2018 – Favorite Games, Biggest Disappointments

I couldn’t let 2018 slip away without informing you of what my favorite games of the year were, and although I’m sure everyone is tired of seeing this type of article by now, maybe I can tantalize you with a huge spoiler: Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War didn’t make the cut! Shocking, right?

My Favorite Games of 2018

5 – Gris: Gris’ art style had immediately arrested me, but I was even more intrigued when I heard the game was about dealing with loss and the stages of grieving. Gris won’t take but three or four hours of your time, and while that play time may dissuade some, I found this to be a worthwhile ‘quality over quantity’ title. I’m a bit biased because, well, this came around at the right time in my life. I spent a fair chunk of 2018 grieving, and to see that process transformed into playable art was precisely what I needed, especially since it’s not just about the emotional descent, but the prospect of coming back from it.

Gris is a 2D platformer of sorts, but the gameplay is simple. There isn’t much challenge, just some light puzzles and a few interesting encounters. I’d say this is more akin to playing an experience like Journey, meaning you have to appreciate the ride for its art, music, and the way it makes you feel. If that’s not what you’re looking for, you can probably avoid Gris. but in my opinion, that’d be a mistake.

4 – Dead Cells: Games like Atlas lead people to believe that early access is about studios taking your money in exchange for a broken (or recycled) product. Dead Cells, on the other hand, is the rare example where early access was done right.

I actually played the early access version in the spring of 2017, and even then the game seemed polished enough receive an official release. Still, the developer used all the feedback from early adopters to continually improve their product. This included tweaking the balance of difficulty, ensuring that gameplay would suit multiple play styles, and that players could move through each level without confusion. With the final product now in our hands, I’m happy to say that all the love and attention that went into Dead Cells is apparent.

You’re a warrior with no head, and your goal is to continually collect cells so that you can restore your body. To that end, you’ll run off into the unknown, die, and then start from the beginning again… and again, and again, and again. Level generation is random each time, but as you grow accustomed to the characteristics of each stage and earn more abilities, things get easier with each successive run. Once you beat the final boss, the difficulty ramps up and you’re able to continue that climb to greatness.

I’m typically not a fan of the ‘start over every time you die’ sort of thing, but Dead Cells just makes it work. The pace is quick, the enemy encounters are interesting (even if certain foes tail you for far too long) and the controls feel great. Every step closer to that endgame is just as rewarding as the last, so all in all, I highly recommend this game to anyone who appreciates 2D hack-and-slash action.

3 – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: I’m sort of a junkie when it comes to ancient Egypt, so when AC: Origins threw us in the most gorgeously rendered version of that place and era to date, I thought it, for sure, had to be the franchise’s peak.

But I was wrong.

I still prefer the sand, shrubs and palms of Egypt overall, but there’s no denying that Odyssey’s take on Greece is jaw-dropping. It’s a highly detailed world with things to do at every turn, and the fact that Black Flag’s naval combat system has returned in full is a solid win for everyone involved. You can spend dozens of hours just roaming around and causing trouble in this game, and when taking both main and side quests into consideration, there’s at least sixty hours’ worth of gameplay here (maybe even close to a hundred).

What I really appreciate about this game is that its main character, or at least the female lead (you’re able to choose between a man and woman), is the most interesting and likeable protagonist in the series to date. There’s also some great quality of life improvements in regards to hunting (you don’t have to go out of your way to hunt for hours at a time) and resource collection (it isn’t as vital to spend a great deal of time hunting these down). This is a much more polished version of the new Assassin’s Creed formula, and the ability to choose branching dialogue options is also a welcome inclusion.

All of this would be for nothing if the gameplay didn’t feel great, but this is probably the best controlling AC title I’ve played thus far. and I’ve played my fair share of them!

2 – Tetris Effect: Anyone who looks at this and says, “It’s just Tetris,” doesn’t get the point.

You may have the heard people call Tetris the perfect video game, and honestly, I find it hard to argue with that. I don’t know anyone who’s never enjoyed SOME iteration of the game, eventually getting glued to their screens for hours on end because clearing lines is addicting in the best way possible. Hell, even my wife loves Tetris, and she’s the furthest thing from a gamer there is.

There have been formula changes since the OG release (yes, I’m old enough to have played them on the PC and NES when those versions were still relevant), and some of them have made the game better while others. well, not so much. After decades of experimentation, one thing has been consistently true: The best Tetris games stay true to the core experience without much additional tweaking. To that end, I’d say Tetris DS is probably the best version of the game I’ve ever played (although I have a great deal of nostalgia for the original puke-green and black Game Boy version).

But I think Tetris Effect is the new champion.

Gameplay wise, it’s typical Tetris. But there is a new mechanic which allows you to, when in trouble (and after building up a meter, because you can’t just activate this any time you want), slow down time and clear lines at the top of your Tetris grid. All the lines cleared before time runs out will move to the bottom of your stack, so there’s potential to wipe away more lines at once than ever before. It’s an interesting mechanic to play around with, because there’s some major risk versus reward going on. You can try to stack your Tetris grid up high and then bang a bunch of them out in one fell swoop, but if you miscalculate, you could put yourself in a bad situation. This sort of thing actually feels like a natural extension of the game as opposed to something that’s been merely tacked on.

And of course, it’s visually the most stunning Tetris game of all time. There are numerous themes that promote every element of our world, instilling a sense of harmony and connectivity that you’ll feel throughout your tetrimino infused journey. The sound of your puzzle pieces turning and dropping become part of the beat thumping music that plays, further instilling that theme of connectivity. It’s worth noting that this game is even better in VR.

If you’re a Tetris fan and have a PS4, I know the $40 asking price may be steep, but it’s already been on sale for half that. Either way, the price is worth it.

1 – Sea of Thieves: It’s really interesting how this game has changed over the course of year. I had fun with it at launch, but felt the core gameplay loop wasn’t enough to keep players engaged for the long haul. It was a repetitive drive of, ‘go there, do this thing, bring me back the loot and I’ll give you gold’. I figured I’d give it another shot later down the line, but I wasn’t sure the developers would ever bring the game up to an appreciable state. I eventually learned Rare’s plan for future updates involved timed events, and that worried me a great deal. That tends to be a euphemism for ‘we’re going to randomly change the game, and if you like a particular game mode along the way, you’ll soon be disappointed once we pull it because it’ll be gone forever’. I wanted nothing to do with that.

So a couple of events came and went, but in keeping tabs with the what the community was saying about the content, I came to realize that Rare understood how timed events should actually work.

When a timed event was over, the newer stuff had either stayed in the game, or had been reincorporated later down the line. Nine months later, Sea of Thieves, while still sporting the same core it had at launch, has so much more to keep players engaged. and there’s much more to come.

Whenever leaving port, you never know how player ships on your server will react to your presence. The ability to form alliances with other crews adds a ‘will they, or won’t they’ ambiguity that wasn’t present at launch, and goes a long way in providing agency to each player. You no longer have to merely go to an island, grab the loot, and return to an outpost; you’ll pick up messages in bottles along the way, providing you more to do while you’re out and about. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to pick up an official voyage to get started. most outposts at the start will have a message in a bottle somewhere, and you can just keep that running for the rest of your play session. Skeleton fortresses and skeleton ship raids are fun and rewarding challenges, and now that there are skeleton ships, megalodons, and even a kraken roaming the map on a regular basis, to say ‘anything could happen’ would be an understatement.

Sea of Thieves still isn’t for everyone because it’s only as fun as you are willing to make it. The real fun comes from playing with friends, or at least a competent crew you can game with regularly, and a certain willingness to roleplay.

Objectively speaking, this isn’t the best made game of 2018, but as far as entertainment value is concerned, nothing gave me more fun and joy throughout the year than Sea of Thieves. I play it almost every night with the same crew, and have stayed up way too late on far too many occasions. And when I say ‘crew’, I mean we have our ships named and special pirate names to boot. that’s how much fun we’ve been having with it.

Overall, I find myself foregoing watching films, shows, and playing other games in favor of sailing the seas. Is it any wonder I consider this my favorite game of the year?

The Best Games I Played In 2018 That Weren’t From 2018 (In No Particular Order)

Oxenfree: I always wanted to give Oxenfree a go, but when GOG gave it away during the 2017 holiday season, I no longer had an excuse to wait. It’s developed by some old Telltale employees, so the gameplay predictably consists of walking around and talking to people, with your dialogue choices affecting how things play out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, so was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best dialogue and in-game voice acting I’ve heard in a while. It’s all wrapped around an experience that begins with an air of funny quirk, but slowly descends to a mix of sci-fi horror and Groundhog Day. I won’t say more than that because I don’t want to give much away, but this is easily one of the most memorable games I’ve played in recent memory, and I plan to replay this one again soon since it’s only three or four hours long. Night School Studios has another game coming out this year, and I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with!

Hollow Knight: I’m sorry I waited so long to climb aboard the Hollow Knight train. I’m a sucker for metroidvania games, but most of the clones that come along just can’t hold a candle to the games of yesteryear. Even Axiom Verge, which is excellent in its own right, felt like it was missing something. Hollow Knight is different though. For me, it’s the best title the genre has seen since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The controls are incredibly responsive, combat is challenging but fair, the upgrade path is satisfying, and boss encounters are interesting. The art style is both simplistic and masterful at the same time, and makes this dark and dreary world an intriguing one to explore. I could have technically put this on my ‘best of 2018’ list since that’s when it released for the Nintendo Switch, but that would have felt like cheating!

Call of Duty: World War II: I’m just as surprised as you are to see this on my list, but I bought this game in 2018 at a deep discount and haven’t regretted it. Bringing back World War II complete with boots on the ground gameplay has been a welcome change of pace (or return to form, depending on how you want to look at it). I won’t go into too much detail since ‘Call of Duty’ is explanation in-and-of itself, but the core mechanics feel better than they have in years and the map designs kept me coming back for more. Even with Black Ops 4 out, this iteration of the franchise is still my go-to.

Sonic Mania Plus: This is technically a new release for 2018, adding a bit more to the base game and finally getting a physical release. To be perfectly blunt, old-school Sonic games are a bit of a chore. The stage-design and stiff controls coupled with the ability to move fast rarely worked in tandem. but Sonic Mania changes all that. Each level is extremely reminiscent of classic Sonic, but the layouts complemented the controls and rarely left me frustrated. This is probably the best Sonic game I’ve ever played and would recommend this title to anyone who’s a fan of platformers.

Blossom Tales: There have been many attempts by small studios to replicate old-school, top-down Zelda games, but almost all of the ones I’ve touched have been underwhelming. Blossom Tales, on the other hand, is great. It isn’t very difficult, but everything from its storytelling, characters, and gameplay have kept me engaged and thoroughly entertained. If you’ve been impatiently waiting for the next top-down Zelda since Link Between Worlds, give this a try and I guarantee you won’t walk away disappointed.  

Biggest Disappointments (In No Particular Order):

Vampyr: This game hurts my heart. It’s story and characters are written well, and the artistic design delivers aesthetic and mood better than most games out there. Unfortunately, there’s a couple of things that kept me from really enjoying this one.

To begin, I don’t think it paces character introduction/interaction very well. Every time you enter a new area, you have to spend a considerable amount of time introducing yourself to everyone. That’s fine, but the dialogue options are always the same until you get to know a person better, and that makes for a bit of a slog. But the worst thing about this game, hands down, is the combat. It tries to play like Bloodborne but it’s clunky and extremely unbalanced. Enemy reach is always much greater than your own, evading attacks is iffy at best, and it’s easy to get cornered with no chance of bouncing back. Not exactly a winning combination.

The developers did eventually provide an update which allows frustrated players to focus more on story and less on combat, but I had already tapped out by then.

God of War: Oh, this game did make the list in a way, didn’t it?

To be clear, I don’t think God of War is a bad game, but I do think it’s a bit too long considering the lack of variety. It’s twenty-five to thirty hours of fighting the same enemies and smashing the same rune-etched vases over and over again. The combat system does improve throughout the game, but even that doesn’t do much to offset its weaker components. I guess the best word I’d use to describe this game is ‘chore’, and that’s really the last thing you want a game to feel like, isn’t it?

State of Decay 2: This is another title which had brimmed with potential, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own intentions.

I hate to make comparisons to The Walking Dead, but there are a lot of similarities (and not in a bad way). After a zombie apocalypse, it’s up to you to manage a base, meet new people, scavenge supplies and craft items. However, every choice you make is going to come with a consequence. When you help someone out it’s going to make another person upset. When you decide to craft supplies you’re likely making the choice to go without something else. I love this from a conceptual standpoint, but the game throws way too much into the mix for a single player to handle. The game is a bit easier when you’re playing with friends, but even then the micromanagement makes this almost infuriating to play.

Kirby Star Allies: Kirby is something of an acquired taste, but me, I love the little pink fluff ball. I think the Wii games were brilliant and that track record continued with the 3DS. Unfortunately, Rainbow Curse on the Wii-U was a disappointment, and I’m sorry to say that Star Allies also failed to leave a lasting impression. It’s back to classic Kirby gameplay, sure, but this time around there are four protagonists on the screen at once. It doesn’t work very well in single player or even for couch co-op, because things get too hectic on-screen to tell what’s going on. And yet, this is a core part of the game. As a result, this is the least impressive Kirby title I’ve played in some time.

Battlefield V: I love me some Battlefield, but the latest iteration isn’t doing it for me. The map designs seem too uneven, but more than that, there’s been a lot of drama over the game’s balance in general. A lot of players complained that they felt they were getting bumped off too fast, so the developers tried to fix the issue by making them bullet sponges (to a certain degree). This was met with even more backlash, so things were reverted back to the way they were at launch. There was an alpha and a beta for this game, and yet this is the state it released in.

It’s sad, but it looks like Dice are finally beginning to lose it. I know, I know: “But what about Star Wars Battlefront? Isn’t that when they began to forsake their audience?!” I actually like those games and think they play extremely well, but Battlefield V isn’t quite there. It’s a shame, because I got many, many hours of enjoyment out of Battlefield 1.

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Time to Leave Physical Behind

img_7340Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

I’ve long been a staunch supporter of physical media, because when I make a purchase I want it to be accessible for the rest of time. So when games became prominently available through digital means, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, shook my head and said, “Nope. I’m not giving in!”

Why was I so stubborn? Because I’ve always seen digital purchases as a gamble. If a distributor goes belly-up, you’d lose access to your library unless a third party took over and honored your purchases (which isn’t impossible, but certainly not guaranteed). Even if a distributor merely decided to stop supporting a legacy platform, your purchases would essentially be forfeit the moment your device’s hard drive failed.

The latter scenario is actually happening with the Nintendo Wii just this month, by the way. Pretty wild considering how much money they’re making these days, isn’t it?

Anyway, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve only felt this way with consoles. I’ve been buying digital games on PC for eons now, but that’s because I trust that companies like Steam aren’t going anywhere. There’s also GOG, who allow you to download DRM free copies of all the games they sell (which I admittedly don’t take advantage of as much as I should). But Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo haven’t instilled the same sort of confidence. Sony would rather sell you streamable games than honor legacy generation purchases, and until just recently, Nintendo tied games to consoles instead of accounts… meaning if your console died and you bought another one, your purchases would be gone.

That said, the landscape of console marketplaces are changing and I feel it’s time to embrace the dark side.

I know. I can’t believe I’m saying it either.

img_7343-1Still, I’m at a point where I feel one-hundred percent comfortable buying digital games from Microsoft. They’ve shown a considerable amount of dedication to ensuring titles across all their platforms are compatible with the latest hardware. If you have old game discs, simply load them into the Xbox One and you’ll be able to play. If you don’t feel like tracking down a copy of an old game, they’ve available to buy digitally.

Nintendo have also begun to correct the mistakes of generations past (while introducing some new ones, of course). With the release of the Nintendo Switch, games are now tied to accounts, so if your console dies you can download them on a new machine.

Sony… well, they’re still the same old arrogant Sony. They’d rather sell you digital copies of PS1 and PS2 games you already own. As a result, I buy all third party titles for the Xbox One.

Regardless of who we’re talking about in the ‘your old purchases matter’ race, it’s clear that we’re moving towards a future where consoles stop being brackets of segregated time blocks and merge into one. It’s the way it always should have been.

Microsoft have earned a lot of good will over the course of this generation, so it’d be wise for Sony to follow suit with backwards compatibility on the PS5. I think it’d be unrealistic to expect the PS5 to play PS1, PS2 or even PS3 games, but at the very least it needs to be fully backwards compatible with the PS4. I still own all the old consoles, but I no longer have any tolerance for keeping multiple generations hooked up to my home theater at once. I believe they have little choice but to incorporate at least the current console’s library, and while that’s not everything I’d want from a PS5, it’s a step in the right direction.

Still, there’s a part of my brain that still shouts, “If you want to be able to play these games in thirty years, you better pick up physical copies!” I don’t know if that comes from a lifetime of buying physical games or if it’s because there’s still trepidation over the longevity of digital libraries though. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, it’s what’s kept me buying physical copies throughout the entirety of this generation… until now, at least.

img_7342-1I’ve also known this for a long time but would never allow myself to admit it: Physical copies are worthless.

Don’t get me wrong, because I’ll hold on to my NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy and DS cartridges until I die. But as far as this generation is concerned, discs are worthless. Sure, they’ll be around in thirty years, but the games that are stored on them are largely riddled with bugs or missing content. The Spyro remastered trilogy doesn’t have all the games on disc. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t nearly as fun without its day one patch. Bethesda games have always required updates for the best stability. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was, at times, a slideshow without subsequent patches. At launch, Battlefield 4’s single player campaign saves often corrupted and forced players to start over.

And these are only the examples that immediately come to mind. They’re the most extreme, yes, but every game has patches that roll out on day one and beyond. That means that virtually none of the games you’ve played, even at launch, are the same product as what’s on the disc. The pieces of plastic they’re pressed on are pretty much drink coasters.

It hurts my heart to say that, but it’s true: All a disc is good for in 2018 is verifying that you have a license to play a game.

A lot of people complain that they don’t want to get off the couch to switch discs, but that’s never bothered me. What does bother me is switching discs when I know I’m not even playing the content that’s on it in them first place. With that being the sad reality, why even bother? Why not just make the switch to all-digital and save myself from having to switch those coasters out?

Last but certainly not least, I have been burned by an old PS3 that went belly up after just two years. Not the internal GPU or CPU or anything, but the disc drive. A disc drive has moving parts, so it’s the most likely piece of a console to fail. Going digital means I won’t have to worry about that. That’s not to say a cooling fan won’t go or that a console won’t overheat to death, but it’s one less thing to worry about.

Digital distribution still has a way to go, but I believe it’s a viable solution moving forward as long as we, consumers, don’t allow the companies holding the digital keys to get sloppy.

Is God Of War As Good As People Say?

When God of War (2018) had finally been delivered to the masses, it was smothered with 9’s and 10’s out of adoration by virtually every respectable review outlet known to man. The praise was due to a culmination of the game’s great graphics, an in-game camera that never cuts away, a more measured approach to combat, its story, side-quests, and open world design. Just like that, any and all concerns associated with the studio’s decision to change the franchise so drastically had melted away overnight.

But is God of War really one of the best games of all time?

For those unfamiliar with God of War’s previous story, it was about a man turned demigod by the name of Kratos. He pledged his life on the battlefield to Ares, the original god of war, for victory in return. As a result, Kratos was granted great power and had a pair of blades permanently chained to his forearms. He used these to carry out the god’s bidding time and time again, but his thirst for blood was redirected when his wife and daughter were killed by his own hands. He destroyed Ares and became the new god of war, but was then forsaken by the remaining pantheon up on Mount Olympus. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well and Kratos went on his most destructive rampage yet, not stopping until Zeus was reduced to little more than a bloody pulp. This was the end of the main trilogy, leaving Kratos’ fate ambiguous to the audience.

2018’s God of War picks up many years later. Kratos has aged, settled in to the world of Norse mythology, had seemingly found a new love and had a son. The woman of his life recently deceased, to respect her wishes, he and the boy are tasked with releasing her ashes from atop the highest mountain in all the land. But before they’re able to set off proper, a mysterious stranger appears with an ominous message, something along the lines of, “We know who you are and you’re not welcome here.” With nowhere to hide, the demigod and his boy – a mere survivalist in training (you can’t quite call him a warrior, not yet) – decide to push forward with the task at hand before something worse catches up with them.

It’s a straightforward premise to be sure, but the heart and soul of this adventure is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. It’s clear that Kratos was too busy providing for his family to be much of a father, and when he was around, the pressure he put on his son had strained their relationship. Kratos was all business and no play, and unlike his actions in Greece, we can sort of understand why. He knows the world is full of unsavory beasts and beings, and if his boy is to survive, he needs tough love.

Some of the more critical fans out there don’t care for Atreus’ inclusion, because he’s not just there at the beginning, but stays by Kratos’ side throughout. This isn’t unlike Ellie from The Last of Us, but she, wittier and wiser than her years let on, was a far compelling companion.

Personally, I don’t love Atreus but I don’t hate him. I appreciate Atreus because he’s roughly my son’s age and acts the part. When it comes to exploring the world he’s quite green but also acts like he knows everything. So, when the game wants you to explore every nook and cranny to find all the hidden goodies, Atreus attempts to pull you off the path… and I can’t understand why. Is it to remind us how to get back to the main quest? I’ve yet to get lost in God of War and certainly don’t need Atreus’ help. This game may be open world, but it’s not Skyrim. In fact, I question the ‘open world’ claim in the first place (more on that in a bit). We really don’t need Atreus to mimic Ocarina of Time’s Navi – “Hey, LISTEN!” – and that’s something that every developer should do their best to avoid.

Atreus is a handy extension during battle though… eventually. He’s useless at the beginning, but the more he learns (and the more you upgrade his skillset), the more he’s able to help. Halfway through the game the kid is a bonafide life saver. He’ll unleash arrows (at your command) that either stun or deal damage to foes, so he’s viable for reducing their health and managing crowd control. As he strengthens and grows, Kratos will acknowledge his child’s improvements and thus improves their bond. They still have their issues though. Kratos clearly wants to comfort his son but feels he can’t. Atreus wants a father figure but resents the one he has. This plays out in interesting ways.

Now, I’ve seen people say that the secondary characters are great, and they are… but only to a certain extent. They’re written and acted quite well, but God of War relies too much on recycling the few it has as opposed to presenting new ones. The two you’ll see time and time again are a pair of estranged dwarven brothers, and while they’re entertaining, you almost feel like they’re the only two characters you meet throughout the game. There are others, sure, but none as prominent as they are. The game does a good job of explaining how they manage to pop up in each location before Kratos and Atreus are even able to get there, but without an expansive cast to back them up, their inclusion makes God of War feel a bit hollow. You could certainly argue the previous games lacked in the same area, but they also weren’t nearly as story driven.

It’s worth noting that the story, by the way, is barely there. The writers do a decent job at exploring the world’s lore and providing some back information on its characters, but God of War never feels, at least narratively, as epic as its visuals. There’s some surprises, yes, but considering the slogging ‘slow burn’ technique employed – which I’m usually a fan of – those payoffs come way too late in the campaign.

But let’s get away from the narrative and cast and talk about design.

There’s been a lot of buzz about God of War’s open world and how you’re able to return to old areas to unlock things that were previously forecasted as late game content.

Personally, I don’t see it.

You could technically call this an open world, but it’s not, at least not in the strictest sense. It’s more like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (two references in one article… niiiiice). They N64 classic used Hyrule as a central hub area with each unique area branching off of that. God of War is quite similar as it uses a large lake as its central hub. Once you branch off to chase the story or side quests, things get extremely linear. The backdrops along the way are breathtaking and make your environment feel expansive, but from a travel perspective, you’re basically dealing with a bunch of corridors that are occasionally broken up by small battle arenas and puzzle rooms. This illusion of an open world mixed with the reality of linearity makes God of War feel like it has something of an identity crisis.

And by the way, even those linear paths can be a chore to traverse. Nearly every time you turn around, there’s a new chest just begging to be unlocked. There’s a few ways of doing this: by finding and smashing three vases with runes etched on them, by doing the same but with a strict time limit, or by rotating runic columns until you find the right combination. I applaud the developers for wanting to add more content to the game, but this is virtually all they offer until you’re at least halfway through the game. At that point, you have the option of going back to certain areas and engaging in battle with corrupted Valkyries, but the ‘open the chest’ variants are what make a good portion of this game’s ‘things to do’ list. You could blow past these time wasters to carry on with the main story, but then you have to live with knowing you probably passed up something that could have permanently increased your health.

Lack of variety also rears an ugly head with the adversaries you face. You pretty much go up against the same enemies over and over again, and that includes the mini-boss trolls. The surprising thing is that God of War seems to space out the major bosses few and far between. In my first fifteen hours or so, I think I’ve had three actual boss fights. Otherwise, the developers have said, “More trolls!” I believe Cory Barlog himself had stated that the reason there weren’t more epic boss battles is that they simply didn’t have time to include any. That’s a pretty big omission, considering the most memorable moments from previous installments had been going up against the Colossus of Rhodes, Poseidon, etc.

The combat itself feels pretty good, although it takes a bit of time before it finally gets to an appreciable state. The early game leaves Kratos with few moves and skills at his disposal, so it gets tiresome doing the same combination over and over again. But once you’re able to string more things together and can actually count on Atreus to help you out, it’s extremely fun to unleash upon the hordes of enemies that come your way. You can throw your axe, use it for melee, or drop it altogether and pound someone with your fists. The variety of ways in which you can approach your adversaries isn’t vast, but boy, does it feel good. But the fact that it takes some hours before combat feels fun is definitely a problem.

That’s really the running theme here, isn’t it? This game’s pacing feels off, mainly because while the game boasts about 30 hours of content (if you’re looking to do everything along the way), very little of what’s offered outside the main quest feels substantial. Instead, it’s just the same rigmarole on repeat ad nauseum. This game would have been much leaner, and for the better, if the developers stopped looking for excuses to pad things out. But they probably didn’t because despite what you’re led to feel with the ‘open world’ and all that ‘content’, most of the given areas in God of War aren’t very big… they just appear that way. These pacing issues are what caused me to take a break halfway through the game and come back a couple of months later, because I just got to a point where I felt like it wasn’t respecting my time.

That’s not to say that God of War isn’t a good game, because it most certainly is. It does plenty of things right, but for so many reviewers to overlook its flaws sort of baffles me. Some people say that God of War is the greatest game of all time. Some have said it’s the greatest game this generation. Others have said it’s the best game on the Playstation 4. I know my opinion is subjective, but I postulate that it’s neither of these things. I think what we’ve got is a game that didn’t have enough time in the proverbial oven to become fully realized, and that the studio was pretty darn lucky that everything shaped up as well as it did. With another year or maybe two, God of War probably could have reached the upper echelons of greatness that people already claim it’s at, but as of now, I think it’s just ‘pretty good’ with occasional flashes of greatness.

A 9 out of 10, in my opinion, it is not.

Bit-Review: Killzone-Shadow Fall

Yeah... it looks THAT good.

Yeah… it looks THAT good.

Killzone is the franchise that drew a line in the sand… even if it didn’t mean to. It’s not the best FPS series out there, but it has a strong following and for good reason, too – The graphics were jaw dropping and the gameplay actually felt fresh. Instead of merely complying with ‘twitch shooting’ mechanics, the devs opted for movement that took your weapon and armor weight into consideration. Furthermore, they implemented a realistic cover system which wasn’t some mere gimmick, but a vital tool for your survival. The Killzone Trilogy wasn’t a flawless experience by any means, but the alternative gameplay it offered over the likes of Call of Duty had been welcome with open arms. It comes as no surprise that Sony’s highest regarded FPS has made its way to the PS4, but now that it’s here, I’m afraid hype is probably going to work against it. It’s a fine entry in the series overall, but has some identity flaws that just can’t be overlooked.

You’re playing as a Shadow Marshal, which means you’re faster and more agile than the character in previous games. As a result, the controls are more in line with other shooters, as opposed to going against the grain with a weighted feel. As a fan, I was worried this would be a major detriment to the game’s enjoyment, but that wasn’t my experience at all. The gameplay is still heavily focused on cover and tactical maneuvers, so there really wasn’t much lost in translation. In fact, much has been gained – For starters, you have the ability to scan the area and detect and identify nearby enemies. Based on what you find, there’s a number of ways you can decide to dispatch them.

This is where the OWL comes in.

Your drone has been programmed to function in four distinct modes, each of which can be accessed by swiping the DS4’s touchpad (up, down, left or right). If you want to reach a ledge below, your OWL will provide a makeshift zip line. Enemies using high-tech shields? No problem, just have the drone blast an electromagnetic pulse, disabling your foes temporarily and leaving them open for attack. Furthermore, you can actually send your OWL in to attack for you. It’s capable of taking a couple of soldiers out on its own, but more than that, and it’s likely to come back for a recharge sooner, rather than later (it’s never completely destroyed). However, even in situations where the odds are against you, the drone’s attack mode is useful as a diversion so you can move into flanking position. Last but not least, it can set up a shield which will last as long as the OWL doesn’t take too many hits. As you can imagine, all of this brings an intriguing wrinkle to Killzone’s gameplay.

And I guess the best name for that wrinkle is ‘choice’, and the OWL offers plenty of that when it comes to dealing with the demon-eyed Helghast. The game actually tries to push us into the promise of freedom more often than not, but it’s merely an illusion. That’s probably the most disappointing thing about Shadow Fall in general – Lots of promise, yet never fully realized. The first level is semi-open and lulls you into thinking each level will be expansive and allow you to choose which objectives you’ll tackle in succession, but it isn’t long before the game sets you on a linear path that only LOOKS ripe for exploration. Some levels offer a fork-in-the-road approach to multiple tasks, but that’s hardly the sense of freedom this game hoped to evoke. The forks are often an illusion, too – Sometimes you can forego the obvious path by sneaking around in vents, but other times the vent is literally your only option to progress.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with linearity. It’s worked well for the franchise and continues to work in the latest iteration, but the game was touted as being something more, meaning those who ultimately expected more will be disappointed. Go in expecting more of the same however, and you’ll find the level design to serve its purpose well. You would think having the ability to scan environments and deploy a drone would make you unstoppable, but the devs have ensured the scale will rarely tip in your favor. As with previous installments, you’ll need to find cover from afar and plug away at the opposition methodically. While other games reward a pray and spray mentality, Killzone will put you down in a matter of seconds. So, use what’s at your disposal – Hide behind plants, walls or whatever else in the environment… but be snappy about it. A fair amount of cover options are destructible, which can work both for you and against you. Of course, much like the game’s ‘open nature’ (lack thereof), such freedom is only an illusion. Certain parts of the game allow you to blast through walls, but most of the time it’s only the small stuff that acquires battle damage.

Speaking of damage, health generation has been tweaked for Shadow Fall. As most other shooters nowadays, you’ll notice the outer edge of your screen going red if you’re close to death, and hiding is an effective way to get back in the green… and I mean LITERALLY back in the green. The light bar on your controller has been utilized by the devs as a health indicator – Green, yellow and red. In addition, you’ll find adrenaline packs littered throughout the game… and you’ll need them. If you’re low on health and can’t get to cover in time, it will boost your health and slow down time (think of the COD: MW3 round winning kill cam) while aiming down the sights. If you get sloppy and fall to the ground, your OWL can use the adrenaline to revive you. Of course, if it’s currently charging because it had to flee battle with its tail between its legs, then you’re SOL.

Another thing you’ll notice, is that the AI isn’t very smart. Yeah, they’ll chew you up and spit you out if you leave yourself vulnerable, but their movement is limited. They pretty much get in position and hide, only peeking out on occasion to squeeze off some rounds. The AI in previous Killzone titles had been substantially better, so it’s disappointing to see it take a back seat to all the action.

Anyway, outside of the normal ‘infiltrate – cover – attack’ scenario, Shadow Fall gives you plenty of other objectives throughout its 10-12 hour campaign… and some of them are jaw-dropping cinematic pieces you have some control over. You’ll hang on to a rope dangling from a helicopter, free-fall through the air, fortify and hold down a small base, maneuver and battle through zero gravity, use small bots to sabotage equipment and more. The variety of gameplay is definitely welcome, and helps to keep things from getting repetitive. The only thing they recycle time and time again is using the OWL to hack into computers. This is first utilized to deactivate alarm systems, but quickly devolves into a ‘get to this terminal and hack it so you can get to the next objective’, which gets tedious.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough about the gameplay. As one of the first exclusive PS4 titles, it’s absolutely gorgeous and really makes me excited for the future of console gaming. Graphics aren’t nearly as important as the gameplay, so I won’t prattle on forever… but the graphics go a long way in helping to sell this tale of a ‘world that’s been divided’. You fly over a city, and the draw distance is just… nuts. No lack of detail in distant buildings, no artificial haze to hide details, no tricks whatsoever. I noticed the OCCASIONAL pop-in, but this only occurred with minor details. Lighting is amongst the best I’ve seen in a console title to date, and the colors? Shadow Fall isn’t nearly as drab as its predecessors, that’s for sure. There’s plenty of bright tones this time around, and even when the game is at its darkest, there’s still color being used to bathe us in atmosphere.

Last but not least – I have to address the story. It’s some time after the events in Killzone 3 (30 years, I believe?), and each side of the opposition is basically separated by their version of the Great Wall. Of course, there are some things at play that hope to change all that, and you find yourself smack dab in the middle of it. As a soldier, you were raised to believe in the black and white scenario – You’re good, the other side is bad. Fortunately, the plot attempts to put us in a position where the line between right and wrong is blurred, but it doesn’t do a great job of driving it home. It’s conceptually sound, yes, but much like the previous Killzone titles, the central cast are mostly unlikeable (with the exception of ‘Echo’).

So far, my experience with the multiplayer has been fun, but there’s nothing new or innovative to write home about. If you want a variety of standard multiplayer modes with a control scheme that feels good, and with graphics that look phenomenal… then you’ll have fun. I know I did, but once Battlefield 4 is working the way it should, I expect most players to gravitate towards that.

So, as I said in the beginning – The game wants to provide this and it wants to present that… but Shadow Fall never reaches the heights it strives for. It’s just another shooter with a mediocre plot that’s driven by dull characters… but that’s not to say it’s a bad game. For all the negativity I’ve spouted, it’s only because I have a responsibility to give it to you straight. Still, it’s important I stress that most of the negatives were outweighed by the positives, because Killzone Shadow Fall is still fun as hell. There wasn’t a single time I said, “Come on, just end already.” I legitimately had a good time, and wouldn’t mind going back to play through the campaign again. In the end, that’s what a game is all about – Being fun. If it plays great and I have great time playing it, what’s left to say? I recommend Shadow Fall for anyone who picked up a PS4 (unless you simply aren’t a fan of shooters). It’s not a ‘killer app’, but is certainly leaps and bounds above most other launch titles I’ve played in previous generations.

Keep an eye in the not-too-distant future for my review of Knack. For the time being, I’m compelled to share that the game isn’t the downer that most reviewers made it out to be. It’s simple, but a lot of fun. That’s all I’ll say for now! Until next time!

Congratulations Xbox One – And A Reminder On Perspective…

First and foremost, congratulations to Microsoft for their release of the Xbox One, and congratulations to anyone who picked one up at launch. Thanks to the launches these last couple of weeks, Christmas has come early for many of us, indeed.

For some who haven’t read back in my blog, I’ve been asked if I plan on picking up an Xbox One to sit next to my PS4 – No. I can’t really afford to dump money on two consoles at once, and Microsoft made me pretty upset with their DRM policies early on. They’ve reverted, but the damage has been done. In terms of features and games though, the Xbox One seems like an awesome machine for those who want (mostly) full media integration in the living room, so all the power to anyone who prefers it to the PS4. Personally, I just don’t care about any of that stuff. I want a simple gaming machine, and that’s what the PS4 delivered. Games? I figure Sony is going to have the better exclusives, so I’m pretty excited to see what’s yet to come.

Anyway, there’s something I want to address – The internet hate. Holy shit, it’s been absolutely bananas. When the PS4 launched last week, Microsoft fans were jumping on Sony’s willy for having some issues… issues which were allegedly under 1%. Furthermore, fake reviews were written across the net in an attempt to make the PS4 look bad. There were those of us who said, “Media integration in our society is making this sound wayyy worse than it is… just relax, and enjoy your new console people. Xbox One will have issues when it launches next week as well… and not because we wish harm on the Xbox One, but because that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Well, here we are one week later, and guess what? The Xbox One has issues as well… and you know what? It isn’t a big deal. It sucks for anyone to have a bum console on day 1, but the vast majority are enjoying theirs. There’s no need to drag company names in the mud for errors which obviously happened in a variable manufacturing and shipping process. These things happen, and no product launches at a zero percent fail rate. Ever. Last week, I told many that the PS4 seemed to be well in line for a low rate of failure, and the Xbox One issues appear to be isolated as well.

This just goes to show you folks, that there’s no conspiracies and nothing sinister going on behind the scenes… this is product launch 101. If you’re that concerned about what awaits, get the extended warranty through your company of choice. But please, stop all the bickering online and stop trying to blow minimal fail rates out of proportion.

With that said and out of the way, I want PS4 and Xbox One owners alike to have a great time with their recently acquired games and consoles… I know I have.

Stay tuned to the blog for a review on Killzone Shadow Fall’s single player campaign in the next day or two!