Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Evil Within: Surprisingly Disappointing

The Evil Within (2014) is one of the most notable survival-horror games of the last decade for the simple fact that it was directed by Shinji Mikami, the man responsible for bringing us the original Resident Evil in 1996 and its beloved sequel Resident Evil 4 in 2005. With the man responsible for popularizing the concept of survival-horror games directing his first survival-horror game in almost a decade, there was a lot of hype surrounding The Evil Within, especially considering its strong similarities to Resident Evil 4. Promising a return to "pure survival-horror" that would become "the new face of horror," The Resident Evil Within certainly looked like the sequel Resident Evil 4 deserved, but ultimately never received.

The similarities are unmistakably present, from the slower-paced survival gameplay that has you exploring environments in search of hidden ammunition and healing supplies to the over-the-shoulder third-person combat system, but The Evil Within spices up that familiar formula by throwing in a stealth system, a more robust system for upgrading your weapons and abilities, and by generally emphasizing horror and tension more than action. It takes a little time for the game to get going and fully open itself up to you, but for a while during the early levels I was prepared to declare The Evil Within a worthy successor to Resident Evil 4 that was actually better in many ways. But as I got further into the game, my awe and optimism turned into detachment and frustration.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Dark Souls 3: Ashes of Ariandel - Review

Ashes of Ariandel is the first of two planned DLCs for Dark Souls III; it adds a new region to the game with a new boss, new enemies, new armor sets, new weapons and spells, and a PVP arena that can be accessed from the Firelink bonfire once you find and beat the second, hidden boss. For $15, it'll get you about four hours of content and at least one new toy for each type of build, which you can put to use in the arenas for 1vs1 duels (un-embered, no estus), free-for-all brawls (timed match with respawn, limited estus, player with most kills wins), or team-brawls (same as free-for-all, except 2vs2 or 3vs3). For the most part, it's all quality content with memorable encounters and fun new weapons, and the PVP arena will really help extend the game's life for those interested in PVP.

Despite its overall quality, Ashes of Ariandel wasn't that satisfying for me. Part of that has to do with its relatively short length; I was able to explore everywhere and do everything possible in a single afternoon, and the whole thing felt anticlimactic. In typical Souls fashion, the story is practically non-existent, with you entering the Painted World of Ariandel on an incredibly vague pretense, and then wandering around aimlessly until you trigger its ending, which leaves everything almost completely unresolved. In the end, this DLC felt more like it was a hidden, optional area that was cut from the base game instead of a proper DLC expansion. It's not a bad experience, mind you, but apart from the PVP arena I feel like I wouldn't have missed much if I'd just skipped it altogether.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine - Review

Blood & Wine is the second expansion for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the last bit of content that will ever be produced in The Witcher series. With no plans for any future games in the series, developer CD Projekt designed Blood & Wine to serve as a final farewell tour for Geralt, sending him on one last adventure in a new land before he puts up his swords and retires from his life as a monster-hunter-for-hire. For that reason alone, Blood & Wine is a special, magical experience that serves as a fine coda for one of the best open-world games -- and one of the best video games in general -- ever created, but there's a lot more to appreciate about Blood & Wine than its sentimental value.

Whereas Hearts of Stone felt like it was, essentially, just a new story set within the confines of TW3, Blood & Wine is a full-fledged expansion fully deserving of its $20 price tag. Blood & Wine offers upwards of 30 hours of extra content with an all-new main story in a brand new region, Toussaint, complete with dozens of new quests, tons of new weapons and armor, new enemies, a new system for improving Geralt's witcher abilities with skill points and mutagens, and a player home that you can upgrade to give you extra benefits as a base of operations. There's enough original content in Blood & Wine that it could have been sold as its own stand-alone game, and the majesty of its presentation is simply breath-taking.

Unfortunately, nothing in Blood & Wine is much of a game-changer, with the exception of the new mutations and possibly the player home -- otherwise, it's all basically just more of the same from a game that was already a little too long and bloated to begin with, and at least in my opinion, nothing in Blood & Wine really outshines anything that's been done previously in either the base game or Hearts of Stone. That's not much of a criticism, mind you; CD Projekt set the bar so high with its previous efforts that coming up a little short still puts Blood & Wine well beyond other game experiences from other developers. But if you're someone like me who's feeling a little burned out from playing the same game for so long, then Blood & Wine will only give you so much of a spark before it settles back into routine.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

Hearts of Stone -- the first DLC pack for The Witcher 3 -- adds about 15-20 hours of new content to the game, extending the northeastern region of the map, near Oxenfurt, with new points of interest, side-quests, and treasure hunts, in addition to other expansion essentials like all-new enemies, new equipment sets, a new system for crafting and buying unique runes and glyphs, and a main storyline that goes toe-to-toe with and even exceeds the best quests in the base game. Hearts of Stone is, at its heart, a fairly typical DLC expansion that simply takes the familiar formula of the base game and adds more content to it, but it improves upon the experience by directly addressing some of the core issues of the base game, such as combat, economy, and pacing. The mechanical improvements are reason enough to give Hearts of Stone a solid recommendation, but the main quest-line and all of its great characters, stories, and gameplay sequences push it well above the base game and make it one of the best $10 DLC packs I've ever played.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Witcher 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I've had nothing but tremendous respect for Polish developer CD Projekt RED ever since I played their 2007 debut, The Witcher. That game quickly vaulted its way into my short list of all-time favorite RPGs. Their 2011 followup, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, was really solid as well, and I especially admired how the middle portion of the game branched in completely separate directions depending on your choices. What they and their parent company have been doing with, meanwhile -- picking up licenses for older games, updating them to work on modern platforms, and selling them completely DRM-free at reasonable prices -- combined with their continued support for TW1 and TW2 -- putting a ton of effort into the Enhanced Edition of both games and releasing the updates completely free -- has made them a shining example of a game company doing good within the industry and treating their customers right.

The 2013 and 2014 E3 previews for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt generated a ton of hype, leading some publications to declare it their most anticipated game of 2015. Understandably so -- how could you not be excited over the prospect of CD Projekt's masterful storytelling and quest design applied to a vast open world? I was skeptical when it was first announced that the game would be open-world, but I held out hope that CD Projekt could pull it off, given their track record of success and how much they seem to understand game design. The Witcher 3 was subsequently released in May of 2015 to universal acclaim, and shattered records for the most "Game of the Year" awards ever bestowed upon one game. I figured, at that point, that CD Projekt had defied my expectations and managed to craft a huge open-world RPG that captured all the best elements of open-world games while still retaining the unique soul and elements that made The Witcher series so great in the previous two installments. And then I actually played it.

It turns out that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not the perfect masterpiece everyone claims it to be. It's really, really good, mind you, and I'd say it's easily one of the best open-world RPGs ever created. But that praise and distinction doesn't shield it from criticism, and the fact remains that there are a lot of critical areas in which TW3 comes up short, outright disappoints, or else simply isn't as good as it could've been. There's a lot of stuff to talk about with a game this size, so I won't even try to craft this review into a paragraph-by-paragraph flowing essay; instead, I'll break it down into specific topics and categorize them based on three of Clint Eastwood's timeless criteria: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Board Game Review: King of Tokyo

King of Tokyo is a dice-chucking game designed by Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering), originally published by IELLO Games in 2011, in which players take the role of epic Godzilla-sized monsters battling for supremacy over Tokyo. Players roll a handful of dice each turn, picking which results to keep and re-rolling any unwanted dice two more times, Yahtzee-style, for a total of three rolls. The dice results determine your actions for that turn: each claw rolled deals a point of damage to other monsters, each heart heals you by one point, each lightning bolt gives you energy to spend on upgrade cards (which can grant you permanent bonuses or one-time benefits), and rolling three or more of the same number grants you that many star points.

At the heart of the game is Tokyo city, where monsters vie for control via a king of the hill type of mechanism -- only one monster can be in Tokyo at a time (two if playing with five or six players), and you get star points for going into and staying in Tokyo. While in Tokyo, your attacks hit every monster outside of Tokyo, but you can't heal unless you cede the city and flee to the outskirts, allowing someone else to swoop in and lay claim to Tokyo. Meanwhile, every monster outside of Tokyo attacks inwards, hitting whomever's in Tokyo. You win the game by being the first to reach 20 star points, or by being the last monster standing.

The relatively light rules, short playtime (30 minutes, according to the box), and whimsical nature of the game, what with its cartoon monsters punching each other and evolving over the course of the game to gain jet packs and fire breathing abilities, among countless other possibilities, all combine to make King of Tokyo a consensus "gateway" or "family" game. This is the type of game you buy when you're first getting into the hobby, or when you want a game to play with people who aren't interested in heavy strategy games with lots of rules and complexities. Its esteemed reputation among board game enthusiasts on BoardGameGeek and r/boardgames gave me enough confidence to buy King of Tokyo two years ago, when I was first starting my board game collection, and indeed, it was a lot of fun early on. But now, two years later, I just don't enjoy it very much.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Killing Floor 2 Early Access: One Year Later

Killing Floor 2, Tripwire Interactive's cooperative zombie-killing first-person horde-mode shooter, has been in Steam's Early Access for over a year. I've been playing it on and off over the span of the last 14 months, racking up 178 hours of gameplay during that time, usually coming back any time there's a new update, playing for a while, and then eventually losing interest. With the recent release of the "Bullseye Content Pack," which finally introduces the beloved Sharpshooter role from the original Killing Floor, I figured it was time to take another look at KF2 and update you all on where it stands after a year of development, and whether it's worth getting when it inevitably goes on sale this summer.

I wish I could sing praises about how far the game has come since it launched into Early Access, because KF2 is a game I really want to like. The original Killing Floor is the most-played game in my Steam library, and KF2 has a lot of great ideas that would seem to improve upon the successful formula of KF1. And yet, I find myself constantly annoyed by all the decisions Tripwire makes in regards to the game's development. It seems like every time they roll out a new update, it comes with some feature that completely breaks the game, or else makes it significantly less fun to play. With Tripwire's ridiculously slow development process, it then takes months before they get around to fixing things, if they ever address the issue at all. Meanwhile, they can't seem to make up their minds about what they actually want the game to be, which leaves the game feeling like a confused mess that often just isn't very fun to play.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Dark Souls 3 Doesn't Suck .... Or Does It?

After the colossal disappointment of Dark Souls II, it would be appropriate to say that I had pretty low expectations for Dark Souls III. Although, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I simply had no expectations for Dark Souls III. Despite all of my criticism against Dark Souls II, I still found it a deeply engaging experience, and I enjoy the core gameplay of the Souls series enough that a single lukewarm experience wouldn't be enough to turn me off from future installments. With Dark Souls III, I wasn't going to expect some sort of grand, transcendent experience like the original Demon's Souls, or even the first Dark Souls -- instead, I was just going to play it and try to enjoy it like I would any other video game.

Reviewing Dark Souls III is a difficult task for me because I have two divergent opinions about it. On the one hand, it feels like the least rushed and most polished of the three Dark Souls games, but on the other hand, it also feels like it's lacking in content compared to either of the previous two games. Despite that, I've put twice as many hours into Dark Souls III than I put into either Dark Souls or Dark Souls II, with 135 hours spanning multiple characters and multiple playthroughs. It was so addicting that I'd sometimes play for eight hours straight without stepping away to eat lunch or dinner, or play until four in the morning when I had to be up at nine the next day. And yet, after all that time, I've found myself progressively more annoyed and disappointed. There's all this extra stuff I still want to do, in terms of builds and playstyles, but I just can't bring myself to keep playing anymore, unless the game gets some serious patches, because the flaws have become almost unbearable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

STALKER: Call of Pripyat - Review

STALKER: Call of Pripyat is the third game in the STALKER series, a trio of open-world survival-horror FPS games set in the irradiated "Zone" around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, following a fictitious second blowout in 2006. As a result of all the radiation (and other mysterious forces), the Zone has become an inhospitable place full of violent mutants and dangerous scientific anomalies -- small, localized spaces that defy the laws of physics, like gravity wells that pull you off the ground and rip you to pieces, or spots of earth that shoot fire when you step on them. Some of the mutants have even developed powers of telekinesis, invisibility, and mind control. The only people who venture into the Zone are scientists looking to study the anomalies, and treasure hunters known as "stalkers" hoping to find valuable "artifacts" contained in and around anomalies, which bestow their carriers with special powers like accelerated blood clotting or extra strength.

Call of Pripyat follows the events of Shadow of Chernobyl, in which you, as an amnesiac stalker known as the "marked one," managed to disable a device called the "brain scorcher," which had been keeping people from reaching the center of the Zone. With the demise of the brain scorcher, the Ukrainian government launched a series of helicopters to survey the area in preparation for a large-scale military raid on the CNPP. All five of the helicopters crashed in the Zone before reaching the CNPP. You play as Major Degtyarev, member of the Ukrainian Security Services, on an undercover reconnaissance mission investigating the helicopter crashes. You begin the game on the outskirts of the Zone in the Zaton swamps, before advancing to the Yanov Railway station and Jupiter manufacturing plant, and eventually, reaching the city of Pripyat itself.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My Top 10 Favorite First-Person Shooters

In my recent review of the No One Lives Forever series, I made the comment that those games were among my favorite first-person shooters of all time. That's how I felt when I first played them ten years ago, and replaying them a few weeks ago reminded me of just how much fun they remain, even to this day. That got me thinking: where would I actually rank them among the dozens of FPS games I've played in my lifetime? Thus, after some thought and consideration, I came up with this list of my top ten favorite first-person shooters. Spoiler alert: No One Lives Forever and Doom will be somewhere on this list.

The games that made it on to this list, as well as their relative rankings, are based on the following criteria: (1) How good do I feel the game is, (2) How much of an impact did the game have on me as a gamer, and (3) How interested would I be in replaying the game right now. I also wanted to include only games where FPS gameplay is the primary, defining element; a game like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines would rank higher than a lot of games on this list, but it's an RPG first and foremost, so I had to exclude it. And as much as I wanted to include Metroid Prime, it's really not an FPS at its heart, even though FPS gameplay is a major part of it. Spoiler alert: Vampire Bloodlines and Metroid Prime will not be on this list.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Great Games You Never Played: The "No One Lives Forever" Series

The Operative: No One Lives Forever and its sequel, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in HARM's Way, are a series of first-person shooters developed by Monolith Productions in 2000 and 2002, in which players take the role of 1960s secret agent Cate Archer trying to stop a villainous criminal organization from taking over the world. Overshadowed by major releases like GoldenEye, Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Halo, the NOLF series achieved only moderate financial success at the time and was soon abandoned by Monolith in favor of new series like Condemned and FEAR. Fox Interactive since allowed the copyright to fall into no man's land, preventing the games from ever being made available for digital downloads via Steam or GOG, thus cementing the series' cult status in the annals of video game history.

I played these games for the first time in late 2006 and considered them to be some of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. Playing them again now, 10 years later (and 16 years after the first game's initial release), I can definitely tell how much these games have aged, but the things that made them so novel back in the day -- the story, the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor -- are just as good now as they were then. Some of the gameplay elements feel a little outdated, granted, but these were somewhat groundbreaking games for their time, being some of the first first-person shooters to allow and encourage stealth, while their emphasis on using spy gadgetry to complete your objectives in a story-driven, swinging 60s setting makes these games truly stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps the biggest testament to NOLF's legacy is how well the series compares to other games of its time. When Half-Life came along in 1998, it forever changed the way shooters were made, yet in the years immediately following its release, few shooters adhered as closely to its lessons as NOLF1, which took the immersive gameplay and narrative-driven level progression from Half-Life and applied it to a more cinematic experience. GoldenEye was a defining genesis for console shooters; NOLF1 took its spy gadgetry and thematic objectives and gave them a more robust focus that, arguably, made NOLF1 a better James Bond game than GoldenEye itself. And when Deus Ex turned people's heads with its inclusion of RPG-style leveling and skills, NOLF2 did the same thing and vastly improved its own gameplay. All-the-while, the NOLF games were some of the first FPSs to allow players the freedom to choose how they'd go about completing a level, by allowing you to stealth your way past guards or to go in guns blazing.

In essence, the NOLF series takes the best elements of these iconic, classic games and blends them together with strong writing, interesting characters, a compelling story, an amusing sense of humor, and some of the most memorable level sequences of its time into games that are even better than the sum of their parts. It's even more impressive when you consider that there really are a lot of good parts to these games, with the wide variety of guns, the different types of ammunition, all of Cate's cool spy gadgets, the vehicles, the variety of mission types, and all the different locations. The story offers a solid premise with a lot of good twists and hooks, and the silly, lighthearted Austin Powers-esque atmosphere offers the series a uniquely refreshing flavor that will have you laughing at some of its more absurd moments, or else simply smiling at the realization that these games just want you to have fun, plain and simple.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The New 2014 Thief Reboot Sucks

Dear game developers: if you're going to make a new game in an established series, especially one that's been dormant for years, please give it a title that distinguishes it from the previous entries in the series. Don't give it the exact same name as the original game, or the series in the general. When I type something like "Thief mechanics" or "Thief level design" into a search engine, how does it know which game I'm referring to? When I'm talking with people about the newest game in the series, what do I call it? The new Thief? The Thief reboot? Thief 2014? Thief 4? Thi4f.? It drove me nuts with Tomb Raider, and I'm not looking forward to being in this same situation again when Doom comes out in 2016. I mean really, this whole trend is getting ridiculous and needs to stop.

I pretty much knew from the beginning, when Eidos Montreal released the teaser with the title officially stylized as "Thi4f," that the game was going to be rubbish. Mind you, I pretty much expect to be disappointed by virtually all mainstream AAA games these days, but my cynicism kicks in even stronger when it comes to revivals of beloved classics, and Eidos Montreal's efforts with Deus Ex: Human Revolution left me more skeptical than optimistic that they could do a better job reviving Thief. Looking past the rubbish name, I find that the game itself is rubbish too. It's not just that this is a bad Thief game, and it most certainly is -- it's disappointing even as a game in general. The fact that this is supposedly "Thief" just makes it that much harder to stomach.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Movie Roundup: Mini-Reviews

I spent about 20 hours in the back seat of a car this Christmas season, traveling across the country to visit family, which meant I had a lot of free time to kill. In the past I would spend that time playing handheld video games or reading books, but year after year I found myself not having enough time to finish some of those games or books during the trip, and then would never get around to finishing them once I got back home. This year, I decided to take advantage of my big-ass smart phone and download a bunch of movies to watch. I've now watched 11 movies in the past week, including the new Star Trek Star Wars movie on the big screen.

I don't watch a lot of movies, so my critical eye is not trained enough to write a lot of proper reviews for the movies I actually do watch -- with rare exceptions. But, since it's been a while since my last article and it's taking me forever to finish my Thief 2014 review, I figured I'd throw out a bunch of mini reviews for the plethora of movies I watched this week. In the full article, you'll find brief synopses and spoiler-free reviews of, in no particular order: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Interstellar, Gravity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Mist, Avenged, Forever's End, Exile, Ex Machina, I'll Follow You Down, and Under the Skin