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Found 71 results

  1. I just finished playing through the publicly available build of Return of the Obra Dinn and I definitely liked what I saw. Currently being developed by Lucas Pope, the creator of indie darling Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn seems to be an adventure game that centers on the mysterious merchant vessel Obra Dinn. Set in 1808, the East India Company sends the player, an insurance adjuster, to board the ship and investigate its return after five years lost at sea. The company also provides a mysterious package to be opened only once the player has boarded. As player explores the seemingly abandoned ship, it becomes clear that something horrible has happened; the bones of the captain, crew, and passengers litter the deck and holds. An unnerving atmosphere permeates the ship, one that only becomes more palpable when the parcel the company sent along is opened. It contains a watch inscribed with indecipherable symbols and images. The mysterious watch begins to react when the player encounters the remains of each deceased crew member. It causes the world to dissolve before reconstructing the universe around the last second of the departed's life. Players can then walk around the ship as it existed during that second, the universe completely still, frozen in time. The time reversal and freezing effect would be a very neat in a game that uses a conventional graphical style, but Return of the Obra Dinn has a very distinct 1-bit aesthetic that tries to replicate late 80s computer graphics. This aesthetic really sets Obra Dinn apart from anything else you've ever seen. Though the preview stretches to emulate early computer graphics, it does interesting new things with them by rendering them in real-time from a first-person perspective. The effect is really quite interesting and says a lot about how far video games can actually distance themselves from reality while still depicting recognizable objects. There isn't a whole lot of game in the available build. It took me about 15 minutes to complete the entire thing, but it is certainly an arresting look at a game very early in its development. It has an interesting mechanic, a great aesthetic, and it has me very intrigued. I'm eager to see where this goes. If you would like to try Return of the Obra Dinn for yourself, you can find the download for it here.
  2. The era of point-and-click adventure games is, for the most part, remembered fondly by the gaming community. The genre helped establish Lucasfilm Games (later renamed LucasArts) as a powerhouse game studio (to say nothing of film) during its time. Now, over 20 years later, the point-and-click (PAC) genre has sustained itself almost strictly through fan games or deliberately indie fare looking to tap into nostalgia, but the team behind Thimbleweed Park aims to change that. As point-and-click genre visionaries, game developers like Ron Gilbert, David Fox, and Gary Winnick are teaming up once again (along with a small team of younger developers) to give genre fans another grand adventure. We played an early demo with developers Ron Gilbert (creator of Monkey Island, co-creator of Maniac Mansion) and David Fox (Lucasfilm’s third employee and SCUMM scriptor for Maniac Mansion) and spoke about how it feels to come back to an adult point-and-click game after so long, and what they hope to achieve. --- Ron Gilbert: Gary Winnick and I, we did Maniac Mansion together. We kind of wanted to create a game that really captured the charm of those old games. And we really weren't sure what that charm was. It was very ethereal. We didn't really know. It's just like, well if we kind of make a game in the same way that we made a game back then, can we kind of capture what that was? [Thimbleweed Park] is really the story of these two detectives. This is agent Ray, and the other detective is agent Reyes. So it's these two detectives who show up in Thimbleweed Park because this dead body has been discovered out by the bridge. It's really the story of their investigation into the mystery of what killed this person in this really strange, bizarre town. You realize these two agents are really not partners. They don't actually know each other until they show up. They kind of randomly show up and the other one was there. So you're always very suspect of them. Like, why are they here? What are they doing? And it really plays into the bizarre-ness of Thimbleweed. I don't think I remember seeing any of the classic control layout of “interact,” “grab,” “combine,” etc (during gameplay) at the bottom, so it's interesting that you're still going with that. It's the most obvious callback. Ron: Yeah. I think it's also a bit of the charm of those games. You had all your options and you built the sentences and the verbs and stuff. So we really wanted to retain that as much as possible. We've done play testing with people who have not played classic adventure games before. There's probably this maybe 15-20 second period where they're kind of going oh my god there's all these things on the screen, and then they realize, if they want to look at something, you just click look at it. [At this point in the demo, Gilbert reveals that the character Dolores, a young programmer, is attempting to mail a job application to a studio called “Mucus Phlegm.”] Is Mucus Phlegm a play on LucasArts? Ron: It was Lucasfilm. We all used to joke. We called it Mucus Phlegm when we worked there. Anytime we wanted to make fun of who we were working for. Are you guys coming back to “adult” point-and-click games for any particular reason? Did it feel like a good time or were you thinking you should fill gap? Because there are a few other indie point-and-click games out there. Ron: Yeah, there’s other point-and-click stuff. I guess I haven't really designed a pure PAC adventure since those days. I did "The Cave," which is like an adventure game but more a platformer adventure. I haven't really done pure PAC adventure. I think that is interesting. When Gary and I first did the Kickstarter, that really came about because Gary and I were talking about the charm a game like Maniac Mansion had, or Monkey Island, and just talking about what seemed to be missing from modern adventure games. Because while they're fun and interesting, they're kind of missing that charm that old games had. This really became an experiment. What is that charm? Can we capture that charm? If we just go back and make this game just like we would have made a game when we were doing Maniac Mansion, can we recapture the charm of those games or not? It seems interesting. Even in just the short playthrough here, the style, and writing as well, seems to be much closer to that old school Maniac Mansion. It's goofy, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes very intentionally. [laughs] I've played my fair share of PAC games that were inspired by those that came before, but I would grow so frustrated with them because I was never amused. It was either a raw story or it didn't have a carrot on a stick to help push me through. So what would you say are the bigger changes, if any, in making a PAC game in modern times? Like you said, you play-tested with people who never played PAC games before. Are you changing the aesthetic or gameplay loop in any significant way? Ron: We are changing it, but I think what we're doing is changing it in very subtle ways. Because I think if you look at modern gamers who like modern adventure games like Kentucky Route Zero or Firewatch- I think modern gamers in general, they enjoy being challenged, but they don't enjoy being frustrated. I think when we were making games back in the 80's and 90's, being frustrated was almost a badge of honor for players back then. Players today just won't put up with that stuff. But they don't mind being challenged. They don't want to be led around. They don't want to be told "go here and do this," but they want to understand that yes I'm heading in the right direction. They need that comfort, that little bit of security to know that yes, you're doing the right thing. This is the right path for you to be going down. So those are some of the small changes we're making. Playing something like Broken Age, I think that was another game that really hit the nail on the head in certain ways, but there were a few instances where I had no idea if I was doing the right thing. I can appreciate that as someone who both appreciates more old school things like Maniac Mansion, but I'm a big Firewatch fan, too. The narrative is obviously very X-Files, Mulder and Scully inspired. Was there any particular reason you guys ran with a mystery, or what appears to be a mystery, with a lot of supernatural stuff? Does that stem from time with Maniac Mansion or Indiana Jones? Is it kind of just you had a story idea and wanted to go further with it? Ron: Maniac Mansion really came from the fact that Gary [Winnick] and I were fans of bad B-horror movies, so Maniac Mansion was sort of a send-up of B horror movies. In particular, I’m a big fan of David Lynch. I really like the the stuff he's done. So in some ways it's almost a send-up of Twin Peaks and really not the X-Files. We have this man, this woman, federal agents, and everybody thinks Mulder and Scully, but really that wasn't in our heads at all. David: This is set in 1987 which is before the X-Files [laughs]. Ron: Right, so it's impossible it would be Mulder and Scully [laughs]. Case closed. But I think a lot of it is more Twin Peaks and David Lynch. When Gary and I did the Kickstarter and came up with the story of the characters, we were not thinking of X-Files at all. I was not an X-Files fan. I've seen maybe five episodes. And the second we did the Kickstarter and that image went up, everybody went "oh my god, it's agent Mulder and Scully X-Files." And I kind of went "oh, shit." [laughs]. That was my first reaction, "oh, shit, this is not the X-Files." I hope nobody is disappointed when they play the game expecting an X-Files game. David: Having watched every episode of the X-Files, the story does not do X-Files in any way. It's very Twin Peaks. So aside from the certainly-not-X-Files, certainly-not-Mulder-and-Scully duo, what is the kind of narrative that you're wanting to tell? I remember that you're exploring this old American town. It’s very post-industrial. Was there anything you were trying to communicate there? Ron: Yeah, it is. I think adventure games in general, to me, I've always looked at the main character of an adventure game as the world. The main character in Maniac Mansion is that house. The main character in Monkey Island is that world [Guybrush Threepwood] inhabits. I think if you treat the adventure game world as if it's the main character, it can come alive. We treat the town like that. We built a real town. It connects like a real town would be. We expect you to navigate like a real town. So I think the town is kind of important. In terms of themes, this is 1987, but Uncle Chuck [Delores’ relative], he's this strange inventor. He has all these weird computers all over town, and so there's a little bit of hints of this modern world we live in where we're all connected in some way with computers everywhere. So you see this little thread of that running through the story, but kind of in this 1987 frame of mind. I guess even the humor too? PAC games feel like the first to really approach dry and sardonic humor. Ron: I think that's kind of my humor style in general. I love dry humor. I have a lot of respect for comedians that can deliver really dry lines. I never use smiley faces in my tweets or emails. Sometimes it throws people off, because I say something and "oooh, there's no smiley face. Is he mad at me?" No, no, it's just that I'm sarcastic. I think a lot of the humor in the game is that kind. That's just me. That's what I enjoy. And there's a lot of fourth wall. I love breaking the fourth wall. You've got to tell me about the damn clown. What's the deal there? Ron: The clown? [laughs]. Ransom the Clown. He's been cursed. He's an insult clown. He goes up on stage and he basically insults everybody. But he's really an asshole, so everybody really kind of hates him, but they laugh at him because people laugh in uncomfortable moments. And he insults the wrong person in the audience and he gets cursed. And he can no longer remove his makeup. So he's stuck with this clown makeup and he retires to live in this old run down circus, can't really ever leave because everyone hates him and he's stuck with the makeup. His story is how he got cursed to never lose his makeup. So now he's a has-been, no career, he's broke and living out of a circus.  That was one of the things that struck me most interesting. There's a few clown-based horror films out there. Ron: Some people find clowns terrifying. Not me. They've never bothered me. I've never had a clown phobia. But a lot of people really do hate clowns. It's always the older, washed-up clowns like Ransom. Like something CLEARLY went wrong in this guy's life. Not where they enjoy their career. Ron: If you look at the old advertisements from the 1950s or 60's where they had Ronald McDonald, he just looks creepy as hell. He just looks like a child molester clown. It's amazing that they got away with that, but it's weird. The rest of the team. Have they had any significant input, especially having people come back from Lucasfilm? Ron: Yeah, there's me, Gary, David, and [Lucasfilm background artist] Mark [Ferrari]. Coming back from something like that, 20 years later, has the group collaborated in any interesting ways that you didn't expect? Ron: I think the thing about working together again was how quickly we just fell into working. Dave and I worked on several projects together, plus Gary and I. And just how quickly we got into that mode where we're just anticipating each other's' thoughts about stuff. And that's been nice because we've really been able to work through issues and problems and all this stuff really quickly. David: I think there may also be like an ego-less part to it. Like each of us dealt with it the way we have to be, where one tries to take the lead on something. In this case I feel like Ron is the lead. And he's the one who's arbitrated choices. So if I say how about this, I try to see if he'll say he'll think about it. Ron: There's a respect, right? A respect for each other. David: It's safe for me to throw out ideas. And the same thing with people who aren't directly working with us, like playtesters. A lot of our ideas we get from playtesters. Ron: They'll start calling us on stuff that isn't good enough. I think that's one of the things that struck me the most. A lot of games in the AAA space, they tout that they're bringing back the creator of X, Y, or Z game, and he or she is serving as the project lead, but it's like subscribing to auteur theory. I like that there's a handful of the guys who helped build the genre and then you have younger devs to make those sorts of suggestions. Ron: I think what you need on any project is a vision. There has to be a vision. Sometimes that comes from one person. Sometimes it comes from a small group of people. But I think as long as you have that strong vision then everything is going to be OK. Where projects I see don't really work it's because there were five different visions. All these people had their own vision and it never really meshed together. So at the end you don't produce a cohesive piece of art at the end. Where if everybody has a shared vision, you're going to do that. David: It's broader than just the vision of the game. We worked together for years at this company where there was already a strong culture, even before we started. It kind of took on the culture of Lucasfilm as a film company and then right into our attention to detail and really wanted to make a way to do our own thing. So with the four of us who've worked together before, there was already this established sense of culture. So as we brought in other people who were new to it, they fell into that established culture, so in a way this is really is kind of the continuation of that original Lucasfilm culture. I don't know what happened 25 years later, for how much of that stuck. So you keep saying culture. You mean just the work environment or how you guys communicate or something deeper? Ron: I think it's when you're dealing with a creative medium, right? It's like how you deal with creative issues, input, and ideas. Because it's like anybody on the team should be able to contribute. It's not like "this is my vision, I will think of everything. I don't need you." A game like Monkey Island, everybody was suggesting ideas for that, from the testers to the artists, programmers. The whole vision. My job on Monkey Island wasn't to come up with the ideas, it was just to sift through all the ideas. It was to say "that works, that doesn't." Some project leads understand that, and there are others that do not, where everything they feel has to come from them. And we just try to create this culture that anybody on the team could just throw out an idea. Hey, if they have an idea for a puzzle or an animation, just throw it out there. That's the only criteria is it has to be good and fit the vision for the game. David: The art, our primary character animator Octavi [Navarro], is a really good example of that. We know he's brilliant at doing animation, we'll give him direction. We'll give him intent and what has to happen, and he'll go crazy building something we never would have thought of. This all means you're pulling creativity from all these different talents into the game. Kind of like the, computer animation where [Delores] is printing out the job application, that was a funny animation. You pointed it out, that reminded me that the best point and click adventure games do have those little nuggets of motion to them. David: I agree. With that printer animation, the original puzzle was a good example of something that was kind of tedious because you had to have the letter, put it in the envelope. You had to press the button on the computer, get it to print, had to combine the letter and envelope, and it was all busywork. To Ron's point, this wasn't working. We had the idea for hands on the computer and Octavi made the animation that combined all these steps. It's not really fun to stamp envelopes [laughs]. Ron: And it masks all the really fun animation. Did you guys think you’re taking anything from PAC adventure games that have come between then and now anyway, or do you think the medium/subgenre has reached a zenith. Are these games going to get stagnant again? Have you guys been inspired by anything, or some of the earliest stuff? Ron: I don't think there's anything in the PAC genre that necessarily has. I kind of feel the PAC genre is very stagnant in a lot of ways. There are interesting PAC games being made now, but they really feel like they are just 1990's PAC games, and I don't feel like they're moving anything forward with what they're doing. So more of the inspiration, especially with the narrative, has really come from games like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero, and the more modern games and how they deal with narrative, and how they deal with moving players through their worlds, and what modern gamers find compelling about that. I think PAC adventures fell off the face of the earth. I think there's something about them that very modern players don't quite get. How do we make them feel safe and comfortable playing this? If you're a Firewatch fan or Kentucky Route Zero fan, [Thimbleweed Park] isn't going to be this horrible, frustrating experience that you heard your parents talk about [when they mentioned] how much they hate PAC adventures. This is going to be an interesting kind of experience. I think that's our challenge in a way. David: There's a whole lot of stuff we've learned over the years about what you think is funny, what's good. I think back then, part of what was supposed to be fun was having a game that lasted a certain number of hours. You didn't kill people off. We did things that would extend gameplay, but they weren't especially that fun to do. So we want to make sure the gameplay is really fun and in-depth. There's a density, I think, to making progress. You're solving a lot of filler that you have to get through to make something happen. We talk a lot about puzzle design, which I don't think we thought about much back then. If you have a puzzle, it's really good to know what you're trying to solve before you start clicking on random objects and try to combine them randomly. So there's an intent. You're actively solving something. In researching, I reacquainted myself watching old videos of Maniac Mansion, and yeah that makes sense that you see somebody who knows the game saying "we're going to go here and here," click, click, click, picking up 50 items, but you would never have any idea what to use them for. So having that intent I think, especially as a younger gamer who certainly didn't grow up with these, that makes a lot of sense. You're being much more intentional. David: Yeah, we have a bunch of objects which have no use. They're there for atmosphere or backer objects [laughs]. Ron: If you backed at the $1,000 level you got to create an object in the game. There's the Ransom the Clown itch cream that's kind of fun. Octavi did a great animation of Ransom applying his itch cream [laughs]. You’ve said you’re aiming for an early 2017 release. I've noticed a lot of indie developers, old and new, seem to work on a timetable on three years. Have you guys been busting to get this done? Ron: We've been really focused. A lot of Kickstarter projects work off the rails. It's like five years later they haven't built a game. We were very intent to not have that happen. We were supposed to release in July [2016]. So we've kind of slipped by about six months, but we've stayed very focused. We've tried to say hey, we're going to build this game, we're going to scope correctly, we're going to do all of these things that we've learned about games and shipping games on time. David: There's also the work in making sure to do the wireframe art. We wireframed rough versions of every single room or area. Ron: We cut a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff we did with this quick wireframe art, that we had working, and then said, this room isn't needed, and decided to cut it because it was only half the work time. It's easy to cut that stuff. I think that keeps the world kind of lean. Everything is there for a reason. We've gone through this process of essentially storyboarding the game out and cutting the stuff that isn't needed before time is invested. David: There was a point where Ron had us each come up with a list of 10 or 15 rooms we could cut without killing the game. Some of our favorite rooms were in there, but I think one or two of them got back in the game[laughs]. It was a really good exercise to see what we needed, and if each room has a purpose, something happens there, do you need that room there? Ron: There's the bar that's just gone. Aside from the collaboration element, is that wireframe method, making drastic cuts, similar to what you did back when you were in the Maniac Mansion era? Ron: No, actually, not at all. When I was doing Monkey Island, it was like we would have a room, and the artist would draw the whole thing, and it would be done to completion, and we'd do it and move onto the next one. It was this really linear fashion. It really wasn't until - because I started the company Humongous Entertainment after Lucasfilm, and we made adventure games for kids - it was there that we started doing all this very hand-drawn animation. I say hand-drawn, it was literally drawn on paper with pencil. Not in Photoshop. It was a very time consuming and expensive process. The results were amazing, but we couldn't waste doing animation that wasn't needed. So we got in this habit of doing storyboards of the entire game, all this black and white stuff. And within a month or two, we could play our entire game from beginning to end. It was all this black and white art, but that was the point we started going through and cutting a bunch of stuff that didn't matter, because the actual production was so expensive. We needed the production to just happen, to just go. I've really adopted that philosophy ever since. So now I like to build games and get them up and completely playable very, very early, and then go through and cut stuff before it's expensive to actually develop. So obviously the value of budget and money has fluctuated in the decades that have passed. Does it feel like you're operating on a larger or stricter budget since those days? Because with Lucasfilm, I don't know what it was like in those days, especially in the gaming division. Ron: Well, we didn't spend a lot of money. I don't think there was a lot of money to be spent. We had money, obviously. We had billions of dollars from Star Wars flowing in. But I think games were so simple that we couldn't have spent that much. There wasn't any place to pour that kind of money into games. So it was a much easier to keep things scoped a bit more. Games now, there's so many places you can pour money into a game that I think you have to be really careful. Certainly, coming from Kickstarter, we only had a certain bucket full of money. We got $623,000. I think with Kickstarter, the most important thing for a Kickstarter is you need a hook. You can't just have an idea for a game. You need a hook that hooks people. People often ask me, "what's some advice for running a Kickstarter?" I always tell them "sell people your dream. Don't sell them your game." It's not a store. Because if all you're doing is trying to sell people your game and getting them to fund the game, it's like well, go to Steam and find 50 games just like that. Sell them your dream. Sell them your passion for making this thing because that's what people will give you money for- it’s that kind of stuff. So I think Kickstarters need some kind of hook. David: So the [original Kickstarter] art was Gary's and much closer to Maniac Mansion-style. [To Ron] Do you think if we had done the Kickstarter with Mark's art and actual scenes, do you think that would have gotten more or less? Ron: More.  David: Yeah?  Ron: Yeah, I think we would have raised a lot more money.  If it evoked the Maniac Mansion aesthetic? David: I'm stunned by [the game] now because when I go back and look at the Kickstarter art, or I see the Kickstarter art in some articles that still pull from the old stuff, it's like "whoa" because it's so different. Ron: Well we didn't know how much money we were going to raise. We asked for significantly less money than we got and we wanted to make sure that we had an art style that we could do for the money we wanted to raise so we kind of went with this more simplistic art that was more like Maniac Mansion. But then we raised almost twice the money; then we had the money to bring on Mark and Octavi and all these people and kind of raise the bar on the art. David: The characters look different, too. Totally redone. Ron: Which I think is just natural. Any game, you go through this natural process. At least you're not going backwards. Ron: [laughs] That's true. Is there anything else you guys want to add? David: You talk about other graphic adventure games that maybe don't have people doing it with as much experience. It's almost like most art forms where maybe some people think that it's really easy to do it because you consume it. "I can make a movie because I see movies," or "I can write a book because I read books. I can make games because I play games." The best games, I think, are not accidents. They're people who work really hard and have a lot of experience and draw on experience and keep polishing and polishing and polishing, and not take the first ideas that come up. In brainstorming we'd come up with ideas and say "that's not good enough. We can push a little further into it and not just use the first thing that comes up." And so I think that to do a really good one it helps to have that experience of which pitfalls to avoid, and to keep pushing on until it really feels like "yeah, that's a good puzzle." The old saying being innovation rather than emulation, but this time it’s iteration over emulation. Ron: I find with writing humor, I'll kind of write a line of dialogue and I just immediately say "well, how can I make this funnier?" And then I'll rewrite it and I'll go "how can I make this funnier?" Then I'll rewrite it again, and maybe after the third or fourth time I can go "that's a good line." It's like the writer's room on a TV show, right? It's just a group of writers, and somebody comes up with the core thing and then the group writers punch it up. Everybody just adds little things upon it to make it better and better. That's how you get really, really funny things. David: I've seen a few movies lately where I'm just totally caught up in it, and then there's some point where, maybe in the third act, it just kind of goes "wham!" and falls to the ground. Whether you have this great idea -- you polish the first part over and over again, then you get to the end and whoops, you fall back on the easy solutions or cliches. Or it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. David: I shouldn't be talking about this since we haven't done the end of our game yet. [laughs] I'll be looking for that. Ron: We see a lot of that in our game, because we get a lot of time on the beginning of the game. There isn't a lot of playtesting on the end of the game. The beginning of the game is going to be super tight. David: Earlier games at Lucas, there never was a budget that I was aware of. I don't know if that changed for Monkey Island. But basically, it was "here's the game, any idea of how big it's going to be?" You'd have to estimate how many discs it would be. Ron: That was our budget. Our budget wasn't "you can spend $200,000." It was "this game has to fit on five floppy disks. They can accord for the cost of goods for the box. So I just looked at everything as "I have to fit this game on five floppy disks. That constrains the budget right there, because there's only so much art that can fit on five floppy disks. --- As someone who appreciates not just where games are going, but where they’ve come from, Thimbleweed Park feels poised to remind us why the genre charmed a generation of players. With a cast of memorable (if freaky) characters and an accessibility that previous point-and-click games felt little need to include, Thimbleweed Park may reignite that enchantment, if only for another moment in history. Thimbleweed Park releases on March 30th on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One. View full article
  3. The era of point-and-click adventure games is, for the most part, remembered fondly by the gaming community. The genre helped establish Lucasfilm Games (later renamed LucasArts) as a powerhouse game studio (to say nothing of film) during its time. Now, over 20 years later, the point-and-click (PAC) genre has sustained itself almost strictly through fan games or deliberately indie fare looking to tap into nostalgia, but the team behind Thimbleweed Park aims to change that. As point-and-click genre visionaries, game developers like Ron Gilbert, David Fox, and Gary Winnick are teaming up once again (along with a small team of younger developers) to give genre fans another grand adventure. We played an early demo with developers Ron Gilbert (creator of Monkey Island, co-creator of Maniac Mansion) and David Fox (Lucasfilm’s third employee and SCUMM scriptor for Maniac Mansion) and spoke about how it feels to come back to an adult point-and-click game after so long, and what they hope to achieve. --- Ron Gilbert: Gary Winnick and I, we did Maniac Mansion together. We kind of wanted to create a game that really captured the charm of those old games. And we really weren't sure what that charm was. It was very ethereal. We didn't really know. It's just like, well if we kind of make a game in the same way that we made a game back then, can we kind of capture what that was? [Thimbleweed Park] is really the story of these two detectives. This is agent Ray, and the other detective is agent Reyes. So it's these two detectives who show up in Thimbleweed Park because this dead body has been discovered out by the bridge. It's really the story of their investigation into the mystery of what killed this person in this really strange, bizarre town. You realize these two agents are really not partners. They don't actually know each other until they show up. They kind of randomly show up and the other one was there. So you're always very suspect of them. Like, why are they here? What are they doing? And it really plays into the bizarre-ness of Thimbleweed. I don't think I remember seeing any of the classic control layout of “interact,” “grab,” “combine,” etc (during gameplay) at the bottom, so it's interesting that you're still going with that. It's the most obvious callback. Ron: Yeah. I think it's also a bit of the charm of those games. You had all your options and you built the sentences and the verbs and stuff. So we really wanted to retain that as much as possible. We've done play testing with people who have not played classic adventure games before. There's probably this maybe 15-20 second period where they're kind of going oh my god there's all these things on the screen, and then they realize, if they want to look at something, you just click look at it. [At this point in the demo, Gilbert reveals that the character Dolores, a young programmer, is attempting to mail a job application to a studio called “Mucus Phlegm.”] Is Mucus Phlegm a play on LucasArts? Ron: It was Lucasfilm. We all used to joke. We called it Mucus Phlegm when we worked there. Anytime we wanted to make fun of who we were working for. Are you guys coming back to “adult” point-and-click games for any particular reason? Did it feel like a good time or were you thinking you should fill gap? Because there are a few other indie point-and-click games out there. Ron: Yeah, there’s other point-and-click stuff. I guess I haven't really designed a pure PAC adventure since those days. I did "The Cave," which is like an adventure game but more a platformer adventure. I haven't really done pure PAC adventure. I think that is interesting. When Gary and I first did the Kickstarter, that really came about because Gary and I were talking about the charm a game like Maniac Mansion had, or Monkey Island, and just talking about what seemed to be missing from modern adventure games. Because while they're fun and interesting, they're kind of missing that charm that old games had. This really became an experiment. What is that charm? Can we capture that charm? If we just go back and make this game just like we would have made a game when we were doing Maniac Mansion, can we recapture the charm of those games or not? It seems interesting. Even in just the short playthrough here, the style, and writing as well, seems to be much closer to that old school Maniac Mansion. It's goofy, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes very intentionally. [laughs] I've played my fair share of PAC games that were inspired by those that came before, but I would grow so frustrated with them because I was never amused. It was either a raw story or it didn't have a carrot on a stick to help push me through. So what would you say are the bigger changes, if any, in making a PAC game in modern times? Like you said, you play-tested with people who never played PAC games before. Are you changing the aesthetic or gameplay loop in any significant way? Ron: We are changing it, but I think what we're doing is changing it in very subtle ways. Because I think if you look at modern gamers who like modern adventure games like Kentucky Route Zero or Firewatch- I think modern gamers in general, they enjoy being challenged, but they don't enjoy being frustrated. I think when we were making games back in the 80's and 90's, being frustrated was almost a badge of honor for players back then. Players today just won't put up with that stuff. But they don't mind being challenged. They don't want to be led around. They don't want to be told "go here and do this," but they want to understand that yes I'm heading in the right direction. They need that comfort, that little bit of security to know that yes, you're doing the right thing. This is the right path for you to be going down. So those are some of the small changes we're making. Playing something like Broken Age, I think that was another game that really hit the nail on the head in certain ways, but there were a few instances where I had no idea if I was doing the right thing. I can appreciate that as someone who both appreciates more old school things like Maniac Mansion, but I'm a big Firewatch fan, too. The narrative is obviously very X-Files, Mulder and Scully inspired. Was there any particular reason you guys ran with a mystery, or what appears to be a mystery, with a lot of supernatural stuff? Does that stem from time with Maniac Mansion or Indiana Jones? Is it kind of just you had a story idea and wanted to go further with it? Ron: Maniac Mansion really came from the fact that Gary [Winnick] and I were fans of bad B-horror movies, so Maniac Mansion was sort of a send-up of B horror movies. In particular, I’m a big fan of David Lynch. I really like the the stuff he's done. So in some ways it's almost a send-up of Twin Peaks and really not the X-Files. We have this man, this woman, federal agents, and everybody thinks Mulder and Scully, but really that wasn't in our heads at all. David: This is set in 1987 which is before the X-Files [laughs]. Ron: Right, so it's impossible it would be Mulder and Scully [laughs]. Case closed. But I think a lot of it is more Twin Peaks and David Lynch. When Gary and I did the Kickstarter and came up with the story of the characters, we were not thinking of X-Files at all. I was not an X-Files fan. I've seen maybe five episodes. And the second we did the Kickstarter and that image went up, everybody went "oh my god, it's agent Mulder and Scully X-Files." And I kind of went "oh, shit." [laughs]. That was my first reaction, "oh, shit, this is not the X-Files." I hope nobody is disappointed when they play the game expecting an X-Files game. David: Having watched every episode of the X-Files, the story does not do X-Files in any way. It's very Twin Peaks. So aside from the certainly-not-X-Files, certainly-not-Mulder-and-Scully duo, what is the kind of narrative that you're wanting to tell? I remember that you're exploring this old American town. It’s very post-industrial. Was there anything you were trying to communicate there? Ron: Yeah, it is. I think adventure games in general, to me, I've always looked at the main character of an adventure game as the world. The main character in Maniac Mansion is that house. The main character in Monkey Island is that world [Guybrush Threepwood] inhabits. I think if you treat the adventure game world as if it's the main character, it can come alive. We treat the town like that. We built a real town. It connects like a real town would be. We expect you to navigate like a real town. So I think the town is kind of important. In terms of themes, this is 1987, but Uncle Chuck [Delores’ relative], he's this strange inventor. He has all these weird computers all over town, and so there's a little bit of hints of this modern world we live in where we're all connected in some way with computers everywhere. So you see this little thread of that running through the story, but kind of in this 1987 frame of mind. I guess even the humor too? PAC games feel like the first to really approach dry and sardonic humor. Ron: I think that's kind of my humor style in general. I love dry humor. I have a lot of respect for comedians that can deliver really dry lines. I never use smiley faces in my tweets or emails. Sometimes it throws people off, because I say something and "oooh, there's no smiley face. Is he mad at me?" No, no, it's just that I'm sarcastic. I think a lot of the humor in the game is that kind. That's just me. That's what I enjoy. And there's a lot of fourth wall. I love breaking the fourth wall. You've got to tell me about the damn clown. What's the deal there? Ron: The clown? [laughs]. Ransom the Clown. He's been cursed. He's an insult clown. He goes up on stage and he basically insults everybody. But he's really an asshole, so everybody really kind of hates him, but they laugh at him because people laugh in uncomfortable moments. And he insults the wrong person in the audience and he gets cursed. And he can no longer remove his makeup. So he's stuck with this clown makeup and he retires to live in this old run down circus, can't really ever leave because everyone hates him and he's stuck with the makeup. His story is how he got cursed to never lose his makeup. So now he's a has-been, no career, he's broke and living out of a circus.  That was one of the things that struck me most interesting. There's a few clown-based horror films out there. Ron: Some people find clowns terrifying. Not me. They've never bothered me. I've never had a clown phobia. But a lot of people really do hate clowns. It's always the older, washed-up clowns like Ransom. Like something CLEARLY went wrong in this guy's life. Not where they enjoy their career. Ron: If you look at the old advertisements from the 1950s or 60's where they had Ronald McDonald, he just looks creepy as hell. He just looks like a child molester clown. It's amazing that they got away with that, but it's weird. The rest of the team. Have they had any significant input, especially having people come back from Lucasfilm? Ron: Yeah, there's me, Gary, David, and [Lucasfilm background artist] Mark [Ferrari]. Coming back from something like that, 20 years later, has the group collaborated in any interesting ways that you didn't expect? Ron: I think the thing about working together again was how quickly we just fell into working. Dave and I worked on several projects together, plus Gary and I. And just how quickly we got into that mode where we're just anticipating each other's' thoughts about stuff. And that's been nice because we've really been able to work through issues and problems and all this stuff really quickly. David: I think there may also be like an ego-less part to it. Like each of us dealt with it the way we have to be, where one tries to take the lead on something. In this case I feel like Ron is the lead. And he's the one who's arbitrated choices. So if I say how about this, I try to see if he'll say he'll think about it. Ron: There's a respect, right? A respect for each other. David: It's safe for me to throw out ideas. And the same thing with people who aren't directly working with us, like playtesters. A lot of our ideas we get from playtesters. Ron: They'll start calling us on stuff that isn't good enough. I think that's one of the things that struck me the most. A lot of games in the AAA space, they tout that they're bringing back the creator of X, Y, or Z game, and he or she is serving as the project lead, but it's like subscribing to auteur theory. I like that there's a handful of the guys who helped build the genre and then you have younger devs to make those sorts of suggestions. Ron: I think what you need on any project is a vision. There has to be a vision. Sometimes that comes from one person. Sometimes it comes from a small group of people. But I think as long as you have that strong vision then everything is going to be OK. Where projects I see don't really work it's because there were five different visions. All these people had their own vision and it never really meshed together. So at the end you don't produce a cohesive piece of art at the end. Where if everybody has a shared vision, you're going to do that. David: It's broader than just the vision of the game. We worked together for years at this company where there was already a strong culture, even before we started. It kind of took on the culture of Lucasfilm as a film company and then right into our attention to detail and really wanted to make a way to do our own thing. So with the four of us who've worked together before, there was already this established sense of culture. So as we brought in other people who were new to it, they fell into that established culture, so in a way this is really is kind of the continuation of that original Lucasfilm culture. I don't know what happened 25 years later, for how much of that stuck. So you keep saying culture. You mean just the work environment or how you guys communicate or something deeper? Ron: I think it's when you're dealing with a creative medium, right? It's like how you deal with creative issues, input, and ideas. Because it's like anybody on the team should be able to contribute. It's not like "this is my vision, I will think of everything. I don't need you." A game like Monkey Island, everybody was suggesting ideas for that, from the testers to the artists, programmers. The whole vision. My job on Monkey Island wasn't to come up with the ideas, it was just to sift through all the ideas. It was to say "that works, that doesn't." Some project leads understand that, and there are others that do not, where everything they feel has to come from them. And we just try to create this culture that anybody on the team could just throw out an idea. Hey, if they have an idea for a puzzle or an animation, just throw it out there. That's the only criteria is it has to be good and fit the vision for the game. David: The art, our primary character animator Octavi [Navarro], is a really good example of that. We know he's brilliant at doing animation, we'll give him direction. We'll give him intent and what has to happen, and he'll go crazy building something we never would have thought of. This all means you're pulling creativity from all these different talents into the game. Kind of like the, computer animation where [Delores] is printing out the job application, that was a funny animation. You pointed it out, that reminded me that the best point and click adventure games do have those little nuggets of motion to them. David: I agree. With that printer animation, the original puzzle was a good example of something that was kind of tedious because you had to have the letter, put it in the envelope. You had to press the button on the computer, get it to print, had to combine the letter and envelope, and it was all busywork. To Ron's point, this wasn't working. We had the idea for hands on the computer and Octavi made the animation that combined all these steps. It's not really fun to stamp envelopes [laughs]. Ron: And it masks all the really fun animation. Did you guys think you’re taking anything from PAC adventure games that have come between then and now anyway, or do you think the medium/subgenre has reached a zenith. Are these games going to get stagnant again? Have you guys been inspired by anything, or some of the earliest stuff? Ron: I don't think there's anything in the PAC genre that necessarily has. I kind of feel the PAC genre is very stagnant in a lot of ways. There are interesting PAC games being made now, but they really feel like they are just 1990's PAC games, and I don't feel like they're moving anything forward with what they're doing. So more of the inspiration, especially with the narrative, has really come from games like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero, and the more modern games and how they deal with narrative, and how they deal with moving players through their worlds, and what modern gamers find compelling about that. I think PAC adventures fell off the face of the earth. I think there's something about them that very modern players don't quite get. How do we make them feel safe and comfortable playing this? If you're a Firewatch fan or Kentucky Route Zero fan, [Thimbleweed Park] isn't going to be this horrible, frustrating experience that you heard your parents talk about [when they mentioned] how much they hate PAC adventures. This is going to be an interesting kind of experience. I think that's our challenge in a way. David: There's a whole lot of stuff we've learned over the years about what you think is funny, what's good. I think back then, part of what was supposed to be fun was having a game that lasted a certain number of hours. You didn't kill people off. We did things that would extend gameplay, but they weren't especially that fun to do. So we want to make sure the gameplay is really fun and in-depth. There's a density, I think, to making progress. You're solving a lot of filler that you have to get through to make something happen. We talk a lot about puzzle design, which I don't think we thought about much back then. If you have a puzzle, it's really good to know what you're trying to solve before you start clicking on random objects and try to combine them randomly. So there's an intent. You're actively solving something. In researching, I reacquainted myself watching old videos of Maniac Mansion, and yeah that makes sense that you see somebody who knows the game saying "we're going to go here and here," click, click, click, picking up 50 items, but you would never have any idea what to use them for. So having that intent I think, especially as a younger gamer who certainly didn't grow up with these, that makes a lot of sense. You're being much more intentional. David: Yeah, we have a bunch of objects which have no use. They're there for atmosphere or backer objects [laughs]. Ron: If you backed at the $1,000 level you got to create an object in the game. There's the Ransom the Clown itch cream that's kind of fun. Octavi did a great animation of Ransom applying his itch cream [laughs]. You’ve said you’re aiming for an early 2017 release. I've noticed a lot of indie developers, old and new, seem to work on a timetable on three years. Have you guys been busting to get this done? Ron: We've been really focused. A lot of Kickstarter projects work off the rails. It's like five years later they haven't built a game. We were very intent to not have that happen. We were supposed to release in July [2016]. So we've kind of slipped by about six months, but we've stayed very focused. We've tried to say hey, we're going to build this game, we're going to scope correctly, we're going to do all of these things that we've learned about games and shipping games on time. David: There's also the work in making sure to do the wireframe art. We wireframed rough versions of every single room or area. Ron: We cut a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff we did with this quick wireframe art, that we had working, and then said, this room isn't needed, and decided to cut it because it was only half the work time. It's easy to cut that stuff. I think that keeps the world kind of lean. Everything is there for a reason. We've gone through this process of essentially storyboarding the game out and cutting the stuff that isn't needed before time is invested. David: There was a point where Ron had us each come up with a list of 10 or 15 rooms we could cut without killing the game. Some of our favorite rooms were in there, but I think one or two of them got back in the game[laughs]. It was a really good exercise to see what we needed, and if each room has a purpose, something happens there, do you need that room there? Ron: There's the bar that's just gone. Aside from the collaboration element, is that wireframe method, making drastic cuts, similar to what you did back when you were in the Maniac Mansion era? Ron: No, actually, not at all. When I was doing Monkey Island, it was like we would have a room, and the artist would draw the whole thing, and it would be done to completion, and we'd do it and move onto the next one. It was this really linear fashion. It really wasn't until - because I started the company Humongous Entertainment after Lucasfilm, and we made adventure games for kids - it was there that we started doing all this very hand-drawn animation. I say hand-drawn, it was literally drawn on paper with pencil. Not in Photoshop. It was a very time consuming and expensive process. The results were amazing, but we couldn't waste doing animation that wasn't needed. So we got in this habit of doing storyboards of the entire game, all this black and white stuff. And within a month or two, we could play our entire game from beginning to end. It was all this black and white art, but that was the point we started going through and cutting a bunch of stuff that didn't matter, because the actual production was so expensive. We needed the production to just happen, to just go. I've really adopted that philosophy ever since. So now I like to build games and get them up and completely playable very, very early, and then go through and cut stuff before it's expensive to actually develop. So obviously the value of budget and money has fluctuated in the decades that have passed. Does it feel like you're operating on a larger or stricter budget since those days? Because with Lucasfilm, I don't know what it was like in those days, especially in the gaming division. Ron: Well, we didn't spend a lot of money. I don't think there was a lot of money to be spent. We had money, obviously. We had billions of dollars from Star Wars flowing in. But I think games were so simple that we couldn't have spent that much. There wasn't any place to pour that kind of money into games. So it was a much easier to keep things scoped a bit more. Games now, there's so many places you can pour money into a game that I think you have to be really careful. Certainly, coming from Kickstarter, we only had a certain bucket full of money. We got $623,000. I think with Kickstarter, the most important thing for a Kickstarter is you need a hook. You can't just have an idea for a game. You need a hook that hooks people. People often ask me, "what's some advice for running a Kickstarter?" I always tell them "sell people your dream. Don't sell them your game." It's not a store. Because if all you're doing is trying to sell people your game and getting them to fund the game, it's like well, go to Steam and find 50 games just like that. Sell them your dream. Sell them your passion for making this thing because that's what people will give you money for- it’s that kind of stuff. So I think Kickstarters need some kind of hook. David: So the [original Kickstarter] art was Gary's and much closer to Maniac Mansion-style. [To Ron] Do you think if we had done the Kickstarter with Mark's art and actual scenes, do you think that would have gotten more or less? Ron: More.  David: Yeah?  Ron: Yeah, I think we would have raised a lot more money.  If it evoked the Maniac Mansion aesthetic? David: I'm stunned by [the game] now because when I go back and look at the Kickstarter art, or I see the Kickstarter art in some articles that still pull from the old stuff, it's like "whoa" because it's so different. Ron: Well we didn't know how much money we were going to raise. We asked for significantly less money than we got and we wanted to make sure that we had an art style that we could do for the money we wanted to raise so we kind of went with this more simplistic art that was more like Maniac Mansion. But then we raised almost twice the money; then we had the money to bring on Mark and Octavi and all these people and kind of raise the bar on the art. David: The characters look different, too. Totally redone. Ron: Which I think is just natural. Any game, you go through this natural process. At least you're not going backwards. Ron: [laughs] That's true. Is there anything else you guys want to add? David: You talk about other graphic adventure games that maybe don't have people doing it with as much experience. It's almost like most art forms where maybe some people think that it's really easy to do it because you consume it. "I can make a movie because I see movies," or "I can write a book because I read books. I can make games because I play games." The best games, I think, are not accidents. They're people who work really hard and have a lot of experience and draw on experience and keep polishing and polishing and polishing, and not take the first ideas that come up. In brainstorming we'd come up with ideas and say "that's not good enough. We can push a little further into it and not just use the first thing that comes up." And so I think that to do a really good one it helps to have that experience of which pitfalls to avoid, and to keep pushing on until it really feels like "yeah, that's a good puzzle." The old saying being innovation rather than emulation, but this time it’s iteration over emulation. Ron: I find with writing humor, I'll kind of write a line of dialogue and I just immediately say "well, how can I make this funnier?" And then I'll rewrite it and I'll go "how can I make this funnier?" Then I'll rewrite it again, and maybe after the third or fourth time I can go "that's a good line." It's like the writer's room on a TV show, right? It's just a group of writers, and somebody comes up with the core thing and then the group writers punch it up. Everybody just adds little things upon it to make it better and better. That's how you get really, really funny things. David: I've seen a few movies lately where I'm just totally caught up in it, and then there's some point where, maybe in the third act, it just kind of goes "wham!" and falls to the ground. Whether you have this great idea -- you polish the first part over and over again, then you get to the end and whoops, you fall back on the easy solutions or cliches. Or it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. David: I shouldn't be talking about this since we haven't done the end of our game yet. [laughs] I'll be looking for that. Ron: We see a lot of that in our game, because we get a lot of time on the beginning of the game. There isn't a lot of playtesting on the end of the game. The beginning of the game is going to be super tight. David: Earlier games at Lucas, there never was a budget that I was aware of. I don't know if that changed for Monkey Island. But basically, it was "here's the game, any idea of how big it's going to be?" You'd have to estimate how many discs it would be. Ron: That was our budget. Our budget wasn't "you can spend $200,000." It was "this game has to fit on five floppy disks. They can accord for the cost of goods for the box. So I just looked at everything as "I have to fit this game on five floppy disks. That constrains the budget right there, because there's only so much art that can fit on five floppy disks. --- As someone who appreciates not just where games are going, but where they’ve come from, Thimbleweed Park feels poised to remind us why the genre charmed a generation of players. With a cast of memorable (if freaky) characters and an accessibility that previous point-and-click games felt little need to include, Thimbleweed Park may reignite that enchantment, if only for another moment in history. Thimbleweed Park releases on March 30th on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One.
  4. I played through the preview build of Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter not once or twice, but four times. The abandoned laboratory called me back again and again because one playthrough wasn’t enough to see every area in the build. Each run through the test tubes swirling with dark pixelated horrors revealed fresh paths, more enemies, and new weapons. Thorough investigation revealed secret paths to keys that would open a special door holding the bloodied body of a fallen wanderer very much like the titular Drifter. The molding halls into the depths of the facility led me to glimpses of far off giants, long dead and decayed, but still unnervingly present. One of the highest compliments that I can pay Hyper Light Drifter is that it captures the unique blend of disturbing unease and excitement of Super Metroid, but repackages it as an isometric action title with a gorgeous pixel art aesthetic. It is beautiful, creepy, and fun. Hyper Light Drifter was previewed on PC. The preview build I played began in an open area outside of an alien laboratory. This gave me a chance to experiment with the controls. I quickly found that the Drifter has a laser sword, the ability to dash short distances, and can use his robot companion to check inventory. Continuing into the facility I encountered a prone skeleton with a laser pistol close by its boney hand. The pistol was still in working order so it quickly became a part of my arsenal. In addition to the laser sword, the Drifter may only have two items equipped at any given time. A large door with four locks prevented progress through the main lab, but a side passage offered a way forward. That’s when I encountered Hyper Light Drifter’s first enemies. The Drifter has a limited amount of health and can usually only take five or six hits before dying. This makes every enemy encounter a tense exercise in patience and reflexes. Even the grunts, green, goblin-like creatures, can quickly whittle down health if you’re not careful. Every new area is accompanied by an auto-save, which is handy because death should be expected. There is a measured timing to how combat works. Enemies telegraph their attacks, giving time to dodge or counter their advances. However, it is important to remember that the Drifter’s attacks also have a strange timing to them. While the laser sword is a powerful tool, it can only quickly strike three times before pausing. Special weapons like the pistol, shotgun, laser cannon, or remote controlled bomb rely on slowly regenerating energy for their use. They also have their own timing to how they work. After some time is spent mastering combat, battles take on the cadence of a dance. It feels empowering, smoothly moving from enemy to enemy, but also sad. The beautiful artistic style that Heart Machine has employed is a pleasure to look at, but it also shows the capacity for great violence. Taking a great deal of damage causes the Drifter to leave puddles of blood while walking. Defeating enemies leaves their blood and bodies scattered around the battlefield. Successfully landing a series of attacks without taking damage charges a critical strike which can decapitate foes. The mechanics are fun, but the visuals feed into the grotesquely melancholy atmosphere. There is weight to combat. Exploration seems to be a core component of Hyper Light Drifter. Numerous paths can be taken to reach the end of the preview build. Each path introduces different challenges and experiences. Diligent explorers will be able to unearth powerful weapons like the laser cannon and new cloaks for the Drifter. Unfortunately, exploration can also be frustrating. The dashing mechanic while certainly useful in combat, is primarily used to traverse gaps in the terrain. These pitfalls are instant death to anything that falls. Due to the angle of the camera, sometimes the edges of platforms are hard to see or covered by taller piece of the environment. This wasn’t a huge problem when I was going through the preview build the first time, but when I was trying to find secrets and hidden crannies. A number of times I fell out of the stage through walls. It is a cheap way to die, though at least a few of those deaths could be attributed to the fact that the game isn’t complete quite yet. Even without the enemies or platforming challenges, wandering the environment is a lesson in how much mileage a game can get out of a great ambient score. It feels alien, at times beautiful, but often strange and disconcerting. Sometimes it can seem more like mechanical heart beats than music. It succeeds in setting you on edge. Overall, the slice of Hyper Light Drifter sent to me by Heart Machine had me excited at the prospect of the full game. Every element in the build I saw was an essential part of the whole experience. It was able to convey meanings and emotions without the use of dialog. Outside of the initial loading screens and the pause menu, there wasn’t any text or voice work present in Hyper Light Drifter, but it still succeeded in being a compelling game with a world that left me itching to explore and understand. Who is the Drifter? What are these monstrous behemoths and what killed them? Perhaps we’ll have our answers when the full game releases. Hyper Light Drifter's release date has been pushed back into early 2015.
  5. We have been invited, along with any guests who might be interested, to the Bellevue Square Microsoft store for a special launch preview event that includes: -Free Food -Developer Q&A -Halo Wars 2 Sneak Peek If you are free tonight, here's the official invite!
  6. Arms has stood out to me since its unveiling as the Switch title with the most hidden promise. Punch-Out!! for Wii proved that motion-controlled boxing can be a ton of fun. Arms puts a spin on that successful template with wacky, extendable limbs, the freedom to mix and match zany weapons, and a Saturday morning cartoon presentation. But does it perform as well it looks? I went a few rounds with Arms at PAX South to find out. The first hurdle was acclimating myself to the controls. Playing Arms requires holding a JoyCon each hand with thumbs on the respective shoulder buttons. Instead of using the analog sticks to move, players tilt both controllers to get around. Tilting to the side, forwards, and back positions the boxer accordingly. Throwing a punch in real-life causes the same to occur in-game. Holding down the left shoulder button performs a dash while the right shoulder jumps. Finally, pressing both Z buttons activates your special maneuver once the corresponding gauge has been filled. If that sounds like a lot, it kind of is - I didn’t even touch on blocking and grapples. Putting all of that into practice took more than a little work against my CPU opponents. Leaving the safe confines of the tutorial proved to be a jarring wake-up call. As the A.I. unleashed hell upon me, I struggled to competently combine movement, jumping, dashing, and punching into a coherent strategy and kept mixing up the controls. Still, I managed to win primarily by keeping my distance and performing grapple moves. The pieces began falling in place a bit better by the next round. I started timing my punches better and learned to read my opponent's movements. I even managed to block a few incoming shots and get off a few tricky combos. My bouts still devolved into chaotic, mindless punch parties where I probably looked like raging madman, but I was having some degree of fun. Close-quarter skirmishes are fast-paced affairs, but throwing punches from a distance felt comparable to launching a missile. I took aim and watched my fist hurtle across the screen in hopes it would its mark, and it felt genuinely satisfying when it did. The Switch’s much-touted HD rumble simulates the feel of the arms extending and retracting–a neat, but minor, touch. Button inputs felt exceptional, but tilting the JoyCons for movement didn’t feel natural to me. The entire time I just wished I could move with the sticks, so I’m thankful Arms supports traditional controls as well. The motion controls pick up movements a majority of the time but there were several spots where my inputs didn’t seem to register. It wasn’t egregiously bad, but the occasional misread was noticeable enough to cause some mild frustration. I found a surprising depth to playing Arms. Outfitting your fists with three separate gadgets, such as propeller blades or a missile launcher, before bouts made me consider what combinations would work best. Environmental hazards like a trampoline around an arena’s perimeter can be used to render opponents open to attack or used to evade incoming blows. Even the act of punching shouldn’t be taken lightly. Since characters’ arms extend long distances, every strike leaves the corresponding side of their bodies exposed for a second or two. That means a punch that eats air leaves a fighter vulnerable to retaliation. I’ve heard some predict Arms to become the Switch’s Splatoon. I ultimately found Arms to be entertaining enough, but I don’t think it has the novelty, personality, or shelf life to become a phenomenon the caliber of the Nintendo’s breakout shooter. Still, that doesn’t mean Arms can’t exist as a perfectly respectable and colorful fighter for Switch owners to goof around with. Arms releases this spring on the Nintendo Switch. View full article
  7. Arms has stood out to me since its unveiling as the Switch title with the most hidden promise. Punch-Out!! for Wii proved that motion-controlled boxing can be a ton of fun. Arms puts a spin on that successful template with wacky, extendable limbs, the freedom to mix and match zany weapons, and a Saturday morning cartoon presentation. But does it perform as well it looks? I went a few rounds with Arms at PAX South to find out. The first hurdle was acclimating myself to the controls. Playing Arms requires holding a JoyCon each hand with thumbs on the respective shoulder buttons. Instead of using the analog sticks to move, players tilt both controllers to get around. Tilting to the side, forwards, and back positions the boxer accordingly. Throwing a punch in real-life causes the same to occur in-game. Holding down the left shoulder button performs a dash while the right shoulder jumps. Finally, pressing both Z buttons activates your special maneuver once the corresponding gauge has been filled. If that sounds like a lot, it kind of is - I didn’t even touch on blocking and grapples. Putting all of that into practice took more than a little work against my CPU opponents. Leaving the safe confines of the tutorial proved to be a jarring wake-up call. As the A.I. unleashed hell upon me, I struggled to competently combine movement, jumping, dashing, and punching into a coherent strategy and kept mixing up the controls. Still, I managed to win primarily by keeping my distance and performing grapple moves. The pieces began falling in place a bit better by the next round. I started timing my punches better and learned to read my opponent's movements. I even managed to block a few incoming shots and get off a few tricky combos. My bouts still devolved into chaotic, mindless punch parties where I probably looked like raging madman, but I was having some degree of fun. Close-quarter skirmishes are fast-paced affairs, but throwing punches from a distance felt comparable to launching a missile. I took aim and watched my fist hurtle across the screen in hopes it would its mark, and it felt genuinely satisfying when it did. The Switch’s much-touted HD rumble simulates the feel of the arms extending and retracting–a neat, but minor, touch. Button inputs felt exceptional, but tilting the JoyCons for movement didn’t feel natural to me. The entire time I just wished I could move with the sticks, so I’m thankful Arms supports traditional controls as well. The motion controls pick up movements a majority of the time but there were several spots where my inputs didn’t seem to register. It wasn’t egregiously bad, but the occasional misread was noticeable enough to cause some mild frustration. I found a surprising depth to playing Arms. Outfitting your fists with three separate gadgets, such as propeller blades or a missile launcher, before bouts made me consider what combinations would work best. Environmental hazards like a trampoline around an arena’s perimeter can be used to render opponents open to attack or used to evade incoming blows. Even the act of punching shouldn’t be taken lightly. Since characters’ arms extend long distances, every strike leaves the corresponding side of their bodies exposed for a second or two. That means a punch that eats air leaves a fighter vulnerable to retaliation. I’ve heard some predict Arms to become the Switch’s Splatoon. I ultimately found Arms to be entertaining enough, but I don’t think it has the novelty, personality, or shelf life to become a phenomenon the caliber of the Nintendo’s breakout shooter. Still, that doesn’t mean Arms can’t exist as a perfectly respectable and colorful fighter for Switch owners to goof around with. Arms releases this spring on the Nintendo Switch.
  8. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild towers as the Nintendo Switch’s most anticipated title for good reason. In addition to being a new Zelda, thus being a big deal by default, the latest entry in the long-running franchise expands on the series’ formula by featuring a vast open world for players to explore freely. After much anticipation, I had the opportunity to spend roughly 20 minutes of hands-on time with Breath of the Wild. It felt like a fraction of that time because I was completely enamored with Hyrule’s wealth of possibilities. From what I understand, the demo I played was identical to last year’s E3 demo, so the opening events are likely familiar if you’ve read impressions for that version. Link awakens within an ancient temple, beckoned by a mysterious voice. After being bestowed with the magical Sheikah Slate, a multipurpose tool that serves as Link’s map, among other functions, I found and equipped basic clothing. Breath of the Wild’s vibrant world welcomed me with open arms as I exited the structure. There was only one question: Where do I head first? I could have immediately veered off on my own path, but I opted to follow a mysterious hooded man. After catching up with him and absorbing some sage tutorial advice, I embarked on my journey. My first order of business was to climb everything. Link can scale virtually any surface, his actions dictated by a stamina meter ala Skyward Sword. The ability to climbing vastly opens up exploration options. Instead of seeking out a main path, I just scampered up cliffs and improvised my way through areas. Link’s stamina drained rather quickly in the demo to the point of becoming a mild nuisance. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to for players to build up his strength in the full release. I quickly procured my first weapon: a branch. Not quite the Master Sword, but I had to start somewhere. It was a fortunate discovery, since I immediately encountered my first adversary in a lone moblin. Combat itself felt largely identical to previous Zelda games. I slashed, rolled, and leapt in and out of engagement with my foe. The controls felt smooth and responsive as we clashed. The presence of weapon degradation was the most prominent new wrinkle, as it forced me to monitor the state of items. Unfortunately, my branch splintered into pieces before I could finish my adversary, forcing me into a hasty retreat. In an unexpected and humorous moment, the persistent moblin gave chase for several yards. It even followed me down a sheer cliff drop. Even the Nintendo representative guiding me through the demo was taken aback at the beast’s determination. After a lengthy pursuit, the moblin finally decided I wasn’t worth the effort and backed off. That wasn’t the end of my troubles. I turned to discover that I’d accidentally stumbled upon a camp teeming with moblins–and I was completely defenseless. In a stroke of intentionally designed luck, though, I noticed a bow and quiver of arrows laying by a log nearby. There were also a few more branches. Now that I had a larger arsenal, I messed around with Breath of the Wild’s inventory system. Players can quick select weapons in-game on the fly by entering a separate menu. Additionally, hot key options also streamlined selection. I adapted to this new system swiftly, swapping items with ease. Before I tackled the enemy base, my Nintendo rep instructed me to slide the Switch out of its dock and continue playing in handheld mode. The transition from big to small screen was as quick and seamless as advertised. Best of all, the performance didn’t skip a beat and looked great on the smaller display. With my new bow, I took aim and sniped distant enemies, drawing their attention. As the now-alert moblins hurtled towards me, I spotted a nearby shield and quickly equipped it. With my beat-down stick and shield ready, I fought my way through the remaining horde, rolling and collecting additional arrows and sticks mid-fight. Once the last moblin fell, I began collecting the spoils. Among the loot was an actual sword. Hooray, no more branches! That sense of improvement defined much of Breath of the Wild’s experience. Every time I nabbed a new item, I eagerly compared it stats to my existing inventory and wanted to continue searching in hopes of finding greater riches. That’s a fun and necessary incentive to achieve in an open world game. After clearing the area of its riches, I decided to continue towards the main story objective. The waypoint led to a small ruin with a plate to insert the Shiekah Slate. I placed the relic, which triggered a scene where a massive tower emerged from the Earth. Interestingly, the Nintendo Rep pointed out that during this cinematic, moblins are typically present since the structure sprouts near their base. However, since I wiped out the camp before summoning the tower, the moblins were absent. I always appreciate little touches of continuity like that. I’ll have to wait for the full release of Breath of the Wild to see what follows after that tower arose from the ruins as my demo wrapped up shortly thereafter. Although I barely scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg, I left the demo anxious and excited to get my hands on the full experience. Roaming the open world, discovering items and locations with little to no guidance felt like playing a big-budget remake of the NES Legend of Zelda. It’s a freedom that’s been lacking in the last few console entries, and the next logical leap after A Link Between Worlds (a personal fave) began the shift towards a less linear direction. Breakable weapons largely irritate me in most games, but Zelda tempers that annoyance by sprinkling items all over the place. I was always picking up new equipment, and even though most of them were fragile branches, I had a supply of them to rely on until I found something better. Most importantly, Breath of the Wild was just plain fun. Combat works fine, the picturesque world was a joy to run around in, and the loop of exploration and loot has its hooks. If the gameplay continues to evolve in positive ways, and if they story is up to snuff, Breath of the Wild could be a Zelda game for the ages. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launches for Switch and Wii U March 3.
  9. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild towers as the Nintendo Switch’s most anticipated title for good reason. In addition to being a new Zelda, thus being a big deal by default, the latest entry in the long-running franchise expands on the series’ formula by featuring a vast open world for players to explore freely. After much anticipation, I had the opportunity to spend roughly 20 minutes of hands-on time with Breath of the Wild. It felt like a fraction of that time because I was completely enamored with Hyrule’s wealth of possibilities. From what I understand, the demo I played was identical to last year’s E3 demo, so the opening events are likely familiar if you’ve read impressions for that version. Link awakens within an ancient temple, beckoned by a mysterious voice. After being bestowed with the magical Sheikah Slate, a multipurpose tool that serves as Link’s map, among other functions, I found and equipped basic clothing. Breath of the Wild’s vibrant world welcomed me with open arms as I exited the structure. There was only one question: Where do I head first? I could have immediately veered off on my own path, but I opted to follow a mysterious hooded man. After catching up with him and absorbing some sage tutorial advice, I embarked on my journey. My first order of business was to climb everything. Link can scale virtually any surface, his actions dictated by a stamina meter ala Skyward Sword. The ability to climbing vastly opens up exploration options. Instead of seeking out a main path, I just scampered up cliffs and improvised my way through areas. Link’s stamina drained rather quickly in the demo to the point of becoming a mild nuisance. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to for players to build up his strength in the full release. I quickly procured my first weapon: a branch. Not quite the Master Sword, but I had to start somewhere. It was a fortunate discovery, since I immediately encountered my first adversary in a lone moblin. Combat itself felt largely identical to previous Zelda games. I slashed, rolled, and leapt in and out of engagement with my foe. The controls felt smooth and responsive as we clashed. The presence of weapon degradation was the most prominent new wrinkle, as it forced me to monitor the state of items. Unfortunately, my branch splintered into pieces before I could finish my adversary, forcing me into a hasty retreat. In an unexpected and humorous moment, the persistent moblin gave chase for several yards. It even followed me down a sheer cliff drop. Even the Nintendo representative guiding me through the demo was taken aback at the beast’s determination. After a lengthy pursuit, the moblin finally decided I wasn’t worth the effort and backed off. That wasn’t the end of my troubles. I turned to discover that I’d accidentally stumbled upon a camp teeming with moblins–and I was completely defenseless. In a stroke of intentionally designed luck, though, I noticed a bow and quiver of arrows laying by a log nearby. There were also a few more branches. Now that I had a larger arsenal, I messed around with Breath of the Wild’s inventory system. Players can quick select weapons in-game on the fly by entering a separate menu. Additionally, hot key options also streamlined selection. I adapted to this new system swiftly, swapping items with ease. Before I tackled the enemy base, my Nintendo rep instructed me to slide the Switch out of its dock and continue playing in handheld mode. The transition from big to small screen was as quick and seamless as advertised. Best of all, the performance didn’t skip a beat and looked great on the smaller display. With my new bow, I took aim and sniped distant enemies, drawing their attention. As the now-alert moblins hurtled towards me, I spotted a nearby shield and quickly equipped it. With my beat-down stick and shield ready, I fought my way through the remaining horde, rolling and collecting additional arrows and sticks mid-fight. Once the last moblin fell, I began collecting the spoils. Among the loot was an actual sword. Hooray, no more branches! That sense of improvement defined much of Breath of the Wild’s experience. Every time I nabbed a new item, I eagerly compared it stats to my existing inventory and wanted to continue searching in hopes of finding greater riches. That’s a fun and necessary incentive to achieve in an open world game. After clearing the area of its riches, I decided to continue towards the main story objective. The waypoint led to a small ruin with a plate to insert the Shiekah Slate. I placed the relic, which triggered a scene where a massive tower emerged from the Earth. Interestingly, the Nintendo Rep pointed out that during this cinematic, moblins are typically present since the structure sprouts near their base. However, since I wiped out the camp before summoning the tower, the moblins were absent. I always appreciate little touches of continuity like that. I’ll have to wait for the full release of Breath of the Wild to see what follows after that tower arose from the ruins as my demo wrapped up shortly thereafter. Although I barely scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg, I left the demo anxious and excited to get my hands on the full experience. Roaming the open world, discovering items and locations with little to no guidance felt like playing a big-budget remake of the NES Legend of Zelda. It’s a freedom that’s been lacking in the last few console entries, and the next logical leap after A Link Between Worlds (a personal fave) began the shift towards a less linear direction. Breakable weapons largely irritate me in most games, but Zelda tempers that annoyance by sprinkling items all over the place. I was always picking up new equipment, and even though most of them were fragile branches, I had a supply of them to rely on until I found something better. Most importantly, Breath of the Wild was just plain fun. Combat works fine, the picturesque world was a joy to run around in, and the loop of exploration and loot has its hooks. If the gameplay continues to evolve in positive ways, and if they story is up to snuff, Breath of the Wild could be a Zelda game for the ages. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launches for Switch and Wii U March 3. View full article
  10. The premise of Interstellar Marines is fairly simple: The best soldiers from around the world have been recruited for training to be a part of a crack team of commandos that will be ready to respond to an extraterrestrial threat under any conditions. Naturally, this training takes place in a massive underground facility that is able to simulate different weather and lighting environments. To me, the changing map conditions are the main draw of Interstellar Marines. As I explored the Operations map for the first time, the lights began to flicker and then the fire alarms began blaring. Red lights flashed on and off throughout the halls for a couple minutes before everything went pitch black. I flicked on my flashlight and laser sight and proceeded through the level, listening to the ambient noises of the base. I knew there was no one in the level with me at the time, but the environment by itself created tension. In multiplayer, flashlights and laser sights lend an additional layer of strategy during the dark segments. Players need to balance their need for vision with the desire for stealth and catching opponents unaware. Outdoor levels where the weather comes into play are even more interesting when it comes to sight. Players could encounter everything from a light drizzle that speckles their HUD to a full on nighttime thunderstorm complete with flashes of lightning illuminating the map. Sometimes environments are only lit with a few carefully placed lamps or ceiling lights. Players can shoot out many of the lights present in maps to complicate matters for enemies on the opposing team (though I couldn’t seem to shoot out alarm lights). I might seem to be really focusing on in-game vision here, but that is because there is no mini-map or radar. Players can only find enemies by spotting them visually or by listening for their footsteps. It make for some really tense games of cat-and-mouse in the multiplayer. (The above images were taken about a minute apart.) Speaking of the multiplayer, there is currently only one game type. It is a unique blend of capture point style gameplay and team deathmatch. Basically, each match has a ten minute time limit and the side with the most points captured at the end wins. Alternatively, if one team captures all of the points or eliminates the entire enemy team, they win. It is particularly hard to win by eliminating all the enemy player because capturing a point or killing an enemy causes one of your downed players to respawn instantly instead of waiting to respawn naturally. It is fun for what it is, but I would be interested to see what other multiplayer modes are in store for the full release. Also worth noting is the pace of gameplay. Interstellar Marines is a very different beast from fast paced shooters that have dominated the market for the last few years. Sprinting generates a lot of noise and aiming afterward bobs and weaves as the soldier breathes heavily. Walking or crouching creates little noise, but is also very slow. This all indicates to me that Interstellar Marines is meant to be played carefully and not fast and loose. As a side note, there is something about Interstellar Marines that just screams Alien to me. It might have something to do with the architecture of the environments, the spartan nature of the HUD, or the ever-changing lighting conditions that give everything a dramatic flair. Whatever the reason, my initial time with the early access build was plagued with the unnerving feeling that a Xenomorph was just around the corner, despite the fact that there aren’t any aliens in Interstellar Marines. The only creatures players can currently encounter in the Early Access version are other marines and possibly a few robots. I consider it only a matter of time until someone mods Interstellar Marines to be the Alien game everyone has dreamed of since the promise shown in that early Aliens: Colonial Marines footage. Get on it modders! Interstellar Marines is an Early Access title, so there are guaranteed to be bugs and unfinished elements. Initially I ran into problems because Interstellar Marines defaults to using integrated graphics cards rather than whatever graphics card might be installed. I also ran into a few where my character wouldn’t fall through large openings on top of buildings. Players only have access to two weapons that include an assault rifle and a scoped rifle with no option for melee attacks if enemies enter close quarters. My overall experience with Interstellar Marines was generally positive, but it left me wanting more. Zero Point Software is onto something great, and if they continue to make additions like the upcoming co-op mode along with more game types and situations, Interstellar Marines has the potential to be a very successful game. For now, I’d recommend keeping this game on your radar. People who would like to get their hands on the Early Access build can do so via Steam, just keep in mind the usual caveats that go along with purchasing a product that has not been finished.
  11. To give you the best idea of what Galactic Civilizations III is like, imagine Sid Meier’s Civilization V set in space with the ability to design your own spaceships. If that sentence doesn't get you salivating at the possibilities, you might have to go rewatch Star Wars. Over the last few days I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the latest build of Galactic Civilizations III and lead the human race into the future. Making sure that humanity survives to dominate the stars isn’t the easiest task, especially in the current build available from developer Stardock Entertainment. While it is certainly playable and quite enjoyable, the limitations of its beta state become immediately apparent when beginning a new game. Though the final game will include eight playable races as well as the option to create a custom race, the current build is limited to four: the Terran Alliance, the Drangin Empire, the Altarian Resistance, and the Iridium Corporation. Each race has different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Terrans are great at exploring during the early game, while the Altarians are adept researchers and quick to adopt new technology. The other major limitation to the beta is that the only victory condition available is conquest. The final retail build will include diplomatic, scientific, and influence victories alongside conquest. Upon loading into a new game, everything seems fantastic. Fans of Galactic Civilizations I and II will feel right at home with the interface, while newcomers might feel a bit out of their depth and require a bit of a learning period before knowing the ins and outs of the numerous menus and orders. The first hour or so of gameplay feel refined and mostly finished and it is fun to expand to new worlds and see what you might find drifting among the debris in deep space. Survey craft can pick apart debris to find advantages for your race in the form of money or even operational ships. The first encounter with an AI civilization shows that Galactic Civilizations III is still very much incomplete. Not only is diplomatic victory impossible, but the diplomacy system hasn’t been implemented at all. This leads to every civilization attacking you on sight, which makes it difficult to fully explore the complex and interesting technology tree down any of the routes besides military. While researching the secret to building larger and larger ships, players will be able to design new types of spacefaring war machines. The ship designer is quite entertaining. It offers players premade designs or allows them to build their ships from scratch. Once the base body has been finished and outfitted with a variety of extra pieces give some character to the design, players can outfit it with weapons, armor, shielding, engines, etc. The system is incredibly flexible and I can easily see some Galactic Civilizations III players putting hours into creating new and unique ships for their fleets. The one thing that I will stress heavily from what I saw during my time leading the Terran armadas is how slowly the game moves. For me that’s great, I love slow, tactical experiences, but I understand that sort of experience isn’t something everyone enjoys readily. I spent nearly six hours with Galactic Civilization III and feel like I have barely scratched the surface of what the final version will be like. I have yet to see how science, influence, or diplomacy victories will work or explored how it could be feasible to research those parts of the tech tree. However, the time I spent in space is just enough to whet my appetite for the final product. Galactic Civilizations III is currently in beta on PC. It has no official release date. People can gain entrance to the beta via Steam for $44.99. I would not recommend purchasing the beta unless you are a hardcore fan of the Galactic Civilizations series and willing to deal with technical bugs and unfinished game systems. For more information on how the Galactic Civilizations III is progressing, be sure to check out the Stardock YouTube Channel to see their weekly progress videos.
  12. Over the past few days I had the opportunity to take a break from reviewing the incredibly long PC RPG Divinity: Original Sin (68 hours in with the end still not in sight!) by suiting up as one of humanity’s last Guardians. After three focused days with the beta, I can say with confidence that Bungie has put what it learned from years developing Halo and successfully read the gaming landscape to create an FPS title that will stand the test of time. The Destiny beta was previewed on PlayStation 4. How does one describe Destiny? Destiny seems like a hodgepodge of various elements copped from other famous science-fiction games, movies, and books that were then rolled up into one package, streamlined, and then given some of the characteristics of an MMO (I thought about putting in the dictionary definition of destiny here instead, but decided that would be too obvious). The physics of the movement is very Halo-esque, giving the player a sensation of great power and fluidity, while eschewing the frantic pacing of titles like Call of Duty or Titanfall. Meanwhile the gunplay is heavily influenced by Borderlands. The aesthetics and setting have Star Wars influences written all over along them (imagine that the Deathstar was sentient, good, and didn’t blow up planets and you basically have the premise for Destiny). Finally, the story is a mix of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End both of which were written by Arthur C. Clarke. And here is the thing: All of those disparate elements come together feeling new and fresh, which is a real achievement! I walked away from my weekend with Destiny having enjoyed myself and feeling optimistic about the game’s future. However, I don’t think it is enough to tell you that I had this positive reaction to Destiny, instead I’m going to attempt to explain why. One of the main attractions of Destiny is how it empowers players. It goes about this in a variety of ways, but first and foremost, it conveys power through movement and terrain traversal. As usual for an FPS, players can toggle between normal running and sprinting, the pace of which is not frenetically fast, but instead instils a feeling of accuracy and control. It is a small touch, but it works. Jumping represents a major contributor to the empowerment of movement in Destiny. At first it seems like a more toned-down version of Halo’s high, floaty jumps, but upon reaching level three or four, players unlock the double jump and it changes everything. In my mind, Titanfall was the first FPS that truly embraced the notion of verticality and freedom of movement. I played Titanfall and felt like I was seeing what the new trend in multiplayer would be; Bungie, much like Respawn, realized that it needed to get away from the landlocked mentality of last-gen’s shooters. I won’t say that Bungie looked at Titanfall and tried to emulate it; Destiny has clearly been in development for years, too long to make such a fundamental change to its entire structure and gameplay dynamics. Destiny and Titanfall both happened to hit on the idea that giving players more options in how they move makes the game a great deal more fun and allows for a more flowing feel to the entire affair. Oh, and the speeder bikes that you can summon almost anywhere control very well and lend the maps a sense of scope while finally allowing you to see what it would be like to ride one of the speeders from Return of the Jedi. Those are pretty sweet. Beyond movement, Destiny takes a running leap (har har) right out of the gate in regards to progression. Completing missions and killing enemies grants experience that adds up over time to level characters. Over the course of the first few missions players level up frequently, about a level per story mission, and find new equipment everywhere. Each level rewards players with a new ability, a variation of one of their existing abilities, an upgrade for core power, or a boost to base stats. New equipment comes in the familiar rarity color coding made omnipresent by Diablo (now go ahead and tell me that Diablo wasn’t the first game to start this sort of color scheme, Diablo was the first I could recall), though the best equipment typically drops in the form of schematics that must be decoded. Uncommon or rare weapons also gain experience the more they are used and can be upgraded once they’ve been used enough in battle. All of this comes together to give players a real sense of escalating power. Now, I can’t speak as to how this will continue on in the full version of Destiny, since the beta caps progress at level 8, but I’d imagine that, similar to other MMOs, the pace of power growth will slow dramatically during the mid to late game compared to the early sections. And make no mistake, Destiny is an MMO despite the marketing of it as being a “shared world.” Destiny takes many design decisions found in a typical MMO and applies them to a first-person shooter in a remarkably deft manner. The elements are there, from random events, to raids (called Strikes), to sidequests that branch off from the main story missions, to seeing the numbers indicating damage dealt pop up with ever successful shot to an enemy. At any given time I could see three or four other Guardians pursuing side missions or participating in random events, but social interaction never felt forced on me or like it took me out of the experience. The strange part is that this all comes together very well. I have my gripes with the Borderlands series, but being able to team up with friends and shoot your way through a campaign was undeniably fun. Destiny captures the essence of that co-op experience and applies it on a wider scale. In fact, the gameplay really does remind me of Borderlands, albeit with more mobility, except that Destiny manages to both make the gameplay its own and appropriately tone the entire affair. That tone is what will make Destiny such a success. Undoubtedly many kids under the age of 17 got their hands on the M rated Borderlands and Borderlands 2, but think of how many more copies Borderlands would have been able to sell with a T rating from the ESRB. On June 26 the ESRB announced that Destiny will be rated T, which widens the audience quite a bit. Combine that with the Star Wars vibe that the title exudes, the sweeping scope, the gameplay which can be enjoyed with friends, and the lack of a subscription fee (ignoring, for a second, PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live), and to me that seems like something that will be astronomically big. It will be innocuous enough to get by most parents while still appealing to the youth demographic and it will be interesting and edgy enough to pull in the older crowds. Now, from all those glowing statements about what Destiny does right, you might be thinking that this is the most perfect game to have ever existed or that I am a goon paid for by Bungie. Neither of those assumptions are correct for there are a number of areas in Destiny that fell short. Many people have pointed to Peter Dinklage’s voice acting performance as something that detracts significantly from their experience. I would never presume to try and invalidate the feelings that other people have, because gut reactions to things can never be “wrong” in any quantitative sense. However, I do think that this is a case of people signaling out a surface-level, lackluster element and pinning their frustrations on it. While Peter Dinklage at times certainly gives a phoned-in performance* (which could very well detract from some players in-game experience, it just didn’t significantly alter my own), the main problem with Destiny isn’t that the performances aren’t as nuanced and deep as they could be; the main problem is that Destiny’s narrative doesn’t know how to begin its story. I don’t want to be overly critical here because Destiny is still months from release and could very well have some of the beginning story elements locked away. However, the product on display in the beta is clunky. It is never sure of how much or when it should dole out information. My character awakens to the line, “you’ve been dead for a long time,” and immediately, without any questions asked, the game placed me into the action. Now, this is a good way to grab a player’s attention, but it comes with a number of questions that demand answers after that action is concluded. Those answers never came. I was whisked away to the last human city, Tower, where I was given general background information about the state of the world and my character’s place in it, but those don’t satisfactorily answer why or how my character was brought back from the dead. There are lots of logic things that can be overlooked in the name of drama, but it was really irritating to me to hear my character speak and somehow fail to ask how he was brought back from the dead. That’s kind of a big deal. If technology is advanced enough to bring people back from the dead after “a long time” how is humanity in bad shape? This serves as a great example of one of my biggest complaints regarding Destiny, because there are numerous times when important details about the world seemed to go unexplained or ignored. Players are simply told to accept the quirks of the various races and events in Destiny’s story without enough context to make sense of it all. The previous paragraph was a minor complaint. That might seem odd, but the story of Destiny is such a secondary (possibly tertiary) concern that it won’t be something that affects most players experience with the game, because the refinement of Destiny’s gameplay trumps most of the minor quibbles it has, story or otherwise. One of those nitpicks goes to the AI, which seem to encounter invisible walls from time to time that can be used to pick off enemies or manipulate them into doing stupid things like running out of cover for no reason. Melee enemies in particular seem to be hit on the head with dumb. Jumping to a high elevation causes them to mill around helplessly like lost puppies. If I had to pick one more smallish complaint, it would be that the sidequests scattered throughout the exploration mode are largely uninteresting and seem to exist mostly out of obligation. Despite the annoyances and the narrative concerns, the heart of the matter is that Destiny is fun. The diversity of inspirations works to make the journey through a devastated Earth and beyond seem new instead of rehashed. It is visually exciting and delivers moments of tense action, comradery, and a sense of adventure. All other concerns aside, the bottom line is that Destiny is such an enjoyable experience that trumps almost any other criticism you could level at it. Destiny releases September 9 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. * Regarding Peter Dinklage: Here’s the thing, folks, Peter Dinklage is a very talented actor. He has a real flair for the dramatic and is capable of turning an audience to putty in his hands through his tone of voice. While it is true that the end result of his voice acting in Destiny sounds less than stellar, we don’t know why he sounds that way. Making a video game is a highly collaborative process. It could be that he found the lines too ridiculous to say seriously; it could be that he just didn’t care; it could be that Dinklage acts best when physically present on a set (to my knowledge, he has only ever done voice work for one other property and that was for Ice Age: Continental Drift in 2012); but it could also be that the people directing him didn’t know how to get what they wanted or they made the call that what they recorded was an acceptable final product. It is important to remember that Peter Dinklage doesn’t have the final say on what goes into Destiny and that others are making the call that those lines were read appropriately. Finally, in Destiny, Dinklage voices a robot and, to me, he sounds very robot-like and detached in-game, which could contribute to why some of his lines sound so lifeless. He’s undeniably a great actor, capable of compelling work (Here is a brilliant scene from Game of Thrones Season 4, spoiler warning and all that), but for that talent to shine it require people in a number of other capacities to recognize what the game needs and bring it out of Dinklage.
  13. On the second day of E3 I was led into a small, dark theater for a live demonstration of the first half hour of Telltale Games' Borderlands title. Here is what I saw. Obviously, Spoiler Warning for the first 30 minutes of Tales from the Borderlands and for Borderlands 2. Before beginning the demo, the PR team assured everyone that the game was about 85-90% complete in most places and that any awkward or stilted animations were due to the game being incomplete. With that, Borderlands as told by Telltale began. Tales from the Borderlands begins with a clandestine meeting between main characters Rhys, Fiona, and a mysterious wasteland samurai-type character. Both Rhys and Fiona are surprised to see each other and initially refuse to work together until the samurai forces them to tell their respective stories. Rhys begins with his side of the story. The Hyperion corporation has descended into a strange corporate bloodbath since the death of Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. Rhys is an eager corporate climber who has almost made it to the Handsome Jack's office. Unfortunately, his jerky acquaintance Vasquez (voiced by the hilarious Patrick Warburton) beat him to the seat of power. In a threat-filled meeting with Vasquez, Rhys happens to overhear that a deal for a Vault Key will be going down on Pandora in the next couple of hours. Eager to hog the glory a Vault Key would bring, Rhys and two of his friends concoct a scheme to beat Vasquez to the deal and purchase it for themselves. As anyone who has played a Borderlands game could tell you, plans made involving Pandora rarely end well. At this point in the demo, a few things were readily apparent. Telltale has gone to great lengths to emulate the style of the Borderlands franchise; it really does look right at home next to Borderlands 1 and 2. However, while it has the look of a Borderlands game, it maintains the mechanics of traditional Telltale adventures like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. The timed conversation options return, but this time there are also opportunities to examine objects, people, sounds, etc. with technology that Rhys has had embedded into his body. Though similar to more recent Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands diverges in its tone. Whereas The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us are fairly dark and grim, Tales from the Borderlands embraces the series penchant for humor and I often found myself chuckling and outright laughing. The plan to beat Vasquez to the Vault Key appears to go smoothly right up until Rhys and company try to interact with one of the Pandora-dwellers whom they affectionately refer to as Grease Face. Understandably, Grease Face doesn't take kindly to Hyperion employees calling him Grease Face. As a fight seems to be imminent, Rhys calls down a combat ready robot from Hyperion headquarters. There are additions to the gameplay that could prove interesting in later episodes. There are loot crates and money that can be picked up and used to bribe characters or buy items, though we never saw how this mechanic would work in-game. The robot Rhys calls upon can be outfitted with different weapons prior to being called down and player's decisions regarding its loadout will affect how the battle progresses. After Rhys escapes the enraged Grease Face and his crew, he makes it to the meeting with the Vault Key dealers. After some tense dialogue and a standoff between the two parties, Rhys straight up rips a guy's heart out. At this point, Fiona interrupts to tell the samurai that Rhys' description of how the standoff ended was a complete lie. She begins to tell her version of the story and how she was there to see what happened and depending on her response three wildly different versions of events can be created. With that, the demo ended. I'm still not sure that the five part Tales from the Borderlands will be able to deliver the same dramatic punches that The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us have proved capable of pulling, but that might not be an issue if it can sustain its level of comedy. Overall, I found Tales from the Borderlands entertaining. I'm still not completely sold on the concept, but I'm willing to strap myself in for another Telltale adventure when it releases later this summer on PC, XBLA, and PSN.
  14. During E3 I had the pleasure of meeting with Martin Brouard from Frima Studios to discuss the indie platforming title Chariot. Afterward, I was able to go hands-on for nearly a half-hour. Spoiler: I couldn't stop smiling. --- Martin Brouard: I’m the Executive Producer for Chariot. It’s a platformer, a couch co-op platformer that’s coming out on Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, and PC this fall. Jack Gardner: Awesome! And we can see it right behind you there. From what I understand the general premise is that a king or emperor has died and you're taking him to his final resting place? MB: Right, you play as a princess and you are accompanied by your very trusty fiancé and before going on with your life, you have to, you know, put your dead father to rest in a really nice sepulcher. But the king is actually back as a ghost and the chariot that you are bringing around everywhere; it’s a coffin on wheels. The king is there and he keeps complaining that you are leaving treasure behind or that you cannot possibly think of burying him here because it is not a proper, kingly place. He always wants more treasure and more interesting places, so that’s how you progress through different levels. [There are] five different environments, 25 levels of exploration. And it is couch co-op so you play both characters. You can play solo, but it is really made for having fun with a friend at home. JG: What different mechanics can we expect to see out of Chariot? MB: The big difference between Chariot and other platformers that we know and love is that it’s a physics-based platformer with a chariot is at the center of it. You need the chariot because that’s what picks up all the loot; that’s what is at the center of the game. So, you’ll push it; you’ll pull it; you’ll use this rope mechanic to pull the chariot, to give some rope to your friend to dangle over a precipice. To try to jump into hard to reach areas. There is lots of exploration. You use the chariot to jump on it, to roll down slopes. [You will have] one special item that you choose for every level, one per character, you use these items to do special moves. There is an attractor, a repulsor, a peg so you can attach your rope to a little escalation peg. There’s something that slows down time and speed boots. By combining these items, one on each character, you can pull off some really fantastic moves and that’s where the fun is. JG: And there is no online co-op or just couch co-op? MB: It’s too… it just wouldn’t make sense for us. It’s really a game where you want to have fun with the person sitting next to you. And be arguing over, “We should be going over there,” “No! Let’s go over there. There is probably something hidden there,” “Alright, alright.” It just wouldn’t be the same over the internet. JG: What is your favorite part of Chariot? MB: My favorite part is definitely when you see some hard to reach area and you’re like, “Okay, we’ve got to get over there,” and you need to figure out a way, but there are different ways to achieve that. Sometimes you’ll try to pull out some really crazy move, and you will try and try again. When after fifteen minutes of trying you finally pull off that move, this is just so satisfying. High-fives all over the place and it is a great satisfaction. Also, the humor. Right now this is an alpha-build. It’s not finished. JG: Wow, that looks great for an alpha-build! MB: Thank you! But the voice overs aren’t implemented yet. There is a lot of humor coming from the king who is interacting with you. He is kinda acting as a chaperone, you know, his daughter with this guy. He’s there to keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t leave any loot on the table. JG: And collecting the loot is how you unlock the gadgets and get the different abilities? MB: You actually get the gadgets by finding the blueprints and special collectibles. Between every level you’ll be meeting with a merchant on the surface. He’s a skeleton dude, I don’t think he even realizes that he’s a skeleton, but he’s improving your stuff in exchange for your loot. For example, if you want to go to the lava levels, you’ll need to make sure that your chariot becomes fireproof. For that you’ll need to find blueprints that are hidden somewhere in the game, but then you also need to give the blueprints to the merchant along with some of your loot, which the king doesn’t like too much. When you part with the blueprint and [pay the merchant], he’ll upgrade the chariot and it will be able to float in lava. Same thing with the ice caverns and other levels. You can also improve your gadgets up to three levels. For example, the repulsor which is basically something that throws the chariot super hard with physics, when you are at level three it really shoots the chariot very far. So, if your friend is standing on it and then you’re shooting it, it’s pretty awesome. JG: Are there enemies in the game? So far I haven’t seen any. MB: Well, it’s not a fighting game, but there are enemies. They're called looters. They will not attack you. They will only attack the chariot, try to grab your loot, and run away with it. So your job is basically to dispatch them as quickly as possible or run away before they steal too much of your loot, because that’s also your score. The princess has a sword, so she’s a close-range character and the fiancé has a little slingshot so he is a ranged character. A lot of times, one player will try to get out while the other will defend, so that leads to some fun little combat scenes, but it’s not at the heart of the game. There are four different enemies. Some of them are even trying to steal the chariot! [laughs] JG: Is it an open-world, Metroid-style game? MB: No, no. The way it works is there are 25 different levels scattered over five different environments. These environments are unlocked when you upgrade the chariot, but there are different entrances and exits in certain levels that sometimes unlock speed runs you can complete for special rewards and leaderboards. JG: So how does that work, is there a hub where you access each level? MB: Yes, there is a map that is currently very placeholder, but every time you find an exit it opens up the path to a new level. Sometimes you find different exits in different levels. There is a lot of exploration there. JG: Well it looks incredible. I can’t wait to play it! MB: Thank you very much, you can play it right now! [laughs] --- And play it I did. Even in early alpha Chariot is almost overwhelmingly charming. The art design is great and does a great job conveying humor and lightheartedness even without dialogue. Levels are cleverly constructed to interact with the chariot and the players in interesting ways. For example, there are certain surfaces that will be solid for the player, but not the chariot and vice versa. The rope mechanics and physics feel statisfying and it feels really rewarding to overcome obstacles with a co-op partner. Recently there have been people expressing a desire for non-violent games to play with family or just as an alternative to the omni-present shooter genre. Though Brouard said that there were looters in Chariot, in nearly a half hour, I never saw a single one and still enjoyed myself immensely. I would feel very comfortable sitting down with my young nephews and playing this along with them. Brouard was right, Chariot can be played alone, but it is meant to embody cooperation and going it alone seems miss a bit of the magic that Chariot has to offer. Keep your eye on Chariot. It releases this fall on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC.
  15. While at E3 this year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with French publisher Focus Home Interactive to talk about their upcoming stealth action game that will be released under the name Styx: Master of Shadows. Developed by Cyanide Studios, Styx is a sequel to the 2012 RPG Of Orcs and Men. Other than one of the main characters and the setting, everything has been reworked for this sequel. Master of Shadows’ basic premise is that Styx is a goblin thief who wants to steal the heart of a giant tree. The heart of the tree is made of amber, a substance which is the source of magic and thus incredibly valuable. What could be easier than stealing from a tree? Quite a lot of things if said tree happens to have an entire city and fortress built around it defended by both elves and men. I was able to see a gameplay demonstration taken and it is clear that Styx: Master of Shadows takes many of its cues from Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age. The demo I was shown saw Styx sneaking through a town to try and free an ally from prison. There are many features that you would expect in a modern stealth game, such as hiding spots and kills that come in the silent or loud variety. However, there are plenty of interesting additions that set Master of Shadows apart. Styx has a diverse array of powers that derive from amber that flows through his veins. The amber in Styx’s blood serves as the players HUD to indicate whether he is concealed or hidden. Using his amber powers, he can see through walls, turn invisible, create smoke screens, and create a clone of himself. The clone was the most interesting ability shown during the demo; it can be used to scout the level, set off environmental traps, or distract guards by hilariously leaping onto their face and causing them to freak out. Each of these powers can be upgraded to be even more effective and powerful. Levels are all designed with the idea of verticality in mind. Traversing the environments requires a bit more effort and offers more control than in titles like Assassin’s Creed. Players should rarely find themselves stuck with only one route to an objective; alternate paths present themselves both above and below. Physically, Styx isn’t as powerful as humans or elves, so he will often need to resort to trickery and making use of the heights to emerge triumphant. Styx can quickly and silently kill enemies by executing a falling stab attack. He will also be able to poison food and water supplies to discreetly take out guards after a short period of time. Players will need to keep an eye out for anything in the environment that could be useful, like giant, suspended crates that could be dropped on top of overly inquisitive guards. A new feature touted during the demonstration was the living city. While All NPCs have visual and sound detection capabilities, each one is also connected to two or three others who will come looking for their friend if he or she deviates from their established patterns. Bodies of unconscious or dead guards will need to be moved out of sight to avoid alerting other NPCs. Of course, if moving enemies seems like too much of a hassle, players can also dump some acid on a body and dissolve all evidence of wrongdoing. There are plenty of things to do besides pursuing primary objectives and robbing NPCs blind. Each level has ten collectibles scattered throughout and these items require a bit of exploration to discover. As players sneak through levels, there will be opportunities to spy and eavesdrop on NPCs to learn more background info on the world and fulfill optional sidequest objectives. Completing more objectives nets players more experience points which they can use to upgrade their abilities. I was told that an average playthrough of Styx: Master of Shadows should take around twelve hours. Along with a number of difficulty settings, there will also be a challenge mode that unlocks after beating the game that offers players some replayability. It is worth noting that the abilities on display in the demo are by no means exhaustive of what will be available in the finished title. Styx: Master of Shadows will be available sometime this fall for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
  16. From 2009’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity to this year’s Drunken Robot Pornography, Dejobaan Games has really built a name for itself in the industry as a developer that toys with absurd humor. I think that’s partly why I was so taken aback by the sincere and honest attempt at doing something new with Elegy for a Dead World. After I finished a single playthrough of the game, I sat back and chatted with Ichiro Lambe, the founder and president of Dejobaan Games. He asked me what I thought of the game and I told him that I’d have to think about it. It took me a while to answer. Elegy is unlike any game I have ever played. On the most superficial level, it is a side-scroller that tasks the player with moving from left to right in order to progress, but there aren’t any challenges or impediments. Instead, each section of game has a new backdrop of gorgeous alien terrain, depicting crumbling structures and technology. At certain points, the player will receive unobtrusive prompts to write something. The style the player is prompted to write in is determined at the beginning of the game when the player chooses between poetic, story, or blank verse modes. Elegy for a Dead World is all about how people respond to things and construct unique, individual narratives. It demonstrates how creativity moves all people, whether they think they’re creative or not. Each time the game prompts a new written input, it provides context (unless you are playing in blank verse mode) and leaves a number of blanks for the player to fill in with their own words. Of course, all text is editable, not just the blanks, so players never have words forced upon them. With this game, everyone can write a story, a poem, or something else entirely. Eventually, I told Ichiro what I thought about this strange game that’s based on the works of British Romance-era poets. I told him that the best way I could describe it would be to call this game an inspiration simulator. In a sense, it allows players to discover their own story as they tell it to themselves. That is a concept with which I could fall in love. However, I think there are several ways that Elegy for a Dead World could be improved. One of the main problems that I had was that the game seems to be fairly linear from left to right. Though my character had a jet pack, I never had a reason to use it other than to break up the monotony of moving from one side of the screen to the other. More exploration, more verticality to the levels, and more prompts would serve to fill out Elegy and make traversing the desolation of its world a bit more interesting. I would also be very curious see another implementation of this same approach to gamified storytelling that was based on different eras of poets and storytellers with different visual cues. I guess what I’m saying here is that I love the core concept of this game that I would like to see more of it in almost every respect. If you get an opportunity, check out Elegy for a Dead World. It is different in a way that should be appreciated and applauded.
  17. I really adore the game 6180 Moon (even though I am just awful at it) for its tight platforming and clever puzzle mechanics. So imagine my delight to find that the developer behind 6180, Turtle Cream, had returned to E3 this year with a rough build of a new game with a new central mechanic that I have never seen before. Long Take is another game that is both clever and challenging. The premise is that instead of controlling the main character of the game, you are merely the camera man who is trying to make the hero look good. Here is where it gets interesting: Everything outside of your camera frame ceases to exist. All manner of hazards from rockets to lasers can be avoided by zooming the camera closer to the hero. However, the proximity of the zoom has to be weighed against how fast the hero is moving. If the platforming protagonist leaves the camera frame, you fail the level and start over again. This means you have to be careful if he decides to go back to collect the last few coins in the level or makes a dash for the exit. This leads to a number of creative puzzles that revolve around where you point the camera. Though I didn’t have an extended play session with Long Take, it shows a lot of promise for such an early iteration of the concept. I only had a couple gripes about what I have seen thus far. First, the player isn't given time to survey each level to formulate a strategy beforehand (only a brief glimpse of everything before automatically beginning), which leads to a number of frustrating and seemingly unavoidable trial and error deaths. Second, I encountered a bug where things off screen continued to fire despite not being visible, which is really debilitating to the core concept of the title. There were a few other minor annoyances along the lines of the second complaint, but I was assured that they were due to the early build and would be ironed out before release. Overall, color me intrigued and hopeful that Long Take will live up to the pedigree of 6180.
  18. If you have been paying the barest attention to mobile gaming over the last couple months, chances are you’ve heard of the game Threes!, which was designed by indie developer Asher Vollmer. It turns out that Vollmer has been working on a different game in the wake of Threes! success and it happens to be one of the best games I’ve played at E3 this year. Close Castles is a unique take on the tower defense genre that plays like a minimalist reduction of a real-time strategy game. In its current state, Close Castles has no single-player or online multiplayer and as far as I know there aren’t currently plans to make either of those features. The game pits two, three, or four local players against each other in a battle of wits. The premise of Close Castle is, fittingly, that each player has built a castle too close to the neighboring castles of other nations and this has started a war. The war takes place on a grid with each castle residing in a different corner of the grid. Players move their cursor to different squares within their territory to build one of three different structures which then expand their territory. The most basic structures necessary for securing victory in Close Castles are houses, which spawn knights that can attack enemy buildings. If an enemy is invading your lands, towers are a great investment as they assault attacking knights. However, houses and towers don’t just build themselves; all buildings cost money and the more money a play has over their opponents, the more likely they are to secure a victory. To that end, markets are a must for any long-term conquest. I know that I said there were three structures, but another key element to Close Castles is constructing roads. Roads cost nothing and don’t expand your territory, but they are how you direct your knights from their houses to attack enemy buildings. With these basic rules and mechanics, Close Castles sets players loose against each other. On the surface, Close Castles looks simple enough: The last player with a castle standing wins. But how do you go about besting your friends? Do you go for a building out towers to slowly and safely expand your empire? Or do you build a couple early markets and then blitz your opponents with several houses spewing forth knights? Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages. Allowing a player to turtle for too long can result in an unstoppable wave of knights later on, while neglecting early defense can leave you wide open to an early house rush. There is definitely a learning curve to Close Castles that lends itself to evolving strategies over time. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to build roads. Roads are what allows your knights to target enemy structures and you can target more than one building at a time. However, targeting multiple structures will result in an even split of your knights between those targets. Therefore, the more targets you have, the more you divide your forces. This can allow you to hit multiple locations at once, but if you aren’t careful you can simply end up losing all of your knights and leave yourself open to a counterattack. It is worth noting that we played Close Castles entirely with Xbox 360 controllers, which might make it the first RTS-like game able to be enjoyed with a gamepad. Each building was mapped to a different face button, while the cursor was moved using the left joystick. It felt smooth and responsive, which is incredibly important when you need to respond to an unexpected enemy attack. Close Castles is still in the early stages of development and there are almost certainly features that will be added or tweaked, but as it stands right now it is one of the most game-like games I’ve played at E3. It completely embraces the spirit of tower defense, while getting at the heart of what makes real-time strategy so engaging. It takes those concepts and strips them down to the bare essentials. That this is played against people who are physically present and frantically strategizing both against and with you adds to a sense of frenetic excitement. Though currently there is no release date for Close Castles, if the build I played went on sale for mobile, PC, or consoles tomorrow, I would pick it up and recommend you all do the same. Not because it is doing something radical or something new, the concepts on display are old as Chess, but because it does those old things so well that it makes them feel new. Like I said, Close Castles seems simple enough on the surface, but that simplicity stems from elegance. And elegance is a beautiful thing.
  19. Over the weekend, Telltale Games held a panel at SXSW where they discussed a few tantalizing tidbits from their upcoming adventure series set in the Borderlands universe. Tales from the Borderlands is set after the events of Borderlands 2 and will follow the two new characters shown in the reveal trailer. These newcomers, Fiona and Rhys, will tell the episodic story through a series of flashbacks centered around their adventures on the planet Pandora. Given that there are two main characters, players will be able to play through events from different perspectives. Polygon has reported that designer Harrison Pink has confirmed that there will be some of the shooting that Borderlands fans have come to expect from the franchise, just that it will be done in a "Telltale way." Telltale is clearly aiming to have a new episodic venture with a bit more of a lighthearted tone. Tales from the Borderlands seeks to capture some of the spirit from Tales of Monkey Island and set itself apart from grim and gritty worlds of The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. What do you think? Are you guys ready for a Borderlands adventure game or do you think that it is better left as a gun-filled loot fest?
  20. Over the past few days, I had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time experiencing a small selection of multiplayer maps and modes from the upcoming Titanfall. What did I think? Read on to find out! My initial thoughts on Titanfall were far from positive. I booted up the game and was greeted by the training tutorial which appeared to be a black screen full of polygons. I managed to progress a few lessons into the tutorial, but noticed with growing alarm that weapons were missing, textures were wonky, and the final straw was when enemies would be covered in strange twisted wire sctulptures. My gaming rig can play most games at max settings, so I knew something was wrong. After spending several fruitless hours searching for solutions, I was directed toward a YouTube comment that solved my problem. In some instances on PC, Titanfall will default to use the integrated PC graphics rather than the actual graphics card users have installed. So, if you want to save yourself a great deal of frustration when you boot up the retail version of Titanfall, make sure that you check to make sure it is running on your graphics card. I was... confused. After resolving that issue, I managed to complete the tutorial, which consists of both pilot and titan training. In a number of ways Titanfall seeks to improve the established multiplayer FPS gameplay established by the likes of Battlefield and Call of Duty. One of the most prominent being the emphasis on mobility and verticality to level design and combat. While on foot, players can run on walls for a limited time or jump from wall to wall indefinitely. The inclusion of jet packs also means that reaching higher ledges is easy and juking enemies becomes a valid option. This mobility comes in very handy once enemy titans enter the fray. Called down from orbit, these giant robotic suits can kill players simply by stepping on them without even bothering with their array of rockets, giant chain guns, reflective bullet shields, and dashes. Stepping into the cockpit of a titan or seeing them sow destruction across the battlefield is always impressive. When a match starts, all players begin with a certain amount of time to wait before they can call down their titan and eliminating enemies reduces the timer. This system might seem to favor teams who receive their titans first, but on-foot players aren't completely defenseless. Armed with an anti-titan weapon and the ability to cloak, players can make themselves undetectable to titans while also packing a punch. But be warned, while cloaking is very effective against titans, it doesn't work quite as well against other enemies on foot. Titans are also limited to ground. They can't climb on buildings or jump, so sometimes having the higher ground can be a very effective way to fight against their overwhelming force. Titans can also be exited and made to follow the player or to guard a position, which can be useful if you want to provide a big distraction or hold a position. If this all sounds impressive and fun, that's because it is very impressive and fun. Three game modes were available during the beta: Attrition, Capture Point, and Last Titan Standing. Attrition was by far my favorite, which pits two teams of six against each other with each player or Titan kill deducting from a team total. If your team loses, all surviving players have to make a mad dash for an escape shuttle while the enemy team hunts down the survivors and attempts to destroy the shuttle. An interesting factor in attrition is that, even though there are only six players on each team, there are large numbers of AI soldiers who also participate in the battle, shouting to each other for back-up, calling out the positions of enemy pilots or titans, and respond to various combat situations relatively well. They aren't all that bright, but they lend every battle a feeling of scope that would be lacking otherwise. Capture Point is very similar to Attrition, but with the tried and true systems we've seen from other multiplayer FPS games before. Last Titan Standing is a single-life death match between two teams where every player starts with a titan, and the team to eliminate all enemy titans first is the victor. In a nice twist, even if you happen to lose your titan, you can still help your teammates while on foot. Titanfall rewards players with experience following each match, allowing players to feel a sense of progression. Each level brings with it an unlocked weapon, mod, ability, etc. and completing certain challenges can unlock more gear to test out on the battlefield. While the level cap during the beta was fourteen, it is expected to be much higher for the full game with many other goodies unlocked later on like different titan chasis. Eventually, players will unlock the ability to use burn cards, which are cards that can be activated in-game while respawning to give a limited, one-life advantage in the form of a more powerful weapon, faster movement, etc. which serve to spice up the combat even more. It is worth noting that while most of the weapons are different takes on weapons we've all seen before in FPS games, there was one that I found enjoyably different. The smart pistol lines up headshots automatically, requiring more time to target more powerful enemies. Once all shots are locked on, the pistol can fire and each bullet will hit, provided something else doesn't get in the way. If this seems cheap, it can be, but the downside is that with all the movement enemy players are capable of, locking all your shots can be a difficult task, especially if your opponent has a more conventional rifle or sniper rifle and has noticed your approach. Overall, my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Discovering small things like the several different animations that play depending on how you approach getting into your titan, or that you can hitch a ride on friendly titans, or calling down your titan on an unsuspecting enemy are all amazing little touches that give Titanfall a feeling of depth and excitement I haven't felt while playing online multiplayer since the original Halo. My first thought upon coming out of my first online match of Titanfall was that Respawn Entertainment has crafted the next big thing. It is fun, slick, responsive, creative, and you get to punch the snot out of giant robots. What's not to love? Titanfall releases on Xbox One and PC on March 11 with an Xbox 360 coming March 25.
  21. “Legend has it there is a treasure on the 26th floor,” and so begins the Legend of Dungeon, a beautiful, dungeon-crawling, action RPG that features permadeath by the small team at Robot Loves Kitty. Armed with only a sword and whatever you can gather from your local tavern, you control a brave adventurer (of whatever gender you may prefer) through the perils of Dungeon. Making your way to the 26th floor and back again, however, is easier said than done. The halls of this Rogue-like adventure are deadly affairs, with each new room holding unknown enemies, traps, and treasures. At first glance, the most arresting aspect of Legend of Dungeon is the striking 8-bit graphics mixed with dynamic lighting effects. Fire casts flickering shadows and sends up 8-bit gouts of flame, leveling up gives off a small semi-circle of radiance, and lanterns illuminate limited parts of pitch black rooms. Creatures as well as the player’s avatar will cast shadows near powerful light sources that grow or shrink depending on the proximity to said light source. This aesthetic choice lends Dungeon a look and feel entirely unique to itself that is quite pleasing to the eyes. The audio goes hand-in-hand with the visuals. Featuring music that responds and adapts to the player’s situation within the various rooms. Composer David Dirig created eighteen original songs which were shifted around and reassembled into 244 different tracks that serve as the audioscape for Legend of Dungeon. Dirig’s soundtrack works to hammer home the mystery and danger of the place in which players have chosen to delve for treasure and glory. The combat, much like other aspects of Legend of Dungeon, functions in a simple, yet elegant manner. You can play with either a mouse and keyboard or a PC compatible controller, and it is a painless task to map out new control schemes in the options menu. My set up used WASD for movement, the space bar to jump, my mouse to attack/use item, and the scroll wheel to switch between items. That’s the entirety of Legend of Dungeon’s control scheme. However, don’t let the simplicity of the controls fool you: Legend of Dungeon is a hard game. In my time with it, I never made it farther than the tenth floor (curse you, zombie-raising skeleton wizard!). Every time a player starts a new game, the dungeon’s layout is changed, meaning you never know what you will encounter. Maybe the first room you walk into is a shop or maybe it has a switch that releases a powerful Evil Warlock that can kill you in two or three hits. Luckily, the early levels of Dungeon are rarely life threatening. You have ample time and energy to explore and search for useful items and magic. If you are lucky you might find a powerful weapon, hat (hats function as armor), or spell. New weapons and magic drastically affect how players can approach enemies. Did you find a gun? Pepper your foes from a distance. Stumble across a shield? Automatically protect yourself from damage AND use it as a weapon. Manage to scrounge up a magic book? Raise an army of cannon fodder skeleton zombies to act as a distraction. The possibilities only get more ridiculous the more time you spend exploring Dungeon. It is worth mentioning here that players can tackle Legend of Dungeon solo or with up to three friends locally. No online co-op was available in the version I played and currently there does not appear to be plans for it to be added for the retail release. To have a better chance of emerging from the dark depths of Dungeon alive, I would recommend playing with allies. As players progress, they will accumulate a small arsenal of weapons and having different people fulfilling different roles to combat any and all potential challenges the dungeon might see fit to throw out can never be a bad thing. I had two issues that occurred throughout my time with Legend of Dungeon. The first one deals with hit detection. The action of the game takes place in a brawler-like manner, meaning you can move up, down, left, and right, but you are usually moving either left or right to proceed. This can make hitting enemies on a different vertical plane a bit spotty and results in players taking additional hits, which can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. The second issue which caused me a small amount of frustration was the lack of a strafing. There were times where being able to face one direction constantly would have been quite a boon. Instead, when fighting off waves of enemies I had to fight, turn away to run back a bit, then turn to fight again. Invariably this resulted in accruing two or three extra hits of damage, which begins to add up the deeper you find yourself within the ever shifting halls of Dungeon. All-in-all, Legend of Dungeon is shaping up to be an excellent game. The full retail version will be available September 13 for Windows, Mac, and Linux. If you can’t wait that long to get your hands on it, you can pre-order from Steam or from Robot Loves Kitty’s website and have access to the beta version leading up to the official release. If you are one of the people who has already bought the beta version and are feeling in need of some guidance on tackling the dangers that lurk below, here is a handy guide on some of the basics of Legend of Dungeon written up by the developers.
  22. The Lost Planet series is a bit of a gaming anomaly. The first game, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, gave players robotic suits of armor called Vital Suits, a grappling hook, and giant enemy monsters to shoot. The gameplay was pretty straightforward and the game world was refreshing and fun, but the story was the special kind of so-bad-its-good. All of these elements combined to create a pretty enjoyable game. Extreme Condition also had an online multiplayer component, which became the main focus of Lost Planet 2. Many people felt alienated by the shift in direction from the first Lost Planet game and most people assumed that the series died after the sequel. Then, Capcom did the unthinkable. They decided to try and revitalize the series with a story driven, single-player experience. Early trailers showed a bearded man both in and out of a gigantic Vital Suit fighting off Akrid, insect-like enemies that were the mainstays of the previous two titles. This seemed like a step in the right direction for a series seemingly back from the dead. I was able to play the single-player demo and what I saw was in desperate need of last minute tweaking. Picking up the single-player, I was thrust into a boss battle against a giant ice worm. The creature thrashed at the room sending claws through the broken window and occasionally spitting larva reminiscent of the face-huggers from the Alien series. All of the elements were present for a thrilling, satisfying battle. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of health the ice worm had made this battle last for nearly seven minutes. During that time I stood in one place constantly shooting at the worm, occasionally turning to take care of the face-huggers. After defeating the worm, I ran through some hallways of the destroyed facility before running onto a platform outside and waited for an elevator. Surprise! The worm appeared again and a repeat of the last encounter began. I stood still and shot at the giant worm and its larva for a prolonged period of time until the elevator arrived. Then I got into a giant Vital Suit to fight the worm in close-quarters-combat. What I thought would be an awesome culmination of the demo, possibly redeeming the lackluster combat up until that point, turned out to be a difficult quick-time-event to which I died repeatedly. After pressing on through the frustration generated by the ice worm sequence, I encountered a cutscene which sets up the story of Lost Planet 3. Visually, Lost Planet 3 is gorgeous. Snow swirls, creatures and VSs look appropriately amazing, fantastic, and cool, and the animations are smooth and pleasing. The cutscenes in particular were dazzling and left me wanting to just watch a Lost Planet CG film. However, in pretty much every other area I found Lost Planet 3 to be in need of some polish. Many of the sound effects seemed to be place-holders, guns made strange, unsatisfying, and decidedly un-gunlike noises. The music would probably have been pretty great, but after spending twenty minutes listening to the same, looped orchestral track it began to wear a bit thin. The gameplay seemed sluggish and unresponsive, moving from cover to cover seemed to take too long and the aiming felt slippery. To be fair, most of my time spent in single-player was standing stationary and holding down the shoulder button to shoot. This is mostly a balancing issue that could be taken care of with a bit of effort between now and release. It remains to be seen if these problems will persist into the full retail release or if I happened to play through a particularly frustrating part of the game. Lost Planet 3 is being developed by Spark Unlimited and published by Capcom. Expect to see it hitting stores August 27 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.
  23. For people who may not be familiar with Octodad, you play as an octopus that masquerades as a human and tries to perform mundane tasks like walking or using forks without alerting normal humans that he is, in fact, an octopus. During E3, I was able to sit down and play as the sneaky cephalopod on the PS4. The demo of Dadliest Catch (by the way, how can you NOT love such a terrible/hilarious play on Deadliest Catch?) tasked me with making it to my wedding without drawing too much attention to my rather obvious tentacles. Shoulder buttons control leg movements in conjunction with the analog sticks, while tapping one of the face buttons allows you to control one of the hand-tentacles to grab and manipulate objects. While the controls seem simple, deadliest Catch goes to great lengths to inform players that if an octopus was to put on a man’s suit, tie, and pants, it would be very difficult for that aquatic creature to assume the role of a father. By using the octopus’ natural (See: completely unnatural) ability to walk and pick up things, players will need to figure out the best way to complete objectives like cooking dinner or putting a wedding ring on a beloved’s hand. Often, picking up a single object or walking in a straight line results in hilarious destruction and much limb flailing. I began by having to put on a bowtie, which proved incredibly disastrous, as I sent wedding gifts scattering across the floor before falling onto a table, burying myself underneath a mountain of presents. When I tried to rise up, like a beautiful, aquatic phoenix, I smashed a few of the gifts through the stained-glass window of the church. Luckily, no one was around to observe my miserable performance and I was able to saunter away from the wreckage of my bowtie adventure, whistling innocently (or whatever the cephalopod equivalent of whistling would be). Following the bowtie escapade, I needed to walk down the aisle of a church to get married to my human bride. On the way, I wobbled from right to left, knocking over several pillars that lined the pews and nearly falling over multiple times, all while the digital wedding-goers wondered at my clumsiness. If these missteps occur too often while other people can see you, they will begin to get suspicious and eventually see through the ruse, resulting in a game over. Luckily, I successfully made it to my bride, after which I needed to make my way to a nearby chest and retrieve the wedding ring. Retrieving the ring with little effort (okay, I might have thrown a ton of jewels out of the chest all over the church altar), I carefully placed the ring into the possession of my bride. And just like that, the demo was over. I could tell you a lot of things about Octodad: Dadliest Catch. I could say that the animations are amazingly funny; that the ridiculousness of the premise is really enjoyable if you can find some modicum of joy in your heart; that the team at Young Horses has put a lot of genuine heart into Dadliest Catch. I could say those things. But I think what really speaks for the game is that throughout the entire demo I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Dadliest Catch is a direct sequel to the original PC game (which can be downloaded here) and will be releasing on PC, Mac, Linux, and PS4 sometime this year.
  24. One of the biggest “huh” moments of E3, overshadowed by the console war between the PS4 and Xbox One, was the revelation that a new game based on the 1980 film Mad Max was in the works by Avalanche Studios simply titled Mad Max. We were given a live, hands-off demonstration of Mad Max in action. How does Max hold up in the 21st century? Slated as a next-gen, open-world title, Mad Max will put players in the boots of the titular Max himself as he struggles to reclaim his classic Interceptor car from the marauders of the post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the game is set. Along the way, Max is aided by the twisted genius of the deformed Chum Bucket, a mechanic who builds Max a new vehicle called the Magnum Opus, which can be upgraded in a variety of different ways. In the demonstration, Max needed to get to a place called Gas Town for unspecified reasons. Along the way, he saw some wrecked cars along the road and stopped to scavenge them for supplies. Scavenging will be an integral part of surviving in Mad Max and will net you all kinds of new equipment and upgrades. By searching the wreckage, Max walked away with a beat-up, but serviceable harpoon cannon. This new weapon was put to use a few moments later when Max was ambushed by bandits while driving toward Gas Town. Using the harpoon cannon rips pieces of other cars off, exposing enemies or even destroying the vehicle outright. During this encounter, one of the bandits managed to jump onto the roof of the Magnum Opus and started trying to get into the car. The demonstrator took the opportunity to show off how the game’s physics can be used to repel boarders, swerving to and fro, eventually dislodging the tenacious bandit. After the dust had settled, we were told that if we went back and searched the bodies and vehicles, we could probably find more cool stuff, but in the interest of time we pressed on. The map system in place right now looks like a placeholder for the final design, but it functions. Really important areas will be highlighted on the map, but random encounters, roving bands of marauders, and smaller sidequests will not be. While the roads are always the safest routes to take, players will be able to cut through the more dangerous wilderness to find riches and glory. Off-road exploration of the desert wastes will be necessary to find some of the coolest gear and locations. Encountering a bandit camp roadblock and an entrenched sniper, Max stepped out of the Magnum Opus to take care of both on foot. The combat in Mad Max is brutal and intense. Max will use whatever he can to best his adversaries, be it fists, shotguns, or explosive harpoons. Using these weapons, Max caused havoc in the camp and destroyed the roadblock before sneaking up behind the sniper to finish him off with a silent takedown. It was at this point that the demonstrator paused to make it clear that Mad Max is not a stealth game, nor do they encourage that type of play, but there are times when you can make use of the element of surprise. After taking the sniper’s rifle and making his way back to the Opus, Max continued on his way, before encountering a walled fortress blocking his route. The gates of the fortress glowed red, alerting players that the Opus would need to be upgraded before being able to bash through them. This is where the team at Avalanche has tried to make Mad Max shine. There are numerous ways to approach a combat scenario: head-on with guns blazing, long range sniping/mortar attacks, by using vehicles, etc. In the demo, Max used his newly acquired sniper rifle to take out a couple of sentries on the fort’s walls. This caused an alarm to go up and loud bells began clanging within the enemy camp. Max had awoken the horde, which began pouring from the now open gate. Running back to the Magnum Opus, Max jumped in and floored the accelerator, rushing straight into the oncoming sea of marauders. Then the screen faded to the slogan for the title, “Only the savage survive.” Everything we saw was from a pre-alpha version of Mad Max, and is subject to change as the final version is still quite a ways off. To be honest, not much is known about the game, but from what I saw I thought it looked like an intense, visceral, and potentially fun experience. Look for Mad Max in 2014 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
  25. For those who are unfamiliar with Earth Defense Force (EDF), let me paint a word-picture of what the series is like, at least as I am familiar with it from the previous two game that have released in North America. Imagine a third-person shooter with low-budget graphics, hilarious animation, and a laughable storyline. Combine that mental image with the concepts of infinite ammo, flying saucers, lasers, jet packs, destructible environments, giant robots, hundreds of giant ants, spiders, and other insects. Does that sound awesome? Then EDF 2017 and its direct sequel EDF 2025 might just be for you. The events of the first game aren’t all that important. All you need to know is that aliens dubbed “The Ravagers” descended on Earth, and were defeated by the Earth Defense Force. Thought to be destroyed, the Ravagers suddenly reappear in 2025 stronger than ever, and the EDF must once more step up to stop the global threat. Taking cues from a previous EDF title called Insect Armageddon, 2025 has four playable classes. The Air Raider can call down vehicle drops and functions as a support class, improving and working with other classes. The Ranger class is the most balanced and “normal” of the classes, able to roll out of danger. The third class is the mobile Wing Diver, who comes equipped with a jet pack and laser weapons. Playing as a Wing Diver was perhaps the most fun I had with a class in my hour with EDF 2025. The light weapons she uses are offset by her maneuverability in the air, in which she can fly almost indefinitely. Some of her weapons drain her jet pack energy, forcing an early landing if you aren’t careful, but there is no fall damage in EDF. Finally, the Fencer heavy weapons class can bring four weapons into a level instead of two and can switch between both load outs on the fly. Basically, the Fencer quadra-wields weapons. QUADRA. WIELDS. WEAPONS. Oh, and the Fencer has access to hyper-charged melee weapons like a gravity hammer that can be charged up and releases a gigantic shockwave. The game was designed with splitscreen and online co-op in mind. Up to four people can play together online, while two people can play together locally in splitscreen. Some weapons can only be used in conjunction with other classes in multiplayer. The example I was shown involved the Air Raider and the Fencer. As the fencer, I had a weapon which fired a single, powerful guided-missile, while the Air Raider had a guiding laser which could be used to select the target for the missile. Many features have stayed the same from 2017 to 2025. The goal of each mission is as simple as it ever was: Destroy all the enemies. There have been some slight graphical improvements and the frame rate no longer stutters when faced with hundreds of charging ants, spiders, flying saucers, giant robots, etc. However, the low-grade charm of 2017 remains intact. The multiple difficulty levels ranging from Easy to Inferno return, as well as better weapon rewards for completing higher difficulties. Previous EDF titles consisted of up to sixty missions. When I asked one of the developers about how many missions we could expect to see in 2025, she was unable to give the exact number of missions, but assured me that “the number will be much higher than sixty.” In 2017, buildings would crumble into rubble at the slightest touch of a rocket. While buildings no longer seems as if they are constructed of papier-mâché, they remain destructible. Another new aspect is that enemies can pick up your character and toss them around. While this might seem like it would be frustrating, players will be able to continue firing while grabbed. These attacks feature the use of new (and hilarious) ragdoll animations which also occur anytime your character is hit by an explosion. The Earth Defense Force series holds a special place in my heart. With cheesy graphics, a laughable story, and hilarious scenarios, EDF has always been a great arcade experience to share with friends. By now it appears that 2025 will fill the shoes left by 2017. For every step taken to improve the experience, there is a half-step backward onto a banana peel, which is where Earth Defense Force truly shines. Mark my words, Earth Defense Force 2025 will be a cult classic for many years to come. Earth Defense Force 2025 will release July 4, 2013 in Japan and February 4, 2014 in North America on Xbox 360 and PS3. There are currently no plans for a next-gen release.