Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late

The visual novel segments are just there to make the how & why even more confusing.

The visual novel segments are just there to make the how & why even more confusing.

    The fighting game resurgence has been going on for a few years now. Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and every other major franchise have new releases on the horizon. Anime tie-in ones have been releasing at even higher rates. Series that had been shelved for a bit are coming back like Guilty Gear and Killer Instinct. Even some franchises that have been traditionally a different genre have released spin off fighters, most notably Persona 4 Arena. Now Japanese arcade ports are making a beach assault on Western shores. The vast majority being published by Arc Systems. Among this force is cult favorite French Bread and Ecole Software’s co-developed Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late.

    A phenomenon known as The Hollow Night has begun. Demons are spilling into our world. People with powers are emerging to fight them… and each other because why not? It’s a very standard Anime set up with the characters and situations you’d expect. The writing is fine and the characters are decently differentiated, even if most of their backstory and interconnections are far from clear while still being heavily referenced. Dense mythology, dropped right into the middle without a guide. Still fine. Who cares about any of that? It’s just to give your fingers a rest. That’s not why you would fire this up.

    Character designs are fine, if none of them are very creative or unique. The animations are sharp and smooth. It’s a great looking game. Though that is still not what you come to this for. “So”, you ask batting your eyes innocently while the gleam of bloodlust shines behind them, “just how is the nasty ol’ fighting? Not that I really care because fighting is just wrong.”

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?!? What's that? Oh. Well, I'll try harder next time.

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!?!?
What’s that? Oh. Well, I’ll try harder next time.

    The fighting is absolutely great. Placing itself firmly in the middle of the two usual fighting game types. There’s plenty of fast paced high flying air dashes and insane combos but there’s also a large amount of more grounded play. While you could go crazy with the juggles and aerials there is little in that style to defend yourself. Going too heavily there will lead to you finding yourself smashed repeatedly.

    With feet firmly planted there is huge rewards for aggressive play and ground control. Every character is given the long range tools to chide your opponent and keep them back a bit. Pushing them just a bit until they give you an opening. Every 17 seconds count. Why that strange frame of time? Between the standard special gauges there’s another odd bar with a ring in the center that rotates every 17 seconds. What could it possibly be for?
While the game doesn’t outright tell you, I’d like you to meet the GRD. This can be your best friend and worst enemy at the same time. As you and your opponent clash the bar fills with every landed hit, well executed block and charge toward danger. You lose GRD by backing away, getting hit and being blocked. Every time the ring rotates and starts again it grants the player with the most filled in bar Vorpal status which gives a damage bonus and the ability to Chain Shift. Chain Shift is used in combos to pause the fight for a moment and land bigger special moves. It’s a temporary advantage that goes as quickly as it comes and can shift the other way easily. It adds a layer of strategy and makes matches a bloody full contact gag of king of the hill.
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    All the game modes you’d expect are here. Arcade/Story, Vs, Survival, Time Attack. The standards. It’s all very stripped down, lacking the bells and whistles that are heavily crammed into others in the genre. Network play is implemented well and open to all players around the world. Which means there’s a lot of hardcore Japanese players there and you will be tossed a steep learning curve while they gloat. Which is fine. We all know we’d do the same.
If you are on the hunt for a good fighter, you can do a lot worse. Totally recommended for fighting fans. Unfortunately all the lobbies are pretty empty because it’s a niche title with little fanfare. Hopefully it’ll grow. It’s too good to be overlooked. Though it’s definitely not for anyone taking their first steps into the ring.

STREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH it out.

STREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH it out.

Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late- 8/10- It’s a fun time but nothing groundbreaking. If you need to something to carry you to the next Street Fighter or Guilty Gear you could do a lot worse.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Psychic eyes are watching you. Watching your last move.

Psychic eyes are watching you. Watching your last move.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first title out of independent Polish developers The Astronauts. This new development house is made up of several members from the original team at People Can Fly, the studio at the front of the recent surge in small Polish developers and behind the cult favorite Painkiller series and Bulletstorm. Instead of their former home’s full on destruction, blood and guts, piles of bodies and empty shells madness they have opted to go for a different route with this new venture and embrace more games as art titles.

    Paul Prospero is a private investigator with strange paranormal powers. He can sense the location of important clues and psychically recreate the events that lead up to a death. He’s been around the block a couple thousand times. A fan letter from young Ethan Carter, which shows that the boy is far more familiar with the evil that can go bump in the night than he should be, brings him to Red Creek Valley. Paul has to explore the valley to find the now missing Ethan and hopefully stop The Sleeper who seems to have taken a hold of all those living there.

    Taking a cue from a few of genre fiction greats the story can best be summed up as a Lovecraftian horror forces itself into a Bradburian childhood reminisce centered on a kid who could sit at the center of any King novel. These influences are worn on the sleeve. Without question it all melds incredibly well and in the hands of the right author the same story would long sit on a list of great horror. It works even better as an interactive experience. The voice cast all do capable jobs. All of the performances fit their character and none of them are distracting. Ethan sounds like a normal kid, Paul is your standard weary investigator.

It is just so PRETTY... *sniffle*

It is just so PRETTY… *sniffle*

    Red Creek Valley is absolutely gorgeous. The outdoor environments are crafted with attention to detail that should be held as the standard from now on. Just walking through them is worth the price of admission alone. The old graveyard is a stunning set piece. It’s so praiseworthy that you will learn how to read the world because instead of glaring signs pointing your way, the subtle hints look right and natural. The details in the buildings offer many fantastic touches from the chipping paint to the layers of dust, though they never equaled the outdoor view. Character models, on the other hand, are not on the same level. They work and would be praised in another title. Here though they look… off. Just a hair too cartoon for the environment. One in the mines especially.
At the very first we are greeted with a title card that should give hope to many who long of new and different experiences. In no uncertain terms we are told that this game will not hold our hands. This world is completely up to us to explore and in what manner we approach the presented content. You can completely bypass events and areas without noticing. Never are we told explicitly what to do next. There are no markers from points A to B. The valley is completely open from the start to explore and roam at your personal speed and driven by your own path. Of course- that’s not strictly true as you do have to complete every event to finish, at the end you are even presented with a handy fast travel map to things you may have missed. There are no real fail states.

    Most developers would probably have taken Ethan Carter in a different direction. One with more action and less contemplation. Without doubt it would still work with that approach, though I doubt it would sing like it does. Wondering the valley and searching for every clue with only the score and an occasional thought of Prospero’s makes for a very focused experience. You can not help but ponder on the greater mysteries and events as you pull at the threads.

Ellilator go UP the HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLE

Ellilator go UP the HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLE

    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter holds 10 puzzles in its acres of exploration. All are perfectly serviceable if a bit too easy. Often the answers are just a matter of observation. There is no need for Sherlockian levels of thought to form connections that require specialized knowledge or old adventure game nonsensical abstract thinking. None will offer much challenge with just a little patience and examination.

    I have the problem of wanting to talk about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter at length but also not wanting to spoil any of it and that’s a difficult balance for this. A firmly indie mystery horror art game with the skin of a large budget blockbuster. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will long live on with several new releases coming soon, everything from PS4 to a PC re-release with a brand new engine to a virtual reality tailored version. That it’s getting these presentations is a great thing for gamers and horror fans. There’s a way for everyone to access it and without reservations I heartily say they should. A must play for pretty much everyone. Those who only focus on one subgenre to the spurning of all others should probably avoid but they already knew that. I wait for the next releases of Ethan Carter anxiously and will be on board quickly for whatever The Astronauts have next up their sleeve after this amazing debut.

Tragically you can't poke the bodies with a stick. I don't know why that isn't a mechanic in more games.

Tragically you can’t poke the bodies with a stick. I don’t know why that isn’t a mechanic in more games.

 

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter- 9/10- A great experience that could only be improved with more puzzles and a bit more challenge to them.

 

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Making a new entry in a heavily established franchise is common. Making your entry good is, for reasons beyond me, is insanely difficult. When that franchise is Tolkien’s Middle Earth it’s near impossible. Going to the source novels, taking sequences and making them interactive will not help you. There is no possible way for you to approach it in a way that satisfies the fans. It is damn near impossible to forge a new sequel entry with the established characters that will not be torn apart like meat thrown to a starved zoo lion. So you’re limited to sidestories that cover things mentioned in the main narrative or ones that can not ultimately have any bearing on the source’s events. New characters, or established secondary characters from lesser known works in the world, doing things that are fairly meaningless. I don’t envy devs who take on these challenges. The results are often poor cash grabs or solid titles that have to fight a vicious uphill battle to shake off the stink of terrible cash grabs. The fan bases often loudly threaten everyone you’ve ever met because of it either way. It’s a pretty thankless position to be in if you are trying to make something good with an IP that gets reverent treatment.

    Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the good ones. Monolith, in their second Tolkien title, while holding the source in reverence they have also found an interesting tale to tell. In the 60 years between Bilbo’s adventure and the War of the Ring, Gondor’s Rangers still keep watch on the hordes of Mordor. Though their watch is lazy and unfocused after the long centuries of quiet. Talion has long been stationed in a garrison directly before the Black Gate. His wife, adult son and the troops under his command live out their days in the harsh environment of the crumbling and quickly being abandoned garrison. Until the night a horde of Sauron’s Orc, led by three Black Númenóreans, raid the garrison and offer Talion, his family and all others up as blood sacrifices to draw in the wraith of Celebrimbor, the Elven blacksmith who forged the Rings. Talion find himself denied death and connected to the wraith with only bloody revenge on both their minds.

    At the start both Talion and his wraith partner are fairly generic revenge driven killing machines but as the story progress they come forward with strong individual personalities and views. They are well written and have no problem driving the plot forward without often feeling forced. Their decisions are understandable based on how they’re presented. The writing that makes them work deserves a nod and more than faint praise. It’s strong and it’s a shame that more, tie-in or not, titles don’t put in the same effort.

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Head slicing... and dicing

Head slicing… and dicing

    Shadow of Mordor is an open world action game. Which is far from an uncrowded genre. Monolith manages to learn from the best of the genre, bring those elements together well and add some new tricks of their own. Being a Warner Brothers game there is a heavy influence of their currently reigning (but soon ending) Batman Arkham franchise. Combat is divided between three weapons. Talion’s sword for direct melee combat, a broken sword used as a dagger for stealth and an wraith bow for ranged and environmental destruction. Combat is incredibly satisfying with its brutal kills and rhythmic flow. Don’t think that you can just rush into a large group and start chopping off limbs. Every fight has it’s own flavor, every enemy class has a strategy of it’s own and every combination has their own approaches. While slicing and dicing is fun, if you don’t think out your next move you are going to die. Often. Frustratingly. A single slip up can be unrecoverable from and occasionally a strategic retreat is the only option you have. Being deep in Mordor, rampaging through their fully complemented strongholds, you can expect many fights to go from being a small quick skirmish to a lengthy fight against dozens.

    Of course jumping in isn’t your only option. Stealth is often viable. Sneaking up on an enemy and deciding how to dispatch him. Do you kill him quietly so no one notices or do you grab him and pretend you are an escapee from a butcher’s apprenticeship in the hopes your brutality will scare off the witnesses? Do you stick just to the shadows and poison their supply of grog or blow it up and try to take out as many as possible with the blast? Maybe free a wild carnivorous animal in their ranks? Shadow of Mordor’s heavy focus on killing can drag at times, the only other thing to do is explore, there are no side quests that offer a break from killing. Side quests are just killing a new targeted group or making sure a target survives an ambush but that’s done in the same way as every other encounter. As great as the encounters are… a mission or four to break things up a little would not be amiss.

    Where SoM really shines is the Nemesis system. While at first glance it looks like just a list of Orc Captains to check off, it’s much deeper than that. Each Orc is a randomly generated enemy with his own skills, weaknesses and personality. While some similarities are going to happen (you kill so many of them), there do rise some amazing enemies that leave a lasting mark on the player’s experience. Each are individually named and they level up on their own as time progresses. They have in fights and celebrations. They can take over other captain’s men in a dual or be executed by one who feels they threaten their power. You find yourself hating some of them. Find yourself meticulously planning their deaths. Kicking yourself when your scheme fails, thrilling when they fall to your blade… and there is no more deflating feeling than having your worst foe reappear because you didn’t pull a move that cut off his head the last three times you killed him. If I may… I present the Tale of Norsko the Relentless.

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     After a few hours of being the scourge of Mordor, slaying a legion of Sauron’s army and their captains like they were mere flies, Shaggy-Talion found his first death at the hands of a random drone. A spear that pierced his back and perforated his lung. The Orc who threw it congratulated himself on his certain promotion. Being hot for revenge anyway on my resurrection I rushed directly for him. Getting to him took some time. I slayed a few of his compatriots who found themselves in my path. Occasionally checking the war summary and seeing my hated enemy level up. Anticipating how much satisfaction placing my dagger in his eye would bring. So there I stood balanced high on a wire between rundown shacks waiting breathlessly for my target. As he turned a corner I dropped on him and fist pumped as my dagger went through his eye thinking him a memory now. Never guessing my next death would be not long after… by his hand. Accidentally running across him while playing another mission. Again dying by his spear while admiring his new spiked metal eye cover bolted to his head. He came back insanely stated. He couldn’t be stealth killed, no melee kills, he could smell me a mile away, he was harder to kill with arrows and beasts could not hurt him as he’d dispatch them quickly. Only fire or arrows. Norsko became my worst enemy. I dreamed of his death and repeatedly tried to bring it about. Failing so often, dying by his spear frequently. He never held feasts so I couldn’t poison his drink. He never went near fire so burning him was not an option. When I finally killed him with an arrow, he, having reached maximum rank of Warchief, I thought my nightmare was over. I was wrong. He returned again with a bag on his head, wrapped to keep it all together.
Even though this final encounter was the shortest as I finally had fire arrows… Norsko is what raised MoS from a solid action title to a great game. It is the only experience where I found myself driven by a character that wasn’t the hero. I eagerly anticipated each of our duels. I felt ecstatic when I won and crushed when I lost. I very literally hate Norsko the Relentless and was deeply disappointed that I never drew another opponent who was as worth. None of the others pushed me to get better at the mechanics and level up hard to open new possible strategies.

    Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a lot of fun. Monolith did right by Tolkien and delivered a great open world. While it stumbles in the last hour or so of gameplay and story, all that comes before is worth the trip. It looks like Warner Brothers has a great series to take up the hole they’ll be left with when Batman Arkham soon hangs up its cape.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor- 8.9/10- Even though it’s a great game and does everything very well… the clumsy wrap up, sequel baiting finally and lack of missions that don’t offer the chance to do something besides kill are marks against it. Almost great but not exactly there.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare

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    Sledgehammer Games takes over the reins in the latest Call of Yearly Release. While they do their best to bring some new life into the stagnating series which has been facing sales drops of double digit percentages with each release since 2010’s Black Ops broke all records… but in CoD terms that still places it as the yearly sales king. Advanced Warfare gives a valiant effort to do something new and different but isn’t allowed enough off the leash to take it to the places it needs to. A solid entry in the franchise that never takes any real risks and lacks any real imagination but shines in the two areas that people play CoD for- online multiplayer and Zombies.

    Advanced Warfare’s campaign focuses on Jack Mitchell who lost his arm and his only real friend during a mission in Seoul. ATLUS, the world’s largest and most powerful private military company, CEO Jonathan Irons is Jack’s best buddy’s father and he hates to see a good one armed man go to waste so he gives him a new arm and a job. That job will mostly be concerned with tracking down and eliminating Hades, the leader of a terrorist group known as the KVA. Of course that’s not all there is to it and before too long you learn it’s all an unclear plot that puts Irons firmly in the villain seat because the head of a large multinational company HAS to be Bond villain levels of evil… doubly so if it’s a PMC. It’s almost a shame he doesn’t have a mustache to twirl.

     Campaign levels all have the been there done that feel that has bogged down the series for so long. There’s a level in a bustling city that again feels pretty empty except for traffic that you can pump rounds into without any consequence. There’s an arctic level where once again you’ll find yourself under the ice a couple times. There are power plants that explode around you and enemy bases. A handful of stealth missions which have been in these series since Modern Warfare but never have been well implemented. All of this just feels overly familiar.

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    Call of Duty’s shooting and gameplay mechanics haven’t really changed much in years. You just don’t mess with something that isn’t broken. Not that that means it’s necessarily FUN to repeat the same firefights constantly. Sledgehammer overcomes this with their new sci-fi contributions. Laser weapons, mechs and exoskeletons help overcome this drudgery. All the new weapons are great but underused. Grenades that will paint targets, unleash EMPs or perform another three or four helpful functions with a click of a button. XMG mech suits that turn you into a death dealing walking turret. Exoskeletons allow for double jumps, magnetized gloves to scale walls, personal shields and grappling from perch to perch. The problem is that at no point do these feel well implemented. They’re there but unless the campaign explicitly calls for their use they’re just there and you’re not going to find much use for them. It’s the same in the multiplayer. Yeah you can use them but unless you’re going to a sniper perch you just aren’t going to use any of it except as an afterthought.

    Online maps are passable. They work but they’re rather small and bland. There wasn’t a single one that stood out to me. While they are more vertical than the campaign maps, they just aren’t enough to really sink your teeth into the new toys. Weapons upgrades and customization is deep and nicely layered on the surface, tragically none of it really felt like it made much of a difference to me.

    Exo Zombies, for me, is where the game really shines. The weapons are more fun, the pacing is better and the maps stand out. The story is fun and the cast is perfect- or soon will be. I won’t deny that I’ve always been more partial to the Zombies mode. Why won’t Activision just give me a full Zombies game, dammit? Tragically, here zombies isn’t really a mode unto itself. It’s bits and pieces packaged with DLC maps. If you want to get the experience- it’s going to cost you… a lot. Fuck you, Activision.

DANGER ZONE! Why give me a fighter if I can't barrel roll? Bastards.

DANGER ZONE! Why give me a fighter if I can’t barrel roll? Bastards.

    Visually Advanced Warfare is more than a little flat. The locations, besides the San Francisco Bridge, are all generic. The enemy models are all the same faceless mob with little variation. It’s fine but none of it stands out. Friendly units and cutscenes, on the other hand, all look fantastic. Featuring some of the best facial capture to be seen since L.A. Noir trumpeted it as the future of gaming. While a little plastic, they come to life with great expression and subtle movements. It really supports the performances and characters, bringing them into a more realized existence than the script deserves.

    Also propping up the horrible scripting are the voice cast. Kevin Spacey is fantastic as the hammy scenery chewing villain, overshadowing everyone else. Troy Baker plays Jack fine, he give another reliable performance, but he just isn’t given anything to do. Jack is an empty idiot. He lacks any agency, doesn’t question anything and is pretty much dragged from story point to story point. It’s a thankless role. The rest of the cast do passable jobs with what they’re given but at no point should you care about any of their fates, beyond the whole “oh- your buddy died. It’s so tragic. Get revenge!” or something superficially similar. Zombie’s cast, on the other hand, all equal Spacey and it’s a damn shame they aren’t in it together at any point. Once again featuring some cult loved actors with decent genre credentials. John Malkovich, Rose McGowan, The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal and Bill Paxton (soon to be joined by Bruce Campbell) all toss off one-lines like the pros they are with just enough winking and just enough deadpan.

    Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is another trip into CoD. You know what you are getting at this point. I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching the slow death of the franchise. With a yearly drop of around 25% in sales, the stubborn refusal to really do anything new even if the game demands it and even though the last several entries have promised otherwise. The constant catering only to the hardcore fans is starting to show too much. You’ve played every moment of this game before and you’ll play something identical to it again. There have been many recent shooter that have left CoD in their dust and if Activision doesn’t realize that some shake ups are in order… the end is coming and much faster than anyone seems to realize.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare- 7/10- The best CoD in a long while but too familiar and never embraces what should make it stand out. The nickle and diming for Zombies doesn’t do it any favors either.

Escape Dead Island

    You want to know something I don’t often admit? I liked Dead Island. Smashing zombies to wriggling bits on an island paradise was simply great fun. As long as you didn’t lose your save a couple dozen hours in because of one of the most unforgivable and never really fixed glitches to see release. I enjoyed Dead Island: Riptide. Sure, it was just an overpriced expansion pack that didn’t bother to fix any of the original’s problems… but you could run around as a redneck Hugh Jackman complete with claw weapons. In what way is that not fucking great? Dead Island: Epidemic is shaping up to be a really solid MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) with a good Steam community around it. I am looking forward to Dead Island 2 because new series developer Yager’s reboot of the Spec Ops series is still one of the best military shooters ever made and the preview stuff they’ve released looks like great fun. I really enjoyed developer Fatshark’s War of the Roses a few years back, it is a great hack and slash action title that was reliant on player skill rather than equipment. So yes- I WANTED to enjoy Escape Dead Island, I had hope that the series could follow in the footsteps of other quirky spin off titles and deliver a game that complemented the originals and still stood strong on its own. That didn’t happen.

    It is six months after the outbreak on Banoi and the island has been under quarantine for official reasons that are questionable at best. Cliff Calo, son of a TV news network big wig, and two of his wanna be journalist friends, Linda and Devan, decide to get to the truth with a visit to the neighboring island of Narapela. Hoping this giant career making story is to be had so they can launch their own independent news outlet with a splash. It doesn’t take long before the dead starts to get hungry and start shuffling around again.

    Escape’s story quickly loses focus and meaning in a jumble of meta and near constant hallucinations. While a lead character losing his grip because of the horror he or she is experiencing is a great concept that could really make for a compelling experience, that isn’t the case here. It doesn’t add anything or make the characters more compelling, it just makes it feel like a project leader pulled out his copy of Eternal Darkness, or one of the great indie horror titles that have been springing up like weeds recently, halfway through and went “You know, guys… our game just isn’t working but I know what we can steal from to help. Nah, it won’t actually FIX anything but maybe it’ll distract folks enough they won’t care!”

    Cel-shaded graphics have been around for a long time now. When used properly they can bring a game to life with vivid colors and broad details into vibrant comic book world. When used poorly it just looks cheap. Escape Dead Island definitely falls into the second category. Fatshark simply forgot to put in any textures. The models are almost impossible to tell if they’re looking toward you or not. The characters are near featureless, shadows are just black puddles, the same handful of animations are repeated endlessly. This is the exact opposite of why you’d want to cel-shade. It’s so damn ugly that this review is picture free. I don’t want to subject anyone else to this eyesore if I can avoid it. To make the ugly even worse the game forces you to backtrack constantly and the tediously long cutscenes are unskippable.

    Gameplay wants to be a grabbag. It wants to give you options. Someone at some point in the development thought that you’d be given some freedom of approach. You really aren’t. Because it’s difficult to tell where zombies are facing, stealth approaches are frustrating at best. More often than not after somehow making it to the other end of an area, you get the nice surprise on not being able to progress because the game didn’t want you to stealth through an area stuffed with enemies. Nope, they wanted you to die here. A lot. Melee combat is slow, too slow to be anything more than frustrating. The two guns you find are useless since every zombie type is a bullet sponge. Not that it really matters since ammo is plentiful. If you die a few times a benevolent designer made bullets magically spring from the ground in the hope that it’ll push you through a section. There are stats but fuck knows how to figure them out. Medkits that increase your max health by a hit or two are everywhere but no matter how many you grab, even the most basic zombie type will take you down in a couple weak slaps.

    Escape Dead Island just isn’t worth anyone’s time or money. It is just filler for diehard fans that doesn’t give anything that the fans enjoy from the series. Skip it. Don’t rent it, don’t buy it from the deep discount used bin. Let’s promise each other we’ll never speak of it again.

Escape Dead Island- 2.5/10- 1 for an interesting if poorly done basic story, 1 because it got made and .5 because it didn’t crash and lose my save at any point.

Far Cry 4

A screenshot of characters taking a selfie?!?!?! META!!!!

A screenshot of characters taking a selfie?!?!?! META!!!!

Open world games have a really difficult balance to achieve. Filling a giant sandbox with enough, but not too many, toys for the world to not bore the player and giving a story that gets the player to keep invested enough that they keep driving forward instead of just playing with the toys. Most games don’t get either really right. They overfill the world hoping it will distract from the bad and under cook the story or overstuff the story with drivel and present a nearly empty world that’s just there to pad the time it takes to get from point A to point P. Ubisoft has long tinkered with open games in all of their biggest franchises. There’s little doubt that Ubi always gets at least half the formula right. You can always count on them offering great sandboxes but they rarely giving a story that’s worth the time despite glimmers of something better along the way. They’d almost gotten the balance perfect in Far Cry 3, giving a strong and compelling story that was driven by an interesting plot and one of the best villains in gaming’s recent history- then they toss you on another island to start all over again but this time without the antagonist, more mystical bullshit and no new twists or wrinkles just more of the same you just spent 10 hours doing. So close, Far Cry 3… maybe your sequel will fix this.

    Ajay Ghale returns to the country of his birth, Kyrat, to scatter his recently deceased mother’s ashes. The majestic Himalayan nation has been locked in a twenty year civil war. The current regime of Pagan Min has been brutal but the Golden Path rebellion has stagnated and is close to breaking down completely. Ajay, it just so happens, is the son of the Golden Path’s first leader and is just the emblem that they need to breathe life back into their movement. By that I mean “They want Ajay to do all the work and single handedly take down the whole of Min’s regime because they are all pretty damn worthless”.
The story’s biggest problem, despite bonus points for not doing the whole Great White Hope that pretty much every other shooter does, is that there is no reason to care if the Golden Path succeed. Yeah, Pagan is a bastard and gleefully tells you about it himself, not nearly often enough by the way, but that doesn’t make either of the leaders of the Golden Path, Sabal and Amita, any better or make their struggle any more compelling. One is a religious nut who wants to make the country a theocracy lead by himself with his youngest sister as a living goddess figure head, the other talks about progress but is really planning an even more brutal regime complete with child soldiers and ethnic cleansings. The game all but lights a neon sign signifying these outcomes in the first act. There’s no reason to fight this war and even for how bad Pagan is said to be- he often feel like the best option of the three but he’s not one that you can take. The supporting characters are even worse. A pair of inane English chasing the greatest high and repeatedly drug Ajay… yet for reasons that are inexplicable the game does not allow you to shoot them in the face after the first time. A woman who claims to be a pawn of Min because her family has LONG been held captive by one of his lieutenants- a character that’s so incredibly stupid to think they were still alive that instead of compelling tragedy it is just eye-rolling. A vicious mercenary with a wife and kids back home who have no idea of his double life (we’re lead to believe anyway…). The most psychotic DJ this side of Vice City. These examples COULD work but we aren’t given nearly enough time with any of them. The villains are too easy to get to and only appear for a scene or two, the others just aren’t compelling enough to be bothered with. Then there’s Pagan Min. Ubi’s Far Cry team can do villains. The charismatic king is the highlight of the game, just like Vaas before him, Pagan is really the driving force and real emotional heart of the story. Pagan is a villain worth hating but also so incredibly compelling. He is a vibrant flamboyant monster that is also ultimately sympathetic and human.
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    Pagan is voiced by Troy Baker, this guy has yet to disappoint. His performances are always worth at least a rent for and Pagan is easily his best to date. The rest of the cast do great jobs and try desperately to lift their parts out of the stench of the script. Player character Ajay Ghales is voiced by Ubisoft veteran voice actor James A. Woods who has done voices in Ubisoft titles since 2010, just isn’t given much to say. Lost’s Naveen Andrews gives Sabal the right sound of conviction and a charisma that his words do not hold. Janina Gavankar’s Amita holds her own against Andrews. The rest are simply there, competent but nothing memorable. Not that this is on the actors in anyway, they do the best they can with what they are given.
Far Cry 4’s world is amazing. Kyrat is a great living sandbox. The terrain is brimming with wildlife and patrols. There’s rarely a dull moment as you traverse it, constantly coming across someone who needs a hand in a firefight or a rescue from an animal attack or a convoy to hijack. Hunting, side quests, liberating outposts and just wandering the countryside is simply so much more fun than the story missions that many many hours will be lost to them without a passing thought to continuing the story’s forward progress. Even more when playing in co-op. The inanity is cranked to another level that needs to be experienced. Unfortunately the co-op isn’t really an organic experience in game. Instead of being given the option to drop in or drop out  when playing, you have to make the choice at the start of each session and if there’s any problem with the connection you get kicked back to the main menu.
The open approaches given to you are much like previous titles in the series. Every hunting ground offers hiding places you can toss bait from and wait or you can casually walk around until stumbling on your prey. Every outpost have a hill near it for you to set up a sniping camp if that’s what you want, each also has a temptingly open gate that you can charge though firing wildly the whole time and a hole in the fence that you can slip through to stealth kill everyone inside.

Kyrat. Part Nepal, part Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer), all crazy.

Kyrat. Part Nepal, part Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer), all crazy.

Shooting mechanics here are among the best. Each weapon feels different, even within their type, which makes the choices more interesting and reliant on playstyle. Driving most vehicles is still a loose and annoying experience. Thankfully there is a new auto-drive feature that allows AI to take over steering so you can focus on what’s really important- firing grenades out your broken windshield at everything you pass. To make up for the annoyance of cars is the best new feature, Buzzers. These light small gyrocopters are the only way to get around for some free exploration. What about on foot, you ask? Besides running Far Cry 4 gives you a grappling hook. This is a common navigational item in games these days but rarely are they as good as they are here. Instead of just being a way to get up a peak or down into a cave, here you can Tarzan your way to small ledges holding loot or swing your co-op partner up to blast a passing helicopter pilot in the face.

    Far Cry 4 is really just more of the same. There is nothing wrong with that. Giving a better tuned experience that is just great fun to explore. Yes, the story and characters could be much better. That’s not really what any of us come to these titles for. For open mayhem there’s not many options out there on par with it.

Far Cry 4- 8/10

Blurry images from a hidden ending. Now let's go shoot some fucking guns.

Blurry images from a hidden ending. Now let’s go shoot some fucking guns.

Tales of Xillia 2

Scenes like this litter the game like a beach after tourist season. But unlike bottles of discarded suntan lotion, these scenes are charming.

Scenes like this litter the game like a beach after tourist season. But unlike bottles of discarded suntan lotion, these scenes are charming.

    Japanese Role Playing Games fall into three camps for me. You have the Legacy series which keep chugging along and finding success based on their title alone despite there not being an actually good entry in a decade or more, like Final Fantasy or the SaGa franchise. These title’s fans will often tell you things like “It gets REALLY good at the 10 hour mark! You have to stick with it!” It doesn’t and you really don’t. You have the We-Are-So-Precious-And-CUTE! games, where there’s the same regurgitated characters and terrible sex jokes repeated endlessly and awful 2D animation or stills. All of these have a bevy of female characters who the player character lusts after in a way that makes most peeping Tom’s seem like romantics. The fans of these games usually say things like “I imported my copy of Toki to Eien because there’s more pantie shots.” There’s nothing wrong with these, they have their place and those they’re made for enjoy them. The final category are Cult Series, these are somewhere between the Legacy and WASPAC titles. These are often long running series that consistently deliver in some manner. They present characters in situations that are consistently compelling in fully realized worlds… even if the gameplay has barely changed for the last decade. The Shin Megami Tensei series still reigns in this category. Though the Tales series comes a close second. The fans of these usually stay in the corner until the run up to a new one when they annoyingly announce it to all “The new Persona game is finally coming! It’s onna be the greatest thang EVA!!! OMG!!! They all so brilliants!!!”.

    Tales of Xillia 2 is the fourteenth entry in the Tales series, the third that’s a direct sequel, and another worth entry from Bandai Namco Studios. Picking up a year after the events of Tales of Xillia, we are placed in the shoes of the tragically named Ludger Kresnik. Ludger’s first day at work ends up being far more eventful than most people’s. Ending up on a hijacked train with a young girl in search of a way to a mystical land to reunite with her father. He’s soon pulled into a journey to save the world, alternate dimensions that are trying to consume his thanks to the events of the first game and a test of humanity’s worthiness for continued existence. You know, usual RPG stuff.

Decisions, decisions. I usually strive to be an asshole.

Decisions, decisions. I usually strive to be an asshole.

    While the story is not really fresh, it’s the basic plot of almost every RPG ever conceived, it shines in the same way all the other entries have shined. These are world you are going to want to save, populated with characters whose company it is a joy to spend time in. Which is great news because Tales of Xillia 2 is dialog heavy. Optional scenes pop up constantly to advance the plot or character dynamics. While Ludger himself is a bit of a blank, the returning characters are all a lot of fun, their easy banter and compelling relationships are a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by heavy handed but thoughtless meditations on how awful everything is or lascivious soliloquies about tender flesh. The voice cast is functional and neither a plus or negative. They do their jobs competently enough and besides one character aren’t gratingly annoying on purpose because some drunk producer thinks it’s what people want in a Japanese title.

    Tragically the pacing of events is often ground to a halt with the grind heavy debt mechanic which restricts your travels. For every step forward you have to slaughter madly in every available field to scrimp enough cash to open new areas. It’s just padding to a title that’s already overloaded with story and side quests. There is nothing more aggravating than having to stop everything to grind your way to one hundred thousand that you will never be able to spend. It’s unnecessary, a glaring exception to the exceptional design that’s showcased at every other turn and will turn off a lot of gamers out there.

He slices, he dices! He also shoots and smashes.

He slices, he dices! He also shoots and smashes.

    Gameplay has changed little from earlier Tales titles. On the map screen touching an enemy avatar will draw you into a fight. Three other party members will join Ludger in the fight. Basic attacks vary depending on selected weapon and position of analog stick with the attack button. Special artes attacks also change depending on the analog stick entry. Partnering with different characters give you access to cooperate attacks. The number of attacks and artes is limited by the action counter which refills when you stop attacking. This is the same system that’s been in place since the first game… and it’s still incredibly fun. The fights are fast paced and always entertaining. Even when grinding there are enough variables that it never feels boring. The system is deep enough for the most meticulous of players and also accessible enough that button mashers can enjoy it too. It’s a classic case of don’t fix what isn’t broken. It’s not broken and could probably stay fun for many more titles to come.

    Great characters, fun gameplay, an absolute ton of content. There’s more than enough here to easily recommend Tales of Xillia 2 to anyone. No, it’s not perfect but what is? If you want a good RPG that will happily carry you to it’s conclusion without needing to grind through 10 hours just for something to happen or without desperate pretenses of MEANING! you could do a whole lot worse.

Fast travel maps are the best thing since the advent of the bread deslicer.

Fast travel maps are the best thing since the advent of the bread deslicer.

Tales of Xillia 2- 9/10- A great time that will sate any RPG fan’s craving for an adventure.

Battlefield Hardline

Watch out! We got a real bad ass here! A bad ass with a badge! For the first couple episodes anyway.

Watch out! We got a real bad ass here! A bad ass with a badge! For the first couple episodes anyway.

    EA moved Battlefield’s original developer DICE to head up their newly acquired Disney Star Wars license and crushed the hopes of all horror game fans by moving Visceral, the studio behind the massively popular Dead Space series, over to their signature first person shooter war series. Then Visceral did something really interesting. They took the action from the military and focused it on the City of Miami’s police department and moved the spotlight from online multiplayer to the often overlooked in the genre single player campaign. It’s such a daring departure in an industry where every shooter is almost mandated to follow in Call of Duty’s footsteps and an interesting set up that could lead to some real points about modern real world issues. It’s so incredibly disappointing that it doesn’t really work and lets so many opportunities slip by.

    Detective Nick Mendoza joins the Miami Vice Squad and is immediately thrown into a brewing turf war, a conspiracy of crooked cops and a new cheap liquid cocaine called Hot Shot that has started to flood the streets. With a wink and a joke about Miami Vice, Hardline skirts any modern real world issues and statements on the military-police-industrial complex, not even stopping to comment on how all the game marks everyone in the low income housing complex you are illegally stalking through is labeled a criminal, for easy and empty prattle about the war on drugs.

    The cast is full of veteran television and film actors who all give fine performances with what they’re given. They all turn their blandly written cutouts into characters that spending some time with isn’t incredibly frustrating. It is just too bad that the writers couldn’t give them something more to work with. There is no character development and little tension despite the stock story having plenty of setups to have them. It ultimately feels more like a network series that has pretensions of being gritty progressive crime drama but doesn’t want to offend or challenge anyone who might tune in to a primetime slot. It’s frustrating to see the potential being within easy reach but realizing that no one involved was every going to even make the attempt.
Visceral’s best design choice is the television series being streamed on Netflix setup. Every episode has a nice rhythm to it, an introduction scene to advance the narrative followed by some action set pieces that build to a small episode payoff before dumping you into a Netflix inspired screen with a window running your score and stats for the episode where the credits would be and a Next Episode countdown window. It’s a nice gimmick and gives some nice entry/exit points for the player.

    The combat mechanics are taken directly out of the last installment and there’s nothing wrong with that. Shooting is solid and the controls are responsive. It’s not all wash rinse repeat from Battlefield 4 though. Gameplay has some nice new additions to it. The new stealth mechanics to lure enemies into easier to control situations or use non-lethal takedowns. Being a police you can flash your badge at up to three enemies for them effectively stunning them. It’s nice that Miami gangs are so easily intimidated by someone saying “Freeze”. It works so well, and rewards you with so many more experience points, that you can get through the most situations without ever firing a shot. It’s so effective that the fairly deep weapon selection and modifications, which are unlocked with experience level ups, feel pretty useless. Why bother tinkering with your loadout if you can easily stun everyone with a little patience? It’s all made that much easier because the AI is painfully stupid. Your partner will sometimes just openly stand there, gun drawn, looking off to some spot in the distance… but that’s ok because the enemies will walk right past without registering the slightest thing a miss with such a heavily armed statue.

    Of course since it’s a shooter there is a large variety of online modes. Staying within the new theming, the massive maps of previous entries are left in favor of more up close and personal room by room encounters. Instead of whole cities being destroyed in a hail of tank volleys, it’s chunks of drywall raining down as you shred the enemy’s urban focused cover.  New modes with a cops and robbers focus include Heist, with a squad of police defending a vault from a squad of criminals who must break in, clean out the vault and escape. Battlefield’s flagship Conquest mode has been retooled into Hotwire with ground territory being replaced with stolen cars. It’s all passable but the gimmick wears quickly and none of the modes offer anything really special or dynamic enough to keep players coming back for hours on end.

    Battlefield Hardline is an ok game. It’s standard and basic and doesn’t try to be anything else. If you’re looking for an average shooter to fill your time, it’s exactly what you are looking for. If you want an interesting narrative that tackles some modern issues, you should look at something else. Hardline puts it’s fingers in it’s ears and tunes out anything that could be considered questionable or difficult subject matter. Maybe the promised sequel will have a little more guts and a little less head in the sand but somehow I doubt it. Not worth full admission price but very few FPS are.

Battlefield Hardline- 5/10- Passable shooter that will fill your time until the next passable shooter that will fill your time until the next passable shooter…

 

Lego Batman 3 Beyond Gotham

    Nothing can stop Lego. They’ve been slowly checking off a list of new areas to dominate and keep succeeding. One of the first areas they broke ground in with their march toward total global domination was gaming. After a few years of mediocre titles based on their original properties a light bulb went off above some corporate drone’s head to start making games based on the giant catalog of licenses they held. In 2001 they released Lego Creator: Harry Potter and took a fumbling step toward the path. Turning to UK developer Traveller’s Tales for 2005’s Lego Star Wars The Video Game they’d finally found the tongue in cheek humor style and action puzzle approach that would deliver blockbuster (get it? What? I thought it was funny) after blockbuster.

    Lego Batman 3 does exactly what it promises. It goes beyond Gotham. Far far beyond the city limits. This is a Batman game in name only. After an introductory level with the Dynamic Duo we step out to the vast reaches of the DC Universe. The Caped Crusader joins with almost every group the designers could think of, including a cadre of rogues including Lex Luthor and Joker, to stop Brainiac from shrinking the Earth for his planet collection.

    Beyond Gotham is easily some of Traveller’s Tales best work. The plot holds together well. The dialog is snappy, the one-liners are fairly fresh and the slapstick works consistently. All of these are firsts for the series which has always before depended on gameplay alone. The voice cast does a fantastic job for the most part. Unfortunately this time around we also have several CELEBRITY GUESTS! crammed in to poor effect. Conan O’Brien’s narration in hub areas isn’t just plainly unfunny… it’s incessant. His voice spewing the same handful of lines over and over again makes exploring every nook and cranny almost impossible. Kevin Smith’s appearance adds nothing, is terribly done and should have been cut out in the early planning stages. But then there’s Adam West… apparently Lego Adam West has a habit of getting himself in some bad situations wherever he goes. His voice crying out in comical terror is a fantastic cameo.

    The music is complementary and fits it’s place almost perfectly. Of course that doesn’t stop TT from playing with some familiar themes. Reaching back into the histories of DC’s biggest characters expect to hear TV themes or dramatic theatrical strings. Even when it’s repeated it doesn’t fail to at least bring the flicker of a smile.

    The levels all look great and there’s some undeniable attraction stepping into almost every single major location in the DCU. From the Batcave to the Watchtower to the Fortress of Solitude to all the various Lantern worlds. Seriously… when did there get to be so many different Corps? Sadly this little real variety despite the incredible number of levels. When a level does deviate from the norm, it’s a welcome change of pace. If only there were more of them. Even if they start to feel fairly similar early on there’s still plenty to do in them all. Being able to explore almost every pixel of each location, there’s an overwhelming number of unlockable characters (over 150), collectables and eye popping scenery. That’s not even starting on the bonus levels. Which are undoubtedly fun but really begin to push the limits of a title like this. Is simply an overwhelmingly massive game to begin with that stuffing in mini games, that probably would have been better suited being in the main game itself, just starts to feel like overload.

    Gameplay itself has changed little since the first Lego franchise title. It’s serviceable but there’s something that have needed to be fixed for a long time. Not a deal breaker by any means. Two player couch co-op is still the best way to enjoy it. While adults can get a lot of enjoyment from it… it’s even better when you have a youthful ward in the as the other player. It’s Lego, it’s definitely aimed at kids. The puzzles are never too difficult for children, and if they do get stuck TT knows well enough to just spell it out after a little while. The massive scale can only be completed by someone who doesn’t mind endless repetition like a kid or someone who is so in love with DC that they are compelled. I just can’t see anyone pushing for 100% for any other reason.

    Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham delivers what it promises. A lot of Lego, a lot beyond Gotham. An enjoyably giant game that is both the pinnacle of the Lego series but also starting to show signs of it’s age.

 

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham- 7/10

 

Falling Skies

Load screen!  You see this A LOT. But it's the only way I could identify the featured characters.

Load screen! You see this A LOT. But it’s the only way I could identify the featured characters.

    TNT’s Steven Spielberg produced summer sci-fi series released it’s first licensed game with a whisper. Little promotion to make series fans aware of it’s existence is usually one of the signs that something is an especially terrible licensed game. It’s well known that most licensed franchise titles aren’t worth bothering with, too often they are quickly made cash grabs that are just repainted versions of better games. Falling Skies doesn’t break that trend but it does succeed in it being a competent copy.

    Most of Earth’s population is dead. Evil Aliens have all but taken over. They take human children and turn them into alien foot soldiers. There’s a small resistance group whose helped by Good Aliens. The game assumes that you’re already familiar with the series in a way that no other recap is needed… since I’m not familiar with it at all I can only assume that the evil aliens are really some odd anti-adoption metaphor. Maybe I’m wrong.

    The voice cast is blandly forgettable. Even the series characters are all blanks giving flat “My contract demands that I do this” line readings. Not that the script is anything to write home about. The dialog is oddly stilted and unless you know the series intimately nothing that happens in the cutscenes will matter to you in the slightest.

Cover, shoot, cover, shoot.

Cover, shoot, cover, shoot.

    Falling Skies is graphically dated. It looks like a game from the PS2/Xbox era. While having the team members be generic random features for a game like this, as they’re all just disposable designed to follow orders and die in the field without any impact to the overall story. This isn’t acceptable for the featured characters. They all have featureless portrait images. The only way I knew what any of them were actually supposed to look like is because of the tv series promo still that’s used for load screens.

    Gameplay is perfectly passable for a strategy title. You have a squad made up of a variety of character types who level up with successful mission completions. Movement and fighting are turn based on a gridded map. Enemies aren’t visible until line of sight is acquired. They don’t do anything until seen. You could kill several waves of enemies and one standing two squares won’t even bother moving until you take those two steps. Enemy AI is almost nonexistant. They just rush player, melee and back off to cover, repeat. Every enemy type. Every stage. Unlike it’s inspiration, XCOM, there’s no challenge. There’s no ambushes lying in wait, there’s no need to ever bother with a strategy and your squad is never really in danger most of the time.

    Falling Skies is just for fans of the series, it’s impossible to recommend beyond that. No one else should even give it a first glance. Everyone else should just go play XCOM. Really… go play XCOM.

Ooooooohhhhhh.... MAP SQUARES!

Ooooooohhhhhh…. MAP SQUARES!

Falling Skies: The Video Game- 4/10- A better licensed title but not worth your time or money