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

Friday, May 5, 2017

A single-paragraph review of Outlast 2, followed by a longer, spoiler-laden one

Outlast 2 is scary, so much so that when my father stayed overnight last week just after the game's release, I had to actually keep myself from playing it because I was worried that my screams would wake him up. So if your measure of a horror game's quality it how terrifying it is, Outlast 2 is a rousing success, though it comes with two caveats. Firstly, it's schlocky, over-the-top, and utterly unconcerned with whether or not it's offending you. It seems determined to figure out what it is that makes you lightheaded, and impressively, in my case, it was successful. Secondly, the state of stealth-based "defenseless" horror games has progressed over the last few years, and so an Outlast sequel of level quality is not necessarily an equal. 7/10, and I recommend it if you have the stomach for it.

And now, since I stand to make zero profit from this review and don't need to justify a score that will wind up on Metacritic, I'm now going to discuss Outlast 2 in more explicit detail, so be warned: spoilers beyond this point.
The original Outlast came along at the perfect time for me. An indie release called Amnesia: The Dark Descent had been bouncing around for several years and laying the groundwork for what I call the defenseless horror genre, in which players are matched against enemies that they can't kill and thus spend most of their playtime running and hiding. It's a pure and effective method of generating panic, but while I've enjoyed Amnesia's influence, I always found its actual design too obtuse. I'd longed for a game to strip the concept down to its bare essentials, unimpaired by the ambition of being something more complex than it needed to be.

Outlast, for me, was that game. Simple, straightforward, serving no purpose but to make you feel helpless in an insane asylum full of grotesque things that want to mutilate you. It was so scary that I could only play it in short bursts. That it arrived just as the AAA horror scene was burning out (with heavy-hitters like Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 abandoning all pretense of actually scaring people) was a bonus, and the genre's been on an upswing since.

So where else have we seen this? Well, after Aliens: Colonial Marines became one of the most notorious disappointments of the modern era, Sega gave the makers of the Total War series the opportunity to channel the original Alien film and base an entire game around evading a single, unkillable xenomorph, and the resulting Alien: Isolation is one of the best uses of that license ever (bloated and overlong as it may be). Meanwhile, P.T. made such an impression that it's regarded as a contemporary classic even though it's technically just a demo for a cancelled game, and Capcom took some obvious cues in rebooting Resident Evil, an experiment that worked shockingly well earlier this year.
So where does that leave an Outlast sequel? Well, disappointingly, developer Red Barrels' answer seems to be "make it more disgusting." I don't want to undercut the many ways in which Outlast 2 is an effective horror game, but the torture porn element has somehow been cranked up even higher than that of its predecessor, as if Red Barrels knew that only the most thick-shelled of gamers would demand more of what they got the first time and set out to find everyone's "trigger." If there is anything that makes your stomach turn, and it's not represented in Outlast 2, don't tell Red Barrels. They'll be disappointed in themselves.

Here's mine. I went to a Catholic school (like this game's main character, and we'll get to that), and as I'm sure you know, Christians are obsessed with crucifixion. Whenever I had to endure a gruesome explanation as to what a person goes through when they're crucified, I got lightheaded. Lo and behold, there is a scene in which the protagonist of Outlast 2 is nailed to a cross. The unbroken first-person perspective forced me to imagine, more so than I ever had before, what it felt like for the person that this was happening to. It's one of the most brutal things I've ever witnessed in a work of fiction. I'm... kind of impressed.

But for as rampant and gratuitous as Outlast 2's violence is, it's ultimately a game about avoiding having such violence inflicted upon you. Again, this formula works, and I daresay that for as commonplace as low-budget indie horror titles are, this sort of genre benefits, more than most, from high production values. I want to jump every time a shadow dances in front of me. I want to hear ambient sound effects to my sides that could be approaching enemies. I want to be immersed. Outlast 2 looks and sounds great. It's an absorbing experience, one that had me nervous while playing it and feeling like I needed a shower afterwards.
Again, though, we've seen this all before, and the supercharged schlock factor is something that I imagine will shoo more people away than it will lure in. One particular disappointment is that Outlast 2 still feels narrow and linear despite the switch to an outdoor environment. I get that claustrophobia is key in games like this, but Outlast is a stealth franchise, and it often feels like you don't have enough room to maneuver through enemy routes. And when you're caught, the areas are so small that there's often nowhere to go. In some situations, if an enemy spots you, that's it.

The one incredible exception is a sequence set in a large, open cornfield, where vision is limited on both sides, and while there are plenty of places to run and hide, doing so could ultimately screw up your sense of direction. It's a brilliant moment, and Outlast 2 could have used more of them.

But the game's real missed opportunity is the plot, on multiple levels. Only tangentially connected to the first game, Outlast 2 is about a pair of married journalists who find themselves stranded somewhere in rural Arizona where a crazy Catholic cult wants to... well, they're split into factions and everyone seems to have a different goal. The preacher running the main village seems to believe that the wife is pregnant with the Antichrist, a dwarf out in the woods is reenacting the Stations of the Cross (hence the crucifixion scene), and some weird pagan lady, uh, wants to take off her clothes, smear herself in mud, and chase the protagonist around an old mine?
I'll be honest: When I finished Outlast 2, I hadn't the slightest idea what the game was actually about, what I'd just witnessed. It was only after, reading a synopsis, when I learned that a single hidden document (one of dozens in the game) reveals a key plot detail: that the enormous burst of light you keep seeing throughout the game is an experimental mind-control device, run by the same company responsible for the wrongdoing in the first Outlast.

So that's it, really. A machine is turning everyone in the area violently insane by convincing them that they're living in the biblical end times. This eventually applies to the protagonist himself, whose hallucinations more and more take center stage as the search for his wife continues, culminating in a trippy-ass final act in which he appears to completely lose his grip on reality. There's some striking imagery late in Outlast 2 - apocalyptic lightning storms, blood raining down from the sky - but the game's lack of a message or a point discourages discussion on what's real. Did the wife really birth a child? Is she actually dead? Did the cult really commit mass suicide? I can't work up the energy to stew over these questions if no one in this story seems to have a clear-cut arc either way.

That's the other thing: Outlast 2 dumps a lot of time into character-building and symbolism that never, to my view, pays off. The game doesn't really explore Catholicism on any thematic level - it's all just window dressing - and the constant flashbacks to a tragic incident from the hero's childhood are both repetitive and needless. We're never given a clear answer as to what exactly happened (if a priest accidentally killed the girl, why are we also constantly seeing images of her hanging from a noose?), nor is there any clear connection between the flashbacks and the present-day stuff. And even if there's a point that I'm missing, these sequences didn't need to be nearly as frequent, bloating a game that's longer than it should have been.
And that's my final criticism of Outlast 2, that it overstays its welcome. Horror games, by and large, benefit from brevity - the moment this becomes routine, it stops being scary. In addition to the school flashbacks, the game's last hour or two could have been trimmed significantly, as there comes a point when the developers don't have anything new to show me but nevertheless drag things out in a repetitious series of underground tunnels. Again, P.T. is widely regarded as a horror masterpiece and it lasts, what, 20 minutes?

But this is all just a way of saying that Outlast 2 is neither as tight or as relevant as its predecessor. Yet that game made such an impression on me that its sequel can afford to be several steps down. If you want a reliable scare fix, wait for the sun to go down, turn off the lights, put on a pair of headphones, and play some Outlast 2. For whatever the game gets wrong, it does what I paid it to do.

(P.S. One final observation. Outlast 2 features a miniature rogues gallery of distinctive villains. We want to see them get their comeuppance, of course, but since this is a game in which you can't attack, they all just sort of... accidentally off themselves in increasingly Tucker & Dale-esque ways. Not really a complaint, just amusing in hindsight.)

(P.S.S. The gravelly-voice pickaxe lady dies in precisely the same manner as Father Brennan from The Omen.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why 30 minutes of Nier: Automata was enough for me

After sitting in a GameFly envelope for something like a month while I polished off Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon, I finally gave Nier: Automata a spin last night, eager to learn whether or not the civil unrest over my editor Brad's unenthusiastic review of the game was justified. My reaction to the original Nier was mixed (to put it charitably), but reactions to its follow-up have been far more universally positive, and the involvement of PlatinumGames always fills me with hope, Star Fox Zero notwithstanding.

I will now walk you through my experience.

I boot Nier: Automata up and the first thing it tells me is that the game doesn't have an autosave function. Okay. Hopefully that won't be an issue.

The game opens with a straight-up vertically-scrolling shmup sequence as my character pilots a jet. Okay, fine. The original Nier drew a lot of influence from bullet hell shooters so it's fine that the sequel is being more direct about it. This sequence switches perspectives rapidly - one minute it's scrolling vertically, then it's horizontal, then the camera is stationed behind my craft, then I transform into a mech and can fire in any direction with the right stick. This is all fine.

This is a very grey game, at least based on this opening level and every damn screenshot I've seen of it. It's particularly bad timing that Automata should be released so soon after Zelda and Horizon, two games which taught us that robot-infested post-apocalypses can be lush and vibrant. There's some talk about the "Old World" and I've had enough of this sort of thing lately.

My character begins fighting on foot. The game is still switching perspectives a lot, and it's all very high-energy, but man is this some shallow, bog-standard character-action-game combat. Your quick attacks, your strong attacks, your dodge move, your pea shooter ranged attack with unlimited ammo. I remember the combat in the original Nier being just as dull, but I'd hoped Platinum would expand upon it, since this is the one thing they consistently do well. Alas, it is not to be.

So I spend quite some time wandering through bland industrial environments, hacking through what must be at least a hundred samey robots, all while my character tells her partner that emotions are forbidden. This game doesn't have a lot of personality so far, but there's a brief mini-boss against a giant buzzsaw arm that's moderately entertaining. Later, I have fight two of them at once, and my character clips through one of the buzzsaws, gets stuck inside, and dies horribly.

Then I remember that the game doesn't have an autosave function, and learn from a few Twitter friends that you have to complete this lengthy intro without dying, which is tough to do when you can just clip inside a mini-boss and die with no chance to recover. The game gives me a fake-out ending, which makes me wonder if my death was staged and the game's pulling a meta-trick on me, but nope - I'm back at the very start and have to slog through that whole dull opening level again.

Except I don't want to. One of the controversial features of the Nier games is that they must be completed multiple times to unlock all of the story content. I don't see the appeal of that, and it's something that's made me hesitant to jump into Automata. And here I am, struggling to work up the energy to replay just a single 30-minute chunk of the game. How will I later justify replaying the entire thing, or at least substantial pieces of it?

I won't. Not on the tail of so many other massive games that took hold of me far more readily than this one did, not when major new releases are happening at such a rapid-fire rate that I can't afford a time sink that isn't meeting me halfway, not when I still have yet to touch Yakuza 0 or Persona 5, not when I've still got plenty of Nioh left. As a critic, I have no obligation to play Automata, so I can only approach it as a game-loving adult with limited free time who must determine, in a busy release season, which games just aren't clicking for him. Automata is going back to GameFly and that's the end of that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review Shots: April 22, 2017

So that was a hectic month or two, huh? I imagine most of us still aren't out of the wild yet, in fact. I myself still have a ways to go in Horizon: Zero Dawn (I still can't get a clear answer on whether a colon belongs in that title or not), Yooka-Laylee just came out a couple of days ago, and my GameFly copy of Nier: Automata is still sitting next to my TV, untouched. It's a good thing I'm not into Persona or this would still be full-on busy season.

But the release schedule is about to cool down considerably, which gives me time not only to catch up on the games I haven't had the chance to release yet, but to do some short write-ups on all of the releases I've played but haven't been able to discuss in detail. So, it's time for another round of Review Shots, a set of rapid-fire takes on whatever I haven't reviewed elsewhere. And since my shiny new Switch has dominated my attention over the last month, this installment will be largely devoted to what I've been up to on that thing.

P.S. I wrote this intro a while ago, so as of the time I've posted this, I've finished Horizon, Yooka-Laylee has been out for a couple of weeks, and I've dipped into Nier: Automata and determined that it's not my thing.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PC)

January was when I finally mustered up the courage to return to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and sure enough, as soon as I'd gotten back into the game's rhythm, I couldn't get enough. I'm still working my way through the game's second DLC, but Hearts of Stone ranks as perhaps the best self-contained story in a game full of great self-contained stories. This thing is a cavalcade of good characterization - Shani is a great romantic match for Geralt (and his, erm, "other side"), the often-despicable Olgierd's dip into immortality makes him bizarrely humble and sympathetic, and Gaunter O'Dimm is easily the series' greatest villain yet, a fearsome and mysterious force. Two of the dungeons late in this quest (one set in a painting, the other in a riddle) are a bit of a chore and an obvious attempt to get players more involved in what is largely a hand-off piece of storytelling, but this is a worthwhile addition to a base game that wasn't exactly skimpy on great content to begin with. 8/10

Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This is several months old now, and although I never formally reviewed it, Dan and I did rave about it for an hour and a half on my first and likely only stab at hosting the GameCritics podcast. Still, since this'll get serious consideration on my best-of-2017 list far down the line, I want to put it into writing that Resident Evil 7 acknowledges the ill-fatedness of Capcom's attempts to recreate RE4's magic, and therefore turns Resident Evil into a horror franchise once again, disempowering the player and scaling the setting almost entirely to a single estate. It's almost a return to form, except it's smarter, scarier, and more fluid than the originals ever were, and it tells perhaps the first story in series history that can actually be taken somewhat seriously (though the protagonist is admittedly a bit of an emotional vacuum). After Resident Evil 6, I would've been ready to call it a day on this franchise, but Capcom really turned this thing all the way around. Buy it if you've got the stomach for it. 9/10

Super Bomberman R (Switch)

There is absolutely no circumstance in which a new Bomberman game, in 2017, should cost $50, no matter how long it's been since we've played a proper Bomberman title, no matter how eager we are to wash the taste of Act Zero out of our mouths, no matter how much we're itching to make use of our pricey new Switch consoles. At its absolute best, Super Bomberman R is a repackaging of the same formula that's seen, what, 33 iterations? The trouble is that it's often not at its absolute best - the single-player campaign is pointless (despite the cute animated cutscenes), and at least half of the online matches I've played have been so laggy as to make the game nearly unplayable. (Both Splatoon 2 and Fast RMX have had perfectly adequate online functionality, so the problem is with the game, not the service.) Were this a bargain-price eShop download, I'd still be hesitant to recommend it. At $50, well... I can't say I expect better from Konami. 3/10

Blaster Master Zero (Switch)

As a fan of the original Blaster Master (though not enough of one to have known that there were several other follow-ups before this one), I expected to like this more than I did. It's certainly faithful to the series formula, which mixes side-scrolling, exploration-based action-platforming in a tank with top-down linear bits on foot. Weirdly, my biggest issue with Blaster Master Zero has more to do with the Switch hardware - specifically, the left Joycon's lack of a true d-pad, which makes retro-style 2D games such as this one rather awkward to control. Maybe this is something I'll grow used to as I spend more time with my Switch in handheld mode and Zero was unfortunate enough to be the first guinea pig. Also, while the tank segments are fun, the top-down sections feel way less inspired, and that's unfortunately where the bosses tend to be set. It captures the look and feel of the NES classic, but I guess I wasn't as hungry for this as I'd imagined, and it's probably the Switch release I've spent the least time with. 6/10

VOEZ (Switch)

Even amongst Switch's thin launch period lineup, VOEZ is already shaping up to be one of the console's most overlooked titles. I only picked it up (a) out of desire to get more use out of my Switch now that Zelda's been shelved and (b) because my embarrassing attachment to the Hatsune Miku titles means Japanese rhythm games may actually be my thing. VOEZ was a good investment - its presentation is both attractive and minimalistic, and its song selection exceeds a hundred, all of them available right from the start. Mechanically, it's nothing terribly unique, but I like that it forces you to play with two hands at once, mimicking the sort of multitasking required to, say, play the piano (something I've always been in awe of). Plenty of variety in the music, as well - it's not just J-pop, but also violent rave electro and some delicate symphonic tracks. It's a mobile port, but don't let that scare you away - VOEZ is worth buying if you're into this sort of thing. 8/10

Dark Souls III: The Ringed City (PC)

A year ago, I was still fully on board the Souls train, confident that From Software could keep it running forever, yet these final two DLCs, purportedly the last Souls-related content we'll be getting for the foreseeable future, have done a lot to sour my good will toward the franchise. This one is marginally better than Ashes of Ariandel, mainly for its visual appeal, but way too much of its challenge is derived from having players jump from cover to cover while invincible enemies fire projectiles on a strict timer. It reminds me of the bits in Demon's Souls where you had to dodge dragon breath, and I hated those sections. The bosses are decent on paper but have way too much health, a lazy method of inflating the game's difficulty, and it's a twist of the blade that this DLC's story ultimately links back to Ariandel when I'd rather have just forgotten about that whole affair. A huge disappointment as the swan song of Dark Souls, and if Miyazaki and crew are really this out of good ideas, maybe it's time for a break after all. 5/10

Snake Pass (Switch)

This is one of the most unique 3D platformers I've ever played, and has stolen an awful lot of Yooka-Laylee's thunder, if you ask me. Since you control a snake, the objective is to navigate levels not by jumping, but by contorting your body, looping around objects and creating a tight enough grip that you don't fall. The controls are a major adjustment but super consistent once you grasp when to raise or lower the snake's head, or when to tighten or loosen your grip. Some of the acrobatic stunts the later levels ask you to complete are pretty grueling, but only a handful of Snake Pass's collectibles are mandatory; the rest are there if you're looking for an extra challenge, as I was, enamored with the game's charm and originality. The camera is an occasional nuisance, especially since your right thumb won't always been free to move it around, but otherwise, this is one of my surprise favorites of the year. 9/10

And now, for some actual reviews:

For Honor
Hollow Knight
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Torment: Tides of Numenera

And hey! I was on the latest GameCritics podcast, in which we discussed the Switch and Zelda.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A scoreless review of Fast RMX

It is easy, relatively speaking, to make a racing game look good and run well. Most of the scenery is far out of reach, players can't study it anyway because they're moving too quickly and focusing on the road, and not much is actually happening - it's just happening very quickly. The flash factor is why a good launch lineup usually includes a racer. When PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both went on sale several years ago, Forza Motorsport 5 was the prettiest title across both platforms, and briefly fooled me into thinking that the Xbox One had a bright future ahead of it. Oh, the naivete.

So while Zelda is certainly a stunner on the tiny Switch, the most immediate demonstration of the tablet-sized console's power to produce big boy visuals is unquestionably Fast RMX. On a TV, running in full 1080p, it looks comparable to your average budget-level current-gen release. In handheld mode, though, this thing dazzles. It runs at a rock-solid 60fps while the Switch's brilliantly bright screen showcases its wonderful color palette. Again, it's largely due to the genre, and I wouldn't go about expecting every Switch game to look this good - I mean, Zelda often struggles to hold 30fps - but man oh man is Fast RMX gorgeous.

It's a remastered version of Fast Racing Neo, a Wii U release that several people recommended to me last year when Redout reinvigorated my interest in futuristic, ant-gravity racing games. (I'll come back to Redout later. It's important.) This edition packs an impressive 30 tracks and is available on Nintendo's eShop for $20.

If that sounds like a suspiciously good deal for a blazing technical showcase with a generous heap of content, know that at its core, Fast RMX is a relatively basic affair. It's arcade fluff, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact, its compatibility for short play sessions makes it an ideal fit for the Switch's handheld mode. But Fast RMX is mechanically shallow and short on variety. It's a budget release; don't go in expecting more.

When assessing an AR racer, the question inevitably comes up: Which of the two big genre staples - you know the ones - does it more closely compare to? Fast RMX cleanly falls into the F-Zero camp, borrowing both its overwhelming sense of speed and its dated-even-in-the-'90s hair-metal cheesiness (complete with an announcer who says things like, "Totally awesome!"). It's particularly at home on Nintendo consoles, where the absence of an actual new F-Zero game grows increasingly frustrating by the year. It's been over a decade now.

Fast RMX's one unique mechanic is an Ikaruga-like color polarity system, where players must alternate between orange and blue to take advantage of boost pads and jumps. If you touch an orange boost and you're blue, it'll actually slow you down. Likewise, hitting a jump pad of the wrong color will just send you tumbling downward. It's not a bad idea.

Unfortunately, there's little else to Fast RMX on a mechanical level. Sliding has virtually no use, and beyond that, it's simply a matter of pointing your craft in the right direction and hitting the gas. If you're wondering what else I could possibly want out of a racing game, well, put that question on hold for just a few more paragraphs.

Fast RMX is also skimpy on modes. There are bog-standard tournaments with three difficulty settings, as well as something called Hero Mode, in which vehicles can actually take damage and death means game over. Good concept in theory, but it's hurt by the game's camera, which is positioned so low that it's often difficult to see incoming obstacles. And since crashing into something can mean instant death, well, you can see how it gets frustrating. The camera also has this habit of sometimes - not always, but sometimes - staying level with the ground even when your vehicle hits a steep bank. It's weird and uncomfortable, and when playing in handheld mode, I was often involuntarily tilting my Switch to try to compensate for it.

So it's... fine, I guess. It's a functionally bare-bones AR racer that somehow manages to get camera control wrong, but it's gorgeous, good in small bursts, and sports enough track variety to not be a waste of time. I think $20 is a fair price, especially now, when we're desperate to make the most of our shiny new Switches and so little else is available for the system (though I'd sooner recommend VOEZ, a lovely little J-pop rhythm game that I've been enjoying considerably lately).

But! Remember Redout, that game that recently reinvigorated my interest in this genre? It's currently exclusive to PC, where it doesn't seem to have much of an audience (hence why I'm probably the only person you'll presently hear raving about the game). As luck would have it, though, later this year, Redout will be making its console debut... on the Switch.

Which raises the question: Can I recommend the average but affordable Fast RMX when a far superior AR racer is right around the corner? I guess that's up to you. My Redout review from last year can hopefully fill you in on why I consider it to be the top of its class. Maybe timing will be a factor. Maybe it'll come down to price, since Redout will cost twice as much. I say it's worth the wait and the price, but perhaps Switch fans aren't as picky as I am. Or maybe, Nintendo fans as they are, they're just starved for something to fill the F-Zero-shaped hole in their lives. Fast RMX does a solid enough job of that.

(P.S. Fast RMX makes pretty neat use of the Joycon's "HD rumble" function as your craft interacts with the environment. On a desert track, for example, passing through a whirlwind actually causes a sort of spinning sensation to ripple through the controllers.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Let's predict the Oscars or whatever

Best Picture: La La Land
Best Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature: Zootopia
Best Documentary Feature: OJ: Made in America

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Costume Design: Jackie
Best Documentary Short Subject: The White Helmets
Best Film Editing: La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Star Trek Beyond
Best Original Score: La La Land
Best Original Song: "City of Stars" (La La Land)
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Animated Short Film: Piper
Best Live Action Short Film: Sing
Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Some stray notes:

• Best Actor is a close race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Affleck deserves it - his performance was more understated, and Denzel's already won twice before - but I already have Manchester by the Sea beating out La La Land for writing and I'm trying to minimize my disappointment, so I'm putting Denzel.

• I don't have Arrival winning anything and that sucks. It at least deserves to win Sound Editing, but that one tends to favor war movies. It's also more deserving of Editing than La La Land, but that movie's gonna win just about everything, so what can you do?

• Sound Mixing always favors musicals. As many have pointed out, the sound mix was one of the few universal complaints about La La Land, so it's dumb that it's going to win this category, but here we are.

• Also, am I crazy, or was "City of Stars" not that great?

Suicide Squad is up for Makeup and Hairstyling. The makeup was one of the few aspects of that movie that didn't suck, but I'm putting down Star Trek Beyond because I can't bear the thought of Suicide Squad winning an Oscar. Plus, Star Trek 2009 won this category.

• I could see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them pulling an upset in either Production Design or Costume Design.

• I liked La La Land just fine, but jeez.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Essentials

Last night on Twitter, I asked a question: What games would you consider essential - required reading, if you will - for anyone who wishes to be an expert in the medium?

It started as a personal project for me. While I do a solid job of keeping up with big, important releases nowadays, there were decades when I didn't have the capacity to do that - particularly before 1990, when I was, uh, born. Since I write about video games on a regular basis, and since I seek opportunities to become more knowledgeable on the subject, I'm looking to gradually fill the gaps and catch up on all of the games throughout history that I feel it's my duty to be familiar with. If there were such a thing as a video game historian, what games would they need to play, to know about?

In just the last few years, I played through Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill 2 and Ico for the first time. Even if I hadn't wound up enjoying and respecting all three games, I'd welcome my expanded knowledge on some of the industry's most notable releases. Almost anyone would label those three games as must-plays. I missed them the first time, but I've finally rectified that.

I'm looking to do that with everything else, hence why I turned to Twitter for suggestions. But since I'm limited to 140 characters there, I didn't have the space to lay out exactly the sorts of games I'm looking for. I've come up with five categories.

1. Pioneers. These are the games that changed the industry, that made it what it is today. Games that innovated, opened new doors, left their marks on future generations. This is the most self-explanatory category; if it's a crucial piece of gaming history or has become a part of our language, it belongs on this list.

2. Trendsetters. Some of the most important releases in gaming history didn't invent the wheel so much as they popularized and standardized the wheel. Trends don't spawn out of nowhere; some game, at some point, paved a path to success, and other developers and publishers decided to capitalize on it.

3. Time-tested classics. Certain games come up in conversation constantly for no other reason than that they are held as the golden standard for their respective genres. I say "time-tested" because even the best games, if lacking any particularly distinctive or groundbreaking qualities, run the risk of being surpassed. Over two decades later, for example, no mention of history's greatest JRPGs is complete without mention of Chrono Trigger. Some games are just unbeatable.

4. Cautionary tales. "Important" is not synonymous with "good," and some of the industry's most notorious disasters and disappointments warrant just as much attention as its greatest successes, if only to understand how not to design games or treat consumers.

5. Important franchises. Many of the games on this list belong to franchises, and it's often easy to pinpoint the most noteworthy entries in a series. In the case of particularly iterative franchises, however, there's no need to get bogged down with specifics. I think any gamer worth their salt should be familiar with Pokémon, for example, but I couldn't care less which one you play. So for certain entries on this list, I'll be naming not one specific game but an entire series.

What you see below is the initial draft I've put together for a required-playing list. It's almost certainly incomplete, so if you have any suggestions for games that should be added (or removed!), bearing in mind the guidelines listed above, please send them my way on Twitter. This began as a personal project, one with which to gauge my knowledge of the medium, but I'd love for us to work together and assemble a list that anyone can use for a similar purpose.

Bear in mind that this is not about favorites. Some of the best games I've ever played have been omitted from the list. This is about the games that the community collectively agrees are the most important in understanding how the industry arrived at where it is today. It's about not being left out of the most relevant conversations.

I've played the vast majority of the games listed here. Once this is finalized, I'll pick out the games I need to catch up on, list them in a separate article, and continue to gradually post updates as I push through them.

The 7th Guest
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Animal Crossing
Assassin's Creed series
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Beyond Good & Evil
Bomberman series
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Chrono Trigger
Civilization series
Contra III: The Alien Wars
Command & Conquer series
Dark Souls
Day of the Tentacle
Deus Ex
Devil May Cry
Diablo II
Donkey Kong
Dragon Quest V
Duke Nukem Forever
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
F-Zero series
Fallout: New Vegas
FIFA series
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VII
Fire Emblem series
Gain Ground
Gears of War
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Gone Home
Gran Turismo series
Grand Theft Auto III
Grim Fandango
Guitar Hero series
Gunstar Heroes
Half-Life 2
Halo: Combat Evolved
Harvest Moon
Heroes of Might & Magic III
Hitman series
Indigo Prophecy
Katamari Damacy
King's Quest V
League of Legends
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
The Longest Journey
Madden series
Mario Kart series
Mass Effect trilogy
Mega Man 2
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat 2
Oregon Trail
Panel de Pon
PaRappa the Rapper
Persona 4
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Planescape: Torment
Pokémon series
Portal 2
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero
Resident Evil
Resident Evil 4
River Raid
The Secret of Monkey Island
Shadow of the Colossus
Sid Meier's Pirates!
Silent Hill 2
SimCity series
The Sims series
Solomon's Key
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Space Invaders
Spider-Man 2
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Street Fighter II
Super Mario 64
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario World
Super Metroid
Superman 64
System Shock 2
Team Fortress 2
Tecmo Super Bowl

Thief II: The Metal Age
Tomb Raider
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Uncharted 2: Drake's Fortune
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (Season One)
Wii Sports
Wing Commander
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
World of Warcraft
X-COM: UFO Defense
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Once more, if you have any recommendations for this list, shoot me a line at @MikeSuskie. Any feedback will be appreciated. Thanks!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A ranked list of every 2016 release that I played

Hi. I do this every year and I doubt it warrants an explanation anyway. The only note I want to make is that I adore Skyrim but felt that the Special Edition was a lame cash-grab, hence its low placement on this list.

* re-releases or remasters of old games
^ games I'm still working on

68. NightCry (PC)
67. Energy Hook (PC)
66. Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
65. We Are the Dwarves (PC)
64. XCOM 2 (PC)
63. Attractio (PS4)
62. Fractured Space (PC)
61. Necropolis (PC)
60. Tom Clancy's The Division (PC)
59. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (PS4) *
58. ReCore (PC)
57. House of the Dying Sun (PC)
56. Inexistence (PC) *
55. Abzû (PC)
54. Song of the Deep (PC)
53. Seasons After Fall (PC)
52. Inside (PC)
51. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (PC)
50. Salt and Sanctuary (PS4)
49. Virginia (PC)
48. Hyper Light Drifter (PC)
47. Firewatch (PC)
46. Hexoscope (PC) ^
45. Grow Up (PC)
44. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC)
43. Deus Ex Go (Android) ^
42. Devil Daggers (PC)
41. Evolve Stage 2 (PC) *
40. Sky Break (PC)^
39. Out There Somewhere (PC)
38. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PC) *
37. Watch Dogs 2 (PC) ^
36. Ratchet & Clank (PS4)
35. Furi (PC)
34. Pokémon Moon (3DS) ^
33. Battlefield 1 (PS4)
32. Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC) ^
31. Unravel (PC)
30. Final Fantasy XV (PS4)
29. The Banner Saga 2 (PC) ^
28. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PC)
27. Hitman (PC) ^
26. Valley (PC)
25. Let It Die (PS4) ^
24. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition (PC) *
23. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)
22. Pokémon Go (Android)
21. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)
20. Dishonored 2 (PS4)
19. Another Metroid II Remake (PC) *
18. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight (PC)
17. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest (3DS) ^
16. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4) *^
15. Beholder (PC)
14. DarkMaus (PC)
13. Dark Souls III (PC)
12. Darkest Dungeon (PC)
11. Reigns (PC/Android)
10. Grim Dawn (PC)
9. Severed (Vita)
8. The Witness (PC)
7. Overwatch (PC)
6. The Last Guardian (PS4)
5. Redout (PC)
4. Titanfall 2 (PC)
3. Owlboy (PC)
2. Superhot (PC)
1. Doom (PC)