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Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.

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Review – Ratchet and Clank – PS4

What was old, is new again.

Do you remember when the consoles were flooded with friendly cartoon characters who ran, jumped, and flew through a wide array of environments?  Do you long for collectible hunting before it became synonymous with open world, GTA style gameplay?  Insomniac has got you covered.  With the HD rerelease of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, the glory days of mascot platforming are on display for all to see.  It’s a happy return.

The story begins with Clank, a defunct Blarg warbot who discovers plans to attack planet Novalis.  Clank escapes the Blarg only to crash land near Ratchet, a furry cat like creature with mechanical talent and dreams of saving the galaxy.  Together, they team up to defeat the Blarg and save the day.  The story is about as straightforward as I’ve presented it with only the occasional stabs of humor to set it apart from your average kid’s cartoon show.  There isn’t much here to draw in adults and the plot largely serves as a vehicle to move the player from one planet to the next.  While a game like this doesn’t need a strong story, there are moments where Ratchet and Clank’s narrative feels like a missed opportunity.  A number of characters almost use pessimistic humor before they pull away from truly amusing territory.  It happens enough times that it feels like the writers wanted to go one step further before someone stopped them.  That’s a shame, because humor would have greatly livened up the proceedings.  As it stands, the story is functional.

The gameplay is where Ratchet and Clank shines.  The game has the platformer’s usual array of jumping puzzles, but the addition of clever weaponry helps it stand out.  Ratchet has a wide array of guns which can level up through use and benefit from upgrades purchase with a special material called raretanium.  While the leveling scheme encourages the player to constantly swap weapons, the usefulness of each weapon makes the experience a delight.  Each gun has its own value, but no gun is powerful enough to work in all situations throughout the game.  The powerful sheepinator turns enemies into sheep without requiring ammo, but is ineffective against bosses.  The groovatron turns the battlefield into a dance floor, but doesn’t hurt larger enemies much.  Taking full advantage of Ratchet’s arsenal is one of the true delights of the game.  Sadly, the Clank sections are less so.  Clank relies on puzzles based on minibots whose many forms help him overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player interested and they break up the gameplay, but they never really satisfy like Ratchet’s shooting sections.  They are also sometimes accompanied by Clank’s hints which repeat incessantly annoying players who are enacting the solution and those who already heard the clue and wish he would just stop.

One of the joys of the Ratchet and Clank series is the vibrant, cartoony environments.  The HD remake only enhances their quality and brings the fuller vision into view.  The dynamism of the original level designs stand out with many of them taking place on an active battlefield or bustling cityscape with the attending side fights or zooming cars creating the atmosphere.  None of the environments are technical or stylistic stand outs, yet they’re so well-crafted that they’re incredibly fun to explore.  Beyond the environment, character models are sharper, colors pop, and the tiny details from the original game stand out more.  My only grip is the tiny letters, though that is likely a function of my smaller TV.  The game is a lot of fun to watch.

The rerelease adds a few features, but it’s the original game that truly draws in the player.  Developer Insomniac understood that this is a game that doesn’t need fixing and only made minor tweaks.  If you own a PS4, I highly recommend dropping some cash on Ratchet and Clank.  You’ll enjoy it.

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Review – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – PC

Killing high schoolers has never been so much fun!

Murder mysteries are an often neglected part of video game design space.  Whereas books, movies, and tv series have seen great success with that theme, games have generally avoided it due to the lack of obvious gameplay.  Those that have tried (Batman Arkham Asylum or L.A. Noire come to mind) have trouble making the investigatory process interesting as compared to the shooty/fighty bits of the rest of the game.  Given the challenges of the past, it’s not surprising that the game that finally gets it right is the one that commits to being a detective.  Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds because it knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.

The story begins with Makoto Naegi attending the first day of high school at the ultra-exclusive Hope’s Peak Academy.  He walks in, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the school has been shut off from the rest of the world.   Stuck with him are his hyper talented classmates who are then informed by the sadistic murderbear Monokuma that the only way they can leave is by killing one of their classmates and getting away with it.  The rest of the story focuses on the interaction between the characters as the bodies pile up and the desperation sets in.  The set up creates a great deal of natural tension between the characters as they grapple with their desire to avoid killing (or being killed) while still wanting to escape.  Each character feels more fleshed out than your standard anime archetype and the game explores their backstories as a way to both empathize with them and establish their motivations.  The murder mystery style pushes the characters in interesting ways so much so that you’ll be sad to see them go.  In between investigations, the player can hone in on characters they particularly enjoy and these mini vignettes fill out their personalities.  Danganronpa’s character depth helps the player invest in the world and care about the outcome.

The interesting setup and strong characters would have been enough to carry the game, but the gameplay elements form a nice compliment.  Danganronpa cycles through three sections: exposition, investigation, and trial.  The first two, exposition and investigation, have the player walking around the world in a first person perspective interacting with people and objects.  There’s more than a little walking simulator DNA here, but the perspective and dingy colors establish a haunting mood.  The trial is the most interactive part.  The player plays a serious of mini games designed to piece together clues found during the investigation phase.  Most of the games get at the player’s understanding of the clues and how they fit together.  For example, one mini game has the characters speaking.  The player must select the right fact that counteracts a phrase being said.  This isn’t the deepest gameplay and one of the minigames stumbles a bit, but it neatly includes the player in the business of figuring out the mystery.  I occasionally felt confused about the answers, but they largely made sense.

…and that’s the strongest aspect of Danganronpa.  If the game indulged in the leaps of logic endemic in many other Japanese series, the mysteries and solutions would have felt unsatisfying.  Instead, developer Spike Chunsoft took the time to come up with logical solutions to its puzzles and understandable motivations for its characters.  It makes sense in the way that good murder mysteries should.  It rewards the incredible interest that its unique premise generates making the player want to continue to solve the overarching mystery of how everyone got into this mess in the first place.  The only time it falters is at the end and, even then, that’s only for a piece of the big reveal.  In all the ways that matter, Danganronpa nails it.

With Danganronpa 2 coming out on Steam (the series has primarily been Sony handhelds) in a couple of weeks, now is the ideal time to pick up the original.  My only hesitation on recommending this game is the violence.  While there is no gore, there is a great deal of blood and brutal deaths.  If you’re okay with that, the intriguing mysteries, clever characters, and unique set up will grab you until the end.

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Review – Moon Hunters – PC

This is a thing I kickstarted.  You have been warned.

Moon Hunters is a game about stories…at least, that’s what the developers told me a couple of years ago when I saw them at PAX.  It’s about the actions of heroes and how they are immortalized through the people they help (or harm).  The game promises to let the players create their own legends except it’s missing out on one key part: the legend.  Moon Hunters feels like 3/4s of a game with the payoff missing.

The most standout feature of the game is the aesthetic.  Moon Hunters chooses a pixel based art style with fairly traditional, but varied, landscapes.  Forests are lush and green, deserts are brown and barren, and swamps have ponds showing the ripple of a falling rain drop.  Characters also animate smoothly and blend well with the environment reflecting a pleasant, unified style.  The music takes an appropriately reverential tone with plenty of otherworldly singing suited for a campfire.  On the whole, this visual and audible approach has been done before, but it’s also done well here.  The player will enjoy the little touches, even if the world doesn’t sweep them away.

Combat is similarly a step up from the norm, but not awe inspiring.  The player picks from one of four characters (local coop for up to four players) with unique skills.  They each have a main attack, an area of effect attack, and a speed move which the player uses on a top down map with a combat style akin to a twin stick shooter.  Not all the characters are sufficiently powerful (the range fighters suffer) which frustratingly extends some fights far beyond the point of fun.  Stat boosts from story vignettes scale characters well, but the opening fights can be a real slog.  Players can also purchase upgrades from merchants, though this often emphasizes the problems with the weaker characters.  Weak characters take longer to kill enemies which slows the rate of currency accumulation and thus the ability to upgrade out of peon status.  Still, the character powers are unique and combat requires tactics to perform well in.  There’s nothing special here, but enough is done right to get the requisite amount of fun.

The main selling point, the player made stories, is the weakest element.  The premise is that the player is one of several heroes of a moon worshiping village when the sun god kills the moon.  The player is then charged with reviving the moon goddess and defeating the sun god’s army.  The story after the setup is filled in with micro vignettes (they last about a minute at most) that confer or reflect traits.  These traits help establish the ending of the player’s story such as the “proud” trait inspiring other chieftains with the player’s confidence.  It’s at this point where Moon Hunters flaws are most evident.  The story wants the player to feel like they’re building a unique hero, but the procedural approach means that the trait ending stories feel disjointed.  The ending is several little blurbs of text pulled when a player has a certain trait.  It doesn’t feel cohesive or like an adequate payoff for the trouble.  Even worse, the end never shows the effect of the player’s actions making the idea of “crafting a story” feel hollow.  The player never sees the fruits of their labors, so the repeated playthroughs that the game encourages will allows fall flat at the end.

Moon Hunters is almost a solid little game executed well.  Nothing truly excels, but enough works that the game is largely an enjoyable package.  It’s a shame that developer Kitfox couldn’t stick the landing.  Buy on sale if the idea sounds interesting.

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Review – Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below – PS4

“Man, I wish games stun locked me more!”

-No one, ever

Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below isn’t a new game.  In many ways it’s a reskin of the old Dynasty Warriors series with some Dragon Quest bits strewn about.  That doesn’t make it a bad game, but purchasers should know what they’re getting before purchasing.  You can have fun here, but only if you’re in the right mood.

The story begins in the Kingdom of Arba where man and monster live side-by-side in peace until a black fog drives the monsters mad.  This is the moment where Dragon Quest Heroes sets up on of the most unnecessary narrative contradiction I’ve ever seen and establishes a fantastically amateurish approach to storytelling in general.  The game acknowledges the obvious tension between needing to fight the rampaging monsters and knowing that they were once friends, but the gameplay didn’t seem to get the memo.  Quests in the game talk about slaughtering huge waves of monsters in retribution for them trampling a garden or making off with a pie.  Regretting monster killing doesn’t count for much if you’re going to murder them over a rose bush.  Sadly, the rest of the story is filled with these silly moments where developer W-Omega stumbles over the problems it creates.  It should then come as no surprise that characters pulled in from other Dragon Quest series aren’t supported well either.  They’re largely one note and will only satisfy their most devoted fans.  Still, there is more of a narrative than your average Dynasty Warriors game.  Given the developer’s “skills” as a storyteller, it’s a wonder that the game is coherent as it is.

The gameplay is bog standard Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash.  Players control a party of four lead by one of two main characters.  They fight through a series of maps with effectively one of two objectives: kill all the things or protect something while killing all the things.  There isn’t much complexity anywhere, though the ability to swap characters on a whim and to invest in a skill tree for each character adds a little more interest than the usual Dynasty Warriors formula.  Mindless slashing works for most of the game, though the end stages ask for a little more strategy as they rely heavily on stun attacks which force the player to sway mindlessly for several seconds while the game plays itself.  It’s a pointless game mechanic that breaks up the monotony with frustration.  The game includes a few other features, but they’re largely designed to improve the player’s ability to smash things or give them another reason to smash things.  There really isn’t any other goal to this game.

Dragon Quest Heroes scratches the Dynasty Warriors itch.  If you’re looking for that kind of game, Dragon Quest Heroes will satisfy you as well as any of the other competent entries in the series.  Wait for a Steam sale and pick it up for 20 bucks.  Dragon Quest fans should add a little more on top of that, but not much.

 

Bonus Story Surprise!:  Remember how I said the story trips over itself?  There’s an even better example.  In most stories, the author tries to avoid a deus ex machina (where the author needs a totally unsupported plot element to get them out of the dead end that they’ve written themselves into).  This narrative technique is only called upon when the flaw in the story is buried deep and difficult to remove.  Dragon Quest Heroes included both the dead end and deus ex machina in the same scene.  Towards the end, the heroes flee a crumbling island.  They happen across a boss who, in his death throws, destroys the only way out.  Rather than have the gang saved by their flying cloud fortress, W-Omega has them saved by a magical bird from another dimension that is mentioned exactly zero times before that moment.  It’s so terrible that it’s beautiful.

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Review – Sonic: The Lost World – PC

This is why you pay your level designers the big bucks.

Sonic: The Lost World is a mess. From the terrible tutorial, to the idiotic lives system, to the, yes, terrible level design, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying this game. While some of this is the inevitable result of attempting to incorporate a sense of speed into a 3D platformer, much more of it a product of unforced errors committed by the developers. This is one of those few scenarios where Sega’s every design decision seems to make things worse.

The trouble begins with Sonic: The Lost World’s total inability to communicate its controls. At no point does the game run the player through the basic controls or the more advanced maneuvers. Many of the moves (run, spin, jump, lock on, etc) are familiar, but some are not. Messing around in the early stages gives the player enough information to get by, but understanding the finer points of the game requires additional guidance. I was half way through the game before I realized that some enemies had to be kicked rather than spin-dashed and that only struck me when I had to kick enemies to progress. Despite having played most of the game, I’m still unaware of how some of the powerups work. The Lost World includes little tooltips, but, like the mechanics of the rest of the game, their purpose is initially unclear and the means to access them is never stated. In addition to the poor tutorial, the game never develops its own visual language. The player rarely understands the unique mechanics of each level until they happen and they’re rarely intuitive. In one case, platforms in a level are periodically destroyed by a dragon’s shout. Rather than demonstrate this first in a safer environment, The Lost World rolls the mechanic out while the player stands on a destructible platform suspended over a ravine. Mario, this isn’t.

Given the terrible communication, it should come as no surprise that The Lost World hosts a number of other questionable design decisions. Premier among them is the lives system. While most modern platformers either design the level to be completed in one shot or ditch lives altogether, Sonic: The Lost World does neither. Instead, it has progressively longer levels with a limited number of lives. The player can bank lives across levels, but should they lose them all, they start at the beginning of the level with just four. Levels get longer and longer culminating in one level which incorporates three platforming sections and three boss fights. Tackling that on just four lives is an exercise in frustration and is the reason why I’m writing this review without finishing the game. Another poor design decision of note is the requirement of animals to progress to the boss. When defeated, each enemy gives up an animal which Sonic automatically collects. The final level of each section requires that the player collect a certain number of animals to unlock the level. The end result is that I had to grind a Sonic game. That’s right, I had to replay levels to get enough animals to move on. There is no value in locking content away like this. The decision to do so is just mind-boggling.

All of these terrible choices pile on to already weak level design. Sega copies the mini planet idea from Super Mario Galaxy, yet never seems to understand that it makes Sonic’s traditional speed focused gameplay even harder. If you thought operating in 3D space was difficult, try doing it with gravity shifting. The Lost World’s 2D levels improve the controls, but the jumps and challenges aren’t particularly impressive. Nor is the decision to block flow. Sega regularly places enemies and obstacles along paths to prevent the player from gaining any speed. Just as the player gets into a flow, they run into an enemy and must start over. I could go on, but there’s really too much to cover. The level design stinks.

The common conclusion to a terrible Sonic game used to be to talk about how far the series has fallen from it’s heyday. Given the long stream of poor titles, even those memories are gone. The Sonic franchise is a worn out husk. Stay away from it and Sonic: The Lost World.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – PC

Writing this for a second time. Thanks Word!

Blizzard is an evolutionary developer. Occasionally they take great leaps forward, but those are rare when compared to their measured steps towards something better. Even with their long history, rarely has Blizzard made a series of games clearly heading to something specific. The Starcraft series is different. The story, gameplay, and infrastructure all lead to one point: Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void. The game is still recognizable from the Wings of Liberty days (or even Starcraft 1), but Blizzard learned so much from its past that this feels like the definitive experience.

Well, most of it does. While much of the game stands above its predecessors, the story is still clearly shackled to an unevolved version of the model set out at the beginning. The player takes control of the Protoss hero Artanis as he attempts to retake his homeworld of Aiur. The attack falters when the evil god Amon takes control of the Protoss army and Artanis is forced to collect the remaining independent forces of the Protoss to beat back Amon. The characters and plot of the Protoss story are compelling enough and even manage to evoke the occasional moment of awe at the epic scale of the conflict, but it’s hard not to feel like the single race model of the expansion packs works poorly here. Legacy of the Void should tie the disparate story lines together, but the Terran and Zerg characters only get a fraction of the screen time. It’s enough to convince the player that there is a broader conflict, but not enough to draw the player in. Amon, the link between all three games, is the flat evil god of evil stereotype and does not sufficiently tie the experience together. Blizzard understandably felt obligated to give Protoss players their due, but dedicating the final game in the series to one race undermined the overarching, multi-race narrative. If Blizzard had incorporated the other plotlines, the story would have been all the better for it.

Beyond the story, the campaign shines. Campaign missions drop the timing heavy levels of Heart of the Swarm in favor of the greater mission variety of Wings of Liberty. The upgrade system also receives an overhaul by injecting substantial flexibility. Rather than select a specific form of a unit, Legacy of the Void allows the player to switch between three forms, each with their own unique power set. The forms combine to create an impressive number of strategies and should complement whatever approach the player wants. On top of the unit forms, Blizzard included universal upgrades and powers that effect the whole level. Old standbys like automated vespane harvesters return with new friends such as teleporting in a pylon. The player can reallocate a new resource, solarite, to change the universal buffs based on their strategy. The new flexibility of the upgrade systems allow for numerous adaptations…and confusion. Legacy of the Void never explains the virtue of any one upgrade and leaves it to the player to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, this only means the player will miss out on the potential of their builds, not be confused.

The game really shines in the multiplayer. The biggest change is the addition of six extra harvester units at the beginning of each match. The additional units increase resource production and prevent the often slow beginning of most competitive Starcraft 2 matches. They also allow for a number of new strategies by getting players to the resources they need quicker. Of course, Blizzard also adds the requisite new units of which the Terran Liberator and the Zerg Ravager stand out. All the new units promote smart play by being incredibly powerful, but only when used correctly. This produces more dynamic games where even the strongest army compositions can fail if mishandled.

Legacy of the Void also adds two new modes. Archon mode lets two players control one race. Designed as a trainer mode for new players, the real fun of Archon mode is letting two friends split up the substantial control burden of the game. There’s substantial professional competitive potential in Archon mode, though there haven’t been any major tournaments yet. The other option is cooperative where players ally to take on 7 missions based on campaign missions across Starcraft 2. Players choose heroes with limited access to their race’s units and buildings, but who have special powers which expand and improve as the hero gains levels. There isn’t a lot of depth to this mode, but it’s hard to deny the fun of playing with a friend.

Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void is the finest expression of the RTS genre in a long time. If you have any interest in this kind of game, you owe it to yourself to buy this game.

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Review – The Beginner’s Guide – PC

There’s a whole lot of feels here.

Short Version:  The Beginner’s Guide is not a game for everyone.  It’s not a game for most people.  In fact, it is a game for a subset of people who both sympathize with its message and can appreciate its form.

Slightly Longer Short Version:  The game starts with a Counterstrike level and the establishment of its narrative form.  The narrator, who is also the developer, explains that he’s cobbled together levels made by the programmer Coda and will describe what he likes about each level in the hopes that the resulting publicity will entice Coda back to developing.  This serves as the foundation of an extraordinarily personal game about the developer and his need for validation.  I’d like to say more, but I really don’t want to ruin it.  Instead, I’ll note that, for people who have looked at the world the way the developer has, The Beginner’s Guide is going to grab you.  As for me, I never really felt the way the developer did (does?), and so I always felt like a bit of an outsider during this game.  This is not a game for me, and it’s may not be a game for you. Fair warning.

As for the rest of the usual bits of game reviewing, they really don’t apply.  The graphics are fine, the controls are WADS standard, and the interaction is nothing the player hasn’t seen in The Stanley Parable or other similar walking simulator games.  The Beginner’s Guide is, more than any game I’ve played, a vehicle for the narrative.  If you’re on board with it, I’m sure it’s a touching experience.  For everyone else, your appreciation of this game diminishes proportionally to how much the message and form means to you.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty – PC

A totally original tale of space marines fighting aliens.

The thing about calling a game a “classic” is that you have to measure it against the established standard of the day. Classic games aren’t a reflection of the time they’re created, but rather of how they compare to current games. With that in mind, the reason Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War aren’t undisputed classics is because developer Blizzard reentered the RTS genre again and gave us Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is one of those rare games that evolves the formula so much that it’s practically a revolution.

The game picks up after the events of Brood War. Jim Raynor leads a revolutionary group against Emperor Megnsk while the Zerg and Protoss remain quiet in their respective territories. The calm is shattered when Kerrigan launches another invasion of the Terran Dominion. The player takes control of Raynor as he tries to protect humanity against the Zerg while still prosecuting his war against Megnsk. There’s a lot of back story here, but Blizzard chose a solid starting point so that newcomers won’t feel too lost. The introduction of a few new characters (I’m a big fan of Tychus) keeps the story from being a retread and provides much needed outside perspective to characters who are absorbed by their own drama. The focus is squarely on the Terrans (they’re they only ones with a solid campaign), though Protoss and Kerrigan play roles as well. Overall, the story is a solid space opera that sacrifices a bit to the needs of the campaign, but remains compelling in its own right.

While still recognizable, nearly every aspect of the campaign has evolved. This is most apparent in the missions where Blizzard figured out how to move beyond the glorified skirmishes of the original Starcraft. Missions now focus on taking advantage of the traits of individual units and they encourage the player to experiment with all the unique abilities. Blizzard has crafted clever set ups (such as a moving wall of fire forcing the player to lift their base) and cleverly includes units too unbalanced for multiplayer. The unit based focus forces some unnecessary plot diversions in the story, but is a solid edition to the gameplay. Outside the missions, the player has access to a ship based hub where they can purchase upgrades, talk to team members, and replay old missions for achievements. The whole package, plus the ridiculous polish, makes for a compelling experience that is worth returning to.

Like the campaign, the multiplayer received a major overhaul. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t touch the basic gameplay. Starcraft’s tight balance between the three races carries over to the sequel with a few new units and stat changes to vary the experience. Instead, the biggest shifts come from match matching.   Blizzard established a tiered ranking system based on player success. The player plays five evaluation matches which then places them into the appropriate rank. This system does a couple of neat things. It ensures players are matched against opponents of a similar skill and provides clear feedback on player success. It’s easy to tell how good of a Starcraft 2 player you are based on your ranking. Playing matches also provides experience which goes towards acquiring minor rewards like portraits and unit animations. The only flaw in the multiplayer is that Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is out. Many of the best players have migrated over to the next iteration of the game.

Rounding out the Starcraft 2 experience is a clean, compelling presentation that shows off Blizzard’s technical capacity and movie making. Units are distinctive, colorful, and animate smoothly. The environments move beyond the original Starcraft’s bland grays and browns to more vibrant jungles and ruins. The cutscenes make impressive use of detail and scale to create the feel of a living world. It’s telling that one of the opening cutscenes was the first time I really felt the size and majesty of the battlecruiser. Still, the movies growing grandeur feel discordant with the scale of the gameplay. While cutscenes include massive battles between huge armies, the missions and skirmishes have no more than 400 units on screen with space ships the size of 10 marines. It’s a necessary conceit to the genre, but it’s jolting to switch between the two.

There are a few flaws in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, but they are small. The incredible amount of polish and creativity in the game makes it compelling and one of the true greats of the genre and gaming in general. For players with even a passing interest in RTS games, this is a must buy.

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