Hitman 2 Review

 

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who already know the glee of 2016's Hitman reboot, and those who have yet to experience IO Interactive's wildly entertaining world of absurdist assassination. Fortunately, Hitman 2 is easy to recommend to both groups, owing to a big list of necessary improvements to the formula, a smart integration with the previous game, and another big pack of great new maps. There's really never been a better time to get into this unique, quirky franchise.

The core of Hitman 2 is exactly the same as in the first game: you roam around massive clockwork levels swarming with hundreds of characters, all interacting with each other and carrying out their own routines, as you plan dozens of ridiculous ways to bump off your targets (quietly or not). But Hitman 2 is chock-full of incremental changes and additions that make it a much better playing game on the whole. Some intelligent interface tweaks help clarify abstract information like compromised disguises, off-limits areas, and scripted murder opportunities and make them much easier to parse. New gameplay features, like tall foliage that lets you hide in plain sight and a briefcase you can use to smuggle conspicuously illegal items around, give you more options to devise creative strategies. And in what must be one of the most generous decisions made by a developer in recent history, owners of the first game can import all of its content into the new package for free and replay it with all the new features--and newcomers can add all that content to the sequel for a measly 20 bucks. Seeing two whole games' worth of Hitman encapsulated in one tidy package is a special kind of satisfying.

Hitman 2's locations cover almost as much exotic ground as those in the first game, from a high-tech Miami speedway to a drug cartel's jungle compound, suburban Anytown USA and a secret island meeting of billionaires who not-so-secretly run the world. At five full-sized maps and one smaller one, there's more than enough content here to get your money's worth. And while this sequel maintains the goofy, totally-serious-but-not-really tone of the series, I have to give Hitman 2 credit for making me genuinely care about the story in a Hitman game. The first game raised a ton of questions about illuminati-type groups and shadowy rogue agents without providing many answers, but the sequel makes good on that residual suspense with a taut international cat-and-mouse thriller that not only develops the characters of Agent 47 and his handler Diana Burnwood, but also provides some closure to the first game's mysteries. In the course of making good on those lingering plot threads, it also raises the stakes to such a degree that seeing the conclusion of the whole thing might be the number one reason I want a Hitman 3. That's not a sentence I ever expected to write.

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This is a great package in total, though Hitman 2 feels just slightly rougher around the edges than its predecessor. The production is a little less polished and elaborate, with cutscenes composed of rudimentary still images compared to the full-fat CG treatment the story got in the first game. That's made more noticeable since both games' cinematics are housed side-by-side in the same menu. There's a little less map content to work with overall compared to the previous game's six full-sized locations and two sizable training maps, but the five new maps are gigantic, and Hitman 2 does come up with a handful of new variations on the standard objective of just killing all your targets that help to freshen things up a bit. And while the game offers a couple of supplementary modes with Sniper Assassin, where you attempt to take out targets at a wedding from a lofty perch with a scoped rifle, and Ghost--a head-to-head "beta" multiplayer mode that has players racing to get kills, which doesn't feel like it plays to Hitman's loose, anything-goes strengths--this ancillary content isn't really the reason you come to a Hitman game. Luckily, the first limited-time "elusive target" starring none other than Sean Bean is a great sign for more of the free post-release support that defined the first game, and there are DLC releases planned down the line to provide more of those great locations.

Those complaints don't amount to much when you step back and look at how well the Hitman formula has matured in this sequel and just how much content IO has crammed into this single package. The developer's uncertain future under Square Enix made a fair number of headlines a while back, before IO went independent and became the sole master of Agent 47's destiny. The fact that Hitman 2 turned out as well as it did in spite of that business turmoil is a great sign for the future of the franchise, and we should all be fortunate enough to get to play another one of these games a couple of years from now.

 

Tetris Effect Review

 

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

How do you innovate on Tetris? The core game itself is just as playable as it was over 30 years ago. Sure, you can change the rules of how the game plays, create new modes, or mash it up with other games. It feels like many modern versions of Tetris have asked ?how do we make Tetris more fun,? but nobody has asked ?how do we make Tetris more of an experience??

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Enter Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Enhance Inc. with Tetris Effect, which blends the core mechanics of Tetris with the unique visual and audio stylings of past Mizuguchi games like Rez and Lumines. In the game?s main Journey mode, players are taken on a trip through 27 levels, each with their own unique and interactive skin and music. Clearing a set number of lines will bring players from one stage to the next, transitioning between visual soundscapes that are themed around flying windmills, volcanic hulas, and space whales. Beating Journey from start to finish will only take about two hours or so, and it takes you through levels that are range from relaxing to very technically challenging. There's decent replayability to be found with different difficulties and modes that you unlock after completing it.

Tetris Effect does an incredible job of keeping the player immersed, and one of the best ways it does it is by giving the player control of the music. Moving tetriminos, rotating and dropping them, and clearing lines affects the music in dynamic ways. This is only complimented by playing the game in VR. This, surprisingly, was my favorite way to play the game. The first time I booted up the game in VR and was able to look around me and see myself being showered in falling stars as trance/world music washed over me was my favorite VR experience to date. The interactivity of the music, the intense and sometime overwhelming visuals, and solid core gameplay all blend together to create a cohesive and sometimes emotional experience. The few songs in the game with lyrics all share a common motif--togetherness--and as cheesy as it sounds, you feel like you?re part of something bigger when playing in VR.

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In addition to the Journey mode, the game features Effect mode. These are a series of Tetris variants, and feature some models you might be familiar with. There are established modes like Marathon (clear 300 lines as fast as you can) or Sprint (clear 40 lines in a set amount of time), but also new modes such as Purify, where players must kill off infected tetriminos as fast as possible. These offer a good break from the core game, and even act as tutorials to a degree. Take, for example, the mode called All Clear. This mode gives you a partially filled in well with a set number of pieces to drop. I found playing this mode allowed me to spot unique solutions to problems in my regular Tetris play. Tetris Effect will also have weekend challenges, where players must come together and clear a certain number of lines to unlock new avatars for players to use on their profiles, adding a reason to come back to the game frequently.

Tetris Effect, from top to bottom, is my favorite iteration of Tetris yet. The music and visuals work together to create a truly unique Tetris experience, that is only enhanced by VR.

 

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

 

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 is, in many ways, a pretty staggering video game. First and foremost, it is staggering in its scope. An open-world game in the grand tradition of Rockstar's lengthy catalogue in the genre, RDR2 offers up an Old West world that is massive in scale, teeming with life and activity, and astoundingly, exhaustingly detailed. It tells an uneven, but highly enjoyable tale set 12 years before the events of the first game, and largely affords its large cast of characters far more opportunities to endear themselves to the player than any other Rockstar production I've ever played. In the 60-plus hours I spent poking through every corner of RDR2's world, I constantly found myself getting lost in both the myriad activities it provides, and the simple pleasures of walking through its diverse and gorgeously rendered environments.

And as I worked my way through this staggering game, I couldn't help but repeatedly think about the staggering amount of work that went into creating the game. I probably would have had that thought irrespective of recent events, just by virtue of how unusually polished the whole experience feels. But the recent reporting on conditions at Rockstar's various studios in the lead-up RDR2 undoubtedly intensified those thoughts. No matter how transfixed I became by the "magic" of what this game does, I found it difficult to shake the sensation that everything I was experiencing came at unreasonable expense.

The story follows the adventures of Arthur Morgan, right-hand man to charismatic gang leader Dutch van der Linde. Players of the original Red Dead will recall that this gang is the one previous protagonist John Marston originated from. At this stage of history, Arthur, Dutch and crew are on the run following a failed job in the town of Blackwater. Throughout the story, the gang exists in a transient state. Moving from state to state, the crew finds itself mixed up in a wide variety of misadventures as they try to regather themselves and pull together the funds they need to finally disappear. As Arthur, you are essentially the gang's fixer. In addition to participating in the various robberies and related crimes that take place throughout the game, you'll also find yourself in charge of the gang's camp, a bustling communal space where you collect quests, manage resources, and just exist alongside the various personalities that encapsulate the gang.

This is the best aspect of the game, not necessarily from any gameplay perspective, but rather in terms of overall immersion in the world. One of RDR2's greatest strengths is the lengths it goes to in order to make its world feel like it is breathing on its own. Other Rockstar open world games have largely focused on centering the player in every way. Everything is typically built like a playground, chock full of activities that exist at the forefront, while the various NPCs just sort of mill around. Here, the various cities, camps, and wild areas all feel like they are moving along at a lifelike pace. When you're in your gang camp, you'll see people doing chores, reading, playing games, and engaging in conversations that have nothing in particular to do with whatever quest you're about to embark upon. These personalities, these people, are the core of what makes RDR 2 go. There is a humanity to these characters that Rockstar games don't typically seem all that invested in portraying.

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The story itself does not always do right by its cast of characters, but its primary tale of Arthur's journey through the gang's final days is an extremely compelling one. The performance of Rob Clark as Arthur is a big part of that, but the writing is strong too. His motives are understandable, and his internal conflicts are thoughtfully portrayed throughout the campaign. Many of the other personalities around him are loud and cartoonish in ways you'd expect, but few of them feel like pure caricature. Where the writing does falter, it's largely around the margins of that core story. Its attempts at delving deeper into conflict between indigenous people and the US military feel too steeped in cliche to say anything of note, some of the various stranger missions peppered throughout the world are blandly obnoxious in the way the worst GTA missions can be, and there is more than a little seemingly unexamined irony in the story repeatedly making villains out of tyrannical capitalists and demagogues who work their people half to death entirely to their own benefit.

The most gobsmacking thing about RDR2 is how all its various systems and characters are weaved into its world. Right from the jump, the game drops numerous tutorials about hunting, crafting, shooting, horse bonding, and a million other things both big and small. Some of these systems are more important than others, but there are opportunities to engage with them on a near constant basis. All these pieces, all these systems, are remarkably blended into the game world. The sheer number of mechanisms all working behind the scenes are exhausting enough to think about, but the way Rockstar has obscured all those gears grinding in the background is its most impressive trick. In most open world games it's not long before you can start seeing the seams. If not outright bugs and glitches--which RDR2 has, albeit in much smaller volume than you might expect--you'll eventually come upon quests and activities that feel like they've been copied from somewhere else in the game. Think about Far Cry's various towers, Assassin's Creed Odyssey's bandit camps and timed missions. Very little of RDR2 has that sensation. From the biggest missions right down to the smallest interactions, all of this stuff feels like it was constructed individually. I was inspired to do missions that I might have ignored in a more repetitive game because each one had its own distinct thing going on. I almost never thought of ticking off checkboxes as I went.

You sense this everywhere you go in RDR2. I spent long stretches in the towns and cities following NPCs around to see where they went, what they interacted with. When out in the countryside, I constantly found myself standing still as I watched wildlife scurry around, and the wind blow through the grass and trees. This is a slow game, one where huge stretches involve little more than riding or walking from place to place, drinking in the atmosphere that surrounds you. This is a sensation I expect some players will bristle at. Arthur moves at a methodical pace, and while there are some sections where the controls feel flat out unintuitive or unresponsive, more often it's just a matter of letting Arthur's animations play out. And there are so many of them. So many. If you want to pick up a gun, skin an animal, even open a damn drawer, you'll have to watch him go through a realistically, if slowly paced animation for it. Hell, every major character in this game has their own distinctive way of moving through the world. It is a ludicrous amount of animation. Ludicrous.

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Details like this are easy to fixate on, especially when considering the amount of work poured into it. No one detail is by itself remarkable, but all these little details, these exhaustively rendered things, overwhelm the senses from the beginning and never really let up. The thing of it is, though, Red Dead Redemption 2 would still have been a pretty remarkable game without all these little details. They impress, no doubt, but knowing what we know about how Rockstar put people to work to make all those little things go, it's understandable to question whether it was necessarily worth all of that effort. In Kotaku's most recent reporting on the company's work culture, there's an anecdote at the beginning describing the way the game reframes the camera into a letterboxed shot every time it shifts from gameplay to a cutscene. This was apparently decided upon very late in the development cycle, and required members of the cinematics team to put in numerous overtime hours to rework. Does this particular feature look cool? Totally. Would I ever have noticed it wasn't there had they opted not to put their employees through a great deal of extra work to make this happen? Absolutely not.

This is what it ultimately comes down to with Red Dead Redemption 2. It is an incredible achievement in open world gaming, an intricate machine that disguises its machinery better than just about anything else that's come before. In addition to its lengthy and engrossing campaign, it delivers moments of emergent storytelling more compelling than anything I can ever remember playing. Graphically and aurally, it is top-to-bottom stunning. And all that came at an expense of labor that, while in no way unusual for an industry steeped in a culture of endless crunch and burnout, nonetheless cannot be dismissed. How do you reconcile those two things? Do you boycott the game? Do you buy it to support the people who worked the hardest on it? I do not have that answer for you. I'm not sure anyone does at this stage. What I can say is that Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the best games I've ever played, and alongside the accolades the quality of its production richly deserves, it should always be noted what the circumstances were for those tasked with producing it. That is the asterisk this brilliant game should bear for as long as people feel like talking about it. The people who developed Red Dead Redemption 2--both credited and uncredited--should rightfully feel proud of all they have accomplished. Likewise, they should be afforded the opportunity to continue making games under circumstances more cognizant of, and beneficial to, their livelihoods going forward.

 

Destiny 2: Forsaken Review

 

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows. Note that after this review was recorded, Bungie announced that it would begin including the previous DLC releases, Curse of Osiris and Warmind, in the Forsaken package on October 16.

It's becoming a tradition for Bungie to release a Destiny game with some persistent issues, then hammer those issues out into a smoother, more pleasant shape with a major expansion a year later. Just like The Taken King made the original Destiny a more interesting, rewarding game, Destiny 2's big 40 dollar add-on Forsaken has done the same for the sequel with dramatic improvements to loot and character progression, a more intriguing story and set of new areas to explore, and a major new multiplayer mode. Most importantly, all these pieces fit together more seamlessly than they did in the release game. It's easily the best Destiny 2 has been so far.

The Dreaming City is the most exotic, secret-laden zone in Destiny so far.
The Dreaming City is the most exotic, secret-laden zone in Destiny so far.

Forsaken picks up the story of the Awoken, the wispy blue space people who live in the asteroid belt, after they were all but annihilated by Oryx's Taken fleet in the previous game. The Queen's whereabouts are still unknown, sniveling Prince Uldren is back and more deranged than usual, and he's backed up by a distinctive rogues' gallery of especially nasty monsters, drawn from a new enemy faction, who you'll spend much of the campaign facing down in unique boss fights. The Forsaken campaign spans two new patrol zones: the ramshackle Tangled Shore, a thieves' den made up of a bunch of lashed-together floating rocks, and the Dreaming City, the mystical ancestral home of the Awoken which has a distinctly fantasy-like bent and houses the most secrets and side activities of any Destiny zone in recent memory.

The flow and design of the campaign's story missions take a lot of creative liberties with Destiny's mechanics and structure, resulting in what's probably the most consistently surprising and entertaining chunk of story content Bungie has created to date. Forsaken dispenses with wisecracking robotic series regular Cayde-6 early on in a dramatic fashion, but the game doesn't get much lasting material out of his death. The more enduring storyline around the Awoken's quest to retake their homeland works much better, and weaves through every bit of the content here, from the initial campaign through post-story world missions, the new (and very tough) raid, and even on into the weekly loot grind, which now revolves around a bizarre metanarrative in which the characters themselves are trying to understand why they're repeating the same actions over and over again from week to week. There's ethereal Awoken magic and strange goings-on at every step. The story content isn't just wide-ranging and weird, there's also just a huge amount of it, certainly the most Destiny has packed into an expansion to date.

Due to a number of design missteps, Destiny 2 came and went for a lot of people. Thankfully, the changes Forsaken makes under the hood are what really prop up all the new story stuff and give the game more staying power. Bungie has made loot meaningful again by... making it more like the loot in the first game, which is to say every weapon and piece of armor once again comes with a random set of perks. So if you get three of the same scout rifle, they'll all have different firing characteristics that make it worth comparing them and picking your favorite, instead of just trashing all your duplicates. There are dramatically more "powerful gear" quests day to day and week to week that give you chances to get better items. The new collections interface lets you keep track of and reacquire all the old gear, cosmetic items, shaders and so forth you've found so far. There are even new ways to earn in-game currency for cosmetic items that you would have just paid real money for back at launch. It's just a tighter, friendlier game in nearly every way.

If you ever wished they'd cram a little MOBA into Destiny, Gambit is for you.
If you ever wished they'd cram a little MOBA into Destiny, Gambit is for you.

The new four-on-four Gambit multiplayer mode mostly does a great job of rounding out the usual assortment of strikes, Crucible, weekly challenges and so forth. Taking a few MOBA cues, it tasks your team with killing enemies faster than another team who's playing on a separate map, with both teams racing to hit a quota that spawns a boss you have to kill first to win the round. Where Gambit gets interesting--and wildly exhilarating or infuriating, depending on which side you land on--is that your team has limited opportunities for one player to invade and kill the other team, which can massively hamper their progress toward spawning their boss (or will just heal the boss, if it's already out). There's the potential for massive swings in match momentum, depending on how you invade or get invaded, how you strategically use your super ability to clear enemies quickly or wipe the other team, and so forth. You can pretty much singlehandedly gain an insurmountable lead for your team or stage an improbable comeback with a crucial play. Gambit is full of extreme highs and lows, though due to the 20 to 30 minutes it takes to finish a match and its reliance on competent teamwork, it tends toward lows in the same way MOBAs do. Feeling like you just wasted half an hour due to a boneheaded team or one ruinous invasion from the other side is awfully demoralizing. Gambit is best played with a squad of friends who know what they're doing.

At its heart, Destiny 2 is still of course a loot-based game, with all the inherent drawbacks of a genre that functions largely like a capsule machine. You might play it compulsively, or stay up late trying to grind out weekly activities before you lose them. You might spend an evening grinding out Crucible kills only to get three equivalent sets of the same boots. But at least the structure is now intelligently designed, and the content is creative and varied enough, that it's actually worth coming back to the game even after you've finished the story. Bungie has clearly learned its lesson after Destiny 2's missteps, and finally found a winning formula that sets up a brighter, more enduring future for the franchise. Hopefully this time that lesson will stick.

 

Assassin's Creed Odyssey Review

 

Homer's Odyssey is an epic Greek poem about Odysseus' 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. Assassin's Creed Odyssey is similar to Homer's Odyssey in that it is also a tale of a Greek hero whose journey takes roughly 10 years to complete.
Homer's Odyssey is an epic Greek poem about Odysseus' 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. Assassin's Creed Odyssey is similar to Homer's Odyssey in that it is also a tale of a Greek hero whose journey takes roughly 10 years to complete.

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

Coming just a year after Origins' lengthy, but largely exhilarating campaign, Assassin's Creed Odyssey takes that game's open world RPG formula and stretches it to the point of nearly breaking. Its rendering of ancient Greece is enormous and overwhelming, a dauntingly spread-out landscape of cities, islands, and oceans densely packed with more objectives than anybody without a hundred hours of free time in front of them could ever hope to accomplish.

Look, having a lot of game is not a bad thing on its own. How many years have we futilely spent trying to break down some mythological equation that determines the exact right amount of content for a $60 game? If sheer volume of game is all you're looking for, Odyssey is a terrific value. But what good is all that content if only maybe half of it is compelling? At its best moments, the scale of Odyssey helps feed into the feeling of grand adventure the developers are clearly striving for. But too many of those great moments are stuffed between a seemingly endless parade of samey open-world job lists and copy-pasted side quests that, while to a degree ignorable, still have to be engaged with often enough to make Odyssey's pace feel bloated and awkward.

Set in ancient Greece a few hundred years before the events of Origins, you play as either Alexios or Kassandra, Spartan siblings whose fates are intertwined throughout the story. I can really only speak to Kassandra, as that's who I spent 80 hours with, but she makes for a compelling protagonist, charismatically voiced by Melissanthi Mahut. While Origins' Bayek was a mostly chaste and good-natured dad who just liked helping people along the way of his primary murder plot, Odyssey presents Kassandra as a kind of swashbuckling, bisexual mercenary--somewhere between Yara Greyjoy and Xena: Warrior Princess--and there's room within that base portrayal to make her as bloodthirsty or charitable as you like.

Sokrates, if you think murder deserves consequence, this is not the game franchise for you.
Sokrates, if you think murder deserves consequence, this is not the game franchise for you.

That layer of player choice in shaping Odyssey's main character is just one of a host of things added to the Origins formula. In addition to all the fortresses, bandit camps, animal dens and story-focused side quests of Origins, dialogue choices add an extra layer of RPG-ness to a series that was already pretty far down that path. Additionally: the naval combat of Black Flag and Rogue is back in a big way, with a dusting of Metal Gear Solid V's crew recruitment added to the mix. Additionally: there's a Nemesis-lite system clearly inspired by Monolith's Mordor games that replaces the Philakates of Origins with a tiered roster of mercenaries that will hunt you any time your wanted level gets too high. Additionally: there is a web of 30+ cultist targets--sort of a proto-Templar group--that are spread throughout the world, which must be uncovered by murdering your way through the ranks and uncovering clues to their identities. Additionally: you can engage in giant battles between the Athenian and Spartan armies in a big, bloody brawl that recalls Syndicate's gang battles on a larger scale. ADDITIONALLY: there are mythical monsters to fight as part of a subplot involving more of the Layla/first civilization storyline that kicked back up in Origins, and continues here with some of the most patently absurd plot moments anywhere in this series. A D D I T I O N A L L Y: You can fuck a wide variety of the game's NPCs.

If any aspect of Odyssey can be considered a triumph, it's the fact that the devs manage to make all these disparate seeming systems more or less feel like they belong together. Yet, there's still too much of all these things; too many cult targets to shank because you have to hunt through every corner of the world to find them, too many mercenaries that don't have enough personality to care about beyond wanting to avoid them whenever possible, too many side quests that just feel like the same handful of rote tasks asked of you in slightly different ways. The improved enemy AI and streamlining of some of the game's loot and progression systems make engaging with this stuff a little more fun than it generally was in Origins, but the feeling of repetitiveness still creeps in long before you get anywhere near an ending. Were it just that you could dabble in these things here and there whenever you felt like, the game would still feel long, but more manageable. But in order to level yourself high enough to take on the game's toughest challenges, you pretty much have to partake of a large swath of this optional content--or you could buy an XP boost at the start with real money, but also maybe don't ever do that.

The big battles between the Spartan and Athenian armies are probably the weakest part of the game. You can farm some decent loot out of them, but they aren't much fun.
The big battles between the Spartan and Athenian armies are probably the weakest part of the game. You can farm some decent loot out of them, but they aren't much fun.

Even in just the main story thread, that bloated, out-of-sorts feeling permeates a lot of what you're doing. There were no less than four times I felt like the story was definitely winding down, only to have a new array of objectives thrown at me. And the most ludicrous thing is that, 80 damn hours later, I still think there's another ending I haven't seen yet. Despite working my way through Kassandra's main family plot (which, oddly enough, feels like it rushes its conclusion despite taking ages to get there) and handling the full array of side missions pertaining to Layla and first civilization artifacts, I still have like a dozen cult targets to kill, and I just don't want to do it. I know in my bones there's yet another ending buried in there, and I just don't care anymore.

The greatest shame of Assassin's Creed Odyssey is that there's still a fair amount to like about it. It is an often beautiful looking game with some spectacular moments dotted throughout its longwinded story. Its failure to sustain and emphasize those moments feels like a failure of editing. Someone needed to take a hard look at this game and say "We don't need all of this." I know that's not how game developers, especially open world game developers, are generally trained to think. We expect the size and scope of these games to forever expand in ways that ensure we'll stay glued to our controllers for every available hour we can muster. Odyssey is an example of why that mentality needs to adjust as these games continue to engorge themselves with every popular design idea they can find a way to integrate. Origins wasn't without its unnecessary pieces as well, but as a whole, it still felt fresh and unusual, at least for this franchise. If all you want is another huge, slightly lukewarm portion of a meal it feels like we just finished, then Odyssey certainly delivers that. Personally, I feel like I'm going to explode.

 

Forza Horizon 4 Review

 

Editor's note: This review was originally conducted in a podcast format, available as a video above or right here as an audio file. A summary of the review follows.

The showcase events are more spectacle than anything else.
The showcase events are more spectacle than anything else.

Much of Forza Horizon 4 sticks to the sort of open-world races and activities that have shown up in the previous Horizon games, but framing those events into a world that contains active human players instead of just AI representations of real people makes the whole game feel more alive. The is further enhanced by the game's weather effects, which means the whole world changes from one season to the next every week. Winter racing means you'll deal with snow and might be able to drive across a frozen lake. Spring and Autumn get you some rain, and so on. An hourly "#Forzathon Live" event tops things off by giving the players on your server a reason to get together and complete co-op goals on a regular basis. This, then, gives you an opportunity to meet some other drivers, race against them, and so on. It's a smart collection of changes to an otherwise familiar game.

While Horizon was always meant to feel "lighter' than the self-serious car showroom vibes of Forza Motorsport, Horizon 4 strikes a better tone than its predecessors by making things a little sillier around the edges. Your driver is better represented in cutscenes and is more customizable, leading to a situation where I can make my blonde lady visit the game's beauty spots and floss on some monuments with the game's dopey-but-endearing emotes. An array of dumb unlockable car horns that include the Windows XP shutdown jingle and a batch of quick chat phrases (I tend to enjoy spamming "Racing is fun" over and over again, though the Sega Rally-referencing "GAME OVER YEEEEAAAAHHH" is also pretty good) help keep things squarely in the "let's have fun hooning around this open world" camp. Horizon has always been very earnest about the idea of cars being a whole lot of fun to drive, but the additional, less serious stuff that goes beyond the old "YOU NEED TO LEVEL UP AND WIN HERE AT THE FESTIVAL" progression really helps balance everything out.

Seen here: mud.
Seen here: mud.

The catch is that the game doesn't always make it as easy as I'd like to upgrade or change cars on the fly, leading to me finding a Subaru that handles both on- and off-road events well enough that I drove it almost exclusively. Also, the suite of events can get a little repetitive, even if the races are spread around the open world pretty well and broken out into different disciplines. Some of this is mitigated by a handful of Horizon story chapters that put you in the role of a movie stunt driver or have you tag along with a popular streamer who is counting down her 10 favorite driving games of all time. But it still has the lame showcase events, which should be amazing because the idea of running a road race against a huge hovercraft is a spectacle worth seeing. In practice, though, it's a rubber-banded race against a non-car that is built for sweeping, slow-motion shots of your car jumping over the hovercraft or train or whatever. Though the showcase events are still totally dull from a gameplay perspective, there's a Halo-themed one here that's some silly fun. Also, there seem to only be five of these events and they're front loaded into the game's progression in a way that feels like you can just get them out of the way early and move on.

It's a great-looking game across the board, though players with appropriately built PCs will have the best experience. At 1440p with a GTX 1080 on a G-Sync monitor with the game's settings preset to Ultra, the game usually hovered around the 90fps mark, occasionally popping up to 110 or down to around 70. On the Xbox One X, you can opt for a 4K or supersampled mode that runs at 30fps or a 1080p mode that runs at a solid 60fps. Though everyone's going to have their own feelings about frame rate over image quality, I found the significant motion blur in the 4K/30 mode to be pretty unacceptable by comparison. It's a driving game. Frame rate and sense of speed matters here. Though you can certainly notice the lower resolution in that 1080p/60fps mode, I'd take that 100 percent of the time over the 4K option. It's nice to have the option, either way.

Forza Horizon 4 isn't going to be a huge surprise to anyone who played a previous entry, but in a world where the other big open-world games have ranged from mildly to extremely disappointing, it's great to have another solid entry in the genre to tear through.

 

Marvel's Spider-Man Review

 

Editor's note: An audio version of this review can be found right here.

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Superhero movies have become synonymous with high budgets and extreme polish, and with Marvel?s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games has attempted to push superhero games in the same direction. The game pits Spider-Man against a rogue?s gallery of enemies all trying to assume power in the vacuum left by the capture of The Kingpin, the godfather of New York crime. The story is conventional in some ways, and surprising in others, but for the most part it handles the Spider-Man canon with a high level of care and attention to detail.

The first thing you'll notice about Spider-Man is how fun the traversal is. The game really nails the basic swinging mechanics, and offers a slew of upgrades to make it even more enjoyable. The same can be said for the combat, which plays like a modern take on the classic ?Arkham-style? brawler. Through upgrades to Spidey?s suit, gadgets, and skill tree the combat blossoms from adequate to enthralling over the course of the game.

Some ill-conceived stealth sequences hold the game back a bit, but overall, Marvel?s Spider-Man raises the bar for what a licensed open-world game can be in the same way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reshaped superhero movies.

 

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.

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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.

 

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