Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review

 

Cere has an axe to grind with the Empire, and for good reason.
Cere has an axe to grind with the Empire, and for good reason.

Respawn's named-by-marketing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that impresses and frustrates in almost equal measure. Here's an ambitious third-person action game that tells an engaging and at times moving story set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith, when the Jedi Order was purged and the Republic gave way to the Empire. Rather than merely emulating the linear cinematic action of an Uncharted but with droids and lightsabers, Fallen Order makes an earnest effort to blend the usual ledge-climbing and flashy set pieces with simplified versions of the combat and progression from Dark Souls and the ability-based exploration of a Metroid. On paper, these elements add up to one of the most elaborate and original Star Wars games in a very long time, but poor performance, a multitude of minor bugs, and a pervasive sense that swaths of the game are just lacking in refinement all undermine what would otherwise be an easy game to recommend.

Unsurprisingly, Fallen Order assumes a familiarity with all six of the original Star Wars films and situates itself squarely between the two trilogies, drawing far more influence from the prequels than any of the movies produced under Disney's imprimatur so far. Cal Kestis was but a wee padawan when Order 66 directed the Republic's clone troopers to slaughter their Jedi commanders, and since that time he's grown into a young man while working as a lowly scrapper on a junk planet and doing his best to evade the Empire's attention. When a life-or-death accident forces him to use his latent Jedi powers, Cal invites the wrath of the Imperial inquisitors tasked with hunting down the remaining Jedi "traitors," and before long he finds himself on the run with Cere, a lapsed Jedi herself with a vague past and a burning desire to restore the vanquished order, and her pilot Greez, a gruff four-armed alien that comes off sort of like a neurotic New York cabbie. The spry little droid BD-1, who hitches a ride on Cal's shoulder and acts like a skeleton key for any technical obstacles you run into, also becomes a pretty endearing character in its own right.

The ensuing quest sends you in pursuit of a MacGuffin-ish object and involves stock video game tropes like a trio of ancient tombs and the lost knowledge of a vanished civilization, but that generic setup is merely a backdrop to the real story, which is largely about revealing and attempting to heal the lingering wounds inflicted on the game's characters by the devastation of the Clone Wars and the Republic's collapse. Cal and Cere get the bulk of the screentime here, but there's depth to nearly all the supporting characters, even the primary antagonist; the oppressive reign of the Empire has been cruel to all of them, and each is desperately searching for purpose, redemption, vengeance or power in a harsh and chaotic galaxy. The game has a good grasp of the larger-than-life, mythical themes that underpin Star Wars, and for my money touches on a couple of The Last Jedi's ideas in particular with more coherence and subtlety than that movie did. In particular, Fallen Order specializes in flashbacks and dream sequences, so often the tedious bane of good video game storytelling. Here, Respawn uses the game's technology to play around with shifting environments and a blend of past, present, and future in clever and evocative ways that feel unique and help sell the story's themes and personal drama. It's refreshing just to get a glimpse of this little-seen era of Star Wars in the first place, let alone with such great writing, acting, and narrative technique.

Cal and friends end up in some far-flung locales in their fight against the Empire.
Cal and friends end up in some far-flung locales in their fight against the Empire.

Fallen Order gives you command of Greez's humble ship the Mantis, which you use to navigate at will between roughly half a dozen planets as the story introduces them. While Cal's friends repeatedly signal in a slightly rote fashion that you're free to go wherever, whenever, there's really only ever one plot-relevant destination at a time, so you're better off simply following the objective indicator for the first few hours. The game's non-linear element comes into play once you start earning the standard Force powers like push and pull, which in addition to helping in combat will also give you access to new territory on the planets you've already visited. This is where the Metroid influence comes in, though it's as if Metroid slapped a big flashing neon sign on all of its hidden secrets. The game's elaborate 3D maps plaster glowing colored signposts on every point in the environment where exploration is or will become possible; if you see red, it means "Hey, you can't access this yet. Come back when it turns green." Even unexplored routes without any ability gating are marked with big flashing yellow indicators, so there's rarely any mystery about where you have or haven't been, although the larger multi-level maps are a little too busy to be easily parsed, and getting around the bigger locations before you've unlocked all the traversal abilities and with no fast travel can occasionally feel like a cumbersome chore.

In a game where I just wanted to move the story along and see what there is to see, I actually appreciated how blatant the map makes progression for the most part, though the value of the side content you're going back to find will largely be subjective, since the bulk of it consists of small areas containing minor collectibles like costume variations and snippets of lore. The game did make use of backtracking in a couple of more interesting ways that I encountered, though. In one case, I went back to explore an early planet on a lark and stumbled onto an extremely valuable combat upgrade-slash-piece of fan service with no real fanfare. Information from Respawn suggests all players will get that upgrade later on in the story in a different location, but finding it early and on my own initiative was frankly one of the more delightful moments I had playing the game. In another case, one seemingly minor pathway led to an entire crashed Star Destroyer that I spent an hour poking around in, solving puzzles and picking up little bits of contextual story and a couple of upgrades. The game tends to hide healing upgrades and Force and health meter extensions in these larger side areas, so there's at least some mechanical incentive to go back and look around. Fallen Order isn't a short game even if you blaze through the critical path, but poking around all these side areas was a big part of the appeal for me and led me to spend what felt like at least 30 hours with the game. All games should really start including hour counters though.

In true Star Wars fashion, there's more going on behind the mask than you might think.
In true Star Wars fashion, there's more going on behind the mask than you might think.

Some fuss has been made prior to release about Fallen Order's resemblance to Dark Souls, though the comparison turns out to be somewhat superficial. The loop upon arriving on a new planet is straightforward: explore the ancient tombs or jungle or Imperial dig site along a mostly linear path, unlock a few shortcuts that will let you skip a lot of that traversal the second time around, and press on to the next story beat. The game's bonfire stand-in is the meditation point, where you rest to cash in experience points on lightsaber moves, Force powers, and survivability, and also have the option of restoring your health and stim packs (the Estus flask equivalent) while respawning all the enemies you've killed. Reappearing enemies make contextual sense in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, which take place in lonely, dead worlds that exist somewhat out of time, where fighting the same fights over and over lends itself to the purgatorial feeling those games try to evoke. I found it a little odd to run into the same combat encounters over and over in a more traditional linear, narrative-driven game like Fallen Order, and the game itself seems to agree to an extent, since it plays fast and loose with which enemies do respawn and which ones don't as dictated by the events of the story. Still, Respawn deserves credit for drawing on multiple influences in this game and coming up with a welcome change of pace from the typical by-the-numbers licensed action game.

Fallen Order's combat is also a sort of Dark Souls-lite thing where you can lock onto enemies by clicking the right stick, and you and most melee enemies each have a block meter that needs to be whittled down with repeated strikes or well timed counters before you can get in and do some actual damage. Then the block meter refills on the stronger enemies and you do the whole thing once or twice more. (Any attempt at making your lightsaber as instantly deadly as it appears in the films goes right out the window in an attempt to provide the player an actual challenge.) There are plenty of Stormtroopers shooting straight up guns at you as well, though they're much more easily dealt with since the game is generous about letting you reflect projectiles right back at whoever shot them. Fallen Order certainly doesn't rise to a FromSoftware-like level of challenge, but it's tough enough that you'll need to get at least a basic grasp on dodging, parrying, and using Force powers to control groups of enemies, many of whom are protected by block meters and also have unblockable attacks themselves (which are thankfully signaled well in advance). The combat is usually at least serviceable and often even satisfying, though it doesn't have quite the elegant feel of a Souls game, where controls and character animations and visual feedback all harmonize to give you a sublime, instinctual connection to the challenge you're facing. The combat here also tends to collapse under its own weight and become a little annoying to manage when it throws you into encounters of six or eight enemies up close with even more shooting at you from off to the side.

There are of course climbing sequences and sliding sequences and scripted boss fights and the other sort of fluff you expect in a game with cinematic inspirations, and Fallen Order also provides the occasional reasonably clever puzzle-solving in some of the more dungeon spelunking-style areas. While none of these component parts quite rise to the level of the more focused games that inspire them, they mix well enough to be fun and engaging for the entirety of the lengthy run time, especially while propelled by the impressive quality of the storytelling. Where Fallen Order tragically falters is in that classically nebulous category, polish. Perhaps most glaringly, all versions of the game have a form of fairly severe stuttering that seems to happen when you move from area to area--presumably when the game is trying to load in new level assets--that causes the performance to slow to a crawl for a few seconds every time you run more than a couple of minutes in any direction. In a few places it also suffers badly, worse than I've seen in a while, from the Unreal Engine tendency to load in scenery and textures too slowly to keep up with the camera, and I actually saw textures unload and then load back in briefly in one scene.

Get ready to do a lot of parrying before you can take down enemies like this.
Get ready to do a lot of parrying before you can take down enemies like this.

Moreover, I ran into a multitude of minor bugs and unrefined elements too numerous to list here, but among them were a particular enemy type that I repeatedly caught in what looked like the quadrupedal-alien version of a T-pose, enemies disengaging and running away from me in the middle of a fight or "seeing" me and activating through a closed door (including, in the latter case, the game's last boss), a few unreliable interactions between Cal and traversal elements like zip lines and balance beams, a glitchy camera angle on respawn in the middle of a hectic action sequence, a number of erratic animations and some missing environmental sound effects, and a glaring bug where I was unable to wall run on the very first wall in the wall running tutorial. That last one happened on both PS4 and Xbox. To be clear, any one or two or even half a dozen of these quibbles wouldn't even be worth mentioning here, but they were pervasive enough to start chipping away at the experience I was having with what's otherwise a really enjoyable game, and they're particularly hard to ignore coming from companies as big as EA and Disney, and in a franchise as hallowed as Star Wars. As neither a game developer nor a member of Respawn I certainly can't pretend to know what led to the game shipping in this state, though the impending release of The Rise of Skywalker and the peak of the holiday shopping season are hard to ignore. My layman's impression is simply that the game would have benefited from a few more months in production. These problems can't be a surprise to anyone who made and tested this game, but of course time is what's required to actually fix them.

That's what frustrates me about Jedi: Fallen Order: It's good enough that its host of technical problems feels like an affront to what the game could have been, and to the hard work and talent--and there's a considerable amount of talent here--of the people who made it. Actually, looking back at the long history of Star Wars video games, the last time someone attempted a character-driven game in this franchise was The Force Unleashed II, and that was almost a decade ago. And I can't find another Star Wars game in the decades before that which brings together so many different elements and tells a unique story with as much gravity as this one. Now it's up to EA to give Respawn the chance to hammer out as many of these annoying imperfections as it can via post-release updates, and allow Jedi: Fallen Order to take its rightful place in the pantheon of all-time great Star Wars games.

 

Death Stranding Review

 

What the hell is Death Stranding?

This is all anyone has wanted to know since Hideo Kojima unveiled the project three years ago. In that unveiling, all we knew was that it starred a naked Norman Reedus, that there were babies, dead sea creatures, and weird floating people. Not a lot to go on, but given Kojima's long, weird history with the long, weird Metal Gear franchise, it was enough to get people talking excitedly about all the things it could possibly be.

Sam and his BB are a regular Lone Wolf and Cub...if the ronin was replaced with a post-apocalyptic Amazon delivery man, and the baby lived in a jar and detected angry ghosts.
Sam and his BB are a regular Lone Wolf and Cub...if the ronin was replaced with a post-apocalyptic Amazon delivery man, and the baby lived in a jar and detected angry ghosts.

As time has gone on, and even as Kojima has said he himself does not fully understand the game, a clearer picture began to take shape, and now that it is here, we can say definitively what Death Stranding is. It is a third-person action game, with a heavier-than-usual de-emphasis on the "action." It is a game about exploration in which there isn't that much to discover. It is a game about America that takes place in a world that bears only minimal resemblance whatsoever to the country it's portraying. It is a game that takes, at minimum, 10-15 hours to actually become "fun," and even then the definition of fun is one likely to vary wildly for its players. It is a Hideo Kojima game in which the story is the least appealing aspect of the whole endeavor. Ultimately, Death Stranding is a game that is unlike much else I've played before, and I'm not entirely sure if I want to play anything like it ever again.

In Death Stranding, you play Sam Porter Bridges. He is named that because he is a porter, tasked with delivering things to the citizens of a fractured, post-apocalyptic America, and because he is a member of Bridges, an organization dedicated to, well, building bridges--both literal and metaphorical--to those people in order to reconnect the country. Sam is a reluctant hero in the grand Kojima tradition. He's on his own, wandering the country and avoiding human contact because of past trauma, until the last President, Bridget Strand, pleads with him in her dying moments to help bring the "chiral network" back online, and reunite the country.

This network is powered by chiralium, the game's primary McGuffin. It's a magical element that all of the game's technology is based around, and also is related to the game's apocalypse. You see, there was the titular Death Stranding. The barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead was breached. The dead, represented here as sludgy ghosts attached to umbilical cords, roam chunks of the world and consume human bodies, creating "voidouts," which are basically ghost magic nuclear explosions. Also it rains time now, and if it touches you, it ages you and wrecks your equipment, which is bad.

Anyway, the chiral network. It's the super internet, and in order to reconnect America, you need to hook up the remaining cities and stations to it. Equipped with your trusty BB--a literal baby in a jar (?) that helps you detect sludge ghosts through its link to its stillmother (?) and the world of the dead--you do this by delivering packages to all those places. Rhythmically, this game has more in common with something like the Truck Simulator games than your standard third-person action game. As a porter, you schlep boxes of medicine and video games and semen to and from all these different stations throughout the world. Initially, all you've got are your backpack and your feet. The more jobs you take on, the more ludicrous the stack of packages on your back gets, and if you surpass Sam's weight limit, balancing and moving him becomes far more challenging.

Here's a gif we found on the internet that pretty well encapsulates what the early goings of Death Stranding are like.
Here's a gif we found on the internet that pretty well encapsulates what the early goings of Death Stranding are like.

Early on, this is a pain in the ass. You're constantly trying to navigate over rough terrain and through heavy patches of time rain and all you can do is hug the R2/L2 buttons to try to balance yourself. Eventually, you are given a variety of tools to make Sam's journeys more manageable. You start out with basic things like ladders and climbing ropes before graduating to portable, floating cargo trays and full-on trucks. Crafting all these tools takes small amounts of the various resources you'll find littered around the world, but even if you aren't looking to spend a lot of time building and placing things yourself, you may find that other players have been more than happy to do the work for you. Death Stranding includes an asynchronous online system that allows things built in other players' worlds to surface in yours. There are also straight up public works projects multiple players can contribute to, including whole highway builders that greatly mitigate the frustration of trying to navigate the world.

See, without those highways, vehicles aren't very useful. Death Stranding's vision of America looks like a combination of the Norwegian fjords and the surface of Mars. Rocks and cliffs are everywhere, and it's on you to build bridges (of course), highways, and whatever else is necessary to traverse these spaces. And even when you do invest heavily into the game's version of Infrastructure Week, the time rain will degrade any structure in the world, and if you don't add resources to repair them, they'll disappear.

In the opening hours, this doesn't matter as much because you're just on foot and hoofing it from place to place. When you finally get vehicles, using them mostly sucks because you're constantly driving into rocks. When you finally get highways you can build, it starts to feel a little like American Truck Simulator...if you had to craft the truck and the roads yourself. And then the game just kind of gives up on that infrastructure stuff and sends you off to the mountains to criss-cross huge, snow-deluged peaks that take a very long time to get around. And then it asks you to do that a bunch more until the game is essentially over.

I have several issues with Death Stranding, and one of them is pacing. This is a very lumpy game. The opening hours are a slog of endless, precarious walking and a near-constant deluge of new systems being presented to you. Then it just kind of settles into a rhythm of deliveries and discovering new places to deliver to, mostly putting the story on the back-burner until you finish the extremely long third chapter. After that, the A Hideo Kojima Production part of the game suddenly wakes up and you find yourself inundated with more cutscenes and character exposition than you'll ever know what to do with. The early hours have the feel of a child excitedly explaining to you the elaborate fantasy world they just came up with, and then the middle feels like the deep breath they take before launching into all the reasons why things are the way they are in that world. The last hour and change of the game is basically one long run-on sentence that tries to tie up every remaining loose end where you don't really do anything at all except listen to it ramble on.

There are moments of genuine, contemplative beauty in Death Stranding. It's just a shame the game wasn't confident enough to not break them up with extremely bland action and stealth sequences.
There are moments of genuine, contemplative beauty in Death Stranding. It's just a shame the game wasn't confident enough to not break them up with extremely bland action and stealth sequences.

Look, it's not like previous Kojima games haven't had pacing issues, but Death Stranding is the most egregious example of it. It's not nearly confident enough to just rely on the delivery aspect of the game as its main thrust, so it changes things up with combat and stealth sequences that never feel all that great. Early on, combat is something you mostly want to avoid. Human enemies consist of MULES, a group of ex-porters who have been driven insane by the chemical boost they get for receiving "likes" from making deliveries (helloooooooo social media commentary!). They are a nuisance who will come after your cargo, but thankfully you can mostly just beat them senseless with a few quick mashes of the square button. By the time they give you bola guns and stun bombs, they become comically easy to dispatch. BTs, the aforementioned sludge ghosts, need to be avoided until you learn how to make bullets and grenades from your own blood. If you do bump into one, you have to trudge your way through a pool of moaning tar bodies while mashing square to escape. If you fail, you get whisked away to a space some distance away and fight a giant tar animal, for reasons.

To be absolutely clear: these parts of the game are never all that fun. They are not broken or really even difficult; they're merely an oft-tedious distraction. They're the thing you do that's most analogous to Kojima's previous works, but the fights are never very memorable. Whenever a BT section or boss fight cropped up, I often found myself annoyed that my delivery missions were being sidelined, and that is not something I expected to say about a game like this. If I enjoyed anything about playing Death Stranding, it was the moments of solitude I experienced as I wandered from place to place, the moments of quiet beauty as I crested some big hill to see a new city on the horizon. Death Stranding is a game that shines brightest when it's willing to get out of its own way and just let the player exist free of the constraints of its own narrative and need to intersperse its mundanity with middling action.

About that narrative. This being a Kojima game, there is of course a cast of strange characters that exist alongside Sam, helping his mission or standing directly in his way. Each of these characters has some kind of ludicrous backstory that they will eventually explain to you in excruciating detail, even though most of them are literally named after the primary thing that defines their existence in the game. And there are significant sections of the game where everything grinds to a halt so that Kojima (by way of one of these supporting characters) can either explain at length what's going on with any of the myriad bizarre concepts built into the game's narrative, or delve into the latest Wikipedia article he somehow found a way to graft onto the game's plot. None of these inclusions should be surprising, because this is the way Kojima directs his games.

What is surprising is just how flat the vast majority of it all falls. In the Metal Gear series, Kojima's goofy tangents and batshit character monologues felt, to me at least, like amusing digressions set against the series' action cinema bravado. That stuff doesn't come off as well in what is essentially his version of an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Nothing is allowed to be all that mysterious, and the game constantly tips its hand regarding things that might be considered twists or surprises. Whether it's through monologues, in-game emails and interviews, or someone just flatly stating the premise of what's going on out loud as obviously as possible, very little in Death Stranding is allowed to exist without overwhelming explanation.

As weird and amusing as it is to see Kojima drop a bunch of his famous friends into his game, it would have been nice if he'd written more memorable characters for them.
As weird and amusing as it is to see Kojima drop a bunch of his famous friends into his game, it would have been nice if he'd written more memorable characters for them.

There's also a surprising dearth of memorable characters. Norman Reedus' Sam is especially bland. In a way, he's the perfect video game protagonist, because nearly all he does is grunt and sigh. There's just not much personality to him, which is a bummer given how much time you spend with him throughout the game. The only actor who feels like they're truly on board with the weirdness of the whole thing is Mads Mikkelsen, who plays an otherworldly soldier wraith that pops up just often enough to remind you that Hideo Kojima used to make some games about war. He seems like he's relishing the role, which I can't quite say for most of the other actors involved. Actresses Lea Seydoux and Margaret Qualley do their best with some truly leaden dialogue, and Troy Baker at least tries to chew (or, more accurately, lick) some scenery as the deeply disappointing terrorist villain Higgs, who is named that because he thinks he's like the God particle, and frequently references video games because I guess someone in this game probably had to do that.

Frustratingly, I kept waiting for Death Stranding to offer something to say, something to justify the amount of breath spent explaining its most obvious metaphors and motivations. Unfortunately, it never gets there. Its early game musings on human connectedness and the need to bring people together never evolves over the 50 hours you'll spend playing it. The things it says at the beginning are pretty much the same things it's saying at the end, and none of those things are all that deep.

Even more frustratingly, there were multiple times during the course of my time spent playing Death Stranding that I could see the strands of a game I'd really like. There are individual pieces of the game that I think work well. It's gorgeous, for one thing, offering up a well-realized world with wonderfully unusual looking technology and terrific animation work. And there were times when I found myself genuinely lost in the experience of wandering that world, lugging gear from place to place, building roads and liking ladders and just drinking in the loneliness of it all. Even the massive pile of different systems all feel like they mostly work together in a way that's harmonious.

We get it, dude. You read Wikipedia.
We get it, dude. You read Wikipedia.

But the whole of the game never achieves that balance. There's a deep thread of insecurity that runs through it, one that manifests in its unwillingness to commit all the way to the arduousness of its main character's task, that's too willing to break that quietness with mediocre action, and that never trusts the player to understand even its most basic ideas without hitting them over the head with them. There is a weirdo, avant spirit to Death Stranding that I do admire, but that spirit fails to carry the game anywhere worthwhile.

At least now we know what the hell Death Stranding is: a disappointment.

 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review

 

Qualitatively, the Call of Duty franchise has been on a bit of a roll lately. WWII felt like that first attempt at hitting the panic button with its back-to-basics approach. Black Ops 4 seemed like a different type of panic might have plagued its development, but the franchise's first foray into the battle royale genre was pretty good and the competitive multiplayer made good on the whole operators/abilities angle Treyarch started trying back in Black Ops 3. So where does that leave Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? Is it... back-to-back-to-basics, perhaps? Yes and no.

Sure, yeah, it's a game that attempts to recapture the magic of that first really massive Call of Duty game by taking its name and a few of its characters and integrating them into an all-new campaign. If you were looking for some kind of analogy here, it kind of reminds me of that Star Trek reboot. It's going to occasionally reference events that came from Modern Warfare's past, but it's a different universe and, assuming they continue down the line to make a sequel, it'll maybe even retell some of the stories from those old games. The campaign is pretty solid, gameplay-wise, with plenty of the standard move-and-shoot gameplay that you?d expect along with a handful of fun little diversions and tools to play around with. Yes, you?ll rain down shots from above on helpless enemies below, but you?ll also use RC planes strapped to C4 to knock down helicopters. The game even manages to make its obligatory sniper mission feel pretty fun while still forcing you to account for wind and distance when lining up your shots.

No Caption Provided

Modern Warfare takes an action movie approach to its story, which occasionally comes off as reckless when paired with the game?s often-grim subject matter. Also, the game?s length (probably around six-to-eight hours for most players, though you could certainly shoot through it faster than that) means that every facet of the story feels abbreviated. Two characters develop something of a personal attachment to each other, but before any of that goes anywhere, the game ends. The game does still find time for some flashbacks, though, which have you doing ?fun? things like playing as a small girl who survives a Russian invasion and subsequent gas attack and grows up in captivity only to be featured in a waterboarding minigame. The game doesn?t necessarily play things up for shock value, but at the same time it doesn?t really linger on any of its heavier moments to give them much weight. As such, I found it hard to get too worked up one way or the other. It?s a fun video game, but its hook of ?how bad will the good guys have to become in order to catch the actual bad guys? doesn?t especially hold up to critical scrutiny.

The competitive multiplayer feels bigger and better than its predecessors, though this is mostly achieved via a bunch of smart tweaks that don?t initially sound like a big deal. You can now mount to corners and low walls, giving you a way to keep most of your body behind a wall and peek out, letting you enter rooms a little more tactically. The modes have been given a bit of an overhaul, with Headquarters returning to the fold. Most of the game?s modes are now placed into a centralized hopper that you can filter down if you, for example, don?t ever way to play Search & Destroy but are fine with any Team Deathmatch, Cyber War, or Domination match that might be available. This is pretty similar to Titanfall 2?s mode selection interface, which also worked well. Some modes also get broken out of that main quick play list, so you can easily line up a Ground War match. Ground War has even more of a Battlefield-esque feel this time out, with 64-player matches on larger maps that hold five control points. You can parachute off of high buildings here, there are a few vehicles, and all of the killstreaks that players keep calling in make things feel ridiculously chaotic. It?s a weird, fun experience, seeing Call of Duty at this larger scale. Realism mode is also cool as it sort of splits the difference between regular matches and the traditional hardcore match. Realism more or less eliminates the HUD, forcing you to focus more on what?s in front of you and only giving you tactical information when your team has a UAV up in the air. There are also night versions of some multiplayer maps, which is a fun twist, but I haven?t seen these pop up in the game?s public matchmaking yet.

Unlocking items and options in multiplayer often feels like it changes for change?s sake from year to year, but Modern Warfare?s take on perks and attachments both feels new and better than what?s come before. Instead of a big, crazy pick 10 system, you can pick your three perks--these are things that might make you run faster, or perhaps become invisible to enemy radar?and level up as normal. But you?ll also select a field upgrade, which is a new ability that charges on a meter. These might be something as simple as throwing down an ammo box or you might opt for Dead Silence, which appears in this year?s game as an active ability rather than as a perk. This silences your footsteps, which seems more useful this year since enemy footsteps are weirdly loud? making them more tactically important in the process.

No Caption Provided

Gun attachments move to a sort of ?pick 5? system, where guns have multiple attachment spots and you can put, say, a scope on there for one point, an extended magazine on there for more bullets, stocks, grips, and so on. Guns also have a perk slot on them, so a lot of gun-specific perks that would have previously existed in the traditional perk slots show up here, along with some new ones. So you could take one that increases your melee speed, or full metal jacket bullets that do extra damage to vehicles and killstreaks, and so on. Most attachments have trade-offs to them, like fitting a scope on a weapon might make aiming down sights take slightly longer, and so on, which makes gun customization feel like a more thoughtful process than it has in years past. Overall it feels like you have more control over how your particular version of a gun will handle, which is nice.

There's also a new two-on-two mode called gunfight. It's designed to be a quick, round-based experience that takes place on its own small maps. The premise is simple--eliminate the other team or, should a game go to overtime, try to capture a flag in the center of the map. Loadouts of guns and items are predetermined and rotate multiple times through a match, giving it some variety as you go. It's a neat idea that evokes both fighting games and the old, great Rocket Arena mod for Quake.

The third main mode in Modern Warfare is a co-op mode, and it?s bad. This was billed as something that would potentially resemble the Spec Ops mode found in Modern Warfare 2, but the main mode is just a mess. These are four-player operations set in large, wide-open levels. Objectives will pop up on your HUD and you?ll have to make your way over there and place some scramblers on a server rack or shoot some guys or whatever. Since people seem to be into quitting this mode mid-mission, most of the time I?d spawn into a mission already in progress, but I?d spawn way back at the beginning, requiring me to waste a ton of time just running over to where the action is. The action itself is awful, too. The maps are open, but enemies just keep magically appearing behind pillars when you turn around, and more or less popping out of thin air, just out of view of the camera. So you?re taking fire from all sides and the whole thing just feels phony. It?s also intensely buggy as of this writing, so at times we?ve fallen through the world, spawned into a broken map that refused to list any objectives or spawn any enemies, and so on. Even if it worked as intended, it doesn?t seem like it?d be much fun.

No Caption Provided

The co-op mode also offers a seemingly endless take on the campaign?s sniper mission, where four players fight off waves of enemies until they get bored and quit. The PS4 version also gets an exclusive survival mode where you shoot down waves of enemies on the multiplayer maps. This mode is actually functional, but not much fun, either. It?s a shame to see the Spec Ops name--which was a legendary mode back in the original Modern Warfare--get squandered so thoroughly here.

While Modern Warfare certainly has its issues, I?m having a really terrific time with it. The audiovisual aspects of the game have received significant upgrades. It?s a great-looking game with really strong sound design. That stuff helped make the campaign worth seeing, and it?s part of why I keep coming back to the competitive multiplayer, too. The meaningful tweaks to the leveling process matched up with some solid map design and great modes certainly don?t hurt, either. It?s a real shame that the co-op is pretty much dead on arrival, but the rest of the game is still absolutely worth looking at.

 

Gears 5 Review

 

OK, let's talk about this up front: Gears 5 is on Microsoft's Game Pass service for both Xbox One and PC. That means you could potentially be playing this game for a fraction of the $60 you might expect to spend on a new, high-budget video game. Our general recommendation these days is that it'll depend on which games you specifically like to play, but the typical selection on Game Pass for Xbox One is worth the price of admission. Under that guidance, Gears 5 would cost you zero additional dollars to play, so... you should play it.

No Caption Provided

Gears is good. It's always been good. Actually, scratch that. Gears Judgment was a pretty mediocre story that came too soon after Gears 3 to feel like it needed to exist. It felt, you know, contractually obligated. After that, I think I would've been fine if the franchise sailed off into the sunset. Marcus took the do-rag off, Gears is done. Right? Then I ended up really enjoying the action, style, and characters of Gears 4. That opening of a new trilogy was a little short on story, but it pushed all the right buttons and waited long enough to make you forget that you played a metric ton of cover shooters on the Xbox 360. These days, I don't know, the cover shooter feels like it's about as out-of-style as it gets. But between Gears 4 ending on a cliffhanger and all those also-rans falling off the face of the earth, Gears 5 still somehow feels like a warm handshake from an old friend where it counts. It also takes some stabs in new directions that, for the most part, don't work all that well, meaning it works best when it's being more of a pure nostalgia play.

The campaign continues the story of Gears 4, where we discovered in the closing moments that Kait Diaz, a new character, was related to the Locust Queen, thought dead at the end of Gears 3. That moment felt tacked onto the end of the previous game, but Gears 5 more or less makes that fact the entirety of its business. Kait becomes the main playable character here and most of the game is spent getting to the bottom of Kait's lineage and essentially saving her from herself. You do this with another Gears 4 return, Del, by your side. Del, as you might expect, can be controlled by another player, if co-op is your thing. The end brings it all back together and sets you up for the explosive conclusion where you... well, you know, finish the fight or whatever it is you do at the end of Microsoft's trilogies.

No Caption Provided

While it opens like a traditional Gears game, once you get past the first act the whole thing opens up a bit. the second and third acts are set in wide-open spaces and you traverse them at will on a sand-sailor of sorts. The catch is that these large spaces don't really have much in them. There are a few secondary objectives to find out there, but those are short sequences that usually aren't worth your time. The rest of the items highlighted on your world map are just spots where you kind of just walk into a traditional feeling Gears of War level for awhile, then finish an objective and loop back around to your vehicle to keep moving on. It's like Halo: ODST but with a dryer, more pointless-feeling space to explore. That said, the long stretches of nothing look really nice and give you time to hear Kait and Del talk, which manages to make both characters feel more human and likable than nearly anyone that's appeared in a Gears game up to this point.

The campaign also gives you a new set of secondary abilities that are equipped onto Jack, your invisible, door-ripping robot friend. Interestingly, a human can also control Jack in co-op, if you want, which serves as a "here's a character for your friends who don't play video games ever" sort of thing. Regardless of who's calling the shots, Jack gains abilities that give you a variety of effects, like a cloak or additional armor. They're mostly situational, though having Jack mark every target in the area makes wiping up after a long encounter a little easier to deal with. All in all, the campaign is pretty good. It takes some chances, which is nice, but it's unfortunate that those chances end up being the least interesting parts of the game. Gears 5 is at its best when it's sticking to the pacing and procedures of a traditional Gears game. I never thought I'd come at you and tell you that I'm a Gears Traditionalist, but hey, here we are.

Actually, let me take that back. The competitive multiplayer in Gears 5 isn't terribly different than what came before it. I suppose that makes sense, as it's become pretty popular, but I get less and less out of it every time out. This time around they've added a killstreak-like system that lets you give yourself a heavy weapon after accruing a certain number of points and there seems to be a real attempt to push people into the "arcade" playlist, which gives players more than just the standard team deathmatch mode. While more variety is nice, it's all still built around that same core experience, which I'm just not interested in anymore. Enough people still like it, which probably prevents it from changing too much, so that's probably just the way it's going to stay. But yeah, no interest in competitive Gears at all over here.

No Caption Provided

Horde mode got some knocks last time around because parts of it were built around a pretty ugly card system that made it all feel grindy, if not overly focused on microtransactions. While you'll still build loadouts of cards and such here, they unlock as you level a character. Characters also have meters and ultimate abilities, like setting down decoys or buffing damage, which makes character choice matter even more than it has in the past. Horde has often been one of the best co-op experiences around, and it feels improved and pretty solid here in Gears 5.

The other new mode is called Escape and it also uses some character abilities. But the goal here is that you need to get from deep within a hive out to the surface, where you'll be extracted. So it's a point A to point B run, with gas from a bomb you plant at the center of the hive slowly creeping your way and forcing you to keep moving. The game also has a map editor that lets you plop down parts to create your own hives, but the editor feels just as limited as the hives that the game has served up on its own. Ammo is scarce and time is often short, which sounds like it could deliver some nice tension, but the map designs I've seen thus far have been pretty underwhelming and the movement and mechanics of Gears don't really lend themselves well to this kind of "go, go, go" kind of style. It feels like a big miss.

That said, the parts of Gears 5 that I enjoyed? I enjoyed them quite a bit. The game looks really great and has a deliberately brighter and more varied color palette than most of the previous games. While I think the open-world stuff is flat and could have been way better, there are moments out there in the nothingness that just look straight-up incredible, including a late-game weather sequence that, despite not being great gameplay, was worth seeing a couple of times just for the visuals alone. The campaign does some interesting stuff, gives you a tiny bit of player choice that'll have to play out somehow in the next game, and simply splits the difference between comforting classic and new release by giving you classic gameplay with new settings and characters to play with. And Horde is a good time, though I'm not sure it's something I'll keep coming back to again and again, like I certainly did when the mode was brand new.

Furthermore, there's this whole Game Pass thing. At $60, Gears 5 becomes a slightly dicier proposition based on how much you'd enjoy all four of its modes. But as a part of a subscription service that you might already be paying for? Absolutely give it a shot, play the parts you like and skip the rest.

 

Control (PC) Review

 

No Caption Provided

Control is a great game for a lot of reasons, both big and small. It tells an exciting and interesting story in an extremely fascinating setting. It weaves in the episodic framework of a television show without requiring you to put down the controller for long periods of time. The action weaves together traditional shooting and supernatural abilities in a way that feels very natural, letting you flow from one move to the next in a way that feels pretty cool. Control also trusts its players by creating a large, shifting space to explore without feeling the need to paint a ton of UI over the action in an effort to keep you on track. The signs on the walls work in Control, helping to ground it and make the Oldest House feel like a real space. Well... right up until all the astral projection starts happening, anyway.

The story, setting, and world of Control was easily my favorite part of the game. From the opening moments, when Jesse Faden finds her way to the front door of the Federal Bureau of Control's headquarters only to find the front desk completely unmanned, inspiring her to step in and dig deeper, I was hooked. There's something about the game's mix of Twin Peaks, X-Files, and SCP Foundation that just spoke to me from the get-go. From there, you begin exploring the Oldest House on a search for your brother, who's been missing since the men in black showed up and took him when you were kids. The hows and whys of all that are fascinating, and I think the game's main plot is really solid, even if the ending wasn't quite as explicitly revelatory as some might want. But it's all the parts around the edges that do the heavy lifting in Control. Finding a "weird" artifact down a side path or reading some of the game's well-written collectibles ends up feeling rewarding on its own, and chasing down some of those side missions ended up being my favorite stuff in the game. It has a few memorable characters that you'll meet along the way, but for the most part it's Jesse, alone, exploring an amazing space full of intensely weird supernatural objects and blasting possessed humans with a cool-looking gun that morphs into different styles of weapon.

The combat feels fine in Control, and it fleshes out more and more as you progress and unlock new powers. You'll eventually be able to levitate, for example, and this opens up some interesting new concepts for combat. Control isn't necessarily a cover-shooter, though putting some geometry between you and the incoming attacks certainly helps. The action flows pretty well, letting you slide from one move to the next, over to the gun for a bit, and back without feeling like you're plodding or planting your feet after every move, which was something that pushed me away from Quantum Break. There were a couple of tough, if not mildly frustrating boss fights to be found here, but nothing that felt wildly unfair or broken.

No Caption Provided

Control also nods towards Remedy's long-running interest in tying its games to episodic television or radio. After finishing a main mission, you'll hear about your next task, and then get a quick montage of future events. It isn't explicit, but it sets up a real "next time on Control" vibe that kept me pushing forward to learn all the context behind the moments in the clips. I was rarely disappointed by what I found.

This is an open-world adventure game of sorts, one you could sort of compare to a Metroid-style game. You'll gain traversal moves here and there that open up access to new parts of the facility. But that isn't necessarily a huge part of the game. I found it really interesting that Control trusts players to navigate the facility without the benefit of an on-screen minimap. You can pull up a map of the facility at any time and get a sense of where you're at, but most of your reconnoitering comes from actually looking at your surroundings and reading signs. Like a real person might actually do. This probably isn't the first time a game has done this, and some people will probably come away from Control wishing that the map was more functional and modern, but this is the first time I can say this felt like a benefit to the game instead of just a game with bad mapping options. This helps the Oldest House feel "real," even when its warping, twisting walls reconfigure on the fly, leaving you wondering what just happened and where you might be now.

This is probably a good a time as any to say that this review applies to the PC version of the game. I found Control to run quite well there on a few different configurations, and this was also the first game I've seen that made all the fancy and extremely expensive ray-tracing stuff that Nvidia has been banking on lately feel like a cool, useful feature. The reflections and lighting with all those bells and whistles turned on just look fantastic. But the game still looks solid without the (extremely) expensive graphics card. Much has been said about the graphical fidelity and frame rate issues found in the console versions of the games, especially when running on the old base model boxes. That stuff sounds like a real shame and like a significant knock against Control if you own the original PS4 or Xbox One, but that's beyond the scope of this review.

Great performances, strong action, and a solid sense of design all come together to make Control one of my favorite games so far in 2019. Control feels like Remedy finally making all of its different interests play well together, better than they've ever done it before.

 

Anthem 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.

You can make some cool power armor if you put your mind to it.
You can make some cool power armor if you put your mind to it.

BioWare nails the feeling of flight in its first attempt at a loot shooter, Anthem. Soaring over a big open landscape in your robot suit (or javelin, as they're known here); nimbly covering ground in combat situations; snapping into and out of flight mode in a split-second burst of fireworks: it all feels great, and it's nice that Anthem's most unique aspect also turns out to be its best. The game also has a robust character customizer, giving you a range of painting tools and letting you swap between materials like cloth, hard rubber, and various metals to create weird and unique looks for your power armor, without locking basic coloration behind a paywall or grind like some other loot games in recent memory.

Those are the good parts. Most of the other elements that make up Anthem, from the storytelling to the loot to the basic gunplay, suffer from a range of problems or just aren't as good or polished as you'd like, and the game as a whole has an oddly rigid, disjointed structure that often makes playing it feel more tedious and frustrating than it should be. Anthem feels like it needs a lot more attention in a lot of areas.

This is BioWare's first brand new from-the-ground-up setting in quite some time, but it's underpinned by the same "ancient, vanished progenitor race and the magical technology they left behind" trope that's such well worn territory in video game stories, particularly in BioWare's own Mass Effect series, where it already appeared in two separate iterations. The vast bulk of the dialogue has an overly performative, irreverent tone to it that made it tough for me to get invested in what was going on. Though, there is some dramatic potential in the friction between the various good-guy factions, including the lighthearted mercenary freelancers, who your nameless character belongs to, the stuffy, militaristic sentinels, and Corvus, the secret spy agency. But the story only starts to scratch the surface there (and mostly does so around the edges of the main plot) by the time it's over, and all of these groups are just up against your standard generic evil empire trying to get its hands on the ancient tech before they do, anyway. Anthem does end with a mildly intriguing post-credits teaser that looks like it will take the game in a distinctly different direction from the story included in the shipping product, and since BioWare is promising "ongoing narrative" content starting a handful of weeks after release, it won't take long to find out if it's any good. Hopefully the writers focus more on the grounded, affecting style of storytelling you get just a few short glimpses of at the end of the main campaign.

These guys can be a huuuuuge pain to fight.
These guys can be a huuuuuge pain to fight.

Actually playing Anthem is where the real trouble arises. Much of the third-person gunplay feels imprecise, a problem exacerbated by the fact that even combat fundamentals like shooting guns and enemies registering damage seem to be dependent on your server connection, so in laggy situations the game just doesn't feel good to play. The guns are all generic military fare and don't have much personality for a game where you're supposed to get excited about having new weapons drop from enemies all the time, and the aspirational arc of the loot as you level up through the story feels more contrived than in games where the rarity of loot seems truly random (although to be fair, loot issues appear to be something BioWare is committed to addressing quickly). There are four distinct javelins that all play quite differently, though the game doesn't let you try them out before you're locked into your initial choices for which ones you want to play first. The ability combo system, similar to that of the Mass Effect games, would ideally add some more variety and dynamism to your combat loadout once you've settled on a preferred class, but the game doesn't even try to explain this system in any detail, leaving you to fumble around and guess at the meaning of various icons and item descriptions if you want to grasp how combos work in any more depth than what's obvious at first glance. And you'll realize very quickly there are only a small handful of objectives that you're going to repeat over and over and over across a multitude of missions. In a game with better combat that wouldn't be so bad, but with all the other issues in play, it wears thin.

Other oversights or strange design choices drag down the experience. The game is chock-full of load screens, which are interminably long on consoles, and the various sections of the game are so compartmentalized that you frequently hit load after load just to get anything done. New loot that drops during gameplay just comes in as a generic item, so you can't tell what it is you just got--but that doesn't really matter since you can't change your weapons and abilities without returning to the game's one small town first anyway. So just to try out a new item or experiment with a new set of abilities that might combo well together, you have to load from the game world back into town, walk all the way across town, load into the loot and gear interface, load back into town, then load back into the game world again. It's hard to say if there are technical reasons behind the simple fact that you can't even change your weapons on the fly, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating to play.

There's a fair amount of grind in Anthem that wouldn't be quite so bad if there weren't so many problems in other areas. Gaining crafting recipes for new gear forces you to grind faction reputation, making it feel like it takes forever before you can craft anything worthwhile. The game throws up a couple of arbitrary lists of tedious mechanical challenges that force you to go out and grind a ton of kills, which isn't all that hard, but also look for more situational things like treasure chests that can be an absolute slog depending on your luck (or your willingness to replay missions that guarantee them). Though there's an open world, the collectibles and random events you engage with there quickly get repetitive, and some of the events aren't balanced well for solo play without telegraphing that fact until you've already invested too much time in finishing them and run up against a boss with way too much health.

Maybe Spy Lady will have a more interesting story to tell next month.
Maybe Spy Lady will have a more interesting story to tell next month.

Also, the game is buggy. Really buggy. Aside from standard server disconnects and crashes, I found basic game functionality would break on a regular basis. Sometimes it was the interact prompt that let me open doors and revive other players that stopped working. Frequently, it was the meter for my ultimate ability appearing to be ready to go even though the ability was actually unusable. Once, the game loaded me into a mission with one of my two guns unequipped (note that the game doesn't actually let you unequip a gun manually). And twice on PS4, the game crashed so hard that it literally powered down my console, forcing me to repair all my storage devices before I could boot it back up. A game making you worry about damaging your hardware is just inexcusable. I don't remember seeing this many big and small technical issues in a major release since, well, Mass Effect: Andromeda. How that reflects on BioWare's recent track record doesn't really need to be said.

Despite my litany of complaints, I did have some fun zooming around in some of Anthem's grander combat situations--when everything comes together and you're flying to and fro, coordinating your tactics with your friends (which, frankly, makes any game better), you can see how good an Anthem with all of these rough edges sanded down could be. And there are a few ideas here, like creating more combat and traversal mechanics around flight, that deserve more attention than they get in the game that's on shelves right now. But Anthem needs more than just new content. A lot of work needs to be done on a wide variety of the game's fundamental elements before it can join the ranks of other redeemed loot games like Diablo III, Destiny, and The Division. Whether EA will give BioWare the latitude to overhaul the parts of the game that need it--and whether it's even technically feasible for them to do that in the first place--are questions with uncertain answers.

 

Crackdown 3 Review

 

Crackdown 3 was probably announced too early. Microsoft started talking about it in 2014, back when the idea of a sequel to Crackdown--especially one that was significantly better than the underwhelming Crackdown 2--probably seemed like a good idea. Here in 2019, it feels like open-world games have gone out and into favor at least once or twice since that last Crackdown came out. But Crackdown 3 shows very little in the way of learning from the past or learning from the other open-world games that have graced consoles over the last nine years. Instead it feels slight, mindless, and dull. It feels like a gussied-up first-generation Xbox One game. Like the sort of game you might have expected to hear about back in 2014. In the here and now, though, there's... way less room for this sort of game on store shelves.

No Caption Provided

Installing Crackdown 3 gives you two executables that launch separately from the Xbox One dashboard or your PC's start menu. Crackdown 3: Campaign gets you the traditional Crackdown experience. You can play it alone or with another player via online co-op. It's structurally very similar to the previous games, with a handful of bosses in a set hierarchy. Chipping away at the lesser bosses opens the path to the lieutenants, and so on. All the while, you're earning "skills for kills" to make your super-agent more powerful. Punching out enemies gives you strength orbs, which level up to make your melee abilities stronger. Shooting them earns you firearm skills, driving over them earns you driving skills, and so on. Agility is the thing that made the previous games tick, though. Agility orbs must be collected by jumping around the city and finding them. They still give off a slight hum, letting you know that one is nearby. They led to an orb-collecting obsession in some players, back when the first game was released. But they just don't work that way anymore. Why?

It's probably the layout of the city. The island you're on does have some high buildings, but the orbs feel carelessly strewn about in some zones of the city, placed onto low rooftops that don't even pose a meaningful challenge. In other sections, the orbs seem weirdly scarce. But in the case of all this, the orbs just don't always feel like they've been placed in interesting spots. WIthout that--and, honestly, after all these years, it's hard to imagine simple orb collection as a standout feature at all--the rest of the game manages to feel very generic.

Sure, you jump higher as you level up, but other games have done the "open-world game but with powers" stuff really well in the years since Crackdown 2. This one really feels like it's going through the motions at every turn, with an utterly lifeless story and generic missions that feel like they were clone-stamped into the world for you to do over and over again. Every monorail station takeover mission feels identical. There are roughly two types of industrial/chemical missions. Two types of enforcer missions. And so on. It feels like you're just hopping around the world, never quite as quickly or as nimbly as you feel like you should be, performing the same six tasks over and over again. Eventually you unlock boss fights, but these aren't especially creative and don't stand out much. Most of them felt like they were missing a phase, like something else should have happened but then... nope. You win. Completing the campaign with almost all of the non-race missions completed took me somewhere around six or seven hours. You can go back in, you can take your leveled agent into a reset city, and you can play on multiple difficulties, but I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this stuff a second time. It's not bad, but nothing about it stands out (actually, having the game crash to desktop the first time I beat the final boss and having to replay that entire fight all over again stands out, but you know what I mean).

No Caption Provided

The multiplayer end of the game is called Wrecking Zone, and this is where the new stuff is supposed to be. This is where all the fancy "cloud-based physics" live. It's a five-on-five team game with two modes, set on small, vertically-focused maps. One mode is a take on the Kill Confirmed mode from Call of Duty--you shoot agents down and collect their shield to score a point. The other mode is about territory control, so agents must stand in zones to capture and hold them, scoring points for controlling spots. Both modes are weird because of the very nature of Crackdown's gameplay. The shooting in Crackdown is all lock-on targeting. You hold the left trigger to lock to a target, then hit the right trigger to fire. You only miss if you're too far away or if you're using a weapon with a wide bullet spread. In campaign, this means you might want to tap out some single shots at long ranges, since that'll be more accurate than just holding the trigger down on a fully-automatic rifle. In multiplayer, that holds true, but that also means that it's a multiplayer shooter when you can lock onto your target at almost any time and hold that lock.

The game attempts to build some trade-offs around the locking. If an enemy locks onto you, you see a line pointing in the direction of that enemy, giving away their position. And the game seems to be about ranges. The longest-range primary weapon will score a lot of hits, but a closer-range weapon should, in theory, take an enemy down more quickly. You also have a melee attack on a cooldown timer, giving you another option when enemies get too close. But they've gone and made a multiplayer shooter where the shooting feels automated. That's fine, the shooting doesn't have to be fun. But the rest of the mode doesn't pick up the slack. It feels like the sort of random multiplayer mode you'd see in some late-model PS2 or early Xbox 360 game and wonder "wow, why does this game have competitive multiplayer?"

To add a little insult to injury, Wrecking Zone is launching without the ability to party up and play with friends, which seems like a bizarre omission. Microsoft has stated it'll be coming in a future update.

No Caption Provided

The physics stuff--which, ostensibly, is why Crackdown 3 has competitive multiplayer--translates into the ability to shoot or punch through walls and floors, but it doesn't feel like anything terribly special. That's not to say that there isn't some impressive collection of tech in the background, keeping that destruction synced across all ten players, but in the context of these modes, it mostly just means that you can force your way through a building to take out an enemy who might be attempting to hide behind cover. But a mix of the lock-on targeting, quick health recovery, and generally open skies in most maps make chasing down an enemy seem pointless. It's easier to just give up and find a new target. The closeness of the camera and the way it whips around as you're locked onto a target also never gives you any sense of scale or context for the destruction. Instead, all this destruction just translates into occasionally pushing through piles of rubble to get back to a zone or get closer to an enemy. Crackdown 3's multiplayer modes just don't feel like they're built to truly take advantage of large-scale building destruction, and unless you follow gaming closely enough to know that syncing these sorts of physics across a number of multiplayer clients is said to be a difficult feat, this aspect just feels like a bad take on Red Faction: Guerrilla. Wading through rubble doesn't add anything meaningful to the overall experience.

The game lets you play as a number of preset agents, which are different across the two modes. The multiplayer has you select from a number of generic, silent, thick dudes. The single-player gives the agents names and each has an experience bonus to two aspects of the game's progression. The campaign is where Terry Crews appears, but other than an intro cutscene, you don't hear from him very much. You can (and I did) play as Terry Crews' character, Jaxson, but the player character doesn't quip very often, and on every platform and machine I tried it on, the player quips were mixed incredibly low, making them very easy to miss among the enemy radio chatter, your handlers, and, well, just about every other sound in the game. Going and getting a guy like Terry Crews for your game and then making it so you barely hear from him past the first cutscene seems like sort of a waste.

No Caption Provided

On the performance side, the game's frame rate is mostly stable on an Xbox One X, though I certainly noticed some spots in the multiplayer mode where things would get a little choppy. Nothing major. Load times on console seem acceptable, though as you'd probably expect, a good SSD makes the PC version have a lot less downtime overall.

I don't think I'd call Crackdown 3 an awful game, but I would call it dated. I don't know enough about this specific game's development to know what happened here, but I do know that this specific game feels like something that would have been better received had it been released several years ago. At the same time, Crackdown 3 fits reasonably well on Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass service. Paying $60 for this thing would be downright foolish. It's short and bland on the campaign end and the two multiplayer modes aren't worth your time. But if you're already a subscriber to Microsoft's service and can play this for no additional charge, it's a passable little bit of junk food that might hold your attention for an afternoon or two.

 

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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??

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

No Caption Provided

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.

 

2013 - 2014 © GamerCrossroads.com | Powered By ABC Design Studio LLC