The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

Adolescents have it particularly tough in the zombie apocalypse. Everyone around them is obsessed with survival–which is certainly understandable–but every ounce of a teenager’s instincts is pushing him or her toward goofing off. The psychological toll of burying your most basic desires must be exhausting. Left Behind presents this unique point of view through Ellie, the extraordinary heroine from The Last of Us, and it’s hard to resist laughing along with her when her childlike nature is on full display. Don’t expect this prequel to ignore the dark cloud that hovers ominously overhead, though. By examining Ellie’s plight through the lens of such a bleak existence, we grow ever closer to her, and realize how devastating one’s life in such a world would be.

Riley sneaks into Ellie’s room before the sun rises, pouncing upon her sleeping body while mimicking a hissing neck bite. Obviously terrified that an infected is eating her alive, Ellie tosses Riley to the ground before pulling a knife from beneath her pillow. Jokes aren’t quite as funny when there are monsters lurking. We soon learn that these two best friends had a falling out a month back, and while Ellie is going through training in a military school, Riley has joined the rebel Fireflies. Grievances quickly forgotten, the two risk punishment from their superiors by sneaking into the dangerous city they call home.

There’s a relaxed back-and-forth between Ellie and Riley that’s a marked change from the uneasy chatter that dominated The Last of Us. Ellie is playful and open with Riley, always ready with a quip and eager to experience everything that life has to offer. A few years older than Ellie, Riley soon takes charge, though her direction is subtle. She’s more of an older sister than a guardian. Their destination: an empty mall without any electricity. Or so Ellie thought. When Ellie flicks the power generator, the lights come on, and the two girls are free to explore the shattered remains of what was once a rich and wasteful society.

Watching these two characters interact is heartwarming. As they try on masks in a Halloween shop, their joy is infectious, and I was nodding along with Ellie when she remarked how much junk people used to buy. Such bric-a-brac must be difficult to understand if you live among people who cherish only the bare necessities. Still, Ellie doesn’t turn her nose up at the novelties around her. As you wander through that store, there’s a Magic 8 Ball that looks like a skeleton’s head. Sure, you could shake it just once if you’re in a hurry, or bolt right through the door to the next area, but once I realized that Ellie had a lot of questions in mind, I kept going back to it until she ran out of things to say. Such moments made me happy. To see Ellie in her own element, acting like the kid that she still is, was so real and genuine that I didn’t want to see it end.

By examining Ellie’s plight through the lens of such a bleak existence, we grow ever closer to her, and realize how devastating one’s life in such a world would be.

Much of Left Behind is composed of these playful scenes, but there’s more going on beneath the surface. As you explore the many stores of the mall, Riley and Ellie keep up a running dialogue. Having the emphasis placed on wandering around the desolate environments is a welcome change from the tense combat encounters that dominated the main game. The focus is primarily on getting to know Riley and understanding more of Ellie’s motivations, so it’s a relief not to have their bonding interrupted. You want to know more. You want to find out what caused them to fight, what Riley’s future plans are, and how they’re coping with their depressing reality.


Death is incredibly difficult to bear.

Interspersed between these scenes of Riley and Ellie is a hectic situation that takes place a few years in the future. Here, Ellie has already begun her journey with Joel, although she is by herself during this time. And any thoughts of aimless discovery have been banished. Surrounded by roaming zombies and deadly mercenaries, she must use all of her survival abilities to make it through unscathed.

It’s here that Left Behind more closely resembles the mood that permeated The Last of Us. Ellie lives in a terrible place where every living thing could be considered an enemy. Death is her only companion, always painfully present as she moves slowly through the tattered environments. Going between the lighthearted early days and the foreboding doom years later is so jarring that it’s almost too much to bear. When she’s with Riley, Ellie laughs so loudly that I would hold my breath, scared that a clicker would hear her. Even though no infected were around, I couldn’t forget their terrible wrath. She’s so young, so naive, that she hadn’t yet learned to be cautious at all times. And when you’re alone in the sections without Riley, you feel the weight of the change of the last few years. Now she realizes that death is one loud noise away. I wanted her to stay young forever, ignorant to the threats lurking, while understanding that she needed to grow up fast if she was going to survive. Of course, such different mindsets are impossible, and I was sad to see how quickly her carefree disposition was ripped away.

So I cherished those scenes with Riley and Ellie. When they happen upon a photo booth, they make faces and shriek giddily when their silly mugs are captured. But they can’t print out the pictures. And that goes along with the major theme of Left Behind. We see a brief, happy snapshot from Ellie’s life with Riley, but we can’t take it with us. Her childhood has to come to an end at some point.


Every young girl should learn how to use a Molotov cocktail.

 

When you’re playing as Ellie alone, there are threats around you. There are no jokes here, nothing to distract you from the dour proceedings. When the first fight erupted against the zombie menace, I recoiled. Extreme violence was the norm in The Last of Us, but after spending so much time in peaceful tranquility in Left Behind, I had forgotten how harsh this world was. And I hated that Ellie had become accustomed to her role so quickly. Though Ellie must kill many times during the course of this three-hour story, it’s always uncomfortable. It’s never accepted that this is just the way things are. It’s to the game’s credit that you’re placed on the defensive in combat. Ellie doesn’t want to fight–she has to–so you reluctantly kill your foes because that’s the only option.

I was sad to see how quickly Ellie’s carefree disposition was ripped away.

Still, it’s disappointing that one section can be completed only when every enemy has been exterminated. As the fight was wearing down, a few zombies were quite a distance away, well out of sight, and yet I could not open the door that stood locked before me. Forcing Ellie to systematically kill everything felt dirty, as if the game were pushing Ellie down a violent path that’s opposed to who she is during the somber cutscenes. Or at least who I wanted her to be.

In many ways, the fights are identical to what The Last of Us offered. The crumbling wasteland of the postapocalypse serves as your battlefield, and you must make smart use of the overturned tables and smashed windows if you’re going to survive the stalking threats. Ellie is quick with a bow and pistol, and can craft smoke bombs, nail bombs, and Molotov cocktails if you need something more explosive. The most important items aren’t traditional weapons at all; rather, they’re bottles and bricks. Ellie has little health, and there aren’t many items scattered about to craft a surplus of medical packs, so you need to stay out of sight. That’s where the bottles and bricks come in. Instead of letting your position be known by firing a gun, you can stun infected and humans by tossing an object at their face and then rushing in to finish them off with a knife. Disturbing? No doubt. But very effective.


Even though there are infected about, clowns are still pretty creepy.

 

There is one addition to the combat that fundamentally changed how I approached fights. In The Last of Us, zombies and mercenaries never mingled. Here, the mercs may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they’re hunting you. You see, infected don’t like any humans at all, so they’re just as happy to go after a gun-toting soldier as they are a teenage girl. If you toss a bottle toward the armed guards, you can draw the attention of the diseased monsters, and then watch from a safe distance as the two sides fight. I admit that I found pleasure in hearing the mercenaries cry for help when surrounded by infected. They were trying to kill Ellie, after all, so they deserved a violent end. Plus, the mercenaries would undoubtedly kill at least some of the infected, so it made my job much easier once their fight was over.

Left Behind is a hugely successful add-on to The Last of Us. When I played through the main game last year, I had trouble connecting to Joel, because his rough demeanor and questionable choices left a bitter taste in my mouth. So it was a relief that his desperation was nowhere to be found in Left Behind. Instead, the story focuses on love and hope. Seeing how Ellie acts with a peer, a friend, gave me new appreciation for her, and Riley offers another strong character to latch on to. The focus on exploration also lets the well-realized environments breathe, and gives you plenty of time to take in the current state of the world. And when a combat encounter surfaces, it’s so much more impactful considering how rare fights are and the exhausting tension that accompanies each battle. Left Behind is an excellent addition that gives further insight into the chilling world of The Last of Us and its most interesting character.

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Loadout Review

My first moments of Loadout could not have been more perfect. Entering a match, I found myself in a circle of players, made up of allies and opponents alike, staring each other down. As a disembodied voice began a five-second countdown, I quickly pieced together what would happen after it reached zero. The gruff, barbaric-looking horde that surrounded me equipped their preferred weapons, and as the timer stopped, there was a split second of deafening silence before the scene erupted in neon lasers, explosions, and showering viscera. This, in a nutshell, is Loadout at its finest, a game of occasional humor, immense violence, and things that go bang.

Loadout is a multiplayer third-person shooter that blends humor and comical, grotesque violence with a cartoony visual style comparative to Team Fortress 2 or Super Monday Night Combat, complete with vibrant graphics and character models with exaggerated features. But calling Loadout a clone sells it short. The game differs from its popular kin with new takes on classic game modes, and it eschews classes and focuses on what makes shooters so enthralling in the first place: the guns. Loadout features a deep weapon-crafting system where modular components are placed, swapped, or upgraded to create powerful firearms. Though the game lacks conventional classes, it lets you craft your own custom loadouts as you desire.


The style is clean and cartoonish, starring characters with large features.

You can strap a sniper barrel and scope to a rifle chassis to create a sniper rifle, and perhaps upgrade the weapon later with a bolt-action magazine. Attaching a scatter barrel to the chassis along with a shell-loading magazine produces a powerful shotgun. Changing a weapon’s payload further deepens customization options. The pyro payload sets enemies on fire, while tesla shocks enemies with electricity that arcs to nearby foes as chain lightning. Swapping the weapon’s payload to health allows you to heal your allies and give them a health boost, if you feel that the medical field is more your calling.

The first weapon I crafted was a rocket launcher I dubbed Fallout, because I’m clever. I found myself growing rather fond of Fallout, and over time I upgraded to a pyro payload, and later attached a quad-barrel to fire four cluster-bomb rockets. The crafting is enthralling, and what started as a vanilla rocket launcher evolved as time went by, built from the ground up as my lovingly crafted personal weapon of mass destruction.


Purchase clothing items and taunts from the in-game store.

Sticking with a weapon build improves it over time. As you take your chosen weapon into battle, experience points are gained for each particular part that makes up the gun–for example, the selected gun sight, barrel, trigger, and ammo type. With enough experience points, you can purchase weapon component upgrades in Loadout’s tech tree. Upgrades escalate the overall effectiveness of the components, such as increasing damage and improving reload times. The tech tree is used to unlock new components for weapons, as well as equipment, including grenade types, a shield, a turret drop, and a disguise option, which lets you play spy.

Finishing a match awards you with experience points and in-game currency called blutes, which are exchanged for new weapon parts and upgrades. Loadout is a free-to-play game, which means real-world money is involved somewhere. Luckily, the game doesn’t charge for weapon parts or upgrades, but it does charge for vanity items like clothing and taunts. There are plenty of items to buy, including masks, glasses, hats, shirts, bling, and much more. Accessories are also unlocked via Daily Prize rewards, which give you a choice among three chests that contain either a small sum of blutes or a clothing item. You have to pay for more weapon and loadout slots beyond those available, but smart item management eliminates the need for them.

Despite its colorful design, Loadout is exceptionally violent. Bullets rip through flesh, degloving limbs and pounding gaping holes into torsos where bones and internal organs are clearly visible. Fire scorches flesh black, ultimately leaving a nearly skinless husk. Shots to the head have a delightful effect, removing most of the head and leaving the brain and bobbling eyes exposed. Viciously taunting your opponents is actively encouraged and often hilarious. You are granted four slots for taunts that, when activated, send your character into a stylized dance paired with an entertaining tune.


Loadout includes a deep weapon-crafting system.

There are many taunts available in the in-game store, including an ’80s dance number, a golf clap, and the invisible horse of Gangnam Style, if you feel it’s relevant enough (it isn’t). The violence and vulgarity can be turned off in the options menu, but I feel that would remove a large part of the game’s personality. Of course, leaving that box unchecked does run you the risk of seeing a character with blurred genitals twerk in the middle of an arena, but that goes with the territory in Loadout.

The game’s available characters are large and boorish, yet display uncanny agility in combat. Double-tapping a movement key sends your character leaping in that direction. Jumping immediately after the leap sends you into a super jump, capable of catapulting you over tall obstacles in the environment. The ease with which you maneuver inspires energetic acrobatic performances, where players fire over their shoulders while flying from flat ground to a high-rising platform and back again. The battles are exciting, and when multiple players enter the fray, things heat up, putting your skills and environmental awareness to the test.

Loadout is a team-focused game that features familiar game modes, some with a welcome twist. Team deathmatch, for example, is called Death Snatch, and plays out somewhat differently than what you expect. In Death Snatch, killing your opponent doesn’t add points to the board. Instead, when enemy players are killed, they leave a vial of glowing blutonium that must be collected for points, and the team that gathers the most vials wins. The mode bears more than a little resemblance to Modern Warfare 3′s Kill Confirmed mode, where players earn a kill only after successfully executing an opponent.

In Blitz, opposing teams rush toward specified control points as they come into play at various locations around the map. The goal is to raise a pair of boxer short to the top of a flagpole while fending off attacks from the opposing team. Among all the modes, I found Blitz to be the most brutal. The fight for a single point gets violently chaotic: a brief moment of calm is suddenly interrupted by incoming grenades, rockets, or other gunfire. The fight for a single point may last minutes as the tug-of-war between opposing factions continues. Some matches I’ve played have had only a few captures due to the length of time it took to acquire each one.


The hammer in Jackhammer can be used as a weapon.

My favorite game mode, however, is Loadout’s variation on classic capture the flag. It is called Jackhammer, and the object is to steal your opponent’s hammer and carry it back to your team’s base. The enormous red hammer can be used as a weapon, quickly turning enemies who foolishly challenge you into a cloud of discharged electricity and red mist. In typical CTF matches, a capture is awarded by a single digit. But in Jackhammer, you gain a large number of points, and killing enemies with the hammer grants a higher score after the capture. Getting even one kill with the hammer may mean the difference between victory and defeat, which means the hammer carrier must either decide on a quick capture or take the risk for a higher score advantage.

The maps in Loadout are not particularly well designed. Most lack memorable landmarks, making pathfinding a confusing ordeal. The game often chooses maps ill-suited to the selected game mode. Playing Jackhammer on Shattered is straight and to the point: your team spawns on one end, while the enemy is on the far opposite end. But in modes such as Death Snatch, where you are dropped on the enormous map, which covered in high ridges and large obstacles, finding your way around is a hassle.

Loadout is a game of occasional humor, immense violence, and things that go bang.

Since its launch, Loadout has suffered from unrelenting issues with capricious servers. I began playing Loadout soon after it entered the market, and since then I have downloaded many patches and hotfixes as the developer has been hard at work to keep the game stable. The efforts seem to be bearing fruit. I’ve encountered the dreaded server crash only once since I started playing, and it occurred eight hours into my play time; things were up and running again minutes later.

Server lag did rear its head, but it was rare, which is good news. The bad news, on the other hand, is that due to the game’s prior instability, the developer has temporarily shut down the so-called Competitive Mode, where a game type called Annihilation resides. Another issue is something that didn’t strike me until some hours in. At first, I felt overwhelmed by the customization options, from weaponry to character creation. However, in this, the game’s pivotal selling feature, there is still vast room for expansion.


Work as a team to complete objectives.

There is an unfortunate lack of weapon skins, with the default military green as the only option. Character creation is another area that needs attention. Currently, there are only three character models to choose from. While you can customize the characters if you desire a unique look, doing so takes either a lot of time, with clothing items coming in slowly from Daily Prize chests, or real-world money. But not all players are willing to shell out actual currency so their character can sport gangster pants or a mullet. Thankfully, the developer has recently revealed plans for weapon skins, as well as new character models. The release time for either, however, is still anyone’s guess.

Loadout stands out against other shooters with its humor, entertaining multiplayer modes, and addictive weapon-crafting system. I imagine that the game may experience a life cycle not unlike my trusty rocket launcher. It’s crude and blunt, and its name may not turn many heads, but underneath its blood-soaked surface lies immense potential. It is also free-to-play, so there’s no reason not to leap in and bask in the chaotic frenzy with your personally crafted weapon in hand.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic – Galactic Starfighter Review

Star Wars: The Old Republic has been an ever-changing chameleon since its inception, continually trading off features and mechanics with its jump to free-to-play powerhouse and subsequent release of the feature-rich Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion. Even though the focus of each additional chunk of content has shifted, the sentiment remains the same: exploring the Star Wars universe in new and unique ways should make you feel like a badass. Galactic Starfighter endeavors to make you feel just that, strapping you into the cockpit of your very own strike fighter and thrusting you into battle. If running down Sith fighters while engaging your turbo engines in a hail of blaster fire sounds like your idea of a party, this meaty experience is tailor-made for you.

The second full expansion to The Old Republic delivers a flurry of customizable ships, free-flight player-versus-player space combat, and feature upgrades that do an admirable job of fleshing out what Star Wars: The Old Republic wanted to be at launch, but couldn’t quite deliver on. Space combat is an important tenet of the Star Wars universe, and up until now, it has languished as a disappointing and bare-bones minigame that has acted as a plodding grind for experience rather than a fully realized exercise in white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat dogfighting.


Space combat feels as good as it looks.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Galactic Starfighter’s scale is in its 12-versus-12 matches that pit you against other players in one of two different areas: the Kuat Mesas and the Lost Shipyards. The Kuat Mesas map is near the planet itself, with asteroid fields as well as other types of errant debris dotting the numerous canyons and other structures that serve as intriguing landmarks to watch out for. The Lost Shipyards lie out further in space, with enormous space stations that serve as capture points and the perfect bastions for a quick breather in the middle of an intense brawl. Once you enter the group finder and launch a PVP match to become acquainted with the maps, it quickly becomes apparent just how effectively this standalone experience revingorates The Old Republic, which after its only expansion was feeling as though it could be on its last leg.

The edge-of-your-seat doesn’t let up from the moment you round up a group to the moment you (hopefully) emerge victorious. Unfortunately, there’s a rather steep learning curve to what has essentially evolved into a larger-than-life version of what was previously relegated to a pithy minigame. As with any free-range space combat game, the controls can be difficult to nail down until you’ve completed a few different fights. Full 360-degree range of motion make it disorienting at times, especially when you’ve barrel rolled yourself out of the line of sight of an oncoming Sith Strike Fighter.


You can’t own a ship in real life, but you can make this one yours.

When you’ve settled into navigation, mastering weaponry can be a challenge as well. Locking onto a target is a challenge, as it can be difficult to settle on a target that’s zipping around you to and fro. With practice you can guide your fire the way you want, but the initial challenge is something to keep in mind: your first few bouts may be disappointing if you can’t pour much time into easing into the controls. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in space, and you’ll crash and burn if you can’t keep up.

Galactic Starfighter isn’t such a rigid construct that there aren’t different archetypes for players to mold into a ride that’s perfect for them. The gunship, strike fighter, and scout are all formidable choices, and the bomber, a fourth choice, will be available mid-February. Players tend to flock to the strike fighter, which closely resembles the X-wing and Y-wing fighters even Star Wars casuals are likely familiar with. This model strikes a nice mixture of offense and defense, where the maneuverable scout is peppier and fantastic for those who just want to zip in guns blazing and get out of a tight situation fast. The indomitable gunship offers formidable cannons, but it’s the slowest of the trio.

Each ship can be tailored to your play style by way of ship and fleet requisition. Ship requisition is currency earned through using specific ships that can then be converted into fleet requisition, which you can use to purchase new ships. You can spend time upgrading the way your ship looks, but it’s more prudent to augment your passive and active abilities to wipe the floor with the competition. Upgradable components are bundled with talent trees that branch out just like your character’s skills, but if you just want to make your ship look pretty, you can change its paint design, laser colors, and more.

Crew members are another way to keep things fresh, an interesting addition that makes space feel a bit less lonely, even when you’re locked in combat. Companions unlocked in-game can be chosen to head up your very own crew. Additionally, copilots may be selected for special bonuses and abilities that could give you the upper hand when it comes to dealing with players who have invested a bit more time and currency into building the perfect ship. While some augments are available for purchase only through the Cartel Market, there are plenty available to unlock via normal play.


Your companions can always be counted on to keep you on track.

If you took issue previously with your companions spouting the same old lines over and over again after you ran through your class’s storyline, you’ll be delighted to know that new dialogue has been added for each possible character. They can be counted on for some friendly ribbing and lighthearted humor when you’re cruising around, as well as for valuable information about your surroundings. While the new dialogue is hardly a game changer, it’s a refreshing addition that helps tie your space conflicts to the planetside narratives, a helpful touch considering this expansion doesn’t deal in story-based missions.

Space combat looks and feels excellent and never fails to attract competitors, though it’s unfortunate that there is no absorbing story hook to draw you in. That disappointment is balanced by Galactic Starfighter’s ease of access: all levels of players can engage in bouts without having ever completed the storyline or having had a previous character. As long as you’ve got an active account, you can get in on the fun without committing to a guild or even daily play. In essence, this is a standalone experience for Star Wars fans looking for a raucous thrill ride without all the massively multiplayer thrills. The Old Republic has needed this missing piece for some time now, and now that it has arrived, it’s time to be the Jedi or Sith you’ve always wanted to be.

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Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

I don’t often think about killing my friends. Why would I? In everyday circumstances, such a violent act would be inconceivable. However, what if my situation were changed? Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc does away with the normal rules and routines that govern modern societies, and in doing so, is able to examine the desires that hide within everyone. What if the only way you could escape a prison is by killing a friend? Not a pleasant predicament, but one that works remarkably well in a fictional story. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc offers a fascinating look at the human condition, expertly delving into the machinations that would cause some to travel down an immoral path. Sure, killing my friends has never entered my mind, but everyone has a breaking point.

The setup pulled me in from the opening moments. On your first day at a prestigious high school, you’re knocked unconscious, and wake up much later in a deserted classroom. Fifteen teenagers have suffered a similar fate and are now locked inside a heavily fortified building. There is just one way out: kill another student, and avoid having the crime pinned on you. Killing others within a makeshift prison is a concept that has been explored in other pieces of fiction, such as Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and The Hunger Games, and works especially well here because Danganronpa does more than just explore the thoughts of people trapped in such a terrible place. After a murder is committed, you must judge your fellow students, and it’s remarkable how quickly friends become enemies, and bitter truths are revealed.


Junko sure has you figured out.

You assume the role of Makoto, an ordinary teenager in a sea of overachievers. Everyone at the school is considered the ultimate in some aspect: Junko is the ultimate fashionista, Kiyotaka is the ultimate moral compass, and Celestia is the ultimate gambler. Your ultimate ability? Luck. Of course, winning the lottery only to be locked in a death cage hardly seems like good luck.

Danganronpa is focused on telling its story, so though you can move freely throughout the expansive school, your interactions are limited. Converse with a classmate to learn more about his or her backstory, or examine classroom objects to uncover information about the mysterious circumstances that initially brought you to this place. Most of the action entails walking around the school, learning more about the plot and characters. All of the amenities you could ever want are at the school, and make you forget at times that you’re nothing more than a prisoner. Sure, you may never see sunlight again, but you can swim in an Olympic-size pool whenever you want and eat all of the donuts you can fit in your mouth. Life isn’t so bad, is it?

Killing my friends has never entered my mind, but everyone has a breaking point.

Well, it actually is bad. At least for some people. Invariably, someone gets antsy and ends up killing one of his or her friends. And who could blame them? When Monokuma, a robotic bear who’s also the mastermind behind your imprisonment, gives strong incentives to murder, someone is going to take the bait. And it’s these moments that are so interesting. You spend time with these people. You learn who they are and what they want to become. So when a bloodied corpse is found, it’s always unnerving. Someone you’ve grown fond of is no longer alive, and another friend is the perpetrator. How could someone do that? Yes, his or her family’s life was threatened, or maybe a fortune could have been made, but is it really worth committing such a horrific deed to reap that reward?

Although you may never agree with the decisions behind each murder, you can understand them. Danganronpa treats the characters with respect. Rather than paint a suspect as a pure villain, or each person killed as a helpless victim, the game shows how much more complicated things are. The teenagers show a maturity well beyond what their young age would indicate. They’re filled with emotional conflict, often showing a different outward face than who their inner self is, but it never feels contrived. We’ve all been in similar situations, when we put a good spin on a bad situation while desperately wishing to escape, or betraying the trust of someone dear to us for our own gain. So when characters act on their darker impulses, we see them with sympathy rather than disgust.


Thanks for rubbing it in.

Sorry for being vague, but the nature of Danganronpa is such that any concrete details could ruin the intricately constructed plot. The game does a great job of surprising you with new developments without ever relying on twists as a narrative crutch. It’s the slow stream of juicy tidbits that keep you engaged, the small details of a character’s life or the nuggets hinting at why you’re imprisoned. The few twists are taken in stride rather than being colossal revelations that derail everything you knew. Still, some moments that were meant to be shocking left me disenchanted. Danganronpa is all too happy to reveal that a character is really a different gender than you expected, or throw in a tired split-personality quirk, and though none of those gotcha moments are sensationalized, they add little of interest to the well-composed story throughout the rest of the game.

Thankfully, the odd missteps are rare enough so as not to distract from the gripping storytelling. When one of your classmates is murdered, you’re given time to gather evidence before you make your way to the basement where a trial is held. Not only are large chunks of plot details communicated here, but the bulk of the secret truths that all of your friends hide come to light. Actions speak louder than words, after all, so even though a character may have been your closest ally before, you realize in the dark depths of the school what his ore her real motivation was. And, honestly, when you find out someone you liked is really a murderer, it hurts, because you were fooled just as much as the character that you’re controlling.

The trials themselves are fast-paced, electric affairs that demand fast reflexes and sharp decision making. Four different modes within the trials do a great job of keeping things fresh. You may have to shoot truth bullets in an Endless Debate at fraudulent statements, using evidence you learned while searching the crime scene to shed light on a misconstrued idea. There’s no way the victim could have held the sword if you look at her palm, right? And this loose doorknob clearly shows my innocence. Firing your truth bullet at the correct statement has the same giddy appeal as shouting “Objection!” in Phoenix Wright. There’s an excitement in proving that you’re right that is so hard to resist, and it’s only after you show that someone was lying that you start to feel bad. Did you really just turn the spotlight on your friend? And now he or she is facing an execution if convicted?

There are other ways of presenting your evidence as well. Hangman’s Gambit has you spelling out a word by tapping on swirling letters. Granted, this isn’t nearly as exciting as the aforementioned Endless Debate, but it does serve as a fun change of pace from firing truth bullets. There’s also a rhythm game called Bullet Time Battle in which you must wear down one of your friends until they admit the truth they’ve been angrily protecting. Again, it’s fun to present your argument to the beat of the music, but I always felt bad afterward. Going into every trial, I wanted there to be a mistake. Maybe the body wasn’t actually dead? Or the mastermind was behind the death? So when I cornered classmates, forcing them to admit their guilt, it was a victory tinged with sadness.

When you find out someone you liked is really a murderer, it hurts, because you were fooled just as much as the character that you’re controlling.

Trials conclude in a manga-style re-creation of the murderous events. You have to piece together what happened before, during, and after the crime. If you put the pieces in the correct order, Makoto details exactly what took place, and the comic book panels come to life with animations of each act. Seeing your hard work pay off with such a clever revelation is always fascinating. Unfortunately, because the pictures are small, it can be difficult to know what they’re supposed to represent, so it took a bit of trial and error to complete the puzzle. Still, I loved seeing the intricate details spelled out, and making me an active participant helped hammer home what occurred and my importance in solving the case.


Sadly, most of those pictured end up dying.

After you see Danganronpa through to its enticing conclusion, you unlock a new mode called School Life that lets you explore your relationships with your classmates without any messy murder getting in the way. It’s a welcome inclusion because there’s so little time for extracurricular activities during the main story. There are small sections where you can talk to a classmate of your choice before the next killing happens, but students die or get convicted at such a high rate that they’re likely gone before you have a chance to finish the storyline. School Life gives you unfettered access to everyone in the school, so I spent a few hours just filling in the missing pieces to their many backstories.

Still, School Life is lacking. There is a narrative hook in which you must build replacement Monokumas (the bear who’s holding you captive is scared of being destroyed), and the process of doing so is tedious. Taking the form of a light strategy game, this process has you assign tasks to each classmate as you try to find parts for bear construction or clean the messy school. It’s a harmless diversion, but without the dark cloud of the murder plots hanging overhead, it’s hard to care about the by-rote activities.

Thankfully, the core story is so gripping that it doesn’t matter that the ancillary features aren’t up to snuff. Danganronpa excels in nearly every aspect, but two components left a lasting impression on me. First, the respect it shows toward every student, even those who commit the most heinous of crimes, makes you feel sympathy toward everyone, and yearn to understand what makes them tick. Second, the game doesn’t revel in the violence of the deaths and the bleakness of the events. You’re not a voyeur, after all, but one of them. Danganronpa is an excellent adventure with a story that celebrates the human spirit, even during the darkest times, and that optimistic viewpoint made me smile even when everything seemed to be going wrong.

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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

If I am a vessel, I am an empty one.”

So says Lightning, aka Claire Farron, aka the heroine of Final Fantasy XIII, and now, the heroine of Lightning Returns. And she’s right. In her newest adventure, Lightning is not interesting in and of herself, but because of what she means to others, and what others mean to her. To Bhunivelze–that is, God–she is the means of readying humanity for the new world soon to be born. To old friend Fang, she is the key to retrieving an artifact that holds untold power. As for Lightning, the only force driving her is her love for her dead-but-not-really sister Serah, and the possibility that they may be reunited–but even that possibility doesn’t stir Lightning’s emotions. Indeed, Lightning is a vessel for holding and pouring plot devices, but little more.

To be fair, Lightning’s stoicism is a story point in Lightning Returns, yet it’s this same stoicism that makes it nigh impossible to connect with her; she has but one personal motivation, and is defined solely by that motivation. In fact, every character in Lightning Returns is defined by the most basic of traits, all of which serve the needs of the plot, rather than the plot flowing from the needs of the characters. How amazing, then, that these characters never stop talking, finding new ways to explain the simple events occurring around them with as many words as possible. For having so little to say, the characters of Lightning Returns sure do talk a lot. You could say the same things about many other Japanese role-playing games, as well as plenty of anime and manga, but I can’t remember the last time I played a game with so much dialogue that went absolutely nowhere.


Cactuars on my shoulder make me happy.

The stage for all of these histrionics is the world of Nova Chrysalia–or, more accurately, four fairly large regions of Nova Chrysalia that you traverse over and over again as you perform the tasks required of you. The world is soon to end, and Lightning is the key to God’s plan for a new beginning. She is the savior, the one who will rescue as many souls as possible in order to guide them to the new world, and Serah is God’s bargaining chip. In turn, returning character Hope Estheim acts as Lightning’s guide in his ark, a base that exists outside of time’s flow, and houses Yggdrasil, the famed tree of life that has become a JRPG mainstay.

Lightning Returns is not a game about Lightning, but about events that unfold with such melodrama and visual panache that you can’t help but gawk at the beautiful spectacle before you. Some of these events have some semblance of sense, while others (such as the arc that explains the ever-annoying Chocolina’s backstory) are absurd fluff, but the “whoa” moments come and go with some degree of reliability, making you wish that they were part of a sophisticated narrative in addition to being sensory delights. In my favorite of the game’s many cutscenes, Lightning dons a gorgeous mauve gown and takes center stage in a theatrical production that make a Cirque du Soleil show look like a flea circus. The music swoons, fireworks and other vibrant flourishes fill the screen, and for a moment, the pageantry sweeps you away in an exuberant gust of sound and light.

Lightning is a vessel for holding and pouring plot devices, but little more.


Lively battle animations give combat some class.

If only there were a stronger character who could readily support the weight of a full game on her shoulders. Lightning’s friends from Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2 have roles to play, but their stories are typically self-contained, culminating in final speeches that might represent 180-degree turns of the emotional positions they held just moments before. At least some of the actors deliver their lines with enough gusto to make you believe in their proclaimed passions. Final Fantasy XIII-2′s misunderstood villain Caius Ballad has the most stage presence among them, thanks to actor Liam O’Brien’s resonant baritone, though even Vanille finds redemption now that she no longer must bear the burden of an entire world (rather literally, at that). Elsewhere, Lightning Returns embraces the usual monosyllabic coos and shrill vocal deliveries that characterize Final Fantasy, though this isn’t a matter of acting choices, but rather of inconsistent voice direction.

Sadly, the mediocre audio production is a major distraction. You explore and reexplore the game’s four zones as Lightning, who usually travels alone, with Hope chattering in your ear via transponder so frequently, you wish he’d just shut up. He drones on so often, in fact, that he’s constantly cut off mid-sentence whenever a battle suddenly occurs, when you trigger a cutscene by walking into a new area, or when you engage another character in order to complete quests. In the most extreme examples, Hope cuts off his own dialogue, though even when he isn’t the one providing his own interruptions, lines are constantly shut down mid-sentence, sometimes to be repeated, and sometimes to be forgotten. The game drowns you with unnecessary audio, as if developer Square Enix were fearful that you’d forget what you were doing or why you were doing it.


The great warriors of legend have no need to cover their thighs. Or torsos. Or collarbones. Or cleavage.

You might think you could simply wait for dialogue to finish before venturing forward or engaging other characters, and in theory, you can. However, Lightning Returns is designed to make you hurry. You see, the world is going to end whether you like it or not, and the clock is always ticking. The game adheres to a strict timetable, automatically returning you to the ark at 6 a.m. every day. To see Lightning Returns to its finale, you need to add several more days to the calendar by saving the right souls–which in turn means completing story quests. Stopping to listen to entire lines of dialogue uses up precious minutes, so when faced with the decision to do nothing while you listen to Hope ramble or to move on and risk interrupting his exposition, you move on. The countdown is anti-story.

The music swoons, fireworks and other vibrant flourishes fill the screen, and for a moment, the pageantry sweeps you away in an exuberant gust of sound and light.

Not only does the time management mechanic collide with the overzealous audio, but it collides with almost every other aspect of the game. I suspect that like me, many people will discover just how frustrating the flow of time is when they reach the world’s end before they have progressed far enough to have saved its populace. In this circumstance, the game abruptly concludes, and then invites you to start over again with all of your spells, weapons, and so forth intact–a New Game Plus. The moment came as a slap in the face after 33 hours of playing on medium difficulty, and the slaps continued as I played through a second time, during which I could so clearly see all of Lightning Returns’ attempts to pad the gameplay and waste my time. You can mitigate the frustrations by playing on easy, but doing so bandages the wounds without addressing the disease.

How does Lightning Returns waste your time? It does it in how it handles exploration. As you complete certain side quests, others may open up, but you may not know where and when they do so, or even if they will. In that sense, the game invites you to return to regions again and again, seeking out new activities. But the clock is always working against you, and the time you spend exploring previously visited areas may not yield any fruit, making the entire journey a pointless one; even traveling to other regions by train uses up additional time. In that sense, the game punishes exploration by pushing you ever closer to imminent Armageddon. The countdown is anti-exploration.


“Passion Rouge” is this schemata’s default title, but feel free to get as creative as you want with names.

 


We built this city on dirt and stone.

How else does Lightning Returns waste your time? It does it by forcing you to lose an in-game hour whenever you escape from battle, but not effectively communicating if you have the right tools for major enemies beforehand. You might be well equipped for the creatures in the vicinity, only to discover that you are not powerful enough for the boss that concludes your quest, or the miniboss that stands between you and the next phase of your journey. The combat system itself encourages you to try different approaches, but the clock punishes you for doing so. The countdown is anti-experimentation.

That combat has plenty of bright spots, however, and were it not for some execution issues, it may have even found a place among Final Fantasy’s better battle systems. The paradigm mechanics of the previous games have been reimagined, and Lightning is the only character you directly control. At the heart of battle–and indeed, at the heart of character progression and customization–are combat templates called schemata. Schemata, in turn, are attached to the outfits Lightning wears. She can wear up to three at any time and switch between them at will during battle. Not only do various outfits have their own attributes, but so do the weapons, attacks, and accessories you can equip to them. As you earn new spoils in battle, visit vendors, and complete quests, your options grow, and schemata customization becomes more and more compelling. I enjoyed fine-tuning each schema, giving them descriptive names and maximizing various qualities with ornate shields and impossibly large katanas.

On the battlefield, additional strategic elements come into better focus. For instance, each schema has its own maximum health, but when you take damage in one schema, that damage is reflected in other schemata by the percentage of health you lost, rather than in the actual amount of damage. As a result, it’s best to have the schema with the most health points equipped when the enemy lands its blows. In addition, certain costumes have a particular attack hardcoded into them; in other cases, equipping a given item or casting a particular debuff may change the nature of certain attacks. The inherent freedom of schemata makes them deeply appealing.

The game punishes exploration by pushing you ever closer to imminent Armageddon.


They say that chocobo meat tastes like chicken.

Once combat begins, however, you must face Lightning Returns’ vexing blocking mechanic. Each attack you unleash costs a certain number of ATB (active time battle) points, and the ATB meter replenishes more slowly than you use it up. As a result, you must switch between schemata frequently–a strategic consideration similar to the one paradigms introduced in the other XIII games. It’s the newfound emphasis on staggering that leads to the greatest aggravation on the battlefield. Staggering an enemy typically (but not always) makes it temporarily impotent in battle, and allows you to deliver a lot of damage without opposition. You can stagger enemies by bombarding them with the spells and slashes they are particularly vulnerable to, but precisely blocking their attacks is even more effective. And if you want to avoid grave injuries, it’s sometimes a requirement.

The most obvious problem with blocking is that Lightning Returns, like its predecessors, values visual pageantry over precision. That was fine in the previous XIII games, which required little exactness, but when the camera is swaying about, framing the fluid animations, brilliant explosions, and fearsome monsters, it’s rarely giving you a consistent view of your surroundings. You can click a thumbstick to watch from a better vantage point, but even then, the game’s insistence on forcing beauty on you comes at the expense of granting you a proper perspective. Avoiding damage can require split-second timing, but you can’t block attacks you can’t see. And remember: while you can escape battle, it costs you time, though Lightning Returns does give you some methods to ward off the pain of lost hours, such as the limited skill to slow time to a crawl for a short while and prove yourself a one-woman army.


Adornments are an inadvertent source of comedy. This cap is one of the least amusing options.

Nevertheless, the foes you face while pursuing story quests prove a roadblock the first time through, forcing you to pursue other opportunities and hope that making various citizens’ dreams come true will help extend the clock. You might suppose that grinding for levels would boost your battle effectiveness, but Lightning doesn’t gain levels, and there is no experience to gather. Instead, completing quests, whether they be story quests, side quests, or tasks offered from Chocolina’s minor mission board, rewards you with additional health, additional strength, or other perks, such as an increase in the number of recovery items you can possess. Pursuing Chocolina’s tasks is much the same as level grinding, only instead of fighting to earn experience, you are fighting to reap objects that you can turn in for a small boost to your attributes.

Most missions are of the usual “fetch” or “kill” variety, and have you crisscrossing the desert, weaving through forests, and roaming city streets. Menial tasks like checking the time on a dozen clocks or growing greens to feed to your chocobo mount aren’t absorbing on their own, but they do get you out into the world, where you can complete assignments in any order you choose. And while treading across the same sand dunes and winding paths grows tiring, there are countless details to admire. When I first encountered a trio of miniature moogles roving the woods, chirpily greeting each other and announcing it was their bedtime, I was utterly delighted. I shuddered when I looked closely at a beastly gorgonopsid’s razor-sharp teeth, before vanquishing it with a shimmering bolt of frost. And Lightning herself dons meticulously tailored outfits, with every button polished to a shine, each pair of boots carefully constructed, and each fabric impeccably embroidered.


Is Lightning as dry as the desert? It’s a toss-up.

Those details carry over into garb like the amazon warrior outfit, which covers only the minimum amount of skin, and features a panty line so low that Lightning looks like an extra from a hypersexual Onechanbara game. These outfits speak to the game’s tonal inconsistencies; Lightning’s costumes have always been body-conscious, but they’ve never been overtly provocative, and the sudden spotlight on Lightning’s ladybits run contrary to her aloofness and professed desire to avoid the limelight. If you’d rather giggle than ogle, you can always equip Lightning with an adornment, like a bushy goatee or a feline tail, and then change her clothing colors to a garish puce-and-pea-green combo. Lightning doesn’t smile, so you can’t laugh with her–but at least you can laugh at her.

Games have successfully used timers to evoke a sense of urgency in the past; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask leaps immediately to mind. Yet Majora’s Mask handled its time limits with care, whereas Lightning Returns layers them on top of mechanics that don’t support them. This supposedly final chapter of Nova Chrysalia’s story leaves me befuddled. It’s a collection of ideas and concepts that don’t come together in a coherent way, led by a character who has shown no identifiable growth since her first appearance four years ago. The promising schemata system and grandiose cutscenes are solid pillars from which a great RPG could have been constructed, but Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII falls well short of greatness.

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The Lego Movie Videogame Review

The Lego Movie Videogame is the culmination of a surprising series of unlikely events. Based on a successful movie that quite possibly wouldn’t even exist if there weren’t first successful games and toy play sets inspired by similarly endearing movies before it, this newest interactive journey through the world of branded plastic blocks is a satisfying companion piece to its theatrical source material.

If you’ve played previous Lego games, you have a general idea what to expect. The Lego Movie Videogame doesn’t deviate from its successful predecessors’ formula. As always, you must lead a band of merry plastic characters around a vibrant world filled with rudimentary puzzles and enemies who fall to pieces when they meet their demise. Some basic ingenuity allows you to advance to the next set piece with minimal difficulty, and level hubs tie the action-oriented stages together while offering incentive to explore. You collect various doodads and in-game currency, which activate cheats that let you play completed areas the way you like, or unlock a slew of additional characters, and sometimes you get to assemble special vehicles or structures by playing a minigame.


We meet during dark times, Mr. Snowman. I’m Batman!

The same general formula has carried gamers through a variety of Lego adventures in the past, minor tweaks aside, and it is arguably no better or worse with this iteration than it was previously, even if by now it feels less inventive than it once did. The most noteworthy difference is the shortened campaign, which is around half as lengthy and content-rich as something like Lego City Undercover on the Wii U, or even Lego The Lord of the Rings. That’s disappointing to find after previous games did such a good job of dropping you into a pleasingly expansive world, but the positive side to that coin is the general lack of dead weight. Here, you are asked to wander a great deal less, and though a handful of optional tasks are offered in each zone, narrative momentum is the obvious priority.

Some basic ingenuity allows you to advance to the next set piece with minimal difficulty.

As for the story, it’s the same as the one shown in theaters. Emmet, the protagonist, is a forgettable construction worker who finds his whitewashed view of the world made more colorful by a chance encounter with Wyldstyle, a free-spirited adventurer who is convinced Emmet holds the key to saving the world from an evil menace. The movie had a lot of fun with its clever references to pop culture, and the game does too in the most direct manner possible: by including huge chunks of footage from the film. Except for two pivotal scenes that unfold near the end of the movie but are glossed over or cut here–to no ill effect–and occasional moments of incidental dialogue, nearly everything makes an appearance. The central themes are just slightly less apparent, but you still get a cohesive and lively story from start to finish, complete with the best scenes from the most memorable Lego characters.


What Vitruvius can’t see surely can’t hurt him…

Many scenes from the movie lend themselves naturally to a game experience, and that quickly becomes evident here. An introductory stage acquaints you with the basics by walking you through Emmet’s rather mundane day at the construction site. Before long, though, he’s driving a motorcycle along a crowded freeway, and Wyldstyle is making her way along the tops of moving vehicles. These events are almost wholly participatory, making it all feel even more frantic than in the film. Then in a later sequence, the characters flee along the rooftops and battle robots along the way–another pivotal scene at the cinema. Here, it’s just fleshed out a bit more, and there are puzzles to solve. So it goes with much of the game, all without the mix ever feeling unnatural or forced. Visuals during the levels and in the cutscenes complement one another beautifully and are perpetually bright and shiny in all the right places.

Although The Lego Movie has delighted audiences of all ages with its clever writing and inside jokes, the video game version isn’t as universally absorbing. Puzzles are simple enough that children should be able to solve them just through experimenting, but too many of them take a paint-by-numbers approach. You simply search for an obvious piece of the architecture that Emmet can drill, break everything apart until you find glowing points of interest that can be assembled, or look for a point on a distant ledge to grapple. Throw in some mild brawling elements–with no fear of failure, aside from a lower rating upon completion of the stage–and you have the bulk of the game. It can wear thin at times, but that’s not a new problem for the franchise.


Returning wandering felines to their owner is just the cat’s meow!

Elsewhere, more minor concerns also pop up on occasion. Infrequently, it’s possible to get a character stuck on the architecture, unable to move. If you’re playing alone you can easily switch to another character in the party, though, and then break apart your trapped friend. If you’re playing cooperatively the second player can do the same, so at least there’s an easy workaround when necessary. In other cases, you may find yourself controlling a flying character who stops short at arbitrary barriers quite a lot, even though it looks like he should be able to keep flying. None of the issues are persistent enough to serve as a huge inconvenience, but they do warrant a mention.

The Lego Movie Videogame is a faithful take on its source material, with just enough of the film’s content missing to make it worth getting out to the theater, but not so much that the game’s narrative becomes difficult to follow. The added interaction is also welcome and is handled in a manner that keeps the experience approachable and generally refined, even if it isn’t always as creative and varied as you might hope. While not everything is awesome, The Lego Movie Videogame should be just the ticket if you’re ready to spend another 10 to 12 hours in the fantastic world of animated plastic blocks.

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Strike Vector Review

Strike Vector is a terrible name. It’s an ugly, meaningless pairing of words, vaguely aggressive and speciously technical. What does it tell about the experience in this multiplayer sci-fi dogfighter? Presumably, things will be struck. Usually walls, as it turns out. Other things will be set into motion and given a direction. Usually you, and usually into walls.

That’s part of the Strike Vector equation,and for the first few hours, the unwieldiness of the interface and controls seems well in step with the asperity of the game’s title. You furrow your brow at the shoddy tutorial, and at the misspellings in the menus. In your first matches, you hurtle from your spawn headlong into nearby obstacles like Wile E. Coyote shot from an Acme cannon. As you’re puzzling over what the Kebs column next to your increasingly negative kill-to-death ratio might mean, a dubious name like Strike Vector is emblematic.


Dogfighting combat is turned on its head by the ability to hover.

 

Perhaps 1995′s WipEout could have served as a precedent for a title with embedded significance. The old sci-fi racing stalwart used to run advertisements featuring two vacuous youths with nosebleeds. Below a stylized Designers Republic logo that oozed counterculture cred read the caption “A dangerous game.” They used to say that the capitalized “E” stood for the drug ecstasy. Strike Vector has something of that uniquely ’90s sensibility, perhaps owing to the members of WipEout’s now-defunct Studio Liverpool within its ranks. It’s got the same disaffinity for limitations on speed and gravity and the same aficionado appeal. It bears the same muddy industrial patina of the WipEout prototype from the movie Hackers. The old teenage angst even bubbles to the surface here and there; the new development team’s name, Ragequit, sits in the spot reserved for the “Leave Match” button in more…let’s say, “businesslike” shooters.

Strike Vector has no qualms about taking its speedy vector ships and forcing them into cramped quarters.

 


WYSIWYG: it’s refreshing to not have equipment locked behind an experience system.

Strike Vector’s old-school sensibilities run deeper than a bit of branding. Though it’s a dogfighting game fought between futuristic jets, it’s structured in a manner that should be instantly familiar to Quake veterans. Absent are the unlocks and the tiered bonuses so endemic to the modern shooter scene. Eight weapons greet you when you first visit the game’s armory, and the count remains eight a few hundred games later. The only unlocks earned through play are cosmetic. The arena shooter comparisons gain further credibility when your jet’s Macross-esque hover mode is toggled, and the game becomes a first-person shooter (or a third-person shooter) in a purer sense. Hovering can make you an easier target, but it also inverts the traditional pursuer-chaser dynamic of flight games. Find a bogey on your six, and the options avail themselves. Hit the brakes and have him fly right by? Or maybe dive into a nearby structure and wait in ambush around a corner? It’s a fitting evolution–the trench warfare that preceded the rise of the modern FPS gives way to the trench run from Star Wars.

Strike Vector has no qualms about taking its speedy vector ships and forcing them into cramped quarters. Open air cedes space to massive works of industrial architecture: slums, fortresses, and foundries that tend to come crashing into view when you’re in the throes of desperate evasive maneuvers. It’s a relatively small sampling of maps, but there’s good variety to be had in their aesthetics and layouts, and each is tuned to pitch-perfect gameplay possibility.


Considering the “tutorial” is what new players see first, this ain’t a great way to lead off.

 

I’m enamored of these stages, more layered and detailed than any flight game fan has a right to expect. They feel like rare artifacts that survived the journey from concept art to execution, chock-full of little protrusions and crannies that make escape both viable and precarious in turn. I find myself getting caught up in my eagerness to explore their depths, taking in the neon signage and the bright paint jobs, becoming inattentive to teammates and enemies as I loaf about. The finer details are hard to appreciate in the heat of combat, you see–the flips and loops that combat necessitates make these environments disorienting, even if it’s in the best possible way. It’s a savvy combination of form and function, a design that shifts from artwork to obstacle to pathway with nary a seam in between.

There’s no leading crosshair, and it’s difficult to tell what effect–if any–your shots are having when you score that elusive hit marker.

Strike Vector’s combat is a delightfully grungy spectacle in its own right. It’s most reminiscent of Warhawk’s aerial combat, all floating power-ups and high contrast. There’s a metal-on-metal crunchiness to the sight of ships coming apart under fire. A splatter of oil and flaming detritus makes for gratification that’s often tantalizingly delayed, the reward for a dogged chase or a crafty bit of strafing during a head-to-head shootout between hovering vectors. In a rather mischievous touch, if you’re shot down, you’re granted a few seconds to direct your flaming ship into an enemy for a spiteful kill. It’s all eminently .gif-able.

The vectors are also worth a look when they’re not exploding. They’re bulky mechs, more Transformer than Gundam. The whole of their backsides are given to engines, an overkill of thrusters that do a wonderful job of conveying…well, conveyance. Their forms can be nominally customized, though Armored Core fans should look elsewhere for their gearhead fix; Strike Vector’s garage feels incomplete. That’s the other side of the coin, the roughness that oxidizes Strike Vector’s machined finish. There are little impurities, like the aforementioned menu misspellings, or the odd game crash, and there are larger oversights that give the impression of a game put under live loads before it had time to harden. There’s no real tutorial to speak of, for example, just a few vague slides to click through and a solo flight mode to learn the ropes. I’d recommend spending a fair bit of time with the latter.


Perhaps the ability to suspend flight necessitated these finely detailed environments.

What else is missing? A tactile sense, really–a feeling of connection between player and game that bypasses all the little mechanical and electrical intermediaries. There are a lot of barriers: the dubious ability of mouse and keyboard to simulate acrobatic flight, for one. The inputs have never struck me as an ideal control system for aircraft simulation, but Strike Vector’s half-baked controller support makes them the only practical option. The crosshairs used for targeting also initiate turns–they need to be moved to the edges of the screen to do so–meaning that during pursuit, you’re stuck juggling your ability to attack or steer. If you manage to draw a bead on your enemy, you might find it tough to gauge your weapon’s efficacy. There’s no leading crosshair, and it’s difficult to tell what effect–if any–your shots are having when you score that elusive hit marker. Absent the ability to tell whether you’re using the weapons properly, fitting your vector becomes a matter of sticking to the one or two that have proven remotely viable.

Then again, I might be willing to take to the skies without any weapons fastened to my unwieldy ship, to jet around Strike Vector’s impressive environments and let the chips fall where they may. There’s a substantive quality to the game’s core combat and visuals, even if the rest remains somewhat clumsy. Each time you quit the game, an exit splash screen reminds you that future content is free, and the first such drop is promised for February 28. I’ll fill the time until then learning how to stop crashing into the very pretty walls.

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Fable Anniversary Review

When you return to a beloved classic and discover how awkward and painfully frustrating it truly was, it’s difficult to accept the truth. Multiple stages of grief follow, though many of us never escape the “denial” phase, declaring undying love while sobbing our way through clunky gameplay that has no hope of living up to our childhood remembrances.

Thankfully, Fable Anniversary has no desire to ruin your decade-old memories. The original Fable holds up rather well, and this remastered, visually buffed version of it retains the proper charm and rollicking spirit that made the game so delightful. Fable projects a certain effervescence, which you hear in its soundtrack’s tinkling bell tones and see in the squat, goblinesque hobbes that shriek and yammer as you fight them. Villagers speak to you in thick Cockney accents, inviting you to drown in pleasures of the flesh, or drearily enthusing about their favorite hallucinogenic mushrooms. (You’ll go find them another, won’t you?) Fable is the Hugh Grant of video games: cheery, affable, and periodically inelegant.

As a remaster, Fable Anniversary is one of the better ones. Should you compare the original and the new release side by side, you immediately see the differences. Low-polygon character models and flap-jaw facial animations have been replaced by smoothly drawn villagers and reasonably expressive lip synching. This isn’t a case of the resolution being cranked up, but entire assets being re-created, including architecture and foliage. The lighting, too, has been adjusted to reflect real-time sun rays and other more natural elements, though this change comes at the cost of ambience. The original Fable burst with bright light and color, though not always in the most natural ways, while the new lighting gives the game a more organic look, but at the cost of the shimmering glow that made Albion so warm and inviting in the original Fable and its sequel. Certain areas are too dim to make exploring them fun.

Allow me to step back a moment, however. If you never played the original, you’ll be less concerned with Fable Anniversary’s improvements, and more concerned with its own unique merits. And there are many. As the unnamed hero of Albion, you gallivant about its charming towns and meadows in third-person perspective, performing quests that have you protecting citizens from bandits, infiltrating prisons, and solving a ghostly spirit’s riddles. But childhood precedes heroism, and the first hour or so of the game chronicles the terrible events that scarred you in your youth while simultaneously serving as an extended tutorial.


I have the power!

Fable Anniversary sings a fine rendition of the original’s victories. Your interactions with the populace aren’t limited to the kind involving a bow or a sword. You express your innermost self not with what you say (as you might in many a modern role-playing game, like Mass Effect) but with what you do. You can disgust your admirers by farting in their faces, or impress potential love interests by offering them gemstones, or boxes of chocolates. Prove your strength by flexing your muscles; prove your cruelty by murdering an old friend in front of hundreds of onlookers.

How you act is reflected in how others perceive you, and in how you look. I admit that I find little amusement in attacking random villagers, and so my list of moral successes grew longer and longer until a halo appeared above my head and onlookers clapped enthusiastically as I passed. Devil’s horns and crimson eyes are your rewards for dirty deeds, though your status as a “hero” remains perpetually intact. Fable II greatly expanded on this system, but even so, Fable Anniversary still seems authentically alive, whereas other games often feel as though they are merely responding to on/off switches when alluding to your past actions. It’s Fable’s focus on action over words that makes the difference. A passerby mentioning that he heard you killed a werewolf is clearly contrived; applause and cries of admiration as you enter a tavern, on the other hand, feel more organic, because the game doesn’t assume everyone in town has heard of the specific actions you performed just moments before.


Everyone’s so mean to me. Even when I sport a beautiful handlebar mustache!

Other actions are also reflected in your physical form; eating too much food to regain health, for instance, makes you fat. It’s a shame the world design doesn’t reflect the openness of Fable Anniversary’s social possibilities. Even in 2004, Fable’s segmented kingdom was confining; now, it is absurdly so. Smallish regions are separated by loading screens, and even those areas limit you to specific paths. Albion is a series of connected nodes that relies on its gently bawdy atmosphere to convey its history rather than on scale and environmental detail.

When you aren’t busy voguing in front of impressed onlookers, you’re traveling down Albion’s narrow pathways, beating up on balverines (that is, werewolves) and trolls using a combination of melee weapons, bows, and magic spells. The magical possibilities are the most intriguing, given how they allow you to summon a ring of flames from the heavens above, or to call forth a trio of sentient swords to get up close and personal with your enemies while you shower arrows on them. There’s no reason to stick with any particular technique, though, and cultivating a diverse combat style is more gratifying than choosing one over another. Depending on the circumstance, ranged attacks might be more effective than hammer swings, and you earn enough experience orbs when completing quests and offing bandits that there’s no reason not to spread the wealth among the three core disciplines.

Prove your strength by flexing your muscles; prove your cruelty by murdering an old friend in front of hundreds of onlookers.

Putting those disciplines into practice can be frustrating, however. The original’s targeting system wasn’t great, and while Fable Anniversary represents some improvement, it’s not much of one. You have to be relatively close to your target for the targeting to even work, so pulling the trigger to lock onto an attacking hobbe may instead reposition the camera, or worse yet, lock onto a nearby comrade, causing you to accidentally launch an arrow into a merchant’s skull when you had a zombie in your sights. You can even lock onto your summoned helpers that way; I can’t count the number of times I wanted to focus on a nymph and the camera centered on a summoned sword. The game’s thoughtless manner of how it chooses targets is puzzling. Even more puzzling is how your arrows may go off in some random direction even when you’ve homed in on a target.

Melee combat, too, has its problems, most of which stem from Fable Anniversary’s animation-first design philosophy, in which most attacks knock you back or down in some manner, wrenching control away from you in the heat of combat. This is typically only a minor nuisance, though some combat encounters seem designed to cause maximum frustration. You can find yourself in irritating loops of interrupting attacks in which you don’t have the time to stand before you’re summarily knocked on your derriere again. The combat arena–an inescapable gaming cliche in Fable–is the most embarrassing example of this flawed approach. Dealing with several trolls tossing boulders at you with no regard for timing is the most tiresome sequence in the game.


You can hire bodyguards if you like having company, but Fable Anniversary is so easy, you probably won’t need help.

The saving grace that makes these foibles more irritating than rage inducing is Fable Anniversary’s low level of difficulty. You usually have more than enough potions and resurrection vials on you to avoid game-ending death, and in fact, I only once saw a game-over screen in Fable Anniversary, when I had failed to finish a quest during its time limit. This is a game about atmosphere and attitude, not about overcoming grueling obstacles by mastering your tactics. It’s also a game about discovery, more so than you might imagine for a game that confines you to such constricted passages. Inspecting various nooks reveals treasure chests, and if you don’t mind the morbid business of digging up graves, you might find buried valuables. Talking demon doors scattered about the land have secrets locked behind them, but they require you to pay strict cover fees if you want to join their clubs. One forces you to raise your combat multiplier before it opens; another asks for a fancy gift. My favorite one encourages you to get fat. “Get some meat on you,” it says. “I want beefy! Blubbery! Plump! Porcine! Stop being a slave to public perception, and treat yourself.”

How could I refuse such an invitation? I gorged on delicious red meat until my hero was as Rubenesque as my own frame, and the door opened after it laid eyes on my jolly ol’ self. These are the kinds of moments that make Fable Anniversary delightful. Its combat and world design have undoubtedly aged, but the game is so ripe with charisma, so upbeat that even its most somber moments don’t suppress your soaring spirits for long. Fable isn’t quite timeless, but its genial mood is infectious, and I’m happy that Fable Anniversary kept my fond memories intact.

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The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 – Smoke and Mirrors Review

There’s a beast lurking inside all of us, but the creature sheriff Bigby harbors is difficult to keep silent. In The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 – Smoke and Mirrors, you determine just how sharp Bigby’s claws can dig, whether you’re dealing with a mouthy murder suspect, a cowering child, or a jealous husband who sniffs wrongdoing in the smoky air.

In Fabletown, Bigby’s former identity as the Big Bad Wolf is an open secret, but it’s hardly the only one. The fables that live there–Ichabod Crane, Mr. Toad, and Little Jack Horner, to name a few–need to keep their identities a secret from the mundane masses, and thus reach out to each other when they hit hard times. Episode 1′s harrowing finale plunged this episodic adventure game’s story into the kind of darkness that encourages even the strongest of us to seek comfort–but it’s also in the darkness that it’s easiest for evil to hide. Smoke and Mirrors is an apt title for a story in which you can’t always believe what you see, and don’t always find refuge where you look.


Bigby is no one’s buddy.

 

If you played Episode 1, you likely have a good idea of who Bigby is. At least, I know who my Bigby is: a steel-fisted, impatient bastard who shows little restraint when cornered, but is fiercely protective of Fabletown’s most vulnerable residents. As the episode led me through its story beats, I often had the chance to express both sympathy and savagery, and I admit I took some inner delight when pummeling a sickening suspect until he cried for mercy, all while an approving Bluebeard looked on with perverse pleasure. When I got to my knees to speak to a diminutive witness later on, my heart filled with compassion, and I pledged to myself to find the jackass responsible for the tumult.

It was when jealousy intruded on my ongoing investigation that I realized how attached to Bigby I’d become. I was angry at the assumptions my accuser was making, annoyed that my time was being wasted, and concerned for the innocent witness watching a volatile confrontation unfold. I let out my inner wolf, and found the same catharsis in it that Bigby did. Perhaps my own demons linger more closely to the surface than I imagined.

Smoke and Mirrors is an apt title for a story in which you can’t always believe what you see, and don’t always find refuge where you look.

I’m sorry that I can’t be more specific; explaining the details would dull the story’s bite. Besides, as you navigate your way through Smoke and Mirrors’ multiple crime scenes, events may play out differently. I appreciated how the game acknowledged my previous choices in its details, however. A smashed wall and a missing limb were sober visual reminders of past (mis)deeds that made me more mindful of the barbarian I could be, and some fables’ looks of apprehension demonstrated lingering fears over a previous outburst. The characters in The Wolf Among Us aren’t highly detailed, but their faces express grief and anger with just the right amount of melodrama to fit the game’s noir tone. The atmosphere is possibly the series’ greatest triumph. Had the game not taken itself so seriously, its depictions of potty-mouthed amphibians and sadistic warlords might have been more groan-worthy than glorious. Yet the heaving soundtrack, the spot-on voice acting, and the violet skies keep the fantasy grounded. These characters are no longer living a fairy tale.


Time to open a can of whoop-ass.

Nonetheless, Smoke and Mirrors occasionally feels like it’s spinning its wheels. There are few of the quick-time button events that gave the first episode such tension, and the stakes aren’t as high. As a result, the game simmers but never quite boils over, and I was left wishing for more chances to sic myself on a foe as threatening as the Woodsman. As it is, dealing with Smoke and Mirrors’ relatively harmless lowlifes doesn’t have the same appeal as chasing the smoother criminals, even when they deserve a smack in the mouth now and again. Much of the time, you’re left investigating crime scenes and interrogating fables, which can lead to some minor but noticeable idiosyncrasies. I was struck several times by how Bigby’s tone of voice changed from one line to the next, betraying how several branches of questioning might still lead to the same line of recorded dialogue. I was also so distracted by a plot point mentioned out of the blue that I had to go back and watch that portion again to make sure I wasn’t out of my mind, and indeed, a character delivered a line that appeared to match a different dialogue branch than the one I’d chosen.

Ultimately, Smoke and Mirrors feels like a necessary bridge spanning the impactful first episode and the events portrayed in the episode three preview that concludes this episode. It smolders more than it burns, though in some sense, that’s an appropriate trajectory for Bigby’s ongoing investigation. There’s a moment when Bigby lights a cigar and contemplates his next step. That’s exactly where The Wolf Among Us stands now: percolating and pondering before the next punch to the gut.

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Rekoil Review

It is said that first impressions are everything, and Rekoil does a fine job of reinforcing that notion. I felt excited when I booted up the shooter for the first time; a game labeled as a spiritual successor to classic shooters of old was appealing to me. I jumped into a server, picked my loadout, and entered the map, where I was promptly killed at spawn. Well, not everyone is an expert right away, I thought. But after I was killed about five times by my new friend spawn camping from a corner, I felt my heart sink. Yes, first impressions can mean everything, and over the course of many hours following, I could only conclude that my early suspicion was correct: Rekoil is a broken game.

An online-only first-person shooter with the military trappings of games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike, Rekoil takes things back to basics, eschewing many mechanics gamers have come to accept as standard. The game focuses on competitive gameplay without being concerned about experience points, ranks, guard dogs, or tactical air strikes. It offers six loadouts, including the familiar assault, recon, and sniper classes. Each loadout contains five to six weapons, as well as a sidearm, a melee weapon, and a choice of two grenade types, along with multiple weapon skins like arctic camo and glistening gold plating–all of which are available at the start.


Rekoil includes several large, open-air maps, such as City Park.

 

Getting into a match is nearly effortless, with the only slowdown caused by irritating load times while choosing your loadout. Starting up, you enter one of many dedicated servers, choose your weapons, and jump straight into the fray, all within minutes. The premise works well, and harks back to the days of Quake and Unreal Tournament, realms of frags and gravel-voiced announcers who barked through your speakers, where getting in and going to work was only a few clicks away. Unfortunately, not long after you enter a match, Rekoil begins to fall apart at the seams.

I suspected something was amiss when I began my first match with a five-death deficit before I could even fire my first bullet. There are many problems that plague Rekoil, but among the most frustrating is the awful spawn system. In a regular deathmatch, I often either entered the game to find myself cut down by an enemy behind me or appeared right in the middle of a gunfight, getting killed before given the chance to gain my bearings. Sometimes several players spawn at a single point at once, encouraging spawn camping. In maps like Refinery or Streets, a player can rack up more than 10 effortless kills before being stopped.


You fight on open terrain and in crowded halls and stairwells.

In team-based matches, spawning into gunfire is greatly reduced, because you typically enter the game at the furthest location from the majority of the opposing team. But the spawn woes are not completely obliterated; some maps spawn you in the open where proper cover is in short supply. Experienced players who know where to look keep an eye on these locations with a sniper rifle, picking off players as they enter into the arena.

The weapons in Rekoil are inconsistent, mostly when it comes to accuracy. The AK-47, a popular favorite among players, is labeled as powerful but inaccurate at long distances. However, I could still kill off enemies even while standing halfway across maps, something that shouldn’t be possible with the gun’s weapon spread. In one match, as I stood in the center of the arena, I got away with four headshots in a row, which led me to wonder if the hit boxes are excessively large. But I experienced other battles where I spent an entire clip firing from the hip at an opponent several feet away without seeing a single hit marker. These issues could be related to faulty hit boxes, but it’s different from game to game, leading to confusion.

There are many problems that plague Rekoil, but among the most frustrating is the awful spawn system.

Sniper rifles, on the other hand, feel too accurate. Many team deathmatches devolve into full-on sniper battles, and it’s easy to understand why: sniping is effortless in Rekoil, thanks to the fact that nearly every rifle is a snap to aim and extraordinarily accurate, able to kill with a single round to the body most of the time. The unusual accuracy, power, and speed make sniper rifles deadly even in close quarters. In my hands, the sniper rifle defeated three opponents in a row, one with a headshot, all within the space of about 10 feet.

Atrocious server lag causes further problems in Rekoil. There are about 50 dedicated servers available in the game, and only a few of them have acceptable levels of server ping, that is, when they are empty. As players fill servers, ping may rocket up to 150 or more than 200. The high ping creates a host of issues, including players jumping all over the map, missed shots, getting killed even though you already moved behind cover, and, my favorite, grenades that completely disappear into the ether after being tossed. Poor optimization is another issue. Even if your computer easily handles most modern games, Rekoil still struggles to maintain 30 frames per second during busy moments.


There are many weapons available, from assault rifles to SMGs.

 

Rekoil suffers from game-breaking glitches that range from aggravating to completely bewildering. More than once, the game booted me back to the menu without warning, and often when that happens, the game crashes, forcing you to restart your computer. In more than one match, a player was rendered completely invisible, yet could still kill without restraint. This wasn’t an issue of hacking, because it once happened to me. It was tempting to abuse my newly acquired superpower to improve my kill/death ratio while grabbing an easy win, but Rekoil doesn’t track any stats, nor does it include a leaderboard, so the novelty of abusing the glitch quickly wore off, and I left to join a different server.

Rekoil still struggles to maintain 30 frames per second during busy moments, even at low settings.

Though Rekoil has an immense number of problems, there are actual moments when the game is genuinely fun. Several of the 10 available maps are well designed, including Prison, where gunfights occur on winding staircases and in empty cells while a helicopter buzzes over a ruined basketball court. Sawmill features two mills separated by stacks of cut lumber, perfect for Capture the Briefcase. Another favorite, Refinery, features arid, sun-bleached terrain. Here, I experienced tense battles, where ebony streams of oil sprayed through bullet-riddled drums while I strafed from side to side, my rifle roaring. These tense, heart-pounding skirmishes are my most memorable moments in Rekoil. In these short interludes, you may briefly recall your years playing twitch shooters such as Quake and Unreal Tournament.


Every weapon in the armory is available from the start.

Rekoil currently features several game modes, including the ever-popular Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. Adding to that is Domination, where the two factions fight to capture and hold spots on a map. There is also Hold the Briefcase, in which teams gain points the longer they have the briefcase in their position, and Capture the Briefcase, which is Rekoil’s own variant of Capture the Flag. The game also includes its own version of Halo 4′s Flood mode, called Rekondite. In this mode, one player is chosen to be the rekondite, a transparent foe gifted with unnatural speed and a strong melee attack. Those killed are respawned as rekondites, and remaining players must survive against the increasing number of invisible enemies.

Rekoil proudly advertises eSport support, offering Twitch.tv tools and a full spectator mode. But while my test run with Twitch seemed acceptable, I cannot say the same about spectator mode. Some of the maps include invisible walls, which range from being a small nuisance, by preventing you from hopping over small rocks or ledges or from getting behind cover, to being problematic, such as tall barriers that bounce grenades back at you. The invisible walls in these maps prevented my floating camera from smoothly skimming the battlefield, forcing me to search for an opening as if I were trapped in an imperceptible maze. I don’t believe eSports commentators will find the patience to cover a game that makes it so difficult to follow matches.

Beyond technical concerns, the most problematic issue Rekoil faces is the complete absence of a strong online community. When I first booted up the game on the day of its release, there were no more than 30 people playing it. The number fluctuated throughout the week, and more often than not, I played games only half full and sometimes with odd-numbered teams. Less than half that number showed up to play in the days that followed.

Rekoil suffers from game-breaking glitches that range from aggravating to completely bewildering.

Rekoil has taken a laundry list of what could go wrong with a game and promptly checked nearly every box. There are moments when everything seems to go right, and you are reminded why simple online multiplayer shooters ruled the world. But those moments are wedged between frustrating glitches, lag, and a plethora of other problems. Those dedicated enough can spend time in Rekoil’s map creation tool, but with an online community numbering mere dozens and dwindling, it is uncertain there will be many players to share your map with. Rekoil sets its sights on resurrecting the simple online shooter, and promptly misses its target.

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