusiasm for the brand was at its highest in recent memory. Battlefront?s revival delivered in terms of presentation and fleeting multiplayer fun, but the lack of a substantial progression system or single-player campaign limited the long-term value of the game.

Battlefront II had the potential to make good on its predecessor?s shortcomings. Early in its marketing cycle, EA trumpeted a single-player campaign as a core component of the sequel. If that delivered on the single-player front and progression was improved over the bare-bones star card system of the last game, there was little to keep Battlefront II from being a huge improvement over its predecessor.

It fails on both fronts.

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The sub-five hour story makes Call of Duty campaigns seem like nuanced, flexible affairs by comparison. What could have been an interesting, canonical take on the Empire?s activities between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens instead feels like a Disney World ride. You?re pointed in the right direction and shuttled along from shootout to shootout. If you feel like exploring your surroundings at all, you?re met with a ?return to the mission? countdown the moment you step off the intended path.

When you?re not mindlessly firing at the enemy, the objectives are rote and uninspired. Defend this guy while he activates a terminal. Plant a bomb on this thing. Hey, here?s an on-rails vehicle section. It?s every boring objective you?ve ever played in a shooter campaign, but tossed into a blender with some shiny Star Wars stickers. It all looks great and controls fine, but that does little to remedy the extremely bland moment-to-moment action.

Iden's father Garrick is featured heavily in the story.
Iden's father Garrick is featured heavily in the story.

The campaign fails on the narrative front, as well. It introduces us to Iden Versio, a special forces soldier for the Galactic Empire and daughter of a stoic admiral. This being Star Wars, much of the threadbare story revolves around conflicts with her father and the general struggle of good versus evil. While the movies aren?t particularly subtle, everything in Battlefront II?s campaign is as obvious and hamfisted as possible. I won?t spoil explicit details, but major alignment changes happen in a jarring and sudden way that?s never really given enough thought or script time to feel like we should actually care about it.

Its campaign wants to create the illusion of depth. Iden can collect up to eight abilities and four passive boosts, but these are basic tweaks like changing grenade types or improving cooldown times. Certain terminals will allow you to see live security footage of guards, implying that the game has some kind of significant stealth element (it doesn?t). When difficulty spikes pop up, it?s not because the game throws well-crafted encounters at you. Rather, it just brute forces you with tons of enemies.

Iden's story takes a back seat at several points.
Iden's story takes a back seat at several points.

Iden?s lackluster story isn?t even her own. Despite being less than five hours long, four of the twelve missions are fan service sections that put you in control of series favorites like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. These may have felt more welcome in a longer, more substantial campaign, but here they feel like cameos that overstay their welcome and distract from what little story there is with Iden.

One of my two hopes for this sequel was dashed by the weak campaign. As disappointing as it is, it?s nowhere near as disastrous and potentially irreparable as the changes EA has made to multiplayer. Instead of expanding upon and improving the weak progression options from the last game, Battlefront II?s star card system excises the joy out of multiplayer.

Star cards are inherently tied to in-game abilities and effectiveness. Passive boosts improve health recovery and reduce incoming damage. Ability cards can grant you improved turrets and shields, increased damage, and new weapons like grenade launchers and homing missiles. These cards are earned by opening loot crates. It takes a while to earn enough in-game currency to open one, and I consistently found myself disappointed by my rewards.

Don't get your hopes up.
Don't get your hopes up.

Crates can contain a variety of cards, and each one can apply to a class, a hero/villain character, or a vehicle. More often than not, they unlock insignificant rewards like emotes and victory poses. This feels alright in a game like Overwatch, as your in-game performance isn?t dictated in part by the contents of its loot crates. In Battlefront II, I?m much less excited to unlock a new victory pose for Yoda because that means I received that instead of something that will actually improve my performance.

I kept grinding away at multiplayer, hoping that I?d get cards for my favorite class, hero, or vehicle. After I played enough to buy a loot crate, I?d usually get a paltry amount of credits or an emote for a character or class I never played as. At no point did I feel like I was making any progress towards directly improving anything I use. I?d just grind and grind until I had enough to buy a loot box, then get disappointed by its contents and repeat the cycle again. It feels less like I?m improving my loadouts as I progress and more like I?m killing time between pulls of a bad slot machine that never really pays out.

There is one way to have at least some say in your loadouts, and that?s by crafting and upgrading specific cards that you want. However, this is accomplished by spending crafting materials that are earned through the same loot crate system as everything else. When all of your potential upgrades ultimately come at the whims of randomized loot crates, nothing that you?re doing in-game actually feels like it matters.

The crafting system doesn't fix anything.
The crafting system doesn't fix anything.

At the time of this writing, EA has already made multiple massive changes to how this ill-conceived progression system works. The publisher initially reduced the cost of unlockables by 75%, and eventually (and possibly temporarily) eliminated real money transactions altogether. Neither of these moves have rectified the situation. Battlefront II?s star card and loot box system is fundamentally terrible, and no tweaking to costs?either real money or in-game?can fix it.

It?s a shame, because the foundation of multiplayer isn?t bad. Its primary mode is Galactic Assault, a 40-player, multi-objective battle featuring both on-foot and in-vehicle action. You?ll start as the class of your choosing, and earn battle points by killing enemies and participating in the objectives (which are typically along the lines of ?defend this position? or ?attack this thing?). As you accumulate battle points, you can cash them in to spawn as various hero characters or vehicles. It?s all perfectly functional and enjoyable multiplayer fare. That said, much of its appeal comes from the fact that it all looks and sounds like Star Wars. Without the license and recognizable faces and places, there really isn?t anything especially innovative or unique in this mode.

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Starfighter Assault was my favorite mode. These 24-person space battles place you in the cockpit of various rebel and imperial vehicles and task you with taking out enemies while working towards a larger objective (usually ?take down/protect this large spacecraft?). It?s not particularly deep, but dogfighting through asteroid fields and taking apart Star Destroyers bit by bit offered a kind of popcorn fun that temporarily made me forget about the shattered skeleton of Battlefront II?s multiplayer progression.

I?d have fun during these matches, at least until the very end. That?s when the game would spit me back out to the menu, trickle a few credits into my inventory, and I?d remember how little my performance actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Flying around and shooting TIE fighters out of the sky is all well and good, but the thrills don?t last long without some kind of hook or sense of reward to keep you coming back.

It's been 15 years, and Yoda still looks stupid with a lightsaber.
It's been 15 years, and Yoda still looks stupid with a lightsaber.

This feeling held true with Heroes vs. Villains, a returning mode that can occasionally be fun despite its shallowness. Being able to regularly play as Kylo Ren or Emperor Palpatine is cool, but your efforts will likely reward you with a class emote or two-percent damage increase for your X-Wing or something equally inapplicable to the characters you actually used.

In terms of features, Battlefront II checks most of the boxes you?d want in a big shooter like this. It has a campaign, an assortment of multiplayer modes, a progression system, and basic offline scenarios that you can play solo or with a friend. Once you dive deeper, you realize that it doesn?t matter that these features are all present. Its campaign is as forgettable and formulaic as any shooter campaign in recent years. Its multiplayer modes can occasionally be fun in a vacuum, but any long-term enjoyment is crippled by the star card system.

On paper, this should have been a safe bet for both Electronic Arts and Star Wars fans. EA was bound to sell plenty of copies based purely off of the popularity of the license, and they should have been able to satisfy fans by adding the elements that the last Battlefront lacked. While they did add those elements, the additions were either severely underwhelming or fundamentally broken. The end result feels like a game that was created in a boardroom, its DNA formed by focus testing and market research. Time will tell what EA does in an attempt to remedy its grave errors with Battlefront II, but the game as it stands today is little more than a disappointing mess. Its technical prowess, beloved characters, and shiny spacecraft serve as little more than a distracting facade that covers an embarrassing attempt at a marquee Star Wars game.

 

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

 

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At first blush, the premise of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle sounds like a twisted kitbash that would spring out of some bad, late-night message board conversation, only to be written off as "too weird." "It'll never happen," they'd say, as they pivot back to pitching their "Mega Man but with Wrestlers Instead of Robot Masters" idea to anyone who would listen. And that's why none of us are making video games. Ubisoft and Nintendo shared a vision and made a game that takes the characters of the Mario universe, smashes them up against the weird, underpants-fueled world of Ubisoft's Rabbids, and drops them into a turn-based strategy game that plays like a friendly version of XCOM with a lot more depth than you'd initially assume. Though the gameplay itself wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through its story, that initial premise and some terrific writing carry Kingdom Battle quite nicely.

The basic idea here is that a kid (who happens to be a big Nintendo fan) invents a set of goggles that can combine things together. Rabbids bust in and trash the place, as Rabbids are wont to do, and the goggles end up tearing a hole between this world and the Mushroom Kingdom. So the worlds, characters, and styles collide, usually in interesting ways. This leads to Rabbid versions of popular Mario characters, like "Rabbid Mario" and "Rabbid Peach" on your team, and fun enemies and bosses that probably shouldn't be spoiled here. Over the course of the story, you do what you can to right what's gone wrong and save the Mushroom Kingdom from this unwelcome blast of mashup culture.

The story's big beats are fairly standard, but there's a flourish and tone to the game that plays around with the very nature of what it means to be a Mario game. This leads to big entrances from classic characters on multiple occasions, but the writing along the way stands out, too. Not that all the writing is great, but the dialogue, most of which comes from a Roomba-like computer pal that serves as your cursor in combat, feels slightly more modern than you'd expect from a Mario game. Or, to put it another way, Rabbid Peach is obsessed with taking selfies and the game manages to make that totally work in an endearing way that feels subversive for a Nintendo game. There's even a boss fight against a singing character who lays down verses about Mario's perceived shortcomings, even touching on how he can't seem to string together more than two or three words at a time. The concept of Mario gets skewered in a way that almost had to have come from outsiders, people like you and me who have been living with the same burning questions for decades. Nintendo itself would probably never even think to ask these questions in the first place. This stuff doesn't permeate the entire game, but when it pops up, it's kind of incredible.

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All of this story lives at the edges of a turn-based strategy game that, at first glance, seems like a stripped-down take on the XCOM franchise. You'll move your squad of three characters around a map, taking cover whenever possible, taking shots at enemy rabbids along the way. As you start to get into the game's skill tree, the number of things you can do on a given turn begin to expand in a way that can almost be a little intimidating at first. Maximizing each character's full potential in each turn makes the encounters feel almost like a puzzle to be solved, rather than a straight-up strategy game. Part of that comes from less reliance on dice rolls than you might expect from a game of this sort. If a target is in range and not in cover, you will hit 100% of the time. If a target is behind full cover, you will hit 0% of the time, but most of the cover is destructible if you hit it enough times. Targets behind half cover is the only time you'll bite a nail or two, because those shots are always taken at a 50% chance to hit. You can also slide tackle targets while you're on the move and still get to where you're going with no movement penalty. Mario and Luigi have overwatch-like abilities that trigger with an automatic shot any time an enemy character moves, and that shot hits every single time. Combined with critical hit abilities that give some weapons a chance to pop enemies up in the air, and you're in for a show. Landing a critical hit while both Mario and Luigi are in position to lay down more damage as an enemy flies through the air in slow motion is a sight to see. Other characters can heal, land jumping attacks, draw enemies closer to force them out of cover, and so on. There are eight playable characters in all and you can respec your points at any time, so there's a pretty good amount of flexibility there.

Less flexible, then, are the weapon selections. Each character will have two weapons at their disposal, and the weapons are first unlocked in various ways, then they must be purchased with coins. Coins are fairly easy to come by, and you'll probably get most of yours by doing well in combat. Each chapter of the story breaks down into one or more encounters, and each one of those has a set par time for the number of turns you want to try to finish under. Doing so (without also losing anyone in your party) marks that encounter as perfect, giving you the maximum number of coins at the end of the section. You'll eventually have opportunities to return to the earlier worlds and take on new challenges, giving you plenty of opportunity to grind out currency, which may end up coming in handy later in the game.

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Outside of combat, the game has a lot of walking. You'll hoof it from one fight to the next, and the game peppers these connecting areas with light puzzles and a ton of unlockable music and concept art. Most of those prizes are a little underwhelming in the context of the game itself, so after seeming charming for the first world or so, these puzzle quickly become tedious challenges with little reward. It's a shame that there isn't more variety here, because the core idea is sound, but before too long these bone-simple block-pushing puzzles just feel like a bad use of time.

The combat takes a turn in the third world. Right around the time you've got a good grasp on your abilities, enemies that nullify some of your best stuff start to pop up and ruin the fun. This forces you to change things up a bit and potentially swap in some new characters. The orbs that let you purchase new abilities are good for every character, so you won't find yourself in an ability hole if you need to swap in someone new, but purchased weapons are only good for one character. So you might find yourself out of coins and unable to purchase viable weaponry for the characters you haven't been using. This ends up being frustrating, creating a situation where you may need to go back and grind out some challenge missions to get your team in order. Either way, the increase in difficulty is not unmanageable, but the teleport abilities used by later enemies make them far less fun to fight. I found most of the combat in the back half of the game to just be kind of a hassle, which ended up with me limping into the final confrontations, ready for it to all be over. It's a shame that the gameplay couldn't quite keep up with the rest of the game.

The out-of-combat drudgery and late-game enemy design are probably the only negative things about Mario + Rabbids, but they end up casting a large shadow over the experience as a whole. That's not to say that the game should have just been some friendly cakewalk from start to finish--the game's got difficulty options that ensure that anyone should be able to get through the fights with enough persistence--but the way the game changes things up near the end makes the combat feel like a chore on any setting. It's an unfortunate shift that mars the final product quite a bit. This is still a wild ride with a handful of amazing moments, but the gameplay part of it needs more variety than it has, so the whole thing ends up coming back down to earth and feeling a little disappointing by the end.

 

Call of Duty: WWII Review

 

Despite the change in era, this still feels like a Call of Duty game.
Despite the change in era, this still feels like a Call of Duty game.

It's been a decade, almost to the day, since Call of Duty rewrote the book on multiplayer first-person shooters with the release of Modern Warfare. The game's fast action and propulsive sense of progression with interesting new gear and unlocks changed it all, and in the years that followed, developers continued to refine and rework the Call of Duty blueprint, often in surprising new ways that made a great thing even better. Over time, though, those changes have been getting more and more divisive, culminating in last year's game, which let you travel to space, run on walls, and shoot lasers at the opposition. This year's game rejects all of that and takes things back to the original, pre-MW days by rolling all the way back to where the whole series began: World War II. While there's certainly something to be said for a back-to-basics approach, COD: WWII is plain and straightforward in a way that makes it feel less like the developers were excited and inspired by a return to the 1940s and more like market research determined that it was time for a reset.

This manifests most plainly in the game's campaign. Call of Duty campaigns vary wildly, but they're usually at their best when they stray from their linear roots. This year's campaign feels bone stock in setting, story, and execution. You largely play as a Texas farm boy with a picture of his best girl in his pocket, just trying to stay sane and alive as the war gets more and more grim. You've got some friendly faces with you throughout, and the cutscenes more or less have your core group of characters palling around between major conflicts. Your story starts at Normandy, because this is a World War II game, and weaves its way through the battles that followed as US forces pushed into France and, eventually, the Rhine.

The story almost feels like a placeholder, like something they meant to replace with
The story almost feels like a placeholder, like something they meant to replace with "the real story" at some point.

I found the characters and arc to feel lifeless and generic in a way that really undercuts the game's attempts at an emotional core. This feels like a remake of a World War II game that would have come out last time around, when every game about war was just giving its own spin on influential media like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. It doesn't really have anything new to say about the nature of these men. It doesn't make any real attempt to establish a specific antagonist, instead just serving up hordes of faceless Nazis for you to mow down. And by the end, when it tries to tie all of its character work back around, the main character stops to remark that it's like everything has come full circle--just in case you're too boneheaded to realize that the ending ties into an earlier moment. It comes off as awkward and out-of-step with modern storytelling. Even Call of Duty's previous entry did a better of job of conveying the human costs associated with war, and that game had a frickin' robot sidekick in it.

The campaign does make some material changes to the experience, though, and this helps freshen up the action a little, even if what you're doing isn't all that memorable. For starters, recharging health is out and an on-screen health bar is in. You can hold up to four medkits at a time and pop them by pushing right on the D pad. This requires you to play somewhat more carefully, but in practice I don't think I ever actually ran out of health packs. That's because your squad has the ability to give you more. One guy is the medkit guy, another will give you more ammo, there's one for grenades, one that'll helpfully highlight enemy targets for a brief period of time, and one that lobs you a smoke grenade to call in a mortar strike. All of that helps give the game a bit of resource management, making you a little more thoughtful about how and when you shoot, but it also enables you to feel better about using special ammo, like rockets or incendiary shotgun ammo, because you can always get more from your squad. This also creates a reason for you to stick close to your squad, since you need to look at the appropriate person and press up on the D pad to get a package. Finally, you must fill up a meter to earn those packages, and that meter fills when you kill enemies, preventing you from just hanging back and idling away to get out of trouble. It's a minor but interesting twist on the now-traditional mechanics of the series.

Of course, plenty of people still just come to these games for the multiplayer component, and Call of Duty: WWII's competitive multiplayer is where the real reset is. The past few years have been a mobility arms race of sorts, as every big shooter started to include jetpacks, wall-running, or some other way of making the act of getting from point A to point B just a little more active and exciting. This game has none of that, resetting the multiplayer structure back to something more closely resembling Call of Duty 4. Or, really, last year's Modern Warfare Remastered, since it still has all the same sort of microtransactions and such. While it turns back the clock on mobility options, the rest of the game doesn't feel appreciably different than the other games in the series. The weaponry is authentic, but you'll still bolt attachments to BARs and Grease Guns to give yourself scopes, grips that reduce recoil, options that let you aim down sights more quickly, things that increase headshot damage or bullet penetration, and so on. Was all of that stuff available in 1944? I have no idea, I'm not a historian. But it does mean that even if you aren't really into what we think of as the realistic guns and firing options of the era, most of what you'd expect from a Call of Duty game is definitely here and feels roughly as it always has.

This guy's just kind of a dick.
This guy's just kind of a dick.

In some ways, that similarity could be a relief, but it also further underscores that the game doesn't really feel like it's doing anything cool to take advantage of its setting and time period. The main new elements here are an attack-and-defend objective-based mode called War and the Headquarters, a new social space that feels like it's taking a few cues from Destiny's tower. Once there, the game goes third-person, and you can run around an area that lets you emote at other players, show off whatever uniforms you may have unlocked, pick up bounties that grant you bonus items for completing in-game tasks, compete in quick one-on-one matches, and so on. You can even play Atari 2600 games there, which is weird, but anything that gets more people to see just how weird Pitfall II was can't be all bad.

The social space seems like it's built for loot crates, though. Specifically, the game handles its crates in the social space, where they fall out of the sky and open for all to see. Like... is this supposed to get more people caring about opening more crates? The calling cards and uniform pieces that come out of the crates aren't all that great, but completing sets of them unlocks "epic" variants for some of the in-game weapons that give you an XP bonus. As of this writing, there's no way to spend additional real-world money on crates, but considering digital editions of the game seem to advertise a currency that isn't currently shown in the game, this seems like something that'll be rolling in at some point. Of course, most of these systems are taken from the previous few Call of Duty games, which have more or less done the same thing... just not in front of other players. The headquarters thing is a neat idea, but between the crate thing and the way the game forces you into the space as soon as you get into or out of a match, the whole thing becomes a hassle. This hassle was exacerbated by what has been probably the roughest launch for a Call of Duty game over the last few years, with all sorts of server issues that would either prevent players from playing at all or cause the game to break when coming out of a match, and so on. Since the headquarters thing is forced upon you and also is an online environment, this new feature seems like it only poured a little more gas on those issues. As of this writing, the headquarters is still in place, but players load into an empty version of it. This at least means you can play the game, but it also prevents you from doing the one-on-one matches or... listening to a bunch of voice chatters being awful to each other, I guess? It's an interesting experiment in some ways, when it works, but the implementation is pretty weak here.

While the in-game action feels a lot like Modern Warfare Remastered with older guns mapped onto it, there are some changes around the edges to consider. Some of these feel like change for the sake of change, like the new create-a-class system, which replaces the versatile "Pick 10" style of class creation the series has often used in the past with something more rigid. Now you pick a division, which confers a set of perk-like bonuses as you level it up. So if you want a suppressor for your submachine guns, you need to be in the Airborne division, which will eventually unlock the ability to run farther and faster. Infantry gets a bayonet and a third primary attachment slot, among other things. You can pick any gun with any division, assuming you have the gun unlocked. But some of the benefits of your division might be lost if, for example, you don't outfit the class that gets a free bipod on all light machine-guns with an LMG. Instead of picking perks directly, you pick a "basic training," which, like divisions, also confer some perk-like things. The "hustle" training lets you reload faster, and while sprinting. Rifleman lets you take two primary weapons instead of being stuck with a pistol in your second slot. While you can cobble these different things together and create the same types of classes you'd see in most of the previous games, it doesn't feel as fun or flexible as the previous setups.

You can tell it's old because they call the points
You can tell it's old because they call the points "Able" and "Baker" instead of "Alpha" and "Bravo."

All in all, the competitive multiplayer isn't bad. There are some really good maps on the list this year (though one, the Gustav Cannon, might be my least favorite map in the history of the franchise) and it plays pretty much how you'd expect. If you're looking to sign up for more Call of Duty and you aren't married to the mobility options they've played with over the last few years, it's fine.

The third stop on the Call of Duty train is, of course, the zombies mode, which has morphed over the last few years to start featuring celebrities in the roles of the four playable characters. Ving Rhames, David Tennant, Katheryn Winnick, and Elodie Yung play the four fighters while Udo Kier voices an evil doktor. If you've seen the zombies mode lately you have a rough idea of what to expect. This is way more than the old "board up the windows and survive as long as you can" zombies mode, with more and more things to assemble, consumable items to put into loadouts, a full leveling curve of its own with unlocks (and loot crates), and so on. It's the sort of thing that you play with friends, if only because the strangers you encounter will yell at you for opening too many doors or spending your currency on the wrong traps or shooting a zombie when you weren't supposed to or something. The shambling zombies juke and shuffle, making them harder to hit in the head than their non-zombie counterparts, but once you get that down, they only become a threat in large numbers. More importantly, since the game really focuses around the "story" of the map you're on, subsequent playthroughs start to feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again. I've long felt that the entire mode felt a little out of place in the Call of Duty games and probably deserved to be blown out into a separate thing for zombies fans to focus on, and nothing in this year's zombies mode makes me feel any differently.

At least it all looks great. The graphics probably end up being the strongest point of the game, though it's usually background elements, like sunsets and planes flying overhead, dropping tons of troops into some far-off battle. Even multiplayer maps get into the act, with little interludes at the start of a map that make the action feel a bit bigger. That said, the multiplayer does look a little corny at times, at least partially because the position-revealing UAVs that made sense in more modern settings have been replaced with recon planes. So you just see these big planes up in the air, moving so slowly that they feel like they're attached to the top of the map with string, like some kind of Levelord map with a mobile set up above a World War II-themed crib. It's goofy stuff.

The good news is that the back-to-basics approach doesn't really impact the shooting in a negative way. The weapon variety in the multiplayer is about as you'd expect it to be and the maps are, by and large, pretty good, too. The bad news is that this is the blandest campaign the series has churned out in years and despite all of Activision's big talk about "boots on the ground" action and how this was going to be some big deal, the setting change didn't bring any new and exciting inspiration with it. This feels like the most wheel-spinning, by-the-numbers Call of Duty they've made thus far.

 

Super Mario Odyssey Review

 

At this year?s E3, Nintendo surprised many with a Super Mario Odyssey trailer that seemed insane even by Mario standards. He inhabited frogs by throwing a ghost hat at them. He strolled through a city alongside human figures with realistic proportions. Pauline from Donkey Kong is suddenly back, and is now a mayor and the lead singer of a swing band. Everything looked set to be Mario?s most surreal adventure yet.

Is Cappy just a boo under there?
Is Cappy just a boo under there?

Make no mistake about it, Super Mario Odyssey is a weird game. It?s wrapped around a concept featuring sentient hats, enemy possession, and Bowser making wedding preparations, but actually playing the game feels very familiar. Gone are the polarizing FLUDD from Super Mario Sunshine and the gravity-warping planetoids from the Galaxy games. While Mario may be able to occupy the bodies of numerous baddies and inanimate objects this time around, the experience feels more like Super Mario 64 than any of his other adventures.

Super Mario Odyssey?s worlds are to credit for most of this. Large and open, they encourage exploration more than any entry in series history. Areas in previous 3D Mario titles usually featured ten or less objectives to complete. Most kingdoms in Odyssey feature dozens. Completing these objectives grants you moons, which act as the fuel that powers your hat-shaped spaceship (named the Odyssey) and allows you to access new areas.

Completing larger objectives will net you a bigger reward.
Completing larger objectives will net you a bigger reward.

Collecting moons takes on many forms. Each area typically has a basic quest line, usually involving reaching a specific area and taking on a boss character. Like in Mario 64, these larger objectives are highlighted by the camera upon entering the stage. I?d typically finish these as soon as possible. These follow the trail of Bowser as he prepares for his wedding. He goes from kingdom to kingdom collecting items for the ceremony, and usually leaves a boss or two in his wake for you to deal with. Some of these areas are left in disrepair, like the frozen-over sand kingdom. Taking down Bowser's minions and completing the story missions restores the area to its natural state and opens up new objectives in the process.

As fun and creative as these story objectives are, Super Mario Odyssey?s greatest joy lies in the exploration. Moons are everywhere in this game. Yet somehow, it manages to never feel like a collectathon. You?re not hopping around and collecting dozens of floating icons devoid of context. Moons can be hidden behind puzzles, given as rewards for foot races, discovered by a friendly dog, or gifted to you by a lonely man on a bench that?s thankful for your company. You can get them by recommending the perfect music track to a Toad, herding sheep, using binoculars to spot something interesting in the sky, or crashing through a stone wall as a T-Rex.

He still needs to show off whenever he climbs something.
He still needs to show off whenever he climbs something.

Oh yeah, and you also get a lot of them by jumping on a lot of platforms with speed and precision. Odyssey can at times feel like an action-adventure game with all of its unique puzzles, but it?s still very much a platformer at its core. Mario?s platforming has always been the best in the genre, and it feels better than ever this time. Tons of abilities are available using relatively few buttons. It?s a fun challenge to figure out what combination of a standard jump, triple jump, side flip, backflip, dive, wall jump, and hat throw is optimal for a given situation. Even after collecting hundreds of moons, I still found myself learning new tricks by noticing how a Koopa Troopa beat me in a race.

Mario can do plenty when he?s in his standard form, but Odyssey?s biggest change to the formula comes via his new hat named Cappy. By throwing Cappy, you can possess over fifty enemies, allies, and objects. Some of these are one-offs like a cactus or tree with little to do but scoot them around. Others are critical to certain stretches of the game. You can swim underwater without air as a Cheep Cheep, scale walls as a Pokio, destroy obstacles as a Hammer Bro, or traverse through lava as a fireball.

You're not always possessing something. Sometimes you're just an oil tycoon nut hoarder.
You're not always possessing something. Sometimes you're just an oil tycoon nut hoarder.

Don?t worry about spending a Mario game playing as everything but Mario, however. You?ll have to possess these creatures and objects to satisfy many objectives, but the large majority of your time with the game will be spent as the plumber himself. Mechanically, many of these objectives are no different than when you?d have to get a cape in Super Mario World to access a specific part of the level. In Odyssey, you?ll hop into a Bullet Bill, use it to cross a chasm, and then hop back out. Becoming a frog will help you get up to that tall platform, but you?ll be back on Mario?s two feet right afterwards. Occasional moons will have you inhabiting something for a longer stretch than normal (good luck getting down that river of lava as anything other than a fireball), but they?re the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes these possessions only serve to make something easier. At times I?d notice gaps and obstacles that were clearly designed with a specific capture ability in mind. When I?d see these, I?d occasionally test if I could bypass them with some creative usage of Mario?s core abilities. Sure, it?d be easier to get into that high-up alcove if I inhabited a huge stack of Goombas and then hopped out the top, but what if I did a triple jump into a wall jump, then did a 180 in mid-air, threw my hat and dove onto it? These unnecessarily complex maneuvers would frequently do the job. I wouldn?t recommend making every situation tougher on yourself than it needs to be, but it?s cool that the game is flexible enough to allow for some creative approaches.

Purple coins are your key to the heights of fashion.
Purple coins are your key to the heights of fashion.

Wandering around the worlds yields almost nonstop opportunities for discovery. Even with these large, detailed kingdoms, it feels like everything was placed where it is for a reason. I got into the habit of rotating the camera around every structure before I left an area, as there was almost always more to find than whatever moon brought me there in the first place. If it wasn?t another moon or two, it?d be a hidden stash of kingdom-specific purple coins.

These purple coins can be spent at an in-game store called Crazy Cap. Each kingdom features themed outfits (cowboy attire in the desert, an explorer outfit in the jungle, etc.) as well as stickers and items that you can decorate your ship with. It?s fun to see the inside and outside of the Odyssey gradually become covered and filled with mementos from your journey.

Some of Mario's activities are considerably less dangerous than others.
Some of Mario's activities are considerably less dangerous than others.

Mario?s unlockable outfits feature many great callbacks to his prolific past. From the obscure (a safari suit from the Japan-only Picross 2) to the recent (the builder outfit from Super Mario Maker), it?s all here. Changing your outfit almost never affects anything outside of aesthetics. You?ll occasionally run into a locked door or a character that requires the use of a specific costume, but these are few and far between. Since you won?t have to worry about it affecting gameplay, you?re free to wear whatever you want wherever you want. Mario may shiver uncontrollably if you make him race in the snow in his underpants, but you can do it nonetheless.

Traditional yellow coins are much easier to find than their rare purple counterparts. In a move that feels long overdue and extremely welcome, coins finally mean something and ?lives? are a thing of the past. Having a finite supply of lives always seemed odd once the series moved to 3D. Now, your only penalty upon dying is a 10-coin fee and being sent back to your most recent checkpoint. You shouldn?t ever have to worry about running out of coins, as they?re everywhere and I wasn?t able to reach any kind of upper limit to how many you can hold. Outside of paying your death fee, these can also be used to purchase power-ups and additional costumes from a general store.

As we?ve discovered ever since the Wii U debuted, Mario?s world looks stunning in HD. This is the best it?s ever looked by a long shot. Each world is visually distinct and brimming with activity, and there?s a fun mix of the traditional Mario look alongside weirdly realistic T-Rex models and humans that in no way resemble the plumber?s art style. You'll visit a kingdom based on lunch items, a beach that prides itself on its carbonated water, a forest inhabited by talking garden machinery, and plenty more. Mario becomes covered in soot after walking past a chimney or standing too close to an explosion. He shivers and becomes covered in frost after plunging into icy waters. His bulbous nose even has physics, bouncing and swaying slightly as he runs around.

Photo mode is great.
Photo mode is great.

A built-in photo mode is fantastic for capturing interesting scenes. With a quick press of the d-pad, you can pan and zoom around Mario and easily snag great shots with the Switch?s capture button. I?ve never been one to spend much time with these modes in other games, but the expressiveness of Mario?s face and level of detail in the worlds made me really enjoy building out my photo album.

No matter which of the varied worlds you?re exploring, you?ll be accompanied by one of the franchise's best soundtracks. It features catchy tunes that would fit in with previous titles, alongside some great takes on swing, surf rock, low-key piano covers of Mario classics, and more. When Mario enters a pipe and emerges on a 2D plane with the visual style of the original Super Mario Bros., the currently playing track seamlessly transitions into an 8-bit version. On a couple of occasions, the soundtrack even features vocals. One song marks the closest the Mario series has ever come to resembling a post-Dreamcast Sonic game, and that's not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Two of Odyssey?s elements that I?m not fond of are almost entirely avoidable. One is a two-player mode that somehow feels even more useless than the ?point the Wii remote to pick up star bits? feature from the Galaxy games. The second player can control Cappy, which means they?re confined to moving a spinning hat around the screen. It?s distracting for whoever is playing as Mario and no fun whatsoever for the person controlling Cappy.

Sometimes it's easier to just ride a thing than possess it.
Sometimes it's easier to just ride a thing than possess it.

My other complaint shouldn?t be surprising for anyone who?s owned a Nintendo console past the GameCube. If the hardware has a gimmick, Nintendo is sure as hell gonna try to shoehorn it in. That?s the case with the motion controls in the Joy-Con as well as the pro controller. In Odyssey, motion is usually used to give a slight speed boost to an action like climbing a vine or travelling across an electric wire. A couple of optional Cappy abilities are tied to motion, as well. This is where things can get a little annoying, as I?d love to use the cap?s slight homing ability or the circular throw with a button instead of an inconsistent jerking motion. Considering that the control scheme leaves several buttons unused or duplicated, there?s no reason the player shouldn?t be able to opt for a more traditional method for these actions. Thankfully, I rarely felt the need to use these actions unless I was trying to hit quick-moving creatures like birds and rabbits.

Like many Mario games, seeing the credits roll in no way means that you?re done with the game. This has never been more true than with Odyssey. I ?beat? the game in less than fifteen hours, but spent dozens more collecting hundreds upon hundreds of additional moons until I had them all. This doesn?t feel like busywork or mindless completionism, as you?re often presented with new challenges, costumes, and surprising turns as your number climbs.

Super Mario Odyssey is everything I wanted out of a new Mario game. It?s bigger and better than any 3D entry in the series. Even with nearly a thousand tasks, I always felt like the game was throwing unique and fun challenges at me. It?s a great Switch game, as the number of smaller objectives made it easy to hop in and knock out a few moons on my commute. Meaningful fan service is plentiful, ranging from the subtle to the extremely overt.

No Caption Provided

Unlike Breath of the Wild, this is not a complete reinvention of what an iconic Nintendo franchise is capable of. Super Mario Odyssey is very much a 3D Mario game with its roots set in Super Mario 64?s exploration and sense of discovery. Its surprises are less about the overarching format and more about the nooks and crannies carved into each and every world. Each kingdom is absolutely packed with charm, clever objectives, gorgeous visuals, a stellar soundtrack, and a huge variety of ways to have fun. One moon would have me leaping across tiny platforms with pinpoint precision, and the next would have me cheering up a businessman by dressing like a clown. At no point did I feel like I was checking boxes just to up my completion percentage. Even now that I've collected every moon and purple coin in the game, I still want to play more of it. It?s one of the most joyous and entertaining gaming experiences I?ve had in a long time, and it stands tall among the all-time great Mario games.

 

Middle-earth: Shadow of War Review

 

The best part of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor gets even better in the sequel, Shadow of War. The first game's dynamic "Nemesis" AI system had you fighting against an endless succession of named enemies who taunted you, remembered your exploits, and grew stronger on the backs of their victories over you. What would have been a competent but forgettable game in the open-world mold suddenly became a vehicle for an endless string of personalized run-ins with a bunch of grumpy orcs who seemed to hate you more every time they fought you, and never ran out of venomous new ways to let you know it. In Shadow of War, the Nemesis framework has been so thoroughly expanded that new twists on orc tactics, behaviors, and attitudes were still surprising me after dozens of hours, and the new game gives you even more exciting, hilarious, fun stories about your wild experiences to swap with other players than the first one. It took me half a dozen hours just to move on from the prologue area; I couldn't stop hunting down particular orcs who had wronged me, or just butting into the business they were conducting on their own.

Sadly that luster slowly fades over what ends up being a very long game, and Shadow of War never quite figures out how to build a focused, consistently engaging game around all the energy and dynamism of its elaborate AI machinery. There are so many different quests, challenges, menus, and details to keep track of that the whole thing frequently feels overwhelming, and some parts of the game are a lot more interesting than others. The main story missions are mostly simplistic and repetitive, and most of them fail to make use of what's unique about Shadow of War. In contrast to the dull story quests, Monolith has built a complex conquest and territory-control layer on top of the the Nemesis system that has you customizing teams of orcs, and investing in all kinds of army upgrades in order to take over and then defend several fortresses throughout Mordor. These conquests initially form the deepest and most exciting part of Shadow of War, but the game doesn't know when to quit making you conquer, and you'll likely get very tired of tediously leveling up your captains and defending the same strongholds from yet more randomly generated orcs long before you've seen the ending. (I know I did.) And that's assuming you don't decide to pay the publisher to just fast track better orcs into your game.

The new fortress conquest missions are big, noisy, varied, and exciting.
The new fortress conquest missions are big, noisy, varied, and exciting.

Shadow of War picks up right where the last game left off, with the undead ranger Talion and his angry elf-wraith head-mate Celebrimbor forging a brand spanking new ring of power so they can maraud across Mordor, murdering and enslaving orcs in an attempt to, uh, defend the good peoples of Middle-earth. Or maybe they're more interested in vengeance and power for its own sake? The game flirts with that topic but doesn't fully address it, instead acting as a Lord of the Rings clearinghouse for mostly ridiculous cameos and outlandish, fiction-defying scenarios. Shelob, the giant spider, takes the form of a sensuous lady in a slinky evening dress, because it's a video game. Gollum shows up randomly for a mission or two. Historical events and the roles of supporting characters from the timeline of Middle-earth are moved around and recast in contrived ways. Even the idea of casually popping out a new ring with which to be badass feels like power-fantasy absurdity, in a world where these rings are treated as distant, dangerous, and largely unknowable.

It's not all bad; there's some decent tension between Talion and Celebrimbor at a few points, and I like the weird line delivery of the earth spirit you ally yourself with. But in general I found myself rolling my eyes more often than not. The outlandish comic-book action of these games has always struck me as an odd fit for the melancholy, reserved work of Tolkien, though if you don't care one whit about the work of Tolkien in the first place then you also won't care that all of this is more than a little dumb. I still think attaching these games to a more freewheeling and juvenile fantasy setting like Dungeons & Dragons, or just inventing one out of whole cloth, would have freed them of this baggage and let them gleefully be as ridiculous as they obviously want to be.

Some surprisingly messed up stuff goes on with this guy.
Some surprisingly messed up stuff goes on with this guy.

As before, the real stars of this game are the orcs, and it remains a mystery how Monolith wrote and recorded enough lines of dialogue to generate dozens of them throughout your time with the game, having them show up and comment on an enormous range of scenarios, and still almost never repeat themselves. They have just as much personality as they did in the first game, and they now arrive in vastly greater permutations, with more and more outlandish getups and personality quirks as the game goes on. Want an orc who talks lovingly about the maggots that crawl over and through him, or one who bellows a tune while discordantly strumming a lute, or a giant troll covered in fur? Shadow of War has those and dozens more archetypes, and each orc now has both a character class and a tribe, which makes for a ton of variety in their behaviors. Each captain has a wide range of strengths, weaknesses, immunities, and fears that makes each fight unique, and they also have a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to play on you, whether it's seizing your best weapon when they kill you, or showing up to avenge their blood brother when you attack them, or tracking you down, to save you the trouble, when you mark them in your menu as a target.

Monolith takes this expanded Nemesis system and stretches it across several different small open-world maps, each one with a fortress housing that area's most powerful orcs. In between story missions, your task is to explore each area and dominate as many orcs as you can, commanding them to carry out missions against other orcs, act as your bodyguard, and so forth on your way to building a strong enough assault force to finally take over the fortress itself. The fortress conquests are the coolest thing in this game, bar none. Each one has you capturing a series of control points on your way to breaching the inner keep and taking on the overlord who runs the whole show. Fortresses have a wide range of built-in defenses, from siege weapons to archers to boiling oil being poured over their walls, and taking control points nullifies these defenses--but also invites one of the fortress's powerful warchiefs into the fray.

But what if you went to the trouble of taking that warchief out before you started the conquest? He, and his associated defense, are already out of the picture. What if you designated one of your lower level orcs as a spy beforehand? He'll show up and backstab the warchief mid-battle. You can also invest in a wide array of assault upgrades of your own, from more powerful foot soldiers to beasts and siege upgrades, in addition to choosing which assault leaders you want to bring into battle. Having this many tactical options makes this aspect of Shadow of War almost feel like a strategy game, if not for the fact that you can usually overwhelm superior defenses just by playing really well once the action starts (though the effects of the decisions you make beforehand are plainly obvious either way). These fortress missions feel big and varied and exciting in a way the main story missions don't.

Building out your assault and defense forces is one of the more tactically engaging parts of the game.
Building out your assault and defense forces is one of the more tactically engaging parts of the game.

Shadow of War's story is actually laid out in an interesting way; rather than one long, linear sequence of quests, the missions are broken up into half a dozen categories that revolve around different little Middle-earth subplots, which have you bouncing back and forth between territories and which occasionally overlap with each other. The trouble is that almost none of what you're doing in these missions is particularly interesting. Most story quests have you ticking off lists of basic activities, following an NPC from place to place and killing a few orcs along the way, or (at best) taking part in simplified versions of the things you're already doing on the dynamic Nemesis side of the game. One of the quest lines in particular makes you carry out slight variations on the exact same objective something like four or five missions in a row. It almost feels like there are two halves to this game that are mostly unaware the other exists, and the story would have been dramatically better if Monolith had found a way to integrate it with the more dynamic parts of the game more elegantly.

In addition to broadening all the Nemesis stuff dramatically, Shadow of War also turns itself into a loot game, since you're continually picking up rare, epic, and legendary gear with slightly higher numbers from the orc captains. This certainly adds more variety to the progression treadmill, and since each new piece of gear comes with its own little challenge you need to complete to perfect it and unlock its full stats and perks, you've always got small goals to work toward in between the big missions. But like much else in Shadow of War, this starts to make the game feel cluttered and overly busy after a while. There are weapon challenges, regional challenges, daily challenges, numerous side missions and collectibles, endless Nemesis missions, orcs to level up... You'll end up spending more time than you may want slogging through multiple layers of menus, and managing your numerous armies of orcs in particular can become a huge chore. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the game would have benefited from a spreadsheet of sorts, to let you sort orcs by level or class or relationship, so you could more easily assign appropriate tasks to the dozens of warriors under your command.

There's no way around the dullness of Shadow of War's main quest, since you'll have to slog through all those bland missions to advance the story and unlock all the game's mechanics, but there's thankfully an entire other game's worth of fulfilling, dynamic action in carrying out Nemesis missions, dominating and pitting orcs against each other, building up your armies, and (ultimately) taking over those big fortresses. That's the real value of this game, and if you're able to overlook the game's flaws, it's well worth showing up for. The biggest knock against all the Nemesis stuff, however, is that eventually even it becomes repetitive as you trudge toward the finale. After you've finished the main quest line, the game forces you to keep grinding fortress defenses incessantly if you want to see the true ending, and by that time, you'll already have done a full game's worth of fortress defenses. It's a great system that eventually starts to feel a bit less great due to overuse and rote repetition.

There's a lot out there to conquer and defend, but you may get your fill of it before the game decides you're finished.
There's a lot out there to conquer and defend, but you may get your fill of it before the game decides you're finished.

With gear to equip and orcs to level up, it's not surprising in this year of our loot box 2017 that Warner Bros. is selling exactly those items to you in blind boxes--nor is it surprising that this has been by far the most controversial aspect of the game. Luckily they aren't particularly necessary or even remotely worth buying. You'll get a nonstop flood of character gear as you play the game--I rarely felt like I had time to settle on a given loadout before I was swapping it around--and there are in-game ways to boost the amount of experience and quality of loot you get, anyway. The one place you might feel pressured to spend money is in that long cycle of post-story fortress defenses, where you need stronger and stronger orcs to hold onto (or retake) all the bases you seized earlier. But by that time, I'd built up so much of the in-game currency that I was able to buy plenty of chests to dispense new orcs without dropping real cash. The bigger problem is simply that this mode exists in the first place, and that the game feels like it refuses to end. Whether the developer thought you'd actually want to replay these missions over and over for fun, or the running time was artificially extended to entice you into spending some money, I can't say (although since Monolith is going to offer an endless version of this mode soon, it's probably the former). The bottom line, though, is the game should end a bit sooner than it does, and once you reach the tedium of the Shadow War you may well be ready to just watch the full ending on YouTube and then walk away from the game.

Despite its flaws, there's a lot to like in Shadow of War. For the most part, the action is as sharp, varied, and fun as in the first game, with its blend of Assassin's Creed stealth and Arkham-style large scale combat. Since every captain has his own set of likes and dislikes, you'll keep finding clever new ways to exploit the mechanics to end a fight quickly--or have the fight end itself, as the various AI and combat systems grind against each other--although sometimes the battles get a little too big and the captains have a few too many immunities to be all that much fun to fight. This core action and the complex systems that underpin it are fun enough to play around with that it's a real shame that so many issues exist around the edges of this package, because those issues eventually started to diminish my enjoyment of the game's good parts. Shadow of War, like its predecessor, rests on a single gimmick, but it's a really good gimmick. When the action is at its best, with the gears of all those AI systems turning smoothly, it still offers an experience you can't get anywhere else.

 

South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

 

After over 15 years of bad South Park games, fans of the show were understandably skeptical when The Stick of Truth was released. We had heard about Trey Parker and Matt Stone?s involvement throughout the development process, but we?d been burned too many times to get optimistic. To the surprise of many, it turned out to be a great, lighthearted RPG that served as one of the best uses of a license in video games.

With a change in developers and the novelty value of playing through the world of the show gone, I was skeptical if a sequel would live up to the experience of the original. For the first couple of hours of South Park: The Fractured But Whole, I had serious doubts. The kids have abandoned the fantasy motif of the last game and adopted superhero alter egos as they search for a missing cat. These personas are taken from the 2009 multi-episode arc around Cartman's alter ego, the Coon. As someone who didn?t find that story interesting or funny enough for one episode (let alone a trilogy), I wasn?t exactly looking forward to inhabiting those characters for an entire game.

Unsurprisingly, Cartman plays a central role in the story.
Unsurprisingly, Cartman plays a central role in the story.

The first thing the game had me do was complete a quicktime event to poop in a toilet. My first load screen featured a ?never fart on someone?s balls? tooltip. While cheap toilet humor was certainly omnipresent in the early seasons of the show (and in The Stick of Truth, if we're being honest), my favorite years were the ones that leaned heavier into satire and social commentary. Farts may be objectively hilarious, but I was worried that they would be the core source of attempted humor throughout the story.

The look and feel of the show is replicated perfectly.
The look and feel of the show is replicated perfectly.

Once the game opened up a bit, I started exploring the town and getting more concerned. I walked through a neighbor?s house and heard the Lemmiwinks theme song playing from the television. I found some Memberberries and listened to them wax nostalgic about Star Wars and You Can't Do That on Television. I saw references to Medicinal Fried Chicken and people getting high off of cat urine. Even poop jokes seem more inspired than simply recycling bits of the show for easy fan service.

Thankfully, the game manages to hit its stride a few hours in. What starts as a quest for a missing cat takes players on a tour of South Park involving Catholic priests, strippers, ninjas, the elderly, and the constant threat of sixth graders. Its humor can at times be quantity over quality, as the poop jokes and callbacks never really die down. Despite that, there are numerous unexpected events, character appearances, and boss fights that I found funnier than most jokes I?ve seen in the show in recent seasons.

If you haven't kept up with the show in recent years, not much has changed about the way South Park presents the world. It still takes the hot button issues of the day and does its best to make them cartoonish and ridiculous. In 2017 terms, this means scenarios involving gender identity, political correctness, and racist cops, among others. Yet in casting their net wide, Parker and Stone never really dwell too long on any one issue or make any meaningful statements. Rednecks in pickup trucks attack you after you state your sexual identity, and PC Principal takes great offense at microaggressions, teaching you how to physically retaliate against them in battle. One mission has you working for the cops and arresting a clearly unarmed black man while he's on his exercise bike. Major issues are reflected in the game, but it doesn't seem terribly interested in saying anything about them. It feels like they wanted to check those boxes and get back to the superhero story, which, for better or for worse, is certainly a very South Park way of handling this kind of subject matter.

While the writing does occasionally acknowledge current events, much of the game?s heart and attention lies in the ?kids being kids? framing. Red LEGO bricks serve as lava that gates off areas. Moses is summoned by putting together an elbow macaroni art piece. Stan heals allies with one of those mist fans that they sell at amusement parks. Most items are crafted with components like glue, duct tape, empty sports drink bottles, and items from a taco stand. For a game with ?butthole? in its title, there?s a surprising amount of wholesome charm to be found.

Token's ultimate attack grants him the use of a missile-firing mech.
Token's ultimate attack grants him the use of a missile-firing mech.

That concept was also present in The Stick of Truth?s combat, with its dodgeballs and suction cup arrows. In Fractured But Whole, your abilities and attacks are much more dramatic and are assumed to exist in the imaginations of its heroes and villains. Kyle shoots lasers out of his eyes, Tweek summons lightning and deadly icicles, and Token inhabits a mech suit that fires missiles onto the battlefield.

If The Stick of Truth's combat was Paper Mario Lite, then this sequel is Fire Emblem Lite. Instead of simply firing attacks back and forth across an even playing field, the battles now play out on a grid. The size of the grid varies depending on the encounter, but your heroes can move freely in an effort to secure a strategic advantage. My usual party consisted of a couple of close-range fighters, one long-range attacker, and one healer. Certain bosses took me out numerous times until I adapted to the demands of the fight. One destroyed me until I changed my party out for fighters that featured plenty of knockback attacks, which I used to shuffle enemies into position to take devastating environmental damage.

The new grid system dramatically improves the quality of the battles.
The new grid system dramatically improves the quality of the battles.

This sequel is a step up in many ways from its predecessor, but combat is where it makes the most welcome improvements. The grid system allows for so much more variety in the game?s many fights, and it continues to evolve as the story moves forward. Many of the major encounters had me taking a break during combat to assess the battlefield and move everyone into optimal positions. When I died, it was fun to sort through the list of available party members in an effort to assemble the best combination of abilities for the fight at hand.

Your character continues to add on abilities from numerous classes, which you can then swap in and out depending on what you want to bring into battle. Sometimes I'd outfit my hero with close-range melee attacks that deal high physical damage, while other situations were better met with long-range attacks that cause status effects. A special ability called TimeFart allows you to do things like pause time and rack up a bunch of free hits on frozen opponents (as well as skipping the enemy's turn). One of my most satisfying encounters involved inflicting confuse on a group of six elderly people, who then killed each other by lobbing colostomy bags like grenades.

Boss fights are some of the most clever and enjoyable parts of the game, and it?d be a disservice to reveal their nature here. Many of these introduce brand new elements to the combat system. This is welcome because for all of the clever attacks and abilities, there really isn?t much in the way of input variance. Your attacks almost always require you to either press the attack button once, hit it a few times with good timing, or mash it mindlessly. On defense, all you do is press the button after receiving damage to recover HP and build your super meter.

Shuffling your character's abilities is easy.
Shuffling your character's abilities is easy.

Following the ridiculous path of the main story is the core of Fractured But Whole, but there is a handful of side activities and collectibles to keep you busy between missions. It?s still set in the town of South Park, so most of the map?s changes revolve around things that have happened in the world of the show (SoDoSoPa towers over Kenny?s house, and Skeeter?s bar is now an upscale wine and cocktail lounge). As in the first game, almost every area features plenty of visual jokes and references to events from the show's twenty-year history. One look at any of the kids' bedroom closets yields a virtual museum of their moments from past episodes.

Plenty of areas around town are initially gated off by LEGO bricks, electric locks, and large gaps. These can eventually be passed by adding specific allies to your party that can bypass them with unique abilities, all of which involve your character?s ass in some way. Your rewards for exploration are usually in the form of a new costume piece or artifact. The latter can be slotted into your character to raise their might level. Similar to Destiny, story missions have a recommended level and this might system gives you a quick idea of how ready you are to take them on.

Depending on the situation, the allies you bring into battle can make all the difference.
Depending on the situation, the allies you bring into battle can make all the difference.

Costumes and artifacts are plentiful, and there are more limited collectibles such as Big Gay Al?s lost cats and anime artwork that depicts Tweek and Craig?s relationship. There are also challenges tied to your follower level on Coonstagram, which you can increase by satisfying requirements for townsfolk and taking selfies with them. These requirements range from buying a demo CD from a bartender to giving a strip club DJ a cocktail of boogers and semen. It's not the deepest system in the world, feeling more like a fun scavenger hunt than a critical component of your progress.

My early hours in South Park: The Fractured But Whole had me bracing for disappointment. As the story progressed and the combat grew deeper, however, I realized that this sequel is an improvement on The Stick of Truth in just about every way. That game gave us our first novel experience of playing through a world that?s virtually indistinguishable from the show, but this sequel is longer, deeper, and more surprising throughout. It may feel like a cavalcade of poop jokes and easy callbacks in the early hours, but the South Park humor and charm shines through more and more as the story progresses. True to the show, the storyline leading into the ridiculous conclusion of the game barely resembles the plot's conceit. It twists and turns in extraordinarily stupid ways that are unexpected and simultaneously fully expected if you're a longtime viewer. If you're in the mood for a unique, lighthearted RPG (and are at least somewhat receptive to South Park's specific sense of humor) you?ll find more than enough to like here.

 

Cuphead Review

 

Cuphead?s original reveal in an E3 2014 Xbox sizzle reel of indie games was only seconds long, but that was enough to sell me on its potential. Take one look at the game in motion, and you?ll see why. Cuphead combines brutal, precision platforming action with an exceptionally well realized artistic style to create one of the most enjoyable video game experiences I?ve ever had.

Cuphead and Mugman getting to the root of the issue.
Cuphead and Mugman getting to the root of the issue.

Cuphead is an action-platformer in the style of games like Gunstar Heroes. Your basic abilities will have you running, shooting, and dashing around to dodge projectiles and enemies while damaging foes. Most of the game?s levels are static boss fights. These fights, when done correctly, are short and typically range from 90 seconds to three minutes. The key phrase here is ?done correctly,? because the fun of Cuphead comes from its punishing difficulty.

Rather than upgrading your character with loot and deep skill trees, getting good at Cuphead is all about mastering the relatively simple controls. The most ?technical? the game gets is when it comes to its unique parry system. Any pink object in the world, from enemies, to projectiles, to the nose on a vicious roller coaster, can be parried, or double-jumped off of, in other words--keeping you safe and adding a bar to your super meter. It?s a system that is easy to learn and helpful for beating bosses more quickly early on, and becomes vital for survival in later levels of the game.

In addition to standard pea shooter, Cuphead also has five weapons, that can be unlocked by collecting currency. Each of the weapons has their own advantages and disadvantages, and any two can be brought into each level and swapped with the push of a button. These weapons include a homing shot that deals reduced damage, a spread shot with short range, and my personal favorite a charge shot in the style of Mega Man. You can also equip one passive charm, which can give you abilities like a gradually increasing super meter or an invincible and invisible dash.

Where Cuphead truly sets itself apart from other similar games is in its art style. Cuphead looks, sounds like, and most importantly feels like you?re playing a 1930s American cartoon, specifically in the style of early Disney. The titular character, as well as his accomplice Mugman, even both resemble Mickey Mouse himself.

Goopy LeGrande. Gone but not forgotten.
Goopy LeGrande. Gone but not forgotten.

That?s not to say that the game is just a cheap rip-off, though. Each of the bosses feels truly inspired. The very first boss is a prime example of what to expect. At first, Goopy LeGrande is just a villainous slime whose only form of attack is to jump on you or form into a fist and lunge at you. He grows angry, and halfway through the battle takes a pill that makes him larger. He?s faster, bigger, and more dangerous. After dealing with this second form, the slime ?dies,? and his third and final form--the giant vengeful tombstone of Goopy LeGrande--drops on the field and attempts to crush Cuphead, because that?s all he ever knew in life. Every boss almost tells a story just through its transformations. I?m still blown away when I see footage of all the bosses, even the most frustrating ones who were responsible for dozens of my deaths and hours of gameplay wasted.

These fixed-perspective boss fights make up a little more than half the game. The other playable levels of Cuphead are airborne shooters and ?run-and-gun? levels. The plane battles play like boss fights from shoot-em-ups, using the same basic controls (parrying, super moves) of the platforming levels, but instead of swapping to a second weapon you can turn into a more mobile mini-plane. These levels can be some of the most difficult in the game, as the focus is much more on precise movement than usual. Run-and-gun levels play like the boss fights, but with a focus on dealing with smaller enemies and platforming. They feel like they could be longer, but are so dense with amazing art and enemy design that I had fun replaying them multiple times just to improve my rank.

Mr. King Dice, aka your worst nightmare.
Mr. King Dice, aka your worst nightmare.

Despite its inviting art style, Cuphead is not a game for everyone. It?s extremely difficult, and you might not think that the definition of fun is playing the same levels over and over again. There is also one major issue in the parry system. People with certain types of colorblindness may not be able to know at first glance which items are pink and can be parried. There are boss fights where it is almost mandatory that you do some parrying, and the fact that there is no colorblind mode may make it difficult for these people to beat the game. It feels like most video games have implemented colorblind modes, even when it is not imperative, so the lack of one in Cuphead stands out.

If you?re the type of person who derives joy from angrily banging your head into a boss over and over until you can perfectly defeat it in the most glorious 90 seconds you will ever experience, then Cuphead is the total package. The tight gameplay, accompanied by an incredibly well-realized aesthetic, makes for a truly unforgettable gameplay experience.

 

Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite Review

 

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is the first fighting game that captivated me. The combination of the colors, the over-the-top hyper combos, the fact that I could have Sentinel and Servbot on a team together had me making a beeline to the cabinet first thing when I walked through my local arcade?s doors. I remember my friend getting legitimately angry that I figured out how to do Iron Man?s Proton Cannon hyper before him. Marvel has always been an important franchise to me, and the fighting game community as a whole.

This history was the reason I was so excited about a new MvC game, especially after it felt like we would never see another one after Disney acquired Marvel and seemed to adjust its approach to licensing. However, some red flags like questionable art and oversimplification of controls, and a slow reveal of information during promotion had me concerned about the execution of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.

The first footage of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.
The first footage of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.

The basic setup of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is a two-on-two tag fighter. You can call upon your second character at any time, even mid-combo, which leads to a ton of exciting, flashy strings of attacks that might have you tagging between your characters as many as four times. This fast tag replaces the assist attacks found in the previous games.

In addition to your two characters, you?ll also select one of six Infinity Stones. These stones each have different powers, such as pulling your opponent closer to you or firing a homing projectile, as well as their own super-like move called the Infinity Storm, with effects ranging from placing your opponent in an unescapable box to reviving a fallen teammate. These stones are unique and powerful enough that they feel like a third character, and in some circumstances can have entire teams built around them. The stones also seem to be fairly well-balanced, each with their own unique purpose.

With its mishandling of Street Fighter V?s launch and first year, Capcom was under pressure to prove that they can produce a solid fighting game package. The Marvel series has always been the second-most important to the fighting game community, so people were defensive about its possible mishandling.

The final form of the game's antagonist, Ultron-Sigma
The final form of the game's antagonist, Ultron-Sigma

One thing Capcom succeeded in doing was making the game more approachable, while also maintaining a high skill ceiling. Since Marvel vs. Capcom 2, most high-level play was dominated by ?touch of death? combos. These would lead you to not only take out one of your opponent?s three characters, but also set you up in an advantageous position against their next character to come in.

While Infinite still has these combos, most of the zero-to-death situations I?ve seen so far require a ton of resources, like three to four bars of meter as well as an Infinity Storm. I also haven?t seen these combos outside of training mode yet. The game also has higher damage scaling than UMvC3, meaning longer combos end up doing much less damage as time goes on.

Infinite also took a few notes from anime fighters like Guilty Gear and added an auto-combo, so if a player repeatedly connects with their light punch attack, they will string together a basic combo. It?s great not only for new players to understand how combos ?feel,? but also to see what combos might look like for new characters.

Hulk still smashes.
Hulk still smashes.

Sadly, what this game did not take from Guilty Gear is a diverse and robust training mode. The game?s mission mode will teach you basic mechanics such as how to move, jump, and block, as well as some advanced tactics like launcher combos. There are also 10 missions per character that will showcase special moves and basic combos. However, the depth of this mode feels outdated, comparable to Street Fighter IV?s training mode from 2009.

Games like Skullgirls, BlazBlue, and Guilty Gear Xrd all feature tutorials not only on how to do moves, but also why and when you might want to do a given move or more advanced tactics. Understanding how to play Marvel at the most basic level of competition is not easy, and if Capcom truly wanted to make the game more approachable, they should have created a better single-player learning experience.

The other main piece of single-player content in the game outside of an arcade mode is the cinematic story mode. The basic premise is that Ultron (the big scary robot from Iron Man) and Sigma (the big scary robot from Mega Man) team up with the power of the Infinity Stones. Due to some sort of magic with the reality stone, the universes of Capcom and Marvel are able to team up to stop the newly formed Ultron Sigma from releasing his Sigma-Virus, turning all who are exposed to it into killing machines.

The full pre-DLC roster.
The full pre-DLC roster.

The story mode ranges from being fun and light, to just plain confusing, but maintains a decent quality throughout. Seeing the Hulk throw Ryu at a monster from Monster Hunter, or Dante and Iron Man high five over their shitty jokes is rewarding. There are twists and turns, and an especially intriguing post-credits scene Where it falls apart are the premises for why certain fights are happening, or who you?re controlling in each fight. It makes sense that the developers would want all 30 of the game?s characters to be played at some point during the story, but sometimes the justification to get there feels very thin.

Thin seems to be a word that could also describe the game?s roster. The game boasts 30 playable characters which, in a vacuum, seems pretty good. However, of the 30 characters, only six were not playable in UMvC3, and only four have never been in a Marvel game. The returning characters have all been re-worked in some way, and in addition to the Infinity Stones these updates make the characters feel ?new? in certain ways, but the lack of new characters is disappointing. X-Men characters are also blatantly missing, especially noticeable given how important Wolverine, Sentinel, and Magneto are to the franchise.

It?s easy to imagine that Marvel has something to say about which characters are in their side of the game, as almost all of the characters have minor-to-major representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but many of the Capcom choices come off as uninspired. Do we really still need Arthur and Firebrand? Chris Redfield and Nemesis? The only ?new? Capcom character is Darkstalkers? Jedah Dohma, a character we?ve seen already in plenty of fighting games.

Sometimes in the story mode you fight these guys, and it sucks!
Sometimes in the story mode you fight these guys, and it sucks!

At the time of this review, the first batch of DLC characters has been confirmed, and while it?s nice that they are all characters not found in UMvC3, Infinite?s base roster is so lacking that it?s hard to not feel like this first group of completely new characters should?ve just been here from day one. The game does not feature any sort of winnable currency like the fight money used in Street Fighter V to unlock these DLC characters without paying real money or buying a season pass.

The last, and arguably most disappointing aspect of the game is its presentation and aesthetic. Even though the game has had multiple "corrective" art patches since pre-release, the graphics are still far below that of what you?d expect from a modern, full price video game. Things like super animations, stage backgrounds, and even character models range from ?acceptable? to ?incredibly poor.? At best, during the Infinity Storms, the particle effects look great, but as soon as you?re done with a fight you?re presented with a menu that looks straight out of a flash game from 2012.

The music is, again, similar to Marvel 3. Each character has a theme for when they enter the battle. For the Capcom characters, it?s the songs you want to hear from their games, but for the Marvel characters it?s very generic ?superhero music.? Capcom fighting games at their best have had a consistent and cool sounds, like the smooth jazz from Marvel 2 or the hip-hop infused beats in Third Strike. This game lacks any sort of unifying feel that will be remembered fondly after players stop playing the game.

Sure you've got Captain Marvel, but where's Captain Commando?
Sure you've got Captain Marvel, but where's Captain Commando?

The online so far has been fully functional. The game features ranked and casual one-on-one matchmaking, as well as a lobby with spectator settings. I?ve managed to easily find matches with four or five bars of connection. The ranking system, unlike other competitive games, seems especially brutal. I have a somewhat positive win-loss record, but I am still rank 15, the starting rank. It seems that to progress even one rank you have to net close to 10 wins over losses. Games like Hearthstone are great about letting you immediately know you?re doing well when you start to climb the ladder, ranking up quickly at first and then slowly over time, whereas this game just feels at times insurmountable. Unique to this game is the ?Beginner?s League,? a league where only rank 14 and 15 can enter, so you'll theoretically get matched with someone else new.

Many people would be happy with any sort of revival of Marvel vs Capcom, considering how dead the franchise seemed after UMvC3 came and went. But playing and thinking about Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite, one can?t help but wonder about what it could have been. Hopefully Capcom will continue to support the game as they have with Street Fighter V. Infinite might not share the innovation of MvC1, the style of MvC2, or the leaps in gameplay of MvC3, but what it does have is a fun, challenging core gameplay system. And at the end of the day, it?s still Mahvel, baybee.

 

Kingsway Review

 

When you first boot up Kingsway, you immediately ?get it.? From the startup sounds, to the launch menu in the task bar, to the grey-bordered windows, it?s immediately apparent that the game is a love letter to a time long-forgotten. More specifically, a time about 22 years ago.

Kingsway is an RPG presented as a faux-Windows ?95-style operating system. Your character?s loot, world map, and everything else in the game are represented by different windows that you can drag around or minimize.

Before Netflix and Chill, we had this.
Before Netflix and Chill, we had this.

The level of detail in this likeness is insane. I spent a half hour customizing things like my cursor trail, theme, font, and cursor icons. And I hadn?t even seen the actual game yet.

The game starts with you building a character. You choose a class, which will determine which types of spells you can learn, as well as a character name and portrait. Important to note that Kingsway has one of my favorite name randomizers of any video game I?ve ever played; here are just five that I just rolled:

  • Biggest Ankle
  • The Last
  • Carl Skull
  • Vorte Tirade
  • Crisp Yank

Your goal as an adventurer is to light three beacons spread out on a world map, then to go make your way to the king. You travel around by clicking points of interest that spawn as you progress through the overworld. There are sub-quests, dungeons, and random events that are all peppered around the world, as well as a hefty share of random encounters with monsters.

The combat starts innocuously enough; the first few skeletons and bandits you encounter present you with simple point-and-click RPG fare. You have five slots that come standard with options for attack, defense, escape, and two open spots for spells, but all five slots can be customized so you can be a wizard who foregoes his options to defend or run away in exchange for three different types of kickass fireballs.

As the game progresses, however, battling the enemies becomes more difficult as the game begins uses the OS interface itself against you. You might encounter a plant monster that whips its vines at you, which is represented in-game as two smaller pop-up windows that shoot in from opposite sides of the screen. If you?re not quick enough to click ?evade,? then you?re hit with poison damage. Another enemy, the shadow bandit, randomly minimizes his own combat window.

The leveling system is simple while allowing for a lot of customization.
The leveling system is simple while allowing for a lot of customization.

You can draw numerous comparisons between Kingsway and Undertale, not least because both games, art, and design were all done by one developer (in Kingsway's case, that developer is named Andrew Morrish). Both games use a relatively simple combat system, and continuously iterate on and surprise you with that system throughout the game. The first time an enemy throws a fireball at you, odds are you won?t even realize that the pop-up is there. By the time you?re fighting your first miniboss and he?s throwing three, you?re an expert.

Kingsway?s novelty doesn?t hold up, however; you?ll likely see most of what the game has to offer about halfway through your journey. I was expecting bigger and crazier effects as the enemies got stronger, but outside of some minor tweaks to what you see in the first hour or so there?s less wild variation than there could be.

That?s not to say that the game isn?t difficult. I grinded and grinded with my first character, but was taken out by playing carelessly just shy of beating the second story boss when I suddenly realized I had made a grave mistake - Kingsway features permadeath. It?s not immediately apparent when you start the game, but with each new character comes a fresh world map. Your objective, to light the torches, is always the same, but how they are positioned and what other dungeons you might find are different for each playthrough.

Another thing that isn?t apparent until you do some digging is how many different ways the story can go. The game presents itself as having virtually no plot, but as you approach the end, you?ll begin to realize all those omens you kept hearing about ?other worlds? might just have some validity to them. Even more than a month after release, I still cannot find a definitive source on how many endings there are and how you unlock each one.

Dungeons are navigated by clicking between
Dungeons are navigated by clicking between "points of interest."

That said, there are at least four endings that each unlock a new playable class for your other runs. Replay value is high in Kingsway, as you?ll earn gems when a character dies, which can be used to unlock starting gifts for future characters like +10 health points or a larger backpack, as well as different themes, fonts, or even hotkeys in the OS interface like ?tab,? which gives you the incredibly useful ability to quickly tab through your windows.

The OS aesthetic doesn?t just end at the interface. You might play the game for an hour before realizing that there?s no music. To solve this, you have to open your faux-MIDI player and start listening to your 19-song music library (which turns out is maybe exactly the right amount of songs, because if there was one fewer it might be a little too repetitive). When you start the game you?re alerted that you are part of a guild and will receive quest update emails from them, which all end up being spam subject lines like ?You Won?t Believe What This Potion Can Do For You? or ?Skeletons In Your Area Want To Meet.?

At times I felt like I was throwing myself at Kingsway, trying too hard to beat it for the first time and not just enjoying the ride--and due to the semi-repetitive nature of the game, I felt myself not wanting to go back immediately after initially being drawn in by the game. After a short break, however, I came back for a daily run and it was more fun than ever. Kingsway isn?t the most complex or innovative game ever created, but it commits hard to its aesthetic, and that goes a long way.

 

Destiny 2 Review

 

The list of large and small ways Destiny 2 is a streamlined, better designed, and more rewarding game than its predecessor is probably a hundred lines long. To cut to the chase, this is a game that finally makes good--sometimes a little too good--on Bungie's big idea of blending its genre-leading console first-person shooting with a Diablo-style loot dispenser, and it's been a long time coming. Remember 2014, when the first Destiny's notoriously fractured storyline and aimless, unfulfilling endgame grind left a large portion of its player base feeling shortchanged? Bungie does. On both counts, it's clear in playing Destiny 2 that Bungie learned most of the right lessons from the turmoil of Destiny's debut, even as it feels like the studio also forgot some of what made Destiny unique along the way.

This guy is a little more mustache-twirling than Bungie usually traffics with.
This guy is a little more mustache-twirling than Bungie usually traffics with.

Destiny 2 certainly has a more coherent story than last time. The sequel turns the forgettable faction vendors from the first Destiny into living, breathing video game characters and casts them in a desperate fight for survival as a legion of particularly mean Cabal, the franchise's monstrous spacefaring version of the Roman Empire, shows up and kicks what's left of humanity out of its last refuge on Earth. These principal characters are scattered across the solar system as the Cabal busies itself stealing the god-like powers of the enigmatic giant space orb that makes Destiny possible, and you then spend a dozen-odd missions flying from moon to planetoid to capital spaceship and back, trying to recruit those faction vendors back into the fold so they can lead an assault on the Cabal occupation. In contrast to the nebulous mess of the original, Destiny 2's story is clearly presented and you never have to stop and scratch your head, wondering what you're doing and why. There are unique mission mechanics, fast-paced vehicle sequences, and a whole lot of enormity and spectacle that recall Bungie's best campaigns. It's epic and exciting and focused in a way the original Destiny wasn't.

At the same time, there's a distinct shift in tone from the first game. Where Destiny was austere to a fault, the sequel overcorrects with a cast that sometimes feels like it's made up entirely of comic relief (and not all of the jokes are very comical), and the plot turns on more trite video game clichés than I've come to expect from Bungie. The story revolves around a world-destroying super machine and a sneering one-note villain in a way that's a little too predictable, coming from a studio that's never really relied on things like mustache-twirling bad guys. Recall that the entire Halo series' long-running antagonist wasn't a single villain but a multi-species alien religious cult with a complex hierarchy and system of beliefs. The first Destiny struggled to even effectively explain who you were fighting against or what the stakes were, but I hoped for a little more than a vaguely generic bad guy who wants to blow everything up in the sequel.

There's only a handful of new enemies, but the old ones are still fun to shoot.
There's only a handful of new enemies, but the old ones are still fun to shoot.

For all the incoherence of its plot, Destiny managed to imply the outlines of a vastly grander world than what was taking place right in front of you. It was a world with numerous alien factions each with their own agendas, rituals, and social structures--even if you had to dig through digital trading cards on your phone to fully understand everything--all taking place against the crumbling interplanetary remains of humanity's most triumphant era. A couple of those alien factions feel like they're reduced to set dressing in Destiny 2, and with a few exceptions there's less interest in building intrigue around the mysteries of a fallen civilization. The first game struck a unique blend of tangible and mystical. Its combination of post-utopian science fiction and classical mythology created a specific atmosphere that fired the imagination, and its setting among our solar system's most familiar and yet unknowable locations served a function of wish fulfillment, as you rooted around the remains of a research collective on Venus or explored alien cathedrals hollowed out of the goddamn Moon. Destiny 2 makes a similar attempt, but comes up short. Of the game's four locations, one is essentially a glorified oil rig, and while another, Nessus, is technically a real planetoid way out in the far reaches, who had ever heard of it before this game? To some extent this is all a matter of taste; Destiny 2 trades breadth for focus, and that'll work better for some people, but it resulted in a less memorable experience for me. Bungie's storytelling has always been a little weird, but not much of Destiny 2 is as weird as the first game.

Having said all this, the conclusion of Destiny 2's campaign defied my expectations in some startling ways, and there's such an urgency to the last handful of missions and the world of Destiny is left so fundamentally revitalized after the last couple of hours that the ending did a little to relieve my relative disappointment with some of what had preceded it. Without getting too specific, the campaign leaves the world of Destiny in an exciting place, and sets up the franchise to deliver new stories in the future that are more in line with what I've come to expect from this series.

There's a good chance you'll actually want to stick around this time for those new stories to drop over the coming months and years. The single best thing I can say about Destiny 2 is that Bungie has finally found a way to fit all of the game's nuts and bolts together to create a loot shooter satisfying enough that the only reason to stop playing it is because you've run out of things to do. And there's a lot to do. In addition to the campaign, all the activities you expect from the first game return, from patrols and public events in the open world to three-player strikes, the competitive Crucible, and weekly rotations of ultra-hard Nightfall strikes and Trials of the Nine competitive matches. And then, of course, there's a post-game raid for six players, a grueling cooperative challenge that can take you a dozen hours to analyze, figure out, and actually defeat.

New public events and other activities can dump more loot on you than you can handle.
New public events and other activities can dump more loot on you than you can handle.

Sure, most of this stuff was featured in the first Destiny, but it's all been refreshed or improved here in significant ways. There are more types of public events now, and they all have optional heroic versions that are harder and yield more rewards (and are a challenge to unlock in their own right). Nightfalls now come with more inventive modifiers that dramatically change the way you play. The first game's Nightfalls merely increased various weapons' damage and forced you to restart the entire mission if your team wiped, leading you to play incredibly cautiously (or in my case, frequently not play at all). The new Nightfalls feature tight timers and rotating damage mechanics that require precise, coordinated, speedy play that's an exhilarating improvement on the plodding old version. The Crucible comes with a smattering of standard modes across multiple playlists, and while this sort of multiplayer with its player shields, high-flying jump jets, and all-powerful super abilities isn't for everyone, I've come to enjoy the smaller scale and more tactical nature of Destiny 2's multiplayer now that it's been reduced to four players. If nothing else, this makes it a lot easier to get a fireteam of three other people together to play with you, and a good fireteam with strong communication can really clean up in there.

The key to making Destiny 2's activities and character progression so much more seamless and rewarding than in the first game is in simplification. Bungie has thrown out all the esoteric nonsense from the first game, with its half-dozen different types of upgrade currencies and weird quest items and other concepts that some players understandably balked at. In place of all that, there's now a simple reputation system where each planet and each type of activity has a vendor associated with it, and anything you do on that planet or in that activity contributes to your reputation with that vendor. When the meter with a given vendor ticks over, you pick up another item package. Rinse and repeat as necessary. Whether you're running a ton of strikes, or playing Crucible endlessly, or hanging out with friends and casually popping off public events and looking for treasure chests in the European Dead Zone, you're earning rep that will translate into new gear sooner than later. And all of these activities are tied together with a challenge system that gives you even more goals to work for and results in even more gear on a daily basis, with a weekly set of "milestone" quests that guarantee you gear well above your level if you complete the requisite activities. The game has a way of making you feel like you're working toward three or four different goals at once. Where Destiny sometimes felt too stingy with its gear drops, especially in the endgame, you'll quickly have more loot in this game than you know what to do with.

Destiny 2 has some really stunning sights to see.
Destiny 2 has some really stunning sights to see.

Actually, that's the other thing that makes Destiny 2 work better: they upped the drop rates. A lot. You will not stop getting a steady stream of better gear right up till you're ready to tackle the endgame raid, and there are relatively easy ways to level beyond that. The elusive exotics--hand-crafted weapons and armor that were so rare in the first game Bungie added another item to increase your chances of seeing them--are now built-in quest rewards throughout the story and also drop at a startlingly fast pace. For the most part all this loot keeps the game humming along, and keeps the endorphines pumping steadily in your brain as you get new guns and armor at a steady clip. I can't believe I'm saying this, but at times it can instead feel like too much of a good thing, and I almost wished the game would pump the brakes a little. Some of the lower-level guns are quite fun to use, but during the early game you rarely use the same gun for more than an hour before you get something better and feel compelled to switch to the thing with the higher number. It doesn't always feel like a given loadout has time to breathe before you're shaking it up again.

The bigger problem with getting so much loot is that you can level right past some of the better content in Destiny 2 without realizing it. Bungie has included a new "adventure" category of missions scattered around each location, and these are well worth seeing. While the main campaign typically makes you feel like you just arrived at a new location before you're being whisked off to the next one, the adventure missions help to flesh out and develop the characters and goings-on in a specific place. Each one has unique voiceovers and little self-contained storylines, and many of them feature unique mechanics or take you to some really impressive-looking parts of each zone that you wouldn't necessarily run across otherwise. The problem is, the rewards for these missions are fixed and aren't especially valuable in light of all the other activities that yield gear much faster, so if you're doing a mix of Crucible, public events, and so forth along with the campaign, you can reach a point before you realize it where the adventures are no longer valuable from an upgrade perspective. It would have been nice to see these missions utilized in a way that feels more meaningful to your character progression, and I ended up solving this problem by, uh, starting a second character and making sure to step off the loot treadmill to stop and smell the roses once in a while. Though, if the arc of the first Destiny is any indication, there's a good chance Bungie will go in and find a way to draw more players into this sort of meaningful side content over time.

Destiny 2 adds a tremendous number of quality-of-life improvements that should be a huge relief for long-suffering fans of the first game. You can now travel directly from planet to planet, rather than having to sit through one loading screen to return to orbit, then another one to fly to a new location. Unidentified loot engrams now go into their own inventory bucket rather than cluttering up your gear slots, and in a why-didn't-they-think-of-this-before move, the game now takes all the gear you possess in your inventory and vault into account when it generates new loot for you, rather than forcing you to tediously equip your highest-value stuff every time you go to decode an engram. Public events now show up on zone maps complete with a little timer telling you exactly when they'll start. And clans, which were worse than useless in the first game, are now a brilliant way not just to organize activities with friendly players, but to collectively contribute to group goals. Clans level up based on everything their members do in the game, unlocking little buffs and bonuses along the way. And in perhaps the most player-friendly change in all of Destiny 2, every week that a single clan fireteam completes a tough challenge like a Nightfall, raid, or Trials run, every clan member gets a piece of high-value, rare loot. The new clan system is a brilliant way to get people together for pickup activities and so forth. It's entirely possible I've had more social interaction in two weeks of playing Destiny 2 than I've had in calendar 2017 to date, which I hope says more about what a good time this game is with friends than it does about me.

As always, the real point of Destiny is cool-looking guns.
As always, the real point of Destiny is cool-looking guns.

Perhaps the one mark on Destiny 2's record is its increased focus on microtransactions. The first game introduced paid cosmetic items and player emotes over time in a relatively inoffensive way, and that system returns here in an expanded capacity. There are way more and higher quality cosmetics than before, and you can actually earn a fair number of them for free just by playing the game (paying will only give you quite a few more of them faster). The one outrageous exception is the change to the shader system that previously let you dye all your gear the same color. On the upside, shaders can now be applied individually to each piece of armor, and also to every gun, sparrow, and ship in the game. On the downside, shaders are now single-use items that you'll need to grind to obtain more of... unless you pay real money to get them faster, and even then you may not get the ones you want. And this is in a game where you change gear constantly and will lose those shaders sooner than you'd like. It's a real shame to see Bungie regress a previously player-friendly customization system, seemingly in an effort to drive microtransactions.

It goes without saying that Destiny's core shooting remains among the absolute best available on a console, but it's worth noting that the game's three classes and their three subclasses have been redesigned from the ground up to give you more interesting and consistent gameplay options. In contrast to Destiny's confusing grid of ability bubbles, the subclass skill trees here are easily legible and are all split into two branches, each of which has a unifying theme. So if you want a gameplay style that revolves around getting aerial kills, or one that lets you recover health in multiple ways, or one that just lets you punch the hell out of everything, you can have that. The perks on a lot of exotic gear seem tailored to further enhance specific subclasses, and there's also a fairly clever (if slightly confusing) new gear mod system that lets you add even more buffs to weapon handling, ability recharge rates, and so forth on each piece of gear. You can even use gear mods to change out the damage type on elemental weapons. Speaking of weapons, the first game's primary/secondary/heavy system has given way to kinetic, energy, and power types. Now hand cannons and auto, scout, and pulse rifles can have elemental damage types and sit in both your first and second slots, letting you customize more thoroughly with weapon combinations you couldn't use before. Shotguns and sniper rifles now hang out in the power category along with rocket launchers and swords, which certainly makes them a less frequent annoyance in the Crucible, and the game seems to be more generous with power ammo in PVE activities, so you still get to use those weapons plenty there. Just about everything related to the combat in Destiny 2 feels more varied and thoughtful than it did in the first game.

The new zones aren't quite as memorable as those of the first game, but some of them still look awfully neat.
The new zones aren't quite as memorable as those of the first game, but some of them still look awfully neat.

It shouldn't be surprising to say the look and feel of Destiny 2 more than lives up to Bungie's considerable pedigree, but that doesn't diminish the sheer artistic accomplishment of the game. Even as I found some of the new planetary locations conceptually less interesting than those of the first Destiny, I also lost count of the times my jaw dropped open at some perfectly framed scene or elaborately lit tableau, especially in the raid and some of the strikes. There's an increase in both the size and detail of the game's environments over the first Destiny, probably owing to the focus on current console hardware this time around, and the second-to-last mission of the campaign in particular features some of the most breathtaking and larger-than-life imagery I can ever remember in a game. And while I sorely miss Marty O'Donnell's signature percussion and the game could use a few more french horns, the Destiny 2 score has grown on me considerably over a few dozen hours. There are some really memorable themes in here, and the inclusion of the Kronos Quartet gives a couple of dramatic scenes some real emotional oomph.

Like with any loot game, you'll eventually exhaust Destiny 2's content, but unlike the first Destiny, you'll likely feel a lot more satisfied when you do. The new raid, Leviathan, is much easier for new players to access in terms of gear requirements, and has an unexpected setting and some utterly wild visuals and moments, even though a couple of the encounters are infuriatingly inconsistent at the moment. Trials of the Nine has less stringent requirements than its incarnation in the first game as well, and if you play enough of it you might earn enough rep for an item or two even if you never manage to eke out seven consecutive wins. Bungie has also gotten better about communicating its roadmap for future content and is already teasing something called "Faction Rally" in the near future, and you can bet Iron Banner will worm its way back into the game some weekend soon. And this is all in advance of the first DLC pack coming in three months, which is rumored to contain an entire new planet to explore, provided you like this game enough to pay for more of it. That's the biggest success of this sequel: it's now good enough that you no longer need to make excuses about why you play so much Destiny. Destiny 2 may misstep in a couple of ways its predecessor didn't, but it also shores up its fundamentals so thoroughly that the future for Destiny fans looks bright indeed.

 

Agents of Mayhem Review

 

By ratcheting up the over-the-top elements with each entry in the Saints Row franchise, Volition wrote themselves into a bit of a corner. What started as a GTA clone with a goofy sense of humor turned into a ludicrous affair with characters that could fly across the map and access superpowers. Once characters were shooting fireballs from their hands and flying around Hell with demon wings, there wasn?t a lot of room left to keep cranking up the crazy.

Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack are the first agents you'll have access to.
Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack are the first agents you'll have access to.

Agents of Mayhem is not officially a Saints Row game, but the DNA of that franchise is plain to see throughout. My hope was that by introducing this as a new series, it?d give Volition a chance to dial things back a bit. Saints Row: The Third was my favorite of the bunch, hitting the sweet spot of silliness without taking things too far. Unfortunately, Agents of Mayhem misses the mark in many key areas and ultimately disappoints.

While Saints focused on a street gang, Agents is more of a send-up of comic heroes and Saturday morning cartoons. Twelve heroes are unlockable, including a vain actor, a drunken roller derby girl, a soccer hooligan, and a Yakuza assassin. The cast of characters may be diverse when it comes to their ethnicity and abilities, but they?re one-dimensional in every other regard. Considering you have access to a dozen playable characters, I don?t envy the writer that had to come up with unique dialogue for every one of them in every situation.

Pictured: Every combat encounter in Agents of Mayhem.
Pictured: Every combat encounter in Agents of Mayhem.

Like much of the game, there?s definitely a ?quantity over quality? feel to the myriad jokes. Saints Row wasn?t a comedic masterpiece, but it had some clever writing and a consistent tone. Agents of Mayhem is constantly straining to be funny and coming up short. So much of its material seems hinged on the concept of ?this is like a kid?s cartoon, but they curse all the time!? It?s a lazy, boring approach that isn?t funny at first and certainly doesn?t get better as they lean on the cursing for the rest of the game. Jokes that aim higher than simple F-bombs and dick jokes never get much more sophisticated than zingers about how the planet Uranus sounds like a butthole.

The tone of the game?s humor immediately turned me off, but I hoped to find solace in the seemingly robust upgrade system for each character. A crazy amount of tinkering is possible, with different systems in place for skill points, altering special abilities, building ?Legion Tech? modifiers, collecting three core upgrades for each character, and more. On top of the individual upgrades, you also level up the Agency in general, which unlocks passive improvements no matter which agent you?re using.

Each character comes equipped with a triple jump ability.
Each character comes equipped with a triple jump ability.

With so much variety in the characters and the level of customization, I was optimistic that these elements would help me enjoy the game despite the lame humor. It didn?t take long to realize that most of the upgrades feel insignificant. Most are changes to status effects or a slight statistical change. I love the idea of making my squad of heroes progressively more powerful, but upgrades that give me a 2% boost to an ability never really feel satisfying. Some more significant upgrades that affect mobility or speed would be nice, as none of them make the act of running around the game feel any different.

Exploring a futuristic version of Seoul is as unrewarding as the character progression. For an open-world game, Agents of Mayhem suffers from a dearth of things to do. There are boilerplate side objectives like finding crystal shards, participating in checkpoint-to-checkpoint races, collecting marked cars, and destroying enemy tech, but these never feel good or particularly beneficial. Seoul itself is weirdly lifeless, with bland environments and empty streets. The pedestrians don?t even seem to have any VO.

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It doesn?t take long at all for the game to demonstrate its lack of mission variety. So many of the main story missions boil down to running to a computer, doing a hacking mini-game, and then clearing out some enemies before doing it all over again. Confusingly, many of these missions begin by forcing the player to climb to the top of a building or going to a marked location for no discernible reason. Playing through the story is a mind-numbing process of following objective markers, hacking terminals, and shooting hordes of enemies. Another recurring mission structure involves going underground to fight through Legion lairs that are virtually indistinguishable from each other. A handful of boss fights occasionally break up the monotony, but it?s not enough to make up for the rest of the slog through the story.

Agents of Mayhem is boring, but it?s also janky as hell. Music from cars will sometimes continue to play over animated cutscenes. In the upgrade menu, the UI will frequently display ?NEW? over characters that have no new upgrades available. Draw distance is rough, even on a PS4 Pro. Missions will break when enemies get stuck in inaccessible areas. Load screens can hang and force a restart. I received the same ?hey, you can build this upgrade that you don?t actually want? notification at least 60 times. One of my characters died, but started sliding across the ground during the death animation. I wasn?t able to switch characters or even pause, and had to restart the game. Characters will make jokes that have nothing to do with the situation at hand, then repeat them ad nauseum like a malfunctioning quip robot.

Kill the dudes, hack the computer, run to the marker. Repeat.
Kill the dudes, hack the computer, run to the marker. Repeat.

Agents of Mayhem is not a good game, but there were brief times that I experienced feelings that resembled enjoyment. The twelve characters do all feel different, from their abilities to their weapons. I liked mixing and matching my active squad and determining which agents I liked and which didn?t fit my playstyle. As I progressed, I became increasingly annoyed by an unrewarding upgrade system, a lifeless city, technical issues, and an unrelenting procession of boring mission objectives. It doesn?t help that it didn?t make me laugh once despite trying desperately to do so every five seconds.

I looked forward to seeing what Volition would do with a new open-world franchise. They turned Saints Row into something much more unique than the franchise?s GTA-inspired roots, and a new take on that universe could have been a great move for the developer. Unfortunately, any joy, character, humor, or interesting gameplay has been stripped from that series and left us with a wholly disappointing mistake.

 

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