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Found 114 results

  1. Since the release of Demon’s Souls in 2009, From Software has made a name for itself creating dense worlds of macabre horror and adventure. Bloodborne follows in the footsteps of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II in tone and difficulty, while the gameplay has evolved considerably along with a slight departure from what has become From Software’s signature medieval aesthetic. It is a hard journey that opposes insane gods, raving demons, and everything in between. Bloodborne was reviewed on PlayStation 4. For those who can properly gird themselves for the difficulties that lie ahead, Bloodborne will prove to be a satisfying gameplay experience. From Software decided to almost entirely remove blocking from their combat formula, retooling encounters to revolve around precise dodging and regenerating health by attacking. This system works very well and encourages a more aggressive attitude toward fighting that many who were shield-reliant in previous From Software titles might find difficult to embrace. Firearms replace shields as the dominant off-hand piece of equipment. While the implementation of guns might seem like it would break combat, it does just the opposite. A limited quantity of ammo means that players need to use their shots carefully. Timing shots perfectly can stun enemies and open them up to powerful visceral attacks, which both look cool and do immense amounts of damage. Each main weapon can be altered on the fly to become a two-handed tool of destruction. On top of that, players can equip an additional weapon on each hand to switch to in the midst of combat. All of this contributes to a very fluid experience that scales depending on the player’s skill. At its worst fighting feels like ineffectual flailing, but at its best it can feel like a surgical dance, floating just outside of enemy’s reach before going in for the kill at the perfect moment. Tied in with combat is the leveling system, which uses blood echoes collected from killing enemies to advance a player’s stats. In a major shift for the series, all of these stats are actually understandable and it is easy to see how they affect combat. This avoids problems from previous From Software games where players had to puzzle over what Poise, Attunement, or Resistance actually meant within the context of gameplay. That isn’t to say that the combat system is perfect. There are times when hit detection can be confusing, why can my two-handed weapon go through some parts of walls, but not others? Why did that attack hit me, despite not visually touching me? I could rarely use my gun effectively, though I’m pretty sure that was due to my lack of skill rather than any problem with Bloodborne. Additionally, most enemies that are appropriate to the player’s level can easily kill in two to four hits, which can make it tricky to navigate through areas with a large number of enemies. The reliance on timing works against players during these long stretches as one poorly timed move can mean death or serious injury. In Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, players would receive a certain amount of health-regenerating Estus Flasks each time they revived. Bloodborne takes a different approach. As players kill enemies, they obtain blood vials which can be used to heal injuries. Players can only carry twenty at any one time, though excess blood vials will be stored for use when the player next revives. This works rather well during the early stages of Bloodborne, when blood vials are given out by almost every enemy. However, later on, blood vials become scarce, which can be particularly bothersome when attempting to take on a particularly ferocious boss. I’m a bit torn on blood vials. On the one hand, I like that the design encourages players who have been defeated so many times that they’ve run out of blood vials to grind for more, which also allows players to build up more blood echoes and level up. I think that’s some pretty solid, subtle game design. On the other hand, grinding blood vials seems to be the most efficient in earlier areas. So, if you become stuck on a late-game boss, backtracking to those early areas won’t help you level. It’ll just feel like a chore with the only payoff being another attempt at the ‘roided up monstrosity that has already utterly wrecked you a dozen times. A bit more consistency with the doling out of blood vials might have smoothed the overall gameplay experience. The lack of a decent way to obtain blood vials later on in the game just seems like a way to artificially inflate the difficulty (rest assured, I can already hear the chorus of you all saying “git gud, son”). Bloodborne is a blast, one of the few truly “next-gen” feeling exclusives on the PlayStation 4. Completing it gave me a genuine sense of accomplishment. That being said, I think it is time to have a discussion about the philosophy behind Bloodborne, something that comes out in both the gameplay and story. While I thoroughly enjoyed Bloodborne, I developed a growing feeling of unease about my actions and the underlying themes of what I was playing. Bloodborne is, at heart, a game of Darwinian Nihilism. There are no moral questions regarding the inhabitants of Bloodborne’s world, almost everything is out to kill the player and the player fights back in order to survive. This plays into the core gameplay loop of killing and becoming more powerful. Through a cosmic loophole, the player is able to bypass the natural law of “survival of the fittest” in order to accumulate enough power to become the fittest in any given scenario. Ultimately, this escalation of power topples even entities that humans revere as gods. There is no real triumph here, only the momentary relief that comes with the knowledge that you have killed something that posed a considerable threat. The ending, whichever one you get, makes it clear that this has all happened before and it will happen again because that is the way this particular universe functions. The core struggle in Bloodborne is just trying to get by in a world your character is unwillingly thrust into; a world that neither knows who you are nor cares; a world where there is always a bigger fish. Rest is an illusion that lowers your guard, there is only the struggle to continue on for as long as possible. One might be tricked into thinking that the gods in Bloodborne serve as some kind of metaphor for religion in the real world, but I think it is less a commentary about that than it is an extension of the broader nihilistic concepts at play in the rest of the game. The deities are completely self-interested and their interest seems wholly detrimental to humans, but they are also not truly divine. Though hard to kill, they are wholly mortal creatures that simply exist either entirely or in part on different planes of existence. Given Hidetaka Miyazaki’s role as the director of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne (he oversaw the development of Dark Souls II, but did not direct), perhaps Miyazaki has taken on the role of an auteur at the company where he is currently president. Maybe the games he has directed have been his message to the world, a cry that all of our ideologies, morality, and beliefs are all just noise, the ravings of madmen behind closed doors. We’re each the protagonist in our own Bloodborne story, just trying to survive, but constantly encountering new challenges and problems. And those problems, like the enemies in Bloodborne, can sometimes be seen from a long way off, both other times they leap out from the unseen darkness with murderous intent. Bloodborne is a power fantasy. Lately that term seems to have taken on a not-so-great meaning, but against the background of From Software’s larger point, that fantasy shines. It stands out because Yahrnam operates on that power fantasy. The “power” is simply that of survival and it is the only thing a character trapped in a world such as Bloodborne’s can do, even though everything in Bloodborne implies that survival is ultimately pointless. While I disagree with its outlook on life and the grand scheme of the universe, Bloodborne still manages to resonate with me. Art imitates life, and the world of Bloodborne imitates our own. Life can be unfair, beautiful, insane. Living means that travesty occurs unexpectedly and misjudged moments can mean the difference between success and failure. Of course, in life there are all kinds of different problems that we all have to deal with: broken bones, taxes, familial squabbles; but Bloodborne simplifies life into a gothic fantasy where those problems can be solved through combat and catastrophe only postpones victory. Conclusion: Arguably the finest From Software game to date, I like Bloodborne quite a bit. The world it holds is beautiful and ugly and weird. The gameplay is almost flawless in its execution. However, if one looks under the surface, I think the underlying message of Bloodborne is sad and, to me, rings hollow. However, I think the conveyance of that message and the way it is worked into every aspect of design makes Bloodborne a very thematically resonant piece of art. That’s something I can respect, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. Bloodborne is now available exclusively for PlayStation 4 View full article
  2. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to establishing characters. By the time we saw the credits roll, we knew what our protagonists’ goals were, some of their personality quirks, and understood the insanity of the planet Pandora. Episode Two fleshes out the supporting cast and allows them all to bounce off of each other, interacting in fun and unexpected ways. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged was reviewed on PC. The basic conceit of Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is that of an extended chase sequence that slowly transitions into a series of madcap scenarios that would feel right at home in a heist film with a sense of humor. The pacing keeps up the breakneck momentum of Zer0 Sum, but interjects a few slower segments for dramatic effect. The first episode ends with the discovery of a device that puts protagonists Fiona and Rhys on a path toward untold riches while also painting a massive target on their backs. Powerful people want what the duo have and would like to see them dead, just for kicks. The two schemers and their companions struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and reach a cache of valuable technology. Chases can be tricky to pull off well. They walk a tightrope between the basic tension that exists within pursuit (will the heroes be caught or will they escape?) and the desire for novelty. The best chases are straightforward, with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Atlas Mugged manages to toe this line well, keeping things fairly simple (if you can call getting shot at by a giant space gun “simple”) while also introducing new elements that keep the chase fresh, like bounty hunters, colossal monsters, and character reveals. I noticed one thing that gives me very slight pause. There seems to be a lot of deus ex machina moments involving a servile Loader Bot. I don’t know if this is an intentional move or if it is just how the writing shook out for the first two episodes, but I count around five times that Loader Bot has shown up at the last second to save everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was leading to an intentional dramatic/joke payoff in future episodes. Given how well the other aspects of the story are coming together and the sheer level of narrative competence on display, it’s likely that a subversion of some sort is in store for this trope. Atlas Mugged deserves praise for how it fleshes out the supporting cast. There wasn’t a whole lot of downtime dedicated to exploring the characters of Vaughn, one of Rhys’ best friends, or Sasha, Fiona’s sister. I didn’t even mention their names in the review of Episode One because the focus was so clearly on Fiona and Rhys, building them up to be protagonists in whom players could invest themselves. We learn that even though Vaughn remains prone to cowardice he tends to rise to the occasion, even finding the experiences on Pandora to be a bit liberating. We also learn more about Sasha through her interactions with Fiona when they revisit their home in the city of Hollowpoint. She and Fiona don’t always agree on important issues and her stubbornness can lead to problems when it comes to forgiveness. These are all little things, but they are important piece of information that serve to humanize the cast in the grand scheme of this episodic series. They have motivations and desires as individuals that are distinct from those of the protagonists. Those differences make the narrative, and by extension the entire game, more thought-provoking. It has been interesting to see Telltale’s take on violence in Tales from the Borderlands differentiate itself from the violence depicted in The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. A scene early on in Episode Two brought to mind the part of The Walking Dead Season One where players can try to stave off a zombie infection by performing an amputation. The scene is, as you might imagine, painful, uncomfortable, and horribly unpleasant. However, Tales from the Borderlands is not The Walking Dead. Without mincing words, Atlas Mugged requires players to remove someone’s eyeball with a spork. Framed as highly comedic (I mean, it DOES involve a spork!) and gross, the scene manages not to be overly graphic while incorporating slapstick, puns, and situational humor. Two similar situations, one played for horror, the other played for laughs, and both work very well in their respective contexts. This represents another tangible example proving the skill of Tellltale’s writing staff. As far as visuals and gameplay go, Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is identical to Episode One. The Borderlands aesthetic lends itself very well to Telltale’s game engine leading to a great looking game that is carried along on the strength of its narrative. The only difference between Episode One and Episode Two was that I thought Atlas Mugged ran a tiny bit smoother on my PC. There were a few graphical hiccups, a background mountain flew along with the characters when they were in flight to a different location and Sasha seemed to blink out of existence once or twice. None of these interruptions took me far out of the narrative or would be enough for me to hate the three hours or so I spent playing. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One set a really high bar for Episode Two and I believe Atlas Mugged passed in truly magnificent style. For as much as I love the human drama of The Walking Dead seasons and the fantasy-noir of The Wolf Among Us, for as much as I cried and raged in those games, Tales from the Borderlands makes me laugh and smile, while still retaining an emotional core. Atlas Mugged stands as one of the finest episodes Telltale Games has ever released. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.
  3. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum did a lot of heavy lifting when it came to establishing characters. By the time we saw the credits roll, we knew what our protagonists’ goals were, some of their personality quirks, and understood the insanity of the planet Pandora. Episode Two fleshes out the supporting cast and allows them all to bounce off of each other, interacting in fun and unexpected ways. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged was reviewed on PC. The basic conceit of Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is that of an extended chase sequence that slowly transitions into a series of madcap scenarios that would feel right at home in a heist film with a sense of humor. The pacing keeps up the breakneck momentum of Zer0 Sum, but interjects a few slower segments for dramatic effect. The first episode ends with the discovery of a device that puts protagonists Fiona and Rhys on a path toward untold riches while also painting a massive target on their backs. Powerful people want what the duo have and would like to see them dead, just for kicks. The two schemers and their companions struggle to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and reach a cache of valuable technology. Chases can be tricky to pull off well. They walk a tightrope between the basic tension that exists within pursuit (will the heroes be caught or will they escape?) and the desire for novelty. The best chases are straightforward, with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Atlas Mugged manages to toe this line well, keeping things fairly simple (if you can call getting shot at by a giant space gun “simple”) while also introducing new elements that keep the chase fresh, like bounty hunters, colossal monsters, and character reveals. I noticed one thing that gives me very slight pause. There seems to be a lot of deus ex machina moments involving a servile Loader Bot. I don’t know if this is an intentional move or if it is just how the writing shook out for the first two episodes, but I count around five times that Loader Bot has shown up at the last second to save everyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was leading to an intentional dramatic/joke payoff in future episodes. Given how well the other aspects of the story are coming together and the sheer level of narrative competence on display, it’s likely that a subversion of some sort is in store for this trope. Atlas Mugged deserves praise for how it fleshes out the supporting cast. There wasn’t a whole lot of downtime dedicated to exploring the characters of Vaughn, one of Rhys’ best friends, or Sasha, Fiona’s sister. I didn’t even mention their names in the review of Episode One because the focus was so clearly on Fiona and Rhys, building them up to be protagonists in whom players could invest themselves. We learn that even though Vaughn remains prone to cowardice he tends to rise to the occasion, even finding the experiences on Pandora to be a bit liberating. We also learn more about Sasha through her interactions with Fiona when they revisit their home in the city of Hollowpoint. She and Fiona don’t always agree on important issues and her stubbornness can lead to problems when it comes to forgiveness. These are all little things, but they are important piece of information that serve to humanize the cast in the grand scheme of this episodic series. They have motivations and desires as individuals that are distinct from those of the protagonists. Those differences make the narrative, and by extension the entire game, more thought-provoking. It has been interesting to see Telltale’s take on violence in Tales from the Borderlands differentiate itself from the violence depicted in The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. A scene early on in Episode Two brought to mind the part of The Walking Dead Season One where players can try to stave off a zombie infection by performing an amputation. The scene is, as you might imagine, painful, uncomfortable, and horribly unpleasant. However, Tales from the Borderlands is not The Walking Dead. Without mincing words, Atlas Mugged requires players to remove someone’s eyeball with a spork. Framed as highly comedic (I mean, it DOES involve a spork!) and gross, the scene manages not to be overly graphic while incorporating slapstick, puns, and situational humor. Two similar situations, one played for horror, the other played for laughs, and both work very well in their respective contexts. This represents another tangible example proving the skill of Tellltale’s writing staff. As far as visuals and gameplay go, Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two is identical to Episode One. The Borderlands aesthetic lends itself very well to Telltale’s game engine leading to a great looking game that is carried along on the strength of its narrative. The only difference between Episode One and Episode Two was that I thought Atlas Mugged ran a tiny bit smoother on my PC. There were a few graphical hiccups, a background mountain flew along with the characters when they were in flight to a different location and Sasha seemed to blink out of existence once or twice. None of these interruptions took me far out of the narrative or would be enough for me to hate the three hours or so I spent playing. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One set a really high bar for Episode Two and I believe Atlas Mugged passed in truly magnificent style. For as much as I love the human drama of The Walking Dead seasons and the fantasy-noir of The Wolf Among Us, for as much as I cried and raged in those games, Tales from the Borderlands makes me laugh and smile, while still retaining an emotional core. Atlas Mugged stands as one of the finest episodes Telltale Games has ever released. Tales from the Borderlands Episode Two - Atlas Mugged is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices. View full article
  4. The first three episodes of PlayStation’s superpowered foray into the wild world of television aired on Tuesday. Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning graphic novel, the ten episode miniseries attempts to bring to life a world inhabited by heroes, villains, and the normal people trapped in the crossfire. Despite that intriguing premise, does Powers deliver a compelling reason to watch the seven upcoming episodes? I’ll be upfront about my love of Sharlto Copley. I’ve really enjoy him as an actor since I first saw him in District 9 and in everything I’ve seen him in since. He has a great deal of natural charisma and something about him holds my attention. I should also mention that I’ve never read Powers and had relatively little knowledge of the characters and premise other than what was put forth in the trailers and general announcements regarding the show. Without further ado, here are my thoughts. A few short minutes into the pilot firmly establishes in my mind that Powers is not for a young audience. A casual observer might take the words “graphic novel adaptation” and “superpowers” and make the mistake that Powers is geared toward children. It is not. Murders, of which there are several in the first episode, are grisly affairs with blood gratuitously spattered everywhere. As a related side note, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the director made use of physical prop blood rather than cheap digital blood effects. The first episode gives us the building blocks for the rest of the series. Set in a world where people sometimes develop superpowers, casually referred to as “powers,” the show tells the story of Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), an important agent who works for the Powers Division. Normal people can’t always rely on the superheroes to put a stop to a rampaging power, so the Powers Division are the first responders to powers related crimes. Walker is especially respected within the division both because he was once a power himself and because he personally put away Wolfe, one of the most dangerous powers in the world. When a job pits average humans against people with extraordinary abilities, it often comes with a short life expectancy. Within minutes, we see an improperly restrained power crush the skull of Walker’s partner into a concrete support beam. Following that tragic incident, Walker is assigned Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) as his new partner. During their first day together Walker and Deena are called to investigate the death of one of Walker’s old power friends, Olympia. Beyond the violence, Powers goes some really dark places. A core plot element of the first episode involves a girl in her late teens performing oral sex on the much older Olympia in an effort to get superpowers from him, which we are informed can happen during “an exchange of fluids.” A core tenant of the show is that these characters, whether or not they have powers, are not Superman. They have the same vices and flaws as normal people. Everyone has problems and powers often seems to make those worse rather than better. As the investigation continues, it becomes clear that Olympia’s death is only a small part of a wider criminal powers conspiracy that somehow involves the incarcerated and mentally unstable Wolfe. Walker and Pilgrim’s search for answers lead them to Calista, the young girl found at the scene of Olympia’s death, and a struggle over the girl’s allegiance ensues between the agents, a crime-fighting power, and a mysterious teleporting man. I’m not going to venture into spoiler territory, because I think a large part of the appeal of a show where people have superpowers is that element of the unknown. Overall, my impression of the show was positive and, with episode three’s cliffhanger, I am certainly interested in watching more high-powered drama unfold. My biggest worry after I finished watching the pilot was that the show wouldn’t be able to establish good chemistry between the characters. The first episode goes quite a bit out of its way to make the viewer understand that this isn’t an optimistic world in which all powers are heroes or even good-natured people. I like that approach. We don’t see many superhero properties tackling their worlds like this. However, the first episode ended with everyone angry and sad, which left a bad feeling in my mouth. Feeling bad after watching something can be a good thing if it’s driven by a purpose, but if that purpose is just to establish the cruel realities of a fictional setting… well, I am not a fan of that. There were relatively few moments where it felt like the characters really cared about each other or had a few seconds of levity. It seemed that an overzealous focus on the gritty world might severely dampen my enthusiasm for future episodes. Luckily, the second and third episodes seem to ease off of the harsh corners of the world and spend some time humanizing the characters, aside from their anger and sadness. The grim setting is still grim, but by the end of episode three, you feel that at least the Walker and Pilgrim generally like each other, which seems to be the core dynamic that really needs to work well. I found myself enjoying the writing in Powers. Characters feel like people who have histories, motivations, wants, desires, and lives that go on when they aren’t on the job. It isn’t always the best thing ever, but the writing is always functional. There are actual set ups and payoffs! We are given the means to understand why these characters are the way they are and we can understand why they react to new information in the manner that they do. Yeah, this is basic writing stuff, but a lot of the time even big budget shows and movies don’t worry about getting the basics right. The flatter parts of Powers' dialogue are largely hidden behind great performances from pretty much everyone involved. Seriously, the casting director did a fantastic job. Sharlto Copley lived up to my expectations, surprising me with the near elimination of his Johannesburg accent. He expresses a wide range of acting talent and is generally fun to watch. Susan Heyward provides some much needed heart and subtle humor to Deena Pilgrim. Noah Taylor turns in a fantastic performance as an enigmatic teleporter, reminding me of a more active version of the smoking man from X-Files. I was also surprised to see Eddie Izzard go all out for the role of Wolfe (and I do mean ALL out), creating a fascinating portrayal that comes off half Wolverine and half Hannibal Lector. One of the most admirable aspects of Powers is how well they managed to translate the world of the graphic novel into a live-action setting that feels real. Obviously, they had to do this without hundreds of teams of special effects artists. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to pull off sweeping superpowered battles, the production wisely limited their usage of CG effects. This works in the show’s favor, as it relies on excellent cinematography to highlight real people and locations. Powers is beautiful, aside from the occasional dip in CG quality. When viewers notice the special effect seams, they can prove to be a momentary distraction. However, a well told story generally matters more than occasional slips in graphical fidelity. Some parts of Powers feel a bit rushed. A bit more time to learn about the locations and side characters before launching into the main storyline could really have benefited the show as a whole. There are also some strange editing decisions, quick cuts between rooms and scenes that I could nitpick about, but I don’t think that will really influence anybody one way or another at this point. Conclusion: Powers has a neat premise, a great cast, and some really competent execution. It can be tempting to write it off as a police procedural with superpowers. True, the main characters are police and there are superpowers, but instead of investigating separate crimes, each episode is clearly building to an end goal. Relatively little fluff clogs up the narrative. Like I said at the beginning, Powers is definitely not for kids, but if you are looking for some mature entertainment and don’t mind adult themes and language, it is definitely worth checking out. If you’ve been on the fence about a PlayStation Plus subscription, here is another reason to consider subscribing on top of the free monthly games. The first three episodes of Powers are currently available to PS+ subscribers and new episodes will be released every Tuesday. View full article
  5. The first three episodes of PlayStation’s superpowered foray into the wild world of television aired on Tuesday. Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning graphic novel, the ten episode miniseries attempts to bring to life a world inhabited by heroes, villains, and the normal people trapped in the crossfire. Despite that intriguing premise, does Powers deliver a compelling reason to watch the seven upcoming episodes? I’ll be upfront about my love of Sharlto Copley. I’ve really enjoy him as an actor since I first saw him in District 9 and in everything I’ve seen him in since. He has a great deal of natural charisma and something about him holds my attention. I should also mention that I’ve never read Powers and had relatively little knowledge of the characters and premise other than what was put forth in the trailers and general announcements regarding the show. Without further ado, here are my thoughts. A few short minutes into the pilot firmly establishes in my mind that Powers is not for a young audience. A casual observer might take the words “graphic novel adaptation” and “superpowers” and make the mistake that Powers is geared toward children. It is not. Murders, of which there are several in the first episode, are grisly affairs with blood gratuitously spattered everywhere. As a related side note, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the director made use of physical prop blood rather than cheap digital blood effects. The first episode gives us the building blocks for the rest of the series. Set in a world where people sometimes develop superpowers, casually referred to as “powers,” the show tells the story of Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley), an important agent who works for the Powers Division. Normal people can’t always rely on the superheroes to put a stop to a rampaging power, so the Powers Division are the first responders to powers related crimes. Walker is especially respected within the division both because he was once a power himself and because he personally put away Wolfe, one of the most dangerous powers in the world. When a job pits average humans against people with extraordinary abilities, it often comes with a short life expectancy. Within minutes, we see an improperly restrained power crush the skull of Walker’s partner into a concrete support beam. Following that tragic incident, Walker is assigned Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward) as his new partner. During their first day together Walker and Deena are called to investigate the death of one of Walker’s old power friends, Olympia. Beyond the violence, Powers goes some really dark places. A core plot element of the first episode involves a girl in her late teens performing oral sex on the much older Olympia in an effort to get superpowers from him, which we are informed can happen during “an exchange of fluids.” A core tenant of the show is that these characters, whether or not they have powers, are not Superman. They have the same vices and flaws as normal people. Everyone has problems and powers often seems to make those worse rather than better. As the investigation continues, it becomes clear that Olympia’s death is only a small part of a wider criminal powers conspiracy that somehow involves the incarcerated and mentally unstable Wolfe. Walker and Pilgrim’s search for answers lead them to Calista, the young girl found at the scene of Olympia’s death, and a struggle over the girl’s allegiance ensues between the agents, a crime-fighting power, and a mysterious teleporting man. I’m not going to venture into spoiler territory, because I think a large part of the appeal of a show where people have superpowers is that element of the unknown. Overall, my impression of the show was positive and, with episode three’s cliffhanger, I am certainly interested in watching more high-powered drama unfold. My biggest worry after I finished watching the pilot was that the show wouldn’t be able to establish good chemistry between the characters. The first episode goes quite a bit out of its way to make the viewer understand that this isn’t an optimistic world in which all powers are heroes or even good-natured people. I like that approach. We don’t see many superhero properties tackling their worlds like this. However, the first episode ended with everyone angry and sad, which left a bad feeling in my mouth. Feeling bad after watching something can be a good thing if it’s driven by a purpose, but if that purpose is just to establish the cruel realities of a fictional setting… well, I am not a fan of that. There were relatively few moments where it felt like the characters really cared about each other or had a few seconds of levity. It seemed that an overzealous focus on the gritty world might severely dampen my enthusiasm for future episodes. Luckily, the second and third episodes seem to ease off of the harsh corners of the world and spend some time humanizing the characters, aside from their anger and sadness. The grim setting is still grim, but by the end of episode three, you feel that at least the Walker and Pilgrim generally like each other, which seems to be the core dynamic that really needs to work well. I found myself enjoying the writing in Powers. Characters feel like people who have histories, motivations, wants, desires, and lives that go on when they aren’t on the job. It isn’t always the best thing ever, but the writing is always functional. There are actual set ups and payoffs! We are given the means to understand why these characters are the way they are and we can understand why they react to new information in the manner that they do. Yeah, this is basic writing stuff, but a lot of the time even big budget shows and movies don’t worry about getting the basics right. The flatter parts of Powers' dialogue are largely hidden behind great performances from pretty much everyone involved. Seriously, the casting director did a fantastic job. Sharlto Copley lived up to my expectations, surprising me with the near elimination of his Johannesburg accent. He expresses a wide range of acting talent and is generally fun to watch. Susan Heyward provides some much needed heart and subtle humor to Deena Pilgrim. Noah Taylor turns in a fantastic performance as an enigmatic teleporter, reminding me of a more active version of the smoking man from X-Files. I was also surprised to see Eddie Izzard go all out for the role of Wolfe (and I do mean ALL out), creating a fascinating portrayal that comes off half Wolverine and half Hannibal Lector. One of the most admirable aspects of Powers is how well they managed to translate the world of the graphic novel into a live-action setting that feels real. Obviously, they had to do this without hundreds of teams of special effects artists. Recognizing that they wouldn’t be able to pull off sweeping superpowered battles, the production wisely limited their usage of CG effects. This works in the show’s favor, as it relies on excellent cinematography to highlight real people and locations. Powers is beautiful, aside from the occasional dip in CG quality. When viewers notice the special effect seams, they can prove to be a momentary distraction. However, a well told story generally matters more than occasional slips in graphical fidelity. Some parts of Powers feel a bit rushed. A bit more time to learn about the locations and side characters before launching into the main storyline could really have benefited the show as a whole. There are also some strange editing decisions, quick cuts between rooms and scenes that I could nitpick about, but I don’t think that will really influence anybody one way or another at this point. Conclusion: Powers has a neat premise, a great cast, and some really competent execution. It can be tempting to write it off as a police procedural with superpowers. True, the main characters are police and there are superpowers, but instead of investigating separate crimes, each episode is clearly building to an end goal. Relatively little fluff clogs up the narrative. Like I said at the beginning, Powers is definitely not for kids, but if you are looking for some mature entertainment and don’t mind adult themes and language, it is definitely worth checking out. If you’ve been on the fence about a PlayStation Plus subscription, here is another reason to consider subscribing on top of the free monthly games. The first three episodes of Powers are currently available to PS+ subscribers and new episodes will be released every Tuesday.
  6. What is World 1-1? On the surface, that questions seems to be fairly straightforward to answer. It is a Kickstarted documentary about the dawn of the video game industry. That was a good enough explanation to engage my interest when I started watching, but as the film progressed it became clear that it's a bit more than that. It is a time capsule. World 1-1 captures the words of the people who created the video gaming landscape from nothing but makeshift televisions and handmade circuit boards. These same creators and visionaries, they have been silently fading into history and soon many may not be left. In a world where many of the next generation of gamers barely know what an NES is, even less remember the time when Atari reigned supreme over the video game industry. Outside of the truly dedicated, who knows the names of Al Alcorn, Dona Bailey, Garry Kitchen, or Howard Scott Warshaw? This is important video game history. But perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. As always, it is best to start at the beginning…. The film opens with a brief narration by Colin Moriarty, an ex-senior editor at IGN, covering the development of computer technology and how it became associated with Nolan Bushnell, one of the founders of Atari. From there, the documentary is two hours of interviews with the movers and shakers that passed through Atari. We get interesting, long-form stories about the business deals and backroom drama that propelled the most rapidly growing and then most rapidly declining company in American history. The majority of those two hours consists of talking heads, old news clips, and still images demonstrating the speakers’ points. Perhaps people who have no interest in video game history wouldn’t find it particularly compelling, but then again, this isn’t a documentary for those people. I found the experience to be riveting. One of the highlights of the documentary is learning about the nitty-gritty details of how Bushnell and company made their first few arcade machines in order to launch Atari. Hearing about how those gaming cabinets were cobbled together from spare parts and a television from the local Walgreens is an unimaginable treat. The film also highlights the creation of the Atari 2600 and the bizarrely outside-of-the-box thinking it took to invent. Even little details like how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start at Atari make it into the movie. As the documentary unfolds, it manages to paint a picture of a freewheeling house of creatives that managed to scrape by in the arcade business, until things went sour after Atari merges with Warner Communications. From there, the documentary shifts focus onto how mismanagement by Warner Communications eventually toppled Atari and the entire video game industry in 1983. World 1-1 concentrates on the events that unfolded around Atari and how Atari’s innovations changed video games forever. It is very thoughtful and introspective, but we only get hints about the gaming landscape around Atari. We hear snippets about the Magnavox Odyssey and the Fairchild Channel F, but not much more than snippets. It isn’t hard to understand why; Atari, and subsequently Activision, were the big names at the time and their games forged the industry, while the Odyssey and Fairchild Channel F became footnotes. Alternatively, I would have appreciated seeing an interview with someone who had been “one of the suits” at Warner Communications explain why Atari was managed into the gutter. Seeing a few more outside perspectives from the people who worked in the industry during the 70s and early 80s would have been great. I cannot stress enough how great it is to see the old guard of game developers and console inventors talk about how they came up with their ideas and inspirations. They were treading new territory and creating material that has become indelibly iconic. Many of these people should have become household names, but because of the way the industry began, many never received the recognition they deserved. Moments like hearing Al Alcorn describe making Atari’s Pong in a matter of weeks and adding that the sounds took only three or four hours, words can’t express how awesome that is to me. World 1-1 brims with stories like Alcorn’s. I was afraid going in that it might feel like a Wikipedia rehash of game industry factoids, but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, because the people being interviewed are the creators and were directly involved in the events they describe, the film feels personal, while relying on interviews from current industry professionals and experts to put those stories into context. I should also mention that I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack by Wait and See & NGHT. Its light electronica beats weave into the movie in an understated, yet punchy manner that perfectly suits the material. The soundtrack and material it combines with can’t fail to bring a smile to your face. Conclusion: World 1-1 is a must-see for anyone even a little bit interested in the video game industry. The history comes right from the mouths that made it. People with short attention spans or no interest in video games might have a tough time investing themselves into the film. I’ll admit that I thoroughly geeked out at more than a few points. I can’t hide my enthusiasm for a project that finally gives people like Joe Decuir or Franz Lanzinger their time to shine. World 1-1 fantastically captures a chunk of video game history, and I feel audiences will be better able to put modern video games into context within the grand scheme of the medium. In short, World 1-1 is really freakin’ cool. World 1-1 releases digitally on January 15 through VHX. A physical DVD and Blu-ray release is planned sometime later.
  7. What is World 1-1? On the surface, that questions seems to be fairly straightforward to answer. It is a Kickstarted documentary about the dawn of the video game industry. That was a good enough explanation to engage my interest when I started watching, but as the film progressed it became clear that it's a bit more than that. It is a time capsule. World 1-1 captures the words of the people who created the video gaming landscape from nothing but makeshift televisions and handmade circuit boards. These same creators and visionaries, they have been silently fading into history and soon many may not be left. In a world where many of the next generation of gamers barely know what an NES is, even less remember the time when Atari reigned supreme over the video game industry. Outside of the truly dedicated, who knows the names of Al Alcorn, Dona Bailey, Garry Kitchen, or Howard Scott Warshaw? This is important video game history. But perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. As always, it is best to start at the beginning…. The film opens with a brief narration by Colin Moriarty, an ex-senior editor at IGN, covering the development of computer technology and how it became associated with Nolan Bushnell, one of the founders of Atari. From there, the documentary is two hours of interviews with the movers and shakers that passed through Atari. We get interesting, long-form stories about the business deals and backroom drama that propelled the most rapidly growing and then most rapidly declining company in American history. The majority of those two hours consists of talking heads, old news clips, and still images demonstrating the speakers’ points. Perhaps people who have no interest in video game history wouldn’t find it particularly compelling, but then again, this isn’t a documentary for those people. I found the experience to be riveting. One of the highlights of the documentary is learning about the nitty-gritty details of how Bushnell and company made their first few arcade machines in order to launch Atari. Hearing about how those gaming cabinets were cobbled together from spare parts and a television from the local Walgreens is an unimaginable treat. The film also highlights the creation of the Atari 2600 and the bizarrely outside-of-the-box thinking it took to invent. Even little details like how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start at Atari make it into the movie. As the documentary unfolds, it manages to paint a picture of a freewheeling house of creatives that managed to scrape by in the arcade business, until things went sour after Atari merges with Warner Communications. From there, the documentary shifts focus onto how mismanagement by Warner Communications eventually toppled Atari and the entire video game industry in 1983. World 1-1 concentrates on the events that unfolded around Atari and how Atari’s innovations changed video games forever. It is very thoughtful and introspective, but we only get hints about the gaming landscape around Atari. We hear snippets about the Magnavox Odyssey and the Fairchild Channel F, but not much more than snippets. It isn’t hard to understand why; Atari, and subsequently Activision, were the big names at the time and their games forged the industry, while the Odyssey and Fairchild Channel F became footnotes. Alternatively, I would have appreciated seeing an interview with someone who had been “one of the suits” at Warner Communications explain why Atari was managed into the gutter. Seeing a few more outside perspectives from the people who worked in the industry during the 70s and early 80s would have been great. I cannot stress enough how great it is to see the old guard of game developers and console inventors talk about how they came up with their ideas and inspirations. They were treading new territory and creating material that has become indelibly iconic. Many of these people should have become household names, but because of the way the industry began, many never received the recognition they deserved. Moments like hearing Al Alcorn describe making Atari’s Pong in a matter of weeks and adding that the sounds took only three or four hours, words can’t express how awesome that is to me. World 1-1 brims with stories like Alcorn’s. I was afraid going in that it might feel like a Wikipedia rehash of game industry factoids, but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, because the people being interviewed are the creators and were directly involved in the events they describe, the film feels personal, while relying on interviews from current industry professionals and experts to put those stories into context. I should also mention that I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack by Wait and See & NGHT. Its light electronica beats weave into the movie in an understated, yet punchy manner that perfectly suits the material. The soundtrack and material it combines with can’t fail to bring a smile to your face. Conclusion: World 1-1 is a must-see for anyone even a little bit interested in the video game industry. The history comes right from the mouths that made it. People with short attention spans or no interest in video games might have a tough time investing themselves into the film. I’ll admit that I thoroughly geeked out at more than a few points. I can’t hide my enthusiasm for a project that finally gives people like Joe Decuir or Franz Lanzinger their time to shine. World 1-1 fantastically captures a chunk of video game history, and I feel audiences will be better able to put modern video games into context within the grand scheme of the medium. In short, World 1-1 is really freakin’ cool. World 1-1 releases digitally on January 15 through VHX. A physical DVD and Blu-ray release is planned sometime later. View full article
  8. I was sorely tempted to just write, “It is a Telltale game,” for this review, because I think that over the last three years or so people have come to understand a lot about what that means in terms of gameplay, graphics, and overarching game design. However, I think that you all probably expect a bit more effort from me than that, so hopefully as we go through this spoiler-free review we can better our understanding of Telltale Games and their body of work. One of the most refreshing things about Telltale Games is that they don’t do the same thing twice when it come to their narratives. The Walking Dead tells a gripping tale of grisly sacrifice and survival. Both seasons focused on a single protagonist and developed them over the course of five episodes into characters for whom players really cared. More than that, the first season was about a leader, the second was about a follower struggling to grow up. The Wolf Among Us spins a dizzying tale of neo-fantasy noir, complete with suitably muddy issues of crime and justice. Players become a moral authority within the Fable universe, the word of law for the denizens of Fabletown, no matter how much they grumble. Each season that Telltale has made tells a different narrative in a different way while still using the same underlying game mechanics and graphics engine. Tales from the Borderlands sticks with the mechanics, but adopts a more comedic, lighthearted tone that stands out from three seasons of grim and gritty violence. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One - Zer0 Sum kicks off the five part season by introducing players to Rhys and Fiona, the unreliable protagonists of the series. They’ve been captured by an enigmatic resident of Pandora who wants to know the stories that led them both to him. They each take turns telling their version of events, sometimes breaking in on one another to correct a misremembered moment or interject what “really” happened. Rhys, a corporate ladder climber for the evil Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a fast-talking Pandoran con artist, make for an entertaining duo. Telltale successfully plays off of their differences to great comedic effect. I love these choices for the narrative direction of their fourth game series, if for no other reason than because it is a different approach to video game narratives. It is far from the first video game to have a framed narrative told through unreliable narrators, Dragon Age II used the same storytelling device, but game developers rarely opt to try to take their stories this direction. Unreliable narrators and framed narratives present numerous difficulties, especially in video games, but when it works, it works fantastically. The best part about Zer0 Sum is that the writers, Pierre Shorette and Adam Hines (presumably with some input from Gearbox’s Anthony Burch), use the unusual narrative mechanics of framed storytelling for some great laughs. They aren’t using the device just because; the use has a definite goal in mind and it pays off, which testifies to how well Shorette and Hines know their business. In addition to the functional narrative difference between Telltale Games’ previous efforts, Zer0 Sum represents a huge change of tone from what many people have come to expect from the studio. Tales from the Borderlands takes a very lighthearted stance when it comes to its world and characters. Everything is clever, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, even the violence. You can kind of see Telltale’s roots in the Sam & Max adventure games shine through if you squint a little. The changed attitude and infusion of humor make Tales from the Borderlands pop. It comes as a breath of fresh air released between the ends of both The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us and the release of Telltale’s six part Game of Thrones series. It would be a mistake to place the tonal change completely in the writer’s hands when the art direction perfectly captures the Borderlands vibe. Telltale’s game engine really thrives when it is paired with graphic novel or comic book material, which proves to be very helpful when adapting it to Borderlands. The stylized world of Pandora lends itself very well to Telltale’s art style, resulting in a very aesthetically appealing game. Players of Tales from the Borderlands will notice the improvement and appreciate it, especially if they have played previous Telltale series and felt underwhelmed by the visuals. For all of my talk about story mechanics and visual styles, like all Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands lives and dies on the strength of its narrative. In that regard, Telltale came out guns blazing. Zer0 Sum propels itself along at an almost breakneck pace. There are few dead moments where it feels like nothing is happening. I loved the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but one of the things that I felt held it a bit back was the occasionally ponderous pacing. There was a lot of quiet that served less as introspection and more as waiting to find the thing that moves the story forward. In the grand scheme of that first run of five episodes, it wasn’t a big deal, but there were definitely moments I found myself wishing it would move along. There are relatively few quiet moments in Tales from the Borderlands, but even the rare opportunity to relax has something going on that makes player decisions and actions feel immediate. Beyond pacing, Tales from the Borderlands begins answering one of the big questions I had while playing through Gearbox's Borderlands games: Where are all the "normal" people? Tales from the Borderlands helps players understand how Pandora functions as a society. It turns out that the people who live there aren't all insanely violent and some are just average people trying to make their way on a world gone mad. Really, that's probably part of the core message of the Borderlands games. The world, life, is crazy and there aren't really any normal people. Just some that act a bit crazier than others. I'm interested to see if that message evolves as the future episodes release. I have a bit of a test that I sometimes run to see how people with short attention spans and less inclined toward games might react toward a more story-heavy game. I play the first half-hour of a game with a family member or friend and get some feedback on what he or she thinks about what they just saw. I usually don’t mention the test in my reviews since it only tangentially helps me to get a fresh perspective on what I just played. However, it is interesting in this case because I did the test with the same person for both the first thirty minutes of The Walking Dead Season One and Zer0 Sum. I was a bit shocked that they had completely different reactions to both. The Walking Dead gameplay left such a small impression on them that they didn’t remember the experience at all. On the other hand, they really wanted to see more of Tales from the Borderlands. In both instances, this person insisted on just watching the gameplay unfold. The results of those informal tests tell me that the narrative is strong enough to inspire interest that exists separate from the typical Telltale game mechanics. Ideally, I think that game developers should approach game design in a way that weaves mechanics and narrative together. I loved this year’s Transistor so much precisely because everything in it, gameplay, narrative, setting, etc. furthered its message. Usually it isn’t a good idea to separate mechanics from storytelling, but in Telltale’s case, the mechanics aren’t important to what they’re trying to say with their games. In fact, the biggest criticism I can level against Tales from the Borderlands is that it doesn’t do anything interesting with the mechanics that have now supported three complete episodic games, all three of which have been insanely successful. It is hard to fault them for staying their course or from arguing that the design is ineffective. Choosing dialogue options invests players in the protagonists and makes the story feel personal. Participating in combat via quick-time events makes the danger feel more immediate. Placing the burden of gameplay almost entirely on directing conversations and making decisions eases development for Telltale. I get it. However, I think the challenge for Telltale in the years ahead will be blending gameplay and story together more effectively. They found a combination that functions, but until they find a better way to present their amazing work they’re barely scratching at the surface of something incredibly powerful. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum is a Telltale game. Expect a lot of story, dialogue choices, and quick-time action sequences. If you were too impatient for their earlier titles, Zer0 Sum might have enough momentum to sweep you up into the larger drama. However, if the gameplay of previous Telltale adventure titles turned you off, Tales from the Borderlands doesn’t do anything that might change your mind. On the whole, I found it laugh-out-loud funny more than a few times, was generally smiling, and thought that it was one of Telltale’s best efforts to date. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android (so, basically everything) View full article
  9. I was sorely tempted to just write, “It is a Telltale game,” for this review, because I think that over the last three years or so people have come to understand a lot about what that means in terms of gameplay, graphics, and overarching game design. However, I think that you all probably expect a bit more effort from me than that, so hopefully as we go through this spoiler-free review we can better our understanding of Telltale Games and their body of work. One of the most refreshing things about Telltale Games is that they don’t do the same thing twice when it come to their narratives. The Walking Dead tells a gripping tale of grisly sacrifice and survival. Both seasons focused on a single protagonist and developed them over the course of five episodes into characters for whom players really cared. More than that, the first season was about a leader, the second was about a follower struggling to grow up. The Wolf Among Us spins a dizzying tale of neo-fantasy noir, complete with suitably muddy issues of crime and justice. Players become a moral authority within the Fable universe, the word of law for the denizens of Fabletown, no matter how much they grumble. Each season that Telltale has made tells a different narrative in a different way while still using the same underlying game mechanics and graphics engine. Tales from the Borderlands sticks with the mechanics, but adopts a more comedic, lighthearted tone that stands out from three seasons of grim and gritty violence. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One - Zer0 Sum kicks off the five part season by introducing players to Rhys and Fiona, the unreliable protagonists of the series. They’ve been captured by an enigmatic resident of Pandora who wants to know the stories that led them both to him. They each take turns telling their version of events, sometimes breaking in on one another to correct a misremembered moment or interject what “really” happened. Rhys, a corporate ladder climber for the evil Hyperion Corporation, and Fiona, a fast-talking Pandoran con artist, make for an entertaining duo. Telltale successfully plays off of their differences to great comedic effect. I love these choices for the narrative direction of their fourth game series, if for no other reason than because it is a different approach to video game narratives. It is far from the first video game to have a framed narrative told through unreliable narrators, Dragon Age II used the same storytelling device, but game developers rarely opt to try to take their stories this direction. Unreliable narrators and framed narratives present numerous difficulties, especially in video games, but when it works, it works fantastically. The best part about Zer0 Sum is that the writers, Pierre Shorette and Adam Hines (presumably with some input from Gearbox’s Anthony Burch), use the unusual narrative mechanics of framed storytelling for some great laughs. They aren’t using the device just because; the use has a definite goal in mind and it pays off, which testifies to how well Shorette and Hines know their business. In addition to the functional narrative difference between Telltale Games’ previous efforts, Zer0 Sum represents a huge change of tone from what many people have come to expect from the studio. Tales from the Borderlands takes a very lighthearted stance when it comes to its world and characters. Everything is clever, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, even the violence. You can kind of see Telltale’s roots in the Sam & Max adventure games shine through if you squint a little. The changed attitude and infusion of humor make Tales from the Borderlands pop. It comes as a breath of fresh air released between the ends of both The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us and the release of Telltale’s six part Game of Thrones series. It would be a mistake to place the tonal change completely in the writer’s hands when the art direction perfectly captures the Borderlands vibe. Telltale’s game engine really thrives when it is paired with graphic novel or comic book material, which proves to be very helpful when adapting it to Borderlands. The stylized world of Pandora lends itself very well to Telltale’s art style, resulting in a very aesthetically appealing game. Players of Tales from the Borderlands will notice the improvement and appreciate it, especially if they have played previous Telltale series and felt underwhelmed by the visuals. For all of my talk about story mechanics and visual styles, like all Telltale games, Tales from the Borderlands lives and dies on the strength of its narrative. In that regard, Telltale came out guns blazing. Zer0 Sum propels itself along at an almost breakneck pace. There are few dead moments where it feels like nothing is happening. I loved the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but one of the things that I felt held it a bit back was the occasionally ponderous pacing. There was a lot of quiet that served less as introspection and more as waiting to find the thing that moves the story forward. In the grand scheme of that first run of five episodes, it wasn’t a big deal, but there were definitely moments I found myself wishing it would move along. There are relatively few quiet moments in Tales from the Borderlands, but even the rare opportunity to relax has something going on that makes player decisions and actions feel immediate. Beyond pacing, Tales from the Borderlands begins answering one of the big questions I had while playing through Gearbox's Borderlands games: Where are all the "normal" people? Tales from the Borderlands helps players understand how Pandora functions as a society. It turns out that the people who live there aren't all insanely violent and some are just average people trying to make their way on a world gone mad. Really, that's probably part of the core message of the Borderlands games. The world, life, is crazy and there aren't really any normal people. Just some that act a bit crazier than others. I'm interested to see if that message evolves as the future episodes release. I have a bit of a test that I sometimes run to see how people with short attention spans and less inclined toward games might react toward a more story-heavy game. I play the first half-hour of a game with a family member or friend and get some feedback on what he or she thinks about what they just saw. I usually don’t mention the test in my reviews since it only tangentially helps me to get a fresh perspective on what I just played. However, it is interesting in this case because I did the test with the same person for both the first thirty minutes of The Walking Dead Season One and Zer0 Sum. I was a bit shocked that they had completely different reactions to both. The Walking Dead gameplay left such a small impression on them that they didn’t remember the experience at all. On the other hand, they really wanted to see more of Tales from the Borderlands. In both instances, this person insisted on just watching the gameplay unfold. The results of those informal tests tell me that the narrative is strong enough to inspire interest that exists separate from the typical Telltale game mechanics. Ideally, I think that game developers should approach game design in a way that weaves mechanics and narrative together. I loved this year’s Transistor so much precisely because everything in it, gameplay, narrative, setting, etc. furthered its message. Usually it isn’t a good idea to separate mechanics from storytelling, but in Telltale’s case, the mechanics aren’t important to what they’re trying to say with their games. In fact, the biggest criticism I can level against Tales from the Borderlands is that it doesn’t do anything interesting with the mechanics that have now supported three complete episodic games, all three of which have been insanely successful. It is hard to fault them for staying their course or from arguing that the design is ineffective. Choosing dialogue options invests players in the protagonists and makes the story feel personal. Participating in combat via quick-time events makes the danger feel more immediate. Placing the burden of gameplay almost entirely on directing conversations and making decisions eases development for Telltale. I get it. However, I think the challenge for Telltale in the years ahead will be blending gameplay and story together more effectively. They found a combination that functions, but until they find a better way to present their amazing work they’re barely scratching at the surface of something incredibly powerful. Conclusion: Tales from the Borderlands Episode One – Zer0 Sum is a Telltale game. Expect a lot of story, dialogue choices, and quick-time action sequences. If you were too impatient for their earlier titles, Zer0 Sum might have enough momentum to sweep you up into the larger drama. However, if the gameplay of previous Telltale adventure titles turned you off, Tales from the Borderlands doesn’t do anything that might change your mind. On the whole, I found it laugh-out-loud funny more than a few times, was generally smiling, and thought that it was one of Telltale’s best efforts to date. Tales from the Borderlands Episode One was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android (so, basically everything)
  10. I’ll be more upfront than usual; Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game. The staggeringly large scope, excellent score, eye-popping visuals, and engaging gameplay, BioWare executed everything almost flawlessly. I’d recommend it to almost anyone, even people who aren’t typically drawn toward RPGs. Inquisition has issues, certainly, but none that would prevent me from endorsing it. If you are just looking for my recommendation, there you have it. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in a deeper dive into Inquisition, taking a look at the seemingly minor issues that keep Inquisition from rising into the stuff of video game legend, read on. I think it fitting to begin a discussion of Inquisition by addressing the glitches that plagued my opening hour of gameplay. I spent around three hours attempting to satisfactorily begin the game. Character creation proved to be particularly difficult. No joke, all of the facial hair floated a good six inches off of my protagonist’s face, dissuading me from touching any of the glorious beards on display. Perhaps more importantly, the lighting in character creation looks nothing close to the lighting elsewhere in the game. Meaning that my first character, who I intended to look Middle Eastern, ended up looking like he had a fake spray tan that would never, ever come off. Though I initially thought I’d try to live with the abysmal results, I quickly ditched him because Dragon Age decided that he was going to be regarded as a lady by all other characters in the game, a rather significant glitch for which there was no fix. My second time through the creation process went much better, though depending on camera angles and lighting my protagonist could either look really awesome or like the world’s biggest simpleton. I thought I was in the clear. However, Dragon Age kept switching him from a mage to a rogue midway through the tutorial. It took over a dozen reloads before I was able to successfully make it through the introduction and progress into the game proper. With those initial glitchy hurdles cleared, my experience was nearly error free, excepting the occasional giant falling out of the sky. I only encountered one major glitch after the opening ordeal. About halfway through Inquisition, the game introduces a new character who can be customized. If players choose to customize that particular character, there seems to be a 50% chance that their main protagonist’s voice could change to the default option if they had opted for the non-default voice during character creation. This happened to me with no way to reverse it. There are few things as grating as spending 40 hours with a character sounding one way only for them to suddenly begin sounding completely, irritatingly different. Glitches aside, people interested in the PC version should know that Inquisition’s mouse and keyboard controls handle terribly. I could only handle about two or three minutes of gameplay before I decided to plug in a wired 360 controller, which proved to be a far superior experience. A tactical RPG originally made for the PC, Dragon Age: Origins required strategic thinking and micromanaging that lent itself very well to a mouse and keyboard. To a lesser extent, that was also true of Dragon Age 2. However, I found Dragon Age: Inquisition to be more of an action game with RPG elements, which lends itself better to a controller than a keyboard. A tactical camera and customizable companion tactics allow players to fine tune strategies, but I literally never used either of those functions, never even touched them. Granted, I played through on Normal difficulty, so perhaps higher difficulty levels require a more tactical approach to combat. The fact remains that I approached combat almost like I would a button masher and had a great time. The change isn’t a bad thing for the Dragon Age franchise, but prospective players should be aware that Inquisition’s gameplay differs significantly from that of its ancestors. The strength of BioWare’s writing team remains unchanged. To summarize the initial plot: The Chantry, the leading religious power in Thedas, convenes a special council to begin peace talks between rebellious mages and their former Templar handlers, an attempt to halt a disastrous war. Something goes horribly wrong and the entire council is obliterated in a magical cataclysm that creates The Breach, a massive portal to the Fade, a realm of spirits and demons. In all the commotion, a single individual emerges from The Breach, the bearer of a strange magical mark on their right hand. As that person, players make choices that shape the world of Thedas for better or worse. It is a great set up raising numerous questions for players to explore. What is the role of faith in times of peril? Is the protagonist divine? Can the current events all be rationally explained? Is there a god looking out for the people of Thedas? Unfortunately, none of these questions are really explored to much meaningful depth. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially given where the series might be going in the future. If anything makes up for my minor grumbles with how adequately Inquisition explores its own themes it is how well BioWare succeeds in characterization. Far and away, I found the dialogue to be the strongest part of Inquisition. BioWare really isn’t afraid to explore waters that most other video games still aren’t ready to touch quite yet. One of the most compelling companion characters, Dorian, is a mage that prefers the company of other men. He’s not treated as a stereotype or a token character. He’s a fully formed individual, which is rare to see in most Western games. A more succinct way of putting it is that Dorian’s sexual orientation isn’t something that defines him as a character, rather he’s written as a person who happens to be gay. He’s also bold, brimming with clever quips, and can occasionally put aside his façade of bravado to try and be a good friend. BioWare isn’t content to rest on its laurels after crafting a character that most studios wouldn’t have bother with either. Krem, the second in command of the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company, breaks new ground as the first transgender character in the Western AAA game space. Despite not being one of the core companion characters, Krem stands out in the land of big budget games as a minority character written in a humane way. Much like Dorian, Krem’s gender identity isn’t the thing that defines him, he’s a person before anything else. I only mentioned two out of a cast of dozens. Who could forget Cassandra, the hard case Seeker with a hidden love for trashy romance novels? Or Sera, the kooky-yet-practical city elf that seems more than a little unhinged? Or what about… I could keep listing names for paragraphs, but I think you’ve probably understood my meaning. Lesser writers would stop short. Cassandra would just be a stuffy warrior, Sera would just be crazy, Dorian would just be another gay stereotype. Heck, Krem would be a one line anomaly in a typical game. But BioWare adds just enough to make each one seem fleshed out and real. Each have their own motivations, goals, and desires. They have needs and wants that are directly communicated to the player and others that are only hinted at and suggest greater depth. Despite the fantasy setting and the supernatural threats that close in on every side, Dragon Age: Inquisition manages to paint more realistic people than many games that strive to be more grounded in reality. As I played Inquisition, I slowly began to feel an absence. I tried to shake it off, but it continued to grow as I progressed. Then, somewhere in the midst of court intrigue, large scale warfare, and demons raining from the sky, it suddenly stuck me how disconnected I felt from it all. It wasn’t that the characters are written badly, several of them are easily the most brilliantly written video game characters I’ve had the pleasure to come across. It also wasn’t that Dragon Age: Inquisition is boring; there are plenty of things to do and the game aims to be visually stunning at all times. It didn’t even seem like the problem was on a narrative level, an issue usually found in even the biggest AAA games. I really struggled to pin down exactly why Inquisition felt so impersonal, and it wasn’t until after the credits rolled and I had an opportunity to reflect on the game and BioWare’s previous accomplishments that the answer hit me. One of the most positively received video games to come out of BioWare is Mass Effect 2. The wild, incredible narrative ride ratchets up over time to climax in a suicide mission made all the more satisfying by the time devoted to interacting with and learning about the team that risk their lives alongside the player. In other words, Mass Effect 2’s effectiveness stems from how the narrative and game design choices all revolve around each other, intertwined and inseparable. Practically every mission either links with a certain character, advancing the player’s relationship with them, or propels the plot forward. Almost no missions in Mass Effect 2 consist of dead air (except, of course, the planet scanning), every moment crackles with purpose to one end or another. To invest players and keep up the narrative momentum, BioWare kept every mission carefully directed and allowed for little in the way of exploration. BioWare seems to have taken a different approach that centers on the vastness of the areas they’ve created. It is easy to see why; clearly a lot of time went into the awe-inspiring environments. However, the mission structures applied to these huge spaces feel very similar to what you’d find in an MMO. For many people that might not be a problem, but it leads to a relatively inert game both in terms of player engagement and game narrative. That’s why I had trouble pinpointing the problem at first; the disconnect isn’t on a traditional narrative level. Instead it is the result of a uniquely game-related design choice. Unlike Mass Effect 2, many of the missions, even some that involve companions, require backtracking through previously explored areas to kill bad guys/collect items/destroy things A, B, and C. They aren’t engaging tasks. You’ve probably done them thousands of times in other games. None of those things are as memorable or meaningful as the time Garrus tried to assassinate his ex-squad member, Sidonis, and was either talked into or out of it through conversation. I spent almost 100 hours in Thedas, and there were still areas I hadn’t fully explored. I completed the game at level 24, even though the game recommends the final mission for character levels 15-19. The world BioWare created was so big that the side stuff overtakes the main narrative, despite it being the least interesting part of the experience. It seems telling to me that “Leave the Hinterlands” has become a piece of advice repeated again and again. Players are getting wrapped up in checking all the boxes, going into every nook and cranny, and engaging less with the characters and narrative. That’s a shame, because the main quest missions are easily the most interesting parts of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just wish that there were more of them and less uninspired open world quest design. Herb gathering exemplifies the issue perfectly. The game begins and it is exciting to stumble across herbs and harvest them, so you tap buttons to go through the gathering animations again and again. They’re all over the place. Then you discover that it takes herbs to replenish your supply of health potions. Gathering herbs stops being a cool diversion and becomes a necessity. Later you learn that it takes herbs to upgrade your potions, too. At this point, you will be willing to commit murder to not gather any more herbs. What started as a fun diversion becomes a mind-numbingly boring task. Sure, you can send soldiers to do it, but they’ll only bring six or seven plants back at a time, but you could collect double that in the time it takes them to bring more back. Even by the end of the game, I was scrabbling for more herbs, more crafting materials. It took me out of the world and diverted my attention from narratively important tasks. With the writing talent at their disposal, BioWare’s decision to focus away from the dialogues is perplexing. I don’t mean that Inquisition lacks in the dialogue department at all, but rather there was a slight design choice that clearly emphasizes the open world gameplay over the conversations. One of the things that I loved about both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series was that practically all conversations with significant NPCs that had more than one sentence to say were done from multiple fixed camera angles that created more engaging visuals than the player controlled camera was capable of providing. It made conversations feel more immediate and exciting. While that is certainly still present in Dragon Age: Inquisition, more often than not players will be kept in the broad player controlled camera during conversations. The design choice encourages players to leave the conversation with the NPC whenever they’d like. On paper, that seems like something a lot of players would want, but in practice I think it creates a lot of distance between the player and the sidequests or extra dialogue players might want to have with their companions. I understand that it is a large game and players have a lot to do, but are we really too busy to want personal conversations with important characters? I don’t think so, and I can’t help but feel we lost something rather important. Ultimately, the estrangement from Dragon Age: Inquisition hurt my perception of its narrative. Perhaps I spent too much time pursuing side content and not enough on finishing the core missions, but by the end of the game everything felt stacked in my protagonist’s favor and the climactic finale seemed like little more than a formality. This could be an indication that the narrative itself is a bit flawed on how it approaches the overarching conflict in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but that’s probably a spoiler-filled topic for another day. Conclusion: Despite the glitches, the feeling of disconnection, and the wall of text that might indicate otherwise, I very much enjoyed my time in Thedas. The criticisms I had were small, but they’ll be the reason Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t remembered quite as fondly as Origins or the Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Inquisition left me wanting more, curious as to where the franchise might be headed next. Color me doubly curious since many loose ends from both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 are resolved by the time the credits roll in Inquisition. I opened this review with a recommendation and I’m ending it with another. Do yourself a favor and play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Any missteps it makes pale in comparison to the enjoyable experience it can offer. Dragon Age: Inquisition was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 View full article
  11. I’ll be more upfront than usual; Dragon Age: Inquisition is a fantastic game. The staggeringly large scope, excellent score, eye-popping visuals, and engaging gameplay, BioWare executed everything almost flawlessly. I’d recommend it to almost anyone, even people who aren’t typically drawn toward RPGs. Inquisition has issues, certainly, but none that would prevent me from endorsing it. If you are just looking for my recommendation, there you have it. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in a deeper dive into Inquisition, taking a look at the seemingly minor issues that keep Inquisition from rising into the stuff of video game legend, read on. I think it fitting to begin a discussion of Inquisition by addressing the glitches that plagued my opening hour of gameplay. I spent around three hours attempting to satisfactorily begin the game. Character creation proved to be particularly difficult. No joke, all of the facial hair floated a good six inches off of my protagonist’s face, dissuading me from touching any of the glorious beards on display. Perhaps more importantly, the lighting in character creation looks nothing close to the lighting elsewhere in the game. Meaning that my first character, who I intended to look Middle Eastern, ended up looking like he had a fake spray tan that would never, ever come off. Though I initially thought I’d try to live with the abysmal results, I quickly ditched him because Dragon Age decided that he was going to be regarded as a lady by all other characters in the game, a rather significant glitch for which there was no fix. My second time through the creation process went much better, though depending on camera angles and lighting my protagonist could either look really awesome or like the world’s biggest simpleton. I thought I was in the clear. However, Dragon Age kept switching him from a mage to a rogue midway through the tutorial. It took over a dozen reloads before I was able to successfully make it through the introduction and progress into the game proper. With those initial glitchy hurdles cleared, my experience was nearly error free, excepting the occasional giant falling out of the sky. I only encountered one major glitch after the opening ordeal. About halfway through Inquisition, the game introduces a new character who can be customized. If players choose to customize that particular character, there seems to be a 50% chance that their main protagonist’s voice could change to the default option if they had opted for the non-default voice during character creation. This happened to me with no way to reverse it. There are few things as grating as spending 40 hours with a character sounding one way only for them to suddenly begin sounding completely, irritatingly different. Glitches aside, people interested in the PC version should know that Inquisition’s mouse and keyboard controls handle terribly. I could only handle about two or three minutes of gameplay before I decided to plug in a wired 360 controller, which proved to be a far superior experience. A tactical RPG originally made for the PC, Dragon Age: Origins required strategic thinking and micromanaging that lent itself very well to a mouse and keyboard. To a lesser extent, that was also true of Dragon Age 2. However, I found Dragon Age: Inquisition to be more of an action game with RPG elements, which lends itself better to a controller than a keyboard. A tactical camera and customizable companion tactics allow players to fine tune strategies, but I literally never used either of those functions, never even touched them. Granted, I played through on Normal difficulty, so perhaps higher difficulty levels require a more tactical approach to combat. The fact remains that I approached combat almost like I would a button masher and had a great time. The change isn’t a bad thing for the Dragon Age franchise, but prospective players should be aware that Inquisition’s gameplay differs significantly from that of its ancestors. The strength of BioWare’s writing team remains unchanged. To summarize the initial plot: The Chantry, the leading religious power in Thedas, convenes a special council to begin peace talks between rebellious mages and their former Templar handlers, an attempt to halt a disastrous war. Something goes horribly wrong and the entire council is obliterated in a magical cataclysm that creates The Breach, a massive portal to the Fade, a realm of spirits and demons. In all the commotion, a single individual emerges from The Breach, the bearer of a strange magical mark on their right hand. As that person, players make choices that shape the world of Thedas for better or worse. It is a great set up raising numerous questions for players to explore. What is the role of faith in times of peril? Is the protagonist divine? Can the current events all be rationally explained? Is there a god looking out for the people of Thedas? Unfortunately, none of these questions are really explored to much meaningful depth. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially given where the series might be going in the future. If anything makes up for my minor grumbles with how adequately Inquisition explores its own themes it is how well BioWare succeeds in characterization. Far and away, I found the dialogue to be the strongest part of Inquisition. BioWare really isn’t afraid to explore waters that most other video games still aren’t ready to touch quite yet. One of the most compelling companion characters, Dorian, is a mage that prefers the company of other men. He’s not treated as a stereotype or a token character. He’s a fully formed individual, which is rare to see in most Western games. A more succinct way of putting it is that Dorian’s sexual orientation isn’t something that defines him as a character, rather he’s written as a person who happens to be gay. He’s also bold, brimming with clever quips, and can occasionally put aside his façade of bravado to try and be a good friend. BioWare isn’t content to rest on its laurels after crafting a character that most studios wouldn’t have bother with either. Krem, the second in command of the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company, breaks new ground as the first transgender character in the Western AAA game space. Despite not being one of the core companion characters, Krem stands out in the land of big budget games as a minority character written in a humane way. Much like Dorian, Krem’s gender identity isn’t the thing that defines him, he’s a person before anything else. I only mentioned two out of a cast of dozens. Who could forget Cassandra, the hard case Seeker with a hidden love for trashy romance novels? Or Sera, the kooky-yet-practical city elf that seems more than a little unhinged? Or what about… I could keep listing names for paragraphs, but I think you’ve probably understood my meaning. Lesser writers would stop short. Cassandra would just be a stuffy warrior, Sera would just be crazy, Dorian would just be another gay stereotype. Heck, Krem would be a one line anomaly in a typical game. But BioWare adds just enough to make each one seem fleshed out and real. Each have their own motivations, goals, and desires. They have needs and wants that are directly communicated to the player and others that are only hinted at and suggest greater depth. Despite the fantasy setting and the supernatural threats that close in on every side, Dragon Age: Inquisition manages to paint more realistic people than many games that strive to be more grounded in reality. As I played Inquisition, I slowly began to feel an absence. I tried to shake it off, but it continued to grow as I progressed. Then, somewhere in the midst of court intrigue, large scale warfare, and demons raining from the sky, it suddenly stuck me how disconnected I felt from it all. It wasn’t that the characters are written badly, several of them are easily the most brilliantly written video game characters I’ve had the pleasure to come across. It also wasn’t that Dragon Age: Inquisition is boring; there are plenty of things to do and the game aims to be visually stunning at all times. It didn’t even seem like the problem was on a narrative level, an issue usually found in even the biggest AAA games. I really struggled to pin down exactly why Inquisition felt so impersonal, and it wasn’t until after the credits rolled and I had an opportunity to reflect on the game and BioWare’s previous accomplishments that the answer hit me. One of the most positively received video games to come out of BioWare is Mass Effect 2. The wild, incredible narrative ride ratchets up over time to climax in a suicide mission made all the more satisfying by the time devoted to interacting with and learning about the team that risk their lives alongside the player. In other words, Mass Effect 2’s effectiveness stems from how the narrative and game design choices all revolve around each other, intertwined and inseparable. Practically every mission either links with a certain character, advancing the player’s relationship with them, or propels the plot forward. Almost no missions in Mass Effect 2 consist of dead air (except, of course, the planet scanning), every moment crackles with purpose to one end or another. To invest players and keep up the narrative momentum, BioWare kept every mission carefully directed and allowed for little in the way of exploration. BioWare seems to have taken a different approach that centers on the vastness of the areas they’ve created. It is easy to see why; clearly a lot of time went into the awe-inspiring environments. However, the mission structures applied to these huge spaces feel very similar to what you’d find in an MMO. For many people that might not be a problem, but it leads to a relatively inert game both in terms of player engagement and game narrative. That’s why I had trouble pinpointing the problem at first; the disconnect isn’t on a traditional narrative level. Instead it is the result of a uniquely game-related design choice. Unlike Mass Effect 2, many of the missions, even some that involve companions, require backtracking through previously explored areas to kill bad guys/collect items/destroy things A, B, and C. They aren’t engaging tasks. You’ve probably done them thousands of times in other games. None of those things are as memorable or meaningful as the time Garrus tried to assassinate his ex-squad member, Sidonis, and was either talked into or out of it through conversation. I spent almost 100 hours in Thedas, and there were still areas I hadn’t fully explored. I completed the game at level 24, even though the game recommends the final mission for character levels 15-19. The world BioWare created was so big that the side stuff overtakes the main narrative, despite it being the least interesting part of the experience. It seems telling to me that “Leave the Hinterlands” has become a piece of advice repeated again and again. Players are getting wrapped up in checking all the boxes, going into every nook and cranny, and engaging less with the characters and narrative. That’s a shame, because the main quest missions are easily the most interesting parts of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just wish that there were more of them and less uninspired open world quest design. Herb gathering exemplifies the issue perfectly. The game begins and it is exciting to stumble across herbs and harvest them, so you tap buttons to go through the gathering animations again and again. They’re all over the place. Then you discover that it takes herbs to replenish your supply of health potions. Gathering herbs stops being a cool diversion and becomes a necessity. Later you learn that it takes herbs to upgrade your potions, too. At this point, you will be willing to commit murder to not gather any more herbs. What started as a fun diversion becomes a mind-numbingly boring task. Sure, you can send soldiers to do it, but they’ll only bring six or seven plants back at a time, but you could collect double that in the time it takes them to bring more back. Even by the end of the game, I was scrabbling for more herbs, more crafting materials. It took me out of the world and diverted my attention from narratively important tasks. With the writing talent at their disposal, BioWare’s decision to focus away from the dialogues is perplexing. I don’t mean that Inquisition lacks in the dialogue department at all, but rather there was a slight design choice that clearly emphasizes the open world gameplay over the conversations. One of the things that I loved about both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series was that practically all conversations with significant NPCs that had more than one sentence to say were done from multiple fixed camera angles that created more engaging visuals than the player controlled camera was capable of providing. It made conversations feel more immediate and exciting. While that is certainly still present in Dragon Age: Inquisition, more often than not players will be kept in the broad player controlled camera during conversations. The design choice encourages players to leave the conversation with the NPC whenever they’d like. On paper, that seems like something a lot of players would want, but in practice I think it creates a lot of distance between the player and the sidequests or extra dialogue players might want to have with their companions. I understand that it is a large game and players have a lot to do, but are we really too busy to want personal conversations with important characters? I don’t think so, and I can’t help but feel we lost something rather important. Ultimately, the estrangement from Dragon Age: Inquisition hurt my perception of its narrative. Perhaps I spent too much time pursuing side content and not enough on finishing the core missions, but by the end of the game everything felt stacked in my protagonist’s favor and the climactic finale seemed like little more than a formality. This could be an indication that the narrative itself is a bit flawed on how it approaches the overarching conflict in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but that’s probably a spoiler-filled topic for another day. Conclusion: Despite the glitches, the feeling of disconnection, and the wall of text that might indicate otherwise, I very much enjoyed my time in Thedas. The criticisms I had were small, but they’ll be the reason Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t remembered quite as fondly as Origins or the Mass Effect series. Dragon Age: Inquisition left me wanting more, curious as to where the franchise might be headed next. Color me doubly curious since many loose ends from both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 are resolved by the time the credits roll in Inquisition. I opened this review with a recommendation and I’m ending it with another. Do yourself a favor and play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Any missteps it makes pale in comparison to the enjoyable experience it can offer. Dragon Age: Inquisition was reviewed PC and is now available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360
  12. RPGs like Wasteland 2 are difficult to pull off without a misstep. They typically have very large ambitions and the larger that they become, the more options that they offer players, the more likely they are to fall short. Trying to account for every way a player might want to interact with a given scenario is a shotgun approach to game design and it is tricky to master. They also tend to be very structurally spread out. The core narrative seems to have importance than the numerous vignettes that players may or may not encounter. Key decisions have the potential to significantly alter events that players come across and lead to different gameplay experiences, meaning that reviews of this type have to be taken with a few more grains of salt than usual. It isn’t impossible to break these types of games down, just a bit harder and a bit more dependent on how the game was played. With that said, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. The original 1988 Wasteland almost single-handedly made video games about wandering an irradiated, post-apocalyptic world cool. Wasteland predated the beginning of the Fallout series by almost a decade, but became lost in the mists of time. Then in 2012, InXile Entertainment launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $900,000 to develop a true sequel to the 1988 title. Within two days that goal had been reached and by the time the campaign drew to a close a total of around $3,000,000 had been secured to fund development. After two years the result is a staggeringly large RPG with astonishing amounts of detail. In a livestream interview with Joystiq, creative director Brian Fargo stated that if you took all the text written for the game, all of the dialogues and descriptions, the word count would surpass all of that of the entire Harry Potter series. Think about that for a minute: The developers wrote over seven novels worth of text in addition to making a game. Some of you might be a bit skeptical of Fargo’s claim, but having poured 75 hours of my life into Wasteland 2, I believe it. Out of those tens of thousands of words arose the tale of the Desert Rangers, post-apocalyptic cowboys who strive to establish law and order for the residents of the habitable portions of Arizona; an Arizona that has been cut off from the outside world by deadly radiation clouds. Strange animals roam the wastes like mutated honey badgers or giant rabbits posing an ever present threat to those new to wandering the parched lands of Arizona. However, as is the case in an un-irradiated world, the most dangerous creatures in the wasteland are your fellow human beings. Player begin with a team of Desert Ranger recruits that have been tasked with looking into the death of Ace, a fellow Ranger who was gunned down while tracking down the source of a mysterious radio signal. And… well, that’s about as much as I can say before what players experience could conceivably be different from the choices I made. There is no set course in Wasteland 2. Instead, there are numerous vignettes that can be explored at will with only a small number of essential scenarios that need to be dealt with before the main narrative is allowed to progress. After leaving the starting area to tackle the initial task of investigating Ace’s death, players receive calls for help from two different settlements that have found themselves in imminent danger. Choosing to help one over the other leads to sweeping consequences for a large portion of Wasteland 2. Players who are more inclined to explore can encounter smaller side missions, too. The diffuse structure of the narrative leads to a very erratic core narrative. Some of the episode are truly engaging and ask players to make difficult choices, while others feel more like a slog of going through the motions rather than an enjoyable experience. The meat of Wasteland 2 is the turn-based tactical combat. Each character under the player’s command has a certain number of action points that are determined based on their attributes. The more action points they have, the more stuff they can do on their turn. It is a relatively simple system that is pleasantly complicated by alternate firing modes for guns, crouching, and headshots, all of which have different action point costs associated with their execution. The result is a mostly satisfying strategic title that can concoct some difficult scenarios to keep players on their toes. What really bogs down the experience are good ideas that have been executed poorly. A great example of this is any time an NPC follower is picked up that acts independently when in combat. The AI governing their behavior makes mind-bogglingly awful decisions, which can be really frustrating when you are trying to complete an objective that requires them to be alive. They’ll shun cover and brazenly stand in front of several enemies armed with miniguns and grenades without a second thought. It is frustrating to do everything as tactically correct as possible only to have an NPC derp its way into oblivion. Two more great ideas that don’t quite live up to their potential are inventory management and melee combat. Managing inventory becomes problematic because you will often find weird items that may or may not have a purpose later in the game. This reinforces the compulsion to hold onto a variety of random crap that might randomly be useful. Ammo has weight, but you probably want to keep that in your inventory if you feel like living through enemy encounters. Do you like being healed? Yes? Well, that takes up inventory space, too. The amount of stuff a character can carry in their inventory is related to their strength attribute, which is very unfortunate since strength means almost nothing in a game full of ranged weaponry. There are skill categories for blunt weapons, bladed weapons, and unarmed fighting, but none of those routes feel like they pay off in the slightest. Why leave cover to get in close to an enemy when he has five or six ranged friends for backup and you can do two or three times as much damage with one sniper from a mile away? Strength improves melee attacks, but not enough to make them feel like a viable option when compared to all of the cool shotguns, heavy weapons, energy cannons, sniper rifles, and assault weapons. This is all the more unfortunate because you will need a character with high strength just to carry your junk around and they’ll end up feeling like dead weight. By the time I reached the end game I had to stop for five to ten minutes to get my characters’ inventories sorted out every time I acquired something that weighed more than five pounds. Wasteland 2 also features permadeath. If a character loses all of their health, they’ll fall unconscious. If they continue to take hits, they’ll die and exit the party permanently. For a player like me, that just means that losing a party member means reloading an earlier save. I imagine that most players will react similarly since losing a character can be effectively crippling, especially if they were relied on for their non-combat skills like lock picking or demolitions. It is a tangible loss that isn’t easy to replace and is punishing for the rest of the game. My golden standard for permadeath in strategy games was set by XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Losing a soldier was certainly a blow to the missions that followed, but unless it was on the highest difficulties, it wasn’t something that left a campaign crippled. The permadeath served to make XCOM harder, yes, but it also strengthened the emotional attachments players developed for their soldiers. They took on the role of their commander and felt responsible for their soldiers’ fates. Unlike XCOM, a disconnect exists between the player and the characters in Wasteland 2. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many games are fantastic without inviting the player into the fiction as a character. The tradeoff seems to be that if you are going to have that sort of distance between the player and the characters, then you need to have engaging characters in which the player can feel emotionally invested. Wasteland 2 only partially succeeds at this. The four Desert Ranger recruits that begin the game can be customized by the player or picked from premade backgrounds. They then all proceed to be silent protagonists, a decision that renders them inert and emotionless. Luckily, the supporting cast of recruitable NPCs does some serious heavy lifting. Characters like Scotchmo, the shotgun wielding hobo with a heart of gold, or Rose, the scientist with a prosthetic arm who dreamed of becoming a Ranger, go a long way toward giving the journey through the wastelands a dash of characterization; saving it from becoming just another generic romp. However, level design is the biggest quagmire that painfully slows the experience of Wasteland 2. There is an awful lot of backtracking through large levels. I kid you not, I eventually picked up a book so that I could have something to do while my characters ran through the same area, repeatedly going back and forth between to NPCs that I needed to talk with. Perhaps more than any other thing that I’ve talked about so far is what dampened my enthusiasm for Wasteland 2. It is not awesome to spend two or three minutes wandering through a level that you’ve already thoroughly explored to get from point A to point B. Fast travel within locations or quick exits from thoroughly explored areas would have been a fantastic addition. Related to the level design is how the camera interacts with the environment. Many tactical games have a fixed camera, but creating a fixed perspective can lead to obstructed vision for players. Wasteland 2 tries to avoid that problem by including multiple camera angles that players can switch between. While a good idea on paper, it quickly becomes disorienting. It can even get you turned around in areas that have been explored. To top it off, even the rotating camera can’t save all of the battles from the challenges of objects obstructing commands. A number of times I noticed characters who were caught at awkward angles in a bit of object that was supposed to provide cover. These incidents were few, but they still popped up from time to time and provided some frustration. With everything that I’ve gone over, you might think that I found Wasteland 2 to be a negative experience. On the contrary, I enjoyed the majority of the time I spent with the Desert Rangers. There are so many things to discover and so many ways to solve the situations that are happened upon. The sense of freedom is enjoyable and it’s nice that entire enemy encounters can be skipped at times if a character possesses the appropriate skills or items. The elements of exploration and discovery are in full force. On top of that, Wasteland 2 has a great sense of humor. At one point my party ran across a solitary man in the wastes who began following us while spouting a lengthy, ridiculous one-sided conversation about all the places he had been and seen. There is a faction of people who live in the wasteland who base their society off of a book of etiquette while also being more than happy to resort to violence. At one point, I found the treasure of the Sierra Madre. There is a world of references that prove to be good humored nods to famous movies, books, and video games and jokes that poke fun at the same. And there is just so much game. I put 75 hours into the game before I saw the credits roll, but I skipped many sidequests that I knew about and I’m sure I skipped other bits of the game that I never even discovered. I enjoyed the game despite its numerous imperfections. At the heart of Wasteland 2 is an earnest effort of staggering proportions and it isn’t hard to appreciate that in the final product. Note: I'm about to go into a topic that might be a bit uncomfortable for some of you out there. If that is the case, feel free to skip down to the conclusion. That being said, there was an issue that I found deeply disconcerting in Wasteland 2’s narrative: The treatment of sexual violence. This is something that video games are notoriously terrible at depicting in a way that is tactful. While I don’t doubt for a minute that Wasteland 2 has nothing but good intentions toward its players, this was something that stood out to me as needing to be called out. There are a number of parts in the game that deal with people who have been enslaved and abused sexually. From a writing standpoint, that would be fine if there was a reason for it, if there was a purpose to including that content. However, from what I saw, this sexual assault is never the focus of the scenarios in which it appears. It might help if I give an example to illustrate what I mean. At one point, Wasteland 2 takes players into a prison that has been converted into a headquarters for a gang that wants to start being what passes for a government. As players make their way through the town that’s just outside the prison, it becomes clear that the people who live there have become indentured as unwilling workers on a nearby farm. Many of the other residents are living in poverty and starving to death. Later, it is possible to return to negotiate with the leader of the gang and help him see the error of his ways and how they’d been going about trying to help people in the worst possible way. That all makes sense, right? It establishes the gang as bad guys, but later it turns out they just had no idea how to go helping people without innocents getting hurt by their efforts. What doesn’t make sense is also including a section of the gang’s camp where slaves are kept like animals and raped repeatedly. What possible purpose does that serve? None. There is no justification for it. The worst part is that it is never mentioned in any of the dialogue that I saw when speaking with any of the gang members or their leader. The focus was meant to be on the farm that the indentured workers were forced to cultivate. The area of the gang’s camp dedicated to rape was rendered as something that was barely worth consideration. This isn’t an isolated incident either. There are several instances of sexual violence invoked casually. InExile was trying to make a gritty game, a mature game, and of course that led to including lots of f-bombs, a number of prostitutes, and segments of sexual violence. People will try to mitigate it by saying that the occurrences of that brand of violence aren’t as explicit as they could be, the camera is distant, the violence isn’t directly shown, but the ugly truth of it is that it is still lurking there in the shadowy underbelly of the game as an implication. The lack of importance tells me that the writers of Wasteland 2 didn’t think when it came to this topic. It is as if the game threw up its hands and said, “Well, OF COURSE, this happens after the end of the world, especially when you are trying to portray the apocalypse in a mature way!” That might sound like a defense, but there is no reason to include scenes of sexual violence in the name of “maturity” or a “grittier experience” when the game in question cannot or will not maturely address the important topics it casually brings up. Nor is grit of such terrible importance to your game when you include a large number of mutated honey badgers as enemies. If you are a developer and are considering including sexual assault in your game, I believe you have a human obligation to try and treat it with the gravity it deserves. Like everything else in your game, there should be a reason that sexual violence is included and that reason shouldn’t be to titillate your players or serve as a momentary distraction. Conclusion: At the end of the day, I am attempting to critique an experience that took up more than three days of solid effort on my part and contained more text than seven books. How does someone even begin to try to do that justice? While Wasteland 2 certainly has a number of issues that relate to its core mechanics, design, and narrative, I enjoyed a lot of my time in its world, especially when it allowed itself to be a bit more lighthearted. The combat is satisfying, though sometimes frustrating. The narrative oscillates from being very good to being really not great from scenario to scenario, but generally errs on the side of quality. Wasteland 2 succeeds at being the game that its backers desired, while also paving the way for a renaissance of games made in this style. However, for as much as I enjoyed its strategic gameplay and unexpected turns, there were many flaws that detracted from my enjoyment on an intellectual level. Wasteland 2 is a solid RPG with enough detail to satisfy even the most rabid of lore-hounds, but I hope that InExile learns to address sensitive topics with a bit more humanity in their future endeavors. View full article
  13. RPGs like Wasteland 2 are difficult to pull off without a misstep. They typically have very large ambitions and the larger that they become, the more options that they offer players, the more likely they are to fall short. Trying to account for every way a player might want to interact with a given scenario is a shotgun approach to game design and it is tricky to master. They also tend to be very structurally spread out. The core narrative seems to have importance than the numerous vignettes that players may or may not encounter. Key decisions have the potential to significantly alter events that players come across and lead to different gameplay experiences, meaning that reviews of this type have to be taken with a few more grains of salt than usual. It isn’t impossible to break these types of games down, just a bit harder and a bit more dependent on how the game was played. With that said, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. The original 1988 Wasteland almost single-handedly made video games about wandering an irradiated, post-apocalyptic world cool. Wasteland predated the beginning of the Fallout series by almost a decade, but became lost in the mists of time. Then in 2012, InXile Entertainment launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $900,000 to develop a true sequel to the 1988 title. Within two days that goal had been reached and by the time the campaign drew to a close a total of around $3,000,000 had been secured to fund development. After two years the result is a staggeringly large RPG with astonishing amounts of detail. In a livestream interview with Joystiq, creative director Brian Fargo stated that if you took all the text written for the game, all of the dialogues and descriptions, the word count would surpass all of that of the entire Harry Potter series. Think about that for a minute: The developers wrote over seven novels worth of text in addition to making a game. Some of you might be a bit skeptical of Fargo’s claim, but having poured 75 hours of my life into Wasteland 2, I believe it. Out of those tens of thousands of words arose the tale of the Desert Rangers, post-apocalyptic cowboys who strive to establish law and order for the residents of the habitable portions of Arizona; an Arizona that has been cut off from the outside world by deadly radiation clouds. Strange animals roam the wastes like mutated honey badgers or giant rabbits posing an ever present threat to those new to wandering the parched lands of Arizona. However, as is the case in an un-irradiated world, the most dangerous creatures in the wasteland are your fellow human beings. Player begin with a team of Desert Ranger recruits that have been tasked with looking into the death of Ace, a fellow Ranger who was gunned down while tracking down the source of a mysterious radio signal. And… well, that’s about as much as I can say before what players experience could conceivably be different from the choices I made. There is no set course in Wasteland 2. Instead, there are numerous vignettes that can be explored at will with only a small number of essential scenarios that need to be dealt with before the main narrative is allowed to progress. After leaving the starting area to tackle the initial task of investigating Ace’s death, players receive calls for help from two different settlements that have found themselves in imminent danger. Choosing to help one over the other leads to sweeping consequences for a large portion of Wasteland 2. Players who are more inclined to explore can encounter smaller side missions, too. The diffuse structure of the narrative leads to a very erratic core narrative. Some of the episode are truly engaging and ask players to make difficult choices, while others feel more like a slog of going through the motions rather than an enjoyable experience. The meat of Wasteland 2 is the turn-based tactical combat. Each character under the player’s command has a certain number of action points that are determined based on their attributes. The more action points they have, the more stuff they can do on their turn. It is a relatively simple system that is pleasantly complicated by alternate firing modes for guns, crouching, and headshots, all of which have different action point costs associated with their execution. The result is a mostly satisfying strategic title that can concoct some difficult scenarios to keep players on their toes. What really bogs down the experience are good ideas that have been executed poorly. A great example of this is any time an NPC follower is picked up that acts independently when in combat. The AI governing their behavior makes mind-bogglingly awful decisions, which can be really frustrating when you are trying to complete an objective that requires them to be alive. They’ll shun cover and brazenly stand in front of several enemies armed with miniguns and grenades without a second thought. It is frustrating to do everything as tactically correct as possible only to have an NPC derp its way into oblivion. Two more great ideas that don’t quite live up to their potential are inventory management and melee combat. Managing inventory becomes problematic because you will often find weird items that may or may not have a purpose later in the game. This reinforces the compulsion to hold onto a variety of random crap that might randomly be useful. Ammo has weight, but you probably want to keep that in your inventory if you feel like living through enemy encounters. Do you like being healed? Yes? Well, that takes up inventory space, too. The amount of stuff a character can carry in their inventory is related to their strength attribute, which is very unfortunate since strength means almost nothing in a game full of ranged weaponry. There are skill categories for blunt weapons, bladed weapons, and unarmed fighting, but none of those routes feel like they pay off in the slightest. Why leave cover to get in close to an enemy when he has five or six ranged friends for backup and you can do two or three times as much damage with one sniper from a mile away? Strength improves melee attacks, but not enough to make them feel like a viable option when compared to all of the cool shotguns, heavy weapons, energy cannons, sniper rifles, and assault weapons. This is all the more unfortunate because you will need a character with high strength just to carry your junk around and they’ll end up feeling like dead weight. By the time I reached the end game I had to stop for five to ten minutes to get my characters’ inventories sorted out every time I acquired something that weighed more than five pounds. Wasteland 2 also features permadeath. If a character loses all of their health, they’ll fall unconscious. If they continue to take hits, they’ll die and exit the party permanently. For a player like me, that just means that losing a party member means reloading an earlier save. I imagine that most players will react similarly since losing a character can be effectively crippling, especially if they were relied on for their non-combat skills like lock picking or demolitions. It is a tangible loss that isn’t easy to replace and is punishing for the rest of the game. My golden standard for permadeath in strategy games was set by XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Losing a soldier was certainly a blow to the missions that followed, but unless it was on the highest difficulties, it wasn’t something that left a campaign crippled. The permadeath served to make XCOM harder, yes, but it also strengthened the emotional attachments players developed for their soldiers. They took on the role of their commander and felt responsible for their soldiers’ fates. Unlike XCOM, a disconnect exists between the player and the characters in Wasteland 2. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many games are fantastic without inviting the player into the fiction as a character. The tradeoff seems to be that if you are going to have that sort of distance between the player and the characters, then you need to have engaging characters in which the player can feel emotionally invested. Wasteland 2 only partially succeeds at this. The four Desert Ranger recruits that begin the game can be customized by the player or picked from premade backgrounds. They then all proceed to be silent protagonists, a decision that renders them inert and emotionless. Luckily, the supporting cast of recruitable NPCs does some serious heavy lifting. Characters like Scotchmo, the shotgun wielding hobo with a heart of gold, or Rose, the scientist with a prosthetic arm who dreamed of becoming a Ranger, go a long way toward giving the journey through the wastelands a dash of characterization; saving it from becoming just another generic romp. However, level design is the biggest quagmire that painfully slows the experience of Wasteland 2. There is an awful lot of backtracking through large levels. I kid you not, I eventually picked up a book so that I could have something to do while my characters ran through the same area, repeatedly going back and forth between to NPCs that I needed to talk with. Perhaps more than any other thing that I’ve talked about so far is what dampened my enthusiasm for Wasteland 2. It is not awesome to spend two or three minutes wandering through a level that you’ve already thoroughly explored to get from point A to point B. Fast travel within locations or quick exits from thoroughly explored areas would have been a fantastic addition. Related to the level design is how the camera interacts with the environment. Many tactical games have a fixed camera, but creating a fixed perspective can lead to obstructed vision for players. Wasteland 2 tries to avoid that problem by including multiple camera angles that players can switch between. While a good idea on paper, it quickly becomes disorienting. It can even get you turned around in areas that have been explored. To top it off, even the rotating camera can’t save all of the battles from the challenges of objects obstructing commands. A number of times I noticed characters who were caught at awkward angles in a bit of object that was supposed to provide cover. These incidents were few, but they still popped up from time to time and provided some frustration. With everything that I’ve gone over, you might think that I found Wasteland 2 to be a negative experience. On the contrary, I enjoyed the majority of the time I spent with the Desert Rangers. There are so many things to discover and so many ways to solve the situations that are happened upon. The sense of freedom is enjoyable and it’s nice that entire enemy encounters can be skipped at times if a character possesses the appropriate skills or items. The elements of exploration and discovery are in full force. On top of that, Wasteland 2 has a great sense of humor. At one point my party ran across a solitary man in the wastes who began following us while spouting a lengthy, ridiculous one-sided conversation about all the places he had been and seen. There is a faction of people who live in the wasteland who base their society off of a book of etiquette while also being more than happy to resort to violence. At one point, I found the treasure of the Sierra Madre. There is a world of references that prove to be good humored nods to famous movies, books, and video games and jokes that poke fun at the same. And there is just so much game. I put 75 hours into the game before I saw the credits roll, but I skipped many sidequests that I knew about and I’m sure I skipped other bits of the game that I never even discovered. I enjoyed the game despite its numerous imperfections. At the heart of Wasteland 2 is an earnest effort of staggering proportions and it isn’t hard to appreciate that in the final product. Note: I'm about to go into a topic that might be a bit uncomfortable for some of you out there. If that is the case, feel free to skip down to the conclusion. That being said, there was an issue that I found deeply disconcerting in Wasteland 2’s narrative: The treatment of sexual violence. This is something that video games are notoriously terrible at depicting in a way that is tactful. While I don’t doubt for a minute that Wasteland 2 has nothing but good intentions toward its players, this was something that stood out to me as needing to be called out. There are a number of parts in the game that deal with people who have been enslaved and abused sexually. From a writing standpoint, that would be fine if there was a reason for it, if there was a purpose to including that content. However, from what I saw, this sexual assault is never the focus of the scenarios in which it appears. It might help if I give an example to illustrate what I mean. At one point, Wasteland 2 takes players into a prison that has been converted into a headquarters for a gang that wants to start being what passes for a government. As players make their way through the town that’s just outside the prison, it becomes clear that the people who live there have become indentured as unwilling workers on a nearby farm. Many of the other residents are living in poverty and starving to death. Later, it is possible to return to negotiate with the leader of the gang and help him see the error of his ways and how they’d been going about trying to help people in the worst possible way. That all makes sense, right? It establishes the gang as bad guys, but later it turns out they just had no idea how to go helping people without innocents getting hurt by their efforts. What doesn’t make sense is also including a section of the gang’s camp where slaves are kept like animals and raped repeatedly. What possible purpose does that serve? None. There is no justification for it. The worst part is that it is never mentioned in any of the dialogue that I saw when speaking with any of the gang members or their leader. The focus was meant to be on the farm that the indentured workers were forced to cultivate. The area of the gang’s camp dedicated to rape was rendered as something that was barely worth consideration. This isn’t an isolated incident either. There are several instances of sexual violence invoked casually. InExile was trying to make a gritty game, a mature game, and of course that led to including lots of f-bombs, a number of prostitutes, and segments of sexual violence. People will try to mitigate it by saying that the occurrences of that brand of violence aren’t as explicit as they could be, the camera is distant, the violence isn’t directly shown, but the ugly truth of it is that it is still lurking there in the shadowy underbelly of the game as an implication. The lack of importance tells me that the writers of Wasteland 2 didn’t think when it came to this topic. It is as if the game threw up its hands and said, “Well, OF COURSE, this happens after the end of the world, especially when you are trying to portray the apocalypse in a mature way!” That might sound like a defense, but there is no reason to include scenes of sexual violence in the name of “maturity” or a “grittier experience” when the game in question cannot or will not maturely address the important topics it casually brings up. Nor is grit of such terrible importance to your game when you include a large number of mutated honey badgers as enemies. If you are a developer and are considering including sexual assault in your game, I believe you have a human obligation to try and treat it with the gravity it deserves. Like everything else in your game, there should be a reason that sexual violence is included and that reason shouldn’t be to titillate your players or serve as a momentary distraction. Conclusion: At the end of the day, I am attempting to critique an experience that took up more than three days of solid effort on my part and contained more text than seven books. How does someone even begin to try to do that justice? While Wasteland 2 certainly has a number of issues that relate to its core mechanics, design, and narrative, I enjoyed a lot of my time in its world, especially when it allowed itself to be a bit more lighthearted. The combat is satisfying, though sometimes frustrating. The narrative oscillates from being very good to being really not great from scenario to scenario, but generally errs on the side of quality. Wasteland 2 succeeds at being the game that its backers desired, while also paving the way for a renaissance of games made in this style. However, for as much as I enjoyed its strategic gameplay and unexpected turns, there were many flaws that detracted from my enjoyment on an intellectual level. Wasteland 2 is a solid RPG with enough detail to satisfy even the most rabid of lore-hounds, but I hope that InExile learns to address sensitive topics with a bit more humanity in their future endeavors.
  14. The Isle of Nex, an isolated land of mystery and monsters, has a will of its own. Four prisoners wash ashore, guided through the rocky shoals by a mysterious intelligence. The nature of the convicts’ crimes, even their previous identities, no longer matter as the group of four attempt to survive and escape the deadly designs of the island’s master. It is a simple set up, certainly one that has been used countless times before, but Legend of Grimrock 2 squeezes every bit of traction out of that familiar scenario. The island presents itself as a giant puzzle for the player to solve, a puzzle surrounded by deadly traps and hungry monsters. Legend of Grimrock 2 is a fascinating look at what game designers can do with relatively simple tools. The gameplay harks back to an older era of PC gaming when the Might and Magic series was in its prime. The entirety of the Isle of Nex, from its dungeons to its sunny landscape and beaches, exists on a colossal grid. Every move players make take them from one square to the next or rotates the camera onto a different face of the square. For those who aren’t prepared for this kind of a world, simply navigating the terrain can feel very bizarre. It takes a while to acclimate to the combat system as well. Two party members make up the frontline, while the remaining two support from the backline. Each character has two hands in which they can equip weapons. Both hands can be clicked to perform an attack with the weapon in that hand. It isn’t the most intuitive system, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit after a while. Due in part to how strange movement and combat can be, Grimrock 2 feels very different from anything else available right now. While combat can be an exciting prospect, especially when new monsters appear or a boss is encountered, Legend of Grimrock 2 shines when it comes to puzzles. That’s an impressive achievement for a game whose puzzles primarily consist of switches, pressure plates, and block pushing. From that description you’re probably rolling your eyes at the mere prospect of more video game puzzle clichés. You would be right to be skeptical; those tools used in trite and frustrating ways. However, Legend of Grimrock 2 manage through creative design choices to make these generic obstacles fun. There were times when I genuinely felt stumped, only for the solution to smack me in the face an hour later (puzzle based on Rock-Paper-Scissors really had me baffled). Particularly difficult puzzles might include a cryptic riddle that provides a hint as to how to proceed. Whenever a puzzle is solved and a new path opens, Legend of Grimrock 2 gives a strong sense of accomplishment as well as the itch to see what is around the next corner. I played through the first Legend of Grimrock, which took place entirely within one gigantic dungeon. I was curious how developer Almost Human would handle the transition to more open and natural environments. I’m happy to say that Legend of Grimrock 2 is gorgeous. The outdoor levels exist on a day-night cycle with various lighting conditions that spice up the visuals nicely. It is a bit bizarre when the natural world conforms to the grid patterns that really only make sense in dungeons, but that bit of dissonance dissipates rather quickly. The major boon of having outdoor areas is that the developers were free to create large, sprawling levels. Yes, there are still enormous dungeons, but it is nice to be able to take a break from those and explore a noxious forest, a haunted cemetery, or a sunny beach. There are a variety of different environments that each house unique enemies. From irritating giant frogs that steal equipment to terrifying ogres that can wipe your party with a single successful charge, indie developer Almost Human went to great lengths to make sure there is always something new waiting to surprise and challenge players. Anyone comparing the sequel to its predecessor can see that while the gameplay is virtually identical, the developers have added more of what made the first game such a successful indie game. There are more environments, more puzzles and traps, more monsters, more classes, more treasures, more game all around. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, but it also keeps video games engaging. There are some holdovers from the first game that feel a bit out of place. For example, the scream that characters make when they die remains the same, as do a number of other sound effects. A few of the monsters make return appearances, like the giant crabs and green slimes. I could even swear that some of the wall textures are reused from the first game. However, none of those things are really terrible or game breaking. Legend of Grimrock 2 offers a really fantastic amount of customization. There is even an option to skip character customization altogether if it isn’t your thing. There are tons of unique classes that players can choose from when beginning their adventure, like the farmer class, which levels by eating food instead of fighting monsters. Each character can choose one class, two unique traits, and assign two skill points during character creation. After the game has begun, players can’t go back and switch their class or character perks. However, each character gains a skill point with every level and those points can be used to specialize characters into unique niches depending on the needs of the party. While I enjoyed playing around with different mixtures for my party, I found that having two high health, high defense characters in the frontline and two ranged damage dealers in the back row worked best. I eventually settled on minotaur barbarian, a dual-wielding lizardman knight, a human battle mage, and a ratling alchemist proficient with firearms. I think that last part bears repeating: I created a humanoid rat man that makes bombs and shoots guns. Beyond character creation, players can make Legend of Grimrock 2 more difficult by enabling a number of optional restraints. Old-School Mode eliminates auto-mapping and forces players to either hone their memory or grab graph paper and a pencil to make their own maps. Ironman Mode restricts saving to the healing crystals scattered throughout the world. Single-Use Crystals permanently deactivates healing crystals after they’ve healed your party. I found most of these modes to be cripplingly difficult, with the exception of Ironman Mode. Beware if you’re the masochistic type and unfamiliar with this style of game; don’t ruin the experience for yourself. Conclusion: Traversing Nex and uncovering its secrets is a fantastically old-school adventure with current-gen graphical polish. Legend of Grimrock 2 consistently entertains in creative and clever ways. The story isn’t terribly interesting, but the puzzles provide the motivation to delve deeper into the island’s many mysteries. The gameplay won’t be for everyone. There is a definite learning curve for combat and movement can feel a bit jerky due to the tile-based nature of the game. For those who can overcome those obstacles, there is a truly exciting undertaking that dips into fantastic unknown depths. Legend of Grimrock 2 is currently available on PC
  15. The Isle of Nex, an isolated land of mystery and monsters, has a will of its own. Four prisoners wash ashore, guided through the rocky shoals by a mysterious intelligence. The nature of the convicts’ crimes, even their previous identities, no longer matter as the group of four attempt to survive and escape the deadly designs of the island’s master. It is a simple set up, certainly one that has been used countless times before, but Legend of Grimrock 2 squeezes every bit of traction out of that familiar scenario. The island presents itself as a giant puzzle for the player to solve, a puzzle surrounded by deadly traps and hungry monsters. Legend of Grimrock 2 is a fascinating look at what game designers can do with relatively simple tools. The gameplay harks back to an older era of PC gaming when the Might and Magic series was in its prime. The entirety of the Isle of Nex, from its dungeons to its sunny landscape and beaches, exists on a colossal grid. Every move players make take them from one square to the next or rotates the camera onto a different face of the square. For those who aren’t prepared for this kind of a world, simply navigating the terrain can feel very bizarre. It takes a while to acclimate to the combat system as well. Two party members make up the frontline, while the remaining two support from the backline. Each character has two hands in which they can equip weapons. Both hands can be clicked to perform an attack with the weapon in that hand. It isn’t the most intuitive system, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit after a while. Due in part to how strange movement and combat can be, Grimrock 2 feels very different from anything else available right now. While combat can be an exciting prospect, especially when new monsters appear or a boss is encountered, Legend of Grimrock 2 shines when it comes to puzzles. That’s an impressive achievement for a game whose puzzles primarily consist of switches, pressure plates, and block pushing. From that description you’re probably rolling your eyes at the mere prospect of more video game puzzle clichés. You would be right to be skeptical; those tools used in trite and frustrating ways. However, Legend of Grimrock 2 manage through creative design choices to make these generic obstacles fun. There were times when I genuinely felt stumped, only for the solution to smack me in the face an hour later (puzzle based on Rock-Paper-Scissors really had me baffled). Particularly difficult puzzles might include a cryptic riddle that provides a hint as to how to proceed. Whenever a puzzle is solved and a new path opens, Legend of Grimrock 2 gives a strong sense of accomplishment as well as the itch to see what is around the next corner. I played through the first Legend of Grimrock, which took place entirely within one gigantic dungeon. I was curious how developer Almost Human would handle the transition to more open and natural environments. I’m happy to say that Legend of Grimrock 2 is gorgeous. The outdoor levels exist on a day-night cycle with various lighting conditions that spice up the visuals nicely. It is a bit bizarre when the natural world conforms to the grid patterns that really only make sense in dungeons, but that bit of dissonance dissipates rather quickly. The major boon of having outdoor areas is that the developers were free to create large, sprawling levels. Yes, there are still enormous dungeons, but it is nice to be able to take a break from those and explore a noxious forest, a haunted cemetery, or a sunny beach. There are a variety of different environments that each house unique enemies. From irritating giant frogs that steal equipment to terrifying ogres that can wipe your party with a single successful charge, indie developer Almost Human went to great lengths to make sure there is always something new waiting to surprise and challenge players. Anyone comparing the sequel to its predecessor can see that while the gameplay is virtually identical, the developers have added more of what made the first game such a successful indie game. There are more environments, more puzzles and traps, more monsters, more classes, more treasures, more game all around. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, but it also keeps video games engaging. There are some holdovers from the first game that feel a bit out of place. For example, the scream that characters make when they die remains the same, as do a number of other sound effects. A few of the monsters make return appearances, like the giant crabs and green slimes. I could even swear that some of the wall textures are reused from the first game. However, none of those things are really terrible or game breaking. Legend of Grimrock 2 offers a really fantastic amount of customization. There is even an option to skip character customization altogether if it isn’t your thing. There are tons of unique classes that players can choose from when beginning their adventure, like the farmer class, which levels by eating food instead of fighting monsters. Each character can choose one class, two unique traits, and assign two skill points during character creation. After the game has begun, players can’t go back and switch their class or character perks. However, each character gains a skill point with every level and those points can be used to specialize characters into unique niches depending on the needs of the party. While I enjoyed playing around with different mixtures for my party, I found that having two high health, high defense characters in the frontline and two ranged damage dealers in the back row worked best. I eventually settled on minotaur barbarian, a dual-wielding lizardman knight, a human battle mage, and a ratling alchemist proficient with firearms. I think that last part bears repeating: I created a humanoid rat man that makes bombs and shoots guns. Beyond character creation, players can make Legend of Grimrock 2 more difficult by enabling a number of optional restraints. Old-School Mode eliminates auto-mapping and forces players to either hone their memory or grab graph paper and a pencil to make their own maps. Ironman Mode restricts saving to the healing crystals scattered throughout the world. Single-Use Crystals permanently deactivates healing crystals after they’ve healed your party. I found most of these modes to be cripplingly difficult, with the exception of Ironman Mode. Beware if you’re the masochistic type and unfamiliar with this style of game; don’t ruin the experience for yourself. Conclusion: Traversing Nex and uncovering its secrets is a fantastically old-school adventure with current-gen graphical polish. Legend of Grimrock 2 consistently entertains in creative and clever ways. The story isn’t terribly interesting, but the puzzles provide the motivation to delve deeper into the island’s many mysteries. The gameplay won’t be for everyone. There is a definite learning curve for combat and movement can feel a bit jerky due to the tile-based nature of the game. For those who can overcome those obstacles, there is a truly exciting undertaking that dips into fantastic unknown depths. Legend of Grimrock 2 is currently available on PC View full article
  16. What are stories? Conventional wisdom will tell you that stories are something along the lines of people describing a series of events with beginnings, middles, and endings. Usually, they tend to be interesting and sometimes they’re even factual. In fact, if we really want to boil stories down to their basics, they’re just the relation of events, real or imagined, to another person. It is one of the fundamental ways in which we communicate with one another. Though everyone tells stories, some people find it to be a necessity. For those individuals, writing novels, directing movies, developing games, become compulsions. Stephen King probably hasn’t written 85 novels, novellas, non-fiction books, short stories, and assorted other works just for the mountains of money (though I’m sure that didn’t hurt his productivity). I’d hazard a guess that he feels a need to write that can’t be satisfied. Maybe I’m going a bit too far out on a limb to guess at what motivates King’s prolific writing, but I know that I write short stories to clearly articulate ideas I have trouble sharing in casual conversation. That’s part of the reason why I write for a living, too. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed on PC. Maybe it is that background that helped me latch onto The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. In many ways, Ethan Carter is about stories and why we use them to make sense of the world around us. In a much more obvious way, Ethan Carter is a young boy who has gone missing. Before he went missing, Ethan was writing to the detective Paul Prospero who decides to investigate the strange circumstances around the boy’s disappearance. As the game begins, Paul arrives in Red Creek Valley with a mind to solve the mystery of the missing child. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more going on in Red Creek Valley than a simple kidnapping or runaway when players discover the severed legs and body of a murdered man. Things only seem to grow stranger from there, though I won’t go into more detail in an effort to preserve the mystery of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Paul Prospero has a keen eye for crime solving, aided in part by an affinity for the supernatural. Examining evidence and reconstructing crime scenes allows the detective to visualize the events leading up to the murder and provides hints as to where the next piece in the puzzle might be. This element could have been very gimmicky, and in a way it is, but it worked in making me feel like an investigator. It helped me buy into the mystery. I think that’s the most important part of enjoying and understanding Ethan Carter; you need to be able to accept the central mystery and ponder over the bizarre set of clues that are scattered throughout the beautiful scenic landscape of Red Creek Valley. The Vanishing of Ethan carter is a deliberately slow burn. The walking speed is realistically sluggish, though there is a button that allows for sprinting for players that are in a hurry. The pace invites those with more patience to observe the effort that indie studio The Astronauts put in to make the environment come alive. Birds send lonely, mournful cries across the wide waters of Red Creek, ringing out against a backdrop of trees that have shifted colors in preparation for winter. The audio and visuals complement each other perfectly and can change on a dime if the situation calls for it. As players progress, it becomes very clear just how wide of a range The Astronauts have in terms of the kinds of games they could deliver in the future. Beyond superficial qualities like the way everything appears and sounds, the level design on display is also of a very high caliber. Though Ethan Carter is in reality rather constrained and linear, it rarely feel that way. A thick illusion of openness pervades the experience. Environments are cleverly designed to draw players toward their next objective in a number of subtle ways. Sometimes a unique tree will draw you down to the left or an unusual building will compel you to abandon the train tracks that you’ve been following. At several points I found myself thinking that there were entire unexplored areas, until I deliberately backtracked to satisfy my curiosity and found that they contained nothing but more wilderness. The slow pace of Ethan Carter also allows players time to consider the implications of the various situations they come across. Are they real? Is something beyond mortal experience casting a malevolent shadow over Red Creek Valley? What does it all mean, both in the context of the game and as an outsider looking to take meaning from it? While some of these questions are resolved by the time the credits roll, others are not and those are the ones we need to answer for ourselves. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter resembles games like The Stanley Parable or Gone Home that present an environment for players to explore and investigate. The core mechanical difference between the three is that Ethan Carter contains a number of simple puzzles and murders that require some thought and interaction. Some of you might remember that last year I wrote about my experience with Gone Home. While I applauded that it was trying something unique in the gaming space, it ultimately failed to resonate with me, despite the amount of effort that The Fullbright Company put into crafting the experience. It fell short because the solution to Gone Home’s mystery seemed obvious and the story one that, while not common in games, didn’t strike me as particularly compelling. I feel the opposite about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It is a layered tale full of unexpected twists, wonder, suspense, and horror. When I finished I had to pace around the room thinking about what had happened for a good twenty minutes. For me, the experience rang true and I felt the payoff of having heavily invested myself into a narrative that had decided to end in a bold fashion. Without spoilers, it takes real creative guts to end a video game the way The Astronauts chose to bring Ethan Carter to a conclusion. Will there be people who respond to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter the same way that I felt about Gone Home? Absolutely. Like Gone Home before it, Ethan Carter stands almost entirely upon the strength of its narrative and will illicit different subjective reactions from players. As for me, I thought The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was some of the finest storytelling in video games. Conclusion: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a must play for anyone who fancies themselves interested in video games as an artistic medium for stories. A rich, finely crafted environment awaits, full of surprises and riddles waiting to be solved. Players looking for action or mindless fun should seek out other games. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be called many things, but I don’t know that I could label it as a “fun” experience. It is enjoyable, certainly, but not fun in the traditional sense that many associate with video games. I don’t know that I’ll be playing it again in the near future, but I do know that I won’t be forgetting my time in Red Creek Valley anytime soon. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is currently available on PC and will be coming to PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015. View full article
  17. What are stories? Conventional wisdom will tell you that stories are something along the lines of people describing a series of events with beginnings, middles, and endings. Usually, they tend to be interesting and sometimes they’re even factual. In fact, if we really want to boil stories down to their basics, they’re just the relation of events, real or imagined, to another person. It is one of the fundamental ways in which we communicate with one another. Though everyone tells stories, some people find it to be a necessity. For those individuals, writing novels, directing movies, developing games, become compulsions. Stephen King probably hasn’t written 85 novels, novellas, non-fiction books, short stories, and assorted other works just for the mountains of money (though I’m sure that didn’t hurt his productivity). I’d hazard a guess that he feels a need to write that can’t be satisfied. Maybe I’m going a bit too far out on a limb to guess at what motivates King’s prolific writing, but I know that I write short stories to clearly articulate ideas I have trouble sharing in casual conversation. That’s part of the reason why I write for a living, too. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed on PC. Maybe it is that background that helped me latch onto The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. In many ways, Ethan Carter is about stories and why we use them to make sense of the world around us. In a much more obvious way, Ethan Carter is a young boy who has gone missing. Before he went missing, Ethan was writing to the detective Paul Prospero who decides to investigate the strange circumstances around the boy’s disappearance. As the game begins, Paul arrives in Red Creek Valley with a mind to solve the mystery of the missing child. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more going on in Red Creek Valley than a simple kidnapping or runaway when players discover the severed legs and body of a murdered man. Things only seem to grow stranger from there, though I won’t go into more detail in an effort to preserve the mystery of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Paul Prospero has a keen eye for crime solving, aided in part by an affinity for the supernatural. Examining evidence and reconstructing crime scenes allows the detective to visualize the events leading up to the murder and provides hints as to where the next piece in the puzzle might be. This element could have been very gimmicky, and in a way it is, but it worked in making me feel like an investigator. It helped me buy into the mystery. I think that’s the most important part of enjoying and understanding Ethan Carter; you need to be able to accept the central mystery and ponder over the bizarre set of clues that are scattered throughout the beautiful scenic landscape of Red Creek Valley. The Vanishing of Ethan carter is a deliberately slow burn. The walking speed is realistically sluggish, though there is a button that allows for sprinting for players that are in a hurry. The pace invites those with more patience to observe the effort that indie studio The Astronauts put in to make the environment come alive. Birds send lonely, mournful cries across the wide waters of Red Creek, ringing out against a backdrop of trees that have shifted colors in preparation for winter. The audio and visuals complement each other perfectly and can change on a dime if the situation calls for it. As players progress, it becomes very clear just how wide of a range The Astronauts have in terms of the kinds of games they could deliver in the future. Beyond superficial qualities like the way everything appears and sounds, the level design on display is also of a very high caliber. Though Ethan Carter is in reality rather constrained and linear, it rarely feel that way. A thick illusion of openness pervades the experience. Environments are cleverly designed to draw players toward their next objective in a number of subtle ways. Sometimes a unique tree will draw you down to the left or an unusual building will compel you to abandon the train tracks that you’ve been following. At several points I found myself thinking that there were entire unexplored areas, until I deliberately backtracked to satisfy my curiosity and found that they contained nothing but more wilderness. The slow pace of Ethan Carter also allows players time to consider the implications of the various situations they come across. Are they real? Is something beyond mortal experience casting a malevolent shadow over Red Creek Valley? What does it all mean, both in the context of the game and as an outsider looking to take meaning from it? While some of these questions are resolved by the time the credits roll, others are not and those are the ones we need to answer for ourselves. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter resembles games like The Stanley Parable or Gone Home that present an environment for players to explore and investigate. The core mechanical difference between the three is that Ethan Carter contains a number of simple puzzles and murders that require some thought and interaction. Some of you might remember that last year I wrote about my experience with Gone Home. While I applauded that it was trying something unique in the gaming space, it ultimately failed to resonate with me, despite the amount of effort that The Fullbright Company put into crafting the experience. It fell short because the solution to Gone Home’s mystery seemed obvious and the story one that, while not common in games, didn’t strike me as particularly compelling. I feel the opposite about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It is a layered tale full of unexpected twists, wonder, suspense, and horror. When I finished I had to pace around the room thinking about what had happened for a good twenty minutes. For me, the experience rang true and I felt the payoff of having heavily invested myself into a narrative that had decided to end in a bold fashion. Without spoilers, it takes real creative guts to end a video game the way The Astronauts chose to bring Ethan Carter to a conclusion. Will there be people who respond to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter the same way that I felt about Gone Home? Absolutely. Like Gone Home before it, Ethan Carter stands almost entirely upon the strength of its narrative and will illicit different subjective reactions from players. As for me, I thought The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was some of the finest storytelling in video games. Conclusion: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a must play for anyone who fancies themselves interested in video games as an artistic medium for stories. A rich, finely crafted environment awaits, full of surprises and riddles waiting to be solved. Players looking for action or mindless fun should seek out other games. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be called many things, but I don’t know that I could label it as a “fun” experience. It is enjoyable, certainly, but not fun in the traditional sense that many associate with video games. I don’t know that I’ll be playing it again in the near future, but I do know that I won’t be forgetting my time in Red Creek Valley anytime soon. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is currently available on PC and will be coming to PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015.
  18. In a remote galaxy, far from the familiar tendrils of the Milky Way, lies the planet of Auriga. Many thousands of years ago, a race of creatures called the Endless colonized their entire galaxy, relying on a substance known as Dust to help them create whatever they could imagine. From food to interstellar ships, Dust was used to control and create. Then the Endless turned on one another, ripping their own galaxy apart in a massive cataclysm. Dust was scattered across the remains of their empire, throughout the ruins of their now barren worlds. On Auriga, some creatures survived. After centuries of barely eking out an existence, life began to flourish and discover Dust once more. As the ruler of one of the eight races that survived in the wake of the Endless’ desertion of Auriga, players must guide their faction to supremacy by any means necessary. Endless Legend is a tactical, grid-based 4X game developed by Amplitude Studios. Coined by Alan Emrich in a 1994 preview of the original Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World, 4X is a shorthand term for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. As has become typical of this type of strategy game, players of Endless Legend choose a faction and proceed to explore the secrets of their particular randomly generated map, expand into neutral territories, fight monsters and other factions, and use diplomacy to further their own goals. There are currently eight races to choose from, each with their own goals, motivations, and unique attributes. For example, the Wild Walkers are a race of elven creatures that try to live in harmony with nature, but are always tempted by the brutal aspects of the wild. They receive bonuses for building their cities in forested areas. Contrast that with the Broken Lords, former humans who had their bodies ripped from them and now exist as spirits wrapped in armor. Though The Broken Lords champion honor and virtue, they survive only by draining the Dust from the world and creatures around themselves. The choice of faction matters more than just the passive bonuses. Each faction has a unique quest that will reward players with new technology, resources, and lore. It lends the experience a bit more of a narrative than comparable 4X strategy titles. The first part of each game will consist of exploring and expanding. The world of Auriga is littered with ruins and temples begging to be explored by intrepid heroes. A ruin could contain resources, a rare weapon, unfriendly creatures, or an entire side quest. As players search out more ruins and follow their initial main quest goal, they would be wise to expand their influence by building cities in the neutral territories that they move through. Each territory may have only one city built in it at any given time, so building a new city locks down the entire territory’s resources for the player’s empire. Expansions mean more resources, more units, more everything. They’re handy to have. Expanding is important early on because Endless Legend’s AI factions are all too happy to rapidly expand. Even after several ages, Auriga continues to feel the effects of the cataclysm. As turns progress, seasonal changes will come into play. Summer is a wonderful time for most of the empires. They can find plentiful amounts of food and Dust and their armies can move freely across the land. In the bottom left of the screen a tentative forecast counts down the turns until the next seasonal shift. When the season shifts into winter, all units are slowed to a crawl while food and Dust production are dramatically reduced. Players will need to turn these seasonal changes to their advantage if they hope to claim victory. Endless Legend drops the ball when it comes to combat. Battles take place on a hexagonal grid that allows players to position their units prior to allowing the engagement to commence. Once the fighting begins, players can issue tactical orders for their units to follow after every round of combat. Unfortunately, that is the extent of player involvement. What follows is a minute or two of both armies being controlled by the computer. It is boring, it takes a long time, and it is often infuriating to watch your army make baffling decisions. Luckily, there is a way to automate these battles so they end instantly and players aren’t forced to spend several minutes watching the larger battles that can occur in the late-game. The combat either needs to be simplified and completely automated or made more complex with hands-on commands, not this strange, wishy-washy middle ground which Endless Legend seems to have adopted. All of this is a shame because there are a lot of neat elements surrounding the actual fighting that I thought were great. As a game progresses, new units will be researched or gained through alliances with minor factions. These units can be equipped with weapons and armor made with exotic resources to make them more effective or entirely new units can be created by equipping the same base unit with different equipment. As battles are won or as units receive special training from heroes, they’ll gain experience and become stronger. As a strange counter-point to the lackluster battles, the aspect of Endless Legend that I found most appealing was the diplomacy. Usually one of the most awkward and irritating portions of the 4X experience is being forced to interact with the AI or humans via in-game diplomatic options. Endless Legend boils these exchanges down into easily understood terms and ties them to Influence Points. When communicating with other empires everything from complimenting the size of their armies to declaring war costs Influence Points. However, Influence Points can also be used to make your armies stronger, improve the disposition of the general populace, decrease building times on units, and much more. This caused me to reconsider many of the more rash diplomatic decisions I would have made. Personally, I think it is brilliant. Beyond that, it is easier to gauge how interested the AI nations are in accepting deals through the inclusion of a reaction meter above the offer. This helps to eliminate wasting Influence Points by offering trades that will be rejected out of hand. Endless Legend is absolutely gorgeous. The outskirts of the map look like a lightly origami-ed canvas. As units explore, terrain seem to melt out of the creases of the unknown. Even zoomed in close, the unit and creature models look great. The cities look like something dreamed up by the Game of Thrones intro CGI artists. The musical score serves to heighten the sense of wonder and beauty. You really do get the sense that Auriga has a long, rich history full of magical beasts and wondrous treasures. Conclusion: Endless Legend is a fantastic game with a few minor blemishes that can be overlooked. If you are a strategy addict, Endless Legend will certainly keep you entertained for a very long time. The biggest issue will be adapting to the combat system, especially for players who aren’t all that keen on 4X titles in the first place. If you can overcome that hurdle, there is a lot to enjoy about Endless Legend. The artistic direction is unique and a real delight for the eyes, while exploring the fantasy world of Auriga and completing quests while balancing a diplomatic tightrope is engaging and entertaining. Strategy fans, Endless Legend belongs in your library beside the likes of Civilization, Total War, and Galactic Civilizations. Endless Legend is currently available for PC.
  19. In a remote galaxy, far from the familiar tendrils of the Milky Way, lies the planet of Auriga. Many thousands of years ago, a race of creatures called the Endless colonized their entire galaxy, relying on a substance known as Dust to help them create whatever they could imagine. From food to interstellar ships, Dust was used to control and create. Then the Endless turned on one another, ripping their own galaxy apart in a massive cataclysm. Dust was scattered across the remains of their empire, throughout the ruins of their now barren worlds. On Auriga, some creatures survived. After centuries of barely eking out an existence, life began to flourish and discover Dust once more. As the ruler of one of the eight races that survived in the wake of the Endless’ desertion of Auriga, players must guide their faction to supremacy by any means necessary. Endless Legend is a tactical, grid-based 4X game developed by Amplitude Studios. Coined by Alan Emrich in a 1994 preview of the original Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World, 4X is a shorthand term for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. As has become typical of this type of strategy game, players of Endless Legend choose a faction and proceed to explore the secrets of their particular randomly generated map, expand into neutral territories, fight monsters and other factions, and use diplomacy to further their own goals. There are currently eight races to choose from, each with their own goals, motivations, and unique attributes. For example, the Wild Walkers are a race of elven creatures that try to live in harmony with nature, but are always tempted by the brutal aspects of the wild. They receive bonuses for building their cities in forested areas. Contrast that with the Broken Lords, former humans who had their bodies ripped from them and now exist as spirits wrapped in armor. Though The Broken Lords champion honor and virtue, they survive only by draining the Dust from the world and creatures around themselves. The choice of faction matters more than just the passive bonuses. Each faction has a unique quest that will reward players with new technology, resources, and lore. It lends the experience a bit more of a narrative than comparable 4X strategy titles. The first part of each game will consist of exploring and expanding. The world of Auriga is littered with ruins and temples begging to be explored by intrepid heroes. A ruin could contain resources, a rare weapon, unfriendly creatures, or an entire side quest. As players search out more ruins and follow their initial main quest goal, they would be wise to expand their influence by building cities in the neutral territories that they move through. Each territory may have only one city built in it at any given time, so building a new city locks down the entire territory’s resources for the player’s empire. Expansions mean more resources, more units, more everything. They’re handy to have. Expanding is important early on because Endless Legend’s AI factions are all too happy to rapidly expand. Even after several ages, Auriga continues to feel the effects of the cataclysm. As turns progress, seasonal changes will come into play. Summer is a wonderful time for most of the empires. They can find plentiful amounts of food and Dust and their armies can move freely across the land. In the bottom left of the screen a tentative forecast counts down the turns until the next seasonal shift. When the season shifts into winter, all units are slowed to a crawl while food and Dust production are dramatically reduced. Players will need to turn these seasonal changes to their advantage if they hope to claim victory. Endless Legend drops the ball when it comes to combat. Battles take place on a hexagonal grid that allows players to position their units prior to allowing the engagement to commence. Once the fighting begins, players can issue tactical orders for their units to follow after every round of combat. Unfortunately, that is the extent of player involvement. What follows is a minute or two of both armies being controlled by the computer. It is boring, it takes a long time, and it is often infuriating to watch your army make baffling decisions. Luckily, there is a way to automate these battles so they end instantly and players aren’t forced to spend several minutes watching the larger battles that can occur in the late-game. The combat either needs to be simplified and completely automated or made more complex with hands-on commands, not this strange, wishy-washy middle ground which Endless Legend seems to have adopted. All of this is a shame because there are a lot of neat elements surrounding the actual fighting that I thought were great. As a game progresses, new units will be researched or gained through alliances with minor factions. These units can be equipped with weapons and armor made with exotic resources to make them more effective or entirely new units can be created by equipping the same base unit with different equipment. As battles are won or as units receive special training from heroes, they’ll gain experience and become stronger. As a strange counter-point to the lackluster battles, the aspect of Endless Legend that I found most appealing was the diplomacy. Usually one of the most awkward and irritating portions of the 4X experience is being forced to interact with the AI or humans via in-game diplomatic options. Endless Legend boils these exchanges down into easily understood terms and ties them to Influence Points. When communicating with other empires everything from complimenting the size of their armies to declaring war costs Influence Points. However, Influence Points can also be used to make your armies stronger, improve the disposition of the general populace, decrease building times on units, and much more. This caused me to reconsider many of the more rash diplomatic decisions I would have made. Personally, I think it is brilliant. Beyond that, it is easier to gauge how interested the AI nations are in accepting deals through the inclusion of a reaction meter above the offer. This helps to eliminate wasting Influence Points by offering trades that will be rejected out of hand. Endless Legend is absolutely gorgeous. The outskirts of the map look like a lightly origami-ed canvas. As units explore, terrain seem to melt out of the creases of the unknown. Even zoomed in close, the unit and creature models look great. The cities look like something dreamed up by the Game of Thrones intro CGI artists. The musical score serves to heighten the sense of wonder and beauty. You really do get the sense that Auriga has a long, rich history full of magical beasts and wondrous treasures. Conclusion: Endless Legend is a fantastic game with a few minor blemishes that can be overlooked. If you are a strategy addict, Endless Legend will certainly keep you entertained for a very long time. The biggest issue will be adapting to the combat system, especially for players who aren’t all that keen on 4X titles in the first place. If you can overcome that hurdle, there is a lot to enjoy about Endless Legend. The artistic direction is unique and a real delight for the eyes, while exploring the fantasy world of Auriga and completing quests while balancing a diplomatic tightrope is engaging and entertaining. Strategy fans, Endless Legend belongs in your library beside the likes of Civilization, Total War, and Galactic Civilizations. Endless Legend is currently available for PC. View full article
  20. Following a partially successful Kickstarter campaign two years ago, Hidden Path Entertainment has released their eagerly awaited tower defense title to the public. Does the sequel live up to the expectations created by the success of Defense Grid: The Awakening? Given the pedigree of Hidden Path, a studio made up of industry veterans behind titles like Age of Empires II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it should come as no surprise that Defense Grid 2 is a very enjoyable game. However, I know there might be a few of you out there thinking something along the lines of, “It might be fun, but there are a lot of fun tower defense games out there on the internet for free.” And that’s true. I’m not a stranger to freely available tower defense titles. I remember a period of several days doing nothing but playing Kingdom Rush when I should have been writing my thesis. With games like Desktop Tower Defense or Kingdom Rush: Frontiers existing in the wilds of the web and the cheap mobile game space, the question we need to ask about Defense Grid 2 is if it is worth the $24.99 price of admission. Upon first booting up Defense Grid 2, players can dive into either the campaign or multiplayer. Choosing either will open a dazzlingly vast array of options, game modes, and ways to play. The campaign contains a prologue/tutorial and twenty missions spread out over five chapters. Each mission takes place on a unique map with the option to play through them in either story mode or in any one of the eleven other modes that place differing restrictions or conditions on gameplay. There are also four levels of difficulty to tailor how much of a challenge a player might desire. None of the missions are locked, meaning a player frustrated with a particularly irritating level can simply proceed to the next one. The multiplayer options are equally as diverse. Players can battle each other online in a mode called “DG Fighter” where aliens destroyed on one player’s side of the map appear on the other player’s side and vice versa. There is also the option to team up and tackle the campaign missions and their various game modes in co-op. Finally, players work together to defend against aliens on maps that restrict where each player can build towers. Leaderboards are integrated throughout the game, so you’ll always know who did better in multiplayer and can strive to achieve higher and higher scores. There is also a meatier story than one might expect from a tower defense game. Set in a future where advanced AIs control the defense grids of various planets, Defense Grid 2 tasks players with activating the various towers that can be built on the grids in order to fend off alien invasions. As players progress through the story missions, the various AI characters will interact with each other, arguing, cracking wise, and generally being a pleasant distraction after you’ve set up the perfect defense and can watch wave after wave of alien forces crash into your impenetrable wall of towers. The voice acting for the various characters is well done and their accented dialogue is delightful. I appreciated the additional context and sense of urgency that they story provided, but I was never entirely clear on what was happening or why. Luckily, tower defense games typically rely on the strength of their gameplay rather than their narratives, so this never really became an issue. When it comes to the actual gameplay, Defense Grid 2 is a well-oiled machine. There are ten different tower types to choose from, each with unique abilities and upgrades. There is even a tower you can build that allows you to build a different tower on top of it! In order to progress through the campaign, players are required to learn how to place their towers to efficiently funnel alien invaders. Before every mission abilities can be equipped to their towers on top of the other upgrades available while in-game. I was able to play both the PC and PlayStation 4 versions of Defense Grid 2 and I have to say that I immensely prefer a gamepad to a mouse and keyboard control scheme. The screen is locked to wherever the cursor is pointing regardless of whether you are using a controller or a mouse. It feels unnatural with a mouse, but makes complete sense with a controller. The weakest parts of Defense Grid 2 lie in the soundtrack and aesthetic choices. Much of the music is on a short loop and can get repetitive during long gameplay sessions. I would recommend that players go into the settings and turning off the music and listening to some of their own groovy tunes. As for the aesthetic, Defense Grid 2 has a lot of great enemy designs and the maps have an interesting architecture to them, but the camera is zoomed so far away that I could rarely tell what aliens my towers were fighting unless they was very large. Even then I still had no idea what these things looked like until I went into the Alien Encyclopedia contained in the extras menu. The other problem is harder to pinpoint, but I think it boils down to most of the maps containing a preponderance of grey. It makes all of the different layouts blend together into a visually boring lump. The graphical quality on each of these maps is very high and clearly a lot of work went into making them the most detailed maps that the tower defense genre has to offer, but it is undermined by the decision to have so many grey surfaces. I understand that it was a decision made for the sake of clarity, but it was a choice that ultimately led to a game full of detailed environments that make use of an uninteresting color palate. The camera is never this close during gameplay. Conclusion: Is Defense Grid 2 a fun game? Absolutely. It stands well above its free competitors in every respect. The core mechanics are rock solid and the numerous game modes are enough to keep the most avid tower defense fans engrossed for weeks. I had a great time playing through its campaign and messing around with the multiplayer. That being said, I find it hard to recommend with a price tag of $24.99. If you love tower defense games or enjoyed the first Defense Grid, Defense Grid 2 is a must buy, but for a general audience I would recommend picking it up when it hits $10 or less. Defense Grid 2 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. View full article
  21. Following a partially successful Kickstarter campaign two years ago, Hidden Path Entertainment has released their eagerly awaited tower defense title to the public. Does the sequel live up to the expectations created by the success of Defense Grid: The Awakening? Given the pedigree of Hidden Path, a studio made up of industry veterans behind titles like Age of Empires II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it should come as no surprise that Defense Grid 2 is a very enjoyable game. However, I know there might be a few of you out there thinking something along the lines of, “It might be fun, but there are a lot of fun tower defense games out there on the internet for free.” And that’s true. I’m not a stranger to freely available tower defense titles. I remember a period of several days doing nothing but playing Kingdom Rush when I should have been writing my thesis. With games like Desktop Tower Defense or Kingdom Rush: Frontiers existing in the wilds of the web and the cheap mobile game space, the question we need to ask about Defense Grid 2 is if it is worth the $24.99 price of admission. Upon first booting up Defense Grid 2, players can dive into either the campaign or multiplayer. Choosing either will open a dazzlingly vast array of options, game modes, and ways to play. The campaign contains a prologue/tutorial and twenty missions spread out over five chapters. Each mission takes place on a unique map with the option to play through them in either story mode or in any one of the eleven other modes that place differing restrictions or conditions on gameplay. There are also four levels of difficulty to tailor how much of a challenge a player might desire. None of the missions are locked, meaning a player frustrated with a particularly irritating level can simply proceed to the next one. The multiplayer options are equally as diverse. Players can battle each other online in a mode called “DG Fighter” where aliens destroyed on one player’s side of the map appear on the other player’s side and vice versa. There is also the option to team up and tackle the campaign missions and their various game modes in co-op. Finally, players work together to defend against aliens on maps that restrict where each player can build towers. Leaderboards are integrated throughout the game, so you’ll always know who did better in multiplayer and can strive to achieve higher and higher scores. There is also a meatier story than one might expect from a tower defense game. Set in a future where advanced AIs control the defense grids of various planets, Defense Grid 2 tasks players with activating the various towers that can be built on the grids in order to fend off alien invasions. As players progress through the story missions, the various AI characters will interact with each other, arguing, cracking wise, and generally being a pleasant distraction after you’ve set up the perfect defense and can watch wave after wave of alien forces crash into your impenetrable wall of towers. The voice acting for the various characters is well done and their accented dialogue is delightful. I appreciated the additional context and sense of urgency that they story provided, but I was never entirely clear on what was happening or why. Luckily, tower defense games typically rely on the strength of their gameplay rather than their narratives, so this never really became an issue. When it comes to the actual gameplay, Defense Grid 2 is a well-oiled machine. There are ten different tower types to choose from, each with unique abilities and upgrades. There is even a tower you can build that allows you to build a different tower on top of it! In order to progress through the campaign, players are required to learn how to place their towers to efficiently funnel alien invaders. Before every mission abilities can be equipped to their towers on top of the other upgrades available while in-game. I was able to play both the PC and PlayStation 4 versions of Defense Grid 2 and I have to say that I immensely prefer a gamepad to a mouse and keyboard control scheme. The screen is locked to wherever the cursor is pointing regardless of whether you are using a controller or a mouse. It feels unnatural with a mouse, but makes complete sense with a controller. The weakest parts of Defense Grid 2 lie in the soundtrack and aesthetic choices. Much of the music is on a short loop and can get repetitive during long gameplay sessions. I would recommend that players go into the settings and turning off the music and listening to some of their own groovy tunes. As for the aesthetic, Defense Grid 2 has a lot of great enemy designs and the maps have an interesting architecture to them, but the camera is zoomed so far away that I could rarely tell what aliens my towers were fighting unless they was very large. Even then I still had no idea what these things looked like until I went into the Alien Encyclopedia contained in the extras menu. The other problem is harder to pinpoint, but I think it boils down to most of the maps containing a preponderance of grey. It makes all of the different layouts blend together into a visually boring lump. The graphical quality on each of these maps is very high and clearly a lot of work went into making them the most detailed maps that the tower defense genre has to offer, but it is undermined by the decision to have so many grey surfaces. I understand that it was a decision made for the sake of clarity, but it was a choice that ultimately led to a game full of detailed environments that make use of an uninteresting color palate. The camera is never this close during gameplay. Conclusion: Is Defense Grid 2 a fun game? Absolutely. It stands well above its free competitors in every respect. The core mechanics are rock solid and the numerous game modes are enough to keep the most avid tower defense fans engrossed for weeks. I had a great time playing through its campaign and messing around with the multiplayer. That being said, I find it hard to recommend with a price tag of $24.99. If you love tower defense games or enjoyed the first Defense Grid, Defense Grid 2 is a must buy, but for a general audience I would recommend picking it up when it hits $10 or less. Defense Grid 2 was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
  22. Bungie’s newest game, the most pre-ordered new IP in history, is entertaining. The gameplay is tight, the environments are gorgeous, and the character designs ooze cool. In fact, it seems like many of the design choices in Destiny revolve around a rule of cool, as if Bungie was constantly asking, “Will this be cool? If not, scrap it.” The result is a game that looks superb set in an inviting universe populated by interesting and diverse enemies. If that’s the case, why then does Destiny feel so hollow? Note: As of the writing of this review, end-game content such as raids have not been unlocked. The review will be updated when raids unlock next week. Playing Destiny just feels good. Players are given a kit of abilities and weapons and tasked with eliminating groups of enemies that all behave in different ways. Do you want to save your rocket launcher ammo for the boss or is the large group of clustered enemies rushing toward you worth the shot? Take the time to reload your auto rifle or go in for the melee attack? Use your super move or attempt a headshot with your throwing knife? These are questions you’ll be asking yourself constantly, often with only a split second to come to a decision. All of these choices come together and feel fluid in-game. The same feeling of fluidity carries over into competitive multiplayer. Initially, there will only be one game type to choose from, but others will unlock as players level up. Control is similar to many capture point-style modes found in other games, while Clash is traditional team deathmatch under a different name. Rumble is a standard free-for-all brawl. The Skirmish mode is interesting. It pits two teams of three against each other, emphasizing the importance of team work. Finally, Salvage tasks teams of three to battle over possession of relics. With a decent number of well-balanced maps, multiplayer is sure to be a draw for a number of people. It does have a few problems, though. Notably, despite the tag of “Level Advantages Disabled” it seems like there is still a noticeable power difference between well-geared or leveled people and players who are just starting out. Hopefully a patch can balance the competitive multiplayer a bit better. There are also a great deal of weapons that can insta-kill: shotguns, fusion rifles, headshots with the hand cannon, sniper rifle, and each playable class’ super move which has the capacity to instantly kill multiple enemy players. Not to mention the vehicles which, though nerfed since the beta, still empower people to a frustrating degree. These instant death situations are plentiful and they lead to a lot of deaths that feel cheap. Though players can team up on story missions or wander the large maps in Patrol mode, Strikes are the highlight of Destiny’s cooperative multiplayer. They require a degree of teamwork to claim victory and can’t be pulled off alone. They tend to culminate in large boss battles against enemies with ludicrous amounts of health. They are long, feature tons of bad guys, and test the limits of player skill. In other words, they’re one of the best parts about Destiny. Destiny truly shines when it comes to the visuals. I would love to see a feature in an upcoming patch that allows players to completely disable the HUD. The vistas are so gorgeous that it seems a shame to have some of them hidden behind objective markers, a radar, and ammo counter. It is refreshing to see that, even though Destiny has aspirations to be a serious shooter, it isn’t cut from the same washed-out cloth as many other FPS games. Destiny isn’t afraid to access a rich and vibrant color palate. Each area feels different, distinguished in part by variances in architecture, color schemes, and terrain. The pitted grey surface of the moon feels totally distinct from the rainy and tropical climes of Venus. Similarly, the human buildings on Earth feel at odds with the alien fortresses on Mars. Every change in scenery is accompanied by a new enemy entering the mix. There are four alien races so far: the Fallen, Hive, Vex, and Cabal. Each race has their own unique enemy types and tactics. The enemies are distinct from each other to a pleasing degree. It is easy to recognize the difference between the lumbering forms of the Cabal from the wiry, mechanical forms of the Vex. I got the sense that each of these races has a history, a reason for why they are in the Sol system and utterly hostile toward the human race. But I only got an impression, never any moving story sequences or moments to illustrate why I should care about them, other than the fact that they look cool. As players progress, they will unlock portions of lore in Destiny’s Grimoire. However, the Grimoire is inaccessible through any in-game means. You are forced to either go to Bungie’s website or download the free Destiny app to a mobile device. To me, locking off the background information to separate devices seems like a bizarre design decision. There is so much to like about Destiny. When it comes together, it feels sublime and there are glimpses of greatness. However, more often than not, it comes up short on its potential. A major contributor to this is the narrative, which feels like it was treated as a secondary or maybe even tertiary concern when balanced against the gameplay and visual design. Whenever someone might want Destiny to be more than functional, it can’t seem to rise to meet that desire. That’s a shame because there is so much potential in the Destiny universe, so many events alluded to that would be interesting to explore (at one point the Peter Dinklage-voiced robot casually tosses out that at one point the entire planet of Mercury was transformed into an evil machine!). **Spoiler Warning** Here is a brief synopsis of approximately half of the story present in Destiny: A sentient mechanical eyeball voiced by Peter Dinklage resurrects the protagonist to help defend the last city on Earth from the coming Darkness. The two then go off on a series of excursions that put them in contact with an old AI named Rasputin that somehow is connected with the Moon. While on the Moon, the duo crosses paths with a mysterious person (with no connection to Rasputin) who indicates they should check out Venus, because there is an even worse evil there than the aliens that live underneath the surface of the Moon and have been invading Earth. This is indicative of where Destiny’s story goes wrong. It doesn’t bother to create coherent events that run together or make sense. Instead, it opts to go for just a series of events that happen. The Rasputin AI is used to get players from Earth to the Moon and is never mentioned again until one of the last missions in the game (which happens to be a side mission, not one of the core story missions). There is this concept known as economical storytelling which just means that every element of your story should be essential. Nothing is gained by including Rasputin into the narrative of Destiny, other than getting the player to the Moon. Furthermore, Bungie associates a lot of important language with the AI. Destiny refers to the AI as a Warmind and tells the player that it has the potential to save mankind from extinction by reactivating old defenses, but we never see any of that happen, aside from a giant communications array rising from the ground. The tell-don’t-show approach spills over into other parts of Destiny as well. The most obvious example of this is the stakes into which players are continually asked to invest themselves. The old “aliens want to destroy the world” cliché just doesn’t hold up as well when you are trying to tell a compelling narrative in video games these days. Why should we care about the last city on Earth? For all the player knows, everyone in the city is already dead since we never see any of them. Guardians all seem to live in Tower, the central hub of Destiny. You can see a few non-guardians wandering around or running shops, but other than that, there are large stretches of buildings far below. Those buildings are as close as players ever get to having a reason to care about the human race (other than the fact that the people holding the controller and playing Destiny are, presumably, human themselves). Then there are the other issues with the narrative like the constant use of ambiguity. At times it feels like players are fighting against concepts instead of factions of aliens with their own goals and agendas. The clearest example of this is the often mentioned “Darkness” that is coming. What is it? I’ve finished the story and I have no idea. The game just tells you it is bad and that it almost destroyed all human life. I guess it is hard to see the threat posed by the Darkness when Earth is already overrun with several different alien races that want to destroy the remaining humans and the nearest planets house aliens that also want to kill everything. Why even mention the Darkness at all if it has nothing to do with the central plot? Clearly it is a set up for future expansions, but it serves no purpose in the narrative of Destiny as it stands currently and is bafflingly present in many of the dialogue exchanges throughout the game. This is the opposite of economical storytelling. I understand that video games contain different story structures than more traditional forms of media, but the fact remains that Destiny wastes a lot of its narrative time on inconsequential elements of its universe. I think that is where Destiny’s story went wrong. It took the building of a giant universe as its story’s central mission instead of building the world as a part of the narrative. We are meant to envision a large, rich game universe as Destiny throws around terms like Warmind and concepts like the Darkness. It is an attempt at world building that largely succeeds, at the cost of a coherent narrative that players will be able to enjoy. Now, this could all simply be attributed to lazy writing, but it seems to me that a project as big as Destiny would have to be a bit more self-aware. I have a suspicion that the narrative is intentionally structured this way. Destiny is rated T by the ESRB, which means it can be sold to younger gamers under the age of 17. While Destiny’s plot might not make much sense on paper, in practice it moves at a breakneck pace through vastly different scenery and enemies. Propelling players forward as fast as possible through the story is much easier when you don’t worry about things like character development, stakes, drama, etc. Many younger players, ages 12-16, could very well be utterly beguiled by the stylish combat, gorgeous scenery, and downright cool vibe Destiny throws out. The big sounding words and concepts impart a sense of scale that will leave the upcoming generation of gamers feeling like Destiny is one of the coolest games they’ve ever played, though they will struggle to articulate exactly why that is and what makes it so great. Though Destiny slips up and falls completely flat from a dramatic standpoint, it is still blast to play, which is why I can’t find it within myself to feel angry toward what it does or fails to do, just a bit of realistic disappointment. The opening mission holds such promise. Resurrected from the dead by a Ghost, it is a mad dash away from oncoming Fallen forces through rusting cars and timeworn corridors. Things seem so large and big as Ghost rattles off crucial details of the situation. Then you acquire weapons and armor and learn how to use them in your first real encounter. The fighting is fast, flashy, and leaves you feeling great as you take off in your newly acquired spacecraft. It feels so reminiscent of Star Wars that it kindles a bit of hope that the experience of Destiny might be something utterly unique and magical. What else could the game have in store? As you spend hours and hours making your way through the various missions and game worlds, it becomes clear that there isn’t much more to Destiny’s gameplay than what you experienced in the first mission. In fact, I can only think of one mission where I was required to do something other than shoot bad guys until the game allowed me to continue and that was a mission where I got a sword to slice up bad guys until the game allowed me to continue. The potential of the first mission is never realized. In fact, as Destiny continues there are more and more opportunities for interesting scenarios and interactions, but nothing ever comes of them. By the end of the campaign it felt like all that had been accomplished over the course of several days was the creation of a blank slate universe to which Bungie can add content as they wish. Conclusion: It is hard for me to conjure any animosity toward Destiny. It plays well and looks great, but the story is deeply flawed on numerous levels. It has nothing to say about which I feel offended other than way it undermines its own narrative, which just makes me feel kinda sad. The multiplayer is fun, though frustrating at times, and teaming up with friends to blast away at digital aliens in a Strike is good fun. Destiny is a worthy first-person shooter if all you are looking for is a shooter with neat visuals and tight gameplay. If you are looking for a story that will stick with you for years to come, Destiny is not that game. Perhaps the expansions will contain a story worth your time and attention, but until then enjoy the fun. Time will tell for certain, but I think the lesson to be learned from Destiny in five to ten years is that while a fun experience is pleasurable, it is also ephemeral. High quality stories are pleasuarable, too, but they also last. Destiny is currently available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. This review will be updated when raids are released next week. Update: Having experienced Destiny's raids, they do not significantly alter my opinions regarding Destiny's end game content. The lack of matchmaking for raids will prove to be a considerable barrier for players with less than the five highly levelled friends required to participate. View full article
  23. Jack Gardner

    Review: Destiny

    Bungie’s newest game, the most pre-ordered new IP in history, is entertaining. The gameplay is tight, the environments are gorgeous, and the character designs ooze cool. In fact, it seems like many of the design choices in Destiny revolve around a rule of cool, as if Bungie was constantly asking, “Will this be cool? If not, scrap it.” The result is a game that looks superb set in an inviting universe populated by interesting and diverse enemies. If that’s the case, why then does Destiny feel so hollow? Note: As of the writing of this review, end-game content such as raids have not been unlocked. The review will be updated when raids unlock next week. Playing Destiny just feels good. Players are given a kit of abilities and weapons and tasked with eliminating groups of enemies that all behave in different ways. Do you want to save your rocket launcher ammo for the boss or is the large group of clustered enemies rushing toward you worth the shot? Take the time to reload your auto rifle or go in for the melee attack? Use your super move or attempt a headshot with your throwing knife? These are questions you’ll be asking yourself constantly, often with only a split second to come to a decision. All of these choices come together and feel fluid in-game. The same feeling of fluidity carries over into competitive multiplayer. Initially, there will only be one game type to choose from, but others will unlock as players level up. Control is similar to many capture point-style modes found in other games, while Clash is traditional team deathmatch under a different name. Rumble is a standard free-for-all brawl. The Skirmish mode is interesting. It pits two teams of three against each other, emphasizing the importance of team work. Finally, Salvage tasks teams of three to battle over possession of relics. With a decent number of well-balanced maps, multiplayer is sure to be a draw for a number of people. It does have a few problems, though. Notably, despite the tag of “Level Advantages Disabled” it seems like there is still a noticeable power difference between well-geared or leveled people and players who are just starting out. Hopefully a patch can balance the competitive multiplayer a bit better. There are also a great deal of weapons that can insta-kill: shotguns, fusion rifles, headshots with the hand cannon, sniper rifle, and each playable class’ super move which has the capacity to instantly kill multiple enemy players. Not to mention the vehicles which, though nerfed since the beta, still empower people to a frustrating degree. These instant death situations are plentiful and they lead to a lot of deaths that feel cheap. Though players can team up on story missions or wander the large maps in Patrol mode, Strikes are the highlight of Destiny’s cooperative multiplayer. They require a degree of teamwork to claim victory and can’t be pulled off alone. They tend to culminate in large boss battles against enemies with ludicrous amounts of health. They are long, feature tons of bad guys, and test the limits of player skill. In other words, they’re one of the best parts about Destiny. Destiny truly shines when it comes to the visuals. I would love to see a feature in an upcoming patch that allows players to completely disable the HUD. The vistas are so gorgeous that it seems a shame to have some of them hidden behind objective markers, a radar, and ammo counter. It is refreshing to see that, even though Destiny has aspirations to be a serious shooter, it isn’t cut from the same washed-out cloth as many other FPS games. Destiny isn’t afraid to access a rich and vibrant color palate. Each area feels different, distinguished in part by variances in architecture, color schemes, and terrain. The pitted grey surface of the moon feels totally distinct from the rainy and tropical climes of Venus. Similarly, the human buildings on Earth feel at odds with the alien fortresses on Mars. Every change in scenery is accompanied by a new enemy entering the mix. There are four alien races so far: the Fallen, Hive, Vex, and Cabal. Each race has their own unique enemy types and tactics. The enemies are distinct from each other to a pleasing degree. It is easy to recognize the difference between the lumbering forms of the Cabal from the wiry, mechanical forms of the Vex. I got the sense that each of these races has a history, a reason for why they are in the Sol system and utterly hostile toward the human race. But I only got an impression, never any moving story sequences or moments to illustrate why I should care about them, other than the fact that they look cool. As players progress, they will unlock portions of lore in Destiny’s Grimoire. However, the Grimoire is inaccessible through any in-game means. You are forced to either go to Bungie’s website or download the free Destiny app to a mobile device. To me, locking off the background information to separate devices seems like a bizarre design decision. There is so much to like about Destiny. When it comes together, it feels sublime and there are glimpses of greatness. However, more often than not, it comes up short on its potential. A major contributor to this is the narrative, which feels like it was treated as a secondary or maybe even tertiary concern when balanced against the gameplay and visual design. Whenever someone might want Destiny to be more than functional, it can’t seem to rise to meet that desire. That’s a shame because there is so much potential in the Destiny universe, so many events alluded to that would be interesting to explore (at one point the Peter Dinklage-voiced robot casually tosses out that at one point the entire planet of Mercury was transformed into an evil machine!). **Spoiler Warning** Here is a brief synopsis of approximately half of the story present in Destiny: A sentient mechanical eyeball voiced by Peter Dinklage resurrects the protagonist to help defend the last city on Earth from the coming Darkness. The two then go off on a series of excursions that put them in contact with an old AI named Rasputin that somehow is connected with the Moon. While on the Moon, the duo crosses paths with a mysterious person (with no connection to Rasputin) who indicates they should check out Venus, because there is an even worse evil there than the aliens that live underneath the surface of the Moon and have been invading Earth. This is indicative of where Destiny’s story goes wrong. It doesn’t bother to create coherent events that run together or make sense. Instead, it opts to go for just a series of events that happen. The Rasputin AI is used to get players from Earth to the Moon and is never mentioned again until one of the last missions in the game (which happens to be a side mission, not one of the core story missions). There is this concept known as economical storytelling which just means that every element of your story should be essential. Nothing is gained by including Rasputin into the narrative of Destiny, other than getting the player to the Moon. Furthermore, Bungie associates a lot of important language with the AI. Destiny refers to the AI as a Warmind and tells the player that it has the potential to save mankind from extinction by reactivating old defenses, but we never see any of that happen, aside from a giant communications array rising from the ground. The tell-don’t-show approach spills over into other parts of Destiny as well. The most obvious example of this is the stakes into which players are continually asked to invest themselves. The old “aliens want to destroy the world” cliché just doesn’t hold up as well when you are trying to tell a compelling narrative in video games these days. Why should we care about the last city on Earth? For all the player knows, everyone in the city is already dead since we never see any of them. Guardians all seem to live in Tower, the central hub of Destiny. You can see a few non-guardians wandering around or running shops, but other than that, there are large stretches of buildings far below. Those buildings are as close as players ever get to having a reason to care about the human race (other than the fact that the people holding the controller and playing Destiny are, presumably, human themselves). Then there are the other issues with the narrative like the constant use of ambiguity. At times it feels like players are fighting against concepts instead of factions of aliens with their own goals and agendas. The clearest example of this is the often mentioned “Darkness” that is coming. What is it? I’ve finished the story and I have no idea. The game just tells you it is bad and that it almost destroyed all human life. I guess it is hard to see the threat posed by the Darkness when Earth is already overrun with several different alien races that want to destroy the remaining humans and the nearest planets house aliens that also want to kill everything. Why even mention the Darkness at all if it has nothing to do with the central plot? Clearly it is a set up for future expansions, but it serves no purpose in the narrative of Destiny as it stands currently and is bafflingly present in many of the dialogue exchanges throughout the game. This is the opposite of economical storytelling. I understand that video games contain different story structures than more traditional forms of media, but the fact remains that Destiny wastes a lot of its narrative time on inconsequential elements of its universe. I think that is where Destiny’s story went wrong. It took the building of a giant universe as its story’s central mission instead of building the world as a part of the narrative. We are meant to envision a large, rich game universe as Destiny throws around terms like Warmind and concepts like the Darkness. It is an attempt at world building that largely succeeds, at the cost of a coherent narrative that players will be able to enjoy. Now, this could all simply be attributed to lazy writing, but it seems to me that a project as big as Destiny would have to be a bit more self-aware. I have a suspicion that the narrative is intentionally structured this way. Destiny is rated T by the ESRB, which means it can be sold to younger gamers under the age of 17. While Destiny’s plot might not make much sense on paper, in practice it moves at a breakneck pace through vastly different scenery and enemies. Propelling players forward as fast as possible through the story is much easier when you don’t worry about things like character development, stakes, drama, etc. Many younger players, ages 12-16, could very well be utterly beguiled by the stylish combat, gorgeous scenery, and downright cool vibe Destiny throws out. The big sounding words and concepts impart a sense of scale that will leave the upcoming generation of gamers feeling like Destiny is one of the coolest games they’ve ever played, though they will struggle to articulate exactly why that is and what makes it so great. Though Destiny slips up and falls completely flat from a dramatic standpoint, it is still blast to play, which is why I can’t find it within myself to feel angry toward what it does or fails to do, just a bit of realistic disappointment. The opening mission holds such promise. Resurrected from the dead by a Ghost, it is a mad dash away from oncoming Fallen forces through rusting cars and timeworn corridors. Things seem so large and big as Ghost rattles off crucial details of the situation. Then you acquire weapons and armor and learn how to use them in your first real encounter. The fighting is fast, flashy, and leaves you feeling great as you take off in your newly acquired spacecraft. It feels so reminiscent of Star Wars that it kindles a bit of hope that the experience of Destiny might be something utterly unique and magical. What else could the game have in store? As you spend hours and hours making your way through the various missions and game worlds, it becomes clear that there isn’t much more to Destiny’s gameplay than what you experienced in the first mission. In fact, I can only think of one mission where I was required to do something other than shoot bad guys until the game allowed me to continue and that was a mission where I got a sword to slice up bad guys until the game allowed me to continue. The potential of the first mission is never realized. In fact, as Destiny continues there are more and more opportunities for interesting scenarios and interactions, but nothing ever comes of them. By the end of the campaign it felt like all that had been accomplished over the course of several days was the creation of a blank slate universe to which Bungie can add content as they wish. Conclusion: It is hard for me to conjure any animosity toward Destiny. It plays well and looks great, but the story is deeply flawed on numerous levels. It has nothing to say about which I feel offended other than way it undermines its own narrative, which just makes me feel kinda sad. The multiplayer is fun, though frustrating at times, and teaming up with friends to blast away at digital aliens in a Strike is good fun. Destiny is a worthy first-person shooter if all you are looking for is a shooter with neat visuals and tight gameplay. If you are looking for a story that will stick with you for years to come, Destiny is not that game. Perhaps the expansions will contain a story worth your time and attention, but until then enjoy the fun. Time will tell for certain, but I think the lesson to be learned from Destiny in five to ten years is that while a fun experience is pleasurable, it is also ephemeral. High quality stories are pleasuarable, too, but they also last. Destiny is currently available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. This review will be updated when raids are released next week. Update: Having experienced Destiny's raids, they do not significantly alter my opinions regarding Destiny's end game content. The lack of matchmaking for raids will prove to be a considerable barrier for players with less than the five highly levelled friends required to participate.
  24. The second season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a harsh slog through death, violence, and zombies. Which makes it all the more incredible that Season Two manages to be masterfully, achingly human. I’ll be attempting to keep this review spoiler-free since the main draw of the Telltale adventure games has always been experiencing the story. The Walking Dead Season Two places players in the shoes of Clementine, the young girl who was a staple character of the previous season. Soon after the second season begins, Clementine becomes separated from her friends and meets a new group of survivors. Players follow her trials and tribulations with the new group and the people they meet as they go through their ordeals. At its core, The Walking Dead Season Two knows how to construct drama. That mastery immediately sets it apart from many other blockbuster video games that rely on set piece spectacle, graphical horsepower, and marketing. Those bigger titles forget that effective drama relies on the audience empathizing and understanding the motivations of the characters. In this area, The Walking Dead Season Two excels. We understand the motivations of the characters, usually within the first few minutes of being introduced to them. Each character, even the bit players, have their own wants and needs, their own motivations. When we see those needs and wants clash, we can genuinely empathize with the situation, even if that situation is full of zombies. If any game makes a compelling case for more diverse video game casts, it is the second season of The Walking Dead. The most interesting characters of the second season are mostly women. There are several non-white characters. There is even a great moment involving a male character who is in a relationship with another man. All of this comes together to create a more interesting narrative. Seeing different views and ideologies collide is fascinating, especially when you can understand their viewpoints. As the season progresses, the player comes to an understanding of the level of violence permissible in the world of The Walking Dead and that understanding elevates the drama. When characters that we care about are threatened by intense, graphic violence we don’t want that to happen on a very fundamental level. When I say that the violence is some of the most graphic I have seen in a video game, I am not being hyperbolic. In particular, one scene stands out. There is a segment that involves a character being beaten into an unrecognizable, bloody mess with a crowbar. It is nauseatingly awful to witness and that is precisely the point. The Walking Dead’s second season makes a statement about how easily we accept horrific acts in our video games and how those acts are almost always treated casually or loosely justified with statements like, “It was war,” or even more simply, “they were the bad guys.” The brilliance of The Walking Dead Season 2 is that instances of violence, even in the most extreme cases, are never cheap and there is always an underlying point to their existence. I’m currently playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order, so it is hard for me not to compare how violence works in each title. Don’t get me wrong, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game, but it falls into a category that I like to call, “well executed dumb.” It is trying to take players on a violence fueled romp through the ranks of Nazi’s who have taken over the world. The core mechanics all revolve around killing. I’d argue that violence is the end goal of Wolfenstein. If you take away the violent interactions there is no game left. You are never meant to think about the Nazi soldiers you kill in Wolfenstein as human beings. You are meant to think of them as monsters. There is nothing wrong with violence for its own sake, sometimes it can be very cathartic. However, violence by itself is empty excitement. When you compare the violence of The Walking Dead Season Two with that of Wolfenstein, you find that The Walking Dead uses violence with a purpose. For Telltale, violence is the means to an end. Let’s return to the crowbar scene that I mentioned earlier. What end does the incident serve? On a purely base level for the player it provides a certain amount of catharsis seeing an “evil” character get some form of retribution. On a character level it is a statement about what kind of a person Clementine is becoming. It is a pivotal moment where she, and by extension the player, is given multiple opportunities to leave and let the event go unwitnessed. Whether the player decides to stay or leave says something about what Clementine has learned in her time surviving the apocalypse. Then the scene drags on and on. It becomes grotesque. It is not pleasant to sit through, nor was it intended to be. Why does such an occurrence of violence feel so strange and unique in the gaming world? In fact, it is remarkable how often games create similar scenes or situations and treat them casually. How many soldiers have we mowed down in Call of Duty without giving it a second thought? How about Grand Theft Auto? In real life the acts we see performed in most video games would be utterly awful. In that way, despite its cel-shaded graphics and preposterous setting, The Walking Dead Season Two feels like one of the most honest depictions of violence that video games have to offer. It is enough that it makes one question; should violence be so easily digested? Midway through episode two Clementine is asked what she thinks is the most important thing in the world. No matter what response the player chooses the answer, Telltale’s writers tell us, is family. Where growing up was the central idea of the first season, family is the theme of the second season. We see Clementine through the struggles of surviving alone and then through the struggles of surviving with the people with whom fate has stuck her, much like how we are all stuck with our own families. In fact, there are a lot of different topics that are brought up over the course of playing the Walking Dead Season Two. A lot of people die, causing many characters to question the meaning of life and whether living is worth the trouble. Some find it hard to go on, others soldier on because it is the only thing they know how to do. How important is friendship and family in the face of life or death? Do children belong in such a world? Are the zombies or the humans the real monsters? Often Telltale forces players to make split second decisions; choices made in the heat of the moment that perhaps reflect a truth about how the player views the world. All of this serious talk might make it seem like The Walking Dead Season Two is doom and gloom all the way through, but that would be a misrepresentation. There is real joy and laughter nestled amongst the sadness and loss. I laughed out loud at several moments and smiled through others. A lot of the humor derives from Clementine being a young girl who is treated out of necessity as an adult. Most of the time she rises to the occasion admirably, but sometimes she can’t help but show how in many ways she is still a kid. Maybe those moments taken out of context weren’t hilarious, but any levity serves such a contrast against the dismal backdrop of the world that a good guffaw isn’t too far away when the comedy hits. You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t said much about the gameplay. That’s because there isn’t much to say about it. It is the least interesting aspect of Telltale’s recent adventure games and The Walking Dead Season Two isn’t an exception. Between the decisions that players will make are action segments comprised of quick time events. They’re not interesting by themselves, but the context of what players view on the screen makes them bearable. Tapping the Q key is not an interesting way to interact with a game. Often, interactivity is limited even during the moments when players are allowed to search an environment. However, I am more than happy to put up with the annoyance of quick time events and limited interactivity if I can experience more narratives of the quality produced by Telltale Games. The third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been confirmed which leads me to wonder how the next season will work. The ending of the second season diverges wildly after a certain point of decision the player makes as Clementine, resulting in three different core endings, two of which have several different ways they can play out. This would make it very difficult to start the third season with Clementine remaining as the main character. Perhaps Telltale’s writers will perform some complicated word jiu-jitsu and make it work, but I think it is more likely that next season will have a different protagonist and Clementine will make an appearance as one of the side characters. Only time will tell for certain, though. Conclusion: The Walking Dead Season Two is one of the best narrative-focused games to be released this year. The writing is excellent, the performances are compelling, and the emotions it evokes are potent. The lack of variety in the interactions with the game world is overshadowed by the powerful narrative. Anything that might distract from the core experience with the story has been stripped away, revealing a journey with characters that will break your heart, mend it, and then shatter it all over again. The Walking Dead Season Two is available on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
  25. The second season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a harsh slog through death, violence, and zombies. Which makes it all the more incredible that Season Two manages to be masterfully, achingly human. I’ll be attempting to keep this review spoiler-free since the main draw of the Telltale adventure games has always been experiencing the story. The Walking Dead Season Two places players in the shoes of Clementine, the young girl who was a staple character of the previous season. Soon after the second season begins, Clementine becomes separated from her friends and meets a new group of survivors. Players follow her trials and tribulations with the new group and the people they meet as they go through their ordeals. At its core, The Walking Dead Season Two knows how to construct drama. That mastery immediately sets it apart from many other blockbuster video games that rely on set piece spectacle, graphical horsepower, and marketing. Those bigger titles forget that effective drama relies on the audience empathizing and understanding the motivations of the characters. In this area, The Walking Dead Season Two excels. We understand the motivations of the characters, usually within the first few minutes of being introduced to them. Each character, even the bit players, have their own wants and needs, their own motivations. When we see those needs and wants clash, we can genuinely empathize with the situation, even if that situation is full of zombies. If any game makes a compelling case for more diverse video game casts, it is the second season of The Walking Dead. The most interesting characters of the second season are mostly women. There are several non-white characters. There is even a great moment involving a male character who is in a relationship with another man. All of this comes together to create a more interesting narrative. Seeing different views and ideologies collide is fascinating, especially when you can understand their viewpoints. As the season progresses, the player comes to an understanding of the level of violence permissible in the world of The Walking Dead and that understanding elevates the drama. When characters that we care about are threatened by intense, graphic violence we don’t want that to happen on a very fundamental level. When I say that the violence is some of the most graphic I have seen in a video game, I am not being hyperbolic. In particular, one scene stands out. There is a segment that involves a character being beaten into an unrecognizable, bloody mess with a crowbar. It is nauseatingly awful to witness and that is precisely the point. The Walking Dead’s second season makes a statement about how easily we accept horrific acts in our video games and how those acts are almost always treated casually or loosely justified with statements like, “It was war,” or even more simply, “they were the bad guys.” The brilliance of The Walking Dead Season 2 is that instances of violence, even in the most extreme cases, are never cheap and there is always an underlying point to their existence. I’m currently playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order, so it is hard for me not to compare how violence works in each title. Don’t get me wrong, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game, but it falls into a category that I like to call, “well executed dumb.” It is trying to take players on a violence fueled romp through the ranks of Nazi’s who have taken over the world. The core mechanics all revolve around killing. I’d argue that violence is the end goal of Wolfenstein. If you take away the violent interactions there is no game left. You are never meant to think about the Nazi soldiers you kill in Wolfenstein as human beings. You are meant to think of them as monsters. There is nothing wrong with violence for its own sake, sometimes it can be very cathartic. However, violence by itself is empty excitement. When you compare the violence of The Walking Dead Season Two with that of Wolfenstein, you find that The Walking Dead uses violence with a purpose. For Telltale, violence is the means to an end. Let’s return to the crowbar scene that I mentioned earlier. What end does the incident serve? On a purely base level for the player it provides a certain amount of catharsis seeing an “evil” character get some form of retribution. On a character level it is a statement about what kind of a person Clementine is becoming. It is a pivotal moment where she, and by extension the player, is given multiple opportunities to leave and let the event go unwitnessed. Whether the player decides to stay or leave says something about what Clementine has learned in her time surviving the apocalypse. Then the scene drags on and on. It becomes grotesque. It is not pleasant to sit through, nor was it intended to be. Why does such an occurrence of violence feel so strange and unique in the gaming world? In fact, it is remarkable how often games create similar scenes or situations and treat them casually. How many soldiers have we mowed down in Call of Duty without giving it a second thought? How about Grand Theft Auto? In real life the acts we see performed in most video games would be utterly awful. In that way, despite its cel-shaded graphics and preposterous setting, The Walking Dead Season Two feels like one of the most honest depictions of violence that video games have to offer. It is enough that it makes one question; should violence be so easily digested? Midway through episode two Clementine is asked what she thinks is the most important thing in the world. No matter what response the player chooses the answer, Telltale’s writers tell us, is family. Where growing up was the central idea of the first season, family is the theme of the second season. We see Clementine through the struggles of surviving alone and then through the struggles of surviving with the people with whom fate has stuck her, much like how we are all stuck with our own families. In fact, there are a lot of different topics that are brought up over the course of playing the Walking Dead Season Two. A lot of people die, causing many characters to question the meaning of life and whether living is worth the trouble. Some find it hard to go on, others soldier on because it is the only thing they know how to do. How important is friendship and family in the face of life or death? Do children belong in such a world? Are the zombies or the humans the real monsters? Often Telltale forces players to make split second decisions; choices made in the heat of the moment that perhaps reflect a truth about how the player views the world. All of this serious talk might make it seem like The Walking Dead Season Two is doom and gloom all the way through, but that would be a misrepresentation. There is real joy and laughter nestled amongst the sadness and loss. I laughed out loud at several moments and smiled through others. A lot of the humor derives from Clementine being a young girl who is treated out of necessity as an adult. Most of the time she rises to the occasion admirably, but sometimes she can’t help but show how in many ways she is still a kid. Maybe those moments taken out of context weren’t hilarious, but any levity serves such a contrast against the dismal backdrop of the world that a good guffaw isn’t too far away when the comedy hits. You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t said much about the gameplay. That’s because there isn’t much to say about it. It is the least interesting aspect of Telltale’s recent adventure games and The Walking Dead Season Two isn’t an exception. Between the decisions that players will make are action segments comprised of quick time events. They’re not interesting by themselves, but the context of what players view on the screen makes them bearable. Tapping the Q key is not an interesting way to interact with a game. Often, interactivity is limited even during the moments when players are allowed to search an environment. However, I am more than happy to put up with the annoyance of quick time events and limited interactivity if I can experience more narratives of the quality produced by Telltale Games. The third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been confirmed which leads me to wonder how the next season will work. The ending of the second season diverges wildly after a certain point of decision the player makes as Clementine, resulting in three different core endings, two of which have several different ways they can play out. This would make it very difficult to start the third season with Clementine remaining as the main character. Perhaps Telltale’s writers will perform some complicated word jiu-jitsu and make it work, but I think it is more likely that next season will have a different protagonist and Clementine will make an appearance as one of the side characters. Only time will tell for certain, though. Conclusion: The Walking Dead Season Two is one of the best narrative-focused games to be released this year. The writing is excellent, the performances are compelling, and the emotions it evokes are potent. The lack of variety in the interactions with the game world is overshadowed by the powerful narrative. Anything that might distract from the core experience with the story has been stripped away, revealing a journey with characters that will break your heart, mend it, and then shatter it all over again. The Walking Dead Season Two is available on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. View full article
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