State of Decay 2’s open-world battle for survival against a zombie menace is the right kind of post-apocalyptic fun. It creates plenty of high-stakes moments, punctuated by the relative calm of foraging for supplies while always looking over your shoulder. It’s a potent mixture for a while, until the combination of repetitive missions and annoying bugs eventually dulls the joy of squashing heads, even when your co-op entourage rolls deep.
Just like in 2013’s original State of Decay, in State of Decay 2 you can freely switch between randomly generated survivors in your post-apocalyptic community – and you’ll regularly have to, because they can only be pushed so far before their stamina starts to give out. Or worse, you did something stupid and got someone permanently killed, taking their unique traits and whatever leveled-up skills they’ve acquired with them. You’re not able to customize their names or looks at all, which is a shame, because if XCOM has taught us anything it’s that it’s fun to tell your friends and co-workers how you got them killed. But that fear of loss (you can’t reload from an earlier save!) adds some significant weight to the struggle that plays out on one of three open-world rural maps, as you scavenge the region to build a shelter and work to cleanse the land of a disease known as the Blood Plague.
In many ways, Warmind succeeds in bringing back the mystery of Destiny 2’s universe. There are plenty of secrets to uncover, new paths of progression to enjoy in both PVP and PVE, and there’s even a short campaign with intriguing lore sprinkled in if you’re looking for some story. However, each of these positives fails to address smaller issues Destiny 2 has been facing for some time. The grind is more confusing than ever, the story seems cobbled together, and the PVP remains a team shooting sport leaving players still asking to shine like before with moments of solo triumph over opposing teams. Still, I’ve been more motivated than ever to sign on and level up so I can take on new challenges be it the Escalation Protocol event, or Spire of Stars Raid Lair.
By spreading its sails and taking the journey to a creative and interesting setting, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire finds fertile ground for interesting and nuanced roleplaying stories. The main storyline is its biggest weakness, but Deadfire comes into its own by drawing you into the surrounding saga of its embattled islands and the distinct peoples fighting over them. This island chain offers no shortage of fantastic tactical battles, fascinating allies, and exotic places to explore.
2015’s Pillars of Eternity is a love letter to the Baldur’s Gate school of classic isometric RPG, presented in the classic sword-and-sorcery style: a dark and thought-provoking adventure with elves, dwarves, plate mail, and fireballs. Deadfire, on the other hand, strikes a bold contrast and ditches most of these tropes for a less common style. By minimizing castles and forests in favor of a beautiful ocean and boats, and the sword-and-shield aesthetic for sabers and blunderbusses, Deadfire’s 40-hour campaign almost feels like it takes place in a completely different world from the original despite the fact that it stars the same Watcher of Caed Nua character we originally played as.
Walking around Middle-earth: Shadow of War without the Ring of Power or supernatural abilities of any kind is like strutting around naked. But playing as Baranor and his absurd array of weapons and gadgets gives The Desolation of Mordor DLC some fun and interesting gameplay tweaks for the short time this self-contained adventure lasts.
The Desolation of Mordor finds Baranor far from the fiery realm of Mordor, venturing to the dry and dust storm-ridden realm of Lithlad where both uruks and Easterling mercenaries dwell (aka those guys with the elephants in Return of the King). He’s got a few dry character moments as he teams up with the mercenary leader, and Torvin the dwarf makes a guest appearance that’s criminally brief. I was surprised to find there were no classic beast hunts or missions to undertake with the dwarf; instead, he’s been relegated to the stereotypical dwarf role of “gear upgrade man.”
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is a trap disguised as a free-to-play RPG, seemingly designed to prey on your sense of nostalgia and childlike wonder to squeeze as much money out of you as possible. Some Wizarding World-inspired window dressing and familiar music are used as a thin veil to mask what is an otherwise offensive collection of rampant microtransactions.
As a lifelong fan of Harry Potter (I was in elementary school when the books debuted and was exactly 11 years old – the same age as Harry – when the first movie came out) all I wanted was a simple game that let me make a character and attend Hogwarts. But it seemed like immediately after making my witch or wizard, getting a wand from Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, and going to be sorted into one of the four houses, Hogwarts Mystery was actively trying to keep me from enjoying myself.
Killing Floor: Incursion is a VR shooter that understands a universal truth of human nature: when you read the words “in case of emergency, break glass,” you immediately feel the urge to break that glass. Much of its amusement derives from the freedom to indulge such giddy impulses — to pull the dangling pin of a grenade with one hand and to lob the bomb across the room with another, or to slide the chunky forend of a pump-action shotgun back and forth between squeezing off rounds. It encourages you to poke, clutch, twist, and grope your way through its sci-fi environments, and indeed to punch, slice, shove, and shoot your way through its hordes of monstrous enemies. I completed it with a new appreciation for my sense of touch.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan universe was an unforgiving place filled with dangers around every corner. Conan Exiles lives up to that reputation. It’s not just the other players and NPCs in the world that make this survival game rough; it’s the wolves and giants and other terrors stalking the deserts and forests around you. And even if you manage to survive all that, a sandstorm or the brutal northern cold might lay you low. It just came out of early access yesterday with a load of new content, but here’s what I’m thinking about it so far.
Conan Exiles captures the tone of Howard’s hard world right from the start, casting you as a criminal who’s crucified and left to die naked along a highway that last saw better days a century ago. Unlike Funcom’s other Conan game, the MMORPG Age of Conan, though, it focuses more on mood rather than elaborate storylines. Conan himself makes only a brief cameo at the start, cutting you down from your death tree after you’ve created your character. After that, you’re set loose in the Exiled Lands to carve your own tales of high adventure.
It is a more patient person than I who endures City of Brass without a great deal of suffering. Even by the exacting standards of the rogue-lite genre, which aspires to difficulty like most games aspire to fun, this is a grueling, grinding, brutally hard experience, one that left me full of bitterness and resentment rather than satisfaction or joy. I got through it in the end — after much pulling of the hair and gritting of the teeth, after screaming at the television in agony and sending my controller pinwheeling across the room. I can’t speak to its possible replay value, because I simply don’t have it in me to play it again.
Criticizing a game for its difficulty is a delicate matter because one person’s excruciating gauntlet is another’s leisurely cakewalk — and I appreciate that I may be admitting my own ineptness here. But while I’ve completed notoriously difficult gauntlets from Contra to Bloodborne and Cuphead with cheers and sighs of gratified relief, City of Brass aroused in me no feelings so strong as misery and anger, even when I finally, mercifully defeated its back-breaking final boss and concluded its seemingly interminable 12-stage campaign. In fact, City of Brass illustrates an elusive but important distinction between challenging and tortuous: while the former may be hard, the latter is overwhelmingly unfair. It’s the difference between deriving pleasure and finding only pain.
Some of Total War’s best campaigns over the years, such as Caesar in Gaul from Rome 2 or the Kingdoms expansion for Medieval 2, have been narrowly focused on a specific place and time. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is successful for some of the same reasons those were. When I really dug into it though, what I found was a bit of a showboat. It has a lot of cool, new ideas but slips up on the fundamentals in ways that keep those ideas from effectively coming together into a great whole.
The map is among the most detailed and eye-catching in the series so far, modeling Ireland and Great Britain at about the same dimensions that had to contain all of Europe in Total War: Attila. Fighting and maneuvering armies along the jagged coasts of Western Scotland is a much different strategic and tactical experience from wading through the marshy bogs of Essex. The countryside feels fleshed-out and alive thanks to the presence of tiny villages and priories outside the protection of major walled cities.
When we first reviewed Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the Wii U in 2014, we gave it a 9.0, for Amazing. Here’s what we said about it then:
“Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a great platformer full of tense sequences and tough levels. Boss battles are a huge highlight, and it’s packed with hard-to-find secrets and collectibles. Multiplayer could use some improvement, but I found myself laughing whenever my teammate and I wiped out on some of these unforgiving setups. But a rewarding sense of accomplishment stuck with me each time I overcame a new obstacle, and that feeling kept me going all the way to the end.”
Read the full Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze review.
It’s hard not to balk at the $80 price tag on a package that contains mostly cardboard, but the bigger and more elaborate Robot Kit is a step in the right direction for Nintendo’s new kid-aimed concoction. While the Variety Kit (review) is mostly a package of fun but limited ideas, the Robot Kit shows off the goofy potential of what Labo might do with future kits with a more elaborate toy that makes its simple game a whole-body experience.
Of the two kits available at launch, the Robot Kit is by far the most complex and challenging individual Toy-Con to assemble. It takes an adult roughly four hours to build, and longer with kids pitching in. But once assembled, the clever backpack-like device contains a series of weighted cardboard bricks, each of which is tethered by a string to your hands and feet. When you extend one of your limbs, it pulls the string and hoists the brick upward, allowing the inserted Joy-Con’s IR camera to read the reflective markings on the back and send that info to the Switch to control an on-screen robot. Finally, there’s a cardboard visor strapped to your head to complete the look and add a view-switching option.
If variety is the spice of life, then Heroes of the Storm is the MOBA genre’s ghost pepper. Recognizable characters from Blizzard’s most iconic games face off against each other on themed maps with unique objectives that serve as lightning rods for teamfights. Heroes of the Storm also takes a more simplified and accessible approach to the genre that bucks MOBA trends by implementing a streamlined talent system and team-shared experience. It doesn’t always work, but when its at its best Heroes of the Storm can be one of the most varied and exciting 5v5 competitive games around.
This is a MOBA with all the hallmarks of a Blizzard-produced game: a punchy art style, responsive controls, and loads of stuff to do to work toward satisfying unlocks. But most importantly, Heroes of the Storm’s take on the MOBA formula is distinctive because it’s willing to kill some of the genre’s sacred cows in order to make its mechanics easier to learn and its matches flow differently.
Nintendo’s new line of cardboard "build, play, and discover experiences" is aimed at "those who are young and young at heart." The $70 Labo Variety Kit definitely fulfills the first part of that promise: in the hands of a child, its five buildable toys take on an entirely new dimension that blends the digital and physical worlds of play. For the average adult, though, building can be tedious and not particularly challenging, and the games you play and activities you do with these fragile toys mostly lack real substance.
As a concept, Labo’s DIY accessories are particularly interesting for a few different reasons: There's a hint of alchemy that Nintendo has created by mixing both the digital and physical worlds of play, but there’s also a pretty big educational element to it. Not only does Labo let you build fun things like pint-sized cardboard pianos, it also provides a ton of insight into the technology behind how these bizarre accessories work because you have to assemble them piece by piece.
Frostpunk combines the best elements of survival, city-building, and 4X games into one of the more captivating strategy games I’ve played in a while. Thanks to stellar presentation and storytelling, it seamlessly combines these different components into one interesting experience that never feels like a burden to play, even when the difficulty of maintaining a colony during an oppressive ice age ratchets up.
Frostpunk sets the stage with a compelling and timely backstory in which climate change devastates humanity in the late 1800s. Those left alive must seek out the few remaining resources as they attempt to carve out the last city on Earth. It’s not a hopeful tale, but one that effectively communicates the challenges that lie ahead and sets the stage for some difficult and desperate decisions.
With a name like Super Mega Baseball 2, you might reasonably expect to see monster home runs, flaming fastballs, or superhuman feats of skill. Surprisingly, Super Mega Baseball 2 is closer to a true hardball simulation. If you look beyond the oddly stylized players and exaggerated stadiums, you’ll find an appealing, customizable, and authentic baseball game.
While Super Mega Baseball 2 doesn’t offer all of the features or the officially licensed teams and players of MLB: The Show (effectively the only other baseball game in town), it’s gameplay isn’t too far off. They may look cartoony, but thanks to a convincing physics model, players and the ball travel in a realistic fashion. For instance, if a player takes a hard cut at an inside fastball, you can expect him to get jammed and consequently generate a weak ground ball. Or, if weak contact is made on an outside pitch, that ball will likely get pushed the opposite way. Once, I saw a ball hit the edge of the grass and take a predictable bad hop. Throughout my time with Super Mega Baseball 2, I was impressed with the variety and realism of hits.
The first time I dropped into the Radical Heights map and began to skydive toward the ground, I wondered when exactly my parachute would go off. By the time it was already too late, I realized it wasn’t going to. Instead, my character hit the ground with a tuck and roll straight out of an action movie and the fight began. Unfortunately, that’s about where the excitement stops in Radical Heights. Between its cringe-worthy style, shooting that doesn’t feel quite right, and a few lackluster systems, Radical Heights is currently little more than a forgettable entry in the battle royale genre.
Radical Heights is the newest game from LawBreakers developer Boss Key Productions, released on Steam into what they are calling "X-Treme Early Access." The premise isn’t much different from other battle royale games: 100 players skydive into a match in search of random weapons and gear in hopes of being the last player standing.
Hunt: Showdown wants you to feel panic. There’s the panic that ensues when the echoes of your gunshots ring out in the forest around you, potentially attracting monsters and players. Then there’s the panic of trying to franticly escape a level with a prize before other players track you down. And finally, the panic and frustration of losing one of your hunter characters who’d amassed a hefty stash of gear over multiple successful hunts, all because you were careless around a pack of zombie dogs. It’s an addictive type of panic that, when everything clicks, is wholly unique and exhilarating in a way that no other game can be.
Hunt is an Early Access first-person shooter from Crytek with a more nuanced premise than most: You (and your partner, if you bring one) are thrown into a swamp-spattered jungle with minimal supplies and the goal of hunting down and killing a twisted, demonic monster somewhere on a map full of smaller but similarly angry monsters. But it’s not that simple. Not only do you need to kill a monster, you then need to escape while evading other players. It has a very Lovecraftian-meets-Van Helsing setting, which does an excellent job of amping up the tension with some of the most realistic uses of actual darkness I’ve seen in recent memory. Instead of just being a vague, blurry, blueish filter over the screen, nighttime feels like an actual absence of light. With a quality pair of headphones, Hunt delivers the spine-tingling...
Rocket boosting a 60-ton mech to the top of mountain then raining down missiles on your enemy will never not be cool. At the same time, seeing every single piece of that salvo miss the one body part you were actually aiming for is pretty much the polar opposite of satisfaction. Such are the highs and lows of BattleTech, a turn-based tactics game that has as much exciting flavor as it does an overreliance on infuriating random-number generation.
BattleTech is an old and iconic franchise that began on the tabletop, where it spurred the creation of video game series like MechWarrior and MechAssault with its giant walking tanks. Here, in a turn-based setting in which you control a highly customizable lance of four mechs, it feels at home. It’s a thoughtful game that encourages careful planning in both the composition of your mech fighting force and the shots you tell them to take, but some design missteps often rob the execution of that planning of much of its potential impact.
The War Machine is Call of Duty: WW2's second multiplayer DLC, and among its four maps and a Zombies expansion, there are more winners than losers. Its new content ranges from an excellent new standard multiplayer map and Zombies Easter egg challenge all the way down to some maps prone to miserably unbalanced spawn camping and a dogfight without enough room to spread your wings, which makes this an inconsistent but overall worthwhile expansion.
Of the three new core multiplayer maps, Egypt stands out as the best and one I’m always hoping for to pop up in the rotation. For all its narrow corridors through ancient ruins, Egypt still has plenty of space on the two outer lanes for long-ranged shootouts. I rarely played a game where engagements were limited to one part of the map, and I enjoyed seeing how every person made their own playstyle work here. In one game I was up against an incredible sniper who used the many pillars and entryways as cover while picking off my team. In that same game I encountered a person who was able to successfully run through most of the map with the shovel. Regardless of loadout, Egypt offers a great playground for hide and seek with plenty of options for tactical flanking and escapes thanks to its abundance of cover.
Some of the best films of all time are those whose different strengths all work in concert to create a unified, engrossing whole. The Shining, The Social Network, and Jaws are all excellent examples of films made up of strong individual parts complementing each other to form a fantastic work of art. That is absolutely true of God of War – its musical score elevates story moments, which flow seamlessly into fantastic action gameplay, which facilitates exploration and puzzles that reward you with a deeper understanding of its characters and its expansive and beautiful world. God of War is a masterful composition of exceptional interlocking parts, deliberate in its design and its foreshadowing, which pays off in unexpected ways in both the gameplay and story.