America’s Got Talent Guest Judge Chris Hardwick gave the golden buzzer to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Miracle Child, Angelica Hale Tuesday night. The Nerdist community has teamed up with the Geek & Sundry community to participate in Extra Life, and  have raised more than $100,000 for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
All funds raised through Extra Life stay local to benefit patient care, critical treatments and healthcare services. Angelica is one example of how donations help kids. Treated at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a Children’s Miracle Network Hospital, Angelica is a Kidney transplant survivor able to perform and live out her dream of becoming the next Whitney Houston.
Angelica travels the country, using her voice to raise funds and awareness for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Thanks to Hardwick’s golden buzzer, Angelica advances in America’s Got Talent to the live shows.  In her own words, “I want to win so I can help more kids like me.”
Watch her incredible performance below!
Help Extra Life and Children's Miracle Network Hospitals support Angelica. Tune in August 15th at 8/7 Central to vote!

Marcus Stewart

Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat was something of a pioneer for modern tactical shooters when it first arrived as a Half-Life 2 mod a decade ago. Conceived by Canadian Army veteran Andrew Spearin and supported by Red Orchestra mod founder Jeremy Blum, Insurgency: MIC made a name for itself by focusing on hardcore realism and infantry warfare. Elements such as a lack of crosshairs and deadlier gun behavior (players could die in one or two shots) resonated with a segment of the first-person shooter crowd, giving rise to a passionate following.
A sequel to the mod, simply titled Insurgency, was one of the earliest Steam Early Access titles when it became available in March 2013. The game exited Early Access and launched in early 2014 going on to sell over three million copies. With strong sales, the opening of a new Amsterdam studio, and a growing staff, developer New World Interactive channeled all of their talent and resources into crafting an ambitious sequel, Insurgency: Sandstorm.
Sandstorm aims to improve on the aspects that brought Insurgency to the dance while diversifying the experience to reach new players. I had a chance to speak with Spearin, creative director on the project, about the new features coming to Insurgency: Sandstorm and how it differentiates itself from the original game.

Same Hardcore Approach, New Twists
Insurgency: Sandstorm retains the realistic gunplay that made the series into, as Spearin jokingly described, the “Dark Souls of shooters.” He went on to elaborate on what he meant, saying, “We're keeping the same recipe that we've established. So it'll be the same weapon handling that Insurgency has, which means that there's no cross-hair. There's a free aim area where you can point your weapon within, so you can't just put a dot on your screen and hit the [trigger] consistently. You have to rely on your weapon sights to aim accurately and control your recoil, that sort of stuff.”
A new ballistic system introduces realistic bullet drop, travel time, and ricochet. Sandstorm also adds environmental interactions such as ladder climbing, vaulting, and door breaching. One example is that players can shoot the hinges off doors and kick them down. New World also plans to incorporate features from its other title, Day of Infamy, such as fire support which allows players to call in bombers for artillery support. A progression system that bestows cosmetic items to players as they climb the ranks is also planned. And, of course, mod support will continue to exist in the PC version of Sandstorm. “Restarting our mod roots, it's very important for us, and we want to grow the next generation of indie devs through our platform,” said Spearin.
Adjusting To The Console Audience
In addition to PC, Insurgency: Sandstorm is coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This marks the series’ first appearance on consoles. When I asked about the potential difficulty of translating the franchise’s hardcore controls to a console layout, Spearin told me that the team is mindful of the challenge and aims to adjust the controls without losing Insurgency’s signature realism.
“We're looking to auto-aim and the typical shooter console features that are wired to make it a little easier for a controller. “Spearin stated firmly before going on to affirm that the series would not lose its signature style, “But at the same time, Insurgency benefits from minimalism, and in its design that kind of heightens the realism and intensity, not necessarily an overcomplexity. So if you look at a game like ARMA where yeah, every key on the keyboard does something. But when you play Insurgency, it's still very basic controls. So we want to maintain that simplicity in our approach to the design. That's what makes it easier to translate over to the consoles.”

A Graphics Overhaul
Being a Half-Life 2 mod means both Insurgency and its mod predecessor were developed using the Source Engine, which limited the scope of the maps. For Sandstorm, New World Interactive has switched to Unreal Engine 4, with the team citing the graphical difference as “night and day” compared to the earlier titles. Unreal 4’s tech granted designers the horsepower to craft more visually impressive maps that are also more spacious than Insurgency's compact arenas. 
Players Won’t Have To Only Get Around On Foot
Over the years, a segment of fans have requested that vehicles be added to Insurgency. However, the limitations of Source Engine made it impossible to do so. Sandstorm finally grants this wish, but if you’re a purist concerned about the game going the route of Battlefield, take solace in the fact that players won’t be obliterating buildings with tanks or flying around in helicopters. “We are still focused on that infantry combat, kind of close quarters but it's going to be a little wider. Spearin explained. “It's going to be primarily pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns and transportation trucks, that kind of thing.” Sandstorm is being designed with vehicles in mind, with appropriate game modes such as a convoy ambush.
Enriching Competitive Play
Spearin assures that multiplayer will maintain the same tweaks and balancing the team has spent years perfecting. Like the current Insurgency, Sandstorm’s online multiplayer supports up to 32 players. The game also features a competitive 5v5 mode and a separate co-op focused mode that will support up to eight players. New World Interactive has taken the popularity of eSports into account, with Spearin stating “Our own community with Insurgency has been very demanding about a lot of features over the years. Like matchmaking, ranks and leaderboards. So we are investing that effort into Sandstorm for that competitive crowd.”

Weaving A Thoughtful Narrative
A cinematic story campaign is Sandstorm’s most significant addition. Played alone or with up to four players cooperatively, Sandstorm tells the tale of a female paramilitary soldier who, as a child, was enslaved by radical insurgents along with her sister and best friend. When a skirmish erupted during a violent sandstorm, the wall to their prison was blown open by fire, which allowed the girls to escape. However, the protagonist and her sister became separated in the disorienting storm. Fast forward to present day, the protagonist and her best friend now fight against the forces that once oppressed them.
One day the women uncover vital information that drives them to break away from their squad and set off on their own journey. Joining them is a former US veteran of the Iraq War who volunteers with the rebel force, and an adventure-seeking French citizen with zero combat experience. Spearin describes their quest as a “road trip across the desert,” where they’ll encounter a variety of people and locations and bond through the hardships the journey brings.
Spearin stated the story drew inspiration from several different sources, including current events unfolding in present-day Iraq and the Iraqi war documentary Peshmerga. New World Interactive’s goal is to ditch the mindless nature of shooters and help players to understand who they’re pointing a gun at and why. “We wanted to highlight [the conflict in Iraq] because in the news you hear like oh, U.S. and NATO are supporting the Kurds, and not many people really understand what that means, who these people are and why.” Spearin continued, “In a way, that's what people want: to immerse themselves in a mindless time period with games. But when you come out of it, you can look at the real world and think ‘Oh wow, I have a better understanding of what's going on now’ or ‘I want to start learning more.’”
New World Interactive hopes to hold a closed alpha for Insurgency: Sandstorm later this year, with a full release scheduled for sometime in 2018. With the move to consoles and the addition of a cinematic story mode, it’ll be interesting to see if the game can find a new player base in the ultra-saturated shooter market. Spearin feels confident that Sandstorm’s more grounded, thoughtful take on the genre will not only help it stand out, but provide a welcome change from the norm.
“In order to stand out you have to do something innovative. You need to catch people's attention in a different way. I think when a saturated market exists, fans are looking for something different. They get tired of the same old franchise regenerating the same old gameplay with a different skin on top, right? They want somebody who is taking the challenge and the risk to come up with something new. Now it's like ‘let's bring that to more people.’”

Joseph Knoop

Dead Alliance is a game in search of an identity. Equal parts Call of Duty, horde mode, and MOBA all in the same breath, the competitive undead shooter banks its success on finding a player base with a love of all three genres and then some. Not only do you have to worry about a team of enemy players firing bullets at you, you also have to contend with the ravenous horde of zombies roaming around each map. But have no fear, for the combatants of Dead Alliance aren't running in without some nifty tools to turn the undead into your buddies.
I recently got the chance to play a preview build of Dead Alliance; more specifically the game’s team deathmatch and capture-the-flag modes. At a glance the game might appear little more than another competitive shooter, replete with armored dudes toting heavy machine guns and more body armor than a presidential meet-and-greet. There’s also the maps, which range from an uninteresting warehouse to a seaside port town, that all look as dilapidated and overgrown as you might expect. Thankfully, the developers at Psyop have injected this melting pot with enough variety in terms of gameplay and strategic options to warrant at least a chance.

In Dead Alliance’s multiplayer modes (including team deathmatch, CTF, free-for-all, and king of the hill), players are outfitted with a standard variety of weapons (assault rifles, machine guns of the bulky and sub variety), but are also given special tools called “Zmods” that influence the zombies found on every map. If you’re losing sight of your enemies, throwing the P.A.M. grenade at a group of zombies will force them to run for the nearest competitors, giving you ample room to hose them down while they’re fleeing from the horde. The L.R.A.D. attracts nearby zombies to a single point, allying them to your team, while the Trailer flare lets you string along a group of zombies while it’s in your hands. Those tools, coupled with a few that repelled zombies, made for chaotic firefights and a few tense retreats as zombies swarmed my team.
At times, the game can feel like a well-measured bit of chaos. Hunting down enemy players through MOBA-like lanes of traffic is frantic, and often the team on the receiving end of the horde has little time to react. Dead Alliance’s overall pacing also plays a role, as players only move at a fraction of the speed you might in a game like Call of Duty or Titanfall. This means a dead sprint will only keep zombies off your back for as long as you keep running, but it also means that evading enemy fire is more a matter of getting the drop on someone than actual mechanical skill. During our demo, it often felt like our victories were due to easy manipulation of choke points more than anything else. It’s difficult to tell from two rounds if the game will have much depth, but at this rate, Dead Alliance risks players losing interest more quickly than most.
Dead Alliance is out August 29 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC for $39.99.

Daniel Jones

I’ve had my Nintendo Switch for just over a month now, but it’s already my preferred way to play video games. As a father, I have very little time to relax once everyone goes to sleep, so I often have to choose between playing video games and just vegging out and watching Netflix or YouTube. With my Switch, I don’t have to choose, I can do both. I’ve also gotten some use out of the system’s built-in portable co-op, playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with my nephews and, more recently, playing Death Squared with my wife – in bed, nonetheless.
Death Squared released earlier this year for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC, but like so many other independent games, it feels most at home on the Switch. The puzzle game tasks players with moving two or four different-colored robot cubes across grid-based levels from point A to point B. In single-player mode, each joystick on the Joy-Cons controls a different robot (two at a time). Things can get a bit tricky when you have to move both robots at the same time. However, in co-op, with the Joy-Cons detached, each player can naturally control a separate robot independently. It’s simple and intuitive to just pick up and play the game – in a way that only really works on the Switch.
Death Squared never over complicates things on the gameplay front. The only input you need to know is how to move the joystick. That’s it. The rest is a matter of learning the various traps and mechanics that are layered on top of that simple premise of getting each robot to point B without dying. The game feels right at home among easy-to-learn but difficult to master Nintendo games like Mario Kart 8 and Arms.

As the name implies, Death Squared uses death to teach players how the game works – which isn’t always to its benefit. Each new puzzle layers new challenges onto the formula, oftentimes without warning. For example, you only learn about the spikes that pop up from the floor and kill your robot at the very moment they kill your robot. Playing in co-op, dying repeatedly due to your partner’s impatience, incompetence, or mischievousness can be a good time. But in single-player, the trial and error gameplay can feel unfair and quickly becomes maddening as you gingerly try to navigate around each level while the game’s characters – a man named David and his A.I. overseer – mock your poor performance.
It’s all much more enjoyable while playing co-op and can become pretty addictive once it sinks its hooks in you. With each level lasting no longer than a few minutes, once my wife and I got into a groove, we didn’t want to stop playing. With each new conundrum, we became better at coordinating and anticipating the game’s dastardly traps. My wife, who rarely plays games, ended up getting sucked into the clever puzzles and every time I suggested we quit, she would plead for just one more level. While a lot of credit goes to SMG Studio for designing the most enjoyable co-op puzzle game I’ve played since Portal 2, I can almost guarantee that my wife would’ve balked at the idea of playing Death Squared on PlayStation 4.
The difference comes down to simplicity. Despite the controls being essentially the same across platforms, the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons present a far less intimidating form factor than the sixteen different buttons on the Dual Shock 4. It’s not that my wife is a simpleton (in fact, she’s much smarter than I am), it’s just that she isn’t as fluent in the language of video games. Neither are most people outside of the gaming bubble that we often find ourselves in. My three-year-old daughter never showed an interest in actually playing video games until I brought home my Switch. Now she can actually finish a race in Mario Kart 8. She hasn’t beaten me yet, but I look forward to the day when she does.
So, even though the game is relatively friction-less for newcomers, some frustration rears its head through odd design decisions and technical quibbles. Each of the game’s test rooms (read: levels) are designed as floating constructs in some seemingly dark, vast warehouse. None of the test rooms have walls, so you’ll often just fall off the side of the structure and die when all you were trying to do was navigate in a straight line, especially in single-player when you’re often controlling both cubes at the same time, similar to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. So many times, I knew what I needed to do, but actually executing it was not as easy as it should’ve been. This makes simply going through the steps of completing a puzzle more frustrating than it needs to be. This is especially compounded by the fact that the game doesn’t consistently auto-save. Too often, I would load an old save only to find that I had to start a couple of levels back from where I had last stopped. And when simply moving around the environment can be treacherous, that problem isn’t as minor as it would otherwise be.

Despite some of its minor issues, I’m still having a blast with Death Squared, and I think my wife is too. We haven’t made it through all of the game’s 80 plus levels (which is why you shouldn’t consider this to be a full review), but we have every intention of going back and seeing what new predicaments we can solve for those adorable little cubes. I can sincerely say, this is a game I’d much rather play on my Switch over any other system - and the list of games I can say that about is rapidly growing in number.
A game as simple and accessible as Death Squared just makes more sense on Switch, but the fact that it’s also a smaller indie title that released to very little fanfare on other systems doesn’t hurt either. With less competition, now is the perfect time for games like this to find an audience. Death Squared benefits from being a kid friendly pick-up-and-play game on a kid friendly, mobile console. Though it isn’t a perfect game, it deserves to be seen and played by more people, and I’m glad it might have that chance on Nintendo’s nifty young console.

Marcus Stewart

Since 2013, Path of Exile has treated fans of action role-playing with a steady stream of content at the entry price of free-ninety-free. Developer Grinding Gear Games is giving its followers even more to love with the free-to-play title’s sixth and largest expansion to date: The Fall of Oriath. In addition to beefing up the PC version, the expansion, along with the entire Path of Exile experience, debuts on Xbox One later this year. After having an opportunity to take a look at the new content, here are some of the things fans can expect. 
I spent some time with a slice of the Xbox One version of the game, giving me the chance to test drive the remapped gamepad controls. I had previously only dabbled with the PC version of Path of Exile, and my inexperience with mouse and keyboard controls hindered my enjoyment. The reworked console controls were a welcome change for players like myself. Combat, item usage, and navigating the tweaked UI felt like I was coming home to a comfortable bed with that gamepad in hand.  
The Fall of Oriath’s story centers around the return of the gods of Wraeclast, who seek to reclaim their hold on the world. These gods serve as the adversaries players will face off against. One arduous bout I tackled was against a seemingly human foe who revealed himself to be a towering, radiant deity midway through our battle. Boasting a rapidly regenerating shield, scores of minions, and bullet hell-style projectile wave attacks, it was an overwhelming and challenging encounter. I witnessed another battle against the sea god, the Brine King, who drained the surrounding ocean to unleash pirate ghosts and water elementals against his targets. You read that right: Pirate. Ghosts. The Fall of Oriath features 24 bosses of this caliber with which players must contend.  
While Path of Exile’s original campaign runs roughly 20 hours, Grinding Gear promises The Fall of Oriath to run 40-50 hours across six new acts. The designer I spoke with stated, “Basically, the idea there is that for a retail game this would probably be a sequel, but for free-to-play you don't really do sequels. So we're just adding a lot of content to the base game.” That content includes a bevy of new skill gems and unique items, the specifics of which Grinding Gears plans to reveal in the near future. Additionally, The Fall of Oriath introduces Pantheon, a system that lets players harness the abilities of the gods they battle. A new league event is also slated to begin roughly around the launch of the new content. Leagues are special events that occur every three months and shake up the game rules, such as increasing the attack speed of all enemies.  
The Fall of Oriath closed beta features all existing content plus Acts 5 through 7. The expansion arrives in full on PC this month. Xbox One players get their chance to lose countless hours surviving Path of Exile’s dark and compelling world when it hits Microsoft’s console this fall. 

Jack Gardner

Earlier this year Atari announced that they were in the process of developing a new console for the first time in decades. There was a 20-second teaser that showed off vague contours of the console before fading into a logo for the classic gaming giant. Now we finally have a good look at the console and know a bit about what it will be able to do. 
Two different versions of the console will be available when it launches: A retro-inspired wood panel design and a more modern red and black option. Lights indicating the positions of various cable and card ports shine through the console's materials along with the company's logo. The Ataribox console will sport an SD card reader, an HDMI port, and four USB ports.
Atari has stated that Ataribox will be supporting classic Atari games as well as more "current content." They did not elaborate as to what that more current content might be, but the concept of Atari pulling an NES Classic-type console that can also download and play more modern titles certainly comes across as intriguing. The company also did not clarify if the console would be limited to Atari titles, if there might be third party support, or if the console might be a more open-source device.

Atari made all of this public in emails to their community stating that their goal with this Ataribox is “to create something new, that stays true to our heritage, while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.”
They seem to know that people want to know more about the device, so their email went on to clarify that, “We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, pricing, timing. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring this to life, and to listen closely to the Atari community feedback as we do so.” 
What do you think? Are we ready for a new Atari console? Is there space in the market for one to succeed?

Jack Gardner

This week our topic was a bit tricky - Mass Effect 3 released to critical praise in 2012 but also made a name for itself by being at the epicenter of one of the biggest fan backlashes in gaming history. In order to properly talk about the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy, we made the decision to split the podcast into two parts. In part one, we discuss everything but the DLCs and the ending. Next week we will return with another full episode dedicated to discussing the ending of Mass Effect 3 and the apocalyptic public response that it received.
Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative.

Outro music: Mass Effect 'Nova Siberia' by Big Giant Circles (
You can download or listen to the podcast over on Soundcloud, our hosting site, and iTunes. A YouTube version is (sometimes) available as well, so you can watch what we are talking about while we talk about it!
If you want to have your opinion heard on air, share your opinion in the comments, follow the show on Twitter, and participate in the weekly polls: @BestGamesPeriod 
New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday

Jack Gardner

I've been spending a fair bit of time fighting on the massive, free-for-all battlefield of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. The Steam early access game has taken the indie world by storm since its release, garnering a playerbase of over 4 million in the handful of months since its March 2017 release onto early access.
For those who haven't yet set foot into the battlegrounds, the concept is deceptively simple: Roughly 100 players are dropped from a cargo plane onto a sprawling island with cities, towns, and various types of terrain and then battle to be the last one standing. The game can be tackled solo, co-op, or in a three to four person squad. Players drop onto the island without any items or equipment aside from the clothing (or in some cases underwear) on their backs and must frantically scavenge for supplies while keeping an eye out for fellow scavengers.
The island is, as mentioned before, massive. Even with 100 players, players find themselves facing long periods of silence, the occasional gunshot ringing out in the distance. In order to bring players together, the map will periodically flood everything outside of a white ring with blue energy, slowly killing everyone who doesn't make it to the safe zone. This white ring continues to collapse as the game progresses, forcing everyone into smaller and smaller spaces until the last player, or the last team, is standing. And winners? They get to feast upon delicious, delicious chicken. The message "WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!" appears on screen to congratulate players on their victory - before booting everyone out of the match.

I won my first chicken dinner alongside some trusty teammates just a few days ago. As the feeling of accomplishment swelled within me, I became curious about the lore of Battlegrounds. Why were all these people parachuting onto an island to battle to the death, day after day? How are the same player-created characters able to die, rise, and then die again? What is really going on? The various materials available online about PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds seem to have precisely nothing to do with the surrounding context of the events happening within the game. This lack of clarification could be explained with the old "it's just a game, don't think about it, too much" answer, but where's the fun in that? 
While pondering over the dreamlike quality of Battlegrounds' setting and internal game logic, I think I hit upon an explanation for the entire game: Valhalla.
In Norse mythology, Valhalla was the golden hall where Odin and his Valkyries brought chosen warriors for their afterlife. Once there, those warriors would fight all day and then retire at night to drink, eat, and heal their wounds. They fought each day to hone their abilities and combat prowess to prepare for the coming end of the world when they would march forth from their otherworldly training ground to fight in the final battle alongside Odin.
Why do I think that PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is Valhalla? Let's look at the facts.

Fact: There are no 100% night conditions in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
Fighting in the moonlight is not something that happens in Battlegrounds. Sure, there are maps with varied lighting conditions and even a rare version of the map that is played at sunset, but no outright nighttime versions of the island are playable. Why is this important? Because the night is when those who have gone to Valhalla feast and heal from the day's fighting! And who gets the finest portion of the feast? The day's winner in combat, of course! They eat to the tune of, "WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!"
Fact: The vast majority of player-characters rise from their mortal wounds to fight again.
Now, true, this happens in a lot of multiplayer games. However, it is an important data point that each player character is the same character. This seems to fit with the first fact - we're not faceless killers, but people with names, styles, and personalities. 
Fact: The last authoritative text describing Valhalla was written in the 1200s.
The authoritative sources on exactly what Valhalla is like come from ancient Norse poems and histories. The most useful of those sources comes in the form of Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson who lived from 1179-1241. Valhalla was described as a golden hall thatched with the shields of heroes, spear shafts holding them aloft, and benches adorned with chainmail. You might notice that this bears no resemblance to anything seen in Battlegrounds. However, Valhalla being a heavenly realm - who is to say that over 800 years of advancement might not make the Valhalla of 1200 much different than the Valhalla of 2017? It seems to me warriors of today would keep pace with modern technology, so it stands to reason that they'd be magically transported to a cargo plane to drop onto a Soviet-esque island to do battle for the day before being whisked away for feasting and healing in the golden hall. 
Fact: Friendships and rivalries extended into the Valhallan afterlife. 
There are stories in the Norse Eddas of great heroes making their way to Valhalla only to encounter old allies and possibly forgotten enemies. In PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, I've gone into battle alongside numerous friends, but also encountered rivals who had killed me in the past. These smaller stories, the stories of minute to minute gameplay would constitute the conversation, laughter, and jokes told at night within Odin's hall. Many outlets have written about how Battlegrounds is a veritable factory of emergent stories friends share together.  
Fact: No one knows exactly why they are fighting on the island, they just know that they must fight or die.
if you ask several people why people are fighting in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and you'll likely get several different answers. The only thing everything can agree on is that they are magically transported onto a small island, then into a cargo plane, and then trapped on a larger island until a magical blue energy field starts closing in - and if they don't survive to be the last person/group alive, they'll succumb to either the deadly blue energy or to the bullets of enemies. 
From all the hard, irrefutable evidence present in the game and the lack of information from the developers, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is definitely the mythological Norse hall of the slain, Valhalla. I rest my case.
Do you have a theory that explains what's going on in PUBG? Share it in the comments and maybe we can all come up with an even better theory!

Jack Gardner

Laughter filled a small corner of the crowded convention space. In the middle of the largest show aimed at putting gaming's biggest and flashiest on full display, laughter is often in short supply. Excitement? Oh, you better believe it! Smiles? All over the place. Cheers? Constantly ringing out. But laughter is a rarer thing. So when I heard laughter from around a tiny booth tucked away on the show floor of E3 2017, I knew I had to investigate. And that's when I found it - a game so pure and good that it improved my life with its simple existence.
Disco Bear.
Players control the titular disco bear, a polar bear who loves to dance. After suffering an embarrassing, traumatic incident in 1977, Bear leaves the dance floor for good. Five years later, he comes out of retirement to bust a move one last time to save the local roller skating rink. The characters are all still images of animals in various poses of varying ridiculousness. The gameplay isn't deep, merely using the arrow keys to boogie to the best of the player's ability. The idea appears simple on paper, but the humorous execution leaves players smirking and laughing along with the comedic narrative. 
Disco Bear isn't the most complex game ever created, but it is certainly an incredibly effective game at achieving its goals. While I watched people play it in that E3 booth, everyone was smirking and chuckling as they wiggled their way through Disco Bear's adventure. I can honestly say that my life is better for having played it, and that's not something that can be said for a lot of games that I've played throughout my life.
I had an opportunity to talk with Katie Pustolski, a graduate student at the University of Southern California and one of the co-creators of Disco Bear. Here's what I learned.
Could you tell me a little about Disco Bear? I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. 
Katie Pustolski: [Brian Handy and I,] we made this within a course of 15 weeks. The project is a heartfelt story about a bear being asked to dance again. It's an interactive narrative, it's very simple controls; it's only arrow keys, and there's no objective, no challenge, it's really just kind of a cute, silly experience. One of our experience goals was actually just to make people laugh, and smile, and it seems to be working really well! We've been getting a lot of positive feedback. The best thing about showing this game is seeing everybody's reactions. Certain people react differently, but there are certain points within the story where most people just burst out into laughter, or it's so unexpected--they weren't expecting the girl in the beginning to die. It's dark humor.
So how did you actually go about and get pictures of the animals? Did you get those online?

Pustolski: Yes. A lot of searching online; we tried our best to find images under creative commons licenses so that we can actually use them, cut them out and whatnot. Actually, during the credits, we have this giant wall of text that credits to  all the pictures that we found online, and we did the same with sounds. We also have a music composer on the project who made the music, who is not here, but he is Bill Piyatut. He is not at the table at the moment, but yeah, other than that, we had Eileen Mary O'Connell who is a comedic consultant, so we asked her about comedy, and how do we try to make this funny, what can we do better? 

How did you decide on "Disco Bear"? That seems like a very specific thing, or alternatively, a very random thing. 
Pustolski: Oh yeah, so random. So during the ideation phase, when Brian and I were brainstorming, we knew we wanted to do something funny. Something with comedy, and spoil the space because this is a space within gaming and interactive media that's not touched on a lot. We're fans of awkward physics games like Octodad, but we didn't really want to do awkward physics, we wanted to experiment with other forms. 
Other forms of awkwardness?
Pustolski: Awkwardness, and something to get a really good reaction from the player that's silly and fun and makes people smile. A little bit whimsical in a way. And we found through prototyping that simple interaction, such as playing with the arrow keys, was enough to get people smiling and laughing at a bear just dancing on the screen. One of the inspirations for this project was Colin's Bear. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it? It's like this small video on YouTube, I believe it's around 10 years old, but don't quote me on that because I'm not sure when it came out. This student made an animation project, but didn't feel like he got a lot out of his animation class, so he fulfilled all the requirements for the project within 20 or so seconds with this awkward dancing bear [laughs] and at the end it says 'Thanks for nothing.' That was one of the inspirations, and then of course, it just went from there, from that prototype of a dancing bear and simple interactions, expanded it, and it became what it is today.
A lot of people approach video games and they have these grand visions of castles in the sky and giant wars and sweeping stories. So what made you focus on a dancing bear rather than a bigger, more hyperbolic experience?
Pustolski: Brian and I worked on smaller projects together in the past for school, and we found that we have very similar humor. And again, during the ideation phase, we were trying to figure out what are we doing for this project? Ok, how about comedy? Ok, we we have a similar sense of humor, let's give it a go, let's try something in this area, because again, it's not touched on much. we wanted to experiment a little bit.
So the base goal, just make people smile, make people laugh.
Pustolski: I really like making people laugh and smile, so it just fit. 
How did you wind up at E3 with this game? 
Pustolski: It was actually Brian's idea to submit to IndieCade and we submitted it, and I guess they did some kind of judging and it was picked! And suddenly, we were here! And we're showing at E3, and this is great because this is my first time showing a game at a show or a festival; I'm a newbie at this. But Brian helped show a different project last year so he did something like this last year; he has more experience showing than I do. He's very good at showing games to people, and I'm still working on that.
What is it like? Because not everyone gets to show off a game at E3. I'm sure there are good parts, and probably not so great parts.
Pustolski: Good parts is networking with people, and obviously seeing people's reactions to the game. So far we've gotten a lot of positive feedback, positive responses and that's fantastic. Bad part, it's very tiring! And I go home, and my feet feel like they're on fire, but it's totally worth it.

Would you ever considered making an expanded retail version of Disco Bear?
Pustolski: We haven't discussed anything beyond what we already have, but this next year, Brian and I have to work on our thesis projects.
Disco Bear can't be your thesis project!?
Pustolski: Well, it doesn't count, because we have a full program, and a full year of working on our thesis. And it's individual too. So Brian has his own project he'll be working on, and I have my own project. 
How can people play Disco Bear? Is it out?
Pustolski: Ah! Yes! It is out online right now at It is based in the browser. It's not mobile, it's only desktop/laptop because you need the arrow keys to play, but otherwise it's free, and you can go online right now and play it.
Go out and play Disco Bear - it will at the very least improve your day with a ridiculous dancing bear.

Naomi N. Lugo

I'm back in Final Fantasy XV for the fourth time. The first two forays into its world were playthroughs of the main story with the third being the bitterly disappointing Episode Gladio. This time I've returned for Episode Prompto, which presents an opportunity for Square Enix to redeem Final Fantasy XV's downloadable expansions. 
Episode Prompto released June 27 as the latest installment in the FFXV extended universe. As the name implies, it is all about the lighthearted goofball of the group, Prompto Argentum.
Before going any further I should note that there will be no spoilers for the DLC here, but there are MAJOR spoilers if you have not yet beaten the main game. You have been warned! 
The events of the DLC take place with Prompto in a bit of an emotional limbo. Noctis has seemingly tried to kill him, and left him behind. Of course the player, and eventually Noctis, know that this is actually the work of colossal baddy Ardyn Izunia. The player is reunited with a devastated and confused Prompto (in a new outfit, for some reason…) in the snowy terrain of Niflheim. The bulk of the story centers around a Magitek production plant, significant due to the major plot bomb that Prompto dropped in Chapter 13. He is a Magitek Trooper (MT), a genetically engineered warrior.

Square kept with the trend of differentiating the character’s playstyles, a decision that I certainly appreciate. In Episode Gladio we got to play with the character's brute force, at one point even wielding freaking pillars as weapons. From the very start, Prompto's time to shine feels profoundly different from Episode Gladio. Instead of sheer power, the expansion plays as a third-person shooter with a surprising variety of weapons.
While Episode Prompto's combat holds a peppering of frustrating moments and quirks, the overall experience manages to be good fun (simple descriptor intentional). Prompto storms into battle equipped with an infinite ammo pistol, melee weapon, and grenades. He can also scavenge a veritable arsenal of weapons found throughout the world. These include the Rapidus SMG, the Alea Bazooka, and a sniper called the Sagitta Rifle. Cool right? But instead of, oh, you know, reloading your guns - you will ditch these weapons when they run empty. A little annoying, but there are strangely plenty of them around to pick up, an almost a ridiculous amount. These minor annoyances don't really detract from the combat itself, they're more just odd design choices.  
Square Enix divided Prompto's gameplay between the shooter sequences in the facility and an "open world." I was initially super excited to learn about the inclusion of said open world, but upon closer inspection it was underwhelming. We were treated to snowmobile sequences - something that certainly seems thrilling on paper - but they were rough and seemed like they needed more time in development. Side quests appear within the DLC, too, which seem like another awesome opportunity. Unfortunately the lackluster execution of these quests from a technical perspective leave them severely lacking. Most were glitchy with AI problems galore. Umm hi, why aren't the MTs moving?
Enjoyable combat aside, Episode Prompto's greatest strength can be found in its storytelling. Square took opportunities to use gameplay mechanics to unveil the story, something sorely missing in Gladio. As an example, one section has the player running as an MT in simple, but effective gameplay. Though this episode wasn’t radically longer than it’s predecessor, its pacing and tone were more appropriate and compelling. 

Prompto’s big revelation was kind of thrown into the main game and glossed over. Granted, I didn’t expect the guys to toss him aside, but I wanted more of an explanation. With this DLC, Square created a great opportunity to expand on his story organically versus what we saw with Gladio. 
These DLC releases habe many purposes for Square, but the main one is storytelling. There were many storytelling devices, flashbacks, audio logs etc., used to pack in as much exposition as possible. They exist to expand on the backstories for Noctis' support system. We saw plenty of Noctis in the core game, which makes sense, but so much of what made FFXV a great experience was getting to see the bond between the four characters. Though at times their in-game interactions were dry and unconvincing, the expanded universe was the chance to build these relationships further in a way that players could finally become fully invested. 
That’s what made Episode Gladio so disappointing. Instead of getting the chance to understand Gladio more we got a rinse and repeat stereotype with some generic metal music in the background. Episode Gladio devolved his character rather than the other way around.
OK, enough rant, it's time for Aranea. 

Aranea and Prompto stumble upon each other in the facility during an intense moment. The gray-haired warrior helps Prompto out through combat assistance and some tough love, but she never lets him forget that he needs to pull his own weight. Essentially, the two form the team that the world never thought it needed. 
While players don't get to play as Aranea, she makes appearances and becomes a handy ally in combos and boss battles. Her powerful special attacks were pretty much a godsend for me and supplied an added a unique dynamic to combat. She also helps Prompto navigate through his funk, with full on Aranea attitude of course. As skeptical as I was, their chemistry strangely worked. I would love to see more Prompto-nea in the future (hint hint Square). 
Since release, a fan base has steadily grown around Aranea in the Final Fantasy XV community, so giving her more screen time in this expansion was a smart move on Square's part. And while I'll still argue that she needs her own DLC, including her in Episode Prompto was at least progress. There were so many characters underutilized in both the core game and the Kingsglaive film - using them here shows that Square is listening to its fans.

During the entirety of my playthrough of Episode Prompto, I had Episode Gladio on my mind. I'm sure that might have been obvious in reading this review, but it makes me wonder, did I enjoy Prompto's story because it was better than Gladio's? My standards going in were pretty low, actually, something to the effect of "this better be longer than Gladio."
Overall, yes, this installment was way better in pretty much every respect, but of course, it could be better. It's my hope that going forward Square will only try to improve upon the experience and create a more complete story rather than rushing out content for content's sake, which unfortunately seems to be the trend for the extended universe. Episode Prompto was a step in the right direction. 

Fans of Final Fantasy XV looking for additional canonical story for Prompto should absolutely play this episode. Though it had some bugs and camera issues, combat stands out as enjoyable and a refreshing change of pace within the Final Fantasy universe. It shows how these expansions can be done right, and it sets my hopes high for the upcoming Episode Ignis. 
Final Fantasy XV - Episode Prompto was reviewed on Xbox One and is now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Marcus Stewart

I tapped the colored light pads on a MIDI drum pad in a near daze, a melodic, electronic track pulsed through my ears. My avatar, a rotoscope image of a woman, jogged down neon tinted lanes dotted with music notes, inexplicably morphing into a unicorn and then a cosmic squid. Despite trying to maintain focus on hitting the beats in perfect rhythm, my mind couldn’t help but melt into a relaxing state of electronic zen. That sensation defines Roto Color Rhythm: a music game that wants its players to mellow out instead of testing their reflexes. 
“Part of what we're trying to also do is look at the meditative, relaxation aspect,” explained designer and Blue Volcano CEO Brendan Votano. “So the initial idea for the game came from ‘what do I want to play after I get home?’ After either a stressful day or going to a concert, going to see a music festival, I just want to chill out and relax.”
I was able to sit down with Votano and programmer Roger Sodre to give Roto Color Rhythm a whirl. As with most rhythm/music titles, the core mechanic has players hitting notes across lanes. Roto Color Rhythm stands out, not so much because of its gameplay, but for its indie soundtrack, psychedelic presentation, and focus on translating the immersion of attending a live electronic concert into the interactive space. 
“One of the things we were really seeing when it comes to music games is they might be fun to play but they don't immerse people in that experience like going to a concert,” Sodre stated. “Like, really just kind of being there and enjoying it and just feeling that rhythm, feeling that flow, and just having a good time. It's more about ‘how fast do I hit the pads,’ ‘what's my ultimate score,’ ‘don't screw up,’ and we kind of felt people don't resonate with that. And that's something we really wanted to address with this game is ‘let's all have a good time.”
One of the game’s major pillars is the myriad of options players have to engage with it. Roto Color Rhythm can be played using traditional controllers, computer keyboards, tablets, and even Guitar Hero/Rock Band instruments. For those who want to to achieve the full DJ experience, the game impressively supports a plethora of professional equipment such as drum pads and piano keyboards. “We're trying to recreate that experience, so we're using the MIDI controllers, which a lot of musicians use to create music.” Votano explains. “So if it plays, it feels like they're part of that creation process. You're using the same tools as professional musicians.” 

Me playing Roto Color Rhythm using a finger drum pad
I played using an Akai-branded finger drum controller that sported nine pads on a 3x3 grid. Blue Volcano programmed the button’s colored lights to correspond with that of the game’s note lanes (red, blue, and green), making it easy to know which rows to hit. Any button within a row would activate the appropriate lane (a red note could be hit using any of the three pads in red row, for example) though each had a secondary mixing functionally. Votano encouraged me to avoid hitting the same set of pads as well as experiment with the various knobs and sliders, which had their own sound bending effects. Such configuration is possible with any equipment plugged into the game, so players can set up their controllers up to function as they see fit. Since I’d never messed with DJ equipment prior to playing Roto Color Rhythm, it felt legitimately cool to not only play DJ master but to feel like I was competently doing so. 
Despite its focus on providing a relaxed experience, I found that Roto Color Rhythm still maintains some element of challenge. The shifting camera angles and cosmic-neon art effects occasionally distracted me from following the notes. More uptempo songs featured more complicated patterns that had me rapidly tapping the pads on the MIDI controller. Much of that challenge stemmed from my unfamiliarity with the peripheral – using a gamepad or Rock Band guitar would have created an even more laid-back experienced – but a relaxed groove began to sink in once I started getting used to the control setup. Songs continue largely uninterrupted when you mess up. There are no jarring sound effects or visual cues indicating a mistake, which let me kick back and actually enjoy playing/listening to melodies without the fear of failure. 
With Roto Color Rhythm’s main hook in place, Blue Volcano is still designing the modes that will keep players returning for more. In addition to unlocking songs through an undetermined single-player/career-type mode, players can access a song’s individuals “stems” after completing it. For non-musicians, stems are the individual elements of a song such as the drum portion, the guitars, etc. A planned Remix mode will allow players to take a stem of music and combine it with other unlocked stems from different songs and mix them to form something original–just as real DJ’s do. 

Roto Color Rhythm's soundtrack primarily puts a spotlight on the indie electronic scene, though other styles are represented including progressive rock, alternative pop, and even some metal. Why the focus on indie electronic? Simple: It’s the scene that the team enjoys most. Votano and Sodre regularly attend such concerts around their home of Austin, TX.  If they hear something they think would be a good fit for the game, they’ll reach out to the artist in hopes of getting them on board, sometimes at the show itself. Additionally, since DJ’s typically rely on heavy visualization elements in their shows, the genre plays perfectly into the game’s trippy presentation. A still-evolving roster of talent lend their tracks to the game, including Zebbler Encanti Experience and Eyelid Kid.
Blue Volcano also goes the extra mile to ensure Roto Color Rhythm brings the niche electronic scene to a wider audience in a similar manner that Guitar Hero and Rock Band created countless new fans of rock music. Each artist has a their own information page in the game that includes their touring schedule and links to their social platforms. Players can also access an overlay menu with the performer’s info while playing a track if they ask themselves, “just who is this?” during gameplay. A performer’s music video typically plays in the level’s background.  “...All these other elements related to the band are always sort of in your face,” says Votano. “So that's part of our give back to the artist as well. We want this to be win win for both of us.”
Collaborating with more obscure acts also eliminates much of the “red tape” that comes with working with a giant label. According to Votano, bigger performers could say “We like the idea, but unfortunately we have to talk to our manager, who has to talk to our label… who could ultimately just say no or that this is the asking fee and that's it. I can't imagine trying to get, like, a Katy Perry track to show right now, you know what I mean?” 
In addition to enjoying it alone, Blue Volcano wants Roto Color Rhythm to be a social experience that anyone can hop into and have fun with regardless of their experience with video games. Votano and Sodre tested this by stealthily setting the game up in local bars, and then observed people, gamers or otherwise, take turns playing it. The public’s response? Everyone had a good time. “That's another big element to this. In the karaoke kind of style, as soon as someone goes up and does it, their whole table's going ‘woo!’ and then ‘who wants to come up next?’” said Sodre. In addition to playing with music equipment, the game can even be configured to work with lighting and other external equipment for those looking to create the ultimate party experience. 
Blue Volcano projects Roto Color Rhythm’s release for February 2018. Roughly 30 tracks will be in the initial release, though Blue Volcano has a two-year road map for regular updates post-launch (the team is toying with the idea of regional packs such as “The Sounds of LA,” for example). The team hopes one day the game could even be bundled with MIDI controllers to get potential users out of the gate. Thus far, Roto Color Rhythm feels like one of the most unique and authentic music offerings on the horizon that genre enthusiasts and indie electronica fans alike should definitely keep on their radar. 

Jack Gardner

Naughty Dog has always been a company that took risks, and there's certainly an argument to be made that Crash Bandicoot was one of the biggest risks that the company ever took. The project set out to overcome the main problems that plagued early 3D game design, create what they hoped might become an unofficial PlayStation mascot, and took a chance on Sony's new platform, the original PlayStation.
The remastered Crash Bandicoot trilogy has become the best selling game of the year so far, so that begs the question: Is Crash Bandicoot one of the best games period?
Each week we will be tackling a video game, old or new, that at least one of us believes deserves to stand as one of the greatest games of all time. We'll dive into its history, development, and gameplay, while trying to argue for or against the game of the week. Sometimes we will be in harmonious agreement, other times we might be fighting a bitter battle to the very end. However each episode shakes out, we hope that everyone who listens will find the show entertaining and informative.

Outro music: Crash Bandicoot 'All for Wampa' by Rexy (
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New episodes of The Best Games Period will be released every Monday