Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Shadow of the Tomb Raider review: "All that for another riddle"

Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels like the last dying breath of a particularly insufferable breed of AAA game, one that goes well beyond the old "dark, gritty re-imagining" cliché that we've been mocking since 2004, when the Prince of Persia screamed "YOU BITCH!" at a woman in a steel thong. That was just lame and embarrassing. Shadow is grimy, unpleasant and gross.

To discuss Shadow as a game feels like a waste of time, because it's exactly like the last two, which is to say that it flits so haphazardly between genres that it lacks an identity of its own beyond its desire to showcase elaborate environments. And even that's more of a nuisance than anything, since the levels are so visually cluttered that we need to keep activating detective mode to highlight all of the interactive objects in bright orange. Every time we do, Lara blurts out the objective, over and over. Have to raise that bell somehow. Have to raise that bell somehow. Have to raise that bell somehow.

You may have noticed something peculiar about the screenshots I'm using here. Right out of the box, Shadow comes with several alternate skins for Lara, one of which transforms her into the vintage low-poly-count version from the PS1 days. I highly recommend that you take advantage of this. It's the only hint of self-awareness present in Shadow, and the only thing that kept me sane as I was beaten relentlessly with the melodrama stick.

I don't know where these new Tomb Raider games got the idea that they have anything interesting to say. Their plots are pure serial, no weightier than an Indiana Jones or an Uncharted or any action-adventure in which an explorer traces a series of riddles in order to uncover some mystical artifact that houses a terrible power and, yeah, probably should have just stayed buried. The difference is that those two franchises are lighthearted in tone. Their heroes don't take any of this seriously because they don't inhabit the real world.

Tomb Raider, bless its little heart, actually wants to say something profound about violence. The material is certainly there. When the villain inevitably gives Lara the whole "And how many people have you killed?" spiel, he's got a point. Her actions in Shadow result in the deaths of thousands of people - not just gun-toting mercenaries, but actual innocent bystanders. She's a maniac. She notices it, as does everyone else. Yet the game brings this up repeatedly without having the stones to address it in any meaningful way. Nothing is learned - not by Lara, and certainly not by Crystal Dynamics, who end Shadow with a blatant sequel hook as if another mass-murder crusade with this selfish asshole is something we want.

Shadow begins in Mexico, where everyone is wearing skull masks. Does it strike anyone else as a tad racist that Mexicans are only ever depicted as wearing skull masks? Do people really think Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead year-round? Do Crystal Dynamics think we won't believe it's Mexico if we don't see any skull masks?

Anyway, Lara wears a poncho and a skull mask to blend in, but then wanders around a town square asking people questions in English, so good job. Her old pals Trinity are looking for an ancient dagger that, when combined with a special box, transforms its user into a god. Lara's good at solving puzzles and deciphering languages by now, and she ascertains from some Mayan murals that removing the dagger will create cataclysms - storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, anything that can cause the environments around Lara to collapse in a very over-elaborate and heavily scripted way while the player holds up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved.

She takes it anyway, of course, because she doesn't want it to fall into the wrong hands. Then she loses it because she gets hit once. Really. During an encounter with Dominguez, the main bad guy, one of his goons steps up behind Lara and strikes her with the butt of his rifle. She drops the dagger and Dominguez picks it up. After all of the punishment this series has piled onto Lara, a single pistol whip, it turns out, is all it takes to turn the tables.

And then a whole bunch of innocent bystanders die as the dagger brings to Cozumel its first cataclysm, a tsunami. The water that floods the streets is immediately dotted with fresh corpses. Lara has to actually push some of the bodies aside as she's swimming to safety (all while we're holding up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved). As she climbs to a safe rooftop, a child falls to his death. Lovely.

Now, look. A lot of horrific things happened in the 2013 reboot, but the context was different. Lara was new to this sort of thing and she was stranded on an uncharted island full of lunatics who wanted to murder her. She didn't have a choice. But she escaped, and now lives in a mansion with a cushy inheritance. That she chooses to re-enter this world of grisly violence tells me that she enjoys it, and certainly doesn't mind rolling over thousands of locals in search of her latest adrenaline fix.

Anyway, having decided she's killed enough people in Mexico, she flies to Peru, where she brings with her a plague of destruction. Seriously, her plane hasn't even landed before a massive storm rolls through and rains hell on the Amazon. The planes crashes, and the one character on board whom we hadn't previously met dies. Lara is fine, but she loses all of her gear. So, conveniently, she has to go re-acquire all of the stuff that she obtained in the first two games.

She finds one of those "hidden cities" that always show up in stories like these, i.e. a city that's in broad daylight and therefore managed to stay hidden because, I guess, no one flew over that area with a plane or helicopter. Curiously, it's still close enough to civilization that an oil refinery is right downriver, though I suspect it's there purely so Lara can blow some stuff up in a frenzied rampage when she thinks her dumb friend has been killed.

Right, Jonah's back. Do me a favor and describe Jonah without mentioning anything about his appearance. You can't. I hate this character, and I hate that rash decisions are constantly being made for the sake of keeping him out of harm's way. Lara doesn't even flinch over the deaths of probably a quarter of the population of South America, but point a gun at this one guy with zero defining characteristics and watch the hell out. Anyway, one of the bad guys tells Lara over the radio that he's killed Jonah, and she believes him, because she's the only person who thinks that anything of consequence can happen to important people in this world.

The main villain has set up a cult in the hidden city, so some of the inhabitants want to complete the ritual while the rest side with the other psychopath. Some Gollum-like subterranean creatures are involved, and Lara spends a lot of time underwater, either engaging in stealth sequences wherein players avoid schools of piranhas (yes, really), or really struggling to fit through a very thin crack and acting as if she's in any danger so long as players are holding up on the analog stick, pretending to be involved.

The villain eventually completes the ritual and becomes Kukulkan, the god of glowing. Lara justifies her presence by shooting him a bunch. After the credits roll, we cut to a scene in which Lara is back at her estate, writing a letter to (who else?) Jonah, contemplating her role in these affairs: "I thought that taking control of my life meant venturing out to do something extraordinary. I thought I had to fix everything. But the mysteries of the world are to cherish more than to solve."

Yes! Finally we're getting somewhere. To quote one of my favorite games, a corpse should be left well alone. Yes, Lara, maybe this is more trouble than it's worth. Maybe it's pointless and you should just stop inserting yourself into every--

"I am just one of their many protectors."

Oh, go to hell, Lara. This is all your fault. You just obliterated half of Mexico and Peru because you're too rich to not be the center of attention. If you'd just stayed in bed that day, maybe Dominguez wouldn't have found the artifacts he needed to ascend to godhood. Or maybe he would have, in which case someone else with a gun inevitably would have stopped him, because apparently that's all it takes.

She's not done: "I'm not sure what the future holds in store, Jonah. But whatever adventure's on the horizon, I can't wait to meet it."

I mean, I have a rough idea of what the future holds. There'll be another ancient artifact for you to "protect," and you'll fail to protect it because Jonah got stung by a bee or whatever, the villain uses it, and then either his greed will bring about his downfall, or bullets will. Hundreds of locals will die in the process, but as long as upper-one-percent Lara and her space-wasting best friend get off scot-free, they'll be primed for another one of these wacky population-wiping adventures.

Or perhaps the future holds yet another reboot, in which one of gaming's most iconic female characters goes back to being one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review Shots: VR Edition

Hello there. If you follow me on Twitter, you've likely caught on to the fact that I recently bought an HTC Vive. The technology's a couple of years old, so I doubt I have anything new to contribute to the conversation as to the future of virtual reality, but here are some quick reviews for a handful of the games I've been playing since I got the thing.

Doom VFR (PC)

I shouldn't have been surprised that the blazing pace of 2016's magnificent Doom reboot doesn't translate well to an environment where you're just statically repositioning yourself like a chess piece, but here we are. I'd have settled for the awkward movement system - and, more importantly, the fact that Doom doesn't feel like it's been adequately re-balanced for it - if the game were to fill my long-standing desire for more Doom single-player content. But while Doom VFR technically features a new "story," all of the levels have just been pulled from the original game. So what you're getting is a version of Doom that's a fraction of the length and nowhere near as satisfying to play. It's a rush job, and I don't know why it exists. 5/10

Superhot VR (PC)

Now this is how you do it. The driving concept behind Superhot - that time only moves when you do - is still in effect, but this is an entirely separate campaign composed of scenarios in which you don't have to move from the spot you're standing, allowing you to focus purely on the combat. The process of punching a guy in the face, grabbing his gun out of midair and using it to shoot down several of his buddies is all the most invigorating when you're actually making the hand movements yourself, and moving your head to the side and hearing a bullet whiz past your ear in slow-motion never gets old. (Not that it has time to - Superhot is as lean as the original.) Even the clean, extremely readable visual style is a perfect fit for VR, which doesn't allow for strong detail or a particularly clear picture. I'm a huge fan of the first Superhot and I daresay this one is even better. It should be one of the first purchases for anyone who buys a VR headset. 10/10

Sacred Four (PC)

This is basically an arcade light gun game straight out of the late '90s, but instead of shooting (as is done in an awful lot of VR games, I'm noticing), you're actually slinging blades on chains, Kratos-style. The physics are super wonky and the entire aesthetic feels several generations behind, though not, I hasten to add, in a way that detracts from the game's enjoyment, and the unique motion controls kind of lend it a feel distinct from the games it's mimicking. Sacred Four goes down very smoothly and the bosses, particularly the last one, are big and bombastic. Don't go in expecting a AAA-quality release here - even the audio quality is kind of charmingly bad - but taken for what it is, a five-dollar arcade game full of dumb thrills, I had a good time with it. 6/10

Job Simulator (PC)

This is probably one of the best introductions to virtual reality I've played, as it's a cute, funny little game with zero tension or stakes. After robots (which just look like floating computer monitors) have taken over and everything is done by automation, museums attempt to emulate the old-timey experience of having a boring job - office worker, store clerk, etc. The simulations are amusingly inaccurate, however, and the whole thing is essentially a physics playground in which you can toy around with objects and see which combinations and effects the developers prepared for. (Can you put a non-paper object in the printer and duplicate it? Yes! Can you make fire extinguisher soup? Also yes!) It's simple, and it's not so much a "game" as an interactive VR showcase, but I had fun burning a couple of hours with it. 7/10

Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality (PC)

Made by the same team that did Job Simulator, and it's the same general concept - a physics-based screwing-around showcase, this time as a Morty clone performing chores in Rick's garage while he and the real Morty go off on adventures. I'm a fan of the show, and Virtual Rick-ality aptly recaptures its sense of humor, even if it made me smile more than laugh. I'd say the big issue here is the value proposition, since you're basically paying $30 for barely more than an hour of content, accompanied by a B-grade Rick and Morty story. Some of the puzzles and set pieces are a bit more intricate than the ones found in Job Simulator, but I ultimately found that game better-paced, more varied and ultimately funnier. Fans of the show will get a kick out of the references, but I recommend they wait to catch this one on sale. 6/10

The Perfect Sniper (PC)

You'd think sniping would be a natural fit for VR, since you're shooting and standing still, but actually holding a gun steady with motion controls is inhumanly difficult. Even real-life snipers are propping their rifles against something when they shoot, but in VR, you've got nothing to lean on. The Perfect Sniper is aware of this, and compensates by being dull and virtually free of stakes. Save for one mission near the very end that involves killing someone who's in a speeding vehicle, your objectives are unsatisfyingly quick and easy, and the plot - narrated by a handler who sounds distractingly like Aaron Paul - fails to make you care about what you're accomplishing. If sniping can be made both playable and exciting in VR, this game doesn't pull it off. 4/10

Sairento VR (PC)

Essentially a Matrix simulator with some of the most fluid movement controls I've yet experienced in VR, morphing the usual "blink" teleportation system into effortless wall runs and double jumps. The combat here is absolute bliss and manages to make bullet-time fresh again by giving you such a direct role in the killing - it never gets old to leap over a soldier, trigger slow-motion midway through, look down, and plant a couple of bullets in his head. Sairento VR's mechanics are wonderful, which is why I wish it were a more fully-featured game, one with greater enemy and objective variety, levels that don't feel like they belong in a PS1 game, and a story that doesn't unfold almost entirely off-screen. The core combat is terrific enough to make Sairento VR worth checking out, but with a proper budget behind it, this could have been a masterpiece. 7/10

With that done, here are some actual reviews, of acceptable length, that I've recently written.

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PC)
Seven: The Days Long Gone (PC)
Monster Hunter World (PS4)
A Normal Lost Phone (Switch)
Secret of Mana (PS4)
Castle of Heart (Switch)
Ghost of a Tale (PC)
Minit (PS4)
God of War (PS4)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

So get this - Metal Gear Survive is bad

However you feel about the Metal Gear series, there can be no denying that it is the gaming medium's foremost auteurist work. No series in the industry can more famously be tied to the vision of a single person. So why Konami would throw that person out on the street and make Metal Gear indistinguishable from a thousand other games on the market is, like everything else Konami has done over the past several years, a mystery.

Konami being its awful self is partly why I feel comfortable abusing Metal Gear Survive despite very clearly not being in its target audience. Survival games aren't my scene, and there are few things I'm more sick of than zombies. I recognize these biases. But then I see the microtransactions, the maps recycled from Metal Gear Solid V, and the always-online requirement despite Survive predominantly being a single-player game, and I don't feel terribly guilty.

Understand that I'm no purist. I'm fine with the Metal Gear franchise branching out into other genres, as evidenced by my positive review of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. But zombies suck, and they have always sucked. And nothing has more vividly illustrated that than the transition from MGSV, which had arguably the most advanced and emergent AI I'd ever seen, to Survive, which transplants many of the same mechanics and locations into a world where all of the enemies are stupid. By definition, they are stupid. If they acted intelligently, they wouldn't be zombies.

Lo and behold, the best and most intuitive stealth mechanics ever conceived are now wasted on a game in which stealth is never necessary, not even once. Survive's encounter design is more about horde control, which it turns out is staggeringly simple, since players can erect defensive barriers out of thin air, and one segment of fence is literally all it takes to hold off a group of zombies. They'll all just pile up against it instead of, I don't know, walking around it. And then you can just stand there, poking a spear through the links, safely picking away at them until they're dead. Survive is an insultingly easy game even when stealth never enters the equation.

I don't know why Survive actually incorporates survival elements. They don't really add anything. Setting up gardens and water collection facilities at your base is a simple affair, and so the need to constantly relieve your hunger and thirst is a task rather than a challenge.

Most of Survive's world is covered in "Dust," a thick haze in which vision is extremely limited and breathing is impossible without an oxygen tank. Monitoring your air supply is a mildly interesting mechanic, as is the need to maintain your bearings with so many navigational handicaps attached. (Map data isn't logged until you return from an expedition, so you have to rely on light beacons whenever you venture out into new territory for the first time.) It is offset, however, by there being nothing interesting to see or do in Survive. Exploring yields the reward of more dumb zombies, more stockpiles of crafting supplies, and more defense missions.

I suppose there is one exception: the Lord of Dust, a hulking monstrosity that greatly reminded me of the towering creature at the end of The Mist. It's so large that, in the thick Dust, you can only see a fraction of it at once. Bumping into it in the wild, and feeling the controller shake with every step, is an arresting image.

But even the majesty of that doesn't last, since the Lord of Dust spends its later appearances in broad daylight, in which is looks like a featureless lump of coal rather than the Lovecraftian horror we thought we were looking at when own vision was obscured. It's featured in a couple of major set pieces in the back half of the campaign, but despite the game frequently telling you that you'll be fighting it, all you really do is hold off waves of zombies while it gets itself stuck in a trap.

Survive's plot is dumb, by the way. That may sound redundant to people who were never on board with Kojima's particular brand of storytelling to begin with, but at least the guy researched what he was writing and gave his characters an abundance of personality. He had ambition - too much, if anything, the polar opposite of Survive's phoned-in attempt to expand the universe. Most of the "cutscenes" are just static portraits accompanied by voiceovers, and the only memorable characters are memorable for being annoying: the two AI buddies, who speak with the most excruciating "robot voices" I've ever heard, and who constantly - constantly - ring you up to alert you about things you already know. The story's intended emotional payoff for them is laughable.

I played about 95% of Survive with the sound off, listening to podcasts. I was never scared, excited, or engaged. I rented this expecting to hate it, yet the reality is even worse - Survive is just so damn dull, so drab and unoriginal and corporate and boring, that I can't even bother to get worked up about it. It's just 20-plus hours of my life spent doing a thing.

It's a 4/10 by any objective measure, but let's lower that to a 3/10 since Konami felt like charging an extra ten bucks for a second save slot. Not that I would ever want to play through this crap more than once, but it's the principle of the thing.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscar predictions! Get some!

Best Picture: The Shape of Water
Best Director: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Best Actor: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Best Actress: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me by Your Name
Best Original Screenplay: Get Out
Best Animated Feature: Coco
Best Documentary Feature: Faces Places
Best Foreign Language Film: A Fantastic Woman
Best Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049
Best Costume Design: Phantom Thread
Best Documentary Short Subject: Heroin(e)
Best Film Editing: Dunkirk
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Darkest Hour
Best Original Score: The Shape of Water
Best Original Song: "Remember Me" (Coco)
Best Production Design: Blade Runner 2049
Best Animated Short Film: Dear Basketball
Best Live Action Short Film: DeKalb Elementary
Best Sound Editing: Dunkirk
Best Sound Mixing: Dunkirk
Best Visual Effects: Blade Runner 2049

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review Shots: 2017 Cleanup Addition

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (PC)

I was so primed for this game, having finally played through (and loved) Wolfenstein: The New Order earlier in the year and being very much in the mood to punish Nazis for absolutely no particular reason whatsoever. And the game's first half is actually quite good, a solid selection of memorable set pieces and engaging character moments. But at a certain point - and if you've played it, you know what I'm talking about - Wolfenstein II doesn't just go off the rails, but turns around, rips the rails out of the ground, and tosses them off a cliff. The longer I played, the more Wolfenstein II felt like a directionless attempt to one-up the first, but lacking the tightness of that game's narrative or any awareness of what 2016's Doom reboot brought to this genre. (Clue #1: No one plays a game like this for stealth.) I was hoping this would be a GOTY contender, but instead, I struggle to remember that it even released, and I can barely muster any excitement for the next part of Blazkowicz's story. Not a bad game, but one of the year's biggest letdowns. 6/10
What Remains of Edith Finch (PC)

Although it usually takes some extra pushing to get me to play a narrative adventure game, I eventually checked out Edith Finch and can say that I agree with the consensus. Centered on a "cursed" family in which nearly every member seems to die in a tragic manner (albeit one befitting of the character), Edith Finch follows its title character as she explores her old house and relives her relatives' final moments. It'd be criminal of me to describe these vignettes in any detail, so I'll simply say that the game is just the right combination of dark and whimsical, avoiding the trap of making this cavalcade of horrific deaths too sensationalist. As a lovely showcase in visual storytelling, my only complaint is that the narration is often piled on too thick, the devs seemingly unwilling to trust the audience to follow what's happening when the vignettes themselves are almost universally masterful. The cannery sequence in particular, for reasons I won't spoil, is a brilliant emulation of what it's like when a productive mind slaves away in a working-class job.  9/10
Tacoma (PC)

This is the sophomore project from Fullbright, the studio that previously brought us Gone Home. I enjoyed that game for using misdirective tropes to veil a surprise ending that was, in fact, far more grounded than what we'd been conjuring up in our minds. Tacoma kind of feels like an inverse of that game's strengths - although there are "twists," they don't force us to re-evaluate what came before them and they're not the reason to play. Instead, play Tacoma for some of the most authentic-sounding conversations of 2017, depicting a crew of six after an accident dooms their space station. Tacoma's coolest innovation is the fact that its crew's interactions have been recorded via an augmented reality interface which allows us to relive pivotal moments, and in realistic fashion, multiple things are often happening at once and it's necessary to rewind and view scenes from two or three angles in order to see everything. Although the ending is a bit weak, it didn't make me in any way regretful of having spent a few hours with these convincingly-sketched characters. 8/10
Domina (PC)

This is a gladiator management sim featuring pixelated graphics and a rockin' soundtrack. With very little control over how the actual battles play out, your job is instead to run a ludus, monitoring your funds and keeping your slaves trained, nourished, and well-equipped for an increasingly trying series of battles. There's a lot to like here, particularly stylistically, though it's also a bit simple in design, since upgrading gladiators is a relatively straightforward affair and only being able to hire a few specialized employees at once barely registers as a restriction since most of them can be fired as soon as they complete the handful of tasks they're needed for (usually involving ludus renovations). Although perma-fail isn't a massive setback given that a campaign only lasts an hour or two, random number generation can still be frustrating given that they're no way, going into a battle, of knowing whether or not you're prepared. The best thing about Domina is the requirement for getting the "good" ending. I won't spoil it, but it cleverly rewards a certain type of player. 7/10
Echo (PC)

After a seemingly endless intro sequence in which players do nothing but slowly walk through corridors for a full half hour, Echo finally unveils its gimmick: that the enemies constantly mimic the way you play. Though intriguing, from the few hours I spent with the game, Echo never does anything interesting enough with the concept to rescue the experience from the tedium of its design. A mark of a stealth game's quality is how much fun it remains when the player gets sighted, and here, it's a mess - the main character is laughably fragile (she can't take more than one hit in quick succession), her gun is far too short on ammo, and the checkpoints are frustrating beyond belief. The point where I gave up was when I was arbitrarily asked to flick about two-dozen switches scattered around a massive room teeming with enemies, and after hitting all but one, this ridiculous glitch forced me to restart the entire ordeal. Yeah, go to hell, Echo. 4/10
Fire Emblem Warriors (Switch)

My only experience with the Dynasty Warriors series is the occasional crossovers we get with franchises I'm already a fan of. Hyrule Warriors was my introduction, and now my interest in Fire Emblem has pulled me back in. While the simplistic nature of these games - spamming a button to cut through thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers in a rather transparent power fantasy - would almost certainly wear on me were I to seek each and every one, I'm cool with hitting the franchise up every few years, particular in in a season like autumn 2017, where something like Fire Emblem Warriors is an effective counterweight to all of the mentally taxing releases I ran through. Seeing these characters in 3D, looking like they did in the pre-rendered cutscenes that blew me away at the time in Path of Radiance, is a joy, and the signature mechanics of the Fire Emblem series (like permadeath and the rock-paper-scissors weapon balance) give this particular Warriors entry a unique flavor beyond its visuals. Nothing altogether innovative, and the dimension-hopping mechanics used to bring characters from different eras together was already seen in the series' mobile entry earlier in the year, but this game just went down so easily for me. 7/10

To close us off, here are all of the proper reviews I've written since the last time I did one of these updates.

Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)
Super Mario 8 Deluxe (Switch)
Yooka-Laylee (PC)
Vanquish (PC)
Everspace (PC)
Arms (Switch)
Beholder: Blissful Sleep (PC)
Immortal Planet (PC)
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PC)
Sundered (PS4)
LawBreakers (PC)
Splatoon 2 (Switch)
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)
Absolver (PS4)
Distrust (PC)
Inmates (PC)
Cuphead (PC)
The Evil Within 2 (PS4)
Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)
Doom (Switch)
Divinity: Original Sin II (PC)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

In which I somehow narrow my favorite games of 2017 down to ten

We survived 2017. Good for us. I sincerely believe that 2018 (aka The Midterm Year) will be better, but just in case it isn't, let us reflect on the one thing that can be relied upon to provide us with endless, joyous escapism: the games.

Since there were far too many exceptional titles to squeeze into a mere ten this year, I'm devoting this entire intro segment to the honorable mentions, which are extensive. Firstly, I'm not an easy lay when it comes to the narrative adventure genre (I'm trying to go cold turkey on the term "walking simulator"), but there were two class entries this year: What Remains of Edith Finch, a whimsical yet heartbreaking exercise in visual storytelling that only occasionally lets its narration get in the way, and Tacoma, a sci-fi mystery in which the twists take second fiddle to well-sketched characters and authentic-sounding conversations.

Also, since one of the qualifiers for my top-ten list is that I need to have actually finished the game (since you never know when something's gonna pull a Final Fantasy XV), here are a couple of excellent titles that I'm still working on. Golf Story ranks as one of the year's biggest surprises, a charming and often hilarious RPG that's also a perfectly solid golf sim. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is essentially XCOM without all of the stuff that made me quit XCOM. Finally, I've only just started Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but I'm already more invested in it than I've been with any other JRPG in ages.

A few other standouts from throughout 2017: Sniper Elite 4 is the best Nazi-killing game of the year (yes, to my great surprise, beating out that other one), Snipperclips was a delightful slice of old-fashioned couch multiplayer, Gorogoa is odd and creative and difficult to describe, Arms is maybe the best use of motion controls ever in addition to being one of the few fighting games I actually understand, and LawBreakers was a fantastic throwback to Unreal Tournament that would easily have made my top ten if the servers had been well-populated for more than a few weeks.

And at the end of the day, I do want to give a shout-out to both Horizon: Zero Dawn and Super Mario Odyssey. While I'm not as head-over-heels with them as the rest of the gaming community is, they're both fine titles that would certainly have been top-ten contenders in a less stacked year.

By the way, I was on the GameCritics Game of the Year 2017 podcast, so go listen to that if you want to hear more of my thoughts.

Now then...
10. Distrust (PC)

"Don’t play Distrust anticipating a playable version of [John] Carpenter’s cult classic [The Thing]. Play it, instead, for being an intelligent strategy-survival game that’s atmospheric and tense as hell entirely on its own merits... Distrust is a roguelike, though it’s the good kind where there’s a valuable lesson in every failure... A terrific engine for emergent thrills, often due to the player’s own negligence... It’s the sign of intelligent and well-considered mechanics that something as inherently repetitive as Distrust never once felt tedious to me." (Review.)

I thought I'd grown allergic to the word "roguelike," but it turns out that I'm only repelled by the side-scrolling action/platformer variety (of which we have most definitely had our fill by now). Distrust is a near-perfect exercise in the roguelike subgenre. Nothing about the game is overtly cheap or unfair, which lends leeway to the permadeath mechanic, and while there are numerous rules to be learned, they're both logical and consistent. Each run leaves you more prepared for your next, and the game is inherently unique enough (survival that channels at least the tone and aesthetic of The Thing) that I took pleasure in dipping back in even as I was partaking in randomized variations on the same handful of tasks.

I used to think that the only way for a roguelike to hook me was for me to carry some degree of progress from one run to the next, for a death to not wipe the slate completely clean. And although that usually helps, Sundered, my least-favorite game of 2017, demonstrated how unrewarding a roguelike can become when it's entirely about grinding for accumulated stats, with nothing to actually be learned. Though it took many tries for me to finish Distrust, I left the game with the satisfaction of having mastered something with zero hand-holding. It's a brutal game, but exquisitely balanced.
9. Prey (PC)

Well, this was certainly a nice surprise. Arkane Studios' world-building-first outlook on narrative design has made me increasingly less interested in their Dishonored series, in which the finer details are wasted on stories and exchanges so devoid of wit or energy that I can't be bothered to care. Prey turns out to be a far better use of their talents, as its setting is its story, and by keeping its most important characters off-screen for the majority of the game, whatever plot developments that may have come off as unconvincing if presented to us directly instead unfold in our minds as we explore the magnificent Talos I station and piece together the mysteries surrounding this magnificent imaginary environment, a place that existed long before our main character arrived.

This Prey reboot (which, to my knowledge, shares its title and literally nothing else from the 2006 release) owes a lot to both System Shock and BioShock and yet is, to my mind, far superior to either of those franchises. It beats System Shock by not mistaking complexity for depth, building systems in which players are rewarded for genuine resourcefulness (like the ability to break down any item into raw materials which can then be re-purposed, ensuring that anything the player picks up is theoretically useful). And it beats BioShock because its attempts to narratively justify its more fundamentally game-y elements succeed, because why the hell would anyone in Rapture have the need to set other people on fire?

I daresay that Talos I is the best setting of any video game this year. If someone were to collect this station's collision data and assemble an interactive 3D map the way someone did with Dark Souls, I'd be stunned if the whole thing wasn't geographically correct, if each piece didn't fit together perfectly with the rest. But beyond that, it's the little details, like how each corpse throughout Prey is attached to a specific name that can be found in the employee directory, or that the tabletop games and nerf gun shootouts these people were involved with can be scrutinized for no other reason than to give life and substance to this fictional world. Prey is full of things that didn't need to be there, which is precisely why they did need to be there.
8. Future Unfolding (PC)

The most important thing I can tell you about Future Unfolding is that it isn't Proteus. I say this because it'd be awfully easy to play this game for a couple of minutes, fail to see the point, and dismiss it as one of the countless pretentious "art games" that flash colors in your face and amount to nothing if you're not on the exact wavelength as the people who made it.

The thing about Future Unfolding is that it tells you nothing. It drops you into a strange, vibrant world with a set of two verbs - dash and interact - and forces you to decode the abstract but consistent rules by which this place abides. It asks you to be curious, to observe and experiment. It asks you to be a scientist. As the world of Future Unfolding begins to make more sense, it'll become increasingly clear what your objectives are, and that this is very much a game with a point and purpose.

There are two famous sequences in Super Metroid in which players become stuck and are informed of their own capabilities to escape by observing what the local wildlife does in the same situation. While that's not exactly what you'll be experiencing in Future Unfolding, the same brand of wordless, purely visual tutorialization is on constant display within. It's not for everyone, and certainly not for those hoping the final cutscene will be any less ambiguous than the game that preceded it, but for those with the patience, it's beautiful, odd, and richly rewarding. Thanks to the folks at the Computer Game Show podcast for pointing me toward this overlooked gem.
7. Snake Pass (Switch)

A couple of months ago on Twitter, I saw a montage image of all of this year's 3D platformers, and wondered aloud why the best of the lot, Snake Pass, wasn't included. A friend asked me if Snake Pass even qualifies as a 3D platformer, to which I replied that of course it does. Just because a game doesn't sport a jump mechanic doesn't mean it breaks the spirit of pushing players through acrobatic challenges for the express purpose of collecting shiny things.

If anything, Snake Pass's lack of a jump function is precisely what makes it such a standout in the genre. We know how to jump. We mastered it generations ago. Snake Pass gives me the pleasure of mastering an entirely new mechanic, in which I must tuck, wind, and squeeze in order to maneuver a snake through obstacles which are more often than not constructed from shafts of bamboo. It's one of those games where you could watch it and think that no control scheme imaginable could give players the ability to perform such complex tasks in any intuitive way, but Snake Pass's commands are simple enough to make you feel comfortable before cranking the difficulty to ludicrous levels in its final two thirds. Many won't be up for the challenge, but I devoured every second.

I also want to give Snake Pass credit for being one of the first quality third-party titles on the Switch, and only the second release after Breath of the Wild to truly win me over on the system. It was, in fact, Snake Pass that helped me through what would otherwise have been a torturously long wait for my car to be inspected. Great title regardless, but hey, making my life outright easier wins it a few extra points.
6. Torment: Tides of Numenera (PC)

"The 'challenge' comes from the amount of information that players are expected to process while piecing together this alien world and finding the outline of their morals. It’s a mentally taxing game – one that I endured with many cups of coffee – but as with its predecessor, it’s ultimately a puzzle worth solving... Every conversation is a new journey... It's the perfect follow-up to Planescape: Torment, as thought-provoking, mature and challenging as its predecessor. For those who like their sci-fi more than a little weird, I can’t recommend it enough." (Review.)

I'm gonna go bold here and state that Torment: Tides of Numenera is a better game than its spiritual predecessor, Planescape: Torment. Part of that is just personally preferring a sci-fi setting over a fantasy one, but I'm mainly talking about the fact that Numenera's combat is both decent and completely optional. You played Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale because you wanted to be challenged on the battlefield; you played Planescape because you wanted to be challenged intellectually. Bringing that front and center, and allowing players to use dialog choices to sidestep confrontation, is a natural extension of that.

That's important, because Numenera, even more so than other entries in the recent CRPG resurgence, feels like an old game. There's barely any voice acting and the menus look embarrassingly archaic. None of that particularly matters unless it creates a barrier for newcomers, but the important thing is that for as much as Numenera channels the games of the past, it doesn't repeat the mistakes of its influences. Instead, it's an homage that is simultaneously reaching to bizarre and thought-provoking new places.
5. Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do it. In an almost overachieving effort to make Resident Evil relevant again, Capcom has taken the core ingredients that have served the series well previously (the small, contained environments of the earlier entries; the set piece-driven pace of RE4), disassembled what's never worked and rebuilt it from scratch (the story), and injected the whole production with the look and feel of some of the most successful contemporary horror games, the ones that have proven it's possible to disempower players without constricting them to tank controls.

As I write this, I'm currently playing through some of the earlier Resident Evil titles starting with the remake of the first and working my way up. Though I continue to love them from a design standpoint (the way they get the most out these small, contained environments by unraveling them in a Metroid-like manner and constantly giving new relevance to areas you're forced to backtrack through), there's a lot, mechanically, that doesn't hold up about them: the confusing camera angles, the limited number of saves a player is permitted, a combat system that's borderline unworkable against faster enemies (like those damn dogs).

What a joy it is, then, to get a Resident Evil romp that channels the series' early days without being bogged down by such annoyances. The scale has been brought down considerably from the Michael Bay-sized mess that was RE6. The game takes place almost entirely on a single estate, but every inch of it is used effectively, in such a way that I could simply refer to "the kids' room" or "the basement" and another fan will instantly recall the segment and know what made it special and memorable. It may not be an innovator, but it's a collection of the most effective horror techniques used in video games throughout the generations, and marks everything this medium is capable of in regards to this genre. It's one of the series' absolute finest, second only to the unbeatable RE4. (Podcast.)
4. Battle Chef Brigade (Switch)

Here's one of those ideas that's so unlikely to work that it circumnavigates the globe and winds up on the opposite end of the spectrum, working beautifully. You know how developers will sometimes come up with a head-to-head mechanic so ingenious that they design an entire universe in which every conflict is resolved through said mechanic, the way Pokemon envisioned a world in which cockfighting was the only sustainable industry? That's Battle Chef Brigade, in which citizens settle disputes via Iron Chef-esque cooking competitions.

In each match, players venture into the wild to hunt for ingredients via side-scrolling actioner segments reminiscent of George Kamitani's games (Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown). Once they're stocked, dishes are prepared through a match-three mini-game in which ingredients manifest as blocks with multiple flavors. The weirdest thing about Battle Chef Brigade is how much this mechanic actually does feel like cooking - the acts of stirring, simmering and seasoning all have match-three stand-ins, and the game even emulates the stress of having to present dishes to multiple people at once, each in the mood for something different.

It's so good, and so completely unlike anything else I played this year, that my only criticism of Battle Chef Brigade is that I desperately wish it included competitive multiplayer to extend its value. The single-player campaign is both charming and hearty, but the only thing resembling an online component is the "daily cook-off," in which players compete for high scores under new parameters each day. Imagine a full-on multiplayer mode with randomized judges and theme ingredients. It'd be amazing. Then again, if my only complaint about a game is that I want to play it forever, well, that's a good position to be in.
3. Divinity: Original Sin II (PC)

"Original Sin II left me consistently amazed not simply by the number of options, but by its ability to make every path special... Since nothing respawns, experience points are a limited quantity and everything that happens throughout the game is a unique, one-time experience... That’s how an adventure like this is as entertaining in its closing moments as it was during its earliest, and how a 125-hour game can still leave me wanting more by the time the credits roll." (Review.)

I can't really go any higher than third for this one, since its predecessor was my Game of the Year back in 2014, and this one's only a marginal improvement. That having been said, I've often called the first Original Sin the best RPG I've ever played, so for its sequel to be any kind of improvement at all is a gargantuan accomplishment. It is a staggering triumph for a single-player game to last me 125 hours and for not a single minute to feel wasted or redundant, for every quest to have its own quirks and memorable takeaways, for every combat scenario to be unique, for each area to be fun to explore. It's an overwhelmingly complete-feeling RPG, bolstered by its complete lack of grinding.

The only thing missing is technical stability. Review codes for Original Sin II (a game that ultimately took me 125 hours to complete) didn't go out to anyone until a day or so before release, not because Larian wanted to avoid critical scrutiny - this game has been bombarded with praise - but because they really needed all of the time that they could get to tighten the screws. A few more months not only would have resulted in an arguably perfect RPG, but also would have pushed the release to a less busy period. I remain the only person I know who's finished Original Sin II, and in fact, I know a number of people who want to play it but are afraid they don't have the time. All I can say is that however long it winds up taking, the journey's worth every second.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

"Breath of the Wild’s shakeups make it feel like the series’ most substantive step forward in nearly two decades, and it’s been a long time since a Zelda release was such an event... Whereas too many open-world games boil down to endless waypoint-chasing because they lack the guts to truly turn players loose, Breath of the Wild restores a sense of discovery to a genre that should be defined by it... It embodies the vision for the series that Miyamoto and Aonuma have never been able to realize until now. It’s a game three decades in the making." (Review.)

I'm sure it's an eye-roller to begin one of these things by asking, "What else needs to be said at this point?" Yet the way Breath of the Wild has been scooping up year-end awards - I honestly can't name a single major website that hasn't named this their Game of the Year - kinda makes all of the praise I want to heap upon it redundant. It reinvigorated an important but aging series. It led the charge on Nintendo's wildly successful Switch, which has since become history's fastest-selling console in North America and sported easily the most impressive first-year lineup I've ever seen. It's been making developers re-evaluate even though it's Nintendo's first true foray into the open-world genre. Breath of the Wild is amazing. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.

All I can add is that I'm just old enough to remember when 3D graphics were a relatively new thing in the gaming world, meaning I was lucky enough to appreciate how revolutionary certain titles from the N64/PS1 era were. Though Ocarina of Time is often criticized by its detractors as being a formulaic entry in a franchise that itself wallows in formula, that undercuts what a pioneer it was in the use of 3D space. We've moved both forward and backward in the nearly two decades since its release - we now have (to use Assassin's Creed as my punching bag) the technology to render entire cities from historical periods in exquisite detail, yet it's wasted on tiresome waypoint-chasing that gives us no reason to appreciate them. So I'm thankful that the series that made me fall in love with 3D worlds has finally made me fall back in love with them.
1. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PC)

"It’s the rare game that has no intention of being 'entertaining' in the traditional sense. Its goal is not to exhilarate or empower us, but to baffle us, wear us down, and beat our senses in... The world doesn’t seem to abide by a consistent set of rules and Senua is often on the run from thinly-defined (but nevertheless lethal) threats... It takes guts for a game developer to deliberately forgo traditional entertainment value in order to make a broader point... Hellblade is one of the game industry’s few genuine dramas – a dark, uncomfortable experience that makes players suffer alongside its protagonist... One of the boldest and most important artistic endeavors games have seen in quite some time." (Review.)

By early March, I thought this contest was already a wrap. But at the end of the day, no matter how much Breath of the Wild re-lit its series' fire and gave developers of other open-world titles something to think about, that'll never hold the power of a game that connected with me on a level no other game has. There are a million terrible low-budget indie games on Steam that address mental illness, attempting to fill a hole that no triple-A developer really has until now. Ninja Theory aren't scrubs. They have the resources to exhaustively research their subject matter and the budget and talent to bring their world to life. They've worked with Andy Serkis - twice! - to ensure that their motion capture technology is the best in the business, recreating every nuance of Melina Juergens's performance as the title character in breathtaking detail.

And they use all of these tools at their disposal to create a world not in which we're happy to get lost in, but from which we're desperate to escape. And because of that, I want to challenge anyone reading this to play Hellblade the same way I did: in a single sitting. I realize that for many adult gamers, plowing through a seven- or eight-hour campaign with no intermissions isn't feasible, and for plenty more, it's undesirable. But Senua's constriction to a peril from which there is no true escape, and Ninja Theory's efforts to entrench you in her universe, won't connect completely if you're able to pull yourself away from the screen, take a long break, and reflect on what you've seen. Experience her confusion, frustration, and horror - and then see it all paid off in the most enlightening way.

Most overrated: Hollow Knight
Most underrated: Torment: Tides of Numenera
Most overlooked: LawBreakers
Most visually striking: Cuphead
All-out best-looking game: Horizon: Zero Dawn
Best story: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Best writing: Tacoma
Best character: The Red Prince (Divinity: Original Sin II)
Best original soundtrack: What Remains of Edith Finch
Biggest surprise: Prey
Biggest disappointment: Yooka-Laylee
Comeback of the year: Resident Evil 7
Most enjoyable bad game: The Surge
Least enjoyable good game: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Best free game: OLDTV
Game that I spent the most time with: Divinity: Original Sin II
Game that I spent the least time with before dismissing: TumbleSeed
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Hand of Fate 2
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but still haven't: Kindergarten
Best game that I still haven't finished: Xenoblade Chronicles 2
All-out worst game that I played: Sundered
Best non-2017 game that I first played in 2017: Wolfenstein: The New Order
Best remake/re-release: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Most anticipated game this coming year: Monster Hunter World

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Three-paragraph reviews: Prey, The Surge, Nioh

Hi. I have a new installment of Review Shots coming up soon, but first, I wanted to dive just a bit more deeply into three games that warrant a tad more conversation. Allow me to put my opinions of these games on record.

Prey (PC)

I expected this game to ride the Doom train from last year, since that was always my image of the original (with which this reboot apparently has nothing in common). As much as I'm thirsting for more Doom, I'm glad Arkane didn't go that route. Prey's gunplay is hardly the best thing about it, and a level-based structure would have done a disservice to all of the world details that only emerge when players are forced to look carefully. To my mind, that's the mistake that Arkane's Dishonored series made by focusing on linear storytelling, which the studio just isn't good at. Even the Hollywood-grade talent that they always bring on board can't elevate the listless dialog they're regularly cooking up.

Prey succeeds because it is a game about small details. Talos I, the space station on which Prey is set, will likely be the most believably-realized video game setting of the year. The game features decades of alternate history backing this place up, and its layout is arranged in such a way that it could easily function as both a living and working space. The station's hundreds of employees are all in the game and accounted for, and countless email conversations and bits of environmental storytelling build a world that didn't just start existing when we arrived there. The entire exterior of Talos I can even be freely explored; if someone were to collect the game's collision data and assemble it all into an interactive 3D map, as was done with Dark Souls, I'd be surprised if there was any geographical cheating involved. It's that convincing.

What it amounts to is a BioShock clone that's better than BioShock - deeper, richer, more open to experimentation (in both navigation and combat), and with moral choices displaying shades of grey. It runs 25-30 hours and could easily have lasted me far longer. In fact, my only real issue with Prey, though it is a major one, is the rushed and underwhelming manor in which it concludes, hurrying through a high-stakes finale for a final twist that severely undercuts the complexity of the game's world-building. That sour final note dampened my enthusiasm, but nevertheless, this is one of 2017's mot\re pleasant surprises so far. 8/10

The Surge (PC)

I'd like to be constructive about this one. Lords of the Fallen released when we were still regularly getting new Souls games, and as such, there was little room for a surface-level mimicry that utterly lacked the depth and finesse of the series that inspired it. But now that From Software is taking a break from these sorts of games, I expect more developers to take up the mantle and cater to this niche. Deck13 Interactive has made another attempt, and while it's not great, it's a step in the right direction and, I mean, hey, now we know that they're really serious about this, so I'd honestly like to see them continue to fine-tune their take on the formula.

The Surge offers two major improvements over Lords. The first is that the combat is not only functional (i.e. what you expect to happen actually does, and collision doesn't suck) but actually offers its own new twist - players can use the right stick to target individual body parts, either to deal more damage to unprotected areas or to harvest pieces of armor. It's a neat hook that works well. Secondly, rather than just flatly copy the Souls series' dark fantasy aesthetic, Deck13 sets this one in an industrial future that looks more than a little similar to Neill Blomkamp's films (specifically Elysium, to which there is an unsubtle reference). So it's the rare Souls clone that doesn't feel like a straight rip-off.

They still got a few things wrong, however. The final third of the game feels incredibly unbalanced - the last two bosses are beyond tedious, and the concluding level is full of enemies who don't seem to abide by the same rules regarding stamina that players do. Objectives are also unclear sometimes. While that's a characteristic of Dark Souls, it's a poor fit for The Surge's world design, in which backtracking isn't particularly intuitive. Finally, the story is terrible, despite some clear attempts at political commentary regarding corporate greed. So keep tightening your screws, Deck13, and hire some real writers, and your next release might be a real winner. For Souls fans seeking a fix, eh, this one's worth checking out when the price drops. 6/10

Nioh (PS4)

While I've never been a fan of Team Ninja, they're a major and experienced developer, and the first AAA studio, to my knowledge, to attempt a Souls clone of their own. Nioh has the polish and the sheen to drastically outdo The Surge in the presentation department, and the core combat feels excellent. It's also one of the rare console games to offer a 60fps option at the cost of some slight graphical fidelity, which a framerate junkie like myself appreciates. All good first impressions, and yet I ultimately walked away believing The Surge to be the superior game. How can that be?

Well, for one, Team Ninja seems to believe that the combat alone made Souls great, and ignored that series' penchant for rich lore and intricate world design. Nioh's plot is drab nonsense. Its setting apparently has basis in Japanese history, and most of its characters are actual figures from the 17th century, but Team Ninja makes little effort to fill in the details for Western players who aren't as knowledgeable on the subject. Nioh is also level-based, meaning the labyrinthine structure of the Souls series is lost. The visual style looks interchangeable from Koei Tecmo's other big franchises (particularly Toukiden), and the levels, mostly quaint Japanese villages and forests, run together after a while. And the majority of the game is just too damn dark, set mostly at night despite no element of horror. Sunlight is a thing, Team Ninja.

These aren't inherently major flaws, but I need something, some unique hook. Nioh presents no substantial new ideas, while its annoyances pile up. In particular, while the game's stamina system works well at a glance, certain bosses and powerful enemies are given way too much of it, leading to battles where I have to constantly stop for breaks when my opponent doesn't. It completely throws the balance off, and had my friend and editor Brad Gallaway not alerted me to a slow that drastically slows enemy movement, I might have lost patience. For 50 hours it drags on, with uninteresting levels, only a handful of standard enemies and nothing in the narrative department to keep me engaged. I don't know who I'd recommend this to outside of loot fanatics. 5/10