Dead Rising 3 Review

Welcome to the beautiful city of Los Perdidos! Now strip down to your underpants and smack some zombies in the face with a traffic cone.

Survival may not be always be pretty in Dead Rising 3, but it’s fun to roam around in this LA-inspired setting for Capcom’s latest take on a zombie apocalypse. You’ll be able to hop in a car and traverse from one end of this city to the other in about five minutes, but the thrill is in the journey rather than the destination. And if you happen to be making the trek on a RollerHawg, a combination of a steamroller and motorcycle, that journey will cheerily mulch a couple of hundred zombies into paste.

The original Dead Rising took place in a shopping mall and contrasted its zombie outbreak with the everyday sights of clothes shops, food courts, and pharmacies. Its sequel ratcheted its lens of consumerism up to Fortune City, its gaudy casino complex freshly built upon the smouldering wreckage of Las Vegas. Dead Rising 3 now takes aim at an entire city, but the themes are the same as before, even though its colour palette is certainly duller. Everything in Los Perdidos is a shop, and you are here to consume.

One of my only Dead Rising 3 screenshots where Nick Ramos looks normal.

Dead Rising 3 takes to the the west coast in an environment large enough to need splitting across the districts of Ingleton, Sunset Hills, South Almuda, and Central City. But Los Perdidos is built to be a playground rather than a world, and its shop windows are tantalisingly stuffed with countless opportunities to bludgeon, slice, and splatter the undead hordes roaming the streets in their thousands. Few games offer such breadth in their potential weaponry or number of potential targets, and dismembering the undead with hub caps, pogo sticks, and coat hangers still feels both novel and hugely entertaining.

The outlandish outfits and versatile weapons clash with Dead Rising 3’s ceaselessly dangerous environment, with more and more undead pumped into the streets of Los Perdidos as the game’s five-day narrative progresses.

It’s all well and good attempting to take out a zombie with a handbag while wearing a summery dress and medieval helmet, but at Dead Rising 3’s core the game takes the idea of combo weapons, introduced in its predecessor, and runs amok. New hero Nick Ramos is no longer constrained to stitching together his weapons of mass distraction at a wayward workbench, with the recipes for these 100-odd combinations found in blueprints scattered around the city.

This is the first of Dead Rising 3’s many efforts to smooth some of the series’ harsh edges, and is ultimately a positive change that further highlights Dead Rising 3’s huge focus on crafting, giving players the freedom to build new weapons as soon as they become available. The game justifies this contextually by making Nick a mechanic, one who is ultimately looking to escape the Los Perdidos by cobbling together a plane, but his character arc and mysterious tattoo are largely ignored until the latter chapters of the game, with Capcom instead focusing on the arsenal and body count.

Hammer + Battery = Mjölnir

The opportunities for raucous carnage are immense, though many of the combo weapons return from Dead Rising 2, and there’s a giddy pleasure obtained from running around in a comedy costume (vintage tennis get-up, anyone?) and playing around with your new toys. Grab the corresponding blueprint and then mix some chemicals with a lead pipe to get the Pukes O’ Hazard, a vomit-inducing club. The chest beam, made by combining microwave and a motorcycle engine, shoots out thick, meaty blasts of energy that can atomise a nearby crowd, and Street Fighter fans will eagerly unite an engine with some boxing gloves and shoryuken into the nearest zombie with the rocket gloves. Or, if you fancy introducing an element of randomised chaos, there’s always the sentry cat.

New to Dead Rising 3 are super combo weapons, themselves made from taping together two or more constructed weapons. The results are usually devastating. The Fire Reaper, for instance, first requires you to make a Grim Reaper (scythe and katana, very good at clearing at groups) and then further combine that with a gasoline tank. Vehicles, now central to navigating the bridges and tunnels which connect Los Perdidos’ districts, can also be fused together. These homebrew constructions, such as the forklift-meets-fireworks display Forkwork, are able to withstand and deal more damage, and quickly prove to be as invaluable as a good electric crusher, defiler, boomer axe, or freedom bear.

The outlandish outfits and versatile weapons clash with Dead Rising 3’s ceaselessly dangerous environment, with more and more undead pumped into the streets of Los Perdidos as the game’s five-day narrative progresses. Nick’s swings are sluggish and imprecise, his movement heavy, and his mix of light and heavy attacks is designed for hacking away at a pack of enemies rather than individuals, which is fine until you need to take on a straggler or boss. Fighting is more about crowd control than outright aggression, and evasion is usually the best option despite having an inventory stuffed with kooky items.

He really doesn’t want you disturbing the garden.

Weapons and vehicles degrade and eventually break, and the game is all too happy to dish out a fatal punishment to players who venture unprepared into the middle of a horde. Zombies line every corner, constantly swarm out of vents, and Dead Rising 3 is also very much the kind of game where the walking dead will also quite happily fall from the skies, or at least off the top of a nearby building.

I can still remember the route to Colombian Roastmasters in the first Dead Rising, and jumping off the edge of the coffee shop to land on the balcony with the katana. I couldn’t tell you much at all about Los Perdidos.

While everything in Dead Rising ticks along to its own in-game clock, the game layers together its plot-advancing story missions with dozens of other tasks in which you have to save survivors scattered around Los Perdidos, or dispatch its seven psychotic humans, each based loosely around the seven sins. These include a crazed physician, someone aggressively tending to a Japanese garden, and a man so lazy he’d rather attempt to kill you with automated drones than lift a finger.

Survivors, meanwhile, set Nick another task that needs to be accomplished, which usually involves either fetching something, such as a pack of scattered tarot cards, or ferrying someone to a destination. One surprisingly affecting mission has you guide an elderly woman around the city while she tells of her bygone years, offering a rare glimpse of life in a dead city. The game also randomly encourages you to smash through swathes of zombies in order to clear paths for stranded survivors. While many of these missions lack the eccentricity and charm of previous games–there’s nothing in Dead Rising 3 quite like carrying a hungover showgirl who was sleeping off a zombie outbreak–the main incentive behind these acts of benevolence remains the same: rack up huge amounts of Prestige Points, which levels up Nick and expands his abilities and moveset.

The classic tale of boy meets girl, now with added zombies.

Some survivors eventually join your party, where they can be armed with the game’s less flamboyant weapons to fight alongside you, or can be led back to one of the game’s safe areas and stored for later deployment. Keeping survivors alive was a key part of the first two games, as leading them to safety was how objectives were completed, but Dead Rising 3 considers it more of an optional afterthought. Safe rooms, scattered around each of Los Perdidos’ four districts, also contains recharging lockers that can spawn in any item or combo weapon you’ve previously used. This is a game far more focused on having you slaughtering the undead than continually scavenging for items, though it’s not always a change for the better. Dead Rising 3’s accessibility makes it easier to rack up the kills, but infinitely spawning weaponry ultimately robs the game of the deeper connection I forged with Willamette mall or Fortune City. I can still remember the route to Colombian Roastmasters in the first Dead Rising, and jumping off the edge of the coffee shop to land on the balcony with the katana. I couldn’t tell you much at all about Los Perdidos.

Dead Rising 3 also siphons off the series’ time restraints and limited saving opportunities into its Nightmare mode, which is optionally playable from the start. The game’s Normal mode provides ample time to accomplish everything and allows you to save everywhere, making the game far more accessible in the process. While the series’ use of time limits and save points has always been one of its most divisive qualities, Capcom’s efforts to cater to those who both like and loathe the restrictions will help the game appeal to a wider group of players. Personally I find that Normal mode also robs the game some of its brutal edge, neutering the rising tension and pressure from overcoming its adversities that proved so satisfying when accomplished.

Ultimately this is a tongue-in-cheek game that has enough heart to be endearing.

While Dead Rising 3’s shift in aesthetic and accessibility initially suggest a series looking to reinvent itself, the game quickly picks up from where Dead Rising 2: Case West finished off. By the end of Dead Rising 3 you’ll have been reintroduced to many characters and unanswered narrative threads from previous games. The series’ juvenility also survives the transition, and this is a scruffy game that lacks finesse in both its technical execution and overall direction, with the wayward tone of cutscenes and dialogue often combining with unimaginative mission design, and the tedium of another boring escort mission clashes dramatically with the variety on show in the weapon crafting. Some of the more boisterous dialogue and lingering shots on the female characters also feel awkward and unwanted, but ultimately this is a tongue-in-cheek game that has enough heart to be endearing.

It’s also impossible to avoid the game’s performance issues. Dead Rising 3’s frame rate is extremely choppy, the pop-in eminently noticeable, and I encountered many other occasional bugs such as game audio cutting out, survivors getting stuck on scenery, and one enemy whose mohawk kept popping in and out of existence. Dead Rising 3’s ability to fill its streets with hundreds of zombies at once is certainly impressive, but the game is a poor choice if you’re looking to show off the graphical power of a brand new Xbox One. Still, you’ll probably forget about all that the first time you jump and attack at the same time with a bladed weapon, slicing a zombie vertically in half, and then run around gleefully repeating the move for the next five minutes.

Dead Rising 3 also finds itself saddled with a suite of perfunctory Kinect features. Grabbed by a zombie? Shake the pad to free yourself. In a battle with a boss? Use voice commands to say things like “that’s kinky” or “you’re crazy” to distract them. Need to attract the attention of a zombie, despite it going completely against the grain of the game’s mechanics? Shout at them! The most encouraging thing I can say about these features is that they work. Far more successful is the game’s addition of co-op play, allowing a second player to seamlessly drop into the game and take the role of Nick’s acquaintance Dick. With many of the game’s vehicles working best when a second player is manning the weaponry, hoofing it around Los Perdidos as a duo can be a blast.

Despite a wonky presentation and obvious technical hiccups, Capcom has successfully made Dead Rising 3 a more welcoming experience than its harsh predecessors. It can be an inconsistent experience, but I choose to ignore the game’s peculiarities and play Dead Rising 3 in the spirit that I believe it’s intended: running around in shark outfit shooting zombies with deadly dildos fired from a leaf blower.

Crimson Dragon Review

Crimson Dragon is an on-rails shooter that revives the cherished Panzer Dragoon series under a new name, fitted with light RPG elements and a dash of asynchronous co-op. Unfortunately, these added systems don’t make a meaningful impact on the game at large, and the genre’s focused action is perverted by wildly concocted paths that send you and the camera into a tizzy. This, coupled with unusually aggressive enemies, makes Crimson Dragon a frustrating experience. There are rare, fleeting moments of greatness near the end of the campaign, but you have to fight the urge to put the controller down if you hope to catch a glimpse of them.

Plot is not Crimson Dragon’s strong suit either, but it suffices in so much as it provides an explanation for your ability and need to command dragons. Not long after the colonization of the planet Draco, the inception of the Crimsonscale virus wreaked havoc on the human population and enraged the indigenous wildlife. Some people, dubbed the Seekers, were immune to the Virus. As one of the lucky few, it’s your job to fight back against the rising tide, and investigate the cause of the Crimsonscale outbreak.

“Bogey on your tail!”

All levels consist of phases that last from one to five minutes apiece. You ride on the back of dragons, fighting swarms of enemies, collecting items, and occasionally facing a boss or a strong group of variations on common enemies. For each phase that you complete, you’re rewarded based on your performance with credits or items. Credits can be used for many purposes: acquiring new dragons, hiring AI-driven wingmen, undertaking missions, and purchasing extra-life-like revival jewels. Regardless of how many enemies you shoot down or items you collect, the most important thing is that you survive.

You can attempt to better your chances by recruiting other players’ dragons from the game’s leaderboard, but these wingmen never make much of an impact. Granted, this fluctuates slightly based on the availability of high-level dragons and your ability to afford their contract, but the difference between low- and high-level wingmen is hard to recognize in practice. Regardless of who’s watching your back, you’re still the primary target. The most any wingman ever brings to the table is a powerful but limited-use attack that hits every enemy and recharges your health. It’s helpful, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been a function of your dragon to begin with. At best, wingmen provide you with a last-ditch attack, but at worst, they instill a false sense of security.

It’s not uncommon to face streams of bullets from small, common enemies.

Though the game tries to instill confidence by offering backup, Crimson Dragon’s enemies are ever relentless, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Standard enemies fire dozens of projectiles at once, forcing you to constantly barrel roll to avoid impact in the face of large swarms. In some levels, it feels like all you do is bash the shoulder buttons to barrel roll, and simultaneously hammer on the trigger to fit an attack or two in between rolls.

Ostensibly, your ability to shoot down enemies and minimize damage relies on elemental relationships, which you can alter prior to heading into battle. However, though you’re given a readout of the balance of your abilities and enemies’ resistances prior to starting a mission, choosing the right dragon and assigning the proper abilities rarely makes a meaningful difference. Likewise, your dragons can evolve twice, but these are mostly cosmetic changes, with an ever-so-slight bump in base stats.

The imbalanced relationship between stat growth and difficulty is disappointing, but struggling to overcome these odds is nowhere near as frustrating as coping with Crimson Dragon’s camera. When you’re flying in a simple pattern, it’s easy to settle in. The left analog steers your dragon, and the right controls your weapons’ aim. Free-flying stages, which allow you to control the speed and trajectory of your dragon, turn the standard control scheme on its head by assigning the camera controls to the same stick as movement. It’s confusing, not to mention ineffective in the midst of combat when you have to track fast-moving, hard-hitting enemies.

Crimson Dragon’s final stages look and play better than the rest.

Granted, there are only a few free-flying stages in the game, but erratic paths in standard levels also prove to be problematic. Quite often, you’re sent careening around corners, with an unreasonable amount of visual interference, while under fire, without enough time to react to threats. If you submit, you can simply take some damage and move on. If you attempt to kill everything and lose control, you’re more likely to be unprepared when the camera finally rights itself.

Fight your way towards the end of the game, and you’ll discover stages with greater visual appeal than the initial selection of barren landscapes, and more sound level design, but it’s too little too late. Crimson Dragon frustrates more than it entertains. Flying your dragon can feel good, but it’s only when the game takes a rare breath and slows down that it feels right. The ability to raise dragons is mildly intriguing, but they take forever to evolve into slightly more effective warriors, making the process more of a distraction than a rewarding challenge. It doesn’t take long to realize that for all its efforts to be something more, Crimson Dragon misses the mark. It’s occasionally sloppy, usually frustrating, and ultimately disappointing.

SimCity Review: A Real Mayor’s Perspective

As someone who does this game-reviewing gig alongside serving as a real-life mayor of a small town in Canada, I come at a game like SimCity from a different angle than most. Not that different, mind you. The multiplayer focus and always-on Internet demands of Maxis’ latest city-builder are beyond irritating. And the cramped borders that force you into constantly demolishing and rejigging your bulging-at-the-seams mini metropolis are almost enough to drive me to adopt the pastimes of another Canadian mayor who has been making the rounds of late-night talk shows recently.

But what really bothers me is the missed opportunity. This fresh take on SimCity comes a full decade after SimCity 4, yet it still repeats most of the same old mistakes, doubles-down on the regional approach introduced in that game with an obnoxious multiplayer push, and destroys the zoning system through unnecessary simplification. While you’re supposed to be the mayor of a city, you’re actually more of a dictator at the reins of a city-state. There are no limits to your power when it comes to spending tax dollars. You can rezone neighborhoods at a whim. Whole blocks of supposedly privately owned apartment buildings and businesses can be demolished with two mouse clicks if you get a sudden urge to create a massive football stadium to suit a Jerry Jones-size ego.

Tight city borders cause you to continually demolish and rebuild blocks. And they also force you to plop down key infrastructure in terrible places, like this nuke plant in City Hall’s backyard.

Not that you would want to get too tied down to reality. Dealing with a council, staff, and senior levels of government involves a lot of process and red tape that wouldn’t translate well into a game. Well, a game that anyone would want to play, at any rate. It’s much easier and more enjoyable to click on a button to build and destroy than it is to shepherd real-life municipal legislation through public hearings, consultations with planning advisors, three readings of a bylaw, and so forth.

Yet the changes made to this new take on SimCity actually make the game tougher to enjoy, and knock back the realism even farther than it was a decade ago. Maxis continues with SimCity 4’s regional approach, although there are significant differences. You still have the option of guiding more than one city on a regional map that can include up to 16 separate municipalities. But city size has been cut back by around 75 percent in comparison with SimCity 4. This forces you to branch out and take over the other cities in the neighborhood while playing alone or by playing online multiplayer, because you can never fit all of the facilities and businesses and homes that you need to survive and thrive within the borders of just one town.

City zoning seems to work well in the early stages, but after a few hours of play, it becomes clear that the game sacrifices too much control for the sake of simplicity.

This “honey, I shrunk the city” approach has been geared to hamstring you into playing the game how Maxis and Electronic Arts want it played–always online–with you filling all the roles and taking over every city in a region as a godlike hizzoner. Try building a self-sustaining city that is all things to all citizens, and you will soon bang your head against the wall so thoroughly that you might come out on the other side thinking about running for municipal office in the real world.

Even if you can somehow appreciate this regional approach, cities are just way too small on their own. You can build out to the limits within an hour or two of starting a city, and have no way of expanding beyond that besides taking over a neighboring town as the incredible multiple mayor or making nice with fellow human mayors in multiplayer. Once you hit the dotted-line wall (which has been made extraordinarily aggravating due to how maps have huge stretches of wilderness between cities that you can never touch), you have to start demolishing and rebuilding. You have to rework everything as your city grows, inventing ways to cram in Godzilla-size new municipal facilities like sewage plants and universities, expand neighborhoods to jam in more residents, and play with factories to create more jobs.

Get beyond these frustrating mechanics, and you don’t feel like you’re doing the work of a mayor, either. Municipalities function more like independent nations than cities, trading services and goods back and forth like members of the EU. Granted, this sort of thing happens with cities and towns in real life, but not generally for the reasons SimCity puts forth. I can’t think of any cities that have contracted out police and medical services to other municipalities because they didn’t have room for police precincts and hospitals within their own borders. My suspension of disbelief also takes a hit when it comes to natural resources, which are a national responsibility, not a civic one. Municipal governments looking after oil and ore is a bridge too far.

Try building a self-sustaining city that is all things to all citizens, and you will soon bang your head against the wall so thoroughly that you might come out on the other side thinking about running for municipal office in the real world.

Even when you do manage to team up with other human players or build a few sharing-is-caring cities on a map of your own, it all still seems pointless. Building cooperation seems great in principle, but I always find myself thinking that I could handle all that garbage myself, or put out all those fireworks fires without needing help from a sister city, if only the game would give me more room to grow. Push out the dotted lines that hamper city growth, and I’d never have to petition the Duckburg next door for any help. The interrelationship attributes come off as fake and forced.

Another major problem lies with zoning. At the center of your “mayoral” powers is the ability to zone areas for residential, commercial, and industrial development. You lay down roads, select the zoning tool, pick one of those three aforementioned categories, and draw a box around what you want to zone. Presto, you’ve created a zoning bylaw for part of your city. As soon as you’ve finished any sort of zoning, developers arrive and start building homes, stores, or industries on the block or blocks in question. If only it were this easy in the real world.

HQ may be called a “City Hall,” but it sure doesn’t feel much like you’re the mayor of a city.

But even though this system might seem to be a fitting simplification of how municipal zoning really works, it actually makes SimCity more complicated, and is a huge step backward for the series. Back in 2003, SimCity 4 got zoning (mostly) right, with a low-, medium-, and high-density system very similar to how real municipalities function. Now you’ve got “build it and they will come” zoning where you pick from one of the three main categories and then watch as buildings get denser and bigger all by themselves. Growth occurs naturally based solely on economic conditions, how wide you’ve made the roads in the area, and how much land you’ve set aside to let three-bedroom bungalows expand into 20-story condo towers and little assembly warehouses balloon into massive chemical factories.

The result of losing zoning control? Utter chaos. This problem is exacerbated by the ludicrously small territory that each city is jailed in, since there is no room for mistakes. You need to guess at both how big you want your blocks to be and how wide you want your roads in order to accommodate future growth. Go too small at first, and you soon wind up demolishing roads to give buildings room to expand. Go too big at first, to allow for eventual growth, and you soon wind up demolishing buildings to add roads allowing more space for homes, businesses, and industries. You can’t win. You’re either bulldozing blocks because you don’t have enough room, or you’re demolishing blocks because you’ve left too much room. Perhaps this is supposed to mirror the evolution of a city over time, but it plays out like you’re making one mistake after another and correcting these errors by blowing up huge swathes of the city to start over and over again.

This used to be my playground.

One other problem lingers from the game’s horrendous launch early this year. You still have to connect online to play, and there are still regular periods when the servers cannot be accessed. I didn’t play the game in the spring, when it went through long stretches of being unavailable, so I can’t comment on whether or not this issue has gotten better. But during the course of playing the game for this review, it regularly refused to run because it could not connect with the servers. This generally lasted for no more than five- to 10-minute stretches, and was usually much shorter than that (although there was also one five- or six-hour outage). Still, these outages remain absolutely unacceptable, especially for a game that you should be able to play solo. The always-on Internet connection requirement needs to be removed so you can take your single-player city-building offline.

All that said, SimCity can hook you for lengthy stretches of time before the frustration of dealing with its flaws wears down your patience. The game excels in a number of areas. You couldn’t ask for a more intuitive interface. A glance at the menu bar tells you immediately if you’ve got trouble brewing with the water supply, schools, police, electrical grid, and so on. The needs-and-wants heart of the gameplay is handled very well, too, so you’re never left in the dark over such vital information as why businesses are failing or why citizens are loving your town. Click on any structure in the game, and you instantly get a rundown of what’s good and bad in your city, from the perspective of the sims who live or work there.

Go too big at first, to allow for eventual growth, and you soon wind up demolishing buildings to add roads allowing more space for homes, businesses, and industries.

Visuals and sound are superb for the most part, though the graphics get oddly blurry at times when you’re down near street level. Cities boast neat lived-in details that you can see when zooming in on your sim citizens, and the soundtrack includes a jazzy score and atmospheric effects that always tell you what you’re looking at (though the developers could have chosen a less-disgusting glug noise for those moments when you’re checking on sewage flow). All of this just accentuates the letdown in the end, though, because you’re always aware of how much better this game could have been.

Whether you’re a mayor or a wannabe or a constituent, SimCity is a big disappointment. As the first game in this classic series in a decade, it should have been something special that took the city-building concept in exciting new directions that let everyone see what it’s like to serve as a mayor. Instead, the developers got tangled up with a multiplayer concept that is little more than an albatross hanging around the player’s neck and never addressed the many, many ways that this look at a mayor’s life could have been made both more realistic and more enjoyable.

Need for Speed: Rivals Review

“Damage critical.” The words appear on the screen in red, sending a rush through me. One more hit and I’m done for. It’s too far to the nearest repair shop; I know I need to make it back to a hideout fast or I’ll lose everything. I gun it, relying on my reflexes to help me evade the police, with their spike strips and their reckless attempts to run me off the road. There are only two possible outcomes: the triumph of big risks taken and big rewards achieved, or the agony of seeing everything I’ve earned slip away in an instant. Which will it be this time?

Despite being the work of new developer Ghost Games, Need for Speed: Rivals is clearly a game in the mold of Criterion’s entries in the Need for Speed series, particularly 2010’s excellent Hot Pursuit. In this game, as in that one, you step into the cars of both cops and racers and cruise around a gorgeous open world, completing events that require you to either evade the law or enforce it. Of course, enforcing the law here isn’t a matter of asking drivers to politely pull over; instead, it involves ramming racers at speed, using spike strips and shock rams, and wrecking the elusive racers’ vehicles by any means necessary. As a racer, you have plenty of tricks up your sleeve as well, including shock waves that damage and repel nearby vehicles, and jammers that prevent the cops or your fellow racers from using their own weapons against you.

The Redview County Police Department has quite a budget.

This wild technology can get you out of a tight spot as a racer or help you incapacitate one as a cop, but it’s your skills as a driver that matter most. Weaving through traffic and around roadblocks, drifting smoothly around turns, and making smart use of your limited nitrous can make all the difference, and dividing your attention between driving skillfully and making the most of your tech is wonderfully stimulating. With so much going on at once, it’s not unusual to feel like you’re operating on pure instinct, and when you get into that zone, Need for Speed: Rivals is aggressive arcade racing bliss. These cars feel hefty and substantial, so as you side-slam a cop or hit a racer from the rear, you can almost feel the clash of metal on metal in your bones.

Most of this could have been said about Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit too. And the event types that are scattered around the landscape are standard stuff: straightforward races, time trials, hot pursuits in which cops try to bust racers before they reach the finish line, and so on. But there are two things that reinvigorate this familiar gameplay in Rivals. One of those is that, by default, you always share the world with other players. Those players might be cops or they might be racers, and as you cruise around trying to complete objectives to advance your own career, your experiences and the experiences of these other players might collide. If you’re playing as a racer, for instance, someone playing as a cop might start pursuing you, whether you’re in the middle of an event or you’re just cruising around.

These police can fly.

And if you’re a cop, hunting a human player across the winding roads of Redview County–an environment that offers no shortage of obstructions you can smash through and shortcuts that you can take advantage of–is more exhilarating than pursuing artificially intelligent prey. Other games in the series have had multiplayer options that pit cops against racers, but here, the multiplayer is seamlessly integrated into the world at large. You can encounter other players at any time, and as a result, the world feels alive in a way that earlier games in the series haven’t. If you choose not to share a world with other players, AI cops and racers roam the roads, so there’s still a chance you’ll run right into a high-speed chase or some other action even when you’re playing alone.

The seamlessness with which events are integrated into the world does carry with it the occasional downside. If you start a race, for instance, while being pursued by cops, the cops might crowd around you during the few seconds before the race starts, during which you’re immobile. Once the race begins, you’re hindered by the cluster of cop cars surrounding you, while your opponents speed off unhindered. Your opponents slow down significantly if you fall behind early, though, giving you a conspicuously artificial opportunity to catch up. And it’s frustrating that, while you’re being pursued as a racer, you can’t use the GPS function to set a waypoint for the event of your choice.

The other element that makes Rivals particularly exciting is the irresistible risk-versus-reward mechanic you’re constantly faced with as a racer. As you roam the roads, completing events and escaping the cops, you build up a score multiplier, and eventually, you’re racking up the speed points you need to purchase new cars and upgrade existing ones really quickly. But your heat level also increases, meaning that the cops become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to hunt you down. It becomes extremely tempting to press your luck, to take one more risk, complete one more event, and reap the rewards. But if you’re busted–which can happen anywhere at any time, until you make it back to a hideout–you lose all of the speed points you’ve accrued on that outing. It’s deliciously excruciating to see all your points slip away, and narrowly escaping the law to make it back to a hideout with a fat stack of points makes you feel like the king of the road.

Those pesky police with their eyes in the skies.

And what a beautiful road it is. There’s nothing decidedly next-gen about the look of Rivals, but it’s still a gorgeous game. Redview County is lush and inviting, with leaves blowing in the forest winds, waves crashing on the coast, and pleasure seekers hang-gliding in the clear blue skies. At least until the weather changes. At that point, a thunderstorm might lend an ominous atmosphere to a dangerous race along a cliffside. Whatever the forecast, the cars themselves, and the collisions they tend to get into, look spectacular, sending showers of metal and glass in all directions.

Need for Speed: Rivals is very much in the tradition of Hot Pursuit, but that great, familiar gameplay has been infused with enough new elements to make it as thrilling here as it’s ever been. It sure is good to hit the open road again.

NBA 2K14 Review

Selfish athletes get a bad rap. Basketball is about more than winning and losing, more than raising banners. It’s about All Star appearances and Hall of Fame busts. It’s about pride. When I throw a beautiful pass to a wide-open big man under the basket and he misses a gimme, I don’t care about the scoreboard. I’m worried about my stats, and how that buffoon just cost me a double double. And don’t think for a second that I’m going to launch a full-court shot just before the buzzer sounds, not when I’m shooting 60 percent from the floor. NBA 2K14 puts you in the shoes of an NBA rookie, where you jockey for playing time and earn respect. My team’s name may be on the front of my jersey, but it’s the name on the back that’s important to me.

NBA 2K14 has moved closer to reality than any basketball game so far. Players tweak their shots when defenders rush toward them, and tumble miserably to the floor when a driving point guard catches them off balance. Miss a critical foul shot, and you see the frustration in their eyes. Can they shake off their failure to hit the next shot? When Tyreke Evans is pounding the rock at the top of the key, his teammates stand around watching, knowing that even if they flash open, he’s not going to give them the ball. The intelligence isn’t so artificial anymore. Wing defenders fly toward the block to double-team Roy Hibbert, or stay glued to their man when Dwight Howard is bumbling around. The kinetic flow mirrors the real game so closely that minor flaws, such as when players don’t dive for a loose ball, really stand out.

Come on, Lucas, I’m open under the basket!

What’s most striking about the visuals is how they draw you in. Stephen Curry isn’t just a nondescript avatar. You can see his face and hear his words, and you want to prove your value against him. Thump your chest after picking his pocket; you’ve earned a bit of strutting. Make sure your feet are planted before you hoist a long three. If you’re drifting backward, you jump awkwardly, and that off-balance hitch could be the difference between a swish and a clang. Defenders have busy hands, swatting away contested shots like a young Hakeem Olajuwon or poking at lazy dribbles like a venomous Chris Mullins. Again and again, defenders embarrass you, until you learn restraint. Use your off arm to shield the ball, practice up fakes and fadeaways, and most of all, be patient. Watch the flow before attacking, and know your limitations. This is a team game, even if you only care about filling up the box score.

And don’t think for a second that I’m going to launch a full-court shot just before the buzzer sounds, not when I’m shooting 60 percent from the floor.

I’ve always felt a disconnect in previous iterations of My Career mode. Although I could use my own name and decide my play style, I never felt like I belonged. My player was just an avatar, as separate from me as a real NBA player. That’s no longer true in NBA 2K14. Story sequences that played out behind the scenes made me care. Sure, I laughed when Derrick Favors would give me advice even though his voice wasn’t recorded and his mouth didn’t move, but I still appreciated being taken under his wing. After I shot poorly, he pushed me to the practice floor, and I couldn’t leave until I knocked down 20 consecutive shots. After games, my coach called me into his office to praise me for an exemplary night on the court, or lecture me for sloppy play. I was part of the team, and chose how I conducted myself. When Richard Jefferson employed some Richie Incognito-style bullying tactics–telling me to carry his bags and wear a red nose just because I’m a rookie–I told the old man to shove it.

Don’t worry, Frank Vogel, you’re not on the hot seat. Yet.

When the season began, I found my butt stapled to the pine. The Jazz aren’t exactly loaded, but I still couldn’t beat out Alec Burks or Brandon Rush for playing time. I watched players trade baskets from my courtside vantage, turning my head to see how my teammates were responding or peering into the crowd to watch the cheers and catcalls. Of course, I watched the action unfold as well, and took advantage when the coach finally gave me a chance. Coach Tyrone Corbin liked my willingness to act as a glue guy. I drained open threes and found cutting players. There were serious holes in my games, so I committed more rookie mistakes than I’d like to admit. I piled up more turnovers than points, unable to overcome pressing defenders, and couldn’t defend a lick one-on-one. My feet were like cement, way too slow for the likes of James Harden. But I made slow and steady progress. When I became the team’s sixth man, I couldn’t contain my smile, and even led the team to a victory during a critical fourth quarter.

And then I tumbled.

When Richard Jefferson employed some Richie Incognito-style bullying tactics–telling me to carry his bags and wear a red nose just because I’m a rookie–I told the old man to shove it.

Coach Corbin began to trust me so much that he put me in charge of the second unit. As the main ball carrier, I had to run the offense, and that newfound responsibility was overwhelming. Defenders sensed my weaknesses, trapping me before I reached the three-point line. I was slow to react, panicked, and forced an ugly pass that resulted in a turnover. Later, I split a double-team and threw a pass to Enes Kanter. But I was out of control, and the ball sailed into the 10th row. Another turnover. On the defensive end, I wanted to make up for my mistakes, so I gambled for a steal. And I gave up an easy basket. That was the wake-up call I needed. When Austin Rivers is making me look foolish, I know that my game needs serious work. Coach Corbin chewed me out after the game, and cut my minutes, but I would earn my way back on the floor.

Poor Doris Burke being sent to interview a sarcastic shark.

2K14 does a remarkable job of cutting the fat. You don’t have to waste time scrimmaging or training in My Career mode; you prove your value during games. And that immediacy is empowering. The same is true in My GM mode. I tinkered with the stacked Pacers rosters before the season began and was proud of what I pulled off. I traded Danny Granger for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilyasova. I thought I was the next Jerry West. It turns out I was worse than Isiah Thomas. My beloved Pacers became the dregs of the East, but I continued to pitch trades to get back on top. With small success, I gained the wisdom that separates the general managers who are ousted in two years from those who flash maniacal victory grins at every draft. I learned how to scout and how to judge the emotional makeup of players. And don’t think that irony was lost on me. I needed to know how mentally sound my players were, but couldn’t become emotionally attached or else I’d be scared to pull the trigger on a trade.

Don’t choke don’t choke don’t choke

Because NBA 2K14 is so close to reality, every step away from what we know about the real NBA feels off. Earning points to improve my scouting talent as a general manager is less rewarding than organically becoming more proficient. Why do I have to earn the ability to tweak lineups? I’m the general manager, darn it, and I can fire the coach if he questions me. The same contrivances exist when improving your player in My Career. My three-point shooting doesn’t improve when I spend time in the gym or drain a clutch corner jumper. No, I have to spend points in that stat after the game. Yes, raising my character from benchwarmer to starter is empowering, but just imagine if I could improve based entirely on how I played. There’s still that lingering disconnect, that one element that kept me from being fully invested. Even with this unrealistic approach, there’s so much that lured me deeper in that I couldn’t dwell long on this one oddity.

The on-court action in NBA 2K14 isn’t markedly different from the way the current generation versions play, which means its excellent, and by far the best we’ve ever seen in virtual basketball. What’s so remarkable is how the upgraded visuals enhance the overall experience. Smooth animations and lifelike faces aren’t just eye candy; they affect you on an emotional level. By chipping away at that barrier between digital players and real life, you feel even closer to what’s transpiring, which makes it difficult to pull yourself away. You want to hold the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in one hand and an MVP trophy in the other. For the first time in my life, I finally sympathized with the likes of Carmelo Anthony. I know what it’s like when your teammates are struggling and you just want to chuck the ball every time down the floor. But I’m better than that. I’m going to win a ring.

Morphopolis Review

When you walk through a forest or exercise your green thumb while gardening, you venture remarkably close to the secret world lurking just out of view. Peel back the flickering leaves and peek through the thorns and stems, and you spy ants and aphids as they go about their business. Inchworms crawl along the branches, and millipedes tunnel into the soil. The ground is alive with activity and contains both the peacefulness and apathy of Mother Nature.

Morphopolis introduces you to such a world, putting you in control of various insects over the course of five stages and having you mosey along stems and leaves, solving minor puzzles so that you may progress. Those puzzles are not the game’s most pervasive element, however: most of the time, Morphopolis takes the form of a traditional hidden-object game. You lead your bug down the few possible paths, clicking on the eggs, flowers, and disembodied grasshopper legs hidden in the busy, detailed environments until you collect the prescribed number. In turn, you click on the insect or foliage associated with the collected goodies in order to initiate a simple brainteaser, which might involve parroting the sequence of lights signaled by a group of creepy-crawlies, or piecing together a moth-themed jigsaw puzzle.

Anyone up for wings?

Morphopolis’ picturesque backdrops and soothing soundtrack are immediately inviting. Seed pods and imposing dragonflies look as though they were brushed onto the screen, and background blurring allows your focus to remain on the foreground, even while the game implies many layers of thriving flora and fauna. The color scheme gives the game a surreal quality–this is heightened reality brought to you with soft magentas, vivid purples, and subdued greens. In the first level, a harp performs slow arpeggios while synthesizers drone soothing harmonies. In later levels, where the themes darken, the harmonies turn from major to minor, and the rhythm is provided not by the plucking of harp strings, but by xylophone clanks and bongo beats. A tapestry of chirping crickets and tweeting birds puts the finishing touches on Morphopolis’ atmosphere. I loved being in this place. It was almost as if I could feel the pollen and humidity fill my lungs with every breath.

Pixar should make a film about bugs. Oh wait. They totally did.

When it came to interacting with its world, however, Morphopolis left me wanting. Each level follows the same pattern as the last. You click on hidden objects until you unlock a quick-and-easy puzzle, so that you can unlock the next group of objects to click on, so that you can unlock the next quick-and-easy puzzle. The only puzzle that I got hung up on wasn’t due to its challenge, but due to its lack of visual feedback; because it wasn’t clear that certain elements could be interacted with, and how to interact with them, I had to fiddle around until something happened. Otherwise, I breezed through the five levels relatively unimpeded in about 45 minutes, wishing that the game would uproot its structure and deliver new ideas.

It was almost as if I could feel the pollen and humidity fill my lungs with every breath.

Clicking on objects that seem organic to the world rather than ridiculously random objects cluttering the screen makes for a nice change among hidden-object games, but the items are so easy to find that I was never transfixed by the process. Eventually, I grew to see the puzzles, as well as my insects’ dawdling speeds, as a hindrance to what I really wanted to experience: the joy of taking in a new set of gorgeous sights. What a terrific place Morphopolis is. So terrific, in fact, that I wish there were less tedium to separate me from its stunning scenery.

Blood of the Werewolf Review

There’s a rule of thumb in the wild: never separate a mother from her young, for the consequences could be dire. Blood of the Werewolf tells a story influenced by classic Hollywood monster flicks, depicting a mother’s journey to recover her son–a journey paved with blood, despair, and a few nagging issues. This is a challenging 2D action platformer that shoots for the moon, and only barely makes it.

Blood of the Werewolf has murder on the brain. It’s a game that offers few moments of tranquility, forcing you to hop, duck, climb, and dodge through 10 stages filled with whirling blades, blood-coated spikes, fireballs, deadly pitfalls, pools of bubbling lava or molten metal, and electrified water. These unsacred grounds are haunted by creatures of myth and nightmare, including merfolk, lava beasts, harpies, bats, necromancers, and more. These monsters either force you into combat or cause you to hesitate just long enough for the game to snatch away your life in one of its many nefarious traps.

You defeat bosses by using their attack patterns against them.

If you haven’t gathered by now, Blood of the Werewolf is hard. A miscalculated jump means a quick end to your adventure. The game exists in the same category populated by platformers like Super Meat Boy–a domain of scattered keys, broken controllers, and bitter tears. Luckily, the game is generous with its checkpoint system, and each revival replenishes your health and ability meters, regardless of their amount before death. If you nab a special ability but fail to make it to the next checkpoint, the game lets you keep it, so you don’t need to navigate the same dangerous path that leads to it in the first place. Health items are also rewarded on occasion, in a move that you could interpret as the game offering you a shaky and short-lived truce.

Practice and patience are required to win against such classic villains as Dracula and the Mummy.

Blood of the Werewolf is themed after classic Hollywood films, complete with stages announced using a black-and-white movie-style marquee, and the lore brings history and weight to the game’s narrative. It stars famous monsters banded together under Dr. Frankenstein as a coalition in order to achieve their dark desires. Selena and her family, the last of the known living werewolves, escape from Europe to America, where they hope to live in peace, away from the machinations of the doctor and his cohorts. Their efforts prove to be in vain.

Displeased at the family’s flight, the monsters track them down, killing the husband, kidnapping the child, Nikolai, who they conclude is better off living with his immortal kin, and leaving Selena gravely wounded. Furious, Selena hunts down their betrayers, offering exposition during the breaks between stages. The monsters make up five of the game’s boss battles. Practice and patience are required to win against such classic villains as Dracula and the Mummy. The bosses attack in patterns, and the key is to decipher the attacks, searching for a clear opening to launch a counterattack.

Watch out: the floor is lava. No, really.

The game offers two interesting and completely different ways to play. Under the cover of roof and cave, the protagonist Selena uses well-timed platforming and a crossbow as her primary methods of self-preservation. But under the light of the silver moon, Selena transforms into a powerful werewolf, complete with different abilities. In beast form, Selena moves swiftly and is able to double jump and use her claws in a powerful melee attack. As a werewolf, prepare to do a lot of double jumping. Large gaps can be crossed only with the maneuver, and since you can perform the second jump any time after the first, the game often puts you in situations where one platform gives way, and the next can be far below and at a distance, accessible only by timing that air hop carefully. Special abilities gathered as a werewolf include a lunge move learned early, as well as increased melee damage, a healing spell, and an ability that sends out a wave of charged red energy. But Selena in human form isn’t completely vulnerable. Her crossbow can be upgraded with special properties, such as firing split or burning arrows.

Collecting sigils scattered throughout levels goes toward your next health upgrade. Gold sigils count as one point towards an upgrade, while the rarer and harder-to-reach platinum sigils are good for 10. Most of the time, sigils are placed in positions where they can be picked up merely by running through them, or by jumping. But the game does like to tease. Some sigils are placed in precarious positions, goading you to take a leap of faith for the shiny prize. Other times, sigils are placed in a way that forces you to break your stride, and if you jump incorrectly, putting you only pixels behind where you should be, you risk giving the row of industrial smashers in chase a chance to catch up and grind you into lycanthrope chili.

Selena in werewolf form can move quickly and shred anything in her way.

Dodging traps would be easier if it weren’t for the terribly clunky keyboard controls. To jump, you must press the up key. But to climb ladders, which are practically everywhere in the game, you have to hold shift and jump, which is as awkward as you can imagine. Trying to move up and down a ladder using this control scheme causes Selena to jerk in motion, sometimes even forcing her to leap off a ladder and into enemy fire, which otherwise would have been easy to avoid. But this isn’t a silver bullet that buries the game.

The developer implores you to use a controller over the keyboard, and I wholeheartedly echo that sentiment. I went through half the game using the keyboard, and the change to a controller was like having a pitch-black night brighten from a full moon. Climbing ladders requires input only from the thumbstick, so dodging enemy fire is much easier. To drive this point home, in one stage I died a total of 37 times while using a keyboard. When I replayed that stage using a controller, I died only nine times. Granted, I was a little more skilled by that time, but this stage in particular was much easier to navigate with a gamepad, even against instant-kill traps. Playing Blood of the Werewolf with a keyboard is certainly possible, but I don’t recommend it.

Clean pastel colors breathe life into the characters and the gorgeous environments.

With controller in hand, platforming in Blood of the Werewolf becomes its strong suit. Manipulating Selena takes little effort, though success still requires precise button presses and keen spatial awareness in order to dodge every deadly projectile and round-ending trap coming at you from all directions. Prepare to nervously wince your way through instant-kill spike walls, spinning saw blades, fireballs, and whatever else is flung at you from the game’s horde of nasty monsters, ghosts, goblins, and the like.

The game is challenging, but that’s where the attraction lies. With every death, that beautiful checkpoint light at the end of the tunnel grows ever broader. It’s that faint promise of progress that invites you onward, convincing you that you will make it this time. Eventually, it’s anger that drives you forward, seeking that satisfaction of seeing a spinning moon that signifies a checkpoint.

Selena fights against classic monsters such as the Mummy, Mr. Hyde, and Dracula.

The platforming is a mostly pleasurable and effortless affair, but there are a few hiccups. On some occasions, always while in werewolf form, Selena slips off a small platform for no apparent reason. It’s not due to any wind, which comes into play later in the game. Rather, she simply vibrates right off solid ground and into hungry blades below. This happened several times during my playthrough, but I wasn’t able to re-create it. I concluded the anomaly to be purely random. Another issue that might not be as glaring to others as it was to me was the inconsistent hitbox surrounding Selena. Sometimes a flying axe or fireball somehow struck Selena, though it was clear that it missed. Barely missed, but still, the hit should not have occurred. Taking damage from a spike or projectile causes a knockback effect, sometimes knocking Selena into another projectile or damaging object, creating a chain of knockbacks and heavy damage. It wasn’t an issue when I knew it was my error in judgment that caused Selena to get hit in the first place. But it frustrated me to watch Selena get knocked back and forth because of a projectile that had clearly missed.

Clean pastel colors breathe life into the characters and the gorgeous environments. Selena, as wolf or human, stands out cleanly against the backdrop of the blues, browns, and blacks of her nocturnal world. Audio is also vivid, featuring a catchy musical score and an energetic vocal cast, led by Erin Cummings as Selena, though I wish she’d stepped a few inches away from the mic during periods of impassioned monologue.

The game concludes on a disappointing note. After fighting past monsters and traps, and coming face-to-face with the game’s big bad, Blood of the Werewolf emits more of a whimper than a howl. It’s unfortunate, because after surviving hours of punishment, you would hope to be given the satisfaction of a triumphant finale. Nevertheless, Blood of the Werewolf is a fine platformer, offering plenty of hours of fun and occasional frustrated sobbing. Fans of classic Hollywood monster movies and platforming games rejoice: your game is here.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review

It’s not easy to return to a place after a 21-year absence, so it’s a surprise how effortless it is to slip back into the Hyrule first introduced in 1992’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The famous green tunic, castle, and characters are all revived in this 3DS sequel, and the passing of two decades and three console generations has done nothing to dull the sharpness of Link’s first triumphant swing of the Master Sword.

For those who have cherished the original over the years, the nostalgic opening moments of this loving sequel will rekindle your memories of the classic game that precedes it. The heart of A Link Between Worlds is buried firmly in the pre-3D age of the early ’90s, and Nintendo has produced an almost note-for-note polygonal reproduction of the original game’s Hylian overworld, complete with the triumphant boom of the series’ main theme charging out of the 3DS’s speakers. But while many elements of this sequel are familiar, this is a fantastic standalone adventure that excels on its own individual merits.

A series of murals explain the events of A Link to the Past.

A Link Between Worlds is molded by the history it treats with reverence, but the game quickly creates an identity of its own. The fleeting cameo of Majora’s mask, hanging on the wall of Link’s house, is just one of the occasional nods from Nintendo acknowledging where the series has travelled since muddying its boots around the gardens of the original Hyrule Castle. Yet this game’s accomplishment lies with Link’s new ability to transform into a portrait and traverse walls. As a painting, Link is a stylised riff on a Romanesque mural beautifully animated to look simultaneously static and vibrant, with bouncy movement and flickering eyes. It’s an impeccably charming effect.

The painting is the game’s central mechanic, its version of a time-travelling ocarina, wind-summoning baton, or werewolf transformation, and many of the dungeons make good use of the new tool. The ability comes to him by way of Yuga, the game’s main antagonist, who seeks to revive Ganondorf after the events of the original game by trapping descendants of A Link to the Past’s seven sages as portraits. Link, as history has taught us, must rescue them. Many puzzles involve a two-dimensional Link wrapping himself around the walls of 3D environment to reach switches and chests nestled atop faraway platforms, slithering through thin cracks to enter new areas, or even traversing between two worlds by shimmying through the fissures that connect them.

It’s not a Zelda game without Cuccos.

It’s not just a feature you’ll use to get at the odd treasure chest, either, as Nintendo has done a fantastic job deeply intertwining every area of the game in ways that can only be accessed as a painting, as well as layering it as a required step in other puzzles. Many previous games in the series have had players use bombs start the timer on a frantic dash through a quickly-closing door, but here you’ll be doing like that while instinctively jumping into the wall and shifting around to another platform. The fact that navigating the world as a painting becomes second nature is a huge accomplishment: it’s so central to A Link Between Worlds that I couldn’t possibly imagine the game without it.

The rest will be immediately familiar to those who know the Legend of Zelda series, largely because A Link Between Worlds treads the well-worn path of previous games. There is, as there always is, a comfort to this familiarity, although A Link Between Worlds feels like the most direct iteration the series has ever seen. Even the structure of the adventure is extremely similar to that of A Link to the Past, where a few hours thundering through three opening dungeons is rewarded with the Master Sword, before introducing the dark world alongside another batch of seven dungeons.

Nintendo has designed the first Zelda game where you feel free.

At the same time, though, you’re encouraged to thoroughly and openly navigate Hyrule, a revelatory change which makes this adventure feel free of the series’ previous restrictions. Puzzles in the overworld are no longer something you think to come back and tackle later, when you’ve unlocked your full suite of tools and weapons, but something you’ll want to work out how to accomplish right then and there.

The game opens up further, too, when you reach the dark world, now known as Lorule. You can tackle the Lorule dungeons in any order you wish, which massively impacts how the bulk of this game plays out. Whereas many other Zelda games cordon off areas behind obstacles requiring items obtained in other dungeons, creating a set of talents and player options that slowly unfurl, A Link Between Worlds puts the game’s arsenal in the hands of Ravio, a shopkeeper in a bunny suit who sets up his stall in Link’s house. You simply rent the item you’re after–be it hookshot, boomerang, or fire rod–and off you go. Maybe it’s to your next dungeon, or that obstacle you saw a minute ago that you reckon you could thump out the way with your new hammer, or maybe you just haven’t explored Misery Mire in a while. Nintendo has designed the first Zelda game where you feel free.

The shift towards renting items makes the game far more reliant on accumulating currency than before, with wayward pots, tall grass, and treasure chests in dungeons regularly forking out hundreds of rupees. It’s a beautifully cyclical system, with item renting taking away the barriers of exploring the world and getting rich finding secrets, but also taking the money found in those hard-to-reach treasure chests and hidden rooms. Rented items, which generally cost 50 rupees, are lost if Link dies, but can eventually be bought outright for closer to 1,000 rupees. There are enough rupees scattered around the game for fastidious players to buy everything, but I found myself only purchasing my favourite items (bombs, arrows, and the hookshot) and simply renting the rest.

Ravio well and truly understands the virtues of capitalism.

Ravio’s shop also exists to serve the puzzles of the game’s main dungeons, with each particular item getting its own dedicated moment to shine in some of the finest dungeons to ever feature in the series. The sand rod, for instance, lets Link cross gaps in the Desert Palace by conjuring up rows of cross-crossing pillars that inadvertently trigger as many problems as they fix, springing up at the wrong height or heading in the wrong direction, forcing you to leap into walls in order to figure out the correct path.

But, of course, there’s no set path or order. You could just as easily take the hookshot to the Swamp Palace, and clip onto sets of valves that raise and lower the levels across sets of rooms in interconnected waterways, or use the lamp in the Dark Palace for a string of puzzles that need the lights to be on or off, with a couple that seem to be asking for both simultaneously, at least until you work out what’s going on. These are tight, compact dungeons that are densely populated, and one of my favourite things about A Link Between Worlds is that it’s the first game in a long line of modern Zelda titles that has routinely left me stumped in the middle of a dungeon, scratching my head, aimlessly running around in circles trying to figure out what I’m missing.

Though it can be bizarre to think that something so occasionally familiar can still be so fresh and engaging, A Link Between Worlds is itself a unique experience.

It probably sounds odd that this is a game at its best when it feels like you’re untangling a skein of yarn, but much of the series’ joy comes from having a tightly-woven series of locked doors and blocked corridors slowly and surely peeling away until you feel like you’ve become the master of this tiny domain. While this is a more perplexing game than many of its modern counterparts–especially if you’re looking to rummage through all of its treasure chests–there are Play Coin-guzzling Hint Ghosts that will put you on the right path if they so desire. I’d advise against cheating yourself the joy of figuring it out, though; the challenge here is perplexing instead of frustrating, and it’s worth enduring those occasional bouts of confusion for the satisfaction that comes from your eventual success.

This is a lengthy game, and getting stuck in its intricacies is a delight. Without a 3D world to explore, and the difficulties of targeting and locking on that come with it, A Link Between Worlds is pure top-down puzzle-solving in fast, fluid areas. Combat is quick and punchy, and many of the boss fights are tricky enough to elicit the kind of fear and tension (especially when you start worrying about losing your rented items) that’s been absent from the series for a long time. Each dungeon builds to this confrontation, which comes as a thrilling, thumping, all-action crescendo after all the careful and thoughtful exploration.

Many of these boss encounters are riffs on adversaries originally encountered in A Link to the Past, albeit with a new spin on how they need to be defeated. And what fights they are: you challenge a monster guarded by a thick shield of ice, battle against a spinning whirligig that threatens to push you down a chasm, and take on a gaggle of eyeballs, a raging giant fist, a skeleton thief, or a monster with a noggin encrusted with a thick rupee shell. Each has their own particular weakness that needs to be exploited, with my personal favourite involving confusing one boss by running up to its shield and switching to Link’s portrait form.

If you’ve only played the modern Zelda titles, the appearance of the Zoras will come as a shock.

In many other areas, A Link Between Worlds’ main refinements over its predecessor come from smoothing out the experience. You can fly to fixed points around both Hyrule and Lorule with the aid of a Witch’s broomstick, the Fortune Teller near Kakariko Village now gives you direct advice rather than cryptic suggestions, and the map (displayed on the bottom screen of the 3DS) can be easily navigated, zoomed in, and annotated with pins. These features make exploration easy–you can head off the beaten path in an effort to reach that tantalising treasure on the horizon, because you know you can just warp back when you’re done–and allows you to focus on the exact areas, or dungeons, you want to be pursuing. Coupled this with the game’s loose structure and you’re left with the most open Zelda game in the series.

The aesthetic, however, does not effortlessly transition to a polygonal world. Link looks closer to Bilbo Baggins than he does Legolas, albeit with blonde hair rather than the purple rinse of the SNES original, and the game’s versions of trees look more like giant bulbous pumpkins. It’s more of a functional visual upgrade rather than an artistic one, though the end result is pleasant enough.

One visual area that Nintendo does excel at, however, is the game’s 3D effect, which adds a surprising amount of depth and character to the game, and is easily the most successful inclusion of the handheld’s 3D slider since Super Mario 3D Land. I’m not normally one for 3D, but I wouldn’t play A Link Between Worlds any other way. It’s a fast-paced adventure, then, and one that feels like Nintendo paring back the layers of complexity the series has added in recent years and simply returning to the basics–this is worlds apart from the train track metagame of Spirit Tracks, the last dedicated handheld Zelda. Though it can be bizarre to think that something so occasionally familiar can still be so fresh and engaging, A Link Between Worlds is itself a unique experience. There’s a lingering sense that by this point Nintendo is just running victory laps around a set of mechanics they perfected decades ago but, at the end of the day, none of that matters: this is simply an absolute treat to play.

Killzone: Shadow Fall Review

The Killzone series has often been lauded for its technological merits, but its artistic merits go too often unheralded. To define these games through terms like “IBL sampling” and “particle vertices” diminishes their striking beauty. Like its predecessors, Killzone: Shadow Fall is likely to be described through a technical lens, and the game certainly deserves praise for how many polygons it packs into its most expansive landscapes. Its buttery-smooth performance is also bound to earn kudos: Shadow Fall smooths away the frame rate hitches and texture pop-in we’ve become so accustomed to in even the most visually impressive console shooters.

More wonderful, however, is the art the software’s ones and zeroes convey. Shadow Fall brings the ongoing conflict between the series’ warring races to planet Vekta, which provides a stark contrast to the hazy Helghan environs we explored in the previous two games. Vekta’s gleaming blue seas and futuristic cityscapes have supplanted Helghan’s reddened skies and intimidating dust storms. Where the Helghast were at the mercy of their harsh climate, the Vektans have made peace with nature. Their capital city may reach into the clouds and spread across the terrain, but birds still fly freely between skyscrapers, and massive mountains provide a sweeping backdrop.

This is a beautiful setting for a first-person shooter, and a fine showcase for the visual possibilities new consoles introduce. At first you might think that Shadow Fall doesn’t represent a giant graphical leap forward, but it isn’t displaying the typical shooter’s limited spaces. You traverse a fair share of corridors, but you also float through the vastness of space and engage Helghast soldiers on stretches of rocky, open land. Shadow Fall’s levels more closely resemble Crysis 2 and Crysis 3’s areas than any prior Killzone game’s, yet the game displays such expanses with more clarity than Killzone 3 displayed its tighter zones.

It’s too bad that where Killzone 3 packed its maps with exciting action sequences, Shadow Fall’s campaign forgot to bring the thrills.

Killzone: Shadow Fall uses its downtime to remind you of how pretty it is, but not in service of any particular narrative effect.

The basics are perfectly sound, at least. Shadow Fall’s sense of weight doesn’t match Killzone 2’s, but its shooting and movement are exceptionally fluid. Each gun is enjoyable to shoot–the shotgun in particular, which blasts enemies backwards with satisfying oomph. Shadow Fall also makes a go at diversification. Zero-G sequences have you floating towards airlocks and you avoid the watchful eyes of patrolling Helghast in a stealth mission. You move from firing at soldiers while avoiding high-speed commuter trains to hacking spider drones and initiating their self-destruct sequence. The visual variety is commendable. The rain pelts metal walkways during a nighttime sojourn through an industrial installation, in contrast to the sunlit cliffs that play home to your early shootouts.

Who turned the light on?

The problem is that none of these activities are particularly interesting. Helghast soldiers roam the larger areas, but they are too few in number, and don’t offer much challenge. There are precious few large-scale shootouts; instead, you typically face a small handful of foes who take your bullets and collapse into a heap of ragdoll limbs without too much trouble. More troublesome is how much time you spend doing relatively little but moving through the game’s admittedly gorgeous spaces.

Granted, many shooters take time to breathe between shootouts, building their worlds and developing their characters by way of slower-paced exploration and dramatic cutscenes. Killzone: Shadow Fall uses its downtime to remind you of how pretty it is, but not in service of any particular narrative effect. In one of several weightless sequences, you accompany a sluggish space capsule as it meanders towards its destination, blasting the buzzing drones that appear like clockwork and hinder your progress. The sequence wears out its welcome long before you arrive at the airlock. It doesn’t build tension, deepen your understanding of the conflict, or stimulate you with great action. It’s simply boring–one more insubstantial graphical set piece. Elsewhere, you join a checkpoint queue that recalls Half-Life 2’s opening, but where Valve’s masterpiece used overheard dialogue and televised broadcasts to introduce you to the oppressive City 17, this noninteractive wait provides few thematic details you don’t already know, making its length seem unnecessary and self-indulgent.

Finally… some Helghast to shoot!

Shadow Fall announces its potential in later levels, where you shoot explosive canisters and joyfully ride the resulting billows of energy to higher ground. In this tense chapter, you must consider positioning and cover opportunities lest a colossal security contraption liquidate your physical assets. When facing the nameless Helghast grunts, it was the battles against shielded troopers that I most enjoyed. These meanies give you a reason to make use of the little flying gadget that accompanies you on your journey. Typically, I used it as an offensive distraction, commanding it to draw enemies’ attention by firing at them, which allowed me time to execute them with a deadly blast from my rifle, or with a mighty knife stab. Your attack drone is most handy because it weakens and stuns shielded enemies, giving you a chance to strike them down as they stumble.

Guerrilla Games remembered what drew me and many others to the front lines of online war, and it’s here that Shadow Fall emerges from the rubble and flies into the electric skies.

The drone also serves as a rappel device, allowing you to slide to lower levels, though the game makes little use of this mechanic, and it’s surprisingly easy to plummet to your death if you don’t carefully select where to attach the hook. I rarely used the drone’s shielding capabilities given how easy Shadow Fall is on its default difficulty level, and in fact, I was surprised once I’d finished to see how many full chapters I completed without once succumbing to death. The exception to this rule was a chapter that has you zigzagging between collapsing superstructures in a frustrating freefall sequence that prizes its action-film theatrics over proper playability. It’s difficult to admire wanton destruction when the rules aren’t well established.

One element of Killzone: Shadow Fall that’s clearly superior to its predecessors is its story, which explores an aspect of the Vektan-versus-Helghast conflict that had gone curiously underscrutinized. The red-eyed Helghast are hardly moral lighthouses, but the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance’s righteousness has never been called into question. Now, as Shadow Marshal Lucas Kellan, you face the atrocities your own faction has committed. The surviving Helghast have been offered a new home on Vekta, where the two races are physically separated by a security wall and engage in an uneasy cold war. Lucas’s initial loyalties are established in the opening chapter, which gives Shadow Fall an intimate touch Killzone has always lacked, and Kellan ultimately finds himself torn between his fiery father figure and the mandates of his own conscience. The story beats a predictable drum, and Lucas is an underdeveloped hero who is only remarkable for what he does as opposed to who he is, but at no point did I look back longingly on Rico and Garza’s meathead chatter.

Why hello there, mysterious cloaked woman.

Where Shadow Fall’s campaign eases back on the action, its class-based multiplayer options front-load the thrills, and as always, the Warzone is at the center.

Warzone isn’t a mode so much as a template. It allows you to mix and match various modes such as Team Deathmatch, Capture and Hold, and many others. Classic Warzone randomizes these modes and is an instant thrill. Guerrilla Games is a master of map design, and Killzone: Shadow Fall maintains the series’ high bar. The Remains map recalls Killzone 2’s finest online moments. Crumbling buildings and massive blast holes disrupt your line of sight and keep you looking up and down as well as all around, listening for the telltale footsteps and rat-a-tat-tats that betray nearby soldiers. Combatants weave through corridors and converge in the courtyards and open streets that shape the most frenzied battles.

Penthouse is another treasure among the 10 maps, featuring a rotating core that causes its four entryways to open and close, bringing an extra tactical concern to the firefight. An attempt to be clever and wait for one entrance to become accessible could end with a knife in your back when the entrance behind you clears instead. Players taking alternate routes are guaranteed to clash as they circle the surrounding hallways, and the victor in a surprise one-on-one encounter is typically the one who hits the trigger–or who pulls out a knife–first.

Cloaked teams slinked through a forest armed only with sniper rifles, desperate to stay alive.

On these maps and others, varying objectives pull you into action hotspots, where a dozen or more combatants vie for control. A well-placed spawn generator (which allows teammates to spawn outside of your base) can turn a calm theater into an unstable battlezone where a sudden glut of Helghast soldiers descend upon a group of defending Vektan security agents. The rotating modes keep you on your toes, but it isn’t just the mad dash to the next capture point that lights my fire. After one leg of the battle ends, there’s a restless pause while teams await instructions, giving me a chance to gun down unfocused fighters who let down their guard.

Shadow Fall features three classes–scout, assault, and support–in contrast to Killzone 3’s five, though classes possess more than just two special abilities. While I dabbled as a scout, I’m not one to snipe from the shadows or cloak myself from view. I gravitated to the support class, in part because I love the shotgun’s potency, but also because I enjoyed earning points each time a teammate used a spawn beacon I’d placed. I also enjoyed coming to the rescue of fallen comrades in need of revival, in part because I could summon a healing drone to the battlefield. What a nice change from using a defibrillator to shock a friend back to life.

That guy’s shoulder has been killed to death.

Warzones let you arrange match types as you see fit, but you aren’t limited to the default versions. You can customize matches in significant ways, and if you’re worried about how well they’ll play out online, you can always populate the match with bots. (The scarcity of bot support in other online shooters continues to exasperate me.) You can mess with the number of capture beacons, change time limits, and limit players to specific classes and weapons. Or try creating asymmetrical teams, forcing one to use pistols and allowing the opposing team to cloak themselves. You can significantly alter the pace of a multiplayer match by altering the parameters. I’m excited to see what anarchy results in a match with everyone armed with electrical squad cannons and carrying maximum ammo, and the personalized warzones I did play were notably different from each other. In one creation, cloaked teams slinked through a forest armed only with sniper rifles, desperate to stay alive, knowing that this match type didn’t support respawning. In another match type, pump-action shotguns ruled the day. Each player possessed a special ability that allowed for hurried sprinting, turning a Capture and Hold match into a bloody close-range tug of war.

As much as I enjoyed my online time with Killzone: Shadow Fall–and as much as I will enjoy lots more time with it, unlocking perks that allow me to personalize my weapons–I missed Killzone 3’s jump pack, which brought a nifty nimbleness to the battlegrounds. I missed it in Shadow Fall’s disappointing single-player campaign, too, which sorely needed a shot of adrenaline. Where I look back fondly on Killzone 2’s finest single-player moments, the moments I recall here are those in which I wandered through corridors and rocky meadows wondering where the bad guys were. Luckily, Guerrilla Games remembered what drew me and many others to the front lines of online war, and it’s here that Shadow Fall emerges from the rubble and flies into the electric skies.

Sound Shapes Review

The flames are maracas. Listen to their rhythmic shakes, but don’t dwell for too long; the composition is just getting started. Roll toward the notes that lie flush against the nearby buildings. One, two, and then three drum beats layer on top, and your foot starts to tap. Missiles provide bass, pounding out a catchy riff as they fly across the screen, while the smokestack twangs a guitar melody. As the world awakens, the music begins to swell. Cities is a song that has stayed with me for more than a year, and whenever I revisit it, I’m transported once more by the infectious rhythm. The beat is so enthralling that I sit idly on rooftops, just letting it soak in. But it’s the lyrics that cement this as one of my favorite stages. A platform hovers in the sky, flashing words such as “move,” “twist,” “hurt,” and “lose” while Beck belts out the accompanying lyrics. I could listen to this for hours.

I often feel hesitant to revisit a beloved game. How could reality possibly live up to the memories I have constructed? And yet, returning to Sound Shapes so long after reviewing it for the PlayStation 3 and Vita was like curling up in my cozy bed, free from the worries that dominate my waking hours. There’s a cohesion to this experience that’s uncommon in games. The music is everywhere. Trees chime, saw blades tick, and janitors sigh. Such sounds aren’t music on their own, merely a backdrop beat, and it reminds me of how melodic life can be. Listen to the white noise of distant conversations while sitting in a park; hear the birds chirping overhead while the waves from a nearby lake roll in. It’s the music of life–the rhythm that provides the foundation of every moment–that’s always around if your ears are open. Sound Shapes harnesses this energy, and the results are magnificent.

Worlds are alive. They breathe like sentient organisms, ignoring your existence as they let time carry on. But you’re not just a bystander. As an amorphous blob, your abstraction allows you to blend into any environment. From the brisk outdoors to a bustling office and a bursting volcano, the environments feel like home to your nondescript character no matter how strange they become. And there are notes to collect, a way for you to contribute to the building score. So you roll along the ground, up walls and across ceilings, listening to the environment sing as you add instruments of your own. A piano is slowly added to the mix, along with a drum beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a dance hall. In another land, a harp adds an ethereal quality that conjures images of angels smiling from above. The notes are all optional. You could skip them all if you merely want to reach the end. But why would you hinder your enjoyment? Every note further enriches the soundtrack, and it’s a reward in itself to hear the songs evolve as you venture forth.

Listen to the white noise of distant conversations while sitting in a park; hear the birds chirping overhead while the waves from a nearby pond roll in.

Music is everywhere–everything–but the beauty of Sound Shapes goes beyond the auditory pleasures. You scout the two-dimensional environments for notes, not only because you want to add color to the songs, but because there is joy in movement. Your blob sticks to some surfaces, is repelled by others, and dies from anything that glows red. And as you learn your limitations, you appreciate how intricately designed the levels are. Maybe you ride across the treacherous pit on the tail of a missile, dropping onto an alien creature before you meet your end on a spiky trap. When you venture through D-Cade–an album whose music was created by Deadmau5–you dodge lasers being shot from the eyes of robots, moving quickly and precisely to clear each room before you vanish in a puff of smoke. By ensuring the action is every bit as fascinating as the music, Sound Shapes reaches you on both an emotional and a physical level. All of your senses tingle as you discover what lies ahead.

When I first reviewed Sound Shapes in August of 2012, I evaluated the creation tools based on how accessible and robust they were. Laying down tracks and shaping environments is so easy that even I, an admittedly unimaginative designer, could craft something that at least approached competency. But I could only guess at how a talented community would handle those tools. Revisiting Sound Shapes gave me a chance to see how the user-created library has grown, and it has cemented this game as something truly exceptional.

The core levels of Sound Shapes use a combination of music and difficulty to steer emotions. My sense of discovery was piqued in Corporeal as I chased cats to trigger platforms while viewing the corporate world through an abstract lens. Beyonder removes the shackles of gravity by placing me in a spacecraft, whereas D-Cade’s amped-up challenge makes my heart race. The wide spectrum that the albums encompass is riveting, so much so that I have played through these tracks a half-dozen times just to feel those emotions again. But it’s in the user-made levels that I now understand how much can be communicated through these simple tools.

Melancholia stands out from other stages in the greatest hits library of user-created stages. A crying child serves as the thumbnail, and there’s a puddle of blood near his feet. The first section is ominous, making my breath catch in my throat. Half of the screen is filled with a red, pulsing gravestone. Etched on the face of it are the words “In Memory of My Beloved Son, Tom, 2009-2012” and “My Dear Wife, Liz, 1980-2012.” Tombs dot the rest of your view, with white crosses marking each burial plot. Tom passed away when he was only 3 years old, and Liz was only a year older than me. How utterly heartbreaking. As you move onward, you learn the horrible events that have defined the last year for user jool2306: a lonely hospital room, a woman perched on a rooftop, and the depressing thoughts that must swirl in the mind of anyone who has suffered such losses. Was it possible that Sound Shapes provided an outlet for a grieving father and husband?

Revisiting Sound Shapes gave me a chance to see how the user-created library has grown, and it has cemented this game as something truly exceptional.

Community-made levels encompass a vast array of emotions, and many stand proud next to the developer levels. In A Walk in the Park, I rolled past snapshots of the quiet moments that I too often take for granted. A mother duck and her duckling ignore those around them as the mother passes on the secrets to survival to her hungry kin. In another scene, someone happily flies a kite, content to be alone in nature doing an activity that he loves. A couple walks hand in hand, off the beaten path into the trees where serenity thrives. In another level, Bastion, two robots wait for you to move, and they fire crisscrossing lasers if you try to sneak by them. These are just three of many incredible stages I discovered, and the range of emotions they deliver and the quality of the construction were impressive. So many games have amazing creation tools that are interesting to use but rarely result in anything worthwhile to play, but in Sound Shapes, you experience excitement or grief or any other of a wide range of emotions that makes you eager to see what else is out there.

Sound Shapes is a remarkable convergence of music and platforming. Because I’ve played through the main albums so many times, the levels didn’t hit me as powerfully as they once did. But the community levels hammered home just how singular and enthralling this game is. There is so much personality infused in these stages that I felt as if I understood the people who designed them, at least a little. And that’s what great tools, and a great community, can do. Sound Shapes is a transcendent experience in so many ways. Maybe its most important contribution is giving a voice to the world through music and action.