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Jack Gardner
The neon-drenched streets of a future Hong Kong, awash with trash and desperation, resound with malicious intent as something sinister stirs in the shadows of the monolithic corporations that practically enslave the general population. In those very same shadows one might catch fleeting glimpses of the criminals who remain free, fleeing from the whisper of alarms and the heavy footsteps of those that pursue them. In a world where magic and technology collide in interesting and terrifying ways, where dragons and gods vie for power with corporations and world governments, Harebrained Schemes manages to tell a story that remains surprisingly human.   
As the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you’ve been summoned to the titular city at the request of your aged foster father, who you haven’t seen in the years following an incident which resulted in your incarceration in an off-the-books corporate prison. Shortly after arriving and meeting up with your estranged foster brother, things go bad. Really bad. Forced to turn to a local crime lord to burn your life-long identities, you now owe some dangerous people dangerous favors. What happened to your father? What was he calling you to Hong Kong to do? Why are you now hunted in the streets like a rabid dog? The mystery sucks you in and slowly spirals toward an unnerving conclusion.

Hong Kong represents the third Shadowrun title from developer Harebrained Schemes. The accumulated experience shows as does the extra refinement from the successful Kickstarter campaign that went toward additional funding for various side characters and revamped mechanics. The additional characters are really very interesting and feel fully integrated into the story, managing to void that "tacked on" feeling that can sometimes accompany such situations. While Hong Kong shares a base framework with Returns and Dragonfall, it distinguishes itself through well written dialogue and vivid scene descriptions that often surpass Harebrained’s previous efforts.
This improvement lies in the sense of scale that Hong Kong seems to exude. Though some of the areas might be technically small, the descriptions and the ways in which the characters talk about the various locations impart a sense of bigness. If this were done in AAA fashion, the costs would be astronomical to achieve the same effect in a third-person environment. The tense moments of talking your way through heavy security or deadly shootouts in secret labs are no less exciting for the isometric angle of the action. It isn’t going to blow anyone's mind when it comes to graphical presentation (though the animatic scene transitions added by the Kickstarter certainly look nice), but it has a lot of heart and manages to soar to greater story moments than many games with larger budgets.

Shadowrun provides an enjoyable mix of strategic, turn-based gameplay and RPG progression. Players will have to be able to make use of magic, melee, combat drones, guns, computer hacking, a number of empowered abilities, and even cybernetic enhancements if they want to get through Hong Kong unscathed. No matter what paths players choose to take while leveling and customizing their character, there will always be unique dialogue options to pursue that open new routes through sticky social situations. Or, you know, you could just shoot everything that stands in your way. To me, having a wide array of viable options is where Harebrained Schemes really manages to capture the spirit of the tabletop RPG.
However, Hong Kong wobbles a bit at the landing. The narrative doesn’t allow for the climax of the story to stew quite long enough, which prevents the resolution of the plot from being as satisfying as it might otherwise be. The finale hits the ground sprinting and left me scratching my head at the number of important loose ends that were wrapped up with only a single sentence. One thing you really don’t want is for your story to leave people confused (unless that ambiguity is part of the point your work is trying to get across). It simply feels rushed and the finale of Hong Kong would have benefited from more time allowing the situation to truly sink in.
There are a few technical hurdles, too. The Unity engine that previous Shadowrun games have operated on sometimes suffers from hiccups that make a certain part of the isometric arena untargetable. Accompanying that annoyance are some staggeringly long load times (not Bloodbourne-long, but still sizable), even on high-end hardware. On top of those issues, it is possible to break your game on inventory screens by replacing required equipment. There seems to be no remedy for this besides restarting the game from your last save or checkpoint. For a game that heavily relies on text it is also more than a little strange that I encountered a few residual filler text portions that were still in the text. No, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, my name is not [Insert Player Name]. Or moments when the action on screen was being described incorrectly, which happened a couple of times toward the end. I know the text for this title must have been hugely long, but it would have benefited from another run through an editor.  

Shadowrun: Hong Kong represents a high point for Harebrained Schemes. The writing and characters will stick with you after you’ve finished playing and leave you wanting more. Hong Kong is an ambitious project and it largely succeeds in achieving its goals, despite a wobbly ending and some jagged edges. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable, especially if you are a strategic gamer. There are always multiple routes through an area and multiple solutions to a puzzle. It manages to consistently feel rewarding. Only a few years ago people were worried that the increasing cost of game development could spell an end to games espousing big ideas with grand designs. Shadowrun: Hong Kong shows how unfounded those fears were, demonstrating exactly what a focused team with a smaller budget can accomplish. While the future might eventually involve a lot of shadows, for now – for gamers, developers, and certainly Harebrained Schemes – it looks promisingly bright.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is currently available on PC and an additional mini-campaign will be released sometime in the near future.

Jack Gardner
The Ship to Shore PhoneCo., an independent record label that specializes in rare and difficult to find albums, is bringing the soundtrack from EarthBound, also known as Mother 2 in Japan, to North America as a vinyl soundtrack. Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki's unique and forward-thinking composition from 1994 can finally be enjoyed in old-school record form. 
While the soundtrack has yet to be released, it can be pre-ordered with a selection of colors for the record itself: classic black, hot spring pink, red and black swirl, and blue/yellow split. Pre-orders will run you about $40 and there is still a bit of a wait until the 2016 release. The number of available albums is limited, so if you're interested, you might want to hop on this before they run out of stock.
You might be wondering why a game from 1994 is suddenly receiving a vinyl soundtrack release. Several months ago, Ship to Shore launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to help purchase the licensing rights to releasing the soundtrack in North America and Europe, something that had never been done before. It smashed its initial goal of $42,000 and even managed to reach a number of stretch goals to make more CDs and up the quality of the packaging. 
Ship to Shore has some future plans for more difficult to obtain video game soundtracks in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled for upcoming announcements for other vinyl and CD releases of obscure gaming music.  

Jack Gardner
Following a shareholder conference in which the sales numbers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt were thoroughly discussed, CD Projekt RED's head Adam Badowski released a statement to their supporters. In the statement, which you can read in full below, he touts some impressive numbers, claiming over six million copies of The Witcher 3 sold to date. While that number is impressive, Badowski takes it not just as a phenomenal piece of success, but also as a call to continue to live up to high standards for the future games developed by the studio. This classy gesture represents another small piece of why people CD Projekt consider one of the most trustworthy developers in the game industry at the moment. 
For my part, you're very welcome, CD Projekt RED! Now, when can we get our grubby mitts on Cyberpunk 2077?

Daniel Jones
The term eSports has become very wide-encompassing over the past few years, incorporating all types of gaming genres, from fighting games to first person shooters to strategy titles and MOBAs. Even as the burgeoning competitive pastime has grown to huge heights, I’ve never been able to fully appreciate the appeal.
Until now.
What changed? Two words:
If you’ve played Rocket League, you might understand how it could convert a former non-believer. If you haven’t played Rocket League, my description of the game won’t really help you understand the appeal at all, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Rocket League is a game of indoor soccer played with rocket powered cars instead of people. The objective is to get to ball into the other team’s goal and stop them from getting the ball into your goal. You can play 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4. That’s it. That’s really it.
Despite its simplicity (and, as I’ll explain later, perhaps because of its simplicity), Rocket League is a runaway success, with over five million downloads and the servers constantly running at around a hundred thousand players at any given time. It’s also becoming a popular spectator sport with YouTube videos of matches and highlights garnering huge numbers already. So what is it that makes Rocket League so much fun, and such a strong candidate for eSports immortality?
It’s deceptively simple

Rocket League is the best representation of “Easy to learn, difficult to master” game design that I’ve seen since… well, I honestly can’t think of many games that do it better. Once you understand the basic fundamentals of Rocket League – jumping, boosting, centering, defense and aerials – you can follow and appreciate any match. Even if you can’t pull off an aerial windmill kick into the goal, you can at least appreciate what makes it such an impressive feat. Rocket League makes anyone think they can be a professional, as you’re always improving, and anyone could potentially get lucky bounces and have a great match any time. Rocket League’s approachability allows for everyone to appreciate the time and effort required to excel at the game.
It’s skill-based

It’s the truly skilled players, though, that are really fun to watch. It can be exhilarating to watch the best players in the world go head to head, as both sides make mesmerizing saves and gravity defying goals. And since everyone is playing on an even playing field, and Rocket League features no upgrades or bonus powers, there’s little for players to rely on besides their own abilities. The developers are hinting that new modes and power-ups might become available at some point, but the main mode is pure and simple – and should remain that way. It’s that mode, specifically 3v3, which is the most eSports worthy. Variety is derived from the unpredictable physics  and the various strategies teams can utilize to achieve victory. This ensures that wins are always earned and losses always deserved, which is ultimately what makes for a strong competitive sport.
It’s fast!

In the most literal sense, Rocket League is fast. After all, the cars are rocket powered. A match can change pace in an instant, which makes each contest a nail biting volley of physics, explosions, and speed. It’s a good thing, then, that each match only lasts for five tension-filled minutes. It’s easy to imagine a tournament with a dozen or so teams lasting for just around an hour or two, which is the perfect amount of time for a sporting event in the digital age.
Cars are customizable

A sport is nothing without all-star players, and since Rocket League cars don’t have jerseys with numbers on them, we need some way to tell all the players apart. Luckily, taking a cue from Valve, Psyonix has created a robust car customization suite with different paint jobs, hats, antenna ornaments and even exhaust effects. Combined with the easily legible player ID’s above the cars, this customization allows for each car to look unique and possess its own identity. Hopefully Psyonix will expand this feature and even add licensed cars or features.

On the other hand…

There are some things that the developers need to implement or improve before Rocket League can attain full eSports legitimacy. The recently added spectator mode is a huge boost, as the only two camera options – “standard” and “ball cam” – aren’t great for casual viewing of a match. As mentioned though, the game needs some more content; expanded car customization options, along with more stadiums would go a long way in improving the viewing experience. Foremost though, some strategic planning abilities are an absolute must for Rocket League to compete in the wide world of eSports. Teams should be able to assign positions and choose their starting positions from the pitch, eliminating the randomization that could create an accidental advantage for one of the teams. At the risk of contradicting myself though, the game could become a bit stale after a while, since there are few variables that would differentiate one match from another. Only time will tell if audiences start to lose interest in the standard 3v3 mode.
For now though, it’s hard not to be excited about the future of Rocket League as an eSport, especially after the recent Major League Gaming tournament and its absolutely stunning finale. I could go on and on about why Rocket League is a great spectator sport, and what it needs in order to be a legitimate part of the competitive community, but the fact is, there’s no denying it once you’ve played and watched a few rounds yourself. With an ever-improving player base and growing community, Rocket League is already exploding on YouTube and Twitch, and has nowhere to go but up.


Jack Gardner
One thing that people should know about me by now is that I freaking love BioWare. Every game they release is an attempt to craft something better than what they’ve created before. Even their less well received titles like Dragon Age 2 innovate in bold directions. What other collective of creative people could successfully make the leap from the real time/turn-based combat system (fun fact: that style of gameplay is called a round-based system) from Knights of the Old Republic to a third-person shooter-RPG hybrid? That an RPG-oriented developer eventually refined their third-person shooting to a point where they could build a successful multiplayer mode around it is incredible. I believe that this skill also extends to the way they’ve learned to expand their adventures through DLC.

BioWare’s first foray into downloadable content, Mass Effect’s Bring Down the Sky, went relatively well and since that decent start they’ve slowly improved from there. A few duds like Pinnacle Station or Firewalker come to mind, but for the most part BioWare delivers some pretty satisfying additions to their games that really build out their worlds in significant ways. Whether it is character building, setting up sequels, or elaborating on murkier aspects of their game worlds, they’ve learned to deliver entertaining content while eliminating a lot of fluff from their DLC offerings.

This brings me to The Descent, Dragon Age: Inquisition’s latest bit of DLC. To my mind, The Descent represents a great use of DLC. It delivers more of Inquisition’s streamlined gameplay, visits an interesting part of the larger setting, and offers some development of the game world that hasn’t ever been directly hinted at before. Some have complained that The Descent is a rather linear adventure, and it certainly is, though I don’t see that as a negative. Instead, I see it as the developers taking an opportunity to deliver a focused experience. It’s a design choice that tells us, “Hey, the stuff that’s happening is important.” It may even hint at where the Dragon Age series might be going in the future, which is a really exciting prospect. Plus, I’ll take a finely crafted linear portion of gameplay over an open area most of the time, especially when it comes to DLC. Running back and forth over the same ground for an hour or two begins to smack a little too much of padding in some downloadable add-ons.

For Dragon Age fans, there is a lot to love in The Descent. David Hayter voices one of the prominent supporting characters players encounter early in the DLC. He might not be the voice of Snake in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V, but it is always nice to hear his grizzled growl in action. A somewhat hidden portion of the DLC includes an amazing tribute to the humble nug, the benign, rabbit-like creatures that permeate Thedas. Beyond that, The Descent tickles the lore-hound in me that has wanted to know more about the Dwarven Deep Roads since they were briefly visited in Dragon Age: Origins. There is a lot of mystery in the fallen empire of the Dwarves and a lot that remains to be discovered if BioWare decides to pursue the elements of the world introduced in The Descent.

The one complaint I have regarding the DLC is the enemy scaling. In an attempt to make the fights more difficult, BioWare decided to give all the enemies ridiculous amounts of health. Even with a team tricked out in the best possible weapons available from the previous expansion, Jaws of Hakkon it took a long time to hack down grunt enemies. It renders some of the larger encounters more tedious instead of interesting or challenging. While returning to Inquisition is enjoyable, it really becomes a slog despite the exciting highlights of the narrative.

All of this to say that I enjoyed my time with The Descent. I think it is exactly what downloadable content should be: An addition that presents unique opportunities for elaboration when it comes to world building and narrative without overstaying its welcome. It isn’t perfect, but it provides an enjoyable and informative ride for Dragon Age fans. At $15, the price might be a bit steep, but if you're interested in the turnings of Thedas and can't get enough of Inquisition's combat, it is worth the cost of admission. If you don't fall into either of those categories, wait for a sale. 

Jack Gardner
Ever wanted to take direct control of the Pokémon in one of the numerous turn-based RPGs of varying colors? Did Pokémon Stadium not quite scratch that itch? If that's the case, Pokkén Tournament will be everything you ever wanted. Originally designed as an arcade game that only released in Japan, Pokkén Tournament is heading to the Wii U worldwide spring 2016. 

Developed as part of a partnership between Nintendo and Bandai Namco, Pokkén Tournament was designed with some of the ideas from more traditional fighting games like Tekken in mind. While it is intended to be accessible for all ages, it seems that Nintendo might even be angling for a depth of play that could bring the fighter to eSports events like Evo or DreamHack. What is clear, however, is that Pokkén Tournament allows players the incredible opportunity to play as Pikachu in a luchador outfit, possibly making it the greatest game to ever exist. 

I believe that this will undoubtedly move some Wii U units, but what do you think? Is this enough to make you interested in a Wii U or to get a copy day one?

Jack Gardner
Founded in 2013 by former executives from the Machinima network along with YouTube personalities, 3BLACKDOT made waves recently by publishing its first PC title to a large swell of public support. That game, Dead Realm, is a multiplayer horror title currently available on Steam Greenlight. With video contributions by partners and co-founders of 3BLACKDOT like Evan Fong (VanossGaming), Tom Cassell (TheSyndicateProject), and Adam Montoya (SeaNanners), Dead Realm has inspired over 25,000 videos from fans and personalities. What exactly makes this game so engaging?
Simply put, Dead Realm is a game of hide and seek set within a spooky mansion. That might not seem like a terribly exciting or novel premise, until you add player-controlled specters and up to eight humans all trying to stay alive and escape the mansion. Dead Realm contains two game modes, three maps, two ghosts, and eight human characters. While the Early Access version of Dead Realm stands a bit bare bones in its alpha state, much more content is being planned for the final release sometime in 2016. One of 3BLACKDOT's co-founders, Evan Fong, echoed this commitment to future support in his statement, "Our intention is to work with the community to constantly develop new content, including ghosts, humans and maps. This early access release is just the beginning of what will be an ever evolving project.” 

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Adam Montoya attributes this to the mission statement for Dead Realm, "The original concept for Dead Realm was to create a new game that was simple in nature, but also addictively fun to play with friends." Judging by the community feedback on their Early Access page, it seems like Dead Realm has achieved that goal, even without the features that have been promised looming on the horizon. “When Dead Realm first hit the STEAM early access store, we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Tom Cassell, partner and creative director at 3BLACKDOT, “Then the community began to react and the response was overwhelming. Our twitter account hit twenty-thousand followers within the first two days and Twitch created a designated channel on day one --- this all happened without any dedicated marketing dollars.” 

Perhaps it is no surprise that a publisher with so much social media acumen could manage to organize such a groundswell of public support with one of their first projects. Angelo Pullen, one of the ex-Machinima executives who left to become the CEO and a co-founder of 3BLACKDOT, mentions that tapping into influential YouTubers and streamers is one of their priorities as a company, "This is the first time that a game has been developed in partnership with online influencers with a primary goal of creating content that’s not only fun to play, but also fun to watch, share and stream. Our company’s mission is to produce innovative, high-quality experiences for and with Influencers and their communities."

Jack Gardner
One of the break out moments of gaming last year was Twitch Plays Pokémon, a livestream of Pokémon Red that was controlled entirely via commands input by viewers into Twitch chat. It was... definitely a thing that happened. Below you'll find a brief overview of the weeks it took to beat Pokémon.

But what happens when Twitch takes on a game that is a bit more complex? What if the game they chose to take on next took place in a 3D world and was heavily reliant on timing? It turns out there is a lot of running into walls and flailing. Twitch has decided to take on Dark Souls and after four days of continuous play they are still stuck in the game's opening level, the Undead Asylum. It has become a slow process of building a coordinated community that can handle a three dimensional game without succumbing to the trolling that so frequently plagues the Twitch Plays streams. To date, the greatest enemy hasn't been Dark Souls' first boss, but rather a pool that in the beginning area that players keep falling into. Some have despaired of ever getting past the pool:

While others have begun to worship the pool as a deity, searching to eek out some meaning to the senseless cycle of two steps forward, one dodge roll back into a pool pit:

Still others have tried to put a lighthearted spin on the situation while maintaining hope for the future:

However, the collective hive mind that is Twitch Plays has accomplished some goals. They've made it through character creation, used their entire inventory of items (breaking some and destroying others), and actually made it to bonfire checkpoints. It remains to be seen if this is one game that Twitch can actually complete.

Do you think that Twitch Plays can prevail? Or will this community-powered Let's Play go the way of Abby?

Jack Gardner

Review: Rocket League

By Jack Gardner, in Features,

There are fundamental principles to video game development as real and constant as the speed of light. Perhaps the most important of these rules is what has become known as Bushnell’s Law. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was fond of saying, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” While the quote has come under fire for perhaps encouraging developers toward game design that fosters compulsive rather than rewarding experiences, I believe it simply means that developers should respect the time invested into their work by players.

Video games are unique as an art form in that they fight us more so than any other medium. Each game requires a learning process, usually encapsulated within a tutorial, to teach us how to play. For veteran gamers, it can be easy to forget how difficult initially navigating in-game spaces once was, let alone actually accomplishing basic tasks. This is where Bushnell’s Law comes in. The more a developer can make a game easy to comprehend while still retaining depth, the better and more accessible it will be. It is a simple rule and one that can be seen at work in many of our most enduring games. Tetris remains one of the most played, most emulated games of all time because it exemplifies Bushnell’s Law. Almost anyone can grasp how to play Tetris within one minute, but learning to cope with the increased speed of falling bricks takes time and reflexes to master. In an age where technology moves ever forward at a breakneck pace, Tetris, a 31-year-old game, maintains its relevance to this day.

This might seem like a very round-about way to begin talking about Rocket League, but it’s critical to understanding why I think Rocket League is so brilliant. The elevator pitch of Rocket League is irresistible: What if you combined soccer with high-speed car chases and explosions? Throughout its execution, Rocket League stays close to that core premise. Teams of up to four players can face off against each other while attempting to bounce a giant ball into the opposing team’s goal. That’s really all there is to the basic concept. However, spending more and more time playing reveals the depth introduced by the various supporting systems.

Rocket League appears to be one of the few modern games that truly understands and embraces Bushnell’s Law. The controls boil down to steering the car, accelerating/reversing, boosting, a small explosion to flip your vehicle, and a handbrake. These are the kind of controls most people are able to grasp with relatively little effort. A training mode is available, but isn’t really necessary to enjoy the simple, frenetic gameplay that will absorb players into the moment-to-moment action.

While the controls always remain simple, the true highlight of Rocket League is its physics system. The ball and cars all operate under a fun, bouncy gravity that results in an ever shifting field of play that can send anyone flying in different directions at a moment's notice. Hitting an opponent’s car with enough force temporarily takes them out of the game for a second or two before they respawn near their goal. Players can also learn to control their flights through the air, flipping to make the most efficient landing or to hit the ball in just the right way. Flipping through the air to hit the ball at the correct angle to make a shot or deflect an imminent goal is incredibly satisfying. The controls might be intuitive and easy to learn, the physics system lends Rocket League the depth to make it a fascinating and fun experience.

If there is one drawback to Rocket League it is that it loses a bit of its luster when played alone. Communicating with teammates and coordinating strategies enhance the experience above and beyond the solo modes. This makes Rocket League an engaging party game, but not the most exciting option if you’re by yourself. Luckily, Rocket League makes finding and communicating with friends painless and easy, whether it is via a Steam friends list or through PSN.

While some people might complain regarding a lack of diverse gameplay modes, I find it hard to fault the game for presenting such a perfect base experience. On top of that, developer Psyonix has promised more game modes and maps will be added in the future as free DLC. More variety is coming in the future, but for now players can settle for playing an amazingly fun and solid core experience with their friends and family. While playing, players can unlock various pieces of gear and accessories for their cars. The equipment is all cosmetic, but seeing a car in a top hat while it explodes across a soccer field to perform a wheelie to make a game winning shot is definitely an amazing sight.


Rocket League “rewards the first quarter and the hundredth.” It respects player time enough to deliver a faultless base game that will certainly deliver dozens of hours of entertainment. For $20 (or free if you had PS Plus last month), I discovered it to be a ridiculous bargain for the amount of fun I found myself having. Grab a few friends, hit the arena, and lose your minds over the sweet, joyous thrill of Rocket League. 

Jack Gardner
The Solus Project, one of a number of indie titles that made a splash when it was revealed at Gamescom, takes place on a strange alien world to which you have come in order to save the human race from destruction. Unfortunately, while traveling to the planet, something goes wrong and scatters equipment, supplies, and people across the planet's surface. As one of the scientists who embarked on the stellar journey, players must learn to survive in the harsh environment while looking for a way to reestablish contact with Earth and somehow salvage this last ditch mission and save our planet. However, as the gameplay preview shows, the planet holds its own secrets and not all of them are friendly. 

Rendered in Unreal Engine 4, The Solus Project is a single-player, atmospheric survival game. You won't be working with other players to survive, just your own wits and whatever you happen to find handy. The game is the result of a unique development partnership between the Prague-based GRIP Games and Swedish developer Teotl Studios. The Solus Project will be coming to Xbox One and PC early in 2016.

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