by Dan Casey on March 5, 2014
Note: While I will endeavor not to spoil anything new in Episode 2 – A House Divided, I will likely have to talk about some of the events of Episode 1, so if you haven’t played yet, beware — here, there be spoilers.
I don’t know what sort of unholy pact with the devil Telltale made, but they don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “sophomore slump”. Across the board, their second episodes have been outstanding exercises in interactive storytelling, and the latest installment of The Walking Dead, which I must disclose is one of my favorite titles in recent memory, carries on this tradition of greatness, offering up one of the most nerve-wracking, tense emotional high-wire acts yet. Some decried Episode 1 – All That Remains as not being up to par with the rest of the series and being a slow start to the new season. While their points aren’t entirely without merit, Episode 1 was intended to reacquaint you with the unforgiving, brutal nature of Robert Kirkman’s world and to get you accustomed to the unique dangers that Clementine faces compared to Lee Everett. That being said, Episode 2 – A House Divided takes off its kid gloves and forces you to make some of the toughest choices yet.
Previously on The Walking Dead, we picked up many months after the heartwrenching finale of Season One, stepping into Clementine’s considerably smaller shoes and trying to bear in mind the lessons taught to us by the late Lee Everett. Reunited with, then subsequently separated from, Omid and Christa, Clementine found herself the victim of a vicious dog bite and the even more dangerous specter of suspicion raised by her saviors-turned captors, a group of survivors holed up in a house deep within the woods. Quarantined and cornered, Clementine proved herself not to be an immediate threat to the group, but still there were those who doubted her loyalties, wondering if she was an agent of a mysterious man named Carver who is evidently tracking their whereabouts.
Some fans blasted Episode 1 for not giving us enough interaction and character development with the new group of survivors, which includes a couple of good ol’ boys (one of them, Luke, is voiced by Friday Night Lights alum Scott Porter), a pregnant woman, her husband, a doctor and his guileless teenage daughter amongst others. Telltale has heard your complaints loud and clear; while last time was all about table-setting for the adventure to come, A House Divided offers up a full-course meal of character development, offering Clementine a chance to move beyond interacting with mere archetypes and getting to know fully realized people. These new survivors have lives of their own, and you’ll find yourself wanting to ask just one more question so you can find out who they really, truly are.
As you probe, prod, and poke at those around you, they follow suit and ask Clementine about her past, offering up new morsels of information and opportunities to relive some of the horrors which she has endured. For better or for worse, this episode is where choices made in Season One and the 400 Days DLC begin to affect the plot in tangible, meaningful ways. Remember some of the choices you made all the way back in Season One? You may not, but the game sure does. Yes, there’s still a linear progression upon which the game must progress, but it’s so masterfully camouflaged beneath layers of conversation and ambiance that you won’t notice.
Whether or not it’s an illusion aside, Telltale’s strongest suit is in giving players a true sense of agency over how their story progresses. With so many potential versions of Clementine out there, you begin to feel a sense of responsibility for her, and you’ll weigh her words carefully, considering the potential impact and consequences that come along with them. Do you tell people about the tragedies in your past in an attempt to endear them to you? Do you play things close to the vest? Should you be truthful? Should you lie? Tread carefully because this time lives — lives plural — seriously depend on it.
While the tense, sprawling conversation options are a highlight of the episode, there’s plenty of action sequences to be had, some of which will leave you breathless and your heart beating faster than a hummingbird on methamphetamines. As I mentioned in my review of All That Remains, Telltale has taken to heart the lessons it learned from Season One and The Wolf Among Us, crafting more fluid, dynamic action sequences that test your reflexes just enough to offer a challenge without ruining the cinematic tension the game creates. Like Christa sawing Lee’s arm off in Season One or Clementine suturing her gaping arm wound in All That Remains, there are some moments in this episode that will make intimate acquaintances of your heart and your throat. When the two elements, the action and the introspection, work in concert, the game transcends its source material and becomes a uniquely engaging experience that simply demands to be played.
As you may recall, the survivors were all immensely suspicious of you in Episode 1, because they’re on the run from a mysterious man named Carver. Suffice it to say, you’ll learn a great deal more about this imposing figure as Episode 2 plays out, as well as his relationship to your new companions. Is he good? Is he evil? Are your friends the people they purport themselves to be? I won’t spoil anything here, but when Episode 2 reaches its spectacular conclusion, it’s like a Rube Goldberg device of misfortune, a cavalcade of catastrophes with multiple conclusions that will leave you wondering, “Holy shit, did I make the right call?” Playing in the pitch black of my apartment and wearing headphones at 2 in the morning, I had to take a good fifteen minutes to myself to calm down and let the gravity of what just happened sink in. One thing is for sure, Telltale isn’t pulling any punches.
Initially, I was going to play A House Divided on my desktop PC, which I built essentially for the exclusive purpose of gaming, but foolishly I didn’t realize that your save files don’t transfer from Mac to PC even if they’re technically connected through the same Steam account and Steam Cloud service. Thus, I wound up playing on my MacBook Pro, which ran the game very smoothly with no noticeable hiccups or stutters in framerate. In addition to the crisp, lush graphics, the game’s sound design is masterful, balancing well-timed musical stabs with harrowing creaks and moans that will keep you on pins and needles even when it’s absolutely silent. Sometimes, it’s nice to just take a moment and soak in the vividly designed world the team at Telltale has created. You can almost smell the putrid mixture of rotting flesh and cool mountain air. Almost.
Gamers on the go, take note: this is one of my absolute favorite games to play on long flights, because it puts you in a weird, claustrophobic zone and you’ll likely wind up having other passengers watching your screen intently because it’s so much more compelling than watching yet another episode of Storage Wars. (Seriously, why is that always being shown on flights?) That being said, the game is now clearly designed for those playing with a gamepad. If you’re playing without a USB mouse or a gamepad as I was, you may stumble a few times when you’re trying to frantically grab a nearby object or wind up looking at it multiple times rather than picking it up instead.
Having shaken off any lingering cobwebs from pushing out The Wolf Among Us and All That Remains in such a short window, A House Divided is some of Telltale’s finest work to date, offering up an endlessly replayable, emotionally gripping, and wholly compelling piece of interactive storytelling for the bargain basement price of $4.99. Cancel your plans, close the curtains, and boot up one of the finest releases of the spring season. I, for one, cannot wait to hit the Rewind button and have my heartstrings tied into knots all over again.
The Walking Dead Season Two: Episode 2 – A House Divided is out now for PC, Mac, and PS3, and coming to other consoles later this week.
by Malik Forté on February 25, 2014
Back before Altair and Ezio Auditore made swan diving into haystacks a thing, or before Corvo Attano made his “dishonorable” debut into the world of stealth-action titles, Thief’s shadow-lurking antihero, Garrett, was the numero uno in hooded hide-and-go-seeking. Now, in their first full-length console title since Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal aims to please with the first Thief adventure in a decade. The Thief series set many trends in its heyday, so the expectations are running quite high for its return, especially considering that it’s the first brand new AAA game to release for next-gen consoles in 2014.
Once again Thief is set in the dark and gloomy fictional town known as “The City.” Not much has changed about our main man Garrett; he’s still the same old, stubborn, cunning kleptomaniac that we know and love. After an unfortunate accident, Garrett gains a new ability called “Focus,” an enhancement to his vision that allows him to see advantageous areas within his surroundings, like places he can climb or switch boxes to disarm traps. This, along with Garrett’s preternatural ability to use the shadows to his benefit, will be your most useful tools for accomplishing your missions.
Throughout the game, you’ll find yourself stealing items and looting areas for gold that can be used for character and weapon upgrades. Thief continues its tradition of providing a variety of different arrows: water, fire, and explosive arrows, to name a few. There are also the extremely underutilized rope arrows, which can only be used in a scarce amount of designated spots. You can also use sawtooth arrows to headshot and kill guards if you’re bloodthirsty, but for the most part, Thief is meant to be played in as non-lethal a fashion as possible.
As you’re traversing the rooftops during the beginning of the game, you’ll notice that Thief is pretty darn pleasing to the eye. Aside from the fact that The City dons an annoyingly claustrophobic labyrinth design, from a visual standpoint, it is extremely gorgeous. Eidos Montreal must have held the aesthetic value of the game high on their priority list, because their attention to surface detail and lighting effects is phenomenal and sufficient enough to please any graphics-centric gamer out there. This is a bold showcase of the next generation of graphical capabilities.
Not to be outdone by its visual counterpart, the game’s sound design is similarly amazing. If there was ever a noise for when someone has their eyes locked onto you, Eidos Montreal has managed to capture this sound and include it in Thief. There’s this harrowing audio that cues and notifies players when they are in the line of sight of an enemy, and boy, does it make things all the more intense. I noticed many cases of intricate aural awesomeness like this throughout the game, like hearing the heaviness of enemy footsteps when they become suspicious of your presence or just the bizarre ambient conversations that take place between characters when you’re hiding nearby.
This means that staying concealed goes beyond just keeping to the shadows in Thief: you’re just as vulnerable audibly as you are visibly, and receiving a guard’s unwanted attention is as simple as knocking over a vase or taking a loud trudge through a puddle of water. Noise from the environment has been a recurring enemy throughout the Thief series, and, just like before, it adds an entirely different angle of challenge to the game, forcing players to be conscious of their surroundings as opposed to freely traipsing through each section. Even if you’re as stealthy as they come, spending too much time in the vicinity of a dog or making sudden movements around caged birds will almost always result in them sounding off, thus alerting anyone in the area.
Speaking of the enemies, there were many instances within Thief where the A.I. was noticeably spotty. At one point, I alerted a group of City Watch guards and after simply running into the shadows a few feet in front of them, they acted as if I had vanished into thin air and eventually gave up their pursuit. I watched them walk in circles, completely perplexed, making reassuring statements like “I must be seeing things.” Having witnessed titles like The Last Of Us set a benchmark of excellence for enemy intelligence, I found this to be very disappointing.
And for this reason, Thief was not a challenging game by any measure. Perhaps the goal was to make the game more accessible for newcomers to the genre, but ultimately, the pacing of the game was hindered by its simplicity and redundant stretches. It made it difficult for me to want to continue the game, and after two chapters, I had to really force myself through the rest of the game, which wasn’t bad overall, but the fact that I had to force myself through certain areas definitely left a lot to be desired.
Thief continues the tradition of the previous installment and includes an semi-open world environment in which to play. As with any open world game, an essential part of creating an engaging sandbox environment is by populating it with engaging, believable inhabitants. I really wish Eidos Montreal would have spent a little more time focusing on residents of The City, or rather the lack thereof. Where on earth is everyone? For example, when only three citizens show up at the town’s public executions, it immediately took me out of the game. This type of thing was understandable in the previous Thief titles, given the technical limitations of those time periods, but in this day and age of high-end hardware and powerful game engines, you can’t convince me that there could not have been a bit more detail extended to making The City feel more alive with its inhabitants.
Thief‘s biggest drawback is that it deviates gravely from its essential calling as a stealth-action title in an attempt to be more story-driven. With a convoluted plot-line that spirals in many confusing directions and a cast of characters who are poorly developed, I doubt this was the proper angle for the game. There are moments where you get to creatively infiltrate structures, like one section of the game that has you breaking into a brothel to steal a very important book. You find yourself sneakily making your way through patrolling guards and prostitutes, grabbing all the loot you can and eavesdropping on all the awkward “transactions” taking place within the brothel as you proceed to your target. This was a blast but an extreme change of pace from the story, which I wasn’t too jazzed about continuing upon moving on to the next mission.
The good news is once you finish the story, there’s 20+ side missions available along with a separate challenge mode for added replayability. These have no attachment to the main story and are cut and dry, but still prove to be a bit more enjoyable than anything I did in the main story. Between missions, you’re returned to a clock tower that serves as your Batcave of sorts when you’re not out burglarizing. There’s a collection display there which includes expensive jewelry, trinkets, and paintings that you’ve managed to lift throughout the main story, but you’ll find that most of these are better off acquired after you’ve finished the main plot line.
As I said before, this is the first AAA release for the next-gen consoles in 2014 and the first Thief appearance in a decade, so the expectations were stacked up against this game to begin with. Thief is, without a doubt, a very ambitious game, but in many aspects its ambition exceeds its actual performance. There are areas of sheer brilliance that normally would make a game like this a must-buy, but then there are these discernible deal breakers that exist in it as well, and these set the game back to somewhere slightly above a mediocre experience. Fans of the Thief series are sure to fawn over this one for sure, and rightfully so, but if you’re a newcomer to the realm of Thief, you may want to tread very lightly on this one.
If you’d like to chat Thief or anything else gaming related, I’m only one tweet away at @Malik4play.
by Dan Casey on February 12, 2014
As a journalist, my life is a never-ending series of embargos. I’m essentially Cuba, but instead of not being able to sell luxury cigars and fine rum, I’m burdened with the knowledge of all manner of cool pop culture ephemera that I can’t talk about with the general public until a predetermined date. Well, since last week, I’ve had a Giles Corey-sized weight on my chest that I am finally able to remove: I’ve played the Titanfall beta and it’s glorious. Really. No foolin’. The game that we deemed the Best in Show of E3 2013 is living up to its considerable hype, which is no small feat considering the buzz surrounding it.
Over the course of three or so hours in a giant hangar-like room filled with dozens of Xbox Ones, custom Titanfall-skinned controllers, and dozens of eager journalists, we got to try our sweaty hands at a variety of game modes – Attrition, Last Titan Standing, and Hardpoint – and two different maps. First, though, we had to make our way through the tutorial level, a short but informative sequence of training missions that acquaints you to the game’s controls and unique elements like its parkour-style wall-running and gets you acquainted with one of the most important features: piloting Titans.
The controls are instantly familiar to anyone who plays a reasonable amount of console first-person shooters, so I didn’t find myself struggling with much of a learning curve where that was concerned. Whether I was in a tutorial level or in the thick of a pitched battle, the controls were highly responsive and the frame rate never seemed to sputter or dip, which is an impressive feat for a frenetic multiplayer title like this. The only time I found myself checking my watch a bit impatiently was when I was waiting for one of the levels to load, but I’d chalk that up to overloaded wi-fi rather than a technical fault in the game itself.
The pre-match loading screen will remind many players of Call of Duty, offering a chance to customize your class kits, Titan loadouts, equip single-use items called Burn Cards that offer in-game bonuses like increased running speed, and peruse a variety of statistics, challenges, and more. For the beta, we were able to choose from three core classes – Rifleman, the standard assault class; Assassin, a smart pistol-wielding stealth class; and CQB, a shotgun-wielding class for in-your-face gameplay. Likewise, there were three Titans from which to choose, Assault, Tank, and Artillery, which were equipped with increasingly heavy duty armaments, rocket salvos, and a Vortex Shield which allows players to catch projectiles in mid-air and fling them back at opponents.
Gameplay-wise, it is a frenzied mixture of Battlefield-style class-based running and gunning, Hawken-esque mech warfare, and Tribes-ian high-flying parkour. Our first game mode, Attrition, was your standard team deathmatch-type gameplay. The mission was simple: kill everything in sight. Easy enough, right? When we first spawned, my team and I did what came naturally to us, stayed on the ground and fanned out, looking for fresh meat. Squadrons of weaker AI soldiers, Grunts and commando-like Spectres, fought alongside us, giving the sense that we were two massive armies about to head to war.
I’m a naturally jumpy player — I love nothing more than pulling some John McClane-style moves while jumping off a building or through a plate glass window – and the game definitely rewards that style of gameplay. The level design is compact without feeling claustrophobic, but offers a level of verticality that separates it from competitors like Call of Duty, adding a new dimension to the battlefield for you to worry about. You don’t just need to worry about what lurks around the next corner; you need to worry about the X, Y, and Z axis. Death can come from every angle, and that sense of terror is exhilarating.
Initially, I was a bit concerned when Respawn announced that the multiplayer has been capped at 6 vs. 6. Having been wiling away countless hours in sprawling 64-player Battlefield 4 matches at home, I wondered if I’d find myself missing the extra players. Thankfully, it never crossed my mind. I was too busy leaping from wall to wall, then using my momentum to loose a hail of bullets at an unsuspecting opponent while leaping towards an enemy Titan wreaking havoc on my teammates. The freedom of movement afforded by the game is unparalleled, and allows you to pull off some of the most spectacular moves you can imagine.
Of course, all of this pales in comparison to when you call down your very first Titan from the sky. As soon as you enter the game, a timer begins counting down until your Titan is ready for deployment. Once the timer reaches zero, you’re a go for Titanfall. Simply press a button, choose a landing location, and look to the sky as your giant menacing mech lands with a thunderous impact. A small, impermeable force field surrounds it, offering you a chance to get into your Titan without getting immediately spawnkilled or blown to smithereens, a feature for which many fans, myself included, are grateful.
The Titans are large, lumbering mechanical death machines, but they pack a major punch. Few things are as satisfying as punching an enemy foot soldier into a fine red mist or ripping an enemy pilot from their critically damaged Titan, yet your massive size means there’s a massive target on your back as well. Enemy Titans will inevitably team up to take you down and you have to be wary for enterprising ground forces who leap onto your back, and shoot bullets into your engine hatch in a maneuver aptly called “rodeoing”. Take too much damage and you have the option to eject, sending you flying high into the air. If an enemy is rodeoing you at the same time, they’ll come along for the ride and you can have a mid-air firefight. Oh and fun fact: you can crush an enemy Titan by calling yours down on top of it, which is a decidedly badass way to say, “How do you like them apples?”
If you could care less about infantry combat, then Last Titan Standing is the mode for you. Much like classic Counter-Strike, you only have one life per round. You and your teammates are restricted to your Titans and you must navigate the narrow city streets, dodging, evading, and taking potshots at one another lest you find yourself critically damaged and about to explode. It’s rollicking fun, especially when you get into a massive firefight between multiple Titans all unleashing rocket salvos and reflecting barrages of bullets at one another with well-timed Vortex Shield blasts. Still, for my money, the game is at its best when you can blend the fast-paced, frantic infantry gameplay with the thunderous fun of piloting Titans.
Last, but certainly not least is Hardpoint, the name Respawn has given to its Domination mode. As with Attrition, you’re still trying to kill everything in sight, except you have the added objective of taking and holding three different points on the map. The longer you hold them, the more points you accrue, and so on and so forth until one team emerges victorious. Rather than simply ending when the winning team racks up enough points, the game enters a Mass Effect-style countdown where players on the losing team have to make their way to a landing zone to board a dropship and escape. Enemy players can rack up points killing fleeing opponents and can even blow the dropship to smithereens if they’re quick enough on the draw, a supremely satisfying way to cap off your victory.
What separates Titanfall from its competition isn’t its blend of vehicular and infantry combat; it’s the sense of freedom and seamlessness of experience it offers. Whether you want to leap from wall to wall and take potshots at enemy forces or call down your Titan and unleash mighty payloads of high-grade rockets on unsuspecting foes, the game has something for you. Respawn has designed a fast-paced, fluid, and, most importantly, supremely fun experience, that doesn’t get even after spending three-plus hours playing the same two maps over and over again. If I can figure out how to edit down the footage I captured, I’ll have that for you later today. Otherwise, I’ll try to stream some of the beta footage later this weekend on the Nerdist News Twitch channel. In the meantime, take a look at some more sweet screenshots of the in-game action and the Titans themselves:
Have you signed up for the Titanfall beta? Are you looking forward to the game? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.
by Dan Casey on February 4, 2014
Note: There may be some minor spoilers contained herein about the events of The Wolf Among Us Episode 1. I’ll endeavor to not ruin anything, especially about this new episode, but just bear that in mind as you read on.
The wait is over and now the suspense can begin once again. After The Wolf Among Us Episode 1‘s brutal twist ending that had M. Night Shyamalan cursing himself that he didn’t think of it and had comics fans and gamers alike audibly wondering, “What the fuck just happened?,” we found ourselves saddled with a grueling four month wait between episodes. For some, the wait is part of the charm in Telltale’s episodic model (read Ben Kuchera’s excellent op-ed in defense of it); For me, I found myself retracing the episode in my head and obsessively refreshing my inbox in the hopes that there would be a review code waiting for me. Granted, Telltale’s sterling The Walking Dead: Season Two made its triumphant debut in the interim, and the company had to deal with all manner of red tape and the then-imminent holiday break, both of which contributed to the extended period between The Wolf Among Us episodes. But the important thing is that The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors is here at last, and, man alive, is it harrowing stuff.
I love adventure games, and I am particularly smitten with Telltale’s unique brand of gutwrenching choice-and-consequence gameplay. As a longtime reader of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic and a diehard adventure game fan, I agreed pretty much wholeheartedly with Malik’s review of Episode 1: Faith. Like any adventure game worth its salt, there’s a grand mystery afoot: namely, who killed Faith in Episode 1 (and left a second grisly surprise for us at the end of that episode)? It’s up to Bigby Wolf in all of his gruff, huff n’ puffing glory to track down the killer and administer Fabletown justice.
The first installment did what it needed to do: set the stage in spectacular fashion for what’s to come, introduced players to the vibrant and storied world of Fables, and forced players to make hard choices that have palpable ramifications on the course of the story. Yeah, yeah, you may be saying, “But, Dan, it’s the illusion of choice! Everyone knows that!” Well, the hallmark of a good game is that it creates such an immersive reality that you don’t notice its mechanics; rather, they integrate organically, becoming one with the gameplay experience to create an interactive storytelling experience that sucks you in and spits you out after its roughly two-to-four hour voyage is through. Well, Smoke and Mirrors builds on the foundations laid by Faith and dials everything up to eleven.
I’ve already read that some folks are knocking Smoke and Mirrors for its pacing, which to me is the height of absurdity. Were we playing the same game? Are you addicted to speedrunning? Smoke and Mirrors is expertly paced and laden with opportunities for the player to actually roleplay as Bigby, to make the tough choices that will determine the type of man you want him to be. At the end of episode 1, you have to apprehend one of two suspects trying to flee the Trip Trap Bar. At the beginning of episode 2, you must interrogate your suspect as Bluebeard and Ichabod Crane look on, judging your every move. Will you be the good cop, coddling the witnesses and trying to kill them with kindness? Will you be the bad cop and find creative uses for things like, say, a cigar or a whiskey bottle? After all, you’re the Big Bad Wolf, so what’s a little enhanced interrogation between friends? Regardless, the choice is yours to make, and it’s a fascinating bit of gamer psychology to see just how far you’re willing to go in pursuit of justice.
Atmosphere has always been one of Telltale’s strong suits, and if you thought Episode 1 presented a gritty, neon-tinged vision of New York, then Episode 2 takes us down a David Lynchian rabbit hole of sex, lies, murder, and some seriously fucked up tableaus. From dive bars to grimy strip clubs to poorly lit basement interrogation rooms and beyond, everything about the world of Smoke and Mirrors is a shade darker than in the series’ debut. This is like Blue Velvet meets Aesop’s Fables in all the right ways. At one point, a bus drives past the camera — it’s a split-second shot, but the ad on the side reads “Will you be next?” These are the kinds of details that elevate a game like The Wolf Among Us from good to great. Forced prostitution, human trafficking, the darker side of sexuality, and the efficacy of violence are all explored in great detail, and putting the player in the driver’s seat can make for an unsettling experience that you won’t soon forget.
My one complaint is that I felt that the story telegraphed one of its big reveals fairly early without the option for Bigby to act on such knowledge, but I’ll just go ahead and pat myself on the back and chalk it up to being an ardent fan of BBC’s Sherlock. Still, at the end of the day, Smoke and Mirrors is one of the most riveting, compelling gameplay experiences out there.
Though the build I played wasn’t quite final, it ran smooth as butter on my desktop PC and the graphics were as stunning as the first episode. There was one minor glitch that caused a $20 bill to get stuck in Bigby’s hand, which was kind of perfect for his interrogation of an exotic dancer, but I expect that such issues shouldn’t persist in the final build. For those of you going back and forth over which platform to play the game on, let me just say that it looked great on my Xbox 360, but absolutely jaw-dropping on my PC, so either way, you win. Overall, Smoke and Mirrors is a markedly different beast from Faith in its pacing, the depths of its depravity, and the capacity for roleplay, but the best part about it – and any Telltale game, for that matter – is that it’s your beast. The worst part is when the credits roll, because then you know the vicious cycle of waiting and ruminating on the choices you’ve made begins anew. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors is out this week on PC, Mac, iOS, Xbox 360, and PS3.
by Ben Mekler on January 30, 2014
Let me tell you, friends, of a time long past… When story and character ruled the gaming world… When a sense of adventure wasn’t predicated on length or budget, but on immersive design and creative dialogue… This glorious age was known as the ’90s.
I’ll admit that I was pretty much in the tank for Tim Schafer’s return to the nearly-dead genre he helped shape from the second his Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter was announced. He was one of a few good souls that steered the great ship LucasArts during its heyday, a time that was undoubtedly my gaming prime. His voice (he wrote, among many things, two-thirds of the dialogue in The Secret of Monkey Island) is one I still associate with some of my fondest gaming memories. So naturally, when he asked fans to crowd-fund a brand new point-and-click adventure game over two years ago, I dutifully plunked down some cash and waited… and waited… and waited…
…until last week, when I finally got my hands on what would ultimately be known as Broken Age: Act 1. It’s “Act 1″ because, like many crowd-funded games, Broken Age’s ambition grew alongside the millions of dollars it raised past its initial asking price of $400,000, causing it to be delayed and ultimately split apart so that profits from the first half could fund the completion of the second (a free download for anyone with Act 1).
Broken Age: Act 1 (and I’d have to assume 2) is the story of two young people named Shay and Vella who live in two very different worlds. Shay is coddled by an A.I.-controlled spaceship floating aimlessly through the cosmos with seemingly no mission besides protecting its young, restless resident. Vella lives in the fantasy-tinged town of Sugar Bunting, where she’s destined to be sacrificed to a Lovecraftian monster named Mog Chothra. Both Shay and Vella wish to escape the lives they’re bound to – and with a series of points and clicks, you’ll aid them in doing just that.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Broken Age is its unbelievable good looks. Adventure games have, for the most part, been chained to relatively archaic visuals – something remedied only in part by Telltale’s recent resuscitation of the genre. But thanks to the nearly 90,000 people who supported Double Fine on this project, imaginations were allowed to run completely wild, resulting in a painterly look that’s nothing short of a treat for the eyes. Every frame is so packed with softly-colored, vividly-animated detail that it manages to feel ten times more immersive than half the games I’ve seen running on the borderline photo-real Unreal 4 engine. Ideas are exploding out of every screen – from a distant, piecemeal crane making sandcastles to a futuristic control panel made of baby toys. There’s a French horn looped around a tree branch that wards off an evil snake because why not? This is an adventure, and half the fun is exploring the unknown.
The story is surprisingly emotional, a feat made more impressive by the half-game’s length (somewhere in the ballpark of four hours, depending on how good you are at puzzles). Both characters’s adventures (you can switch between them at the push of a button) are driven by a Quixotic desire to change the status quo, with Shay’s driven by curiosity and Vella’s determination. The nostalgia inherent to this genre certainly helped, but the earnestness with which the story is told aids in drawing the characters, and their dreams, close to your heart almost immediately. The ending is a real jaw-dropper, one that’ll make the wait for Act 2 an even greater challenge. It doesn’t help that Double Fine has no idea when they’ll be finished with it. They hope it’ll be ready by the end of the year.
As for gameplay, it’s about what you’d expect from a game of this ilk. A majority of your time will be spent mulling over which items in your inventory might satisfy the request of an NPC. You’ll choose dialogue options to drive conversation with said NPCs to get closer to the heart of what they need to let you continue the story. You’ll explore environments for new items and ponder the answer to riddles. It’s a brain-game, but one that’s easy enough to get through for players of all ages. The real fun here is in meeting characters like the hipster lumberjack who has a fear of talking trees and the bearded king who rules over a city in the clouds full of giant birds.
I adored every moment I spent in the world of Broken Age. I think you will too. While the money you spend on the game (currently $24.99 on Steam) won’t reach its full value until Act 2 is released, I’d wager it’s worth it to beat spoilers to the punch and dive into Tim Schafer’s triumphant return to the adventure genre now. It’s the most I’ve smiled while playing a game in a long, long time.
Broken Age – Act 1 is available now on Steam for Mac, PC, and Linux.
by Malik Forté on January 26, 2014
When Lara Croft stepped back into the gaming space last year, it was reminiscent of those high school days when classmates would return from summer break completely transformed, in this case to a much more mature and appealing stature. You’d be hard pressed to find many bad things to say about Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of the Tomb Raider series. Our very own Dan Casey said it best: The game is damn fun to play, borrowing elements from series like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed and stirring them in a fantastic pot of original ideas and ingenuity. Now, the newly-released Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition brings last year’s amazing experience to the PS4 and Xbox One.
Whether or not Tomb Raider is still an awesome game isn’t to be discussed; it is in every sense still the “cream of the Croft,” the best game in the Tomb Raider series to date. The true matter in question is just how “definitive” the next-gen version of this game is. Survival instincts warrant us, as consumers, to pose this question, as it’s a game that’s not only almost a year removed from its original release date, but also charging a whopping $60. Given these circumstances, is it worth it to take the trip back to the dreaded island of Yamatai?
The good news is, there are some noticeable improvements made in Definitive Edition, the most obvious of them being the game’s visuals. Lara Croft’s character model has been completely reconstructed from scratch, all the way down to her strands of hair. With how gorgeous the game was last-gen, you wouldn’t think there’d be much that could be done to reach higher standards in visuals. But Lara looks better, the environments look richer, and the level of polish and detail is astonishingly pleasing to the eye, making this the most satisfying graphical achievement I’ve experienced on the next-gen platforms to date. If you’ve ever imagined being able to play a game that looked as good as the cutscenes in previous generations, ladies and gentlemen, I think your wish may have just been granted.
There are several pretty nice gameplay elements that have been added to the mix this time around. The PS4 version utilizes the Dualshock 4′s touchpad to do everything from lighting torches by simply swiping up, to accessing and browsing the game’s map, to examining discovered artifacts. They even utilized the DS4′s lightbar, which glows yellow, orange, and red whenever Lara is holding a torch in her hand, and tailored the audio from Lara’s hand actions (like shooting guns or breaking open boxes) to come out of the controller’s speakers. Voice commands are also available on both the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, allowing you to do everything from switch weapons by simply naming one to pausing the game just by saying “pause.” However, I turned the voice commands off, because the game picked up enemies shouting through my sound system, thus inadvertently triggering the game to annoyingly switch weapons or pause free of my control.
There is a noteworthy difference in frames per second between the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game. The PS4 version appears to run smoother, seemingly closer to 60fps, while the Xbox One version runs closer to 30fps. The PS4 version did drop in frame rate twice as I played through, both times lasting about a minute or so before kicking back up to 60fps. Given that frame rate is something many seem to gravely care about (all Call Of Duty games from MW and beyond run at 60fps), I’d say if you’re a multi-console owner, you may want to take the PS4 version into consideration, as it has the edge in this category.
From a plot stand point, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is identical in every aspect in comparison to the original. Don’t expect any exciting new twists, secret endings, or expansions to the story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Tomb Raider was an excellent origin story for Lara Croft to begin with. The length of the single-player is nearly unchanged as well, with the only difference being the addition of one extra optional tomb to explore, which was released originally as DLC for the last-gen versions of the game. Other than that, there’s nothing differentiating last year’s and this year’s versions of the game in terms of plot and game length, which subtracts from the question of whether this game is worth the $60 price tag for players who owned it in its last-gen version.
Oddly enough, where the most extra content is added is in the game’s least desirable component, the multiplayer. All of the multiplayer DLC is included in Definitive Edition, which would seem like a bargain if it weren’t for the fact that the multiplayer is still as lackluster as it was before. This section of the game also remained unchanged and still feels as spiritless as it did on 360 and PS3. Don’t get me wrong, there’s surely fun to be had by someone in the multiplayer, but given the amount of depth seen in every other multiplayer component out there, Tomb Raider‘s is still very easily forgettable.
As much as I loved this game on PS3 and Xbox 360, I wish this version had been my first time experiencing it. There’s no question that this is truly the definitive version of Tomb Raider, as the gorgeous graphical enhancements make the single-player more engrossing, and the inclusion of every available DLC add-on give it a slight content edge over its last-gen predecessors. But alas, these advantages are extremely small in stature, and there’s just not enough being offered to deem this game as $60 worth of “definitive,” especially when it’s nearly one year removed from its original release.
If you missed the opportunity to play Tomb Raider when it first launched last year, by all means, run to your local retailer as fast as you can and make it paranormal rainstorm (or “make it rain” for short) with $60 at the cash register. Perhaps you’re a sucker for amazing visuals and are simply dying from this drought of lacking games, so that $60 is burning a gaping hole in your wallet. That’s totally understandable, but if you have played through the last-gen version of Tomb Raider, be warned: there’s assuredly a severe lack of anything new to see here and you’ll be best suited gritting your teeth and holding off on this one until the price drops.
Make sure to have a look at our “definitive” review of Tomb Raider right here. As always, if you’d like to chat Tomb Raider or anything gaming related, I’m only one tweet away, @Malik4play.
by Dan Casey on December 17, 2013
Note: while I will endeavor to avoid spoiling major events and reveals of Season 2, I will likely be discussing elements from Season 1 and 400 Days, so please bear that in mind, dear reader.
When I first encountered The Walking Dead: Season One, Telltale’s brilliant little series of choice and consequence, I was a bit late to the party. By the time I discovered the game, all five episodes were out, and I tore through them with a quickness. Then, much like when I had caught up with the first part Breaking Bad‘s final season, I found myself faced with the prospect of having to go cold turkey, sweating the addiction out of my system for nearly a year. Telltale’s phenomenal Fables-inspired The Wolf Among Us was my methadone, but nothing compares to the sweet rush of plunging back into the bleak, dangerous apocalyptica of The Walking Dead, and, to stick with this forced metaphor, Season Two is the Blue Sky of adventure games and a worthy successor.
The grand question of The Walking Dead has always been one of how do we live after the dead come back to life. Zombies are inherently horrifying, but the slow agonizing death of a walker bite pales in comparison to the truly awful deeds of which only mankind is capable. In Season One, we stepped into the shoes of convicted murderer Lee Everett who, in addition to having to escape zombie hordes, had to contend with dairy farmers with a taste for human flesh, roving bandits hellbent on stealing their supplies, and make snap judgment decisions that would save lives and cost others. All the while, Lee had to take care of Clementine, a young girl who he found trapped in her treehouse after her babysitter returned from beyond the pale.
Clementine was the moral compass of Season One. Whenever I found myself fretting over what to do, I reminded myself that at the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was that Clementine and I made it out alive, that she emerged unscathed from this charnel house of horrors and learned how to survive in this world gone mad. She is precariously perched on a moral tightrope and even the slightest twinge could send her hurtling down the wrong path. Much like many players of The Last of Us felt a special connection with Ellie this year, Clementine was near and dear to my heart, someone who you desperately want to protect.
And as the tragic final moments of Season One‘s Episode 5 made apparent, we won’t be playing as Lee anymore. Rather, we are put in control of Clementine, a bold move on Telltale’s part, especially after you spent the whole previous season interacting with her, getting to know her, and acting as a surrogate father. Do you try to stay “in character” and keep her in line with how she acted in the previous season? Do you put yourself in her shoes? Do you just say, “Fuck it”, and make her a little badass with a mean streak a mile wide? It’s your call. Personally, I raised Clementine to be a shrewd operator, one who knows when to kill them with kindness and when to tell them to take a long walk off a pier.
Lessons learned in the first season are just as prescient in Season Two – much like Mass Effect, your save files and major choices carry over. Trust no one, keep your hair short, and don’t get too close to anyone. The prologue reminds us of this all too well as it shows how Clementine has grown. She’s still young and fragile, but there’s a hardness to her. She wields her gun like a pro and knows to sweep the perimeter for lurkers before plopping down and setting up shop. Every time you click the mouse, some new horror or heartbreak could await, and it makes for supremely compelling gameplay with some devastating twists and turns.
Whereas I played Season One on my pre-Retina display MacBook Pro, I played through a Season Two build that was running off of a PC laptop with a wireless Xbox 360 controller in a darkened studio in LA’s Glassell Park, projected up on a giant screen. So, in other words, ideal circumstances for having the daylights scared out of me and my heart ripped out through my throat. I still prefer using a keyboard and mouse compared to the controller, but the controls were smooth and responsive the entire time, whether I was frantically fleeing a walker or determining whether to lie about my past or tell the truth.
Graphically, the game looks cleaner and more vibrant than Season One. Once again, the game looks to Charlie Adlard’s comic book artwork for inspiration, creating a vivid, tremendously unnerving atmosphere where danger lurks around every corner. If the leap in graphical quality between Season One and The Wolf Among Us wasn’t immediately evident, series diehards will note how much crisper and cleaner the game looks without sacrificing any of the game’s gritty, sometimes dreary palette.
Once again, the sound design is outstanding with all manner of atmospheric effects and ambient noise coalescing to create a constant sense of dread and unease. Even when you feel like you’re safe, the low moans of nearby walkers or the wind whipping through the woods is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end. Even better, though, is the voice acting, which stands out as some of the best of the year. Between the subtle facial animations and deft voice work, Melissa Hutchinson’s Clementine feels like a living, breathing person, and given that we’ve already had the benefit of hanging out with her for a season, she is emotionally accessible in a way other protagonists aren’t.
Eagle-eared players may have detected a familiar voice behind new addition Luke — it’s Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights, Hart of Dixie) flexing his V/O muscle and adding yet another well deserved merit badge to his geek card. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose (hope in the face of turning into a flesh-eating monster).
Gameplay-wise, Telltale offers up more of the same: a combination of environmental exploration, puzzle-solving, adrenaline-pumping quick time sequences, and conversational decision-making that has a lasting impact on the overarching narrative and how other characters view you. Clearly Telltale has learned what players enjoyed from The Wolf Among Us, like the opening fight sequence between Bigby and the Woodsman, because there are several more reflex-intensive moments of action that make the quick time events more palatable. Even the term “quick time event” is anathema to some players, but with The Walking Dead they make for some really heart-racing moments. Some casual players may be turned off by this addition, but honestly if you can play Temple Run, you can make it through these sequences unscathed.
Like any first episode, it’s a lot of table-setting and reorienting the player to the rich, terrifying world that Telltale has carved out, but All That Remains is a masterwork for fans of the series. Clementine is no longer under Lee’s protective aegis; she is on her own in a bold, new world with Playing as Clementine feels like an oddly natural progression and the urge to protect her is just as strong as ever, especially during some of the intense gotcha moments and white knuckle quick time events.
While Clementine’s future may seem unclear – and that has been a point of derision for some – I would argue that the lack of clarity is exactly the point All That Remains is trying to make. Clementine is no longer under Lee’s protective aegis; she is on her own in a bold, new world and it is up to us, as the player, to help determine what kind of woman she’ll become in Lee’s absence. It’s difficult to judge “All That Remains” without considering that it’s part of a whole, but for my money, it’s a home run. Lightning, meet bottle — again.
The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 1 – “All That Remains” is available now on PC and Mac (via Steam) and PS3. It comes to iOS and Xbox 360 later this week.
Have you played “All That Remains”? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter.
by Dan Casey on November 18, 2013
Another year, another Call of Duty game. At this point, they’re such a regular occurrence that farmers could set their almanacs by them. While fans of the series, which has more collective hours played than humanity has existed, period, are doubtlessly thrilled, others are beginning to show signs of battle fatigue. As with other perennial offerings like Madden or FIFA, the challenge inherent to the franchise is keeping it fresh, offering new content, and enough innovation to warrant consumers plunking down another $60 for a new game that isn’t just reheated leftovers with a glossy coat of paint. Does Call of Duty: Ghosts rise to the challenge? Not exactly.
Seeing as I always play through the campaign first, let’s start there. Call of Duty‘s meat and potatoes may lie in the multiplayer arena, but Infinity Ward made a name for itself with glitzy, high octane single-player stories that put the player in the starring role of their very own Mark Wahlberg action film (Boston accent optional). Unfortunately, Ghosts seems to be coasting on past successes rather than pushing the envelope, resulting in a hollow, stilted, and unenjoyably arcade-y experience.
Ignore the mooks saying the campaign only lasts for four hours; I finished it in about six to eight, which is still less content than I’d like in a campaign, but enough to feel like a complete experience, or at least a solid framework. Ghosts takes place ten years after an extinction-level event that devastates the United States and destroys the Middle East, forcing the United States into a brutal war against the oil-producing nations of South America who now call themselves The Federation. As Logan Walker, you wind up joining an elite black ops force known as the Ghosts, fighting alongside your brother Logan (Brandon Routh), father Elias (Stephen Lang), the game’s true star/attack dog Riley, and several other generically gruff soldiers, on a globetrotting mission to save the world from the onetime Ghost turned supervillain Rorke (Kevin Gage).
That all sounds well and good in the abstract, but it’s such well-worn territory at this point that it feels rather cookie-cutter. Despite being able to play as Riley (briefly) and use him on several missions, the characters and those crazy over-the-top plot moments that are supposed to leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat seem like a pale imitation of games past by comparison. The story does have its moments, like the opening sequence where you fight off enemy astronauts in zero gravity, but it is more predictable than a 22-year-old girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.
Gameplay-wise, the campaign feels underwhelming, as its duck-and-cover map layout and shooting gallery enemy mechanics lack the randomness and excitement offered by the human element in the multiplayer. New additions like the ability to knee-slide and contextual leaning to peek around corners are nice, but ultimately unnecessary. They feel inessential, whereas you want gameplay changes to feel seamless and progressive like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2‘s addition of the manual. Similarly, the omission of certain mechanics, like Black Ops 2‘s multiple endings, seems baffling by comparison, giving the sense that Ghosts is more style than substance.
In terms of multiplayer, the fast-twitch shooter inside of you will be satisfied, as it’s essentially more of the same hugely successful formula. Addictive, run-and-gun fun and plenty of customization options are offset slightly by the head-scratching omission of certain game modes and the decidedly broken spawn points on some maps. No launch on this scale will be entirely smooth, but given that this is an annual event, you’d think they’d have it on lock by now.
New game modes like Cranked are a fun way to spice up the standard team deathmatch tedium, and co-op Extinction mode brings the all the fun of Horde mode and murdering scores of aliens to the world of Call of Duty at long last. There’s a location-based meta-game that integrates social networking with your endless attempts at humiliating your opponents via killcam, but I haven’t had much time to futz around with it outside the early press day I attended. In short, fans of the multiplayer will find plenty to like, but it’s a little disappointing when compared to the leaps and bounds between Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4.
Graphically speaking, the game looks good, and is on par with other high-end, late-cycle offerings. I played it on the Xbox 360, and only noticed jaggies and pixelation when I got stupidly up close and personal to textures I had no business inspecting. I’m told that the PS3 and PS4 versions look better, but let’s be honest – you weren’t buying this for the immense graphical update, now, were you?
Call of Duty: Ghosts is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel because if your massively successful formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, to mix metaphors, people will only eat plain hamburgers for so long before they start wanting cheese or bacon or a brioche bun as well. Riley may be their attempt at Animal Style, but this feels more like they were trying to turn around a quick title rather than take the series to the next level. And after Ghosts, I’m starting to get awfully tired of hamburgers.
Final thoughts: While there’s hours of fun to be had both on and offline, Call of Duty: Ghosts feels more like a lateral move rather than a step forward for the long-running series.
by Malik Forté on November 13, 2013
PlayStation 4 this, Xbox One that, everywhere you turn, one of the new consoles is somewhere in the discussion. Not to be veiled by the cyclone of anticipation from this week’s jump into next-gen, Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea is out and aims to expand on one of this current generation’s most solid titles. The second of three DLC releases and the first of a two part series, Burial at Sea takes players on a trip to very familiar territory. Does Irrational Games succeed at again delivering that Bioshock level of excellence? Let’s take an in-depth look at the first episode of the spanking new story-based DLC.
We return to everyone’s favorite highbrow, Art Deco inspired, underwater utopia, Rapture, to further frolic about with our hero Booker DeWitt (a seemingly different Booker than the one in Infinite). He arrives in the city hours before the civil war that imminently ravages it is to begin. Right off the bat, you run into Elizabeth, whom as you can imagine doesn’t recognize you, but rather requests your assistance in locating a little girl named Sally. All the makings of a noir-esque sleuth drama are crammed into the beginning of Burial At Sea and are a welcome change of pace for Bioshock.
For the first time, we get the delight of witnessing Rapture in its heyday, when the city was flourishing and overflowing (no pun intended) with the elitist ideals Andrew Ryan always babbled about in the original game. It’s a thing of beauty, and proved to be quite successful in immediately vacuuming me into the atmosphere. But not too long after being absorbed into this neo-Rapture, you start to hear the townsfolk speak ill about Andrew Ryan and his ambitions. You also learn that Sander Cohen (the devious artist mentioned in the previous games) is still breathing, and from that point on, everything in Burial At Sea takes a rapid turn to tedium, as your very brief visit to golden aged-Rapture is halted abruptly when Booker is deployed in a ruined, abandoned corner of the city.
This is where the fighting begins, and you’re now able to utilize the game’s combat system, which has changed slightly from what you may have remembered. Plasmids have been reintroduced, replacing Infinite’s “vigors” and adding a new ice plasmid to the mix. The Skyhook has also been replaced with the “Air Grabber,” which is functionally identical (and most of the time unnecessary) to its Infinite counterpart. Given that you’re back in Rapture, you’re once again able to exploit the environment to gain the edge on opponents. Electrocuting enemies who like to hang out in puddles of water, for instance, is still absurdly effective and pleasing.
The two-gun limit that made Infinite a pain in the arse has been remedied, and now Booker can haul his entire weapon loadout with him. Not that things are any more challenging this time around, as the amount of enemies you square off against has been quite noticeably reduced. Dispatching them is as easy as picking up and eating a good ol’ floor-sandwich, especially when you utilize Elizabeth’s bizarre, Samurai-summoning tear abilities. I’m sure Irrational was aiming for a certain style of pacing by reducing the amount of enemies, but the end result saw the chapter becoming far too simple, tedious and boring.
With the combat not selling the game in full scope, I was heavily reliant on the narrative aspects of Burial at Sea to bring some freshness and authenticity to the mix. This didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated, as the storyline proved to be very predictable, following the same storytelling methodology as Infinite. Not to say the plot-line was unsatisfactory, but it was certainly not compelling, due to the fact that as the story progressed, I found myself subconsciously preparing myself for the steep climax that would to come to fruition.
I blame most of this on Burial at Sea‘s length, which is only a short two hours of gameplay. While two hours is a good length for story-based content, the connect-the-dots approach to storytelling isn’t as engrossing when there’s so little time to flesh out plot points. I appreciate Irrational Games’ willingness to take risk with their narrative, but Burial At Sea‘s developments felt like forceful yet unnecessary attempts to captivate in a small time frame. Overall, this DLC turned out to be a small chunk of “more of the same,” lacking a true cliffhanger by using predictable plot-twist to enthrall players. The downside to that is that one can only take so many unwarranted twists before they become dizzy, disoriented and annoyed.
Burial at Sea goes the distance in terms of fan service. It’s an immensely scenic trip back down Bioshock memory lane with Infinite‘s unique combat style, pacing, and memorable characters. But the trip back to pre-devastated Rapture was all too short, and the gameplay and story that followed the small bit of tourism failed to validate the existence of this DLC expansion. This is just episode one of two, and there’s still a slight chance Irrational Games could somehow make this DLC story interesting. If you’re a die-hard Bioshock fan looking to return to the city where it all began, you’ll likely find fulfillment in the Burial At Sea adventure. Otherwise, this add-on lacks anything gripping enough to warrant an immediate journey back into the wonderful world of Bioshock.