Shenmue 3 Review - From A Forgotten Time

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 12/03/2019 - 18:07

Shenmue III is an anomaly, a game that feels like it doesn't really exist. It's as though it was beamed here from a parallel universe where the Dreamcast was an ongoing success and early-aughts game design remained the norm decades later. The truth is much more banal, of course: It's the result of a (sometimes rocky) crowdfunding campaign and the hopes and dreams of a fervent fanbase. Unfortunately, while it's fascinating as a weird curiosity from a long-gone era of gaming, it's simply not that fun to actually play.

Shenmue III picks up right where the last game left off--as though 18 years haven't passed since players wrapped up Ryo Hazuki's last adventure--resolving Shenmue II's cliffhanger in a way that's surprisingly unexciting after such a long stretch. Once that's over with, Shenmue III's story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it's Shenmue.

In terms of setting, Shenmue III succeeds quite admirably in making the world pleasant to be in. There are some gorgeous vistas both in and outside of Bailu village, making the day-to-day strolls warm and inviting. The village itself is a charming setting, too; it's filled with interesting landmarks that give it character, like a massive sunflower garden and a small collection of gambling facilities on the riverbed. Niaowu, the port city where the game's latter half takes place, also feels like a real and engaging place, with the massive variety of shops you'd expect from a trading city on the water. The characters who live in these places also give them a nice flavor; NPCs all look distinct, have individual quirks and personalities, and are easy to recognize--which is nice when you have to find and talk to specific people in the absence of quest markers.

Shenmue III retains a lot of old favorite activities from previous titles--collecting capsule toys, gambling with games like Lucky Hit and turtle races, simple arcade mini-games like whack-a-mole, and the all-important Shenmue staple of forklifting--while also introducing a handful of new activities. You can wander around the countryside looking for herbs, selling and trading sets for money and valuable scrolls that teach Ryo new attacks, or you can kill a few hours fishing and hope your day's catch will net you some money and a cool prize. If you need some fast cash, you can do manual labor and chop wood in a brief minigame. And if self-improvement is your goal, there's always spots to train and raise your martial arts proficiency.

Exploring all of the side activities and enjoying the atmosphere of the locations in Shenmue III is fun, but it highlights one of the game's biggest problems: How utterly boring and unengaging the main story is. Ryo is still a dull-as-dishwater character who we're told is motivated by a sense of vengeance and justice, but his wooden dialogue and complete lack of a personality totally undermine any sense of urgency or intrigue this ongoing martial-arts drama might have. It doesn't help that the main plot moves like molasses, often requiring repeated, tedious wandering and interaction to find the character or place you need to get a tiny sliver of information that moves the plot along ever-so-slightly and unnaturally gating you off from places.

For example, It takes hours to find a pair of thugs at the game's beginning that you probably could have chased down in minutes if you were allowed to enter the area they're in from the get-go. Usually games gate off areas in order to better pace out the narrative they're trying to tell, but nothing interesting happens in the hours between the game's beginning and the confrontation with the thugs. I found myself frequently opting to do everything except what I needed to do to advance the story, not because the mini-games were particularly amazing (though they are quite satisfying), but simply because the story itself was so unengaging that I preferred to spend my time doing practically anything else instead of moving it along.

It's not just the pacing of Shenmue III that's a holdover from the Dreamcast era, either. There's all sorts of mechanics that, seen through a modern lens, are downright nonsensical and only serve to make the game less fun. For example, there's the stamina system: Ryo has a stamina bar that continuously drains even if he does so much as stands around, falling significantly faster if you choose to do activities like training, working, or even just running to get to a place more quickly (since fast travel is limited). Ryo needs to eat constantly in order to refill it throughout the day, and woe be to you if you stumble into a fight with less-than-ideal stamina, since it doubles as your life bar. In a game where exploration is a focus, it's a baffling mechanic that only frustrates.

Then there's the dialogue, which is every bit as unnatural and awkward as it was in previous games. If for some reason you find yourself in a conversation you didn't want to be in, you can't just cancel or even button-mash out of it--you're going to have to listen to someone babble on until Ryo clumsily apologizes for bothering them and escapes. Since you're often in situations where you have to bother everyone you see to find a person with the info you need, you're going to hear a lot of pointless blather. While there are some fun characters with cute personality quirks that are entertaining to engage with, a lot of the dialogue seems like banal filler meant to make conversation seem substantial when it really isn't.

The worst element of Shenmue, however, continues to be the combat, which is every bit as clunky and unsatisfying as it was back in the Dreamcast days. You're forced into an awkward angle where it's hard to see everything around you (which is awful when you have more than one opponent), the button combinations needed to perform various skills don't flow together well, and it simply feels laggy and unresponsive as a whole. You can "cheat" somewhat and simply do training exercises to level up your strength and stamina if you want to struggle a bit less with fighting, but it still doesn't serve to make the combat itself any more fun.

Shenmue III has its moments. It delivers on the promise of creating interesting and engaging new environments for Ryo and friends to explore and play around in. Yet, I can't help but think that the game's dogged determination to retain the same "feel" of its Dreamcast ancestors at any cost hurts it immensely. The creative team seems determined to not move anything forward substantially when it comes to Shenmue--including the story, which ends on yet another unfinished cliffhanger. Shenmue III is certainly an interesting game thrown out of time, but that doesn't mean that it's always enjoyable to play.

Categories: Games

Rewriting Prehistory With Return To Jurassic Park

Game Informer News Feed - Tue, 11/26/2019 - 15:00

Publisher: Frontier Developments Developer: Frontier Developments Release: Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Two weeks ago, Frontier Developments revealed a new expansion to its 2018 dino-park simulator Jurassic World Evolution. The expansion, Return to Jurassic Park, is set to let players experiment with fixing the problems of the original dinosaur park from the hit '90s films. I traveled to Frontier Developments to get my hands on the expansion and learn just how ambitious of a project this is.

To this point, Jurassic World Evolution has seen several post-launch packs, including three premium DLC drops, seven dinosaur packs, and seven free updates. However, all of those additions took place within the modern Jurassic World.

Return to Jurassic Park does just what its name says, giving players the keys to the iconic Jurassic Park gate in hopes that you can fix the problems from the first film and right the ship on the doomed theme park. In addition to introducing an all-new storyline comprised of seven narrative-based missions, Return to Jurassic Park brings back original cast members Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum to reprise the roles of Dr. Alan Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, and Dr. Ian Malcolm respectively.

"[Recruiting the original actors] turned out to be relatively simple," game director Michael Brookes says. "The hardest part was getting them all scheduled so we could get them all recorded in time. But actually, though, they seemed quite on board. Jeff we'd worked with before anyway, but Laura and Sam seemed quite keen to get involved and reprise their roles. They're such distinctive characters in their own right, and bringing them into a game was good."

Since Return to Jurassic Park takes place immediately after the events of the first Jurassic Park film, the aesthetics are different from that of the Jurassic World theme used in the base game. Certain dinosaurs have new models, while others have new skins that look like the ones from the 1993 film. The various structures you put in place also more closely resemble the ones from the first film. These visual changes are also available to use in all challenges and the sandbox mode from the base game using '93 Mode.

"Obviously we were fans of the original films and the aesthetics between the two [eras] were very different," Brookes says. "It's something we've seen a lot from the fans as well; they love the original films and they've wanted to recreate Jurassic Park, but with them looking so different, you obviously can't do that to the same degree. Part of the original thinking was to go back in time and do Jurassic Park, and that's what we set to do with this."

Jurassic Park is less commercialized than Jurassic World, meaning you have new variables to consider. For instance, viewing galleries for patrons are gone, as is the monorail, but in their place are tours and a helipad. Also, while you can certainly put up shops to keep customers happy, there's no need to.

When I finally got my hands on the upcoming expansion, I was able to play through Mission 1 and Mission 6 to get an idea of what players will be tasked to do in order to try and fix Jurassic Park. Each mission starts with voiced dialogue between the main characters from the films. While we heard Goldblum step back into the role of Ian Malcolm in the base game, hearing him go back and forth with Dern and Neill's characters is a treat.

The first mission requires me to restore functionality of the park's various operations. I do this by building a ranger base and assigning them various repair tasks. After things are up and running again, I queue up tasks for the rangers (like capturing escaped Raptors) and set research of some fancy new electric fences in motion while I manually repair the damaged security fences. This mission is short, but conveys the theme of helping the troubled theme park reach its full potential.

While the first mission took very little time, the sixth mission was lengthy thanks to several required excursions and egg-hatching missions. My first mission is to add a new species of dino to the park, namely the Compsognathus. You may remember these little guys as the ones who took out poor Dieter in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This time it'll probably go better, right? I research the Compsognathus and send an expedition team out to scour for DNA for the Compies. This effort takes multiple expeditions spread over a long time. While this is taking place, I perform general upkeep around the park, using rangers to refill dinosaur feeders and medicate sick creatures. Additionally, side missions, like getting a certain number of guests in the park or achieving a particular park rating, pop up to grant you monetary rewards if you're able to complete them.

At long last, I acquire 75 percent genome for the Compies and begin the process of hatching them. As I wait for the eggs to hatch, I build an enclosure for them, complete with carnivore feeding platforms and a small pond for them to drink from. As they begin hatching, I deliver them to their newly built pen and the mission continues.

The next step in the mission is to build an aviary and fill it with Pteranodons. These aerial reptiles are a major attraction for patrons, so if I want to get my numbers up, I need some good DNA samples to work with. That means it's back to the expedition. The slow burn gives me more time to address things around the park; I'm trying to get my guest numbers up, so I add some more restrooms, new shops, and lower some prices of the souvenirs. I don't notice any influx in the numbers, but once the aviary construction is complete and the first Pteranodons take flight, the numbers start creeping up. I achieve the numbers the side mission gave me thanks to my new flying friends, but I'll need to be careful going forward; storms can damage the aviary and let the dangerous creatures out.

For those who don't plan on spending more money on Jurassic World Evolution, Frontier is readying the next batch of free content. In addition to restrooms (which customers will now need) that can be placed throughout the park, your ranger teams can now be taken out if they're put in dangerous situations. I witnessed this firsthand while waiting for an expedition to complete during the Pteranodon mission. I sent a ranger team out to try and contain an outbreak of Avian Influenza among the dinosaurs, only to be utterly annihilated by an adjacent beast. While rangers can fire flares to distract the aggressive dinosaurs, I guess this team didn't get the memo, and they paid dearly for it. I had to pay to hire an entirely new team of rangers to replace them and pick up where the dearly departed squad left off.

Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park hits PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC December 10 for $20.

Categories: Games

Blacksad: Under The Skin Review - Dog Days

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 11/26/2019 - 08:00

It is to damn with faint praise to admit my favourite part of Blacksad: Under the Skin happens within the pause menu. Specifically, the menu option called "Progress." Here you can browse a comic book that tells the story so far, its speech bubbles and illustrated frames altered to reflect the choices you’ve made. The major plot threads remain intact, but you can weave subtle changes. Once the end credits have rolled, the final comic is a tangible reminder of the course you charted throughout the game.

It’s my favourite part of the game not just because it is a meaningful nod towards Blacksad’s origin as a comic book series--created two decades ago in Spain, written in French, and set in a version of 1950s America where all people are depicted as humanoid animals. It’s my favourite part of Blacksad because it gets to the heart of what Blacksad is about: Blacksad himself. It’s a shame such a strong central character finds himself in the middle of a merely competent noir-detective story with a couple of neat ideas and a distinct lack of pizzazz.

Like its source material, the game leans very heavily, if superficially, into the stock imagery of noir fiction. You know the drill: An attractive woman walks into the office of a down-on-his-luck private eye while well-tailored men are beaten up in dark alleyways by other well-tailored men. There’s a trip to the docks at night, a tense poker game against a group of gangsters, and the underbelly of every animal is even more seedy than you imagined, especially the rhinoceros.

In the midst of all this is John Blacksad, the implausibly-named feline private investigator who, when the game opens, finds himself working a tawdry case to expose a cheating husband. This early scene sets the tone and allows you to begin colouring in your version of Blacksad. The husband, furious at having been caught in the act of infidelity, confronts Blacksad and, after violence fails, offers him 10 times what his wife was paying in order to keep quiet. You can choose whether to take the money or not--the money itself is ultimately irrelevant and actually spending it is outside the scope of this story. Determining the character of the man is the whole point.

Later, you have the opportunity to tell the wife the truth of the affair or to keep your promise to the husband, and a box will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, Telltale-style, to inform you whether you’ve lied or accepted a bribe or betrayed a promise depending on the precise sequence of events. Blacksad begins the game as a heartbroken man (his lover was recently killed) and a struggling gumshoe (the bills are piling up in his tiny ramshackle office), but from this starting point you’re given a good deal of freedom to shape his future.

The new case gets underway via a set of mechanics that are staples of the adventure genre, but lack some of the refinements of recent years. Blacksad walks around each location and interacts with hotspots to look at objects and provide a brief observation, pick up items for later use, or talk to people and ask them questions about the case. It’s not a point-and-click interface, however; it uses direct control over Blacksad and he is, rather surprisingly for a cat, a cumbersome figure to move about.

Hotspots only appear when Blacksad moves near them, and they often disappear if he walks too far past them or slightly turns away from them. As a result, navigating a location and revealing all its interactable items can prove a finicky, frustrating process. Time is never of the essence in these scenes, so you’re never punished for being too slow. But you’re never assisted either; Blacksad walks very slowly, and there’s no run modifier or option to quickly exit a screen you’ve already walked across a dozen times. In the mid-game, there’s even a room you must explore in darkness, with only the unreliable light of a Zippo to guide you towards the vital, erratically appearing hotspots. It’s infuriating.

Very little of Blacksad is skippable. You can’t speed up dialogue during conversations. Mashing all the buttons during cutscenes does nothing. When Blacksad looks at a photo on the wall, for example, the camera zooms in on it and then ponderously pans across to a second photo next to it, Blacksad’s inner monologue noting something about the situation. You can’t skip the sequence even if you’ve accidentally triggered the hotspot a second time. I’m a patient player, but Blacksad forces you to move at its pedestrian pace, and it strained even my generous limits.

The investigation fares better when the interrogations commence. The conversation wheel comes in two varieties: The first are a sort of standard, "just the facts, ma’am" set of questions that let Blacksad get a feel for what the other person knows, and the second option provides an opportunity for you to express what Blacksad himself is thinking. The latter set is often how you get to shape Blacksad’s character and, crucially, you only have a few seconds to make the choice.

Conversations can feel quite tense, especially as they go back and forth between timed and non-timed sets of responses. You’re always on your toes, never quite sure when you’re going to be called upon to make a split-second decision about what exactly is going on in Blacksad’s head. It’s effective because, from Under the Skin's opening scene, you’re aware that the game will remember what you said and remind you of your previous decisions when you say something down the line that’s consistent or inconsistent with them.

Two other, somewhat more novel mechanics come to the fore during your investigation. The first plays upon the heightened senses of a cat. At certain prescribed moments you can activate Blacksad’s cat sense and view the world in black-and-white slow motion from a first-person perspective. The idea here is that you’re able to hear, smell, and see things that someone other than a cat wouldn’t pick up on. In practice, all you’re doing is swinging the camera around until you’ve highlighted what you need to find. The slow-motion effect in these sections lends a degree of drama that the scenes might otherwise not possess, but it doesn’t enhance the feeling you’re doing any sort of extraordinary detective work.

What does a much better job of that is the second uncommon feature. Blacksad adds vital clues and important questions to a sort of mental map of the case. You can combine two or more of these to verify a particular detail, rule something out, or suggest a new path to probe. The game will prompt you when you’ve collected enough clues to make a deduction so you’re not constantly opening the menu up and trying things out. In addition, the clues as written do a good job of providing just enough of a hint to nudge you in the direction of which ones to combine, without blatantly giving the game away. Though it’s possible to brute force the correct combinations since there are never more than ten clues to consider at any moment, you’ll be doing a disservice not only to a clever system but to yourself. Putting two pieces of information together, that you suspect clears up an important part of the case, and seeing Blacksad smile and give you a hearty thumbs up to indicate that you did so correctly… man, it’s a marvellously simple and effective way of making the player feel smart.

Effective is a pretty good way of describing Blacksad as a detective game. As a noir detective game, however, it struggles. No matter that this is a world full of cats, dogs, wolves, lizards, rhinos, and horses going about their lives as people, Blacksad’s New York is well-trodden material. The main story does manage to twist and turn in unexpected ways, and the payoff, at least in terms of the central whodunnit mystery, is satisfying. Less successful are the attempts at building a larger world beyond the immediate case. There are gestures towards the racism and sexism in this society--and by implication, modern America--but they're just that, a gesture. There's no follow-up or investigation of these issues; they're just set dressing.

It also lacks a coherent noir style. Blacksad himself offers up a decent take on the noir lead, with his voiceover commentary laced with weary cynicism and flashes of tender empathy. There’s the expected sultry sax soundtrack which, coupled with numerous long, lingering shots of cigarette smoke wafting into the air, ensures everything feels like it’s been smothered in a sticky heat haze. But everything else looks drab and dull and boringly conventional. There’s very little of the high contrast lighting and off-kilter camera angles that defined noir cinema. For a genre synonymous with style, it’s disappointing to see something so lacking in it.

Blacksad: Under the Skin works, it's a solid detective game that serves up a case worth cracking, a charismatic lead whose character you can shape in meaningful ways, and an investigation method that successfully wraps you in a brown trenchcoat. But when it doesn’t work you'll find yourself bogged down in the tedium of traipsing around another uninspired location, searching for that final wayward hotspot, and the atmosphere is sucked out of the room.

Categories: Games

Battletoads Preview – Zitz And All

Game Informer News Feed - Mon, 11/25/2019 - 19:40

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Developer: DLALA Studios, Rare Release: Platform: Xbox One, PC

The Battletoads series was initially created to rival the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade-style beat ’em-up games of the late ’80s and early ’90s. While the four brotherly turtles have evolved and remained in the mainstream consciousness through various TV shows, movies, and video games of varying quality, the Battletoads have all but vanished. However, after years of teases from Xbox, the Battletoads finally reemerged at E3 2019.

For better and for worse, Battletoads plays a lot like the games that began the franchise. The three toads, Rash, Zitz, and Pimple, can and will jump right into any confrontation without a second’s thought. Volleying enemies between the three brothers is the highlight of my experience with Battletoads, as the enemies bounce around the screen like delightful pinballs. You can attack in a few different ways, but I love holding down a button and unleashing a charged morphing attack – Rash’s foot grows enormous as he kicks, while Pimple’s hulking physique morphs to resemble a train as he plows through the enemies before him.

However, as I play through the various encounters, it becomes evident that the side-scrolling beat ‘em-up genre has yet to make the transition to the modern age. Sure, the graphics look better and the controls are a bit smoother, but the encounters all feature a tinge of “been there, done that,” which makes sense since you’re battling waves upon waves of the same three or four enemies with a limited moveset for the entire level. The encounters all blur together, with little to set them apart from one another aside from an occasional new enemy type.

Thankfully, a boss battle breaks up the stage’s slightly monotonous action. Porkshank is such a tank of an enemy that he’s invulnerable to attack until you let him wear himself out with his own flurry of punches. However, I learn the hard way that his size isn’t just for show when I dodge a bit too late and he takes out a considerable amount of my health with one combination. If this giant pig isn’t enough of a problem, he has the constant support of minion characters as well. However, with a little persistence and a lot of timing, we finally take down Porkshank and move on to a hoverbike stage.

Players of the original Battletoads games likely have the hoverbike etched into their memories due to the fast-paced and punishing nature. While hoverbike stages are no longer side-scrolling like they were in the 8-bit era, they aren’t exactly a walk in the park. The camera now swings behind your bikes, giving you an oncoming view of the obstacles and pitfalls. With plenty of experience with racing games, I figured this would be a breeze. However, thanks to a back-breaking sense of speed and an enormous collection of offset barriers, jumps, and pits, my poor toad’s bike erupts into flames more times than I’d like to admit.

Fans have been clamoring for the Battletoad brothers to return following their lengthy hiatus. While I walked away from my hands-on time not completely sold on this revitalization, I’m glad to have these icons back in action.

Categories: Games

Microsoft Flight Simulator Preview – Soaring To New Heights

Game Informer News Feed - Fri, 11/22/2019 - 17:12

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Developer: Asobo Studio Release: 2020 Rating: Rating Pending Platform: Xbox One, PC

For decades, the Microsoft Flight Simulator series has given aviation enthusiasts a way to get their virtual wings. However, with more than 13 years since the most recent entry, would-be pilots haven’t had the mainstay series to rely on. Thankfully, Microsoft Flight Simulator is back with a host of innovative features to give virtual pilots the most ambitious flight-simulation software ever created.

As I sit into the cockpit of my virtual plane (a gaming chair in front of a desk with an advanced yoke system, complete with a throttle panel to my right and rudder panels at my feet), I’m loaded into a mid-flight instance over the gorgeous city of Naples, Italy. Suddenly appearing in the cockpit, I feel a brief sense of nervousness as I grip the control wheel. Looking around the iconic city, I’m stunned by how gorgeous everything looks. The distinct architecture of the seaside Italian city passes beneath my aircraft with photorealistic visuals. Though I’m responsible for keeping the small plane airborne, I can’t take my eyes off the city beneath me.

No matter where you choose to fly – and you can choose anywhere on the planet – the cities, landscapes, and natural landmarks are presented in photorealism. This is thanks to advanced photogrammetry that leverages data and textures from Microsoft’s Bing to create 3D models of every building, tree, and mountain on Earth. The team has to go in and make sure everything looks good (some trees and unique buildings like Seattle’s Space Needle don’t capture from satellite well), but the advanced machine learning used in this process greatly lowers the number of human hours put into creating this ultra-realistic planet. Then, it streams to your machine using Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology. Because of this, you can circumnavigate a photorealistic globe in a single session – if you have enough fuel.

The team isn’t stopping there, however, as other real-time data helps deliver an even more authentic experience. As I continue flying over Naples, we change the weather mode in the environment. The initial load featured calm weather and clear skies. However, by adjusting one option, I’m suddenly experiencing the weather in Naples in real time; I guess it was a pretty windy morning in southern Italy. From there, I toggle to different cloud settings, various times of day, and even a low-visibility rainstorm where I must rely on my instruments. The team is also looking into real-time tracking of animal migrations, natural disasters, and even car traffic on the ground.

In addition, Microsoft Flight Simulator has the power to track real-world flight traffic using transponder signals. “We know where every airplane is, and we actually render it in real time,” says Microsoft’s Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator. “We [also] have A.I.-driven planes, and then everything from the air-traffic controller gets a slot. The interaction between us and the real world’s traffic is kind of complicated. You have options: You can either fly with just A.I. traffic and we control everything, or you fly with just real-world traffic. And then, the really hard one is the blend. We’re still working on that! It’s hard!”

After enjoying the scenery of Naples for a while, I decide to try and land at Naples International Airport. After several botched approaches, I finally give myself a wide enough radius and begin descending toward the runway. As I get closer, I rely more on lowering my throttle and using the aircraft’s flaps to create drag than actually pointing the control wheel toward the ground. Keeping things steady as I get closer to the ground is difficult, as the slightest motion could cause me to roll too far to one side. After some gentle corrections on the way to the ground, I finally land. It’s a rough landing for sure, but I’m safe. Now that I’m on the ground, I press both feet into the rudders beneath the desk to bring the plane to a stop.

My next session takes me to the United States at Renton Municipal Airport near Microsoft’s offices just outside of Seattle. In this session, I’m already on the ground, but that’s not where I want to be. I pull up to the start of the runway and put the plane into full throttle. As I reach takeoff speed, I slowly pull back on the yoke and ascend to cruising altitude. Using my instruments, I easily reach the skies over Seattle. However, my most difficult challenge awaits.

The final session takes me to Courchevel Altiport, one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Located in the French Alps, getting a perfect approach is important since you have little room for do-overs. In addition, the airport has a sloped runway, meaning you have to land at an incline rather than a flat surface. This means that you must pull the nose up at the last moment to land smoothly. While I lower the throttle too much on my first approach and crash into the nearby trees, for my second attempt I coast in towards a safe landing, only to veer slightly off course when I pull the nose up and land a bit rough. However, it was such a challenging scenario, I’ll take the rough landing.

While I walked away from my time with Microsoft Flight Simulator impressed, you’ll need to make a serious investment into your hardware in order to enjoy it the way I did; the yoke system bundle I played on currently retails just over $300. It’s all but certain that playing on a keyboard or controller would feel substantially less immersive, but those who are there for the thrill of exploring the planet from the point-of-view of birds can still do so without the fancy peripherals.

With so much amazing technology at work, Microsoft Flight Simulator is infinitely ambitious, and if what I experienced with my hands-on time is any indication, aspiring pilots and newcomers should be excited to take to this sky in the series’ upcoming return.

Categories: Games

CrossfireX Preview – Making A Push For Global Domination

Game Informer News Feed - Thu, 11/21/2019 - 21:44

Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Developer: Smilegate, Remedy Entertainment Release: 2020 Platform: Xbox One

CrossFire first took Korea by storm in 2007, becoming one of the most-played and top-grossing video games ever. The game hit the U.S. years later, but it never found the same traction as it did in Eastern markets. Now, CrossfireX is set to kick off the series’ newfound push for global popularity with a new engine, fan-favorite maps, and an all-new campaign from Control and Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment.

Click here to watch embedded media

CrossfireX brings much of the original Crossfire’s core content, such as the maps and modes, so those who haven’t played the series can get a look at what made it so popular in the first place. Players join one of two private military factions to complete objective-based missions. While competitive multiplayer is the core of the franchise, CrossfireX adds a new single-player campaign, as well as a battle-royale mode.

With the original game being more than a decade old, the core gameplay needed some modernizations. Developer Smilegate rebuilt the entire game in Unreal Engine 4, added the ability to aim down the sights, and made great strides in improving the visuals.

The gameplay reveal trailer focuses on one of the original Crossfire’s most popular maps: Black Widow. While the map is carried forward, it’s more than just a remastered version of it. “It’s a very popular fan-favorite map in China,” Smilegate technical art director Jin Woo Jung says. “Our team has put a lot of love to rebuild the things which weren’t possible in our very old engine. Using the Unreal Engine gives us more opportunities to meet the expectations of the players and what they want to see visually.”

Hot off Control, one of 2019’s biggest games, Remedy Entertainment is working on an all-new single-player campaign for CrossfireX. According to Tuukka Taipalvesi, executive producer at Remedy, the team at Smilegate were big fans. “They came to us because of our strengths of building worlds, building characters which are not one dimensional and that actually have a lot of depth,” he says. “That’s what we do. We tell stories through characters in worlds that either we build or someone else has built.”

Because CrossFire was primarily successful in Asia, Taipalvesi admits he didn’t know much about the game prior to starting work on the single-player campaign. “I’ve been in esports before it was even ‘esports’ and played a lot of high-end FPS, but I had only a rudimentary knowledge of what CrossFire is when Smilegate contacted us,” he says. “It’s just like, ‘Let’s Google this up and see what’s what,’ and then get a client, get some streams, and start to immerse myself into it.”

Remedy can’t yet talk about the single-player campaign, but developing a first-person shooter is an exciting prospect. “We have a lot of FPS fans,” Remedy communications director Thomas Puha says. “It’s just like this fun challenge of, ‘We could get to do that and see what is a Remedy experience in a first-person shooter.’”

Despite Remedy’s involvement, you shouldn’t expect the mind-bending gameplay seen in games like Control or Max Payne, as it must still exist in the CrossFire universe. However, Remedy did some soul searching to determine what exactly defines a Remedy experience. Unfortunately, Remedy couldn’t talk about its findings, so we’ll have to wait until the team can divulge concrete details about the single-player campaign.

Thankfully, CrossfireX launches in 2020, so the wait isn’t going to be too long for players to get their hands on it. With a strong pedigree, an overwhelmingly successful past, and an updated suite of features and gameplay, CrossfireX could prove to be a big hit when it comes to Xbox One next year.

Categories: Games

Planet Zoo Review - Spreadsheet Safari

Gamespot News Feed - Thu, 11/21/2019 - 01:23

Planet Zoo is a beautifully detailed and mechanically rich management sim that sometimes stumbles under the weight of its own systems. The diverse lineup of exquisitely rendered animals is utterly delightful, and the tools you’re given to build your dream zoo with are mostly intuitive, though there are exceptions. Though hampered by slow progression and a frequently cumbersome UI, it’s chock-full of all the detailed options you want from a good management sim and offers both a rewarding and educational experience.

Building a successful zoo is all about making sure everyone and everything in it is happy, working, and well-looked after. Animals need to be kept in the right climate and conditions to keep their welfare in check, which is no mean feat in itself. Career mode is the best place to start out, offering a helpfully structured and much-needed tutorial across its first few scenarios that show you the ropes of how to make your zoo tick along. If you manage to complete all the given objectives you’re free to move on to the next scenario or continue on running the zoo as you please with the training wheels now off. There are also modes that allow you to start from a blank slate, as well as a sandbox mode that eschews the game's economy entirely.

The Zoopedia--the in-game encyclopedia full of useful animal facts and stats--gives you all the basic information you need to know before setting up an enclosure, but the process really starts once you move your animals in and can properly gauge how they’re feeling about their surroundings. You’re encouraged to really consider the finest of details. Is the enclosure laid out with the right plants from the right continent? Is there enough shelter from bad weather? Is the herd made up of the right ratio of males to females? But while it’s easy enough to spot these problems, finding the right answers can be a pain as you’re forced to trawl through different sub-screens that are hidden within a myriad of menus and icons. While there are warning notifications for these issues, you have to hunt down the right menu yourself just to make the fix.

Conservation credits play a big role in advancing your zoo's rating with visitors. These credits are an in-game currency you earn for doing various tasks, from logging into your online game and completing community challenges to releasing animals into the wild. They’re used to adopt new animals from the animal trade centre, which helps you expand your zoo as well as encourage breeding. This nets you a spike in visitors--baby animals are cute as heck--and, more importantly, an animal with stronger genes, making it more valuable to trade for cash or release for credits. But while conservation credits are easy enough to earn when using the offline economy, online is a different story, with credits being doled out sparingly at best, especially in the early game. This causes some problems in the game’s online Franchise mode, where the animal trade centre is populated with creatures exclusively from other online players, and almost all of them can only be bought with credits. This slows the pace early on, forcing you into a cycle of breeding and releasing animals until you can finally start populating the zoo with the ones you actually want.

As for the humans in your zoo, visitors need to be both entertained and educated through having a wide variety of animals to see and learn about, and your workers need to have all the right facilities so they can keep things from descending into chaos. Your staff will mostly wander autonomously, though you can create helpful work zones to assign them to watch over. Animals can get upset if their enclosure is always dirty or if their food isn’t being refilled, and while you can set how often some worker types visit an enclosure, work zones let you keep the right people near enough of the right places.

When starting to flesh out the facilities of your zoo, you begin with a small selection of shops and staff quarters, unlocking more by assigning your staff to research them. The more you research, the better and broader variety of buildings you have. Building isn’t perfect--paths will often fail to connect up, and it took some time to wrap my head around the concept of building storefront facades and then placing the store inside them, rather than plonking the store down and having it just work. But it’s ultimately for the better as it creates flexibility for user-created designs.

You’re offered a full gamut of individual building parts that you can use to create your own blueprints, which can be shared via the Steam Workshop. Most of the basic pieces--walls of varying shapes, roof tiles, doors and window frames--will snap together on a relative grid, letting you put your designs together like building blocks. Although some of the manipulation controls aren’t immediately intuitive, with a little time, creating your own style of buildings gets simple enough that you can focus more on refining your creative ideas for that new toilet block or burger stand, rather than working out why your walls won’t connect up.

The animals themselves are the absolute stars of Planet Zoo. They’re all gorgeously rendered and look wonderfully detailed up close, their fur waving back and forth as they graze and prance about. Some of their animations can be a tad janky, but for the most part, watching your animals wander and interact is the biggest joy to be found in Planet Zoo. Whether you’re watching a lion cub nervously sidle up to water before turning to squeak at a nearby adult, a herd of springboks pouncing about together, or a lonely adult orangutan sitting on a rock in the tropical rain, I never failed to be moved by how they looked as they went about their business, feeling a real connection with and responsibility towards them.

Despite a slow burn in online mode and a bloated user interface that gets in the way of fully enjoying the finer management aspects of Planet Zoo, there’s still more than enough here to get something out of your time with it. It’s got its janky moments, but the animals are all rendered sublimely, the management sim mechanics are smart, and the sensible building controls will encourage and help you to build the best park you can for the animals in your care.

Categories: Games

Sparklite Review - Shine A Light

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 11/20/2019 - 02:00

The premise for Sparklite sees a world where constant earthquakes shake up environments and the only true refuge is in the sky. Everytime you drop to the world below it’s both familiar and different; the environments are made up of different tiles, and like a game of Catan, they’re shuffled anew on every trip. It’s your job to learn and navigate this ever-changing land while upgrading your abilities so you can take down Mining Titans bent on further destroying the world. It starts off as an exciting adventure full of challenge and variety, but that's not something that lasts forever.

Sparklite is a 2D roguelite whose bright and vivid pixel art environments feature prominently. The main world is shrouded when you first enter it and is divided into squares which take up the whole screen, much like a classic Legend of Zelda game. Moving through and uncovering the layout of the area provides a sense of discovery, especially in the early runs, and each square presents a scenario which will become familiar over time--the layout and enemies for map squares will stay the same, but you won’t know which variant you'll get until you arrive. Each scenario feels like a crafted experience, each featuring its own unique little challenge or puzzle, but they still have random elements that keeps things fresh--hidden elements can be found breaking boulders or digging up treasure.

This structure, along with the visual flair and the rousing score full of synths and horns, help to evoke the adventurous feelings of classic JRPGs. The pixel art is exciting and bright, and the enemy and world designs have a stoutness that is reminiscent of a very particular style of top-down console adventure game. But despite being a throwback game, Sparklite's movement and combat feel modern--they're responsive and smooth. There are two different strengths of melee attack, and as the game progresses, different ranged weapons also become available to you. Ranged weapons rely on a form of energy generated by attacking enemies with your melee hits, and this creates a satisfying flow. There’s no standing back and trying to pick off enemies from a distance; instead, the game forces you to focus on the melee moves, which means you’re always in the thick of things. It's an exciting challenge to be constantly on your toes, never able to totally avoid danger, and learning enemy patterns to stay alive.

This is made especially engaging because of all the different enemy types. Every time you enter a new environment you’ll discover new creatures who have different attack patterns, defences, and behaviors to learn--some will even let you by peacefully. There’s a real sense of danger when going to an unknown place, which later evolves into a sense of mastery once you’ve gotten a handle on the enemies there.

This goes doubly so for Sparklite's intense bosses, as each of the five Mining Titans bring a slew of unique moves to the table. Every time I encountered a new boss I’d die, baffled at how to proceed. One boss in particular presented only one weak spot on its front, but that's also where it would readily produce pincers. It could shoot missiles and laser beams, as well as cause sinkholes with a stabbing scorpion tail. I found myself mastering the pattern for one series of attacks only to quickly get taken down by the other. Overcoming these fights requires you to learn how each enemy attack works in tandem, on top of finding a safe opening to attack. Learning a little bit more after each death is a great sensation, and Sparklite definitely offers a real sense of accomplishment when you finally come out of the other side of what was once a difficult fight with barely any damage.

However, there are some occasions where combat just feels unfair. Little things, like enemies being able to hit you when they're not even on the same screen as you, or being perpetually frozen by two enemies shooting staggered ice balls, can be incredibly annoying. I felt this especially hard during the final boss battle, where a bombardment of enemies would all jump on me in a staggered pattern, keeping me in an indefinite loop of knockdowns. There are ways to try to avoid all of these situations, but if you’re unlucky enough to get caught by them, they’re nigh impossible to get out of, especially if you're already low on health.

Consumable items also play a large role in combat. You can find and collect an array of bombs, buffs, and healing items every time you drop down to the planet’s surface. They offer new strategies to defeat tough enemies or increase your survivability. However, you don't keep any of them when you die. This creates the risk-reward dynamic seen in most roguelites--is it worth stockpiling items for an upcoming boss, or better to use them now and increase your chances of survival?

The downside to items in Sparklite is that most of them take a while to activate, and while you can get permanent buffs that help with this, using them during tough combat encounters is often more of a liability, which makes certain items feel useless. In some boss battles, I found bombs could be quite effective, for example, but in others, finding the downtime to set them off is often just too risky. Even taking the time to heal can be a tough and dangerous choice, so learning when to do so becomes crucial. Weapon items that I wanted to use and make me feel powerful often felt like they got me killed, and with such limited opportunities to use items, I ended up using them very sparingly and with trepidation.

Items are also completely random, so it’s easy to find yourself stocked with a bunch of things you may not even need. One item’s sole job is to illuminate dark areas, and there are only so many times you’ll ever want to use it. On the other hand, health is few and far between so repeatedly getting one item over the other can be very frustrating.

Randomness can also negatively affect your experience with other systems, like permanent upgrades. Permanent items are kept upon death, which means that death doesn’t usually feel too punishing, and instead feels like an opportunity to go back to the Sky Refuge and rework your loadout. You equip upgrades by slotting them into a grid--some will be larger than others, and you have to prioritise what you think you’ll need. It's a neat little system, and experimenting with it is a rewarding exercise because you can see a tangible difference reflected in your character. However, this is the only way to level up your character, and though the game will let you buy some upgrades (like health buffs) as a guaranteed item, others are up for you to stumble across randomly, which can affect your trajectory of progress. This is a characteristic of the genre, of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't frustrating at times.. It wasn’t until I was facing one of the final bosses that I finally found a second damage upgrade, for example, something I desperately needed and explored the map several times in search of.

I also encountered a few frustrating bugs in the Switch version of the game which interrupted my progress; crashing during loading screens made me sacrifice more than one of my more lucrative runs. Even aside from bugs, sometimes loading screens seemed ridiculously long as I got into the later areas--areas which also felt like they weren’t anywhere near as diverse in design as earlier ones. Even the random dungeons, which you can find by breaking objects on all the maps, repeat far too often and by the end I could tell which one I’d dropped into immediately. Skipping these dungeons means fewer items and less currency, which in turn means a lower chance of survival or an inability to afford bigger upgrades. Their necessity means it eventually becomes a chore to do the same thing over and over again for random, often disappointing rewards.

This repetition in design seems especially odd when you consider that other puzzle aspects of the game are often introduced once and barely used again. For example, each time you discover a new ranged weapon, you’ll have a comprehensive tutorial on how to use it so you understand what puzzles it’ll work for. Several of these items went almost completely unused after I’d acquired them because I never came across an opportunity for them.

Sparklite has a great amount of challenge and diversity--until it doesn’t. When things are going well in the early game, progress always feels real and attainable, so it's enjoyable to go exploring the world for whatever you’ll find next. The game's upgrades are satisfying to implement (so long as you can find them) and there’s a real sense of growth and achievement. But when Sparklite gets you with an unfair death or technical issue that sets you back, and later causes you to do the same thing over and over again, it's hard to endure. In the moments where I didn’t encounter these kinds of setbacks, I felt consumed by the desire to find more upgrades, learn how to defeat that boss, and unlock a new area. Sparklite's loop can be rewarding, but not when it's extended beyond its means.

Categories: Games

Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle And The Millionaire's Conspiracy Review - Merry Old England

Gamespot News Feed - Sat, 11/16/2019 - 01:03

So much of the appeal of the original Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS comes from the sheer warmth. It's a mahogany-toned warm blanket of a series of detective games. The puzzles might be non-sequitur brain-busters, but when it's all over, you're welcomed back into the game's world with all the comfort of a cup of tea. Come now, chin up, don't worry about how annoying that last one was, here's another bad pun to soothe what ails you.

Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy walks the series back to that original warmth of its humble roots in the visual mystery novel genre. It's a game that revels in its relative simplicity the way the series hasn't in some time. Dig in deep enough, though, and you'll find a game that conceals more than a couple of devious surprises under its sunny exterior.

The latest entry in the Layton's Mystery Journey series once again takes place in a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied version of turn-of-the-century London. The hero detective this time around is the good professor's cheery, aloof, and persistently hungry daughter, Katrielle. She's joined by Ernest Grieves, a straight-laced and faithful assistant if there ever was one, and a basset hound who Kat names, in the game's single laziest pun, Sherl O.C. Kholmes. As it turns out, Sherl is actually suffering from Detective Pikachu Syndrome: He's able to talk to a select few humans, but he also has amnesia so he has no idea how exactly he got into this mess. Unfortunately, poor Sherl has to stick it out for a while longer, since the intro is the last time the game addresses his whole predicament in any meaningful way.

The game's lack of an all-encompassing narrative is par for the course, however, and for most of the play time, it's not necessarily to its detriment. The usual Layton series storytelling returns: It's a visual novel at its core, with long stretches of dialogue with various characters broken up by point-and-click puzzles. As opposed to the earlier games' overarching mysteries, however, Katrielle's first outing is actually an episodic affair, where each case is its own self-contained little tale of low-stakes peril, ranging from the minute hand going missing from Big Ben to a wealthy madam's missing cat, disconnected from any larger character development for the main protagonists until the literal final hour. What the game lacks in straightforward character arcs that build over the entire playtime, it makes up for in building an enormous and eclectic cast of oddballs and weirdos with hilariously punny names and peculiar quirks. Katrielle's relationship with each character may only last for a single case, but each case is structured in such a way that the broad strokes--the frequent clapbacks, one-off zingers, friendly jabs at everyone's expense--are allowed to make an impression. As far as the narrative is concerned, each new character is made to be memorable, not practical. And the episodic format makes it easy to enjoy the game in short bursts. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you can meet someone new, push the story forward, or finish a crucial puzzle.

Well, you can try to finish a crucial puzzle at the very least, but not all of them are pushovers. In lieu of any legitimate detective work, most of what you'll be doing to help take a bite out of English crime is solving a vast series of one-off puzzles of various sorts for whoever asks. Some are just basic spatial problems, such as having a vat that holds five gallons of liquid and another that holds three, and trying to figure out how to get four gallons. Others are quirky little mini-games more akin to what you may find in WarioWare, just with a tricky twist like having a limit on how many moves you can make to finish the game. Some, however, are just flat out riddles, and these tend to be the ones that may leave you white-knuckle frustrated.

The game fires its first warning shot early on, with a riddle about the minimum number of times you need to touch a clock to get it to display properly. It's a problem that's very easy to overthink, not because the solution is simple, but because the description of the problem begs additional questions that the game does not answer.

Thankfully, for the vast majority of puzzles, sheer persistence is enough to power through and guess correctly. There are also tokens you can find scattered around every environment that allow you to unlock hints. However, even in cases where the hint walks you right up to the solution, the answer and its explanation can defy common sense in a truly underwhelming way that leaves you less with an "aha!" feeling of brilliance and more of an "oh, come on" feeling of disappointment.

That flaw is even more mind-boggling considering just how well localized and executed the game is otherwise. Each character is charming in their own right, rife with British affectations and deep-cut historical references--the Mayor's name is a play on London's original name from centuries ago. And when the game slips into its all-too-short and oddly placed stretches of voice acting or fully animated cutscenes, it's chock-full of naturalistic and pleasant performances across the board, from Katrielle's gentle lilt to Sherl's stiff-upper-lip aristocratic grumble. No small effort has gone into truly realizing this world, causing the lack of clarity when it really matters to sting all the more.

But, perhaps more than any other game in the series, there's plenty here allowing you to step back from the source of your aggravation and recharge. Exploring each environment turns up special coins that allow you to unlock new outfits for Kat and new furniture for her office. As you progress, you also unlock mini-games that are completely disconnected from the main quest--you can help a local chef cook a perfect meal for the residents of Kat's neighborhood, you can run a maze where you have only a limited number of moves, or, you can play any of the dozens of additional puzzles that aren't connected to progress in any of the actual cases. On mobile, this content was parsed out, piecemeal, over time after release. On the Switch, the game is overwhelmingly generous with content within an hour of starting, and most of it is just as charming and endlessly replayable as the rest of the game.

If there's any one thing truly getting in the way of your joy, it's the Switch itself. The Professor Layton games were staples of the Nintendo DS, taking full advantage of the added screen real estate so whatever you did on one screen didn't block what was happening on the other. The Switch, however, has limitations the DS didn't. Playing in docked mode means using the Joy-Cons to move your cursor around like a mouse, which is nice, but also a bit too fast and twitchy for many of the puzzles. In handheld, you have the option of using the analog sticks to move your cursor, which has the same problem with even less precision. You can also use the Switch's touchscreen, but your fingers are too often in the way of the rest of the screen. This is a game that simply begs for a stylus.

In Katrielle Layton's London, it's a season of golden leaves, stiff breezes, and sun that provides light but less warmth. It's the perfect atmosphere for a game that provides such quaint joys for hours on end, cackling at its next pun, zippy one-liner, or absurd new scenario while putting creaky parts of the brain to good use. Sometimes the breeze is a bit too cold, or there's rain, or, oh, you know, the solution to a logic problem you've been staring at for 45 minutes might be “air” and you hate everything for a few minutes, but it doesn't last, and the next pleasant moment is never too far away.

Categories: Games

Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order Review - The Friends We Made Along The Way

Gamespot News Feed - Fri, 11/15/2019 - 05:00

Star Wars games often feel estranged from the franchise that spawned them. Video games have gotten very good at capturing the aesthetic of Star Wars--the cold metallic angles of Imperial architecture, the powerful hum of a lightsaber, the electric snap of a blaster bolt hitting home--but can struggle to get beneath the surface. It's the rare Star Wars game that reaches beyond how Star Wars looks to explore what Star Wars is really about.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the latest game in the canon, is one of the better offerings specifically because it tries to look beyond the trappings of Star Wars. It's not just another Jedi power fantasy, although wielding the Force with skill and resolve will certainly make you feel powerful. Like the best Star Wars games, it's one that adds to the ideas of the films and other material, exploring new corners of the galaxy while focusing on the core themes of the franchise: knowing yourself, fighting your own darkness, and braving adversity with the help of friends.

Friendship has always been one of the main drives of Star Wars, especially in the original film trilogy, and it's the core of what makes Jedi: Fallen Order work in both story and gameplay. The primary relationship of the game is between Cal Kestis, a Jedi padawan in hiding in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge that took place in Revenge of the Sith, and BD-1, a droid entrusted with a secret mission by the Jedi Master that previously owned it. Once Cal and BD-1 meet, they become inseparable, working together as partners to solve puzzles in forgotten ruins, navigate alien environments, and beat back the Empire.

The pair work throughout the game to complete a scavenger hunt created by BD's last companion, Master Cordova. Before he vanished, Cordova locked away a list of Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy that could be used to resuscitate the destroyed Jedi Order and challenge the Empire. He left clues to how to retrieve that list hidden in BD, requiring Cal and the droid to travel to various worlds, following in Cordova's footsteps to free up BD's encrypted memories.

Functionally, BD is Cal's constant companion as he rides around on the Jedi's back, and Cal regularly talks with the droid as they explore Fallen Order's planets. BD also serves several support functions in gameplay. Most importantly, BD provides Cal with "stims" that allow him to heal himself in the middle of Fallen Order's often-oppressive combat. He can also function as a zipline, unlock doors, and hack certain droid enemies to turn the tides of battle. BD is just enough a part of any given fight or puzzle that you're always aware of his presence and his help, but it's Cal's constant interactions with the little droid that really build out their relationship.

You definitely need BD's help and the upgrades you find for him throughout your journey, because Fallen Order can be punishing. It lifts a number of gameplay ideas directly from the Soulsborne genre; enemies are often tough-as-nails and can deal big damage if you're complacent, whether they're Imperial stormtroopers taking potshots or two-foot rats leaping out of burrows to snap at Cal's throat. Fighting isn't just about wailing on everyone with your lightsaber, but rather relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries if you mean to stay alive against even the most run-of-the-mill foes. You and your enemies also have a stamina meter to manage, which dictates how many blows you can defend against before you stagger, and adds a strategic element to duels. To win a battle, you need to whittle down an enemy's stamina while blocking, parrying, and dodging to manage your own. Since every blow you sustain can be devastating, combat becomes an exciting, cerebral exercise in pretty much every case. You'll spend a lot of time not only honing your parrying skills, but also making quick battlefield decisions about how you can isolate dangerous enemies or use your Force powers to even up the odds.

You can only heal from a limited number of stims or by resting at periodic meditation points, similar to Dark Souls' bonfires, and using them respawns all the enemies in the area, which makes being a smart combatant even more critical. Killing enemies and finding collectibles nets you experience, which accumulates into Skill Points you can spend on new abilities for Cal. But dying costs all the experience you earned since your last Skill Point unless you can find and damage the enemy who bested you.

Though the elements of Fallen Order are Souls-like--it's probably most closely comparable to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in fact--on most difficulty settings, it's far less brutal than From Software's games. Fallen Order might be considered Soulsborne-lite, making use of the same elements but to a different effect. It's tough, even occasionally frustrating, but not nearly so much as the games from which it draws its inspirations. That balance achieves something that feels essential to Fallen Order's identity: It makes you a powerful Jedi Knight, without turning you into an unstoppable Force-wielding superhero. Ratcheting back on the Jedi powers (and forcing you to unlock them as you work through the story and deal with Cal's past) helps Fallen Order's take on the Star Wars universe feel grounded and believable--a place where people could actually live.

Your lack of overwhelming power also helps make the ever-looming Empire a frightening threat, even as individual soldiers comedically call out their own ineptitude in pretty much every battle. Cal spends the entire game hunted by the Inquisition, a subset of the Empire's forces specifically tasked with exterminating Jedi. Because every fight is potentially deadly, running into the game's specially trained Purge Troopers is always an event, and you're forced not only test your lightsaber skills and timing, but to consider all the abilities at your disposal to make it out alive.

The rest of the game often has to do with clambering around the environment and solving puzzles, not unlike Tomb Raider, God of War, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Navigating the world is as much about using observation and problem-solving skills as your Force tools. Respawn's Souls-inspired map design allows you to explore off the beaten path without ever really getting lost, and each planet is richly realized and fascinating to explore. The intricate pathways encourage you to wander off and visit each planet's varied environments to see what you might uncover, and Fallen Order always make sure you're rewarded with a bit of story, a cosmetic item, or even an optional miniboss fight.

When you're between missions on planets, you're spending time with Fallen Order's two other major characters, Cere and Greez. They're the pair who manage to save Cal in the early hours of the game when his Jedi nature is discovered by the Empire, and they put him on the quest to find the list of Force-sensitives before the Inquisitors can get their hands on it. Though the story is a little rough in the early going as Cal is thrown directly into the quest with little lead-up or explanation, Fallen Order's story starts to excel around the halfway point as his relationships with BD, Cere, and Greez really start to develop. Once Fallen Order starts to invest in the interpersonal dynamics and deepening friendships of its cast, it really hits a stride--and its quest feels less like an elaborate series of tasks to fetch a MacGuffin, and more like an essential addition to the ongoing Star Wars saga.

It does take Fallen Order a while to get there, though. The first few planets are a bit on the dull side, rushing to get Cal on his quest through the galaxy without really establishing why you should really care. Until it starts to click later in the game as you unlock more Force powers, combat can be a hassle, especially at certain boss battles or chokepoints, when your last meditation point is some distance away and you have to navigate through the same chunks of the map over and over. And while parrying is an essential part of the game, at higher difficulties, the timing can feel finicky and unreliable.

The game also loves to throw handfuls of enemies at you all at once, which can be overwhelming, and combat against lower-tier enemies is built to lock you into finisher animations in a lot of cases. Instead of making you feel like a cool, well-trained warrior, these usually just leave you open to some Imperial dork wandering up with an electrobaton and clocking you in the head. It's only after you get enough Force powers to effectively control the crowds that these moments become more exciting than irritating. But throughout the game, there are always times when an enemy you couldn't see because of the game's tight targeting lock system gets in a cheap hit, forcing you to replay a fair stretch of its large, interweaving maps.

But especially as it wears on, Fallen Order becomes perhaps the strongest conception of what playing as a Jedi Knight ought to really be like. It's true that Fallen Order borrows liberally from other action games, but those elements work together with Respawn's combat and environment design, and a story that finds humanity in the Force and in its characters, to hone in on what makes the world of Star Wars worthy of revisiting again and again. Even with some rough edges, Fallen Order represents one of the most compelling game additions to the Star Wars franchise in years.

Categories: Games

Need For Speed Heat Review - Getting Warmer

Gamespot News Feed - Thu, 11/14/2019 - 23:09

Racing in Palm City--the fictional street racing capital of the world--is all about earning money and building a reputation. During the day there are sanctioned races on closed streets, with safety barriers, an adoring crowd, and substantial cash prizes awaiting those who cross the finish line. At night, illegal street racing engulfs the city's neon-soaked roads, and the police respond in kind, blanketing the star-lit sky in the sound of thunderous V12s and whirring sirens. This dichotomy between day and night sets Need for Speed Heat apart from its contemporaries, and makes for Ghost Games' best entry to date, stripping away a lot of the series' needless baggage to get to the heart of what Need for Speed is all about.

There's still a hackneyed story about crooked cops and racing crews that take themselves far too seriously; it's full of corny dialogue, farfetched stakes, and irritating characters that wouldn't make the cut in earlier Fast and Furious movies. Story missions occasionally crop up, too, forcing you to follow a character while they talk at you, and there's even one instance of a dire tailing mission. Aside from this, however, the narrative is mostly relegated to background noise that's easy to ignore, especially if you opt to skip any of its cutscenes. Need for Speed Heat is mostly focused on getting you behind the wheel of a car you've customized yourself, altering everything from the ludicrously oversized spoiler on the back, right down to the distinct sound of the engine.

Each aspect of the game's design is built around the core dynamic between day and night. Official circuit races dominate the faux-Miami streets when the sun is beaming, rewarding you with cash that can be spent on new cars, parts, and visual customization options. The autoparts companies and car salesmen in Palm City are a peculiar bunch, though. They won't sell to just anyone--such is their love of cars. They have to know that you're "cool" enough and are going to put their parts to good use, so the dead of night is spent competing in illegal street races to earn rep and convince them of your pedigree. This creates a clear divide between day and night that gradually cultivates this enjoyable flow, as you switch back and forth between the two time frames depending on whether you need money or rep.

The duality of this concept establishes an unmistakable vibe to each time of day--almost like they're two completely different worlds. The sunlit streets feel relatively safe, with sanctioned events emanating a casual, crowd-pleasing atmosphere. Courses are clearly marked with barricades, there's room to drift your car sideways around most corners, and the only thing you have to worry about is beating the other competitors to the finish line. By contrast, Palm City's nightlife is risky and fraught with danger. Rain that was previously casting a gloomy shadow over the day's races has now settled onto the surface of the road, as visually-striking puddles absorb the city's neon haze and reflect it back. Traffic clogs the streets, making races feel more claustrophobic, and the threat of the police getting involved is a perpetual source of concern.

Cops in Need for Speed Heat introduce a unique sense of dread because of the way they're intrinsically linked to your rep. As you win races and accumulate more and more rep during a night's work, your Heat level will steadily rise. Catching the attention of the boys in blue will expedite your Heat's ascension, with cops becoming more aggressive and plentiful the higher it climbs. There's an element of risk and reward here, as a higher Heat level means a larger multiplier for all of the rep you've accrued in a single night. The only way to bank that rep is by escaping the police and reaching a safe house, but this is easier said than done when the police are on your tail like a bad rash. You can play it safe and store what rep you have, or extend the night by antagonizing the police in the hope that you'll be able to shake them when your multiplier is higher. Need for Speed Heat's best moments come when you've led the fuzz on a jolly merry-go-round and manage to ditch them by the skin of your teeth to bank a considerable amount of rep.

Although the police do have a tendency to feel unfair. If they get close enough and bring your car to a sudden halt, a "busting" timer appears, automatically signaling an end to your escapades if it ticks all the way down. The problem with this, aside from how fast it runs out, is that it will continue to count away the seconds even after you've accelerated away from the police. It should be difficult to escape the cop's clutches, but since you can get arrested if they total your car, ending up in cuffs because an arbitrary timer counts down when you're not even penned in is frustrating. There are also very obvious moments when police cars will spawn directly in front of you to prolong a chase. Sure, they might be crooked cops, but that doesn't stop their blatant cheating from dulling the pulse-quickening thrill of each hot pursuit.

These scenarios can be thrilling, however, especially when you push your car into top gear. There's a fantastic sense of speed in Need for Speed Heat, as cars and lights blur past your wing mirrors at what feels like 300 miles per hour. A noticeable lag on your steering inputs does make each car feel slightly heavier than they otherwise should, though. The handling model also doesn't have the malleability to alter the handling from one car to the next, so they all end up feeling relatively similar to drive aside from variations in speed and acceleration. Drifting is also a tad iffy, borrowing its mechanics from the likes of Ridge Racer as opposed to Need for Speed's past. Rather than feathering the brakes to get your car sideways, Need for Speed Heat asks you to let go of the accelerator and then pump it again in order to achieve a successful drift. It's a realistic approach, boiling drifting down to deft throttle control, but it can be difficult to get a handle on at first, namely because pumping the brakes feels much more intuitive due to the past 15 or so years of racing games adopting this method. Thankfully you can alter the control scheme, and drifting is generally quite fun regardless. It feels a lot slower than it has in the past, but you have much more control over angles and potentially extending the length of your car's rubber-burning slide.

There are dedicated drift events, too, which require you to purchase the appropriate parts if you want to come out on top, and it's here where Need for Speed Heat significantly improves upon its immediate predecessor, Payback. There are no luck-based Speed Cards needed to improve your car, nor are you limited to using specific vehicles in designated events. Instead, the upgrade system in Need for Speed Heat gives you the freedom to take a Nissan Skyline and mix and match parts such as the suspension, tires, and differential, until you have a car that can compete in road races, off-road races, and drift events--it's just a shame there aren't a few more event types to partake in. On top of that, there are also myriad parts available if you want to fully upgrade each car's performance, along with a veritable bucketload of customization options, just in case you've ever wanted to control how much fiery overrun spurts out of the exhaust pipes. Each part is moderately priced so money is never much of an issue, and better parts are unlocked simply by increasing your reputation.

With only a select few events, no discernible difference between each car's handling, and a simplistic driving model, Need for Speed Heat does stumble into repetition during its final few hours. It's not quite a rip-roaring return to form, then, but this latest entry puts the Need for Speed series back on the right track. The duality of its day and night events props up what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill racing game, but the renewed focus on hurtling around the track, racing wheel-to-wheel, and customizing each car in numerous ways, taps into the essence of what Need for Speed used to be about. Need for Speed Heat may not revolutionize racing games, but it's the best the series has been in a long, long time.

Categories: Games

10 Exciting Details About Obsidian’s Grounded 

Game Informer News Feed - Thu, 11/14/2019 - 20:45

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios Developer: Obsidian Entertainment Release: 2020 Platform: Xbox One, PC

Obsidian Entertainment is best known for its work on RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Fallout: New Vegas, and The Outer Worlds, but the team has recently been hard at work on something entirely new: a survival game where you are the size of a bug. We spent a day at Obsidian checking out the game and walked away with this list of 10 reasons you should be excited about this offbeat project. 

See the world from a different perspective

Grounded is set in an Earth-like environment, but you are bug-sized, so everything looks incredibly different from the ground. Tiny bugs become fearsome beasts, and little pieces of garbage become potential shelters. 

Build new tech

Like most survival games, you begin the game with meager supplies, but as you gather twigs and pebbles you can construct makeshift weapons, huts, and other useful tools. For example, sap can be combined with twigs to create torches, and insect exoskeletons can be used to craft armor. 

Humorous story

As the game begins, you shrink down to the size of an ant to conduct a few science experiments. But surprise! Things quickly go haywire and you are unable to grow back to your normal size. A zany robot walks you through the early hours and helps you survive the night, but we suspect there is more going on with this unnamed bot than it initially seems. Ultimately, Grounded looks to offer a lighthearted and fun story. 

Click here to watch embedded media

Four-player co-op

Grounded lets you choose from one of four different characters: Max, Willow, Pete, and Hoops. All four characters have the same skills and abilities, but players can invite their real-life friends into their game to help build camps and take down hostile creatures, such as spiders.

Simulated world

Grounded is a simulated world, meaning that the other insects and critters in your yard will continue to live their lives even when not in view. When they are around, you can watch the bugs hunt and fight each other. Also, as players hunt and scavenge they might create food shortages, which will cause ripples through the ecosystem. 

Things grow over time

To compensate for greedy scavengers, all of the plants in Grounded slowly grow back over time, so if you return to an old area after a long hiatus, it might feel new again. 

Play in first or third person

Is this really that exciting? I don’t know. You tell me? But I didn’t know where else to put this little fact. 

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                                                                                                             Light RPG elements

Obsidian didn’t go in-depth about the RPG systems, but it did promise that players will evolve and grow during their time with the game. As you level up you’ll unlock new tiers of the tech tree. 

A variety of biomes

We only saw the starting zone during our preview, but Obsidian promises that there will be a wide variety of environments in the final game. The opening zone looks like a traditional grass-filled lawn, but there will be a wider variety of locals in the final game. This is just speculation, but the final game could have small puddles that act like lakes or sandboxes that feel like massive deserts.

Flexible evolving design

One neat aspect of Grounded is that Obsidian has kept its team size to around a dozen people. This has allowed the studio to experiment wildly with the game. Obsidian plans to keep the team size small so they can continue to experiment with the design over the early access period. Overall, this means that the Grounded team should be incredibly nimble and be able to quickly respond to player feedback as they implement new ideas.

Obsidian plans to launch Grounded into early access in the Spring on Xbox One and PC; the game will also be part of Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription, so you don’t have long to wait to check out this unique project. 

Categories: Games

The Culmination Of A Dream In The Indie Scene

Game Informer News Feed - Wed, 11/13/2019 - 22:00

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Publisher: Merge Games Developer: Red Blue Games Release: November 14, 2019 Rating: Everyone 10+ Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac

For Red Blue Games co-founders Edward and Lucas Rowe, developing games has always been intertwined with their indescribable bond as twin brothers. 

“We’d make Paper Mario levels on spools of paper,” Lucas recalls with a smile. 

“We would take those spools of paper and get on either end of it and draw until you met in the middle and you have a world,” Edward adds. “We would do battles with stick figures where we’d each draw a picture and you’d fill it in one at a time and sort of fight each other by adding to the drawing.”

Since they were kids, Edward and Lucas have always been making games together, whether it was on spools of paper, using the HyperCard program on a Mac Plus, or creating a Dungeons & Dragons game using little outside of a Lego set and their creativity. Games became a passion that they both knew needed to be a part of their future.

“The running theme of our childhood is just sort of entertaining ourselves by making games for each other,” Lucas says.

Games are what deepened their connection,  but as the pair got older and their programming skills grew, the two put their passion for creating together on hold to pursue careers in programming and families. That was until 2013 when the brothers finally decided it was time to take the plunge and return to their love of making games. 

“We reached a point where we were both ready, and I feel like there’s a window in your life when you can do something like this and that window was open,” Lucas says. “We knew it was going to close soon, so we took the chance to do it when we could.”

That brings us to Sparklite, the duo’s first major foray into the indie scene. The adventure game features gorgeous visuals and a unique soundtrack, a relevant story and protagonist, and a gameplay loop that will appeal to anyone familiar with the genre. The Rowe brothers are confident they can make a splash with Sparklite.

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The road hasn’t always been easy for the Rowe brothers, but whether it's design challenges or working with family, they’ve never doubted their decision to branch out on their own. With Sparklite’s imminent release, the brothers will finally achieve a dream that all started with a simple roll of paper.

“We’re launching across the world, so there’s going to be someone in Brazil that plays our game and it’s just really cool to think about,” Lucas says. “I’m really glad we did it. There are just no regrets right now, because there’s just no way this could have happened a few years ago.”

Sparklite launches on November 14 for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, and PC.

Categories: Games

Pokemon Sword & Shield Review - Go Big Or Go Home

Gamespot News Feed - Wed, 11/13/2019 - 14:00

With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.

The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you'd get in previous games, including the "how to catch Pokemon" tutorial, which hasn't been done since 2001's Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you're already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.

And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day's weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It's all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven't caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn't realize you could catch in the wild. There's constantly something new to do or discover, and it's there to engage you right out of the gate.

Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs--though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.

You're given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you've visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.

Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar--even in the traditional routes and caves--which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you're never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.

For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It's much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it's simpler--and that's refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you're just limited by location rather than an item, so it's a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.

Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.

At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you'll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn't even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless--all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It's a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you've beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you're catching, it's satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.

The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents' abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.

The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they're cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.

The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what's here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now--and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere--you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield's main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.

It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area's secrets bit by bit has been a treat.

If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon--you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it's really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.

The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).

For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon's nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don't have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.

In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You're not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series' proper debut on Switch.

Categories: Games

Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Review - Gotta Go Fast

Gamespot News Feed - Tue, 11/12/2019 - 14:00

After 12 years and five games, Mario and Sonic competing together at the Olympics is no longer shocking. The animosity of the Sega/Nintendo '90s console war has long subsided; Mario and Sonic have faced off across three generations of Smash Bros games, and the blue blur has starred in numerous Nintendo console exclusives. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 seems to recognize this, and does not lean in too hard on the gimmick; in the series' first story mode, for instance, the characters from the Mario and Sonic universes chat and mingle without much fuss or fanfare about their worlds colliding. Instead of relying on brand recognition, Tokyo 2020 succeeds by being the most fully-featured and content-rich game in the series, serving up a lot of enjoyable, accessible minigames.

The game features 34 distinct events (including 10 rendered in a retro style to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), 10 bonus minigames, a story mode, and online play. Events range from athletic button-mashers like the 100m and swimming races to sports like boxing, equestrian, and archery, all of which are easy to pick up and understand. The controls for every sport are extremely simple, occasionally to the point of being reductive--you're not actually in control of your character's movement in badminton and table tennis, for instance, only controlling where and when you hit the shuttlecock and ball. But some events feel more fleshed out, like soccer and rugby sevens; they won't give FIFA or Madden a run for their money, but they're a nice representation of the sports with all the edges and requirements of expertise sanded off, and make for an enjoyable casual take on the sports they represent. There are no absolute duds in the package, which makes for an unusually high hit rate for a game of this type.

Every event has a "buttons only" option and can be played with any controller (including a single Joy-Con) without issue, but several also allow for motion controls. It's good that motion controls are completely optional, because their implementation is inconsistent. Any mini-game that requires accuracy, or returning the controller repeatedly to a central point, is better off with a controller in hand. Simulating a sprint by pumping your hands is entertaining, as is manipulating a Joy-Con like a skateboard. But strangely, sports that require the use of hands, like sports climbing and boxing, can feel messy and imprecise. The motion controls aren't exact enough that they'd be my preference in any event, but thankfully you can avoid them entirely if you want.

Every event also features a bit of video game flourish, allowing you to pull off special moves to score more points or overwhelm your opponents. Each 2020 event has some sort of "Super" mechanic that kicks in if you press R at a certain point or perform an action perfectly. Depending on the event this can mean you get a burst of speed, extra power, or double scoring. Curiously, beyond this, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 often feels quite straight-laced and sincere in its approach to these sports. The exception to this is in the three "Dream Events"--a hoverboard race, a competitive motion-controlled shooter event where players shoot targets and kites as they pop up around a castle, and a karate variant that transforms the dignified martial art into something more akin to Power Stone, as four players fight simultaneously in a 3D arena. The race is by far the most enjoyable, riffing on the old Sonic Riders series, although it's limited to a single course; the other two do not make much of an impression.

Some events are unlikely to hold your attention for long or bring you back often to try for a high score. Surfing feels good thanks to some strong animations, but there's not enough variation between waves to hold your interest long term; skateboarding looks great, but the simplicity of the control scheme becomes stifling after a few rounds; the kayak event is controlled by rotating the stick, which is tedious. But most games hold up well in local multiplayer, as the simple controls (most only use two or three buttons) mean that they're easy to pick up and learn. Mastering the exact timing on the 100m sprint and relay races, or working to get your best distance in long jump or javelin throw, makes for an enjoyable experience--especially if other players are involved.

It's a shame that the multiplayer options are so limited--you're limited to simply going through the events in "quick play" and going through them one by one. There's no opportunity to arrange multi-event tournaments, for instance; it's just a matter of picking which events to play, and then playing them. Casual and ranked online play is included as well, but I did not have much success finding lag-free games, and it's not the sort of experience that translates well to online play. It's much more enjoyable when your opponents are in the room with you, all desperately trying to bash the 'A' button or master an equestrian course.

The major exciting addition in Tokyo 2020 are the new "Tokyo 1964" events, which render the action in a manner fitting somewhere between 8- and 16-bit graphics. They're designed as though they were NES games, confined to two buttons, and super moves have been excised. You can turn on a CRT filter for these events to replicate the NES era better, and the minigames pay homage to the button-mashers of the time, albeit with less punishing controls (even if, yes, you'll be asked to mash A as fast as possible). The highlight is a tremendously strange take on running a marathon, where you need to gauge your stamina, grab water cups from tables, ride the wakes of other runners, and aim for boost pads to reach the front of the pack.

Tokyo 1964 is a fun bonus, and it's surprisingly integral to the Story Mode. The plot concerns Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman being sucked into an old game console to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and they have to run around to win medals that will ultimately restore them to the present. This mode is a big bogged down by lots of text-only conversations of little consequence, but the overarching plot is appealing goofy, at least. The highlight is seeing game's take on various iconic Tokyo locations, like Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Skytree, lovingly rendered and filled with Mario and Sonic characters. They're beautifully realised, and I found myself getting unexpectedly invested in the upcoming Olympics as I played through, visiting each venue and reading the collectable chunks of Olympic trivia that pop up in each environment.

The story is largely an excuse to run through most of the events in the game, and the difficulty is turned all the way down: if you fail an event three times you can skip it. You also unlock a handful of new playable guest characters for Quick Play (who are only playable in certain specific events, strangely) and a further 10 minigames by playing through the short campaign. Some of these minigames are amusingly bizarre--I certainly didn't expect a retro-styled stealth game in the middle of my Olympics experience.

Mario & Sonic at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 is an entertaining take on the sports-event genre that has, by and large, disappeared in the modern-day. The game aims for accessibility at every opportunity, and while nothing about it is particularly exceptional, it still has plenty of unique flourishes to offer, and the wealth of different events and simple controls make for an appealing casual multiplayer title. Thanks to a generous selection of events and a few neat gimmicks, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the best entry in this series.

Categories: Games

Expanding On The Show – A Closer Look At The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance Tactics

Game Informer News Feed - Wed, 11/06/2019 - 19:54

Publisher: En Masse Entertainment Developer: BonusXP Release: 2019 Rating: Rating Pending Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac

After years as a cult favorite film, The Dark Crystal franchise has recently experienced a well-deserved resurgence, thanks to the Age of Resistance prequel show on Netflix. The 10-episode project earned broad acclaim upon its release a few months ago, thanks to its rich fantasy storytelling communicated through technical and artistic mastery. The series gains a companion project, in the form of a tactics game that helps to fill in some of the gaps in the show. And while the project looks to borrow from the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem, there’s plenty of originality at play.

“The game takes place concurrent to the events of the series and will briefly recap the major events of the series while also delving into some new territory,” says Chris Lee, director of games at Netflix. “This means that, narratively, the game can stand on its own and be enjoyed by players who haven’t necessarily seen the series.”

 The plan is to let the game tackle some of the important events only hinted at in the cinematic show. For instance, at one point the game follows the characters Gurjin, Naia, and Kylan as they set out to unite the Gelfling clans, an essential plot event that was nonetheless handled off-screen within the series.

The developers are trying to walk the often-tricky line inherent to narratively complex properties. Exposition and world-building is essential, but can’t bog down the gameplay. “It’s been a terrific collaboration with The Jim Henson Company to make sure we were being as authentic to the universe as possible with the story in the game,” Lee says. “Some gamers opt to skip long sequences of dialogue, so we do our best to convey critical story pieces concisely and dynamically.”

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The strategy-focused gameplay is about building and smartly deploying a customized party of characters. Players eventually have access to 15 playable characters, drawn both from the familiar heroes fans will recognize – like Rian and Deet – and newly created characters for the game, like a potion master named Pombo the Podling. Each hero comes with an iconic job that matches the nature of that character as they appear in the show, but you’re free to adjust that role as you see fit, and give them a new job (and accompanying costume) as you see fit.

“We don’t have a full list of jobs finalized just yet, but we’re aiming to have over 15 in the full game,” says BonusXP CEO Dave Pottinger. “You’ll be able to swap out the primary and secondary job for your party members to mix and match to your heart’s content.” Primary jobs relay the bulk of your abilities and stats, while a secondary job lets you carry over an ability that a character wouldn’t normally have. “This leads to hundreds of potential combinations of primary job, secondary job, and ability loadouts,” Pottinger says. Customization options are further accentuated by the presence of nearly 200 unique gear pieces that can be acquired over the course of the game.

I’ve yet to get hands-on with the Age of Resistance Tactics myself, but I’m hopeful that the game manages to capture some of what made the recent series so entrancing. What I have seen reveals a focus on varied battlefields, environmental effects like sandstorms, and smart use of a varied party line-up, adding up to a solid if familiar dynamic. Publisher En Masse is promising the game before the end of the year, so we shouldn’t have long to wait to see if this video game incarnation can find some measure of the same success enjoyed by the recent Netflix series.

Categories: Games

Disco Elysium Review - Pure Dynamite

Gamespot News Feed - Mon, 11/04/2019 - 20:00

Memories can be painful. Recalling them can result in feelings of regret, anger, shame, embarrassment, and worse. Much, much worse. In Disco Elysium, a mesmerising, hilarious and at times harrowing narrative-heavy RPG, recollecting a memory can prove fatal. For an amnesiac, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world's worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to redemption for the person he might become. After all, memories that don't kill you make you stronger.

Disco Elysium presents as an RPG in the mold of Baldur's Gate or Divinity: Original Sin. Indeed, it opens with a nod to Planescape Torment with a semi-naked figure lying on a cold, hard slab before slowly rising to his feet--only the slab isn't in a mortuary, it's in a cheap motel room, and the figure wasn't recently dead, he's just still drunk. Very, very drunk. It proceeds with the traditional top-down view of the world, your party members traversing beautiful, hand-painted 2D environments, pausing to inspect objects and talk to people. There are quests to initiate, experience to gain, levels to up, dialogue trees to climb, and skill checks to fail. Yet in all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

On the one hand, it's a detective game. Your amnesiac cop quickly discovers he's been assigned to investigate a murder--what appears to be a lynching--in a small, seaside town. You and your new partner, the unflappable and eternally patient Kim Kitsuragi, at first inspect the body, interview potential witnesses and generally gather clues to identify the victim and track down the perpetrator. Played straight, there's a meticulous satisfaction in assuming the role of by-the-book cop. You can grill suspects about their movements on the night of the murder and look for holes in their stories about what they saw. You can call in to the police station and request they retrieve further information about leads you've uncovered and, if there's anything your booze-frazzled brain has forgotten, Kim is always there with a gentle reminder of the finer details of effective police work.

Of course, you don't have to play it straight. Disco Elysium provides a staggering amount of options, letting you choose and role-play the type of cop--indeed, the type of person--your amnesiac detective is going to remember himself to be. As such, you're welcome to walk out of your shitty motel room with just one shoe on, and you're able to tell the manager you're not paying for the room, nor the damage you caused, and he can frankly go screw himself. In his impeccably dry way, Kim will suggest this is not exactly appropriate behaviour, but he's also not going to stop you from reinventing yourself as a cocky superstar cop, a rude asshole cop, a wretched nihilistic cop, a bungling apologetic cop, a mortified repentant cop, or some tempered combination thereof.

Even during what could be considered rote casework, Disco Elysium provides so much opportunity to express yourself. There's a scene in which you and Kim are conducting an autopsy; while Kim got his hands dirty, I opted for the paperwork. It's a very lengthy back-and-forth between the two cops, you prompting him through a dialogue tree of step-by-step instructions and filling out the proper sections of the form, and Kim voicing his observations as he examines the body. This scene, which should be aggressively dry, is instead wonderfully written, creative and entertaining, every new selection of dialogue options presenting you with little decisions about how to play things--do you agree with Kim's assessment or try to argue with him, or do you just crack a joke instead? And every detail you read about Kim's actions--his muttered asides, his matter-of-fact commentary on the decaying corpse, his raised brow in response to your nonsense--paints a vivid, indelible portrait of a man you've known for less than a day.

The full range of the game's tonal spectrum is on display in this one scene. There are flashes of surprising camaraderie as you and Kim nod respectfully at each other's insights. There's playful humour as you make fun of the bureaucracy that requires such convoluted autopsy forms, and crude gags as you request Kim double-checks if he's missed anything inside the dead man's underwear. There's the more sombre tone struck by the at times repulsive descriptions of the body's state of decomposition, and threaded throughout is the satisfying accumulation of clues, the central mystery contracting and expanding as new information answers questions and asks further ones.

But Disco Elysium is not just a commendable detective game. It is a deeply political game that tackles issues of ideology, privilege, racism, and class in a thoughtful and provocative fashion. The small, seaside town you've been summoned to is in fact the neglected working class district of Revachol, a city built to "resolve history" in the wake of a failed communist revolution that now sees it governed by a coalition of foreign nations.

The murder you're investigating at first seems tied to a months-long labor dispute. Negotiations between union and corporate leaders are at a stalemate, striking workers have shut down the harbor, scab laborers are picketing in the streets, and road transport in and out of town is at a standstill. More deeply ingrained are the painful memories of the wars that first beheaded the Revachol monarchy and then quashed the revolution, and the lingering darkness of centuries-old racial resentments fuelled by the "economic anxieties" of industrial change. It's a remarkable, nuanced circumstance--tensions are high, violence feels inevitable, and the future of Revachol has never felt more uncertain. all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.

The case you're working intersects with the political arguments of the town. Navigating such intricacies can be tricky, though the amnesia conceit gives you a good excuse to ask what might otherwise seem like basic questions. You're given openings to sympathize with or reject various political views, and your character stats do in fact track how much of a communist, fascist, ultraliberal, or moralist you are. There's a tongue-in-cheek approach here, as when you're given the option in favour of your preferred ideology it's, without exception, an utterly extreme version of it. Moderate paths don't exist--there's no room for a "public option," the communists are all about jumping straight to the "eat the rich" stage.

Indeed, Disco Elysium isn't especially interested in the typical binary ideologies explored in most RPGs. It pokes fun at extremism and at the same time chides you for any attempt to retreat into non-committal centrism, and it's even less interested in trying to dodge politics. Instead it wants you to focus on the dynamics of power that structure society and the systemic changes required to repair the inequities of those relationships. This is a game with a specific, if complex, point of view and it's not afraid to remind you of it even when it's leaving room for you to explore other ideas.

At the centre of all this ideology is the matter of your privilege. Disco Elysium remains very much aware that you are playing a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man--a policeman, no less--and that fact grants him a heightened degree of privilege to express himself. You're able to reinvent yourself, to choose to be this or that type of person, without much in the way of repercussions, save the odd disapproving glance from Kim. Meanwhile, many of the characters you meet aren’t possessed of the same privilege; they’re the downtrodden, exploited by authority, trapped in systemic poverty, or just desperately trying to escape their circumstances. The contrast makes this point with piercing clarity.

Yet Disco Elysium isn't just a formidable game of politics and detective work. It also jettisons a bunch of standard tropes of RPG interaction and replaces them with new systems that delve deep into your character's psyche. There is no combat to speak of--at least not in the conventional sense. There are moments where you can suffer damage to your health and morale, the two stats that determine whether or not you remain alive. For example, one early incident saw me discover that reading a book can cause actual physical pain. And there are certain, shall we say, encounters that play out like combat analogues, except you're not choosing to attack or defend. Instead you're picking from a selection of actions and lines of dialogue, where success or failure depends on the skills you've prioritised and the luck of the dice.

During character creation you cannot alter the physical appearance of your nameless cop. You can, however, drop points into a bunch of entertainingly unusual and evocative skills, 24 in total across four broad categories. Among them, Drama allows you to lie convincingly while also detecting the lies of others, while Inland Empire, refers to your gut instinct by way of David Lynch; Savoir Faire assesses your expertise with the intersection of grace and style; while Shivers--my favourite skill--to "raise the hair on your neck" and, in essence, gain a greater awareness of the physical environment, both immediate and occasionally miles and miles away.

Disco Elysium’s skill system is refreshingly original. The entire fascinating suite it posits serves as a captivating exploration to your character's inner life and echoes his journey of self-rediscovery. Skill checks are being rolled all the time to see if there's something you should know. It could be as simple as checking whether your Perception means you notice a particular object. Maybe you see or hear a word you don't recognize and your Encyclopedia skill interrupts to provide a definition. Perhaps you're walking down the street and, Shivering, gain a deeper, more poetic understanding of your place in the world. These pop up like typical dialogue boxes on the right edge of the screen and you're often able to conduct conversations with your skills, digging for more information or telling them to pipe down, a little chorus in your head filling the gaps and prodding you into action. These competing, often uncalled-for, voices add up to a remarkably successful simulation of how the mind works.

Skills intrude during conversations with other characters, too. Reaction Speed might let you pick up on an unusual turn of phrase and give you an additional response to pursue, letting you uncover a clue. Sometimes your skills offer conflicting approaches. Drama might be urging you to make a big scene right now--"This is your moment!" it's yelling in your ear--but Composure is pushing back, coolly arguing for restraint. The specific voices that you decide to listen to may be influenced by your strength in each skill or the type of person you want to become. They also connect back to how the game wears its politics, as many of the unpleasant things you can say are the result of failed skill checks. It can feel weird to have your character do something you didn't quite intend, or to have your dialogue choices restricted to three equally offensive alternatives, but there's something pleasingly authentic in the way things don't always go according to plan.

Supporting the skill system is what the game describes as your Thought Cabinet, a kind of mind map that charts your collected understanding of the world. Critical moments of awareness will enable you to access a particular thought, which you can then research to unlock a range of benefits. An early realization that you are in fact homeless triggered the "Hobocop" thought. While mulling over the very strong possibility than I was more hobo than cop, I suffered a penalty to all Composure checks; once my research was complete and I had decided I was now committed to the hobo life, I regained my Composure and took my dumpster-diving abilities to another level. More than a seamlessly integrated perk system, the Thought Cabinet manages to successfully reposition character development as a kind of intellectual deconstruction. It's incredibly satisfying to look back on the completed cabinet at the end of the game and see it as a neat summary of your character's defining moments, the points at which you learned something about yourself and were able to grow.

Learning to read Disco Elysium, through what can initially feel like a mad jumble of competing voices, is the essential first step of attuning yourself to the type of experience it wants to deliver. This is a game with, let's be honest, an absolute shit-ton of words to read. Literally everything you do, save walking from one place to another, is conveyed and accomplished through text. There are item descriptions, branching dialogue trees where it's not unusual to have a large handful of options at any one time, skills interjecting with new thoughts and random asides, and even books to read. I cannot verify the developer's claim that there are one million words in the game, but I can attest that I spent the overwhelming majority of my 50-odd hours with Disco Elysium utterly enraptured by the words it sent my way.

And what beautiful, bonkers, bold words they are. Disco Elysium is easily one of the best-written games I've ever played. There's a swagger and a confidence here that's rarely seen. There's a masterful ability to transition from drama and intrigue to absurdist comedy and pointed political commentary in the space of a few sentences. One moment you're elbow deep in the grim details of police procedure, the next you're contemplating some metaphysical wonder; later, some hilariously grotesque joke is followed by a spell of genuinely moving emotional vulnerability. It might sound all over the shop, but it works because it all rings true to the fascinating, multi-faceted central character.

Your nameless cop can be charming, offensive, understandably confused, brimming with completely unearned optimism, flustered, unguarded, or simply sick of everything he's had to endure. Your skill selections and dialogue choices nudge him in these directions, but of course the reality is that he's always all of them. The man whose "armpits are lakes, a scythe of booze" preceding him, as he's first introduced, is the same man who licks congealed rum off the counter of the bar, is the same man who, locked in a tender embrace with a strange woman, vows to spread peaceful communist revolution one hug at a time, is the same man who passes the time sitting on a playground swing, whistling a tune with his detective partner. A writhing mass of contradictory impulses and behaviour, as human as the rest of us.

Disco Elysium is a mad, sprawling detective story where the real case you've got to crack isn't who killed the man strung up on a tree in the middle of town--though that in itself, replete with dozens of unexpected yet intertwined mysteries and wild excursions into the ridiculous, is engrossing enough to sustain the game. Rather, it’s an investigation of ideas, of the way we think, of power and privilege, and of how all of us are shaped, with varying degrees of autonomy, by the society we find ourselves in.

Categories: Games

World of Warcraft Enters The Afterlife With Shadowlands Expansion

Game Informer News Feed - Fri, 11/01/2019 - 19:30

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Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Release:

While celebrating the 15-year anniversary of World of Warcraft today at BlizzCon 2019, the company also unveiled World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, an expansion coming in 2020 (the game can be pre-purchased now).

Dead souls are no longer going to their appropriate resting place in the Shadowlands, but are instead being fed into The Maw thanks to Sylvanas Windrunner, who has breached the veil separating Azeroth and the realm.

The Shadowlands features five zones: Bastion, Maldraxxus, Ardenweald, Revendreth, and the Maw. The first four are overseen by Covenants corresponding to specific kinds of souls. The Kyrian (Bastian) watch over souls from the mortal realm. The Night Fae (Ardenweald) defend nature spirits. The Venthyr are gothic masters. The Necrolords forge undead warriors for the Shadowlands. Players will create a bond with one of the Covenants, completing their campaign and getting class-specific abilities and more.

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The Shadowlands' Maw also features the Tower of the Damned – an otherwordly prison where the "wickedest souls in the universe" are kept, and which contains trials for extraordinary treasure.

The expansion also includes a new leveling system (up to 60), new appearance options, the return of legends such as Uther the Lightbringer and Kael'thas, and the ability for pandaren and all allied races to become Death Knights.

For a quick overview of Shadowlands, be sure to check out the video above.

Categories: Games

Blizzard Reveals Diablo IV In Gruesome Cinematic, Lengthy Gameplay Clip

Game Informer News Feed - Fri, 11/01/2019 - 18:44
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Release: Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Blizzard kicked off BlizzCon 2019 with a bang, or possibly more accurately the stone-on-stone grinding of an ancient door opening. The company started its presentation, revealing something we've long since suspected was coming: Diablo IV. In addition to the teaser cinematic, game director Luis Barriga showed off a gameplay trailer that squashes rumors that the game would be scrapping the traditional isometric action.

The cinematic shows several adventurers who have been lured to their doom by a mysterious priest. The goal? Bringing back one of Diablo lore's most influential figures: Lilith. The creator of Sanctuary, the world that Diablo takes place in, has long been exiled, and her return is bound to have major consequences.

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This is all in service to the actual game. Barriga introduced three of the classes, which are all returning from various entries. So far, we know about the barbarian, sorceress, and druid – the latter of which inspired a big cheer from the attendees. After seeing the shapeshifting hero in action in the clip below, we can understand the enthusiasm. There's a lot to parse in the clip, including the introduction of mounts, but overall it looks like the series is getting back to its darker roots. That's something fans have been clamoring for.

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Diablo IV is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Categories: Games

Death Stranding Review - Strand And Deliver

Gamespot News Feed - Fri, 11/01/2019 - 07:01

America is broken, and it's up to you to put it back together again. It's a tall order. A lot of people believe in it, but you're not sure you do. It'll take a lot of lonely, dangerous walks and exceptionally heavy lifting, and it's not really clear what America means in the first place. For some reason, you set out anyway, trudging through wetlands and rocky hills on foot, not fully knowing or understanding where you're going. Other than the monsters you can't quite see, there's not really anyone else around most of the time--just you and your thoughts, one foot in front of the other.

On one level, Death Stranding is about America. But your actual goal in setting out across the country is to help people, bring them together, and forge connections, not for the vague concept of America but for the sake of helping the people within it. Death Stranding is unrelenting in its earnestness and optimism--certainly not without its critiques of America, nor without its challenges and setbacks, but inherently hopeful nonetheless. It is a dense, complex, slow game with a plot that really goes places, but at its core, it never stops being about the sheer power and purpose we can find in human connection, and that is its most remarkable achievement.

Hands Across America

Rebuilding the country is as simple as getting every far-flung city, outpost, and individual onto one network, the bones of which were laid down by a pseudo-government organization called Bridges. As Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus), all you have to do to win people over is bring them packages; most people never go outside due to mysterious monsters called BTs, but unlike most people, Sam can sense them enough to sneak past them and get important cargo to its destination.

Deliveries can be arduous. You're evaluated on your deliveries across a few categories, but the condition of the cargo can make or break a run, and there are a lot of factors working against you. The landscape can be extremely punishing, from expanses of exhaustingly rocky hills to rivers that are too deep and wide to cross unaided. On top of BTs, you also have to contend with Timefall, a kind of rain that rapidly accelerates aging and deterioration for most of the things it touches. Extended exposure to Timefall can damage or completely ruin your cargo, as can slipping and falling, getting hit by an enemy, or, in some cases, just being a little too rough with it. Even the smallest rocks can trip you up, too. In order to keep your footing, you need to pay close attention to where you're stepping, keeping your balance with the triggers while on rough terrain or when carrying a lot of stuff.

Once you reach your destination, though, you're showered with praise. The recipient will likely thank you to your face (albeit as a hologram), and then they'll give you a series of social media-style likes. You're inundated with a multi-page results screen itemizing all the likes you received for the delivery and in which categories, plus an overall rating for the delivery itself, no matter how small--it's positive reinforcement turned up to 11. These likes then funnel into each of the delivery categories like experience points, and as you level up, you can carry more weight or better maintain your balance, among other benefits. Deliveries also feed into a connection rating with each city, outpost, or person, and as that increases, you acquire better gear and sometimes gifts to reward your efforts further.

In short, you give a lot and get a lot in return. There is a relatively small number of mandatory deliveries to advance the story, but there's a seemingly unlimited number of optional deliveries, and I often found myself picking up orders destined for any place that was on my way. It's a cycle that's easy to get swept up in; no matter how difficult a delivery or how far the distance, you will at least be met with gratitude, likely feel fulfilled from having completed a tough delivery, and often given a tool to make future deliveries a bit easier. Most importantly, though, increasing your bonds with people is how you get them on the network, and the network is what elevates this core loop beyond the simple satisfaction of completing tasks and getting rewards.

The chiral network is a kind of souped-up internet that allows you to 3D print objects, which is incredibly useful and a strong incentive in itself. When at a terminal connected to the chiral network, you can print ladders and ropes for traversal, new boots as yours wear out, repair spray for damaged containers, and basically anything else you need to safely deliver cargo so long as you have a blueprint for it. You can also print a portable printer that builds structures for you out in open areas covered by the network--things like bridges, watchtowers, and generators, the latter of which are critical as you start to use battery-powered exoskeletons and vehicles.

The chiral network also grants you access to the online component of the game, which is absolutely essential. You never see other players in the flesh, but their impact is all around you; once an area is on the network, you can see structures and objects left behind by other players in the course of their own journeys, plus helpful signs they've put down just for those who come after them. You can pick up someone else's lost cargo and deliver it for them, too, knowing that someone else may find yours at some point and do you the same kindness.

In Death Stranding's best moments, the relief and gratitude you can feel toward someone you don't even know is an unrivaled multiplayer experience. At one point in my playthrough, I was being chased by MULEs, human enemies who love to steal cargo. I was on a bike, tasked with a time-sensitive delivery, almost out of battery and totally unequipped to deal with external threats. In my panic, I drove my bike into a ravine. As I slowly made my way up and out of it, I watched as my bike's battery dipped into the red, and I dreaded getting stuck with all my cargo and no vehicle, still quite a ways away from my destination. I rounded a corner and found myself in the charging area of a generator placed by another player, as if they'd known I'd need it in that exact spot at that exact moment. They probably just put it there because they needed a quick charge, but to me, it was a lifeline.

You can give and receive likes for these player-to-player structures, and just like with standard deliveries, it's a strong incentive to do something helpful for someone else. In the earlier sections of the game, I was using other people's structures far more than I was leaving behind help for others. But I wanted to pay it forward and know that my help was appreciated, so I started going out of my way to build structures I myself didn't really need; the map shows the online structures in your instance, making it easier to spot areas you could fill in for others. At first, the likes system seems like a pretty obvious commentary on social media and our dependence on external validation. But it's not so much a critique as it is a positive spin on a very human need for acceptance, and the system does a remarkable job of urging you to do your best for those around you, NPCs and real people alike. Feeling truly appreciated can be a rare occurrence in life, and it's powerful in its simplicity here.

The Super BB Method

The first few hours of the game are the slowest, and a large part of that is because you don't have access to the online component right away. It's an incredibly lonely stretch of time during which you mostly just walk; the work you do early on is especially laborious in the absence of advanced gear, and it serves to give you an appreciation for other players and better gear as you move forward.

Even as the gameplay opens up, you continue to get a lot of story exposition with almost no explanation. It can all seem kind of goofy at first, and you can get lost in the metaphors; every city you need to add to the chiral network has "knot" in its name, for example, and they are all referred to as "knots" on a strand that connects the country. There's bizarre and unwarranted product placement in the form of Monster Energy drinks and the show Ride with Norman Reedus. Guillermo del Toro's likeness is used for a kind of dorky character called Deadman, and there's a woman named Fragile in a game about delivering packages.

But the story really does go deeper than that. In keeping with the theme of human connection, each of the core characters you meet and work with has their own story to tell. They all have a unique perspective on death that lends them an equally unique perspective on life, and unravelling their characters, down to the true origins of their often literal names, contributes to the overall tapestry of Death Stranding's take on the human experience. As they open up to Sam, Sam opens up to them in turn, developing into a distinct character in his own right out of the reserved, emotionless man he appears to be at the start. I grew to love Sam, Fragile, and Heartman especially, and even the characters I didn't like as much add to the game's overall message about hope and love in the face of adversity.

By far my favorite character--and the most important one--is BB. BBs are infants in pods that can detect the presence of BTs, and they're issued to porters like Sam to help them navigate dangerous territory. You're told to treat BBs like equipment, not real babies, but it's impossible to think of your BB that way. It's full of personality, giggling when happy and crying when stressed out; it even gives you likes from time to time. There aren't many children left in Death Stranding's isolated, fearful world, but BB is your reminder that the future is counting on you, regardless of how you feel about America itself. The love that grows between Sam and BB is nothing short of heartwarming.

Connecting with this story, just as with connecting with NPCs and other players, can take work. It's not a story that immediately clicks on a surface level, and the dramatic mystery and off-the-wall science don't make too much sense at first blush. But it's an emotional story first and foremost, and making sense of things--while entirely possible, particularly if you read the letters and interviews that detail small bits of lore as you go--is not as important as reflecting on how it makes you feel.

You have plenty of opportunities to do that, too. In the quiet moments of travel, usually as you near your destination, music might start to play. The soundtrack, which is largely composed of one band--Low Roar--is phenomenal, the kind of contemplative folk-ish music that suits a trip alone through a meadow or down a mountain. Because the act of walking is so involved, it's not a time to detach completely and zone out; it's a time to feel your feelings or at least consider what's next in your travels.

Fight, But Not To The Death

You can just as soon be ripped out of that headspace, though, by a shift to the haunting music that signals BT territory. The otherworldly growls of BTs as they close in on you can be terrifying, and early on, your best bet is to freeze in your tracks and hold your breath for as long as you can so you can quietly sneak by them. But there are times when you have to fight a BT in its true form, and for that, you have specialized weapons to take them down. These BTs aren't the ethereal humanoid shapes that float above the ground but huge eldritch horrors that screech under clouds of blood. The combat is mechanically simple--you mostly have to move around a bit and hit them before they hit you--but the sequences are visually and aurally arresting.

You don't get a gun that works on live enemies until 25 or so hours in, but even then, it's non-lethal. You are actively guided away from killing in Death Stranding, because when people die, their bodies basically go nuclear and level cities, leaving nothing but craters and BTs in their wake. On top of that, the main human enemies are MULEs, former porters just like Sam that have been corrupted by an automated world--they've essentially become addicted to snatching cargo in their desperation to have a job and a purpose as more and more people become replaced by machines. They're not evil, and killing them seems like, well, overkill; it's easy enough to knock them out with the nonlethal methods you continue to unlock as the game progresses. I didn't kill a single one in my playthrough, though punching them is satisfying.

While BTs and MULEs are a concern when delivering cargo, there's also Mads Mikkelsen's character, a man who's introduced through memories Sam sees when he connects to BB's pod. He gets his own dedicated segments that punctuate hours of simple deliveries, and these highly contained, much shorter sections are striking in their art direction and juxtaposition to the rest of the game. It's not immediately clear what he is, whether it's an enemy, potential friend, or something else entirely, but he's captivating in his ambiguity.

The most cartoonish enemy is Troy Baker's Higgs, a terrorist whose depravity seems to know no bounds. Of all the characters, Higgs is the weakest, with far less nuance to him than anyone else in the cast. He's really just there as a Big Bad to motivate you in a more traditional video game sense than delivering packages and helping people, but he and his band of faceless terrorists are more a means to an end than full-fledged villains. He's the catalyst for some of the major BT fights, and in the end, perhaps an extreme reminder that it's possible to stay hopeful even when things are darkest.

Death Stranding argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living.

Death Stranding is a hard game to absorb. There are many intertwining threads to its plot, and silly names, corny moments, and heavy exposition belie an otherwise very simple message. That comes through much more clearly in the game's more mundane moments, when you find a desperately-needed ladder left behind by another player or receive a letter from an NPC thanking you for your efforts. It's positive without ignoring pain; in fact, it argues in both its story and its gameplay that adversity itself is what makes things worth doing and life worth living. It's a game that requires patience, compassion, and love, and it's also one we really need right now.

Categories: Games