Star Wars Battlefront Review

Star Wars Battlefront reminds me why I love Star Wars. Its skirmishes unfold across iconic planets, with gorgeous landscapes and sweeping vistas on a massive scale. Endor's trees dwarf us. Tatooine's desert stretches for miles. And when the battle music reaches its peak, and I glide over Hoth's frozen trenches, I'm right back in my childhood living room, watching The Empire Strikes Back for the first time.

But Battlefront lacks the longevity that makes its source material great. It offers initial engagement, and for the first 10 hours, it swept me through its harrowing firefights at a rapid pace. But then the cracks began to show. In the end, Battlefront feels more like an homage to Star Wars than a substantial Star Wars game in itself.

And yet, what a beautiful homage this is: dynamic lighting, vivid textures, windswept forests--developer DICE has crafted a nuanced, detailed world begging for a closer look, enveloping you at every turn. Rain glistens on drooping leaves. Icy crystals extend from cavern walls. You can even see clouds of dust billow across Tatooine's arid scenery.

This is all stunning, of course, but it's Battlefront's sound design that truly reels you in. The ambient wildlife surrounds you and explosions carry through bunker walls, even as the pitter patter of rain strikes ferns in the wind. It speaks volumes that I considered turning the ubiquitous soundtrack off at times, just to hear the detail in Battlefront's world.Luke's force push is best used against groups.

Beneath all this grandeur, however, are shallow experiences. Maps look fantastic, yes, but they lack focused design. Endor's undergrowth lends cosmetic appeal, but not much cover. Hoth's barren fields impart a sense of distance, but few creative sight lines.

There are exceptions in some of Battlefront's locales, however--Tatooine's blend of exterior and interior environments, for instance, creates engaging battles from one match to the next. By darting into a nearby bunker, I avoided AT-ST fire. This also allowed me to flank a trio of enemy soldiers at a nearby capture point, and with a barrage of grenade launcher rounds, I cleared them out. Battlefront's best maps encourage these tactics across its various game modes.

And make no mistake, there's an abundance of game modes here. Star Wars Battlefront offers nine competitive variants, each of them distinct, for better or worse.

There's the spectacular Heroes vs. Villains, which plays out exactly how it sounds: as if a box of Star Wars action figures came to life and, unsure of what to do next, resorted to violence. There's Droid Run, a unique variation of zone control in which the zones shift locations throughout the match. And then there's Walker Assault.

Battlefront feels more like an homage to Star Wars than a substantial Star Wars game in itself.

This is Battlefront at its best. Walker Assault offers more emergent gameplay moments and, in contrast to much of the game's combat elsewhere, it lends the sense of a bigger objective. Imperials escort--and rebels attempt to destroy--AT-ATs as they march toward the base at the end of a path. That dichotomy between objectives means a different experience for both sides, and with numerous offensive and defensive options, battles unfold with surprising variety.

My favorite match took place on Endor. As a member of the Imperial team, I prioritized speed over anything else, sprinting along pathways toward Rebel uplink stations. If they captured enough of these, they would call more Y-wings in for bombing runs against our quadrupedal machine. So of course, I wanted to protect those stations.

But as the game progressed, and both sides adapted to the other's strategy, things changed. The Rebels made better use of their defensive turrets and whittled away at the AT-AT's health during bombing runs. So I began sniping from Ewok tree structures above the battle, focusing my aim on enemies operating laser turrets. In the end, we still lost--a well timed orbital strike brought our offensive juggernaut to its knees--but the battle remained engaging throughout. Walker Assault is the embodiment of innovative game modes.
This battle isn't canonical at all.

I also spent a lot of time with Survival, Battlefront's version of a wave-based cooperative option. And despite this idea being beaten to death in the last two console generations, Survival offers a welcome respite from Battlefront's competitive modes. Working with one other teammate against Stormtroopers, AT-STs, Imperial probe droids, as we collect power-ups through Hoth's Rebel base, or Sullust's hangar bay, grants a compelling teamwork experience.

However, just as many of Battlefront's modes feel uninspired, or even poorly designed. Blast and Cargo are slight variations on team deathmatch and capture the flag, respectively, and are only exciting for several matches. After that, I had seen what felt like every possible scenario take place. Hero Hunt--in which a team of soldiers hunts down a Jedi, Sith, or bounty hunter--is imbalanced to the point of being frustrating. I grew tired of firing endless blaster rounds at Boba Fett right before he killed me with a wrist rocket--over, and over, and over. Battlefront has a depth of game modes, but only a few have much depth.

Every so often, outlandish events bring life to proceedings. There are cases when Luke Skywalker cuts through an AT-ST, or an errant rocket collides with an unlucky TIE Fighter. I've seen Emperor Palpatine corkscrew into a group of Rebels. I also watched a crafty Rebel heave a grenade at an AT-ST as she jetpack jumped over it. I was too amazed to even shoot her. Battlefront excels when it places me in this Star Wars fantasy world, where Leia squares off with Darth Vader, or Han Solo shoulder charges a low-flying TIE Interceptor.

If nothing else, Star Wars Battlefront is an exercise in pure spectacle, laid out in all of its neon glory.

But these moments don't feel as novel after Battlefront's early hours. This traces back to one root cause: Battlefront's combat can be monotonous. By and large, it consists of medium range gunfights where opponents hold the trigger for two seconds and hope they're the one left standing. Getting shot from a distance, on the other hand, often meant sprinting in another direction, rather than seeking nearby cover and planning a counterattack. There's not much thought in modes outside of Walker Assault, and I seldom felt as if I was impacting battles, or as if my skill played any wider purpose.

Vehicle combat, however, does offer some variety. Although X-Wings, snowspeeders, TIE Interceptors and the Millennium Falcon all feel great, with intuitive controls and fluid maneuvers, they don't always play a huge part in combat. Airborne vehicles fly too fast over maps that are too small in comparison, so strafing runs are often futile. However, snowspeeders are essential in Walker Assault, as their tow cables can bring down the four-legged behemoths if used right. AT-STs can also turn the tide at crucial capture points across larger maps. I wish more vehicles followed suit.
Fighter Squadron is an entirely vehicle-based mode.

In a further attempt to encourage extended playtime, DICE does implement a progression system in its multiplayer, with everything from character skins to blaster variations, ion grenades to homing missile launchers. Some grenades do more damage to vehicles, while certain sniper rifles fire more accurate shots.

Aside from a few standout items such as the jump jet--which lets you leap across the map and into the fray--these unlocks don't change how you play in the long run. Trait cards, which grant you perks like radar masking or explosive damage resistance, are the most valuable options, and acquiring them felt worthwhile.They changed how I thought about my equipment loadouts: how they played into the current game mode, how they would help me in the long run, and how I might consider maps in a different way. Approaching Trait cards in the progression list offered me more incentive to play. They're gems in an otherwise bland array of abilities.

If nothing else, Star Wars Battlefront is an exercise in pure spectacle, laid out in all of its neon glory. I can't help but smile when the Boba Fett guns down three fighters in a row from his Slave I ship, or a snowspeeder careens past with flames trailing in its wake. The first 10 hours are packed with these moments, and it's worth playing just to watch them unfold.

But Battlefront doesn't go much deeper than its ambitious surface appeal. It front loads its best content, only to fade in quality as the hours roll by. Star Wars Battlefront's skin is beautiful, but its legs are shaking, and threaten to buckle with time.

Read Only Memories Review

What does it mean to be human? It’s among the most universal questions our species can ask. As a genre, cyberpunk exists to examine such an existential quandary. It challenges us to look at ourselves and seek answers to that which is the most fundamental to the human condition. From that perspective, Read Only Memories is a resounding success.

Outwardly, ROM is a neatly arranged, stylish adventure game that looks like it could have been released 20 years ago. It opens with a short, expository introduction, and a quiet, run-down room to explore. That modest preface quickly leads into a grim story about poverty, the underclasses of society, and a lonely, ambiguously gendered robot looking for their creator.

The robot, Turing, is the first fully sapient artificial being in history. As he begins to explore and understand his own existence, Turing comes to question his gender identity, and weighs the value of his own desires against those of his missing creator. After his “father’s” disappearance, Turing seeks you, an old colleague, hoping you can help Turing piece together what happened. And so begins an off-the-books investigation trying to find your old friend and Turing’s creator, Hayden. From there, ROM twists itself into a socially progressive neo-noir story.

Within the game’s mid-21st century setting exists several technological singularities--points of such extraordinary progress that they redefine humanity’s relationship to everything, especially itself. In ROM’s case, procedures like gene splicing are common. It’s normal to see a literal cat-person in a bar. That, plus the creation of Turing as a self-aware artificial intelligence, would be enough to test the conventions of any society, and Neo-San Francisco is no different.What Cyberpunk game would be complete without a rave?

This is a city brought to the brink by years of social upheaval and economic problems. Its citizens are divided among multiple rigid lines including degree of genetic or technological augmentation. And it’s here, in the descriptions of people and settings that ROM shines brightest.

Wielding the 16-bit aesthetic of games like Snatcher and Syndicate with finesse, ROM melds stellar writing and a world populated by expressive and vibrant characters. Small bots scoot around gathering trash, while a confident smirk from your “contact” at a bar betrays their true motives. The same degree of care and pride has gone into dialogue. Verbal exchanges range from succinct and witty to circuitous and delicate. Taken together, they give Neo-San Francisco a great level of depth. No one is without motivations; no one is static either. Dynamic characters will push and pull in response to their circumstances. ROM’s foundation in the struggles of its characters, particularly Turing, creates a stable of believable personalities.

Instead of cobbling together some nonsensical Rube Goldberg machine, as you might in Tales of Monkey Island, I simply found a brick and threw it.

As soon as you're introduced, Turing brims with emotive dynamism. Set against the gorgeous pixel-art backgrounds, Turing stands out. Where every other main character has perhaps three broad emotions they convey, Turing has a dozen. While every character is responsive, Turing is unique in that, again, he's the first fully sapient machine, and the one who, above all others, is the most expressively "human." It's a trait that brings Turing in line with other classic bots like Star Trek's Data, Futurama's Bender, or the Replicants in Blade Runner. That, combined with the narrative conceit of gender politics (more on that later), sends a powerful message about expanding the boundaries of who we grant personhood to.
Turing's expressiveness helps sell ROMs themes of acceptance and tolerance beautifully.

ROM takes that theme a step further by weaving in a strident theme of universal humanity and deference--regardless of appearance or circumstance. Turing’s responsiveness makes that association stronger, so as different pronouns start getting thrown around, it becomes harder and harder to ignore their preference. For all narrative purposes, Turing is a companion, your equal.

As your investigation progresses, you’ll see more and more folks that defy gender and identity norms. Some are women with a moustache and a goatee, others are ambiguous, and some are literally human-animal hybrids. That may well be a weird concept to us, especially when ROM discusses the mass discrimination against these hybrids, but it’s a clear metaphor for anyone who modifies their body in the real world. ROM, in not-so-subtle terms, suggests that some people need to alter their appearance to feel comfortable in their own skin. It also teaches you that looks alone can't tell you everything there is to know about a person; a snapshot of a person doesn't reveal the extent of their thoughts and experiences. Through effective writing and characterization, ROM illustrates how important the basic right of agency over one's appearance is, and why a person's story doesn't begin and end with that choice alone.

Dynamic characters will push and pull in response to their circumstances. ROM’s foundation in the struggles of its characters, particularly Turing, creates a stable of believable personalities.

Because ROM is styled after point-and-click noir adventure games, play is simple. You and Turing investigate scenes for clues, click on objects, sorting through flavor text, and piecing together what happened. Puzzles are far less obtuse than what many long-time adventure games fans might be used to, however, and that's a welcome change. At one point, I needed to disperse a crowd of protestors to meet with someone at a gene splicing facility. Instead of cobbling together some nonsensical Rube Goldberg machine, as you might in Tales of Monkey Island, I simply found a brick and threw it. Some time later, when I needed information from someone at a bar, I overheard them saying they wanted a fruity drink. So, I ordered an appletini and they started talking.ROM's writing is referential and sometimes corny, but it's a worthy embodiment of its many inspirations and comes off more as a well-made homage than anything else.

It's not deep in any sense of the word, but it ties actions to the plot well enough. The flavor text is, like much of the writing, excellent, and it creates a feeling of genuine exploration through each scene. Occasionally, you'll also hit a mini-game. In one instance you'll have to take control of traffic lights to keep a car from escaping. These puzzles are a bit more challenging and help ratchet up tension during some acts. ROM's only sin is that sometimes it drags plotlines on a bit too long, or bogs them down with unnecessary tasks.

How we define "human," and who we accept as part of a larger "us" is ROM's greatest question. The complexities of in-groups and out-groups mean that the politics of ROM's themes are inescapable. Horrible atrocities that one group of people enacts on another are often associated with de-humanization, with taking on a group of people and dismissing them as less than human. In the face of a world and a society that is still struggling to accept lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender people, ROM clearly says that if you can relate to a pretend gender-fluid robot, you can relate and connect with anyone. It's a bold, declarative statement backed with aesthetic skill on nearly every front. ROM is a resounding success and one of the most affecting adventures I've ever had.

Game of Thrones: Episode Six — The Ice Dragon Review

The finale of Telltale's Game of Thrones series finally takes into account the choices you've made in the past five episodes. There have been tough decisions aplenty since Episode One's launch last December, although they never quite felt as though they were connected to something more meaningful down the line. When interrogated, did you tell Cersei what she wanted to hear? Or maybe you sided with Margaery? Were you honest with Daenerys Targaryen? And did you brazenly stand up to the Whitehills, or did you bend the knee and bide your time?

In Episode Six, The Ice Dragon, it's time to pay the piper and suffer the consequences of all these choices. And although this episode leans a little too heavily on some odd elements that feel out of character for the Game of Thrones universe, the climax of the Forresters' story brews a perfect mix of anxiety, heartbreak, and a smidge of genuine horror.

We open on our scattered heroes in their direst hour. Gared, with Sylvi and a wounded Cotter in tow, finally finds the North Grove, and it's nothing like he imagined. Mira is straddling the line between continuing the fight to save her family and abandoning the endeavor to save herself from disgrace and other awful punishments. Back at Ironrath, the remaining Forresters are rallying for a showdown against the Whitehills but are struggling to find a way to beat them without endangering their captive little brother, Ryon

Look at this bear!

It's apparent the moment the episode opens that the end is nigh for our friends in House Forrester, and that everything you've made them do in the name of the family will come down to one final struggle. Depending on the choices you've had each individual character make, Episode Six is either a perilous minefield of ugly choices, or it offers more breathing room for you to manipulate circumstances in your favor. For example, Mira's tale of currying favor and keeping her loyalties finally comes to its heartbreaking head; if you've stood by Margaery she may stand by you too, but Sera is another story. Being a good friend could cost you your own safety--or your honesty and openness could win you a strong ally. Where her story goes is entirely dependent on how you've had Mira play the social circles in King's Landing, and the tiniest decisions she's made in the past can either come back to bite her or save her skin.

The same is true for all other members of House Forrester as our journey with them comes to a close. A major decision you had to make at the end of the previous episode completely alters the chain of events for the finale. Depending on that choice, you'll have a different set of options for staving off the Whitehills' invasion of Ironrath, down to the place, time, and allies you have when the final conflict starts. These diverging paths result in two entirely different episodes--one more focused on stealth and cunning, the other a little more tailored to brute-forcing your way--and it's worth going back and playing twice to see how both decisions play out.
Someone's overcompensating...

In fact, if you're one of those players who needs to replay narrative-driven games to see all possible outcomes, The Ice Dragon may give you a headache. In addition to the two differing experiences dictated by the final moment of Episode Five, there are at least a dozen different branching routes to get to the end of the episode. I played through the episode four separate times, taking several stops to rewind to specific moments to see things unfold differently. It's a lot to unpack, and having so much variety in the finale has allowed the series--which has had its highs and disappointing lows--to end on a deeply emotionally note.

Without getting into spoilers, here's just a small description of how deep the rabbit hole of decision goes in The Ice Dragon: Depending on who is in charge at Ironrath, your plan of attack against the Whitehills changes. On several occasions, you're tempted to call off your plans. And if you do, you could endanger someone dear to you. But if you stick to the plan, you may lose someone else. And even if everything goes according to the plan, there's still the chance that something you've done episodes prior will result in something terrible happening to someone else. It's a nasty web of tension and grief that grants the series its perfect tragic ending, in true Game of Thrones style.
Mistakes were made.

In other instances, small, seemingly unimportant decisions made at the beginning of the episodes can mean life and death for others, or whether or not you get your way. Being cocky to a potential new ally could cost you their respect. Allowing someone you love to stay near the front lines of battle could result in a terrible end of them later--and if you sent them away beforehand, they may be angry, but at least they'll be safe. It's a delicate balancing act, and the tension these decisions create has a lasting effect This episode is very good at making you second-guess yourself.

There are also some terribly gross moments that, in typical Telltale fashion, you'll be pressing buttons to complete yourself. If you thought helping Clementine stitch up her own arm was terrible, The Ice Dragon presents a particularly gruesome situation that trumps DIY stitches by miles. It's a gut-wrenching moment on both an emotional and physical level, and you never see it coming.

This episode's unpredictability is a first for Telltale's series. In previous episodes, you always had at least some sense of where things were going. You had a feeling Mira would have to choose between Tyrion and Cersei, and Margaery would be mad either way. You knew Asher would screw up his mission for Daenerys. You saw Talia's descent into a vengeful young woman coming. But The Ice Dragon throws no fewer than three plot twists at you, and it does so in moments that catch you entirely off guard. They are well-placed and well-executed, making the finale the most uneasy and traumatic episode in the series.

Like episodes before it, The Ice Dragon treads ground familiar to those who watch Game of Thrones. We go to The Wall and to King's Landing, see Ramsay Bolton's cruelty and Cersei Lannister's cunning firsthand. We meet Wildlings and the Night's Watch, pit fighters and slave traders. We see all these things in the source material; they all appear in the stories of the Starks. In the game, it felt as though we were watching the same story played out with a different cast. But Telltale's Game of Thrones takes some surprising turns in its later episodes, and although the Forresters' tale isn't as grand as the Starks', it does capture the desperation of one family to protect their honor and each other, no matter what the cost.Keeping my fingers crossed for the Beskha/Rodrick buddy cop spin-off.

However, The Ice Dragon introduces more magical elements into the series--elements that feel like they would be more at home in Harry Potter than Game of Thrones. They feel a little too deus ex machina, and just a tad too fantastical to not roll your eyes at. I recognize that Game of Thrones contains its fair share of the eerie, including snow zombies and women birthing shadow creatures, but the show never presents the supernatural as something that's just hanging around waiting to be utilized. There are no overt magic spells or magical people, and their presentation has always been spooky rather than spectacle. But in Telltale's game, the circumstances and characters connected to these elements are shocking and a little sad, but the magic bits feel so out of place it's hard to invest in that part of the plot.

In the end, Telltale's Game of Thrones succeeds in telling a violent, sad story that feels very much at home in the world of Westeros. By the finale, the danger feels real and your choices feel like they have mattered. At times the episodes pass over ground well-trodden by the original series and the game feels more like an adaptation of the source material than a standalone story, but the introduction of several unpredictable plot twists makes up for the predictability of its earlier episodes. Telltale's Game of Thrones delivers grand battles and unavoidable heartbreak, and despite some out-of-place or overused elements from the source material, it's a journey in Westeros worth having.

Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash Review

Thanks to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, I recently set a new personal record: "Most time spent swearing at a kids' game." Some of that profanity was good-natured, a product of the competitive tension that lurks just below the colorful, star-studded surface of most Mario sports titles. Some of it, however, stemmed from actual frustration. While Ultra Smash successfully recreates the basic mechanics that earned earlier titles Mario Tennis and Mario Power Tennis critical acclaim more than a decade ago, it fails to solve a handful of underlying design issues and omits much of the content offered by its predecessors.

There is, for example, no tutorial mode. There's a rudimentary text tutorial buried so deep in one corner of the main menu that you can't even navigate to it using the Pro Controller, but it's too superficial to prove truly useful. You can easily hit random buttons and figure things out as you go (this is a light, arcadey take on tennis, after all), but eventually, you're going to run up against an AI opponent who crushes you with maneuvers that require a bit more technique. I got destroyed by an embarrassing number of near-unreturnable Ultimate Smashes before I finally figured out how to reliably execute them myself, rather than simply mashing what I assumed was the appropriate button.Need some extra help racking up wins in Knockout Challenge? Grab an Amiibo of any character already in the game to add a helping hand.

Throwing players in the deep end and asking them to learn through experimentation isn't an unforgivable sin, but it did lead to plenty of early frustration that could have easily been avoided. Given the time gap between games, even franchise fans like myself need a way to brush up, and new mechanics like jump shots deserve more than a random load screen tip. Generally speaking, games are more fun when you understand how to play them effectively.

Unfortunately, basic instruction isn't the only thing missing from Ultra Smash; it also lacks any kind of tournament or career modes. Instead, the game offers only Knockout Challenge, which pits players against every single character one by one, with ever-escalating difficulty. This structure creates a compelling sense of progress, but the mode as a whole yields little reward. Once you make it to 15 consecutive knockouts, you're presented with a congratulatory menu screen and the "Star" version of the character you guided to victory--though Star Peach, for example, doesn't look or play any differently from regular Peach. The journey can be challenging, even fun, but after a single trip through the Knockout gauntlet, there's little motivation to grind through again with other characters.

The GamePad serves only as a second screen here, but that's invaluable during local multiplayer.

That leaves only three main modes, all of which are essentially quickplay variations: Mega Battle, Standard Classic Tennis, and Simple Classic Tennis. Mega Battle includes everything the game can throw at you: Mega Mushrooms that gigantify your character, "chance shots" that power up your returns when you execute the correct type of shot from specific glowing spots that appear on the court, and jump shots, which add extra speed and bounce height to the ball. Standard tennis removes the mushrooms, and Simple tennis removes all three power-ups. If you're just looking for some quick tennis action, these three modes provide an adequate fix with minimal hassle. If you were hoping for something more substantial, however, Ultra Smash can't help.

In fact, Ultra Smash doesn't even contain the goofy party modes that gave earlier Mario Tennis games both whimsy and variety. Old favorites like Item Battle and Ring Shot--which added some novel twists to the basic gameplay--are simply gone, leaving us with only Mega Ball Rally, which plays identically to the quick-play modes with the exception of its perpetually shrinking ball. It makes for a decent diversion, but because it's so similar to the game's other modes, it ultimately adds little to the overall experience.

Even the character roster--though respectably large and packed with all the usual suspects--doesn't create meaningful gameplay variety. While characters in past games possessed unique "power shots," Ultra Smash's 16 competitors play largely the same. Sure, Bowser is noticeably slower than Yoshi and Walugi has better reach than Toad, and those differences did prove noticeable enough that I had to adjust my strategy. But these adjustments were never severe enough to make the core gameplay feel fundamentally different. As with the game’s modes, the character options are adequate, but in no way exciting, inventive, or memorable.

As with the game’s modes, the character options are adequate, but in no way exciting, inventive, or memorable.

Thankfully, local and online multiplayer stop Ultra Smash from sliding too far into mediocrity. The opponent AI is serviceable--providing a reasonable challenge that'll keep you engaged long enough to hone your skills--but nothing beats yelling in your buddy's face when you counter his sneaky drop shot with an earth-shattering smash. Playing with friends allows the underlying mechanics to deliver those dramatic moments you expect from an intense, high-energy sports game, and thankfully, there's just enough nuance for competition to feel legitimate. You gradually figure out you can counter slices with topspin, deliver jump shots by reaching the ball at the peak of its arc, and crowd the net to force your opponent out of position. As a result, the action is not only fast and fun, it also evokes the "just one more match" competitiveness.

In keeping with the rest of the game, Ultra Smash's online component is pretty bare-bones, offering only Mega Battle, Standard, and Simple game types with no option to choose a court or play multiple matches against the same opponent. However, the net-code held up fine during my time playing online, so at least you can enjoy all the basics without worrying too much about your internet connection. Local multiplayer is a bit more robust, allowing you to choose any of the eight unlockable court types while throwing Mega Ball Rally back into the mix as well. Plus, as I mentioned, you get to yell in people's faces--which is always a plus.

Unfortunately, you may find yourself yelling at the game just as often. For example, you're given almost no warning before Mega Mushrooms wear off and your character shrinks. If you happen to be chasing a ball when that happens, you'll miss your shot simply due to bad luck. Chance shots can also seem confusing and unfair at times. You have no way to conjure a chance shot; they simply appear randomly around the court. Needless to say, it's a little frustrating to have no control over a something that can decide a match--though at least the game seems to use chance shots to level the playing field when matches start to become lopsided. The worst moments, however, are those annoying instances when a ball bounces straight over your head because you simply couldn't tell how high it bounced. It's pretty hard not to feel cheated when that happens.

Considered as a whole, Ultra Smash does just enough to get by. At moments it shines and at others it frustrates, but mostly it just coasts. Without substantial content to drive longevity, you may end up switching back to Mario Kart sooner than later, but if you're playing online--or better yet, with your friends at home--you'll likely overcome the game's frustrations and squeeze a solid few hours of fun out of its fast-paced, power-up-driven action.

Mad Max Review

There's a good reason why the new Mad Max game occasionally resembles this year's Mad Max: Fury Road: it's a canonical prequel that pits you against Scabrous Scrotus--son of the film's sinister Immortan Joe. Mad Max's wasteland is greasy and dusty, a place where mechanical monstrosities clash against the natural beauty of the desert. You play the part of Max, an unfortunate wanderer with a troubling past. You charge across open roads in search of redemption, running over those who stand in your way. Driving is central to life in the wasteland, and it's the basis for the game's best moments, too. The combination of an intriguing world and great car combat make Mad Max an occasional joy to play, but shallow ground combat and a handful of other missteps ultimately drive the game off the road.
At the start, you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time when you're assaulted by Scrotus and a pack of his sinewy war boys. They steal your beloved car, the Interceptor, leaving you empty-handed. However, fortune smiles upon you when a Gollum-like mechanic by the name of Chumbucket crosses your path. He's convinced that you're a hero of legend, the "Angel," and he's a whiz with both a wrench and a harpoon, making him the perfect companion in the hard-driving and violent wasteland. You and Chum fend off desperate tribes and push back against Scrotus' forces as you take contracts and hunt down fresh parts for your new chariot, the Magnum Opus. Your ultimate goal is to build a vehicle that's strong enough to cross the void known as the Plains of Silence, where you'll either find freedom, or death on the other side.
When you're trying to survive in a violent wasteland, trimming facial hair is your last concern.
Together, Chum and Max are fast and lethal in the Magnum Opus, with Chum manning a small cache of weapons in the rear while you steer the car. Picking apart enemy vehicles and guard posts is a cinch with your harpoon, which is the most important weapon in your arsenal. While driving, press one button to slow down time and highlight nearby objects and people, and press another to launch a harpoon or explosive lance. Alternatively, you can tap the circle button to auto-fire at the closest target, but it's an unattractive option when it's vital that you target specific objects; there's no point in ripping off a car's tire when you can just as easily yank out the driver. It's normal to be confronted by three or four cars at once, and though some carry enemies that will try to hop onto your car, you can purchase spikes to deter hop-ons, resort to your trusty shotgun, or pull over and fight it out with your fists.
Max and Chumbucket ride into battle on the Magnum Opus.
Even when surrounded by enemies, you're an effective and brutal fighter. Watching Max man-handle thugs can be entertaining, but the part you play--controlling Max--isn't very interesting or rewarding. Mad Max's combat borrows from Warner Bros.' recent Batman and Shadow of Mordor games, where mashing one button dishes out contextual attacks, and another, when pressed while an icon appears over the head of an attacking enemy, initiates a parry maneuver. You can attack using your shotgun, but you rarely want to because bullets are hard to come by. You also have the ability to roll and evade incoming attacks, but only a few enemies ever justify the effort. The combat system is so simple at its core that nearly every fight can be won by alternately tapping attack and parry, save for a few boss battles where unblockable attacks are introduced. Watching Max make quick work of enemies is occasionally impressive, but when the majority of fights in the game can be easily exploited, there's no challenge to overcome, and no sense of accomplishment. When put side-by-side with car combat, which is complex, full of possibilities, and requires precision and skill to succeed, Mad Max's ground combat feels shallow.
Mad Max also doesn't do a good job of imposing desperation upon you, a feeling that is necessary if the wasteland's threats are to be taken seriously. It's true that water, fuel, and food are hard to come by, so when you find a can of dog food, you eat it. When you come across a family of maggots feasting on a corpse, you take advantage of your rank in the food chain. Water can come from many sources, but never in large supply. Eating and drinking are the only ways to revitalize yourself in the game, but you quickly learn that carrying an empty canteen isn't that scary. For one, beyond the occasional barrage of explosives that come from fortified camps, you rarely face dire situations, and though it may seem like you would need to rehydrate from time to time because you're going full-throttle in the middle of a hot desert, I never noticed any gradual, deleterious health impacts from exposure. Emergent vehicular battles in Mad Max's open world can jeopardize your car, but Chum quickly fixes it whenever you aren't moving, and a generous fast-travel mechanic lets you magically skip the experience of driving through enemy territory. It may be convenient, but adding fast travel to Mad Max is like adding a "skip" button to a fighting game that automatically takes you to the next round.

You can purchase new parts for the Magnum Opus and upgrades for Max that impact your abilities and appearance. You earn new car parts from the leaders of various regions, either by completing fetch quests or dismantling enemy outposts. After a new part is unlocked, you have to purchase it using scrap metal that you collect around the world. You'd think that any old metal would qualify as scrap, but you'd be wrong. You can occasionally collect large amounts of scrap by taking an enemy car back to base, but you normally acquire it from glowing piles of metal that are sparingly strewn about the wasteland. These piles can include items like a muffler, which you conveniently stick in your pocket. I suppose it's helpful that you can carry multiple cars worth of metal on your person, but it doesn't make much sense. We don't mind this in games where fantasy trumps reality, but Mad Max tries to sell you a world where characters are defined by their abilities and limitations, yet it constantly introduces things that contradict this message. It's also disappointing that Chum can't help you collect parts while you're driving the car. He can hang on to the back when you're driving incredibly fast, and repair the Magnum Opus when it's falling apart, but he can't hop off and help you gather items. Having to stop the car, get out, pick up the pieces, and get back in before hitting the road is a frustrating process that slows you down and exposes you to nearby enemies.
It may be convenient, but adding fast travel to Mad Max is like adding a "skip" button to a fighting game that automatically takes you to the next round.
As you perform certain feats in the game, such as killing multiple people using your car or pulling down enough sniper towers via harpoon, Max's reputation rises, and he can pick up new gear, facial hair, clothing, and an upgraded shotgun. More importantly, Max can increase his efficiency as a scavenger by trading in coins to a mystic that resides on top of certain cliffs. He's an odd duck, but like Chum, his peculiarities add to the world's mythology in a great way, as he speaks of your past and buried emotions. Save for a mother and daughter duo that you meet briefly towards the end of the game, this if the only time Max's past is a topic of discussion. The mystic always departs by blowing noxious powder in your face, putting you in the proper state to receive his "gifts," such as the ability to magically receive bonus portions of water when you refill your canteen from the game's limited water sources. The mystic is a worthy cast member, but his gifts stand in the face of your struggle to survive. A character stat shouldn't determine how much water you get from a small pail in the desert; the pail itself should.
A massive storm drapes the wasteland with wind and lightning. It's an impressive display that makes driving difficult yet exciting.
There are similar issues found throughout Mad Max, in fact. Fuel, like ammunition, is a rare commodity, or at least it should be according to the story. Oddly, it's not unusual to find fuel cans that repeatedly respawn in front of your eyes. You'd also think that being run over by a car would kill you outright if not seriously injure you, but Mad Max puts more weight behind the punch of a withered nomad than it does a three-ton war machine. If you're playing sloppily during a fight, a few punches is all it takes to bite the dust. Stand in front of oncoming traffic, however, and you can endure getting run over five or six times before you start to worry about your health. In fact, I got so good at being struck by cars that I eventually learned (unofficially) how to jump into the windshield of an oncoming car and perform a triple-misty-flip, landing gracefully on my feet. It's impossible in theory, silly to witness, and easily repeatable. You can also stand in fire without getting hurt, but only some fires; experience taught me that a burning car in the open-world isn't as hot as a flame-thrower that blocks your path during a mission, for example.
Chumbucket readies the harpoon.
Other rules are randomly imposed upon you by the game that take away your freedom with no justification within the story. You have a large, boundless open world to explore, but venture off the map for a few seconds, and a warning screen tells you to turn back, or its "game over." A particular mission wants you to explore an underground tunnel, but if you try to navigate narrow corridors on foot, rather than in your car, a similar warning screen appears. An open-world Mad Max game should force you to contend with the wasteland's harsh elements, but also give you the freedom to go where you please.
Mad Max fails to mix story and gameplay with finesse, but there are elements of the game that stand out as impressive, nonetheless. Raging, electrical storms set a new bar when it comes to weather effects, as fast winds carry tons of dust and debris. The chaos creates a deafening and blinding atmosphere that's occasionally illuminated by lighting bolts and the fires they light on the ground.
They may not hurt too much, but it's still a good idea to get out of the way of moving vehicles.
A late battle forces you to chase down a convoy and dismantle Scrotus' massive war rig. Regular car combat is fun, but the scale of the war rig and the relentless nature of Scrotus' horde make this battle truly memorable. You pick off small fries one by one as you try to keep up with the war rig. Occasional breakdowns may cause you to pull over and repair your car, which makes the chase all the more thrilling. The story sequences that follow attempt to teach you the cost of pursuing your dreams in the land of nightmares, and it's the best moment in the game's story, though that's not saying much.
Soon after, however, dead characters are magically brought back to life and your journey continues onward. The ending, like many of the game's minor faults, devalues your struggle to survive in the harsh wasteland. It's a shame because Mad Max's world in the game is beautiful, grim, and fascinating. Some interesting characters, impressive environments and great car combat draw you in and incentivise you to keep going, but it's when you get out of the car that things fall apart. Mad Max's combat system is too dumbed down to enjoy, and repetitive activities such as searching for scrap and invading small enemy camps gets old fast. Mad Max offers some great experiences, but for a game that tries to impose the realities of survival on you, it does a poor job of following up on this pressure. Mad Max is too focused on providing you with an open-world that's filled with missions, and not focused enough on making those missions worth your time.

Toy Soldiers: War Chest Review

At first blush, the combination of war toys with classic action figures from 1980s cartoons in Toy Soldiers: War Chest--such as He-Man and G.I. Joe--is exactly where Toy Soldiers has seemingly been leading from the start. After all, the series’ very premise has revolved around the childhood bliss of combating plastic heroes and villains in small, detailed landscapes. War Chest could have been just that, but its plastic-like sheen is scuffed by issues like microtransactions, content locked behind Uplay, and irritating technical problems.
Thankfully though, this is still the Toy Soldiers that so many have come to enjoy. Once again, your task is to keep your toy box out of the hands of enemy forces who march their way across a colourful model diorama set on the floors of bedrooms and parlours. On this battlefield of plastic trees, scattered dice and toppled coffee mugs, you defend against waves of oncoming plastic toys in the form of action figures, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The march of these persistent, though admittedly charming enemies can only be halted by the use of strategically placed turrets that shred anything that gets close into tiny plastic chunks. Killing enemies, who adorably snap back to their action figure poses upon death, is rewarded with currency, which can be used to buy more turrets or to upgrade the ones you currently own by beefing up their attack power or range, or by adding defensive barriers. You can commandeer a turret at any time, which is a big help when you want to fire at an enemy beyond your own turret’s range.

You play through the decent-sized campaign commanding one of several swappable heroes, each supported by an army brandishing a particular motif. Kaiser Wilhelm, who makes a triumphant return from the first Toy Soldiers, is joined by the Rainbow Brite-esque StarBright; the pen-and-paper RPG-inspired Dark Lord and the futuristic Phantom--my personal favorite of the bunch. War Chest won’t shock and awe in the aesthetics department, but the varied cast is paired with some amusing themes, and not only for the turrets. Throughout the game you’ll find yourself in landscapes carved by war-torn trenches or gritty cobblestone walls, dioramas featuring rainbows, or the glowing blue crystals of an alien planet. Earning killstreaks slowly fills an on-screen bar up to three tiers, which allows you to run around the battlefield as your chosen hero or call down a tougher fighter or a super-powered mega weapon that wipes the field clean of enemies, leaving nothing more than your turrets and a feeling of grim satisfaction.
But what about He-Man or Cobra, or the other more alluring heroes featured in War Chest? Well, you can absolutely have them--for a price. The base game itself comes in at $15, which is decent for the out-of-the-box content. However, to get He-Man, Cobra, G.I. Joe’s Duke or Assassin Creed’s Ezio, who for once actually stands out like a sore thumb, you need to shell out $5 for each. Or, you can get all four extra heroes together in the Hall of Fame edition, which costs $30. So the question remains: is the price worth the nostalgia trip?
He-Man is available, not by the power of Grayskull, but by your wallet.
A more pertinent question may be: are the optional heroes actually better than the original four? Well, prepare for some fine print not found on the back of the toys’ packaging. The heroes of War Chest are powerful, which makes mowing down legions of infantry and armored foes some of the most fun the game has to offer. But the melee-focused He-Man is awkward, clumsy in his sword swings, and completely helpless when taken online where long-range heroes need only back away and fire to bring the mighty Hero of Eternia to his knees. Each of these heroes is equipped with their own unique weapon, but unlike the regular gang who are able to swap among a small cache of unlockable weapons, they are limited to only three. Of course, it does make sense that these heroes should only wield their signature gear, but that doesn’t change the fact that you end up paying for popular characters that don’t completely stack up against their unknown counterparts.
It is possible to overlook these shortcomings for the sake of nostalgia. But, still, it’s disappointing to pay for what looks like a good meal, only for it to be later served with no sides. Regardless, it’s admittedly difficult to deny that watching Cobra’s army face up against Ezio’s forces made up of assassins and da Vinci-inspired war machines brings a special kind of joy.
Take control of a turret to wipe out toys and earn killstreaks.
There are more obstacles impeding access to content. You are required to connect to Uplay--and it will pester you until you do so--in order to unlock special weapons. For instance, Kaiser Wilhelm’s shiny, gold-plated Maxim machine gun can only be purchased with points earned by completing Uplay objectives, but to do that you must be logged into the service. The aforementioned multiplayer pits two teams of up to four local and online players, but you are barred from playing online until you flash your Uplay membership card.
War Chest is also not the smoothest experience around. There is a myriad of technical hurdles to climb over every time you boot up the game. For example, after I had played for around ten hours, crashes had become so frequent that I actually began getting used to the sudden stops. And when the game isn’t crashing, it gets stuck in infinite loading loops, leaving you plenty of time to reevaluate your purchase Graphical glitches also pop in from time to time, causing certain textures to flicker whenever you try to focus the camera in a turret you’re commanding.

Overall, Toy Soldiers: War Chest is not bad. But a laundry list of unfortunate drawbacks keeps it from becoming the exciting box of good times and nostalgia that it could have been. There is enjoyment to be had, however, sporting loads of family friendly entertainment and featuring a difficulty level that can occasionally be tough, but never frustrating. However, War Chest is like a set of toys you always wanted, but upon removing the packaging you find the collection is half complete and floating listlessly to the ground is an order form. Play time is over.

Sorcerer King Review

There's a line in The Lord of the Rings that succinctly captures the desperation of the Fellowship's forlorn journey. It comes near the end, as Sam and Frodo make their way through Mordor. Sam says that he's not sure that they'll have enough food to get home after all is said and done, but Frodo's response--"I wouldn't worry Sam. It's just to get there …"--sells the air of fatalism, the creeping realization that this trek to save the world will almost certainly claim their lives. It's a quote I kept coming back to throughout my dozens of hours with Sorcerer King. Despite its almost saccharine, cartoon aesthetic, Sorcerer King is a morose adventure.
In Sorcerer King, the world's been taken over by a nigh-omnipotent wizard. He's fractured the land, scattered the world's people, and committed himself to casting a spell to unmake existence. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's not too far from J.R.R. Tolkien's works. Your job is to lead one of the last remaining nations against this incredible force and stop the apocalypse.

As you might suspect, the deck's been stacked against you right from the beginning. You're small, weak, and the few soldiers you have defending with you are poorly trained and poorly equipped. That insignificance is reinforced by a Doomsday counter, which steadily ticks up as the Sorcerer King gathers his power--a constant reminder of the struggle that lies ahead. So you set yourself to vying for the allegiance of other races, forging new, better weapons and armor, and gathering what strength you can before one last, glorious battle to determine the fate of the world.
It's a tired setting, but Sorcerer King executes the idea with remarkable deftness. As you build your empire and colonize new lands, you'll find dozens, if not hundreds of little vignettes. Packed away in libraries, abandoned villages, and old dungeons, these scenes are the meat of the narrative. Each one provides a piece of a much larger branching narrative that collectively serves several roles.
First, and perhaps most importantly, they're each expertly written and packed with cute twists or hilarious, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Rarely trite, these clips ooze style and flair, brightening an otherwise hackneyed setting. They also help you role play a bit. Your leader may be ruthless and determined or may be the snarky sort. Those traits are culled from your decisions in these rogue-like scenarios. It's a novel way to approach the issue of personality development, particularly in a strategy game, but it works and, indeed, it's brilliant and affecting.
With a keen eye and sharp intellect, you can take on far more enemies than you'd otherwise think possible
Your choices have broad implications too. Establishing new alliances, one of the other key tactics for success against the eponymous Sorcerer King, depends on the decisions you've made up to that point. Creatures and spirits will react to your reputation, and may be more or less willing to join forces. Given the overwhelming nature of the threat, those friendships are vital. With whom you choose to shack up matters, and could mean the difference between a successful outcome or the end of the world.
These two facets of your grand strategy, while important in their own right, feed into the broader theme of marshalling armies and hammering out your empire. You are the resistance here, and you're fighting a defensive war against a much better and stronger opponent. Deception, gathering magical equipment and summoning mythical creatures are, next to forging those alliances, your best option if you want to succeed in the quest to save the world..
As you continue your campaign against the big baddie, you'll quickly realize that even your best troops are pretty pathetic. Armed with little more than swords and spears, they don't have much hope against the legions of demons and mutated beasts at the Sorcerer King's beck and call. You can, however, equip your armies with new gear. You can loot special equipment from corpses, craft it yourself or find it in one of the game's vignettes. Regardless of the source, superior accoutrements can help an average knight beat dragons. Because of this, Sorcerer King breaks from more traditional strategy games, resembling its Civilization-inspired brethren only in the broadest of strokes.
Instead, Sorcerer King is a delightful fusion of genres that should always fit together well--role-playing and strategy. Both tend to play to the theme of growing stronger and developing over time, but until now, neither have found each other in quite so satisfying a package before.
Sorcerer King is a delightful fusion of genres that should always fit together well--role-playing and strategy.
Since strategy tends to deal in the very large scales of nations and continents, while RPGs tend to stick to the realms of the personal, it is surprising to see everything click so well here. Each time one of your troops crosses paths with a monster or minion of the Sorcerer King, the game will shift into a tactical battle. Here, you can individually direct your pieces, use a variety of combat manoeuvres, and then toss in some of your own spells to support them. Your options here are numerous, and you're encouraged to explore them all. You can easily win out-levelled fights, provided you mix in the right amount of planning and tactical prowess.
Conversely, on the strategic map, your time will be spent moving items and units around the field to cover outposts and safeguard your cities. Thankfully, Sorcerer King includes some useful menus and search functions, letting you easily organize your inventory. You can rework the equipment for any of your troops as needed. Provided they fit the necessary requirements, you can pass around top-level gear to your outpost easily, and, as long as no two get hit during the same round, you can defend a large area with relatively few men, if you so choose.
The benefit here is that such tactics should give you a better shot at stopping the apocalypse, which is what this is all about. The stark, asymmetric backdrop of this war presents a very unique stage. Your only goal is to get there and beat the Sorcerer King. Everything else--creating long-term infrastructure, setting effective tax policies, all the minutiae that form the heart of other strategy games--is secondary. During some runs, I even caught myself sacrificing scores of my own people, essentially committing mass genocide, for the sake of saving everyone. Sorcerer King consistently encourages this kind of desperation, particularly as the game's omnipresent Doomsday counter ticks closer and closer to The End.
The map has lots of unusual land types, each with their own properties.
Predictably, the asymmetrical nature of the game bars any sort of multiplayer, a staple in most strategy games. While there is a campaign mode, it's pretty bare bones, with only a few substantial differences from a round of play in sandbox mode. This limits replayability quite a bit, despite its seeming absence of limitations. The vignettes and factions become predictable after a while, and after your eightieth Magical Axe of Awesomeness, the charm of finding new items runs a little thin. That said, what is here is special and should keep you busy, even it wears out after a while.
Desperation is the best frame to understand Sorcerer King, and the game is fortunate that it's both fresh and effective, presenting a wholly unique take on the same fantasy and strategy tropes we've all seen dozens of times before. But desperation isn't the only thing Sorcerer King has going for it. Throughout, vignettes treat you to pieces of distilled levity and constant growth, item discovery incentivizes constant exploration, and the complex political world backing the whole campaign forces some tough choices. Together, these pieces come together to create a great twist on the classic 4X formula.