FIFA 18 Review

In the Age of the Internet, where we demand everything faster and our attention spans shrink to that of a goldfish, it’s interesting that both PES and FIFA are slowing down. It’s a trend aimed at making soccer games more realistic, but upto and including FIFA 17, it had caused EA’s series to suffer, with every title since FIFA 15 feeling less responsive than its predecessor. Finally, with FIFA 18, the franchise has managed to arrest its decline, and while the series’ latest entry still feels slow, it at least feels a little more responsive, and less frustrating as a result. Combined with outstanding presentation and more ways to play than ever, FIFA 18’s on-pitch improvements represent the beginnings of a recovery for the series.

FIFA 17’s problem, I realized after far too many sleepless nights, was that it slowed players’ turning speeds to Titanic levels but left much of the rest of the game at a higher velocity. That meant you could sprint pretty quickly, but would take an age to accelerate or change direction. This is still a problem in FIFA 18, where players’ continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there’s a split-second of input lag–but their slower sprinting does mean the game’s speed as a whole feels more consistent.

This results in a more thoughtful game that’s less concerned with beating defenders using trickery or pace and more about–as your youth coach probably told you every week–letting the ball do the work. AI teammates now make more frequent and intelligent runs to give you greater options when you’re on the ball, and players’ first touches keep the ball closer to their body, finally making driven passes a viable option in the attacking third. Unfortunately, however, non-driven passes remain as limp as before: long passes and chipped through balls still slowly float towards their target before inevitably getting cut out, and ground passes are similarly weak, rarely possessing enough zip to carve a defense open.

Many attacks end in your wingers or full backs crossing the ball into the area or an attacking midfielder having a pop from the edge of the box. It’s a good job, then, that these are the areas that have seen most improvement. Shots carry a little more weight than before and are responsible for the game’s most satisfying moments–seeing a volley fly into the top corner is a great feeling, and it happens far more frequently in FIFA 18 than last year. Crosses, meanwhile, have been reworked, dropping the old low cross in favor of a new three height system: holding R1 / RB while crossing produces a driven, ground cross; L1 / LB creates a floaty ball similar to FIFA 17’s efforts; and just the standard X / Square input whips the ball behind the defenders with pace. Crucially, unlike last year, it is now actually possible to score by crossing it into a target man or poacher, and doing so feels better than it has in any FIFA to date.

Players’ continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there’s a split-second of input lag

That doesn’t translate to set pieces, however, which are still useless–even if penalties are slightly less complicated than FIFA 17’s approach, which felt like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube with your hands tied. They’re still unnecessarily obtuse, requiring you to be mindful of shot power, direction, and height, as well as your run-up, all at the same time, but at least you now have time to think about your approach, rather than the run-up being mapped to the same stick as shot direction.

Elsewhere, EA has finally got the balance of individuals’ pace just right–slow players feel slow and fast players feel fast, and utilizing the latter no longer feels over- or under-powered. However, despite the numerous small-but-important enhancements, there a number of lingering flaws holding FIFA back. Different players still don’t feel unique enough: other than Ronaldo and a handful more of the world’s elite, every footballer in the game feels roughly the same, the vast majority of them displaying the same animations and only feeling different in their heights and speed stats. This year’s gimmick, quick subs–which allow you to press R2 / RT during stoppages in play to substitute a player without having to pause the game–are a nice touch that is limited by the fact you can only apply it to three pre-planned changes organized before the match or go with the game’s suggestion. That suggestion is rarely a good fit for the situation at hand, and mapping it to the same button as sprint meant I was constantly activating it by mistake.

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If FIFA 18’s on-the-pitch showing is inconsistent, its presentation–the area in which the series has progressed most over the past few seasons–continues to set the standard for sports games as a whole. While it may sound like a boring, granular change, the prettier and more versatile lighting really helps make each match feel unique. It’s aided by more realistic and enthusiastic crowd reactions, and different kinds of atmosphere depending on where in the world you’re playing. Spanish matches are scored with the distant beat of drums and constant, partisan noise, whereas English crowds are more likely to taunt the away team over their lack of support. Club-specific chants are common for the bigger sides, though Liverpool fans may tire after Anfield’s 200th rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

In addition there’s official league-specific branding and graphics, lineups being read out by stadium announcers (even in the lower leagues with less well-known players), and largely excellent commentators discussing real-life transfers and results. Together they make a game that replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport–the media, the fan adoration and anguish, and the obsession with following your team–more immaculately than ever.

FIFA 18 replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport more immaculately than ever

As FIFA continues to almost become a sports channel in itself, it also expands its repertoire of game modes every year. This year sees the narrative-driven Journey mode return for a second season, with Alex Hunter now a world-famous prodigy. The Journey sees few improvements over Season 1 beyond some greater customisation options (you can now change Hunter’s apparel and hairstyle, among other minor tweaks), and its cast produces the same mixed performances as last year. It remains a unique mode, but think of FIFA 18’s Journey more similar to the second run of a middling TV show than anything else: it’s the same, just more of it.

Elsewhere, Pro Clubs remains largely untouched–save for a Journey-style skill tree in which you need to acquire certain traits before others are unlocked–and Ultimate Team’s winning formula has also been left mostly alone. The few new additions include Squad Battles, where you play a number of matches against other Ultimate Team clubs controlled by AI, before being ranked against other real-world players for the amount of wins you manage. They’re a perfect alternative to the online FUT Champions for those who don’t want to brave the wastelands of online multiplayer, or for those who don’t have the time to commit to the latter’s grueling schedule of qualification rounds and weekend tournaments. Meanwhile Daily Objectives, in which you’re rewarded with coins or packs for, say, winning by over two goals or for scoring with a Serie A player (among other challenges) offer welcome new bonuses, particularly for Seasons players who have traditionally been subject to meagre rewards.

Finally, The Journey’s influence has spread beyond Pro Clubs and into Career Mode, whose transfer negotiations have been overhauled–aesthetically at least. Instead of submitting your offer as an email, transfer talks are now conducted in real-time through interactive cutscenes. It’s a largely superficial change since the only actual new feature is the ability to add release clauses and sell-on percentages to signings’ contracts–the rest of the process is exactly the same, except with a human face rather than an inbox in front of you–but it’s at least more exciting than seeing the same offer letter template written down for the hundredth time. Otherwise Career Mode is the same as ever, with the player conversation system feeling most stale–the emails players send to you are identical to the ones they’ve been sending for years now, and there’s still no way to reply. It would’ve been nice to be able to speak with your team in a similar vein to the transfer negotiation cutscenes, though maybe that’s a feature for next year.

Career Mode, Pro Clubs, and Ultimate Team’s new features are undoubtedly incremental, but that’s largely because what was already there was excellent. They each offer an entirely different way to play, with Career Mode offering the chance to control your favorite team, Pro Clubs being a great way to play with friends, and FUT being by far the most addictive and fun–especially for those who collected football cards as a kid.

It’s off the pitch that EA excels. From the variety of game modes on offer and how everything’s presented, to the constant updates in FUT’s Team of the Week, Daily Objectives, and discussion of real-world happenings in commentary, FIFA 18 captures the world of football and confidently translates it into a video game. On the pitch, however, EA’s soccer series is still lagging far behind PES 2018‘s more fluid, satisfying football. This year’s improvements are welcome, but more needs to be done in the coming years if FIFA is to be a world-beater once again.

NHL 18 Review

After stumbling on current gen consoles starting with NHL 15, the NHL series is starting to hit its stride, with a wide variety of improvements and additions to the core game in recent iterations. In NHL 18, most of these improvements are aimed at new or casual players, but hardcore hockey heads haven’t been forgotten. From its generous list of modes ranging from full-season to the exciting NHL Threes, to how the action on the ice feels smooth and deliberate, NHL 18 is a fun yet accessible sports game.

When you’re out on the ice, NHL 18 feels fantastic. There’s a feeling of weight to the players crashing into each other, making each check feel satisfying. Passing and controlling the puck is smooth and fast, and when you outsmart the defense and score a goal, it’s a genuine fist-pumping moment. The new dekes open up fresh possibilities of outsmarting your defenders. Passing the puck around the ice, screening the goalie, and then putting a wrister into the goal always feels purposeful and satisfying. There’s no button mashing here unless you want it, in which case you can set the game to NHL ’94’s ultra-simplified 2-button controls.

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The new modes like NHL Training Camp, NHL Threes, and Expansion Draft feature in Franchise mode bring new ways to play, but returning gamers will find the core NHL experience familiar. Gameplay is largely the same as it always has been. The commentary is basic, repetitive, and the delivery and excitement don’t always match the on-screen action.The soundtrack, too, is limited. There are very few songs, so they repeat on the menu screens frequently. Songs like Kaleo’s Hot Blood and The North Panic’s Haven’t You Heard? become annoying from repetition.

Of the new mode additions, NHL Threes feels the freshest, and controls exactly the same as the rest of the game while keeping an arcade feel, slacking on penalties and rules found in the simulation modes. I enjoyed slamming other players in situations where I’d normally be penalized, particularly the opposing team’s goalie for stopping play.

Despite the familiarity returning players will feel with NHL 18, the number of possibilities are impressive and each serves as a hook to get into into another mode. If you just want to smash around the ice, foregoing things like off-sides and icing, NHL Threes is perfect. You can even earn team mascots as playable characters. If you’re heavy into the simulation of a season, there’s a full-season mode. Hockey Ultimate Team lets you build your own fantasy team using current and past players, and is complex and feature-rich enough to practically stand on its own.

But the beauty of all this variety, besides having something for everyone, is how one mode complements another. Playing NHL Threes is a great way to get a feel for the basics of the game–skating, shooting, and hitting–without worrying too much about the rules. It makes the on-ice time in something like season play that much more dynamically, because it allows you to get a better feel for the way NHL 18 moves and plays. The MyCareer mode lets you start off with your own custom player, and play your way from amateur to professional, building exactly the type of player you want to build. It gets your foot in the door for a full season mode, controlling each team, switching between players on the fly–which hones your hockey skills, helping you dominate NHL Threes. It’s cyclical. Playing any single mode makes you better at any of the other modes. It’s awesome.

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While Madden and NBA 2K have both taken the single-player experience and turned them into compelling story modes, NHL 18 makes no such effort. You set up your player, play in the junior leagues, and move up from there. It’s generic. Building on the MyCareer mode would have made a great addition for returning players, but instead it’s just more of the same we’ve seen in every previous sports game for years.

But NHL 18 is welcoming in every possible way to new users. One of the most difficult things about sports games is learning the vocabulary of each title. In the past, jumping back into a series, or starting for the first time, seemed overwhelming. The NHL Training Camp is great for returning users to learn some of the new moves, and invaluable for helping rookies get a feel for the game.

Visually, NHL 18 doesn’t reach the same heights as other sports sims on the market right now. The crowds especially fare poorly, looking more like Sims characters than actual humans. When the camera pans the crowd, the animation looks canned and often suffers from framerate stutters. Actual gameplay is fluid, but transitional animations are non-existent. It doesn’t look natural in up-close replays when a character goes from skating, to scoring, to celebrating.

New players won’t feel lost, as NHL goes out of its way to make sure you get up to speed with training, tutorials, and on-screen hints.

There’s still a lot to love about NHL 18, even if the core on-ice experience has only seen minor tweaks. The new modes bring variety to the gameplay, with NHL Threes standing out as a fast-paced, fun way to play hockey. No matter what the mode, gameplay is fast, responsive, and rewarding. And those fresh to the franchise won’t feel lost, as NHL goes out of its way to make sure you get up to speed with training, tutorials, and on-screen hints. New players are sure to feel welcome, but for any series veterans, NHL 18 still has some room to improve.

Echo Review

Somewhere, in the infinite void of space, is a planet with a race of transhumans that believes they can bring the dead back to life. A being named En has come here looking for a way to resurrect a loved one currently trapped in a red cube strapped to her back. What she will find is a seemingly endless labyrinth that puts her head to head with the most dangerous enemy: herself.

More accurately, the endless labyrinth of Ultra Ultra’s Echo puts you head to head with yourself.

The labyrinth, as it turns out, is a decadent but sterile mansion, reminiscent of the alien hospice where Dave Bowman lives out the rest of his days in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The place is clean, but devoid of life. En eventually gets the lights back on, but activates something else in the process. What first manifests as ugly, malignant blobs on the floor eventually takes shape. Specifically, the shape of En. A labyrinth-wide blackout triggers every few minutes, knocking everyone out for a brief moment. When power and consciousness returns, the clones–called Echoes–reboot on their own. With each reboot, the Echoes become closer to a perfect copy of En, and even more determined to murder her.

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Therein lies Echo’s biggest, most captivating twist: the labyrinth itself monitors En–her every movement, her every action–recording the data, and feeding it back to the Echoes. When the power reboots, the Echoes will have learned new skills directly from your actions. Use your gun to kill the Echoes, and the next reboot, all of them are suddenly trigger-happy crack shots. Sneak up behind an Echo to take them out with stealth, the next reboot, they will skulk around silently, looking for the perfect opportunity to sneak up and choke En to death. By default, the clones are afraid of water, but if they see you get in, the next reboot, that fear is gone. Echo is an intricate game of cat and mouse where the mouse keeps sharpening the cat’s claws.

Fortunately for you, Echo intelligence has limits. Every system blackout wipes the progress of the previous reboot, so it’s possible, with patience, for the Echoes to unlearn skills if they weren’t used during the previous period of full power. Prior to a full blackout, there’s a short period where the lights go out, and the labyrinth is processing the new data, i.e. not recording. These are the moments where En can act with impunity, using all the tools at her disposal to permanently put down an Echo, and traverse the environment freely without any of her movements coming back to sabotage her later.

Even then, En has her own limits. Every action, even the ammo for her gun, is tied to an energy cell system that can be refilled using “Suns” scattered around the labyrinth. But Suns aren’t so ubiquitous that one can just spray-n-pray bullets, then vault over a table to hide before a full blackout. A big part of the game’s challenge is tied to resource management, plotting a course which will leave En to safety, but with the means to defend herself if necessary, while also taking into account what the Echoes can currently do (and will be able to do) once you’ve executed your plan. Echo is the child of a little over a half dozen ex-patriates from Io Interactive of Hitman fame, and that pedigree shows itself in the amount of foresight needed to be successful in every stage.

As a whole, the game falters, but only slightly. The core story of En trying to resurrect her loved one is handled with admirable restraint. En herself is voiced by Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, a subtle performance that has her balancing excitement and determination with just enough doubt to make Happy Ever After for this fool’s errand uncertain. That doubt is further instilled by her ship’s coldly cynical A.I., London (voiced by Nick Boulton, already having a great year coming off of playing Druth in Hellblade), whose constant questioning and dialogue with En drives the story, and fills in the backstory, albeit to questionable results. The biggest problem is En and London dropping reference after reference to the history, religion, and lore of En’s homeworld, but never really stopping to catch you up. It’s still mostly comprehensible, but it’s surprisingly dense, and much of it is spent filling in backstory, but not really pushing things forward until the end of the game is in sight.

The biggest problem is the labyrinth itself. It’s a fantastic, evocative environment unlike anything one might expect to see, but the aesthetic starts to wear thin in the later hours; the only break comes from the occasional transitional maintenance area that separates major milestones. Add in the fact that, with the exception of a late level opponent, both En and her enemies are all the same model, and there’s a numbness that starts to sink in after playing the game for extended periods. One type of section, where En must collect dozens of purple orbs to open an elevator to the next area, stretch out far longer than necessary. These are often the sections compounded by the game’s sporadic save points, which sometimes drop En a minute or two from the next door, but sometimes don’t trigger until you’ve been running, jumping, shooting for twenty minutes in an area, and all it takes is one Echo’s lucky shot to end her, and erase all that progress.

Figuring out how to and how not to teach the game’s enemies what to do is a stupendously gratifying process.

Fortunately, though often tricky and uncompromising, Echo never feels impossible, or cruel. However, it does require constant thought and consideration. Figuring out how to and how not to teach the game’s enemies what to do is a stupendously gratifying process, in that same magical way a game like Portal rewires the player’s brain to think in a whole other dimension than just where to insert bullets. It could benefit from variety, but it’s a stellar use of A.I. programming, regardless, one that we will likely–and ironically–see imitated but never duplicated in the future.

Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider Review

Tying up loose ends in a series focused on political intrigue and all things metaphysical can’t be easy. In Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider–a stand-alone game capping off the events of Dishonored 2–it covers the exploits of various side-characters on a more personal quest, that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Arkane Studios continues its tradition of coming up with an incredibly inventive and cunning game about elusive assassins making their mark on the world around them, while choosing where and when to make the tough choices.

Set several months after Dishonored 2, Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano have since left the isle of Karnaca, leaving Billie Lurk to return to her old ways to track down her former mentor Daud. Pulling from her skills working under the master assassin, they form a plan to confront The Outsider, a deity of the Void realm and instigator of events throughout the series. Billie Lurk will use her newfound powers to sneak, loot, and track down key targets to find a way to eliminate the demigod once and for all.

Much like the previous games, Death Of The Outsider makes effective use of large, open levels. With each city block holding a number of side-opportunities and events, there is plenty to learn and uncover during your excursions. Billie’s story aims to round out the narrative presented in both Dishonored games, but the general flow is somewhat lacking. While starting strong, the story eventually runs out of steam, with its final missions falling a bit flat. With that said, there are many details packed in for Dishonored fans, revealing important notes that flesh out the events since the last game.

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Billie’s approach is a bit different compared to the exploits of Corvo, Emily, and Daud. With no mark bestowed from the Outsider, she is free from the Demigod’s watchful gaze, and isn’t judged by her overall actions throughout the story. This helps to set the tone for what players can expect in Death Of The Outsider. With the lack of the Chaos System from previous games, the moral ambiguity of the story matches the gameplay, allowing her to go about missions in different and inventive ways–often going for a more improvised style that blends lethal and non-lethal moves.

I tend to be more stealth focused when playing a stealth-action games, and dread the moments when having to mash the reload save key to avoid dealing with lost resources and the bloody mess I left behind. In this game, getting caught isn’t as punishing, allowing you to recover from a messy job. With your overall performance graded after each mission–judging times detected, hostiles killed, and items found–you’ll be able to focus more on being an effective assassin, without the added pressure of an overarching meta system keeping you in-check.

With gear including lethal and non-lethal darts and mines, grenades, and a stealthy sword–including powers that assist with traversal and the manipulation of your enemies–how you go about your mission is up to you. As an immersive sim, each character and object in the game space can be manipulated, opening up some rather interesting gameplay opportunities–like baiting enemies with thrown bottles to walk into traps, or some more creative options like using the Semblance power to mimic the appearance of others to get the jump on targets.

In a lot of ways, this stand-alone release’s more relaxed style does more to compliment the series’ immersive sim design compared to its predecessors.

Billie Lurk’s overall repertoire of skills are much more lean compared to the other characters. Though Corvo and Emily had a sizable pool of powers, the Captain of the Dreadful Wale has just three, along with a side ability to Rat Whisper–where she can hear the thoughts of nearby rodents to learn clues and tidbits about the characters in the area. With no mark, Billie’s powers work on recharging mana, a more than welcome addition that gets rid of mana potions. Despite the smaller pool of powers, she can still acquire and craft a set of Bone Charms to amplify her various skills and attributes.

Focusing on the key areas of traversal, recon, and subterfuge–her powers cover the gamut of what players will need throughout their missions. One power in particular named Foresight, allows Billie to project herself as a spectre to scout and mark targets. This skill is a standout, proving its usefulness time and again when locating Bone Charms and key items. However, the fact that there is only three powers can make the overall gameplay potential feel limited compared to previous games. While creative players can certainly make the best of it, it was disappointing to see that these were all you get. However, completing the game once will unlock the Original Game + mode, replacing Billie’s original powers with Blink, Domino, and Dark Vision from Dishonored 2–bringing back a feeling of familiarity.

Dishonored’s AI systems are as sharp as ever, and will require some planning to get through unscathed–but going in at full force isn’t discouraged if that’s your thing. With the more lax gameplay systems on display, there’s much more incentive to experiment with the tools at your disposal. During one segment, I used Foresight to mark several targets before using a combination of electric mines and the Disperse teleport ability to plant traps during their patrol routes, disabling several guards within seconds as I slipped away with valuable loot.

Only taking about 7 hours to clear on the normal setting, there are several missions that beg for a revisit, such as the mission to infiltrate Karnaca’s Bank–resulting in one of the series’ most finely tuned levels. One feature brought in to add more variety are the new contracts found in the Black Market, where you can also buy items and upgrade your gear. Billie can take on a selection of side-jobs from the citizens in Karnaca, ranging from the bizarre, such as killing an annoying mime and making it look like an accident, to the more morbid–like getting revenge on a sadistic doctor who experiments on his patients.

Surprisingly, Death Of The Outsider channels much more of the spirit of classic stealth-action games like the original Thief. Giving room to experiment and prod aspects of the environment to see what works, without too many distractions from the story. Along with a custom game mode, allowing you to tune the game’s AI, fail-states, and add in other odd and challenging options like Ironman Mode–Death of the Outsider gives you a number of ways to define the type of stealth-action game you want to play. In a lot of ways, this stand-alone release’s more relaxed style does more to compliment the series’ immersive sim design compared to its predecessors.

Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider is a solid, inventive, yet somewhat subdued capper to the stories from the previous Dishonored games. While the smaller scope can be felt throughout, the approach to allowing players to express themselves as a master assassin is just as strong as ever. It’s uncertain where the series can go from here, but this stand-alone release proves that Dishonored is still a remarkably designed stealth-action game with much potential, that offers players the chance to be creative in ways they’d least expect.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite Review

Playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite reminded me of a scene from Star Trek I saw as a child. It involved Kirk and Spock playing an intense game of chess, but on seven boards of varying sizes, all floating over each other. It was still a game of kings, queens, knights, and pawns strategically moving between colored squares, but the multi-tiered playing field unraveled my understanding of its fundamentals. What was the purpose of the smaller boards hovering off to the sides? Do the rules of movement change? How do you even get a checkmate?

The latest iteration of Capcom’s star-studded crossover fighting game is much like Star Trek’s three-dimensional chess. It takes familiar gameplay systems and characters but presents them in an entirely new way, demanding players re-examine their understanding of it as a whole. Infinite represents the most significant change to the Marvel Vs. Capcom formula since its creation, and the result is a game that’s not only fun and rewarding to play, but also remedies some of the biggest issues with its predecessor. However, like Star Trek’s three-dimensional chess boards, it’s all held together by a functional but crude frame.

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The biggest shakeup in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite comes with the addition of the Infinity Stones, which, in Marvel lore, correspond to a different facet of the universe: Space, Time, Mind, Reality, Soul, and Power. One stone can be taken into battle alongside two fighters, and each of them has a unique ability called “Infinity Surge” that can be used just like any other special move. These abilities open the door to a world of creative combos, setups, and strategies that the series has never had before.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 quickly became a game about finding the best teams and optimising their damage output, but this meant everyone largely played the same way. Infinite’s Infinity Stones, however, encourage players to make characters their own, and they offer the tools to forge distinct playstyles. A Hulk player is now empowered to negate his slow movement speed by using the Time Stone’s teleport function, an aggressive Dante can use the Soul Stone’s health-sapping capabilities to mitigate damage from risky strategies, or a Thanos can cover his lumbering approach with the Reality Stone’s homing fireball. Despite the attributes the stones bestow, each character still retains what makes them distinct among the cast. So although Hulk might have a teleport, trying to play him like Strider won’t work.

The Infinity Stones also have a secondary ability called “Infinity Storm,” which is charged by Surge usage. When unleashed, they unlock the full potential of the stone and give its user a big short-term advantage. In the Marvel Universe, the Stones grant immense power, and in the game each one bends a fundamental rule of fighting game design to the favor of its user. Power boosts damage, Mind refills the Hyper Combo meter, Soul revives a fallen ally, Time eliminates recovery on moves so they can be chained together, Space restricts movement, and Reality gives elemental properties to attacks. The Infinity Storm is what replaces Marvel Vs. Capcom 3’s X-Factor, which, while an interesting mechanic on paper, often felt like an unfair two-button death sentence. Infinity Storm briefly changes the parameters of battle in favor of the user but still gives the other player the ability to fight on through smart play and strategy. It takes X-Factor’s comeback potential, but makes it a possibility instead of a foregone conclusion, and in turn the inherent tension and drama of the moment feels more authentic.

The rabbit hole goes deeper when you factor in the tagging system, and it’s here where the series’ other big changes lie. Capcom has simplified tagging, but done so without sacrificing depth. At the press of a button, a teammate will sprint into the fray to take over, allowing players to extend combos for greater damage or to set up tricky situations that can potentially penetrate defenses. Teammates will always enter on the ground, which means low-effort health-melting chained air combos are a thing of the past. While it’s not impossible to make combos go on for absurdly long, it’s hard work since the character being tagged out is slow to leave. This places high-execution demands and strict timing requirements on players, who need to keep the combo going long enough to cover the tag cooldown. It might be frustrating to find yourself on the receiving end of one of these multi-tag combo strings, but you can be sure the player on the other side is putting in the work to make it happen.

Similarly, Infinite doesn’t feel like it revolves around “Off The Ground” moves (OTG) as much. In Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, these had very simple inputs and could pop a knocked-down enemy back into the air, leaving them defenseless against a continued barrage of attacks. These moves are a little trickier to pull off now due to a limited window of opportunity. Again, when you see one happen, you know it was well-executed.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s story delivers … [It’s] exactly the kind of fun, action-driven romp you’d want from a crossover of these universes.

Infinite feels like a much more grounded game than its predecessors. It moves at a slower pace than series veterans may be used to, but it also feels more honest. The fighting game community referred to Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 as a game about shenanigans; utilising the idiosyncrasies of mechanics and quirks of characters to create situations that often felt unfair. While it’s too early to tell whether Infinite’s systems are completely free of these, as it stands, the game’s mechanics feel much more open-ended. It’s less about using communal knowledge to pick the best characters, do the optimised combos, and employ the ideal strategies, and more about treating the game like a blank canvas and its mechanics as the brushes for painting your unique superhero squad.

Of course, there are those that won’t think about playing Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite with such granularity, and Capcom has implemented a one-button auto-combo system to help the casual player pick up a controller and make cool stuff happen easily. The game’s control scheme features two buttons for light attacks and two for heavy, but by repeatedly pressing just the light punch button you can execute a full combo, starting on the ground, launching into the air, and finishing by knocking the target back to the ground. It’s a completely frictionless way to execute a full combo loop for those that just want to enjoy the spectacle of it all and have fun. To balance this, the damage these auto-combos do is considerably less than a manual combo, so a serious player shouldn’t have any trouble against someone doing auto-combos. The system is a simple and intuitive way to get people started. There were some fears that concessions for the casual player could impact the depth of Infinite, but the limitations of auto-combos and the complexities of manual ones creates a gulf between the casual and hardcore. But those that want to make the journey across are given a path to follow.

Capcom has made digging deeper easy thanks to a suite of training mode options that’ll be familiar to anyone who has played a recent fighting game. Infinite features a comprehensive mission mode that will walk players through the basics of movement, attacking, how the Infinity Stones work, and how they can be incorporated into play. On top of that, each character has 10 individual missions that start with basic special moves, but escalate into high-execution combos. At the later stages, these missions can be incredibly tricky, so even veterans are likely to learn a thing or two by completing them.

Capcom’s last major fighting game, Street Fighter V, was criticised for its dearth of content at launch, but this criticism can’t be levelled at Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite. In addition to the training modes, there’s a Vs. mode that lets you go up against another player locally or a computer-controlled opponent. There’s also an Arcade mode that pits players against a series of teams before ending with a final boss, and a suite of online modes including ranked and casual matches, a beginner’s league, and a lobby system.

Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s netcode has shown itself to be reliable in finding matches and, for the most part, those matches are stable in network performance. Matchmaking is speedy, often finding an opponent to battle it out with quickly. And when both players have full connections, it feels as smooth as playing offline. Naturally, with lower connection strengths the experience is more prone to stutter and, on the rare occasion, freeze for a second or two, with some input delay. However, this is at the very low end of the spectrum. Even with middling connections gameplay isn’t noticeably impacted.

One of the smarter touches in its online mode is the Beginner’s League, which pits players ranked 14th or lower against each other. Wins accrue points and once enough are earned, the player graduates out of the league, making it no longer accessible. This is a great way finding footing in the dog eat dog world of online Marvel Vs. Capcom online. The post match options also make it easy to keep the fights rolling, as they let you rematch or find new players immediately without being kicked back into the online section.

The other big draw in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is its Story mode, which follows an all-star cast of characters as they travel across around the amalgamation of universes to collect the Infinity Stones and stop the villainous Ultron Sigma, who is attempting to remake all of existence in his own image. Capcom’s story modes have always been severely lacking, especially next to NetherRealm’s offerings in the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series, but Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s story delivers. It’s a narrative that keeps it simple to allow characterization to shine through, and it does. Spider-Man is a wise-cracking goof, Tony Stark always thinks he knows better, Dante is a charming rogue, Hulk smashes, and Cap motivates. There’s a light, humorous quality to everything and, in its more absurd moments–like when Frank West, a normal human with a camera, is put up against Thanos, the mad Titan–the story takes the opportunity to poke fun at itself.

The battles that take place within the story are also engaging, often asking players to smash through Ultron Sigma’s mechanical robots, which are low in health but great in number. Fights against named characters are much trickier and the game will often layer on an objective, time limit, or have an outside party running interference. A few of the battles even serve as little puzzles, requiring the player to figure out how best to use an Infinity Stone to achieve victory. The Story mode is exactly the kind of fun, action-driven romp you’d want from a crossover of these universes. And there are a few nods for fans of the characters thrown in for good measure.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite is really let down by its presentation. Much has been made of the visuals and, while it looks much better in motion than it does in still images, overall it’s inconsistent and severely lacking in pizazz. While characters like Captain Marvel, Thanos, Jedah, and Gamora look vibrant and detailed, the likes of Dante, Frank West, Ryu, and Spencer aren’t exactly easy on the eyes. The faces of human characters, specifically, are very rough, ranging from vacant-looking to downright ugly in poor old Frank’s case. Infinite swaps out the last game’s comic book style for something a little more realistic, which only serves to make the disparity between character models more pronounced. It’s a shame because the different arenas fights take place in are a very cool mashup of Marvel and Capcom locales. Capcom has put thought into how it can bring the two universes together and been successful. A.I.M has been combined with Umbrella to form A.I.M Brella, Asgard with Abel City from Mega Man to make XGard, and Monster Hunter’s Val Habar and Black Panther’s Wakanda for Valkanda. The games various stages carry its all-star mashup ethos through nicely.

The menus in Infinite also leave a lot to be desired. They’re a very workmanlike implementation of dreary-looking text on plain backgrounds, jarringly transitioning between each other, so moving around the game’s user interface feels dull and lifeless. This might seem like nitpicking at something that, within the larger context of Infinite’s experience, is insignificant, but as a fan, it was a letdown. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 felt like a celebration of the two universes; it’s a game bursting with reverence for source material. Its start screen literally screams the name of the game at you like that kid opening a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning, it plays bouncing beats in the background, its character select is a comic book that you flip through, and everyone makes references to existing relationships or obscure storylines before battle. By comparison, Infinite is bereft of enthusiasm. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is that person at a convention wearing an elaborate Dormammu outfit complete with a flaming head. Infinite is that person wearing a plain t-shirt with the Marvel logo on it.

Nevertheless, the mechanics underlying Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite make it an outstanding fighting game. Capcom has understood what caused the stagnation of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3’s competitive scene and, to some extent, the issues Street Fighter V currently faces. In response it has created a fighting game focused on individuality and expression, with deep systems that reward studious players but also accommodate casuals. As someone who both plays and watches fighting games, I am excited to see what the future holds for Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite.

Editor’s note: Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite’s online component has now been tested and this review has been updated to reflect our assessment.

For more information on GameSpot’s reviews in progress, click here.

Don’t Knock Twice Review

The elevator pitch for Don’t Knock Twice could be applied to dozens of games. You are faced with a door leading to a house in unsettling, chilling neglect, and proceed to explore its spooky, dim-lit hallways to discover a hidden truth about its former inhabitants. However, where the fine details clearly delineate, say, Gone Home from Resident Evil 7, the details of Don’t Knock Twice are almost non-existent.

Surprisingly, Don’t Knock Twice is based on a movie, a low-budget 2016 British horror flick starring Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff. Sakhoff’s Jess is a recovered drug addict whose estranged daughter, Chloe, returns to live with her. This is all complicated by the fact that Chloe has recently disturbed the house of a dead witch, and has brought her tortured soul to Jess’s home. The movie itself isn’t that notable, but gets brownie points for two things: one of the grossest dinner scenes since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and intriguing subtext involving the intersection of parenthood and addiction.

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The game hints to that plot here and there. Jess receives frequent, accusatory, and frightened text messages from Chloe throughout the game, and the occasional random document to read fills in some of the backstory. But Don’t Knock Twice mostly settles for being a low-key adventure with light puzzle-solving. You spend most of your time trying to figure out which objects open various doors around the house, and solving basic riddles–all while an unseen force slams doors behind you, throws books off shelves, writes messages in blood on the walls, and generally makes life annoying while Jess tries to get stuff done.

Admirably, the house is an accurately moody recreation of the film’s sets in virtual space. The soundscape drops thunder and lightning in as punctuation, and random effects like knocking doors, whispers, and screams fill in any empty aural space. But Don’t Knock Twice isn’t an intimidating experience, aside from the occasional well-executed jump scare. The supernatural stuff is cliche: a pentagram in the basement, a child’s ball falling down a set of stairs, an unknown figure in a window upstairs. The entire game breeds a sense of “been there, done that,” and is over in around an hour, well before any tension has a chance to build.

The one element that helps is the game being playable in VR, but even this has tradeoffs. Naturally, VR instantly helps with immersion, but Don’t Knock Twice ties mobility to short-range teleportation: pointing at a spot in the room with a motion controller to avoid walking, and potentially VR sickness. This process is marred by collision detection almost from the beginning, where the mere act of lighting a candle feels like a wrestling match. You can switch to a regular controller, but there, the controls feel needlessly cluttered, with just about everything tied to trigger buttons.

Don’t Knock Twice doesn’t share company with the likes of Layers of Fear so much as it does with the large number of “VR Experiences” flooding digital storefronts: quick and dirty cash-ins that feel more like tech demos than full-fledged games. Don’t Knock Twice is more solidly constructed than some, but it’s largely unambitious and forgettable. It seems content to be a ground-level thriller at a time and on a platform with plenty of hungry competition.

Destiny 2 Review

Destiny 2 is a lot more Destiny. The structure is largely the same, as is the mechanically excellent shooting and satisfying loot grind. But there are a variety of changes both under the hood and throughout your activities that make it a significant improvement over the original and a better experience for more than just the most hardcore players.

From the onset, there’s an overwhelming amount of stuff to do. The Red War story funnels you through the four areas you can explore, introducing you to each one as you go. At each destination, there’s a bunch of optional activities to choose from, including story-like Adventure missions, simple loot dungeons called Lost Sectors that lead to hidden areas of the map, and public events and patrols, which return from Destiny 1. Then, as you progress through the story, you’ll unlock the strike playlist and PvP in the Crucible. For a newcomer to Destiny, it can be hard to decide what to do and when.

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The Red War story missions are less about plot and more about acclimating you to everything there is to see. You’ll level up at a pretty steady pace, but there are two level-gated missions that essentially force you to complete Adventures and other activities for XP before you can move on. There’s no actual reason for the missions to have level requirements, which can be annoying, but having direction is welcome after Destiny 1’s lack thereof. And aside from netting you XP and loot, the semi-hidden Lost Sectors reward exploration while Adventures are filled with lore and interesting details about the world that fall outside of the scope of the main story. Plus, if you’re burnt out on standard PvE, you can switch to PvP to level up, which requires different gear and skills.

The story is enough to serve its main purpose, which is to contextualize the shooting and looting you’re doing through it all. Its villain is a derivative conqueror figure with a hunger for power and destruction, and the save-the-world plot is tired. But you don’t need to know much to get going except that humanity is in danger, and you of all people have the power to help. The story’s strengths lie in atmosphere and side details, like the endearing craziness of the deranged AI Failsafe or the mysteries of the Vex machine race, and that should be fine for the majority of players who see the story as something to rush through in order to reach the high-level “endgame.” The mournful soundtrack in particular is fantastic, and it carried me through the most basic story beats, even on repeat playthroughs.

Like Destiny 1, there’s a lot of grinding to be done between finishing the story and moving onto the high-level endgame activities like the Nightfall strike and the Raid. And again like in Destiny 1, the shoot-and-loot feedback loop feels fantastic. The gunplay is still excellent, and being rewarded for your efforts with an even better gun is something worth celebrating. The biggest change is how much quicker it is to increase your Light level–now called Power–with minimal grinding early on. The combat isn’t any easier because of it, though, so it simply takes away the Destiny 1-era frustration of running the same few strikes a dozen times before you can move on to literally anything else. Plus, knowing you might get a slightly more fashionable pair of gauntlets from a five-minute public event gives you the kind of instant gratification that will sustain you through to the endgame.

There’s a decent variety of weapons and gear to find, mostly in random drops. And once you know what gear is desirable, it becomes a fun metagame to hope you’ll find it. A favorite around the GameSpot office has been the exotic auto rifle Sweet Business, and though no one has been using it, we had a lot of fun embarking on the quest to get Rat King. You might get lucky and get what you want right away, but for most people, finding a combination of great weapons for both PvE and PvP and gear with abilities that complement them takes some time. As far as customization goes, the Eververse and its microtransactions return, though leveling up after the official level cap grants you the new Bright Engrams that can be redeemed for consumable shaders, emotes, and more (for free). The change to shaders wasn’t popular among fans at first, but making them consumable allows for a greater range of customization on different pieces of armor as well as weapons.

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Some activities and areas are more cleanly or interestingly designed than others, and after a handful of hours, you’ll start to identify the ones you love to play again and again and the ones you aren’t as fond of. At least two of the Crucible maps are circular in design and essentially funnel you to your death if you aren’t paying attention, which can get pretty boring; some areas require a fair amount of platforming, which can vary from tolerable to tedious depending on your class. But others are laid out in all the right ways to be memorable and fun to replay, like the Arms Dealer strike that keeps you running from room to room and preserving your heavy ammo for a series of tanks.

Though there’s plenty you can do on your own, Destiny 2 is undeniably better as a shared experience. That can come on many different levels; you can work silently with complete strangers to trigger a heroic public event that gets you all better loot, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, you can coordinate with five friends for hours on end to tackle the Raid. You can also join a Clan, which can grant you a number of passive benefits, like legendary gear, as long as someone in your Clan is meeting certain milestones. On top of that, Destiny 2 also introduces Guided Games, where solo players can search for groups who are short one person and willing to help them through difficult endgame activities like the Nightfall or Raid.

Success through strong teamwork is absolutely the best part of Destiny 2.

Success through strong teamwork is absolutely the best part of Destiny, and the top-to-bottom tweaks and additions in Destiny 2 make it more accessible without dampening your sense of accomplishment. Meeting the level requirement for the Nightfall or Raid and actually completing it are two very different things, and getting in sync with your Fireteam and flawlessly executing a strategy takes a lot of work. The first two Nightfall strikes, for example, both introduced a modifier to the original strike that forces you and your team to coordinate loadouts and stay in constant communication about which weapons and subclasses you’re using. You have to figure that out while also shooting waves of enemies and trying not to die. You’ll most likely fail, but each failure helps you perfect your strategy incrementally, and the process of collectively achieving that goal is immensely satisfying.

At the highest level, the vast and visually striking Raid combines the need for top-tier weapons and gear, picking the correct subclass and loadout based on what your team needs, strong combat skills, and problem-solving as a group. Destiny 2’s first Raid, Leviathan, is very, very difficult, and solving its often obscure puzzles can be both rewarding and frustrating. For the most part, each failure teaches you something new, and the GameSpot Raid team actually cheered when we came up with a solid strategy after going in blind. But there was one section in the middle that we struggled to complete even after we figured out what to do conceptually. Of course, this was after about five straight hours of raiding, so fatigue was definitely a factor–but it didn’t blend the puzzle-solving part with actual execution as well as the previous sections of the Raid.

In true Destiny fashion, if you do something once, you’ll probably end up doing it many more times. The difference with Destiny 2 is in the variety and accessibility of what’s available, which cuts down on a lot of the frustration associated with grinding. And even after you’ve leveled up, there’s still more you can do, from keeping up with daily and weekly challenges to just hanging out with friends. It’s a much stronger foundation than the original had and one that’s enough on its own to keep people coming back week after week.

PES 2018 Review

Developing a series for a yearly release must be a tricky business. In the space of just a few months, you need to make everything look nicer and produce meaningful gameplay strides (and even think of some new buzzwords to put on the back of the box). With PES 2018, Konami’s annual soccer game looks and sounds a little too similar to last year’s edition–the presentation is flat and its lack of licenses is an ongoing problem–but some excellent on-pitch tweaks are enough to make PES 2018 the most satisfying football game ever made.

The most noticeable change is a distinct reduction in the game’s speed. That applies to both the ball and player movement, meaning matches have an altogether more methodical pace to them. Players sprint and turn more slowly, and therefore do so far more realistically. Crucially, however, everything feels just as responsive as before.

Combined with a number of new animations, the slower pace lends each kick a greater sense of weight. It also means, when you lose the ball, it usually takes longer to get it back, which can frustrate–especially when defending has not improved meaningfully in a couple of years now. Individual tackles can feel clunky, and opposition strikers are given too much space by their markers when receiving the ball to feet–Mourinho would be having none of it.

Despite PES shifting down a gear, however, its mechanics still allow you to pull off some spectacular maneuvers. Passes feel more satisfying than ever, rising and curling and dipping oh so beautifully. They’re aided by better positioning of wide men, allowing more opportunities to pick out players with pinpoint cross-field balls–too often in PES 2017 I would try a million-dollar pass to a winger that would inevitably get cut out by the full back. Now, rather than being a delightful shortcut to losing possession, these Hollywood balls are a legitimate tactic. Ground passes are now executed with greater variety, meanwhile: your players will contextually change from spraying the ball with the outside of the boot to curling with the inside to punting with the toe to tapping to flicking to threading.

Passing’s versatility allows you to produce some beautiful football: play with Barcelona and you can actually play like Barcelona–but it also means you can lump it to the big man up top or play it wide and get crosses in if a particular match or situation demands it. Changes to your attacking intent level, for example, affect how deep your team sit more than ever–set it to maximum and your biggest defender will act as an emergency striker. This then allows you to play direct if you’re losing in the final stages of an important match.

This is especially helpful from set pieces, which have been reworked to allow you to pick different tactics depending on the situation. You can now choose to send your center backs forward for long free kicks, for example, and hope for a knock down. Or, from corner kicks, you can ask for two players to come short or for your entire team to line up on the edge of the box before making a late dash to the back post. Direct free kicks have been improved, too, and they now feel more intuitive and more fluid–and I’m finally able to score from them.

Players also shield the ball and stumble past opponents more realistically, not only helping you hold on to the ball but also making them feel more like players, not just dots on a screen. This makes it all the more disappointing, then, that goalkeepers still act like robots: their static animations and inconsistent saves might be a little better than last year, but they still shatter the illusion that you’re controlling a real-life team and serve as a reminder that you’re playing a video game.

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However, that’s a minor sticking point compared to the licenses–or lack thereof. Of the world’s major leagues, only the French and Italian leagues are licensed in PES, with the Premier League, EFL, and the Spanish leagues only included in make-believe form. As is traditional with Pro Evo, teams are replicated with fake kits and pretend team names like Man Blue (Manchester City), London FC (Chelsea), and MD White (Real Madrid), while the German league is not present in any form. Worse, the kits are often wildly different to the real-life versions they’re meant to be imitating. The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you’re actually controlling Man Red–playing in black. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy, with the help of the community and a USB stick, to mod in authentic kits on PS4 and PC–and this can help mitigate many of PES’s gripes as it appears when you insert the disc for the first time. Xbox One users, however, are stuck with the likes of West Glamorgan City and Merseyside Blue for good.

The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you’re actually controlling Man Red.

The lack of attention paid to how kits look is reflected in the game’s presentation as a whole. While PES’s main rival, FIFA, replicates the experience of watching soccer on TV pretty closely, Pro Evo 2018 looks somewhat flat by comparison. Player models look largely fine (and some obscure players have surprisingly accurate faces), but crowds appear like cardboard cut-outs and sound almost as fake as they look–cheers when you score and moans when you miss sound muted, while chants are just a cacophony of noise with no discernible tunes or words. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin’s awful, stilted, disjointed commentary returns, with a cliche-ridden dialogue library that contains few new lines and zero extra excitement. These complaints are not new to PES 2018 of course, but as EA continues to make strides in these areas with FIFA, PES’s continued poor sights and sounds are put in starker contrast with every passing year.

The same is, to an extent, true of PES’s online offering. MyClub is Konami’s answer to FIFA Ultimate Team, and this year its big new feature is 3v3 co-op online play, a mode in which you sacrifice most of the control in return for some laughs with your friends. You and your teammates each contribute a few players to a combined squad, which the three of you then control in the match, sharing the rewards at the end. However, far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby, meaning rather than simply giving me full control or searching again, I was dumped into the worst-of-both-worlds option of controlling one third of an otherwise AI-controlled team. It’s not quite the fun addition it should be, especially when I was occasionally subject to some egregious input lag when playing online.

Far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby.

The offline, single-player-focused Master League, meanwhile, makes strides in some areas while remaining infuriating in others. The new menu layout is a welcome change that makes the mode easier to navigate, but Master League as a whole still contains a number of glaring oddities that need to be addressed next year. Youth teams are still littered with unknown players whose names were seemingly assembled by a monkey on a typewriter (those well-known Liverpool prodigies Fighejlani and Tzarqamilov are my favorites); wage budgets and salaries are still displayed in yearly terms rather than weekly; and transfer budgets are still criminally low–while PSG were out spending £150m / $200m on Mbappe and £200m / $270m on Neymar in real life this summer, I was restricted to just £50m / $67m in total with them in PES 2018. Thankfully, a couple of neat touches such as customizable training regimes and release clauses in players’ contracts do add some depth, and the new Challenge Mode keeps things interesting with unexpected scenarios like players wanting to leave.

Thankfully, I think I have a new favorite way to play PES. Random Selection Mode returns from Pro Evo 6, and if–like me–you can’t remember all the way back to 2006, it shakes things up wonderfully. You and a friend (who has to be in the same room, as the mode is local only) are each handed a squad of random players from a selection of leagues or countries you choose, so you might end up with a weird hybrid team of players from across the world of varying standards. What follows is a psychological battle of attempting to steal your opponent’s star players while protecting your own. Up to three trade rounds allow you and your friend to pick a player from the other person’s team who you want to pinch. You then pick a player from your own squad who you want to protect, and one you want to get rid of. Crucially, at no point until after all three are chosen do either of you know who the other person has picked, leading to a tense moment at the end of the round where it’s revealed if you’ve successfully robbed that 92-rated striker your lucky friend got dealt. Manage to steal their top player and the bragging rights are all yours–at least until they manage to win the following match against the odds, that is.

It’s a small addition that some people may never even see, let alone try, but it’s the best silly party mode I’ve seen in a soccer game since FIFA 12 unceremoniously ditched Lounge Mode. Along with (slightly) improved player stamina and (also slightly) improved goalkeeper animations, it’s one of a few unglamourous but nonetheless important changes Konami has made this year. Another of these, a simple gray marker that shows which player you’ll switch to next when you press L1 / LB, is a tiny masterstroke, and one that seems so obvious I’m now kind of annoyed I didn’t think of it sooner myself.

When you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018.

PES 2018, then, is the proverbial game of two halves. Off the field, it’s sorely lacking; online modes and server issues leave much to be desired, and the game’s presentation as a whole is lagging behind the competition–even if the PES community produces some sterling work in recreating the unlicensed kits every year.

And yet, when you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018. The slower pace is a definite improvement, helping tread the line between realism and fun near-perfectly. There’s just something about the players’ movement and the kinds of arcs the ball makes in the air that’s just so pleasant to control–every pass, header, and shot just feels right. And when it clicks, and you score a thunderous strike from the edge of the area or finish off a slick passing move or even when you launch an ugly long ball forward to grab a last-gasp winner, it’s the closest feeling you’ll get to being out there scoring yourself.

PES 2018 Review

Developing a series for a yearly release must be a tricky business. In the space of just a few months, you need to make everything look nicer and produce meaningful gameplay strides (and even think of some new buzzwords to put on the back of the box). With PES 2018, Konami’s annual soccer game looks and sounds a little too similar to last year’s edition–the presentation is flat and its lack of licenses is an ongoing problem–but some excellent on-pitch tweaks are enough to make PES 2018 the most satisfying football game ever made.

The most noticeable change is a distinct reduction in the game’s speed. That applies to both the ball and player movement, meaning matches have an altogether more methodical pace to them. Players sprint and turn more slowly, and therefore do so far more realistically. Crucially, however, everything feels just as responsive as before.

Combined with a number of new animations, the slower pace lends each kick a greater sense of weight. It also means, when you lose the ball, it usually takes longer to get it back, which can frustrate–especially when defending has not improved meaningfully in a couple of years now. Individual tackles can feel clunky, and opposition strikers are given too much space by their markers when receiving the ball to feet–Mourinho would be having none of it.

Despite PES shifting down a gear, however, its mechanics still allow you to pull off some spectacular maneuvers. Passes feel more satisfying than ever, rising and curling and dipping oh so beautifully. They’re aided by better positioning of wide men, allowing more opportunities to pick out players with pinpoint cross-field balls–too often in PES 2017 I would try a million-dollar pass to a winger that would inevitably get cut out by the full back. Now, rather than being a delightful shortcut to losing possession, these Hollywood balls are a legitimate tactic. Ground passes are now executed with greater variety, meanwhile: your players will contextually change from spraying the ball with the outside of the boot to curling with the inside to punting with the toe to tapping to flicking to threading.

Passing’s versatility allows you to produce some beautiful football: play with Barcelona and you can actually play like Barcelona–but it also means you can lump it to the big man up top or play it wide and get crosses in if a particular match or situation demands it. Changes to your attacking intent level, for example, affect how deep your team sit more than ever–set it to maximum and your biggest defender will act as an emergency striker. This then allows you to play direct if you’re losing in the final stages of an important match.

This is especially helpful from set pieces, which have been reworked to allow you to pick different tactics depending on the situation. You can now choose to send your center backs forward for long free kicks, for example, and hope for a knock down. Or, from corner kicks, you can ask for two players to come short or for your entire team to line up on the edge of the box before making a late dash to the back post. Direct free kicks have been improved, too, and they now feel more intuitive and more fluid–and I’m finally able to score from them.

Players also shield the ball and stumble past opponents more realistically, not only helping you hold on to the ball but also making them feel more like players, not just dots on a screen. This makes it all the more disappointing, then, that goalkeepers still act like robots: their static animations and inconsistent saves might be a little better than last year, but they still shatter the illusion that you’re controlling a real-life team and serve as a reminder that you’re playing a video game.

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However, that’s a minor sticking point compared to the licenses–or lack thereof. Of the world’s major leagues, only the French and Italian leagues are licensed in PES, with the Premier League, EFL, and the Spanish leagues only included in make-believe form. As is traditional with Pro Evo, teams are replicated with fake kits and pretend team names like Man Blue (Manchester City), London FC (Chelsea), and MD White (Real Madrid), while the German league is not present in any form. Worse, the kits are often wildly different to the real-life versions they’re meant to be imitating. The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you’re actually controlling Man Red–playing in black. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy, with the help of the community and a USB stick, to mod in authentic kits on PS4 and PC–and this can help mitigate many of PES’s gripes as it appears when you insert the disc for the first time. Xbox One users, however, are stuck with the likes of West Glamorgan City and Merseyside Blue for good.

The Champions League is licensed, but the magic of reaching it with your favorite team is killed if, rather than playing as Manchester United, you’re actually controlling Man Red.

The lack of attention paid to how kits look is reflected in the game’s presentation as a whole. While PES’s main rival, FIFA, replicates the experience of watching soccer on TV pretty closely, Pro Evo 2018 looks somewhat flat by comparison. Player models look largely fine (and some obscure players have surprisingly accurate faces), but crowds appear like cardboard cut-outs and sound almost as fake as they look–cheers when you score and moans when you miss sound muted, while chants are just a cacophony of noise with no discernible tunes or words. Peter Drury and Jim Beglin’s awful, stilted, disjointed commentary returns, with a cliche-ridden dialogue library that contains few new lines and zero extra excitement. (On more than one occasion I was hit with a bug that removed all the commentary, and let’s just say I’ve had worse glitches.) These complaints are not new to PES 2018 of course, but as EA continues to make strides in these areas with FIFA, PES’s continued poor sights and sounds are put in starker contrast with every passing year.

The same is, to an extent, true of PES’s online offering. MyClub is Konami’s answer to FIFA Ultimate Team, and this year its big new feature is 3v3 co-op online play, a mode in which you sacrifice most of the control in return for some laughs with your friends. You and your teammates each contribute a few players to a combined squad, which the three of you then control in the match, sharing the rewards at the end. However, far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby, meaning rather than simply giving me full control or searching again, I was dumped into the worst-of-both-worlds option of controlling one third of an otherwise AI-controlled team. It’s not quite the fun addition it should be, especially when I was occasionally subject to some egregious input lag when playing online.

Far too often PES is unable to connect enough human players to the lobby.

The offline, single-player-focused Master League, meanwhile, makes strides in some areas while remaining infuriating in others. The new menu layout is a welcome change that makes the mode easier to navigate, but Master League as a whole still contains a number of glaring oddities that need to be addressed next year. Youth teams are still littered with unknown players whose names were seemingly assembled by a monkey on a typewriter (those well-known Liverpool prodigies Fighejlani and Tzarqamilov are my favorites); wage budgets and salaries are still displayed in yearly terms rather than weekly; and transfer budgets are still criminally low–while PSG were out spending £150m / $200m on Mbappe and £200m / $270m on Neymar in real life this summer, I was restricted to just £50m / $67m in total with them in PES 2018. Thankfully, a couple of neat touches such as customizable training regimes and release clauses in players’ contracts do add some depth, and the new Challenge Mode keeps things interesting with unexpected scenarios like players wanting to leave.

Thankfully, I think I have a new favorite way to play PES. Random Selection Mode returns from Pro Evo 6, and if–like me–you can’t remember all the way back to 2006, it shakes things up wonderfully. You and a friend (who has to be in the same room, as the mode is local only) are each handed a squad of random players from a selection of leagues or countries you choose, so you might end up with a weird hybrid team of players from across the world of varying standards. What follows is a psychological battle of attempting to steal your opponent’s star players while protecting your own. Up to three trade rounds allow you and your friend to pick a player from the other person’s team who you want to pinch. You then pick a player from your own squad who you want to protect, and one you want to get rid of. Crucially, at no point until after all three are chosen do either of you know who the other person has picked, leading to a tense moment at the end of the round where it’s revealed if you’ve successfully robbed that 92-rated striker your lucky friend got dealt. Manage to steal their top player and the bragging rights are all yours–at least until they manage to win the following match against the odds, that is.

It’s a small addition that some people may never even see, let alone try, but it’s the best silly party mode I’ve seen in a soccer game since FIFA 12 unceremoniously ditched Lounge Mode. Along with (slightly) improved player stamina and (also slightly) improved goalkeeper animations, it’s one of a few unglamourous but nonetheless important changes Konami has made this year. Another of these, a simple gray marker that shows which player you’ll switch to next when you press L1 / LB, is a tiny masterstroke, and one that seems so obvious I’m now kind of annoyed I didn’t think of it sooner myself.

When you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018.

PES 2018, then, is the proverbial game of two halves. Off the field, it’s sorely lacking; online modes and server issues leave much to be desired, and the game’s presentation as a whole is lagging behind the competition–even if the PES community produces some sterling work in recreating the unlicensed kits every year.

And yet, when you get onto the pitch, no other football game feels as good as PES 2018. The slower pace is a definite improvement, helping tread the line between realism and fun near-perfectly. There’s just something about the players’ movement and the kinds of arcs the ball makes in the air that’s just so pleasant to control–every pass, header, and shot just feels right. And when it clicks, and you score a thunderous strike from the edge of the area or finish off a slick passing move or even when you launch an ugly long ball forward to grab a last-gasp winner, it’s the closest feeling you’ll get to being out there scoring yourself.

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa Of Dana Review

The long-running Ys series of action-RPGs grew to fame thanks to engrossing cinematic storytelling and fantastic music. Almost thirty years after it debuted, Ys continues to thrive thanks to the series’ willingness to dramatically evolve its gameplay while still delivering engaging drama and fascinating worlds. Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is the newest–and biggest–entry in the series yet, and it delivers an immensely fun and memorable experience.

Ys VIII begins with longtime hero Adol and his friend Dogi on a huge passenger ship when, out of nowhere, the vessel is attacked by a gargantuan sea monster and destroyed. Adol wakes up to find himself on the mythical island of Seiren, a supposedly cursed land from which no person has ever returned. He soon bands together with a few other survivors of the wreck, and decides to help them explore the island to rescue other passengers and build a makeshift community while figuring out a means to escape. All the while, however, the ancient beasts that live on the island are not pleased with the human intrusion, and a deeper secret behind the island’s curse lies waiting to be uncovered.

Finding survivors and building a village on a deserted island is a pretty unique concept for an action-RPG, and the story does a good job of driving you to explore the island to seek out others. The eclectic cast of characters who come to live in the island village make for an interesting mix of talents and personalities, and it’s very satisfying to watch the capabilities of your island base grow as more people join and you help them out through questing. Ys VIII conveys camaraderie through hardship, making you feel happy when the village accomplishes a new milestone, sad when tragedy strikes, and fearful when a new threat emerges.

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But even if you weren’t out rescuing other shipwreck survivors, you’d likely still feel compelled to explore the beautiful landscapes of Seiren Island. Ys VIII is a gorgeous game, filled with immensely colorful landscapes, dangerous yet captivating dungeons, and plenty of unique scenery to discover. Serene ocean vistas, fascinating geological formations, immense rainbow-casting waterfalls, and mysterious plant life are among the many scenic spots you’ll encounter in your travels. You even have the option to explore some areas at either daytime or nighttime, and the latter casts some familiar locales in an entirely new light. It’s easy to get caught up in a spirit of wanderlust and meander into areas that aren’t essential to the current story, but you want to explore just because you can. The kickin’, energy-infused progressive-rock soundtrack–an Ys series staple–helps a lot in driving you to explore further as well.

Of course, exploring the dangerous parts of Seiren wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if the core action-RPG gameplay wasn’t up to snuff. But Ys VIII delivers wonderfully in this aspect, giving players fast-paced, easy-to-learn combat with a surprising amount of depth. Chaining together basic strikes and special attacks while using your teammates’ weapons to exploit enemy weaknesses quickly becomes second nature. As you become more comfortable with fighting, you’ll learn to utilize skills like the Flash Move and Flash Guard: special dodges and blocks executed with precise timing that give you a huge advantage over the enemy. These skills come in especially handy during the game’s boss encounters, which have you battling against some truly strange and unusual island creatures. The smooth flow of fighting and ease of play makes the combat one of Ys VIII’s high points. Perhaps the only knock against the battle system is that the default controls are a little odd–but, thankfully, the combat controls are completely remappable to your liking.

From action to exploration, Ys VIII has a lot going for it–which, unfortunately, makes the times when it stumbles more obvious. The pacing is inconsistent, sometimes interrupting exploration for long stretches of plot development–and, occasionally, swapping the protagonist of the game entirely for extended stretches of story. The game also has an annoying tendency to deliver “interception” missions while you’re knee-deep in dungeon crawling, asking you to go back to town and play an annoying tower-defense style minigame where you guard the village against waves of monsters. While most interception missions are optional, you’ll feel compelled to do them anyway; they yield very useful rewards and raise the approval of Adol among the commune’s residents, which becomes key in the endgame.

The English localization also leaves a lot to be desired. While it’s certainly not the worst translation I’ve ever seen, it feels like a tremendous missed opportunity. Dialogue is often dry and uninteresting, or awkwardly stilted, robbing characters and story moments of some of their impact. With such a ragtag bunch of interesting castaways on display, it feels like these characters should have a lot more personality in their speech. Ys VIII’s localization also makes some very odd choices with terminology and phrasing, leading to strange moments like a companion shouting “somebody’s here!” in areas where the only things around are trees, rocks, and bloodthirsty monsters.

But even when it falters, it’s hard to hate Ys VIII for long. The feel of fighting your way through a big, beautiful island of untamed wilderness to save a group of people brought together by circumstance while uncovering an ancient mystery is an absolute delight, and will compel you to keep exploring for hours on end. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the exploits of Adol Christin, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in the exotic world of Ys VIII.