At first blush, the premise of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle sounds like a twisted kitbash that would spring out of some bad, late-night message board conversation, only to be written off as "too weird." "It'll never happen," they'd say, as they pivot back to pitching their "Mega Man but with Wrestlers Instead of Robot Masters" idea to anyone who would listen. And that's why none of us are making video games. Ubisoft and Nintendo shared a vision and made a game that takes the characters of the Mario universe, smashes them up against the weird, underpants-fueled world of Ubisoft's Rabbids, and drops them into a turn-based strategy game that plays like a friendly version of XCOM with a lot more depth than you'd initially assume. Though the gameplay itself wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through its story, that initial premise and some terrific writing carry Kingdom Battle quite nicely.
The basic idea here is that a kid (who happens to be a big Nintendo fan) invents a set of goggles that can combine things together. Rabbids bust in and trash the place, as Rabbids are wont to do, and the goggles end up tearing a hole between this world and the Mushroom Kingdom. So the worlds, characters, and styles collide, usually in interesting...
It's been a decade, almost to the day, since Call of Duty rewrote the book on multiplayer first-person shooters with the release of Modern Warfare. The game's fast action and propulsive sense of progression with interesting new gear and unlocks changed it all, and in the years that followed, developers continued to refine and rework the Call of Duty blueprint, often in surprising new ways that made a great thing even better. Over time, though, those changes have been getting more and more divisive, culminating in last year's game, which let you travel to space, run on walls, and shoot lasers at the opposition. This year's game rejects all of that and takes things back to the original, pre-MW days by rolling all the way back to where the whole series began: World War II. While there's certainly something to be said for a back-to-basics approach, COD: WWII is plain and straightforward in a way that makes it feel less like the developers were excited and inspired by a return to the 1940s and more like market research determined that it was time for a reset.
This manifests most plainly in the game's campaign. Call of Duty...
Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is the first fighting game that captivated me. The combination of the colors, the over-the-top hyper combos, the fact that I could have Sentinel and Servbot on a team together had me making a beeline to the cabinet first thing when I walked through my local arcade’s doors. I remember my friend getting legitimately angry that I figured out how to do Iron Man’s Proton Cannon hyper before him. Marvel has always been an important franchise to me, and the fighting game community as a whole.
This history was the reason I was so excited about a new MvC game, especially after it felt like we would never see another one after Disney acquired Marvel and seemed to adjust its approach to licensing. However, some red flags like questionable art and oversimplification of controls, and a slow reveal of information during promotion had me concerned about the execution of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.
The basic setup of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is a two-on-two tag fighter. You can call upon your second character at any time, even mid-combo, which leads to a ton of exciting, flashy strings of attacks that might have you tagging between your characters as many as four times....
The list of large and small ways Destiny 2 is a streamlined, better designed, and more rewarding game than its predecessor is probably a hundred lines long. To cut to the chase, this is a game that finally makes good--sometimes a little too good--on Bungie's big idea of blending its genre-leading console first-person shooting with a Diablo-style loot dispenser, and it's been a long time coming. Remember 2014, when the first Destiny's notoriously fractured storyline and aimless, unfulfilling endgame grind left a large portion of its player base feeling shortchanged? Bungie does. On both counts, it's clear in playing Destiny 2 that Bungie learned most of the right lessons from the turmoil of Destiny's debut, even as it feels like the studio also forgot some of what made Destiny unique along the way.
Destiny 2 certainly has a more coherent story than last time. The sequel turns the forgettable faction vendors from the first Destiny into living, breathing video game characters and casts them in a desperate fight for survival as a legion of particularly mean Cabal, the franchise's monstrous spacefaring version of the Roman Empire, shows up and kicks what's left of humanity out of its last refuge on...
By ratcheting up the over-the-top elements with each entry in the Saints Row franchise, Volition wrote themselves into a bit of a corner. What started as a GTA clone with a goofy sense of humor turned into a ludicrous affair with characters that could fly across the map and access superpowers. Once characters were shooting fireballs from their hands and flying around Hell with demon wings, there wasn’t a lot of room left to keep cranking up the crazy.
Agents of Mayhem is not officially a Saints Row game, but the DNA of that franchise is plain to see throughout. My hope was that by introducing this as a new series, it’d give Volition a chance to dial things back a bit. Saints Row: The Third was my favorite of the bunch, hitting the sweet spot of silliness without taking things too far. Unfortunately, Agents of Mayhem misses the mark in many key areas and ultimately disappoints.
While Saints focused on a street gang, Agents is more of a send-up of comic heroes and Saturday morning cartoons. Twelve heroes are unlockable, including a vain actor, a drunken roller derby girl, a soccer hooligan, and a Yakuza assassin. The cast of...
Ninja Theory's talent for video game storytelling reaches something like apotheosis with Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, a brisk and harrowing journey through a young woman's deep internal torment. The studio pulls back from the complex combat elements it developed in previous releases like Enslaved and DmC and focuses more intently on dramatic ones, in order to paint an intimate and often painfully acute picture of grave mental illness in a fantastic setting. Hellblade's gameplay mechanics are few and relatively straightforward--though at half the price of most games with this quality of production, that's easier to forgive--but as a narrative effort its success is almost unparalleled in the medium.
Hellblade has the grandiose feel of epic poetry, set in a world of Norse mythology and employing a hazy, dreamlike narrative style that makes the reality of the game world feel like it's just out of reach. Hellblade doesn't follow a complex plotline as such; the events of the game merely comprise the young Celtic protagonist Senua's journey deep into the underworld in search of her lost love, who was murdered by marauding vikings and whose soul she hopes to wrest from their gods. Once she...
Cuphead’s original reveal in an E3 2014 Xbox sizzle reel of indie games was only seconds long, but that was enough to sell me on its potential. Take one look at the game in motion, and you’ll see why. Cuphead combines brutal, precision platforming action with an exceptionally well realized artistic style to create one of the most enjoyable video game experiences I’ve ever had.
Cuphead is an action-platformer in the style of games like Gunstar Heroes. Your basic abilities will have you running, shooting, and dashing around to dodge projectiles and enemies while damaging foes. Most of the game’s levels are static boss fights. These fights, when done correctly, are short and typically range from 90 seconds to three minutes. The key phrase here is “done correctly,” because the fun of Cuphead comes from its punishing difficulty.
Rather than upgrading your character with loot and deep skill trees, getting good at Cuphead is all about mastering the relatively simple controls. The most “technical” the game gets is when it comes to its unique parry system. Any pink object in the world, from enemies, to projectiles, to the nose on a vicious roller coaster, can be parried, or double-jumped off of, in other words--keeping...
When Electronic Arts revived the Star Wars: Battlefront name two years ago, it laid the groundwork for what could have been a successful new take on the series. A new trilogy of films was about to hit theaters and enthusiasm for the brand was at its highest in recent memory. Battlefront’s revival delivered in terms of presentation and fleeting multiplayer fun, but the lack of a substantial progression system or single-player campaign limited the long-term value of the game.
Battlefront II had the potential to make good on its predecessor’s shortcomings. Early in its marketing cycle, EA trumpeted a single-player campaign as a core component of the sequel. If that delivered on the single-player front and progression was improved over the bare-bones star card system of the last game, there was little to keep Battlefront II from being a huge improvement over its predecessor.
It fails on both fronts.
The sub-five hour story makes Call of Duty campaigns seem like nuanced, flexible affairs by comparison. What could have been an interesting, canonical take on the Empire’s activities between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens instead feels like a Disney World ride. You’re pointed in the right direction and shuttled along from shootout to shootout. If you feel like exploring your surroundings at all, you’re met with a...
At this year’s E3, Nintendo surprised many with a Super Mario Odyssey trailer that seemed insane even by Mario standards. He inhabited frogs by throwing a ghost hat at them. He strolled through a city alongside human figures with realistic proportions. Pauline from Donkey Kong is suddenly back, and is now a mayor and the lead singer of a swing band. Everything looked set to be Mario’s most surreal adventure yet.
Make no mistake about it, Super Mario Odyssey is a weird game. It’s wrapped around a concept featuring sentient hats, enemy possession, and Bowser making wedding preparations, but actually playing the game feels very familiar. Gone are the polarizing FLUDD from Super Mario Sunshine and the gravity-warping planetoids from the Galaxy games. While Mario may be able to occupy the bodies of numerous baddies and inanimate objects this time around, the experience feels more like Super Mario 64 than any of his other adventures.
Super Mario Odyssey’s worlds are to credit for most of this. Large and open, they encourage exploration more than any entry in series history. Areas in previous 3D Mario titles usually featured ten or less objectives to complete. Most kingdoms in Odyssey feature dozens. Completing these objectives grants you...
The best part of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor gets even better in the sequel, Shadow of War. The first game's dynamic "Nemesis" AI system had you fighting against an endless succession of named enemies who taunted you, remembered your exploits, and grew stronger on the backs of their victories over you. What would have been a competent but forgettable game in the open-world mold suddenly became a vehicle for an endless string of personalized run-ins with a bunch of grumpy orcs who seemed to hate you more every time they fought you, and never ran out of venomous new ways to let you know it. In Shadow of War, the Nemesis framework has been so thoroughly expanded that new twists on orc tactics, behaviors, and attitudes were still surprising me after dozens of hours, and the new game gives you even more exciting, hilarious, fun stories about your wild experiences to swap with other players than the first one. It took me half a dozen hours just to move on from the prologue area; I couldn't stop hunting down particular orcs who had wronged me, or just butting into the business they were conducting on their own.
Sadly that luster slowly fades over what ends up being a very long game, and Shadow of War never quite figures out how to build a focused, consistently engaging game around all the energy and dynamism of its elaborate AI machinery. There are so many different quests, challenges, menus, and details to...
After over 15 years of bad South Park games, fans of the show were understandably skeptical when The Stick of Truth was released. We had heard about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s involvement throughout the development process, but we’d been burned too many times to get optimistic. To the surprise of many, it turned out to be a great, lighthearted RPG that served as one of the best uses of a license in video games.
With a change in developers and the novelty value of playing through the world of the show gone, I was skeptical if a sequel would live up to the experience of the original. For the first couple of hours of South Park: The Fractured But Whole, I had serious doubts. The kids have abandoned the fantasy motif of the last game and adopted superhero alter egos as they search for a missing cat. These personas are taken from the 2009 multi-episode arc around Cartman's alter ego, the Coon. As someone who didn’t find that story interesting or funny enough for one episode (let alone a trilogy), I wasn’t exactly looking forward to inhabiting those characters for an entire game.
The first thing the game had me do was complete a quicktime event...
When you first boot up Kingsway, you immediately “get it.” From the startup sounds, to the launch menu in the task bar, to the grey-bordered windows, it’s immediately apparent that the game is a love letter to a time long-forgotten. More specifically, a time about 22 years ago.
Kingsway is an RPG presented as a faux-Windows ‘95-style operating system. Your character’s loot, world map, and everything else in the game are represented by different windows that you can drag around or minimize.
The level of detail in this likeness is insane. I spent a half hour customizing things like my cursor trail, theme, font, and cursor icons. And I hadn’t even seen the actual game yet.
The game starts with you building a character. You choose a class, which will determine which types of spells you can learn, as well as a character name and portrait. Important to note that Kingsway has one of my favorite name randomizers of any video game I’ve ever played; here are just five that I just rolled:
Your goal as an adventurer is to light three beacons spread out on a world map, then to go make your way to the king. You travel around by...
It would be so much easier to be cynical about a fifth Uncharted game arriving barely a year after the fourth Uncharted game if Naughty Dog didn't keep doing such a good job of making these things. You'd be forgiven if you worried last year's Uncharted 4--itself coming off a successful PlayStation 3 trilogy that felt like it had already run its course--looked like an unnecessary cash grab. But that game thoroughly justified its own existence in the end by acting as an elaborately plotted and personal coda to Nathan Drake's entire treasure-hunting career. Surely that was it, though, right?
Well, not quite. There's also the raw business reality that these games sell a lot of copies, so here we are 16 months later with the jaunty, budget-priced spinoff Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Where Uncharted 4 was premised around Nathan Drake putting an end to Uncharted, The Lost Legacy goes a step further in saying that maybe you didn't need Drake to make a good old Uncharted adventure in the first place. In that spirit, the new game puts the sly supporting character Chloe Frazer in the starring role, and teams her up to great effect with Uncharted...
Comic book superheroes make for good fighting game characters. Most of them come in with defined fighting styles, strengths, and weaknesses that can help define a set of moves. Marvel's been doing it with some regularity over the years, to the point where each character comes in with certain expectations about the sorts of moves they should probably have. Now that NetherRealm has delivered a followup to Injustice: Gods Among Us, a similar cadence and set of expectations is getting established for DC's roster. Injustice 2 is a hard-hitting game that makes its cast of heroes and villains feel important, both with the way they fight and also with the wide range of modes and options that help make the game a good fit for wide variety of players.
The story mode fits the same blueprint that the developers have been using since 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, with a system that both takes you through a story and gives you a bit of a crash course in the game by automatically switching out playable characters from chapter to chapter. Injustice 2 continues the story of the previous game and once again pits Batman against a totalitarian Superman who just wants to straight-up murder criminals before they've even committed a crime. This time you'll make a couple of choices along the way, which usually determines which characters you'll control in a given chapter. But the structure is roughly the same as the studio's last several story modes--which is to say that it's the gold standard for telling a story in a fighting game. The tale itself, which puts Supergirl and Brainiac into the middle of the existing conflict, is an interesting one. Even as someone who doesn't much care for any of DC's characters, it moved at a nice pace and kept me interested in both the moment-to-moment action and the overall state of the multiverse.
The fighting itself plays a lot like the previous Injustice, which is to say it's also not entirely unlike the last couple of Mortal Kombat games. It feels good, looks great, and the vast majority of the moves aren't especially difficult to execute, either. You can get in there and have a good time, even if you aren't trying to be a tournament-status player. It has that same snappy feel that NetherRealm's previous work has, and that same staccato pace that lets you appreciate each hit as it lands. Of course, there's way more here for you if you're willing to move past the basics of low-level play.
Learning Injustice means learning how to time your juggles properly and really focusing on your super meter. "Meter burn" versions of your special moves are more or less required knowledge if you want to perform the game's best combos, though your super meter can be used for air recovery moves that help you get out of juggles, clash sequences that can let you break out of combos completely and risk your meter to potentially gain some health, block escapes that let you push an attack opponent away from you, rolls that let you get out of corners... It's all stuff that's easy to perform, but learning when to deploy all this stuff strategically while making sure you've got enough juice built up to do it feels like slightly more resource management than I tend to want out of a fighting game.
Though we tend to think of fighting games as almost exclusively multiplayer affairs, Injustice 2 has a really great assortment of things to do alone. In addition to the story and a standard training mode, the game also has the Multiverse, which is somewhat like the Living Tower mode in Mortal Kombat X. Here, the game serves up a variety of options for fighting against the AI. You can get into straight-on fights and see an arcade mode-like ending for each character, or you can get into deeper challenges that add modifiers and are often built around specific characters. These challenges are refreshed at set intervals, so there's almost always something different for you to do.
Some of those challenges might be easier if you had the right stats. In Injustice 2, each character earns experience points and moves from level one to level 20. You also earn equippable gear that can boost a fighter's stats or even add new moves to your arsenal. This stuff is pretty cool because it lets you piece together multiple looks for your characters and bring them into battle. The stats, which get balanced out in ranked matches, don't always feel like a huge boon since you won't often fight against characters who are lower level than you during any of the single-player stuff. Also, gear management is a real chore due to inventory limits, the time it takes to open an individual loot box, and the equipment interface. At times, it felt like I was spending more time playing dress-up than fighting... but that's mostly because a lot of that gear looks pretty good when equipped.
Online, Injustice 2 behaves pretty well and contains the modes you'd expect to be there. Ranked and unranked fights are capable of running great, provided your internet connection is up to it, and the same system of rooms and text chat found in previous games from NetherRealm are still here. A king of the hill mode lets you get eight players into one game, and you can spectate the other matches while you wait your turn. There's also an asynchronous mode where you pick three characters and tweak their AI to your liking, then send that team up against other players' AI teams. You can speed these up if you're only interested in the outcomes, and it's a good way to earn a bunch of loot boxes, too. Overall, it all feels really fully featured and robust. There's a lot to do, even if you're not the sort of player who wants to fight strangers on the internet.
It's also worth mentioning that the game looks fantastic. It transitions into and out of story mode cutscenes really cleanly, and there appears to have been some additional attention paid to character faces, which animate really well both during the story and during fights, super moves, and victory poses. The backgrounds are nicely detailed and active, with an emphasis on the type of low lighting you'd expect to see when fighting in front of a busted-up movie theater.
You may already know if NetherRealm's brand of fighting is for you or not, and Injustice 2 plays a lot like the studio's previous work, so it's unlikely that it'll change your mind. The fights are fun and flashy, with nice depth for players willing to spend the time learning those nuances. But Injustice 2 also sets a very high bar for content variety in a way that opens up the game to people who might just be fans of DC's heroes and villains, too. If you're open to the idea of a fighting game, you're almost certain to find something worth liking....
It’s been a hell of a year for Nintendo fans. March saw the launch of the Switch, the company’s hottest console in over a decade (and thankfully, one with a gimmick that actually works well). Alongside it, fans were treated to one of the most ambitious and well-received Zelda games of all time. If that weren’t enough, Super Mario Odyssey stole E3 with its bonkers trailer and great demo. Between the Switch’s big launch and Mario’s October release, the summer of 2017 plays host to two of the company’s newest IPs. Splatoon 2 is set to follow up on the surprising success of 2015’s multiplayer-focused title, but not before Arms has a chance to prove that Nintendo can produce another solid new online property.
In some of the same ways as Splatoon, it succeeds. Its tone is immediately likable, greeting players with a catchy theme and an inviting art style. Ten fighters are available, including a pulsating blob-man, a robotic beach cop/guard dog duo, and a girl with ramen noodles for arms who can turn one arm into a dragon. They’re some of Nintendo’s weirdest characters in a long time, and that’s counting the children that turn into squids and paint each other.
No matter who you pick, the core components of combat play out the same way. Each character’s arms (or in Twintelle’s case, pigtails) are inexplicably long and springy, allowing for punches that can stretch across the length of large battle arenas. Once a punch has started its flight, it can be curved to adjust to your foe’s movement. If you press both punch buttons, your arms will extend in an attempt to grab them for a throw. Outside of a dash, jump, and block, that’s about it for the basic controls.
If that all sounds a bit simple, it’s because it is. Grasping the controls doesn’t take long, but there is a little more depth that becomes apparent as you continue to play. If you hold the dash, jump, or block button for a couple of seconds, your next punch can be charged with a powerful elemental attack. Each character comes with their own special abilities, but the game does a poor job of making this known (you have to dive into a help menu to see their descriptions). Ribbon Girl can perform multiple jumps in mid-air, Min Min can deflect incoming attacks with a spinning kick, and Master Mummy can regain health while blocking. These important traits will help you determine whose playstyle is best for you, so it’s best to jump into the help menu and read up on them as soon as you start playing.
Much of Nintendo’s pre-release footage of the game showcased players with a Joy-Con in each hand, shadow-boxing with motion controls. While this works alright for the most part, it occasionally makes controlling your fighter feel like an awkward Wii game. I greatly preferred using the pro controller, even if it does come with the minor handicap of not being able to curve each arm separately. This also requires you to block by clicking in the left stick, which is less intuitive than several other available buttons. With no option to remap the controls, I did my best to get used to it. Even with its drawbacks, I felt like the pro controller offered me better direct control over my character and attacks than the imprecise motion controls.
Arms come in a variety of types. On top of standard boxing gloves, your fists can be equipped with heat-seeking missiles, party poppers, flying discs, laser-spewing dragon heads, and more. The bigger and heavier they are, the harder it is to counter them (a Megaton ball will pass straight through a counter attempt from a party popper, for example). In addition to their types, most arms also feature an elemental power that can inflict temporary status effects on your enemy. The variation in arms can lead to some interesting strategic opportunities if you notice an opponent relying on a predictable method of attack.
New arms are unlocked via a drip-feed of in-game currency that you’ll earn as you play through the various modes. Rather than using your cash to purchase items outright, you use it to purchase time in a target shooting gallery that rewards you with new arms. As you strike enough targets, gift boxes float across the screen that contain your prizes. These can be arms for any character, but you tend to get more for the character you selected for the shooting gallery. A couple of factors lead to this system feeling underwhelming. For one, it takes a long time to build up enough currency to purchase significant time in the minigame. Also, your prizes are simply other characters’ default arms. It’s not like you’re unlocking or leveling up new arms, you’re just unlocking the ability to use one of Helix’s arms on Spring Man, for instance.
My early bouts in Arms were little more than silly slap fights, featuring me wildly throwing and curving punches. As I played more and started to improve, I found the fights to be more rewarding. Playing through the ten-stage Grand Prix mode on the easiest setting allowed me to breeze through with perfects without any real strategy. Once I started working my way up the difficulty ladder, however, I found it much more necessary to utilize counters, blocks, and my character’s special abilities.
Even with the added depth that’s necessary during higher difficulties and online play, Arms never becomes deep enough to feel as rewarding as a more traditional fighting game. On the other side of the coin, it doesn’t capture the pure chaos of goofier fighters like Power Stone or Super Smash Bros. It exists somewhere in the middle, with a little bit of depth and the occasional interactive environment but not enough of either to really get into a groove.
If the moment-to-moment fighting doesn’t exactly thrill you, then there isn’t much else for you to do in Arms. Bringing in a friend or three can be fun for a bit as you compete in free-for-alls or 2-on-2 battles. Minigames like volleyball and basketball are interspersed throughout the single-player Grand Prix matches and available in multiplayer, but they’re bare-bones distractions at best.
Unlocking other characters’ arms is the only form of progression in the game, as you can’t level anything up or buy new cosmetic gear. Splatoon was criticized by many for its sparse assortment of modes and progression, but its launch offerings seem robust compared to what’s available in Arms.
It’s encouraging to see Nintendo experiment with new IP, especially in these early months of the Switch’s release. That said, Arms doesn’t make the same splash that Splatoon did two years ago. It introduces some great new characters and some entertaining gameplay, but the depth of combat and overall amount of content is lacking. Online play features a ranking system, but ranking up does nothing for you but change a number onscreen and earn you a little bit of currency. I never felt like I was progressing in any meaningful way, and the lure of unlocking new arms for my characters wasn’t strong enough to make me want to dive deeper.
If you play enough Arms, you’re bound to have the occasional thrilling, close-fought bout. These brief moments are fleeting, however, and the game simply doesn’t give you enough reasons to keep coming back....
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a marked improvement over its predecessors in two areas: graphics and gunplay. The Frostbite engine proves itself quite capable of rendering the best-looking alien locales in Mass Effect history, and the shooting is more nimble and varied than it's ever been. In every other way--assembling a crew of engaging characters, meeting exotic aliens with intriguing stories to tell, flying around in your own starship solving problems big and small in a galaxy colored in shades of gray; in other words all the things that make Mass Effect unique and memorable--Andromeda takes one, two, or three steps back. It's also an utter mess in a technical sense. There are a few enjoyable moments here and there, and over time you can see the skeletal framework of a better game start to emerge, but given the heights Mass Effect has reached in the past, it's hard to believe this is what we've been waiting five years for.
BioWare gave itself an easy out with this game's story, after Mass Effect 3's controversial conclusion to the Reaper threat pretty much rewrote the rules of the series' familiar setting. That in itself is a missed opportunity; in a setting already rife with interspecies sociopolitical strife, exploring how the balance of power shifted in the Milky Way after the Reapers were out of the picture could have been fertile narrative ground. Instead, we've sailed a bunch of colony ships 600 years into the future and to the Andromeda galaxy, wiping the slate clean for the writers to lay down a whole new set of rules. But the game does very little of interest with this new freedom. In leaving behind a game world that revolves around ancient alien technology to reach this new environment of limitless possibilities we get... another galaxy that revolves around a different set of ancient alien technology, and for the most part that tech merely serves as a convenient space-magic plot driver rather than a narrative direction to be explored in its own right. You just happen to be the only character in all of Andromeda who can interface with this technology; be prepared to activate weird alien terminals to make plot things happen without any explanation, time and again.
In addition to humans, Mass Effect standbys like turians, salarians, and krogans have made the trip to Andromeda, but with a few exceptions like a colony of angry krogan exiles, these species' unique characteristics are mostly deemphasized so the story can use them interchangeably in the colonization efforts. Story-wise, there's some early promise in the way things have gone wrong with the Andromeda Initiative; when you show up, there's been death and revolt on the Nexus (a slightly contrived Citadel stand-in space station), resulting in a minor crisis of Initiative leadership and an array of exiled Milky Way scoundrels scattered around the Heleus cluster, the small area of Andromeda where the game takes place. It also happens that none of the other colony ships have shown up on time, which creates a tantalizing mystery to solve. The story gets just a bit of interesting mileage out of the bureaucratic squabbles inherent in running a space colonization effort--who gets thawed out when is a major point of contention--and the ethical considerations of settling on already inhabited planets, but the game doesn't explore these areas as thoroughly as you'd want and expect out of Mass Effect, and the puzzle of those other missing ships, dangled in front of you for most of the game, isn't resolved in a particularly surprising way either.
The series' more esoteric factions like the quarians, volus, geth, elcor, and hanar are written out of the game entirely, and in their place there are exactly two new alien races, both of which largely manifest as humanoid soldiers with assault rifles for you to shoot at. Outside combat, the indigenous angarans serve as a scattered, oppressed native species trying to recover its history after centuries of turmoil brought on by the Scourge, a violent dark-energy phenomenon that never gets satisfyingly explained. The angarans have in more recent decades been subjugated by the kett, the monolithic, religious-cult antagonist force made up of silly-looking aliens covered in bony plates. Andromeda pays some lip service early on to the delicate nature of first contact with these new races, but in practice it rushes you through these encounters, and foregoes any narrative weight they might have had, so you can start accepting quests from or shooting at these new aliens, or both. Later there are a few brief attempts to flesh out the nature of the angaran and kett societies, but the game doesn't go far enough in that direction to give you much to chew on. Andromeda also references aspects of the previous three games on a regular basis, but almost all of these references feel shoehorned in, in a way intended to make you go "hey, I remember that!" rather than believably enhancing the story or contextualizing the new characters. There's a particular late-game reveal in this vein that was so predictable I almost felt insulted by it.
I could happily look past a trite and overly video-gamey core scenario if Andromeda's assembled cast of crew mates and peripheral figures were as engaging as in previous games; Mass Effect has frequently done its best storytelling around the edges of the main plot, after all. But despite a couple of interesting origin stories--Cora, the human biotic so freakishly powerful she ended up running with an asari commando unit, and Jaal, the contemplative angaran warrior-monk type who's probably the standout party member--I never got close to feeling the same attachment for Andromeda's squadmates that I did for the various crews of the Normandy, nor did any of the dozens of incidental characters or side quest storylines connect with me in an especially memorable way.
There's been plenty of uproar about the game's lousy facial animations, and those are certainly a problem. Seriously, it rarely feels like these characters make eye contact with each other while they're talking, instead staring glassily into the distance or tilting their eyes wildly around the room. But worse, an awful lot of the dialogue in Andromeda is just awkwardly written and presented. There are some really peculiar turns of phrase and a ton of sloppy, poorly paced editing in cutscenes that makes it hard to connect with and sometimes even understand what people are talking about or what just happened. A few of the cutscenes, especially in side quests and even a couple of your party members' loyalty missions, are so disjointedly assembled that they almost feel like they were never all the way finished. You do get a few fun or touching character moments here and there, but those moments are exceptions to the rule. There's an obvious shift in the tone and quality of the writing from that of previous Mass Effect games, and most of it doesn't land well. In a series I've always thought of primarily as a conversation simulator with some shooting thrown in as a bonus, that's a serious problem.
BioWare has taken Mass Effect in an open-world direction with Andromeda, giving you four major planets to explore in your six-wheel-drive vehicle (along with a handful of other smaller planetary areas to explore on foot). The idea of tearing around wild alien worlds, finding lots of cool little space stories to explore is exciting at first, until you realize that the vast bulk of the quest design in Andromeda is incredibly bland. Outside of the main storyline missions, which are at least focused and move at a brisk enough pace, you'll have the chance to solve dozens of aggressively uninteresting space errands that mainly involve you going to one or more places the quest giver tells you, scanning/using/picking up/killing something, then returning for a couple of lines of inconsequential dialogue and some experience points. The game also crowds your log with an absolutely overwhelming number of quests split into four different tiers and across multiple locations, to the point that it can become nearly impossible to keep track of everything you have on your plate at once. I eventually gave up on trying to keep all the quests straight in my log and just looked at all the objective markers on the map anytime I returned to an old location, and it's telling that quite often when I got around to finishing a given side quest, I'd forgotten who gave it to me or why I was doing it in the first place. The in-game map is unwieldy and not very detailed, and the on-screen compass is pretty bad at pointing you toward nearby objectives too. For a game built around dozens of quests, the tools for organizing and tracking those quests aren't very helpful at all.
Worse, many of the longer quest chains require you to bounce back and forth between multiple planets for contrived reasons, and since the transit animations between systems and from planet to planet are all interminably long and unskippable, a side quest that could have been completed in a couple of minutes in a single location becomes agonizingly tedious as it stretches over 20 minutes or more. At one point late in the game I spoke to a character at a crashed shuttle who... instructed me to go meet him in a cave on a completely different planet, where, after five minutes of travel, we had a 30-second conversation that ended the quest. There's a remarkable amount of back-and-forth and busywork involved in most of the side quests, and the little shreds of world-building payoffs you get from finishing them rarely feel worth it. Even the best (or, if you like, the most Mass Effect-y) side quest lines that come to mind don't feel up to the series' standards. One, which involves you duping a group of anti-AI terrorists into thinking they've hacked the computer in your head, thoughtfully explores the deep mistrust for artificial intelligence that exists in the Mass Effect universe via a few datapads strewn around, but even that quest ends in an underwhelming way. And those datapads were among the very few that really felt worth stopping to look at. Actually, that might be the most damning thing I can say about Andromeda: I quickly stopped caring about reading anything I didn't have to. Previous games made you voraciously want to read everything.
One of the more satisfying things about the way Andromeda plays out comes as you travel from planet to planet, solving a bunch of local problems that eventually makes way for you to establish an outpost, at which point a bunch of pre-fab settlement buildings drop out of the sky and you've got a nice little base where before there was only alien wilderness. This feeds into a perk system--nominally, you're generating extra resources that let you thaw out more specialists on the Nexus, though in practice you're just unlocking passive upgrades--and the first time you build a base, you're even asked whether you want a scientific facility or a military outpost. Unfortunately that choice doesn't manifest in very meaningful ways, and you're never even given the choice again, but it did make me briefly hope some kind of management-sim layer would manifest and let me tweak a bunch of particulars about the way the different colonies were being run. But like most of the good ideas in Andromeda, this one isn't explored very much. It's satisfying to plunk all those colonies down and watch them populate, with shuttles coming and going. It's just a shame they only function as side quest dispensers when the colonial effort could have become a core pillar of the gameplay.
The combat in Mass Effect: Andromeda is probably the best in the series and certainly the most successful thing in this package, which in itself is kind of a wild thing to say about a Mass Effect game. Even though you lose the ability to pause time and issue specific orders to your squadmates, you gain a set of jump jets that let you boost into the air and dash around the battlefield in a really fast-paced, satisfying way. The game also removes any notion of class restrictions; you can now put skill points into any ability from the combat, tech, and biotic categories, allowing you to put together whatever mishmash of powers you want. Moreover, the game unlocks hybrid "profiles" based on your skill allocation that gives you further buffs to the categories you've invested heavily in, and you earn enough skill points in a typical playthrough to experiment quite a bit and find play styles you like.
There's a decent set of crafting tools available that let you customize a wide array of weapons and armor to fit your play style which is relatively satisfying to dig into, although just like the quest interface, the gear and crafting are complicated by layer upon layer of unwieldy menus. And ultimately, after nearly 80 hours even the combat had thoroughly worn out its welcome with me due to a relative lack of variety in encounter design. Even the very last fight in the game is just a 20-minute slog against the exact same types of enemies you've been facing down for the entire game. If you really like the combat--and it is a lot of fun--the wave-based multiplayer from Mass Effect 3 returns here and offers a small variety of specific objectives--hack terminals, hold territory, take out VIP enemies--in addition to the standard kill-everything waves. There's a ton of unlockable character classes, weapons, and gear to collect and level up if you want to spend a lot of time grinding in multiplayer, and some missions even funnel materials back into your single-player campaign, but even with some variations in the types of enemies you fight each time out, I'd gotten my fill of the handful of maps available after a few hours.
If the game worked as advertised it would be merely decent to middling, but the technical state of Andromeda at the time of this writing is astonishingly poor, at least on the PlayStation 4. I just can't overstate how buggy this game is, nor can I remember ever playing a full-priced, marquee video game from a major publisher with such an embarrassingly wide array of glaring issues. I could fill the entire space of this review with nothing but the bugs I ran into, which tended to affect practically every aspect of the game, from conversations to NPC animations to quest logic, sound effects and dialogue triggers, combat encounters, character collision, crashes and infinite loading screens, and more. Some quests refused to complete when I satisfied their conditions; on the other hand, one particular early-game quest I'd already completed kept reasserting itself as my active quest hours later. One relatively major quest line disappeared from my log entirely, never to be seen again. The game occasionally thought I was in combat on my ship, where combat isn't even possible, and popped up the combat UI and visibly recharged my character's shields.
NPCs get stuck in the wrong animation, teleport around during conversation scenes, clip through scenery, or snap into T-poses so often during cutscenes that you just learn to start ignoring it, provided you can stop laughing. Characters talked over themselves with a second line of dialogue triggering on top of the first one. Dialogue about your exploits will occasionally contradict your quest progress and at one point a character referred to a quest as both complete and in progress in the same conversation. One of the rooms of my ship frequently failed to load as I walked by it, making the doorway look like a gaping hole into deep space. Enemies frequently get stuck in the world, preventing you from advancing quest progress. Quest-critical talk prompts would occasionally just refuse to work until I quit and restarted the game. A couple of times, quest scripting and cutscenes broke in such spectacular fashion that words don't do justice to the chaos (though you can see one of them embedded above). I could go on and on (and on), and any one or two of these issues in an otherwise functional game would be forgivable, but there are times when it feels like you're hitting several of these problems every hour, and over the course of dozens of hours it just undermines your ability to take the game seriously at all. BioWare has an alarmingly thin list of known issues on its forums, but has also pledged to address the state of the game in the near future. For the sake of their customers their plan had better start with some intensive bug-fixing before any DLC rolls out, because as it stands right now this thing is a real mess. Andromeda shouldn't have shipped like this.
For me, Mass Effect has at times been the best thing going in video games, so to see the franchise in such a sorry state is actually a little painful. Following up on Mass Effect 3 was never going to be easy, not just because that game's ending left so many people cold but also simply because the story had been told, the book on Commander Shepard closed. For the start of a new chapter to be so bad at the things Mass Effect has traditionally been so good at raises serious questions about where the series, and perhaps even BioWare, go from here....
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is probably only worth caring about if you're willing to play through the game with three friends, with voice chat enabled. You should know that up front. You can, of course, enter into public matchmaking. In fact, the game constantly encourages you to do so. But in my experience, playing with strangers, without voice chat, is probably the worst way to play Ubi's new cocaine mountain simulator. Single-player's also an option, and can be fun for a time, but the three AI-controlled squadmates they give you are intensely overpowered and a little boring to use. Leaning into the multiplayer aspect is probably the only way players will feel like they're getting their money's worth here.
It's a shame, because there are elements around the edges of Wildlands that, if fleshed out more effectively, could have made for a better game. Take the story, for example. A Mexican drug cartel decides to leave home and set up shop closer to the source of its product: Bolivia. There, it creeps into multiple elements of society, turning the nation into a full-on, brazen narco-state. Your role is that of a set of four "operators," in country to work for the CIA on... a revenge mission? An undercover CIA guy is dead, and that's your flimsy entry into the story. Early on, the characters remark that they just need to get that revenge and get out before getting wrapped up in the politics of the coca trade. And then you proceed to get wrapped up in the politics of the coca trade, working with rebels to slowly dismantle the drug cartel's Bolivian branch.
The "revenge" thing more or less vanishes and there's very little story progression to speak of. You simply go into a new territory, get a video-based info dump on that region's boss, then start completing objectives and missions that put you closer to killing or capturing said boss. The ending--though I should note that there's apparently a different ending if you dismantle 100% of the cartel's operation before heading into the big confrontation with the big boss--falls flat, pre-loaded with a twist that you see coming a mile away but also one that isn't worth caring about to begin with. Wildlands is full of characters that look like they'd be interesting, but you're too busy shooting them in the face to give them time to be fleshed out. Top all that off with some very half-hearted hand-wringing over America's role in the War on Drugs and you've got a story that goes nowhere and says nothing. It puts all these pieces on the board and does absolutely nothing with them. It's a shame. It feels like something that could've been so much more.
So instead you're left with a pretty standard open-world action game with some very light tactical elements to help remind you that it still says "Tom Clancy's" somewhere on the box. It's packed with real-world guns and attachments for said guns. You have a drone that you can use to mark targets. Your character isn't particularly resilient, so stealth is a smart way to proceed. But it's also an open-world where you're driving cars from point A to point B, filling the map full of the same small set of side quests as you go, and the whole thing feels more like a plain, multiplayer-focused take on the Far Cry formula. The open world doesn't feel fun to navigate, since huge mountains lead to a lot of slow roads that swerve and bend around to let you slowly make your way up to the top. This also means that driving over the edge might set you back quite a bit, inspiring safe driving... always a thrill in an open-world game. You're usually better off stealing a chopper and parachuting onto your destination.
The act of clearing out a region is more or less the same from start to finish. You get to a region, get a quick video about what role that region plays in the cartel's operation, then your map gets a few "major intel" folders on it. Each folder unlocks one of the area's first few missions, though once you've completed a couple of those and start getting closer to drawing out the boss of an area, the missions start chaining together. You'll also find minor intel along the way, and this fills up the map with side activities. The catch is that each region has the same set of side activities, so you'll be offered way too many opportunities to defend a radio transmitter, hack a computer, tag supplies, and so on. By the second region, the game already feels overly repetitive. Again, this is something that the story could have helped with, since there's a colorful cast of characters hinted at along the way. But few of the region boss missions pay off.
So that leaves us with, again, a pretty standard open-world game. It's not bad. The shooting feels fine and there's a decent variety of weapons, though considering how easily players are dropped by enemy fire, short range weapons like shotguns and SMGs feel like more risk than reward. Alone, this leads to a slow-moving game where you might just use the drone to mark targets and let your AI crew quietly gun down one base after another. It gets a little monotonous, but at the same time there's something neat about the "tactical" approach to enemy management feeling so, so overpowered against a bunch of ragtag cartel idiots. The catch is that the game doesn't ever get more difficult, so you can trudge through the vast majority of the game this way. I decided to play a lot of the game this way, which is a good way to have a low amount of fun while checking off missions and stacking up skill points and levels. Some of those skills made the multiplayer more enjoyable in turn.
The multiplayer feels rough because your character isn't resilient at all, so having three way-too-murderous AI companions with you almost feels like cheating. Multiplayer takes those companions away from you and replaces them with human players. Though the game gives you some ways to direct players to the same objective, like fast travel and map marking, the in-game communication tools aren't especially effective. Jumping into random games felt like four players off doing their own things at times, though without the benefit of having your AI crew along as backup. Bring together an agreeable bunch of players that you might like to communicate with, and the game ends up being more enjoyable... though some of that is almost certainly due to the idea that playing anything with friends leads to a better time. The game itself still feels a little flat, but since you're going to be shooting enemies and shooting the shit with your friends, you'll probably just skip the boring cutscenes and get on with it. Rolling around the map, plowing through missions together is actually a pretty decent time. The stakes feel a little higher, since you can't fall back on your invincible crew of murderers whenever things go wrong. And unlike your AI friends, your real-life friends can mess up and break stealth. The game feels little short on weird, open-world hijinks, but if you like taking over Far Cry-like outposts with a team of friends... well, that's pretty much this entire game.
Wildlands looks fine, though in reviewing the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro, there seem to be a few too many instances of textures, foliage, and other world details just popping back and forth between different levels of quality, which is distracting. The character models don't look great, but the game does generate some nice-looking vistas and it has good lighting to back that up. The audio is a real low point. The radio is repetitive and lame and the chatter from your four-person team sounds like someone forgot to replace it with the "real" voicework. A bunch of weak reads on ridiculous lines is funny at first, but the millionth time your shooter just calmly utters "shitballs" because you're getting shot at might be enough for you to just turn the whole game down. A better script would've gone a long way.
Ultimately, that's Wildlands' main issue. There's a pretty decent core to it, but everything from the monotonous mission design to the way the characters are introduced and immediately discarded to the lame audio to the overpowered AI just chips away at different parts of the game until you're left with a game that's probably only enjoyable if you're playing with friends and ignoring large parts of the world building and lore. If "shoot first, ask nothing later" is your style, you'll probably have a pretty good time. It's a dumb game with decent combat and effective co-op. But the game isn't good enough to recommend to anyone in any other situation. If you like playing alone, I'd recommend you look somewhere else....
Nintendo has never introduced a true disaster to their core Legend of Zelda series, but most of the last ten years has felt lacking in inspiration. Games like Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks were perfectly solid on their own merits, yet they paled in comparison to the more impactful entries from the series’ past. Attempts at freshening up the franchise usually came in the form of touch- or motion-based experiments, while the format of the games still riffed on established concepts dating as far back as the Super Nintendo. One major exception was 2013’s A Link Between Worlds (which was based on that same Super Nintendo game, ironically). With that 3DS installment, Nintendo finally made some bold changes to the series’ aging format. Tweaking the item system and allowing players to choose dungeon order proved to be a shot in the arm for a franchise that had long rested on its tried-and-true trademarks.
If A Link Between Worlds was the game that dared to change things up, Breath of the Wild is the game that blows everything wide open. It deems no rule sacred, removing or changing numerous systems we’ve come to expect from the franchise. The end result is a total reinvention of Zelda that manages to evoke the exact same feelings that made it iconic to begin with.
One of the most welcome changes is almost immediately apparent. While the past two console entries (Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess) had painfully long introductory sequences, this swings hard in the other direction. Link wakes up, briefly talks to a mysterious old man, and is exploring an open world and solving puzzles within minutes. It’s essentially the difference between “talk to everyone on this sky island for six hours” and “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”
Your first order of business is to visit four mini-dungeons so that you can acquire four runes. These runes grant you the ability to create remote bombs, manipulate magnetic objects, stop time, and create pillars of ice in pools of water. Once you’ve proven that you know how to wield these powers, you’re given a paraglider that allows you to leave the opening plateau and experience the rest of Hyrule.
I was initially skeptical of this approach. In the past, a big part of the Zelda experience was obtaining new items within its dungeons. I was worried that by giving me powers upfront instead of doling them out in dungeons, the game would be taking away the joy of obtaining a new tool. In earlier games, you’d get something like the hookshot and realize that you could now cross that broken bridge or get on top of that plateau. Breath of the Wild replaces that joy with a much more substantial sense of freedom and possibility. You’re not waiting for an item in a treasure chest to let you get across that bridge or onto that plateau. You already have all the tools you need, it’s just a matter of making it happen.
With just these four abilities, you’re able to solve any of the game’s 100-plus shrines. You’re also able to explore almost all of the massive Hyrule map using just your paraglider and climbing ability. By giving you all of this upfront, Breath of the Wild is essentially saying “Here you go, have fun” and setting you loose. Upgrades to your stamina and gear certainly make climbing and traversal quicker and easier, but I was able to get just about anywhere I wanted with enough patience and planning.
Plenty of open world games allow you to explore the entire map at your leisure, but Hyrule’s landscape and Link’s ability to climb makes for more rewarding exploration than I’ve ever seen in the genre. Most of the world isn’t accessible by easy-to-follow roads and waypoints. I spent many hours exploring off the beaten path, gliding across canyons, and scaling mountains. Some of these peaks seem insurmountable at first, but the summit can usually be reached if you’re smart about looking for places to rest and get a quick stamina recharge. When things go wrong, it often ends with Link ragdolling down the side of a rocky cliff. When they go right, there’s frequently a secret, a new vantage point for spotting shrines, or at least a beautiful view awaiting you.
One thing you'll be climbing an awful lot of is towers. Each area of the map features one orange tower, and scaling it will turn it blue and fill in details for the region on your map. Unlike many open world games, filling it in doesn't mean it gives you the location of shrines, towns, and other points of interest. It simply gives you the outlines of major landmasses and bodies of water. Even small details like a hot spring won't be labelled until you're basically dipping Link's toes in it. Whenever you spot something that you think you might want to return to, it's easy to mark it on the map with a variety of icons. I found this to be extremely helpful for marking shrines that I spotted in the distance, areas that required arrows when I had none, mineral-rich mountainsides, and mysterious creatures and pieces of the environment that I wanted to investigate later.
It doesn’t feel like the map is huge for the sake of being huge. While there are stretches of unpopulated land, I never felt like I was at a loss for things to do. There are plenty of shrines to locate, wildlife to photograph and hunt, minerals and food to collect, friendly characters to help, and camps of enemies to battle and loot. One of my favorite things that happened frequently was finding myself out of my league. Since I spent so many of my early hours exploring the world, I’d inevitably wander into areas that I was not properly equipped for. Rather than running from these higher-level enemies, I saw them as a challenge. With no items being gated behind dungeons, I knew that the tools to beat these enemies were already at my disposal, even if any one of their attacks could wipe me out instantaneously. Taking out a Lynel late in the game feels like an accomplishment. Slaying one when I only had five heart containers felt like a triumph.
Your challenges won’t always come in the form of high-level enemies. My adventures off the beaten path sometimes came to an end when I found myself in the freezing cold without proper gear. Link would shiver and take damage until I had to teleport to safer ground and rethink my approach. Before you find new gear that helps you combat weather, you can fight the elements by cooking. It’s an imprecise and somewhat silly system, but it’s fun to experiment and toss a bunch of ingredients into a pot and hope for the best. You begin to learn the general formula for success after you screw up and create barely edible meals on enough occasions. If I knew I was heading into a cold region of the map, I’d gain some heat resistance by mixing spicy peppers into various meat and fruit dishes. If I was about to take on a difficult enemy, I’d make a few meals that utilized defense-boosting mushrooms and heart-restoring radishes.
I’m glad that the cooking system isn’t overly cumbersome, as it’s absolutely necessary. Among the sweeping changes to series tradition is the method in which you heal yourself. In almost every past entry, you could recover from a damaging battle by simply cutting some grass or breaking some pots until you found enough hearts. That option is nowhere to be found here. You can eat raw food off of the ground if you’d like, but you need to cook meals if you hope to have any serious source of health recovery.
Not finding hearts in the wild is one of many seemingly minor changes that add up to make the game feel so much different than its predecessors. Rupees are rarely found in the field, as most are earned by selling materials and completing sidequests. Twilight Princess surprised me by requiring five heart pieces to make a container instead of four, but Breath of the Wild goes several steps further and omits them altogether (new hearts are earned by trading in orbs earned in shrines). You’ll be snatching fairies out of the air with your hand, as bottles are gone. Boomerangs will fly right back over your head if you don’t press A to catch them. Cutscenes feature voice acting. There’s a jump button.
Among the bigger changes is the optional nature and the structure of Breath of the Wild’s traditional dungeons. Like they’ve usually been, these are longer, puzzle-driven affairs that end in boss fights. That’s where the similarities end, however. The “get the map, the compass, the big key, and the dungeon item” format is completely gone. Those last three things are completely absent, and you’re given a map at the very beginning of each dungeon. How you interact with the dungeons themselves is a puzzle element unique to these areas, and I don’t want to spoil the specifics here.
These dungeons—like just about everything in the game—are completely optional. That said, they’re a lot of fun and will certainly make your final quest an easier ordeal. Perhaps more important than the traditional dungeons are the tiny shrines that are scattered across the map. These act as fast travel points, and you’ll be able to upgrade your heart or stamina capacity each time you complete four of them. Most of these are filled with traditional Zelda puzzles. You’ll utilize your runes and wits to place boxes onto switches, complete electrical circuits, manipulate balancing tools, and plenty more. On occasion, they’ll present you with tests of combat prowess or goofy motion-based mini-golf puzzles. If the process of getting to the shrine was particularly tough, sometimes it’ll simply present you with a treasure chest and send you on your way.
On the Switch, these shrines have the added benefit of being fantastic for portable play. This game can be a massive undertaking that benefits from long marathon sessions. On the other hand, these bite-sized shrines usually don’t take much time at all. If I’m on a bus and only have 20 minutes to play, I might not want to go on a lengthy quest into the wilderness. Knocking out a few shrines and upgrading my stamina is a perfectly reasonable task, however.
Most shrines feature hidden treasure chests. Frequently, these contain equipment like melee weapons, bows, or shields. I lost track of how many times I’d get to one, only to be told that my inventory was full. When this happened, I’d step away from the chest, cycle through what I was holding, and toss several items at my feet before grabbing my new toy. It’s frustrating at times, but you thankfully can upgrade your storage capacity by collecting hidden seeds and delivering them to a specific character.
Another frustration comes about thanks to the weapons themselves. Almost all of them will break eventually, which can be annoying when you’re trying to decide what to bring into each battle. Do you want to use your awesome lightning sword on that group of basic Bokoblins, or do you want to dispatch them with your super-slow two-handed rusty broadsword? Some may enjoy the decision-making that this forces you to do, but I usually wished I could just go in swinging with my favorite weapon without worrying about it shattering. It can be a frustrating system at times, but it’s remedied somewhat by the steady availability of new weapons in the field.
Breath of the Wild also has issues on the technical end. Its art style and character design are among the best I’ve seen in the series, but there’s no denying that the framerate takes a big hit from time to time. This is most evident in areas like dense forests and populated towns. Things usually move along at a decent clip, but you’re bound to notice the game chugging if you take a stroll through Kakariko Village during a rainstorm. That said, I never felt like it interfered with combat or platforming scenarios at any point.
This can be either the shortest or—more likely—the longest Zelda game depending on how you play it. You can go for a novelty speed run and charge Ganon right out of the gate. You can put a couple of dozen hours into the adventure, beat two or three dungeons, and decide you’re ready to take on the endgame. Or you could do what I did, which is spend almost 100 hours exploring the map and enhancing Link’s gear, health, and stamina before you’re ready to see the credits.
You decide when it’s time to end the game. It’s a great feeling, and I loved having such a defined goal throughout (“Defeat Ganon” is the first quest given to you). I wanted to be as powerful as possible in preparation for the climactic battle. When the time came, I felt like I was in an action movie “gearing-up” montage as I purchased bundles of every type of arrow, optimized my weapon inventory, put on my highest-rated gear, and cooked plenty of hearty meals. With at least 30 well-salted meat dinners lining the pockets of my fanciest armor, I breached the perimeter of Hyrule Castle and prepared to take on Ganon.
There’s great joy to be found in the big moments like this as well as the myriad little details. I laughed when lightning struck me for the first time, instantly killing Link. I asked the goofy scientist guy in Akkala to introduce himself every time I saw him, because I couldn’t get enough of the little dance and sound effect that accompanied it. I was fascinated with what I found on Eventide Island, and spent over an hour making sure that I performed its unique task perfectly.
Every night, I sat on the couch and played until I genuinely couldn’t stay awake any longer. Every morning, I couldn’t get out of bed and turn on the Switch fast enough. Near the end, I found myself getting sad as I climbed the final towers and saw the map fill in. This Hyrule gave me such a profound sense of discovery, and I never wanted the mysteries to end. Even now, I have no idea of the purpose of numerous things that I saw. Ganon may be dead and I watched the credits roll, but I want to keep jumping back in until I’ve seen everything there is to see.
This sense of wonder is something that I haven’t felt so strongly since I played A Link to the Past when I was seven years old. Ocarina of Time was able to capture some of that same magic in my teenage years. Now that I’m in my thirties, I don’t think that I expected it to be possible for a game to make me feel like that again. I’ve been reviewing video games for twelve years now, and I’m used to describing games in a certain way. “This game controls well. This mechanic is innovative. The graphics are stunning. The skill tree feels limited.” That type of language doesn’t adequately convey how Breath of the Wild made me feel. Nintendo may have changed so many long-standing traditions of the Zelda franchise, but the spirit of discovery is as strong as it’s ever been no matter your age. I didn’t think I’d feel the Zelda magic this strongly ever again, but I couldn't be happier to be proven wrong....
At first glance, Playdead's second game Inside seems like a better-looking retread of its breakout indie hit Limbo, in that you're another faceless child who wordlessly starts off in a forest, running to the right while occasionally pushing, pulling, and jumping over things. But you can't spend more than a few minutes with this game before realizing how much Playdead's ambitions, and its ability to fulfill those ambitions, have grown in the six years since Limbo. Inside expands on the concepts and scope of its predecessor in wildly creative ways, and it's so immaculately designed and constructed from top to bottom that it almost feels suitable for display in an art museum. This is one hell of a followup.
It's important to note up front that the tone and presentation of Inside are just like that of Limbo, which is to say it's preeminently focused on having you puzzle-platform your way through beautifully rendered, increasingly grim scenarios at the expense of everything else. You will pick your way through a wide array of different environments, stitched together seemingly at random and oozing with unsettling imagery. You will solve satisfying puzzles in macabre scenarios; you won't be told a coherent story. You may be scratching your head a little when it's all over. If you roll your eyes at games that can even be loosely described as artsy, you should at least know what you're getting into here. Inside takes itself seriously, but it's way too good at everything it does to ever become bogged down in pretension.
Inside's building blocks--from its core mechanics and controls to minutiae like the achievement design and chapter select--are right out of the Limbo playbook, though Inside diverges from its predecessor in some important ways. Limbo was mostly built around two concepts: relatively simple, physics-based puzzles and challenges, and killing you over and over (and over). The one thing I remember Limbo doing better than any similar puzzle-platformer at the time was making your interactions with the game world grounded and tactile, giving you a feeling of direct control over whatever box, lever, rope, or giant spider leg you were yanking on at the time. Granted, a lot has changed since 2010, and these days there's no shortage of similar puzzle games with nice physics, so another game that simply recycled Limbo's bona fides obviously wouldn't make the same impact today.
Thankfully Inside more than recaptures that uncanny sense of control; it expands on and integrates it even more seamlessly into the way you run around in and touch the world around you, creating bigger and more elaborate puzzles and obstacles than Limbo ever did. You see loving attention to detail throughout this game, and one of my favorite places where that attention manifests is in the way you interact, or rather that you don't interact, with the many objects you can use in your puzzling. Manipulable (is that a word?) objects tend to melt just into the background and let you run right past them, rather than forcing you to tediously climb back and forth over them, but you can still grab and move them around when you need to, and the character animation that happens around all this is just sublime. It's such a minor point that you might not even notice if you aren't a huge nerd about the little ways game design and presentation are constantly evolving and being refined over time, but it's one of the many subtle, elegant touches that make Inside feel like the product of a lot of intense consideration. It makes the game world, fantastical as it is, feel a little more real.
While the mechanics of your control over the environment are familiar, Inside largely drops Limbo's trial-and-error obstacles and its sadistic urge to kill you constantly, and instead stretches its legs with more involved puzzles that in a lot of cases require you to think a little more abstractly about the environment and your ability to manipulate it. Inside isn't riddled with gotcha-style cheap deaths that require too much repetition; there's something more methodical and a bit more cerebral about making your way through most of this game. When you die, it's typically not because you were killed by a devilishly hidden trap, but more likely because you were poking at the options in front of you to see how you could ply them toward a solution, and just pushed things a bit too far. That makes the puzzles less rote and more satisfying to solve. If all this sounds frustratingly vague, it's only because describing specific scenarios would lessen the "oh wow" revelations of discovering them yourself, and those revelations are at the core of what makes this game so enjoyable. Things get weird, though, and then weirder again. So many elements of this game's scenarios and design feel marvelously, searingly creative.
In light of Limbo's sparse, expressionistic art style, the way Inside's look has evolved and expanded might be the most impressive thing about it. The game's art design and presentation are subtle and cohesive even as your travels take you through disparate areas like farmlands, industrial cityscapes, underwater wreckage, and research facilities, and each of these areas advances some of the sinister images and themes you might expect, and quite a few you won't. There's a repeated emphasis on scenes of cruelty and exploitation in an industrial context that give the game a heavy, oppressive tone, and while you aren't exactly fighting any enemies as such, there are some antagonists and adversarial situations that really made my skin crawl.
Moreover, the sheer scale of the world here makes Limbo seem like it might as well have been made from paper cutouts. Where that game took an effective less-is-more approach (which may well have owed to the budgetary constraints of a debut indie game), Playdead has gone the other direction here by lavishing an astonishing amount of depth and detail on every inch of the game. There's so much layered scenery in the fore- and background of any given area that you feel like you could reach all the way into it up to your elbow. It's an appropriately drab game, but there are spare uses of bright lighting that occasionally remind you that the boy is in fact wearing a red shirt. It's a side-scroller so of course you view it from the side, but occasional, slight camera moves and changes in perspective contribute to consistently interesting scene composition and framing. Much like Limbo, the whole thing has a soft focus that makes it easy to forget it's built out of polygons, frequently taking on the character of a piece of moving artwork. I have no compunction about calling Inside a visual masterpiece.
It feels strange to talk so little in specific about a game I'm so impressed by, and I could write a review three times as long citing examples like the first time you put on that... ah, forget it. This is less a nod to overly sensitive spoiler culture and more an acknowledgement of Inside as a work of singular creativity and meticulous design, one of those games where the more it surprises you, the more it'll impress you. I have a hard time coming up with much, other than a conclusion that left me wanting a little more, that this game could do better. It's that question of the gap between ambition and fulfillment, a gap which here is all but nonexistent. Looking at and playing Inside gives the feeling that every surface, every animation, every light and pixel were placed and replaced until they all fit together just right. You see where the six years went. I can't even picture what kind of game Playdead could make another six years from now....
The North Koreans are overwhelmingly powerful, but if only the resistance had Benjamin Walker, then everything would be different.
This is the contradictory engine that drives most of Homefront: The Revolution, and it encapsulates the game’s failed attempt to treat bleak problems of an alternate history America with simple, mechanical solutions. Homefront is a game that's more interested in telling you how grim things are than it is in showing you what makes your circumstances so dire, and rarely finds way to include you in its key moments of storytelling.
And throughout its roughly 25-hour campaign, all of these structural and narrative failures are coupled with frequent bugs and hackneyed game design.
I can’t help but want to start this with my own “if only” statement, too. If only Homefront executed on its core ideas. After all, it’s a game with two totally solid premises: First, a speculative fiction setting in which North Korea (re-imagined as a technological, economic, and military powerhouse) invades and occupies the United States of America. Second, an open-world, first-person shooter that attempts to bring to an urban environment some of what the recent Far Cry games have done in tropical and mountainous regions.
Both of these premises have potential. Though it might seem uniquely suited to a sort of boilerplate, rah-rah nationalism, there’s a place in my heart for alternate history stories about besieged Americans trying to survive while figuring out what the hell it means to be “American” anyway--Man in the High Castle proved that this sort of fiction has legs over 50 years ago. And, you know, “What if Far Cry, but in a city” seems like a sound enough idea to build a game around; urban environments may not have the same attraction for some as Far Cry’s idealized, “exotic” locales, but cities offer their own sort of beauty.
Unfortunately, Homefront fails to execute on either of these premises, offering only a glowering and inconsistent narrative and monotonous action spread over a game twice as long as it should be. Worse, these two goals collide head first, creating a game that is confused at best and virulent at worst.
It starts like this: What if the computing revolution sprouted out of North Korea in the late 1970s, with the Apple-like Apex Corporation eventually becoming a massive player in worldwide consumer, industrial, and military technologies? Driven bankrupt by foreign wars and poor economic policy, the US goes deep into debt to a booming North Korea, and when they fail to pay down their loans, North Korea comes to collect. America readies a defense, but there’s a problem: Our military hardware all runs on Apex technology, and Apex technology has a backdoor built into it, allowing the North Korean government to flip a switch and win the war. Whoops.
Things pick up years later in an occupied Philadelphia where “The Resistance” struggles to expel the Korean People’s Army from the city. Philadelphia is split into distinct zones (with a fairly hefty load as you travel between them). Half of the areas are “red zones,” bombed-out battlefields where the resistance fights openly against the KPA. The other half are “yellow zones,” occupied residential districts where regular folks try to carry on life in the presence of police brutality, american collaborators and… well, that’s about all we’re given really. Homefront never stops to paint a picture of civilian life under the KPA. What little detail it provides about the setting mostly comes through dry journal entries and laughable graffiti scattered across the game. But things are bad, Homefront insists, very bad. And the Resistance needs help.
Enter Benjamin Walker, an imprisoned soldier with the gift of gab and the key to driving the North Koreans out, or at least that’s what you’re told. As Ethan Brady--painfully silent Resistance grunt--you don’t really see much of Walker in action, and the plan for revolution is never explained further than “Once we rescue him, Walker will inspire people to rise up.” Why is this absurd? Because Homefront goes out of its way to emphasize the disparity in power between the Resistance--whose weapons are nearly taped together--and the KPA--whose Star Destroyer-esque airships dot the skyline.
This disparity is central to Homefront’s general design, too, at least for the start of the campaign. The KPA holds onto their territory with armed patrols, surveillance drones, and the aforementioned airships, which cast down glowing beams of blue-green light in search of any Resistance operatives. Health regenerates at a snail’s pace and healing items are limited, so open-air gunfights end quickly (and not in the player’s favor). Open conflict is deadly, and you learn early to avoid it whenever possible.
When combat encounters do erupt, Homefront has a few things going for it. First, the sound design is good and weighty, with hefty rifle reports cutting through increasingly tense ambient drone soundtrack. Second, when the game is running smoothly, combat can look fantastic--especially when the day-night cycle offers particularly cinematic lighting. Third, Homefront does a good job of illustrating the need for the Resistance to be flexible by offering weapons that can be modified (on the fly) in ways that go beyond attaching a scope or a silencer. Each gun is based around a core receiver which can have different fittings attached to transform the weapon in major ways. So what is first a silenced pistol can be transformed into an submachine gun, in the case that things get hairy. Or maybe you transform your mid-range battle rifle into a “Freedom Launcher” that launches explosive red, white, and blue fireworks (perhaps the only example of “so-goofy-it’s-good” design in the game). I eventually settled into a favored set of guns, but I still appreciated the novelty and quality of the game’s armory.
On paper, this should all be great, and sometimes it really does come together to produce something unique. Imagine: You’re deep into KPA controlled territory, sprinting from building to building, heading towards one of the numerous side missions (called “strikepoints”) while staying out of sight as best as you can. You’ve managed to silently take down a few solitary guards, and have posted up on the second floor of a devastated brownstone so that you can safely recon the next length of land. There’s an armored patrol slowly rolling down the boulevard between you and your target, and that’s why you don’t notice the chittering of the drone behind you until it’s too late, its blue lights turning red in alert. It flies away before you can knock it out of the sky, and then you hear the distorted horn howling from above: The airship is here, and that means the KPA’s troops are on their way. You pick a few off with your marksman rifle, but their numbers are mounting quickly. A sniper round finds your shoulder, and you realize you’re out of medkits. Time to run.
Moments like this are the proof that the premise can work… but they’re also all too rare. What happens more often than not is this: You run safely from one strikepoint to another. When you get there, you climb a few scaffolds or shoot a few guards, and then move to the objective point and press (and sometimes hold) the X button. Then you’ve done it, you’ve taken over the outpost or hacked the transmitter or destroyed the supply cache. Progress is even flatter in the game’s Yellow Zones, where you slowly build support among occupied population of Philly. After stabbing soldiers enough and tuning in enough hidden stereos into the revolutionary radio station, you’re told to deliver a rousing speech to the citizens. So you walk up and hit the X button again and… watch a cutscene of civilians hitting empty cars with baseball bats. Again, Homefront is more interested in telling you that a revolution is happening than showing you take an active, meaningful part in it. Success almost always feels this flat. There’s never the triumphant joy found in other, similar games that comes from taking over an outpost without being spotted or making it through a hard firefight through the skin of your teeth. Instead, things just sort of deflate once the action comes to a stop.
Poor interface design ensures that the action itself never feels dynamic for too long, either. Pulling up the map, an objective list, or any other in-game menu is a clunky endeavor that slows things down considerably. Tagging enemies requires you to bring up your phone, switch to the camera, and hope that you can pass the center of the lens over the enemy model directly: Any obstruction, even see-through mesh fences, prevent the camera from acquiring the target.
The bugs are even worse: Sometimes, mission objectives fail to load into the game entirely. Sound drops out in the middle of a gunfight, or else an inexplicable and banging noise begins emitting from the corner of an empty room in your safehouse. Unpredictable hitches in the action on both PC and PS4 are by far the most frustrating offender. (I didn't get a chance to check out Homefront on Xbox One). On PC, these last a couple of short seconds, but on PS4--which already has a framerate that struggles severely--the game would flat out freeze for upwards of 5 seconds. This happens every few minutes, so while it might not be too frustrating the first few occasions, by the hundredth time it had made the already monotonous game that much more exasperating.
But even if the performance is addressed in patches one day, the game's problems need a deeper fix. All of the tension of the early game decreases as Homefront continues. Once you complete a side mission, the surrounding region of the map turns blue and enemies largely stop spawning there, letting you travel unimpeded through huge swaths of the zone. Combat gets easier (and more avoidable), too. As you earn money and upgrade points, you’ll take less damage, run faster, and be even more difficult for the AI to spot. The problem isn’t upgrading your abilities, it’s that the KPA never does anything to counter this. As far as I could tell, the KPA fielded the same enemy types from the game’s early moments through its lifeless finale. Within five hours, any sense of tension had been replaced by total monotony. What had once seemed like a map filled with dangerous ops turned into a muted checklist. Revolution has never felt this rote.
None of this would matter as much if the story of Homefront: The Revolution was a pulpy romp featuring outlandish heroes and four-color comic book adventures. Unfortunately, Homefront’s story is self-serious, its characterization confused, and its narrative structure sags. As taking over zones get easier and easier, the game’s boilerplate characters shout more and more about how the situation is getting increasingly desperate for the Resistance. The first half of the game spins from one character to another, never letting anyone make much of an impression. Instead, we get familiar cardboard cutouts: Military Action Guy, Angry Punk Chick, Brainy Lady Who Does Machines, Black Pacifist Doctor (he says “I have a dream,” at one point. Seriously, he says it. Out loud. And he’s wrong in the end.) Homefront especially botches a narrative of implied sexual assault and PTSD from just about every potential angle.
Which isn’t to say that difficult topics should be off limits. Any of these characters, if written with definition, care, and a dash of actual humor, could’ve been solid enough companions through the game. Instead they’re thin caricatures, undercutting any sense of drama or urgency once the supposed drama starts to unfold. Worse, through the first 20 or so hours, I could never tell if I was supposed to think that these characters were naive fools or noble heroes--and this ambiguity isn’t artfully rendered, it’s just whiplash.
Retreating from Homefront’s blustery and boring campaign and into its multiplayer “Resistance” co-op mode doesn’t help much, though. On first blush, a co-op mode makes sense: There is a crowded field of competitive first person shooters, and nothing about Homefront’s action is distinctive enough to separate it from the pack. Unfortunately, it turns out that the co-op field is also pretty crowded these days. Homefront’s handful of multiplayer levels are repetitive, offering none of the surprising randomization that keeps similar co-op experiences like Payday or Left 4 Dead fresh. Likewise, Homefront’s multiplayer mode requires none of the careful teamwork nor does it offer gunplay as enjoyable as Destiny, The Division, or the slept-on Syndicate. The progression structure in “Resistance” is leagues better than that in the campaign, forcing players to make tough choices about character abilities and specializations. Unfortunately, after playing through each of the missions a few times, a lack of content gave me no reason to keep grinding. If only it had a few more levels, maybe it could have kept my attention a bit longer.
I keep coming back to that desperate phrase: “If only...” It’s a phrase that the Resistance repeats over and over: “If only we had Walker…”; “If only we had a tank…”; “If only we had more people…” Sometimes the pacifist doctor or a pragmatic collaborator chides the group for their simplistic idealism: Shouldn’t we aim for achievable progress instead of impossible utopia? Instead of “If only we had...”, shouldn’t we instead ask “Okay, what do we have and what can we do with it?” This is a debate worth having--after all, it’s a debate that both of the major American political parties have been having internally for the better part of the last year. But despite the game’s earnest tone, Homefront never leaves space for these ideas to be debated narratively or mechanically. Instead, the dissenting voices are shut down and the Hail Mary pass is reaffirmed as the only way forward.
This is how, somewhere along the way, Homefront made me realize how pernicious “If only we had...” is. What comes after that rhetorical salvo doesn’t matter so much: Whether it’s a complaint about leadership, economics, time constraints, or tactics, it’s an oratorical move that reduces a complex problem into something very simple: “If only we could get rid of those people”; “if only we had better technology;” “if only we could go back to the good old days.” It responds to dread by suggesting--demanding--an arbitrary and outlandish fix or a magical solution. This is the first ingredient necessary (though not sufficient) to begin a fascistic movement, which means that Homefront fails even as a hurrah to American Greatness. After all, to the degree that any America--fictional or real--has ever been great, it has not been because of magical solutions. It’s because of the truly difficult work of complicated and fallible people, plus a great deal of luck and timing.
At its fearful root, there’s something hopeful about “if only.” It suggests improvement is possible. And so, I find myself wanting to say my own versions of the phrase. There’s that one striking image in Homefront: The Korean airship, its curved back and sharp nose, a shark skimming a scorched city skyline, a thing of mobile death. And it’s so hard not to say: If only Homefront could do justice to that image. But ‘doing justice’ requires more than one great effort, one great image.
And so other “if only” statements start to roll in: “If only Homefront wasn’t so buggy...”; “If only it was a little more difficult...”; “If only its development wasn’t so troubled…” But there is no single, special solution to the problems that Homefront has. It is a dull game that fails to offer more than passing enjoyment, hitching and glitching all along the way. It offers a middling co-operative mode in a field filled with games trying to innovate in that space. It struggles to say anything--even something bombastic and cartoonish--about crisis, nationality, or revolution. It tries to roar America, but instead coughs out a few, unintelligible grunts....