Play Arma 3 for Free, Get Saints Row 4 for $7, and More Weekend Deals

You can play the realistic military simulator Arma 3 for free this weekend on Steam and also buy it for $30, a 50 percent discount.

The game is free to play now through Sunday at 1 p.m. Pacific Time, and the 50 percent discount offer will end on Monday 10 a.m. Pacific Time.

Players can also log into Arma’s website with their Steam account during the free weekend to vote for their favorite Arma 3 mods and maps in the €500,000 Make Arma Not War contest, a collaboration between developer Bohemia Interactive and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The winner of the Total Modification category (DayZ, for example, is an Arma total modification) will take home €200,000, while in the other categories the prize money is divided between first place (€50,000), second place (€30,000), and third place (€20,000) winners. You can vote in the contest until October 31, and the winners will be announced on March 5, 2015.

Steam has a few other great deals this weekend. You can get Saints Row IV for $6.79, Metro: Last Light Redux for $15, Dead Island Riptide for $5, and Risen 3: Titan Lords for $33.49.

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Google Search Will Tell You Way More About Games Now

If you Google search a video game, Google’s Knowledge Graph will now offer more details related to that game, like its release date, developer, publisher, and more.

If you search for Civilization: Beyond Earth, for example, you’ll see a panel on the right with screenshots from the game, its Metacritic score, a short description via Wikipedia, the series it belongs to, and what platforms it’s available for. The search works for both specific game titles and game series.

First introduced in 2012, Google’s Knowledge Graph enhances searches by offering these summaries of movies, books, places, people, food, and more. Video games are just the latest addition.

“We always want to help people find the best answers to their questions – fast,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat. “With today’s update, you can ask questions about video games, and (while there will be ones we don’t cover) you’ll get answers for console and PC games as well as the most popular mobile apps.”

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Watch How PS4’s Share Play Feature Works

Sony has released a short video tutorial for Share Play, a new feature that allows you to share your PlayStation 4 games with friends who don’t own them.

As you can see in the video, Share Play is accessed through the PS4’s party menu. If you’re the host, you’ll see a new option for Share Play in the party menu, where you can select “Give Controller to Visitor.” This will give the guest control of the game for up to an hour. The host will need to be a PlayStation Plus member to use this feature, but not the guest. If the guest is a PlayStation Plus member as well, you can use the Share Play feature to play a multiplayer game together without the guest having to own or download the game.

Share Play, a feature Sony introduced at its Gamescom press conference as a “virtual couch” experience, is being added to PS4s this Tuesday in the v2.00 firmware update dubbed “Masamune.” The update also adds YouTube sharing, themes, and a USB music player that effectively enables custom soundtracks.

You can find out more about what’s included in the “Masamune” update right here.

Emanuel Maiberg is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @emanuelmaiberg.

For all of GameSpot’s news coverage, check out our hub. Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Legend of Grimrock 2 Review

It’s fitting that the music first greeting you in Legend of Grimrock II is a rousing, bombastic tune that would just as easily be at home in a summer fantasy blockbuster. The sequel is a grand adventure, a far cry from the claustrophobic tunnels of its predecessor’s excellent first-person, tile-based dungeon-crawling revival. And while the suffocating atmosphere of the franchise’s first entry has been diluted by a focus on exploration rather than escape, its mechanics and well-crafted content have flourished and been improved in almost every way. Legend of Grimrock II is a logical and brilliantly executed next step for the series, exhibiting slight symptoms of too much freedom, but never stumbling for long.

GrimrockII has little to do with the mountain peak in the game’s title; rather, it serves as reassurance that the formula defined decades ago, and modernized in the original Grimrock, still elegantly drives the experience. You fashion a party of adventurers with classic Dungeons & Dragons character trappings and step through unexplored three-dimensional terrain one tile at a time. Along the way, you acquire armor, weapons, and artifacts of increasing prowess, outfitting each of your characters to do real-time battle against a bestiary of monstrous creatures. You trigger fatally hidden traps, avoid the obvious ones, and search for vital clues to unlock gates and doorways, while solving riddles and puzzles in a quest for answers to larger mysteries and the almighty pursuit of power itself.

Giant rats are so 1990. It’s all about pirate rats now.

Legend of Grimrock II shirks the longstanding reliance on subterranean labyrinths that have so-well suited the genre; instead, it pulls a new foursome of characters to the Isle of Nex, and the welcome addition of outdoor locales. From the temperate woodlands of Twigroot Forest to the noxious vapors of Keelbreach Bog, each environment carries a unique personality, and together they create a more diverse setting than the original’s endless halls of stone and darkness. Of course, thousands of steps are still waiting to be taken in decrepit dungeons and tight tunnels, but the promise of returning to the fresh air of the surface alleviates the impenetrable gloom of underground life. Even returning to an open sky of a pitch black night–thanks to the great addition of a day and night cycle–feels like a safe haven from the skittering terrors that roam the chasms below.”

The openness of the island setting is mirrored in the game’s navigation. Shortly after your arrival on Nex, you’re free to traverse nearly anywhere you can see, assuming you can unlock the barriers to entry and survive your own curiosity. To that point, there’s a naural sense of progression in Grimrock II: it gently guides you through each new zone without spelling out an optimal order for visiting them. Should you somehow decipher the means to wander into territory too dangerous for your fledgling skills, that gentle hand becomes a clenched fist, ready to immediately bludgeon your party for its foolhardiness–but the option exists, and that non-linearity is refreshing.

Returning to an open sky in a pitch black night–thanks to the great addition of a day and night cycle–feels like a safe haven from the skittering terrors that roam the chasms below.

Unfortunately, that freedom of choice and ambiguous direction is where Grimrock II briefly falters. Much of the adventure hinges on the collection of scattered MacGuffins, conveniently spaced and designed to require the exploration of every area in order to chase them all down. In fact, the journey from your shipwrecked landing to the heart of the mystery is largely devoid of overarching narrative until the climax. What little references there are to a grander scheme are delivered in coy notes from an unknown master of this undiscovered island.

It’s understandable that a focused narrative pushing you from one area to the next might hamper your ability to freely navigate the isle, but the chosen alternative is a nearly blind journey requiring a herculean effort and an enormous amount of good faith that it’s going to pay off in the end–which it thankfully does. Instead, the real story takeaway is found in the immaculately designed riddles, puzzles, and moments of sometimes-not-so-near fatal choice that punctuate every step of the adventure.

Developer Almost Human has deftly crafted dozens of bite-sized, standalone engagements that are often vague, frequently complex, and always clever. And it’s in these moments, when you’re stuck wondering how exactly the provided clues don’t point to the seemingly obvious conclusion, that you might truly appreciate the openness of a world that allows you to go off and perform some other task while you let all the elements of a particularly devious obstacle simmer in the back of your mind.

Legend of Grimrock 2 ReviewWord of advice: Don’t fall in the pit full of zombies, aka, the Zombie Pit.

Overcoming the many vague riddles in Legend of Grimrock II is occasionally grueling, but to Almost Human’s great credit, the answers are nearly always rooted in logic or interpretation, rather than finding some minute trigger on a wall. Oh, there are many secrets on Nex that are only uncovered with a keen eye, say, scrutinizing a sea of stone for the smallest switch, but these instances are almost exclusively tied to superfluous loot rather than vital game progression.

The vein of thoughtful improvement running through Legend of Grimrock II may be most apparent in its intricately designed quandaries, but it snakes through even the most basic elements of the franchise. Character creation, the cornerstone of the dungeon-crawling experience, exhibits a comparable leap forward. Where the original Grimrock opted for a trifecta of class selections–Fighter, Rogue, and Mage–the second offering builds on that trinity, filling the spaces between with new and unique roles. Choose to crush monsters through the Barbarian’s brute force, strike a balance between marshal and mystical arts with a Battlemage, or brew life-saving concoctions with collected herbs as an Alchemist. All are viable additions to a budding party, though in practice, some classes are clearly more beneficial than others.

The real story takeaway is found in the immaculately designed riddles, puzzles, and moments of sometimes-not-so-near fatal choice that punctuate every step of the adventure.

In another sly wink poking fun at the tropes of the genre, there’s even a Farmer class, which excels in absolutely nothing you’d want in an adventurer and gains experience not by killing enemies but by eating food. It’s these small touches of playful meta–for example, some races gain hidden statistical benefits after ingesting their preferred foods, and the new Ratling race has a special affinity for cheese–that paint Grimrock II as a creation that’s totally comfortable in its own skin while still true to the dungeon crawling mantle of yore.

But while an old-school spirit might power the core, the vessel is a more modern, expanded take on the experience than even the original Grimrock had to offer. The addition of weapon-specific special attacks adds a welcome layer of depth to combat; by drawing from your characters’ energy pools, you’re able to trigger devastating blows with titanic axes, or launch a flurry of slashes with a sabre. Moreover, the overhauled spell casting system allows you to quickly swipe across runes to prime a spell, replacing the cumbersome need to click each individual one. Now you can engage in combat that is fluid and interactive, rather than just repeatedly hacking at something until one of you squeals and collapses.

Better still, when paired with the active and passive bonuses of available skills and traits, each character can potentially attain enough unique purpose that fights are often elevated from slugfests to battles of timing, positioning, and resourcefulness. The appointed leader of my party, Arielle the Knight, started as the tough-as-nails tank, but somewhere during my 30-hour adventure she learned to dual-wield rune-adorned scimitars, backstabbing unsuspecting enemies in her impractically bulky armor. Thanks to the untethered skill system, she did it all, and you’re free to similarly build any class in any direction you choose.

Legend of Grimrock 2 ReviewPoison, petrification, disease, blindness–there’s a status effect for everyone!

Combat in Grimrock II is a more refined, empowering, and choice-centric part of the experience this time around, and with good reason: The beasts that inhabit the Isle of Nex are a much more formidable breed. Mainstay monsters that have adorned the darkened hallways of grid-based crawlers for years are well-represented: giant spiders, rats, ogres, and the undead. But new to the fray are creatures that, like your characters, carry their own functional skillsets. The giant toads roaming the bog may seem straightforward, but when one leaps across several tiles, landing behind your party, lashing out with its sticky tongue and pulling your characters’ weapons out of their hands, the encounter shifts dramatically in its favor. Wispy elementals patrol the forests and press their attacks, unfazed by conventional weapons and spells, and leaving you helplessly searching for a vulnerability of some kind. And amethyst-hued cycloptic floating squid-beasts spew blinding ink from both ends, disgustingly enough, in the jewel-encrusted mines beneath the surface of Nex.

These functional additions to the bestiary are fairly indicative of what you should expect from Legend of Grimrock II: A well-established foundation revisited and excellently enhanced in the years between releases. Nearly every aspect of this dense adventure has been touched in a positive way, with none of the clutter that often accompanies second-act offerings that try to cram too much in. And despite the lack of narrative, Grimrock II is an outstanding second trip to the nostalgia well. It synthesizes the key elements that made the first game great, improves upon them in intriguing and powerful ways, and uses that as a platform for designing and launching more of the same great content.

Legend of Grimrock II is similar to one of its many well-designed riddles: While solving it may be a long, arduous process, approaching each obstacle with newfound understanding and hearing the victorious click of gears finally turning gives you a feeling of profound pride and accomplishment. Legend of Grimrock II is another glorious glimpse of the past, a window to a genre dead and buried and brought back to life with care and respect, and I urge you to peek through it.

Neverending Nightmares Review

There’s an elite brand of horror that, even in these glory days when players are drowning in utterly terrifying interactive experiences, is rare to see, and harder to pull off, and that is the horror of the self. That is, the terror that comes not from a malignant, malicious invader that must be put down, but from witnessing perversions and desecrations beyond imagining, and realizing you’re responsible for such terror, and you have to forever change to keep it at bay. This is the territory that Silent Hill 2 occupies, and it’s one of only a few games to get it exactly right.

Neverending Nightmares is a solemn attempt to flourish in that territory, and it has the right ideas. It’s the story of a young man named Thomas who is stuck in a seemingly eternal Inception-style loop of visceral Edward Gorey nightmares. His own house is slowly overtaken by living, ominous shadows and dolls with frozen smiles whose eyes follow him when he walks by. He finds himself in an asylum overrun by straight-jacketed cannibals and with haphazardly-piled mutilated dead in the hallways. Dead women rain from the sky in a cemetery while birds feed on the corpses. There are common elements in each scenario, but the omnipresent one is the ephemeral specter of a black-haired girl. The girl takes many forms: sister, wife, psychiatrist, daughter, china doll, bride, and, not least of all, bloody, knife-wielding murderwoman. She is both the reason to press on and the reason to want to escape every nightmare Thomas finds himself in. But you don’t escape. You simply… persist.

Spot the creepy ghost lady, win a prize.

The devil is quite literally in the details in Neverending Nightmares. As you explore, a room might be little more than a bunch of family paintings, or a benign toy chest in a corner, or a sterile bathroom. Returning to that same room later, the wallpaper might have turned into deathly skulls, or the expression on the doll’s face turned to terror; random blood stains might’ve appeared, or you might hear random whispers, crying, and screams off in the distance. When Neverending Nightmares is at its best, it’s a sort of hellish Gone Home, where opening a new door means falling forever, having your Achilles tendons slashed, ripping out your own veins like string cheese; and making progress towards a new nightmare is indistinguishable from abject failure until you notice the change in the air, a different set of taunting voices. It’s a perfect storm of fear: You are free to explore yet claustrophobically trapped, all at once.

This dichotomy would create a distressing combination even if movement weren’t so restricted. Thomas’ regular gait when walking is a limping shuffle that makes simple walks down a hallway feel like roaming 40 years in a desert. Yes, you have the ability to run, but Thomas apparently has the stamina of a chain-smoker with one lung, and you can get maybe five seconds of sprinting out of him before he’s exhausted. It adds a nice layer of tension to the game’s many terrifying chases, but when it takes forever to get from point A to B, tension turns into flat annoyance.

Neverending Nightmares ReviewWorst. Slumber party. Ever.

The monotony isn’t helped by the fact that Neverending Nightmares is such a sparse game. After knowing what’s scattered around each environment, you can go for stretches where you’re walking in and out of doors with nothing happening, nothing having changed, and with nothing new to interact with. The intent seems to be to give the player breathing room before going in for the scare, but it feels more artificial. Bad dreams typically aren’t characterized by moments of lukewarm emptiness, and the fact that there are many here distracts.

What dreams do have, however, is abstraction, and Neverending Nightmares excels here. The game speaks in the broken dream language of trauma and internalized pain like few games do, and the facts of Thomas continually murdering himself, being marauded by defective babies, or seeing the girl dead in so many configurations are meant to walk the careful line between subtext and text. You are meant to put the pieces together, and the more the game feeds you on the far extremes of violence and sadness, the less it makes sense. Are you watching a man who killed a loved one and can no longer rest? Are you watching a brother stuck in purgatory for attempting suicide? Are you seeing the aftereffects of a parent grieving a dead child? The emotions are clearly represented: Fear, grief, surrender, self-loathing, and doubt.

Neverending Nightmares ReviewProtip: Anything she found here is terrifying. Please don’t follow her.

What those emotions are in aid of is the pertinent question, and it’s a haunting one, which the game’s multiple endings do muddled work in answering, to both the game’s benefit and detriment. You walk away with heady questions about what you’ve played. What you might not come away with is satisfaction. Despite being only a one-to-two- hour game, it feels like a long way to get to either of the three finish lines; even trying for a second ending feels like work, and at least one of the endings puts far too easy a cap on what came before to feel true to the preceding hour.

And yet, having slept on it, I find myself obsessing over the questions raised, and the imagery foisted upon me by the encroaching darkness, than I have with any game in recent memory. Its frustrations are many, but they are not what sticks in the mind after it’s done. Neverending Nightmares might be a dream only worth taking once, but once is all it needs to work its ill upon you.

Civilization: Beyond Earth Review

I am looking at the number 585. It’s below the “hours played” tab for my copy of Civilization V and I…well, I’m not sure I want to dwell on that figure. But I can tell you that for all those hours, I’ve only actually seen a single session with the history-based strategy game through to completion. I’m an absentee world leader: present for my peoples’ first fumbling steps towards agriculture, gone again somewhere between the invention of the compass and the internal combustion engine. I get into these obsessive restarting loops, curious just to see what new permutation the game’s map-making algorithms spit out. Eventually I’ll nestle a few defensible cities into the mountainside, churn through tech advancements until I can fuss over cute little janissaries or hussar units like they’re collectible figurines. Then, in a sudden fit of self-loathing, I’ll wipe the board clean. It’s wonderful, soul-sucking entertainment.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth shifts the series’ brand of turn-based discovery and conquest off-planet, and the sci-fi setting puts a slick, chrome sheen on my old neurosis. But Beyond Earth also calcifies much of Civilization V’s vocabulary and play arc. You still situate your capital city, and click it to designate the production of military units or workers that can spruce up your immediate surroundings. You still unlock new technologies and cultural policies that ensure a steady drip of upgrades and benefits. There are the familiar icons for production, food, and culture to illustrate the quantified output of your cities, and a new one, energy, is a reasonable enough stand-in for currency–its icon even looks a bit like a golden coin to ease you into the transition. So despite the new trappings, it’s simple enough to slide back into routine. Create, explore, and expand–or, if you’re like me, create, explore, quit, and create again.

The alien terrain shows off smooth transitions between tiles.

There are a few welcome touch-ups to smooth over Civilization’s old edges, and they first appear in pregame as a series of decisions to make prior to starting your bid for global domination. A first step can be taken towards generating energy, science, culture, et alia, and you can opt to begin the game with a military unit, or a clinic if you’d prefer. There’s more freedom afforded when picking out which parcel of land to found your first city on, and there’s even a perk that reveals the outlines of the world’s land masses. So much for my incessant restarting, then–all things considered, Beyond Earth seems to output viable starting situations more reliably than its predecessors.

But viable doesn’t necessarily mean welcoming–this is an alien planet, after all, and colonizing it is going to beget some unfortunate learning experiences on the behaviors of local wildlife as part of due course. Maybe those lessons will come from the sandworm churning up your freshly tilled farmland a few tiles from your capital and consuming any trade expedition you send in its general direction. Or maybe from the creature that’s three-quarters mandible, just kind-of loitering ominously offshore. Aliens play the role of the barbarian tribes from the last few Civilization games, as an entity that’s not exactly “in it to win it.” But they’ll mess with your early game plans all the same, utilizing better cunning and more imposing units than their old club-wielding counterparts. Even Beyond Earth’s loan translations of the previous entries’ forests, mountains, and livestock feel suitably threatening here. A toxic miasma coats about a third of the surface of any map, damaging human units and healing aliens. And while natural wonders are conspicuously absent–robbing players of part of the draw of exploring a new planet–the varied terrain is full of curious features like resource pods, ruins and alien skeletons to seek out. The land is pock-marked with craters and chasms, the grasslands have a sickly cast to them, and I’m still trying to get comfortable with the idea of constructing a paddock for giant beetles.

Civilization: Beyond Earth ReviewBeyond Earth’s opening cinematic teases colorful cultures that wash out in the gameplay.

But you’re probably going to have to manifest some destiny sooner or later, because advancement in Beyond Earth necessitates subscription to a belief system and two of the three available are less than concerned with preserving indigenous species. So-called affinities push your development towards divergent goals: Purity, Supremacy, or Harmony. It’s a choice between Terran, Protoss, or Zerg, really. Purity marks a civilization that concerns itself with recreating the comforts of home and preserving humanity in a more-or-less recognizable state. Supremacy is a technocratic zealotry that comes with all the haughtiness you’d expect–really, its units bear names like “Educator” and “Prophet.” Harmony is there for us Truffula Tree-huggers, and since it lets you ride an alien like a horse and sic giant space katydids on your enemy’s cities, I’d say it’s the clear choice for the discerning Fremen. Interestingly, the text that accompanies each new affinity level shifts in tone along with the stage of the game, starting with earnest, innocent theorizing and gradually taking on a more hawkish, proselytizing inflection as the players start jockeying for position near the home stretch.

The Civilization series portrays a history that’s not of people, but rather “the State.” That is to say, you don’t play as Ghandi, or Gengis Kahn: you play as India, or Mongolia, as well as a vision of those peoples united in a singular, millennia-spanning focus on besting all other nations. Beyond Earth expands upon this cult of the state, drawing the series’ diverse cast of historical cultures into eight broad, continental coalitions, and rescinding the roles that individual artists, engineers, and scientists had been enjoying in Civilization V. The loss of the latter means a less celebratory, more overtly martial sort of strategy game, and I’m not keen on this step backwards towards the series’ competitive, board game roots. It’s echoed in the relative parity of the eight coalitions, which lack the color and diversity of play-styles that Civ V furnished so adeptly. In Beyond Earth’s eight-person multiplayer (local or online), the terms have never been so even, but some of the fascination went out the door with the asymmetry.

Affinities push your development towards divergent goals: Purity, Supremacy, or Harmony.

Civilization: Beyond Earth Review

It’s a brave new world, with new lands to chart, resources to harvest, and goals to pursue. But it’s also as cynical as the old one, where most actions serve competitive ends, and even the most cooperative and well-maintained alliances will be shattered by necessity towards game’s end. To Civilization, the State is an entity that acts on only the basest and most selfish of desires–consume, grow, and propagate. That’s become increasingly ironic, as Beyond Earth’s web of discoverable technologies introduces high-minded and esoteric futurisms like “Human Idealism” and “Artificial Evolution.” A little barbarism was to be expected back when Civilization’s tech tree was largely given over to simply escaping the Dark Ages. But Beyond Earth suggests–and perhaps not wrongly–that advancements like euthenics or microrobotics are ultimately just the new sticks we’ll use to club each other over the head.

Beyond Earth’s operatic opening short tells the story of a young female colonist who bears at least some superficial resemblance to National Geographic’s famous “Afghan Girl.” But it’s otherwise hard to get a sense of what these people look like, or what their culture entails beyond that brief cinematic glimpse, because only the military gets treated to any real illustration in the game proper. Gone are the works of art, music, and writing that helped to redefine the cultural victory in Civilization V, pared back to an abstract number that’s ultimately used towards more aggressive ends. World wonders do reprise their role as larger constructive undertakings, but the bonuses they proffer feel tepid and same-ish this time around. There are quests, though–a first for Civilization. In practice, they’re a limited set of binary prompts with a light influence on your direction of progress, but they nevertheless lend some helpful narrative context to the action, and they can branch in unexpected ways. A newly founded independent outpost might turn out to be performing questionable experiments on its colonists, perhaps, or a plant brought along on the journey to the new world might take root and begin overriding the local flora.

In at least one case, you’re tasked with spying on a particular city belonging to a rival civ. It’s a subtle guiding of the eyes towards Beyond Earth’s enhanced spy system, which requires regular management of a small team that can siphon energy, science, or units from other cities in addition to the last game’s tech thievery and intel thievery. Successful operations increase the intrigue rating for a city, ostensibly granting access to higher-tier abilities like fomenting rebellion or planting a bomb, but in practice it seems difficult to ever reach those levels. Relocating a spy to one’s own city might be too reliable a means of reducing your intrigue levels when you see them spiking.

Gone are the works of art, music, and writing that helped to redefine the cultural victory in Civilization V.

Civilization: Beyond Earth Review

But absent a more subversive method of dealing with your foes, there’s always old-fashioned battle. Military units still hold sway over most of the game space, trading turn-based fire between the hexagonal parcels of land and besieging cities. They fall back on Civilization’s traditional archetypes: melee, ranged, cavalry, and siege, even as their outward appearances morphs from astronauts with rifles and moon rovers to bipedal robots and giant kaiju. The ones you field depend on your progression towards one of the three affinities, and in a welcome bit of streamlining, the upgrades get rolled out automatically with each new level–no more paying for promotions for each individual unit. Better still, a new, similarly tiled orbital layer plays host to satellites which can be launched for quick industrial bonuses, or support coverage for your armies in the field.

Beyond Earth’s combat suffers from some balance issues though, and that’s curious for a game that leans so heavily on proven systems. Cities are comically easy to take–most melee units fare much better at city capturing, and you can often halve a city’s defenses in a single attack–resulting in situations where cities tediously trade ownership turn after turn. The fragility extends to the units themselves, many of which die in a single hit. By consequence, a small standing army is less tenable than it was back on Earth, and I find myself less invested in the fate of any one unit when it can be snuffed out by an orbital strike at any given moment.

I am finding that I play more games through to completion in Beyond Earth. In inverse of my experience with Civilization V, my favorite part might be the ending, where a civ has to lay its cards face-up in a bid for one of the five methods of victory, and any semblance of “civilization” goes out the window as everyone else tries to drag them back down like the proverbial crabs in the bucket. The three affinity-specific victories don’t play out all that differently, nor does a fourth concerned with making contact with an unseen, advanced alien race. Each entails researching a few specific technologies, then designating your cities to produce a structure or two that sometimes have minor idiosyncrasies, like consuming your surplus energy each turn. But the path to victory is more elegantly interwoven with the early and middle game this time around, and of course, global domination, ever the crude way out, remains as tempting as ever when another world leader shows up uninvited to talk some smack. The more things change, the more they stay the same, then; a journey to a planet halfway across the universe reaffirming the draw of the same old creature comforts–a plot of land, and just one more turn.

The Evil Within Review

The Evil Within is not a game that relies on cheap jump scares. It’s driven by a slow, sustained, and deeply pervasive sense of dread that sets your mind racing at every crunch of glass beneath your feet and every distant groan from an unseen enemy. Much of this tension is thanks to the game’s striking use of atmosphere, so gloomy and impactful it often borders on suffocating, but it’s also a testament to an action-heavy combat system whose scant ammunition and immediate threat of death is just as demanding as it is satisfying. Were it not for the occasional stumble into moments of immense frustration and an aimless, sputtering story, The Evil Within could have been something truly great. What’s left, though, is an uneven but ultimately captivating ode to the glory days of survival horror.

At the center of it all is Sebastian Castellanos, a detective called in to investigate a vicious collection of murders at a local mental hospital. The brief preamble leading up to this investigation is all the calm The Evil Within can muster, because from then on Castellanos is sent tumbling through a twisted and only occasionally coherent story involving supernatural apparitions, gruesome monsters, and a seemingly infinite series of nightmarish backdrops.

It’s not a good story. Nor is it self-aware, lacking any trace of that cheeky, almost-a-Jill-sandwich charm of early survival horror games. It is genuinely, earnestly bad. Castellanos is a wooden and thoroughly uninteresting protagonist, a gruff cop with a dark past whose in-game journal actually contains the line, “I have to stay strong, but it’s so easy to drown my thoughts in whiskey.” Then there’s the overarching plot, so meandering and slipshod with its constant jumps in and out Castellanos’ tormented visions that this narrative trickery becomes routine, even numbing in a way. It’s a saw whose teeth have been worn down by overuse.

So the world lacks context, but it doesn’t lack impact. The Evil Within is a horror experience built on such an outstanding foundation–the chilling use of light and shadow, the menacing audio flourishes–that merely traversing its environments is enough to make your heart skip a few beats. Whether it has you exploring a derelict hospital ward splattered with blood and overturned wheelchairs, a ravaged urban center where aquatic monsters patrol its flooded streets, or even that most weathered of survival horror settings, the creepy mansion, The Evil Within transports you through a diverse assortment of places with one theme tying them all together: an absolutely terrifying sense of atmosphere.

The letterbox effect is odd at first, but you hardly notice it after a while.

There’s more to contend with than eerie sights and sounds, of course. The Evil Within is full of grotesque creatures who relish every opportunity to rend you limb from limb. There are the vaguely human monsters that populate early chapters, wielding hatchets and hurling sticks of dynamite like super-charged zombies, but as the game wears on you’re pitted against increasingly nasty and challenging foes. But no matter where you are in the game’s lengthy story, death is never far around the corner. The Evil Within is a brutal experience where the slightest lapse in concentration can turn you into a pool of viscera on the ground.

As a result, caution and patience are your greatest allies in this fight for survival. Every handgun round feels precious, every healing syringe feels like it could be your last. But for as stingy as the game is with its resources, it’s also rich in choices. Do you use that one remaining bullet to go for a headshot, or shoot your foe in the leg before rushing up and burning it with a match? Do you throw a bottle to lure that creature toward a trip wire booby trap, or risk dismantling the trap yourself and using those parts to craft a new crossbow bolt? The whole game is littered with these tense moment-to-moment decisions, always forcing you to be creative and resourceful with the way you approach each fight. But when your craftiness pays off and you manage to scrape through an encounter with your body intact, the payoff is immense.

That challenge scales well, too. Part of the enjoyment of slowly searching through each environment is the allure of finding green gel, which functions as currency for the game’s extensive upgrade system. It’s here that you can choose from options like increasing your sprint time, carrying more shotgun shells, or even reducing the sway on your handgun reticule. It’s a great system that allows you to feel like you’re adequately prepared for the ferocious monsters waiting for you in the game’s later stages, but on your own terms and with your own strategy in mind. (Green gel isn’t so abundant that you can upgrade everything; you really need to pick a path and stick with it.)

The Evil Within ReviewPart of the reason combat is so satisfying is the feeling that every last bullet is critical.

The Evil Within does a remarkable job of pushing you to your limit, but there are moments when it crosses that line and the experience suffers for it. One of the biggest culprits is the autosave system, a finicky and unpredictable thing that doesn’t seem to behave by any consistent logic. It generally records your progress after major encounters, but there are times it saves your game mid-battle for no apparent reason, and others when it’s been so long since you saw that little icon on the screen that you feel as though you’re crawling through the desert in search of water, cursing the sun for its abject cruelty. You often find yourself playing through certain stretches again and again for no clear reason, the game’s striking atmosphere becoming a little less impressive each time through . (Note: there is a manual save system, but it’s generally only accessible at the start of each chapter, meaning the further you proceed, the more you surrender yourself to the whims of the autosave gods.)

The Evil Within ReviewThe Evil Within’s upgrade system provides a great incentive to explore the environments. Yes, that includes toilets.

A similar issue plagues some of the boss battles. The bosses are suitably terrifying, twisted monsters capable of making you shiver at the mere sight of them. And some of them make for great encounters, forcing you to take the same wits and creativity you’ve been refining in basic combat and dial them up to a whole new level. But others require you to perform these very specific, very obtuse secondary goals hidden somewhere in the environment. It’s these fights that you need to plow through over and over and over until you figure out the right process, a chore made even more tedious by the game’s glacial load times and habit of repeating the same boss introduction cinematic.

Other moments of frustration pop up throughout the campaign–invisible enemies, a recurring character who appears from nowhere to kill you instantly–which feel like clumsy missteps in an otherwise satisfying fight for survival. But it’s a fight that anyone with a tough stomach should take on. Because for as much as The Evil Within does stumble, it always seems to recover. What it does at its core it does so well that all those issues floating on the periphery eventually fade away to reveal a satisfying if slightly blemished return to classic survival horror.

F1 2014 Review

It takes great talent to drive a Formula One car. The vehicles are set up to go as quickly as possible within the given (and complicated) FIA regulations, and this season’s new turbocharged cars are horribly twitchy and snappy, particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing. In the hands of a normal driver, they’d spit you off into a wall at the first corner. This is what happens very early on in F1 2014.

Then again, that is the point. Sure, there are myriad of driving assists to help keep you on the track, but the real appeal of F1 is in keeping your car planted without any help at all. Assists for braking, steering, traction control, and so forth do play their parts as you learn the braking points of a track and get to grips with the twitchy handling of this season’s cars, but as time goes on, you find yourself lowering the artificial assistance to the minimum, and racking up some respectable lap times.

Smooth movements, correct braking points, and the right amount of steering lock are key to finding your way around corners with any degree of success. The learning curve is steep, and the game doesn’t do a great job of teaching you the finer points of driving an F1 car, which you need in order to turn off any of the assists. That you need to be as alert as you do to get the cars around a track is a testament to the quality of the simulation on offer, though. As with real F1, make one mistake and your race is ruined, presuming you prefer not to make use of the replay system. Excellent tyre physics let you feel every twist and turn in a track, while a surprisingly accurate degradation model means you’ve got to keep an eye on tyre performance during the longer races, lest you lose grip and spin off the track. The same goes for fuel management, which requires a keen eye and good pit stop management. Ultimately, if you look after your car, it’ll look after you. Abuse it, and you’ll find you have no wing, no grip and barely enough go to make it to the pits.

While the updates to F1 2014’s simulation mean that the cars handle differently but accurately for this season (or as best as a person that’s not actually driven an F1 car can tell), there are some underlying issues with that game that this year’s update fails to resolve. For instance, modulating the throttle is still frustratingly difficult on the Xbox 360 controller, and I often accidentally wheelspan away from the line, or simply gave the car too much juice over an apex. The brakes are easier to modulate on the pad; the steering less so, but it’s manageable.

F1 2014 Review

The best way to play F1 2014 is with a wheel and pedal. A quick spin on the PC version with the proper kit (in this case, the excellent and fully supported Thrustmaster T500 RS) not only made the racing more manageable, but far more immersive as well. The focus of F1 is on precision, but that’s not to say there aren’t some exciting moments to be found outside of a well-executed gear change. I often found myself chasing a car, repeatedly telling myself “I’ll take him on the next corner,” or hoping to a deity that I could outbrake him to get ahead, only to be pipped to the post in a furious pedal-to-the-metal finish on the home straight.

F1 2014 is beautiful. Each car is shiny in all the right places and covered in all the right sponsors, making those fast-lap replays look fantastic. It all looks even better in the rain, when the track becomes covered in a watery sheen and a fine spray rooster-tails its way from the back of competitors’ cars, blocking your view in close quarters racing. Aesthetically, it’s hard to fault F1 2014 in all but two areas: the wing mirrors and the drivers. The former are blocky, indistinct, and not all that useful in a race, while the latter look rather sickly. Perhaps the drivers are suffering from the grueling hours of a full F1 season, or maybe the Xbox 360 and PS3’s ages are beginning to show, but considering the cars look so good, the ugly drivers do take you out of the moment.

F1 2014 falters further when it comes to its selection of modes and extras. In comparison to F1 2013, aside from the tweaked handling, all you get are a few new car models and a couple of new tracks. F1 2014 actually removes some of last year’s content with the loss of the awesome classic mode. That was a major selling point of the old game, so not having it here is a significant step backwards. Still, what is in F1 2014 is decent, if not at all that different to last year.

Rivals, Career and Scenario make up the meat of the game: in Rivals you enter a back-of-the-grid team as a rookie and fight your way up the rankings to beat a chosen rival in a best-of-three battle. Your chosen rival is supposed to be someone in a higher-tier team than you so you can steal their drive, but they’re often so much faster that what should be a nice challenge turns into a frustrating experience. Swap a rival out for a fresher, slower driver and he’ll miraculously speed up as well. Moving the goalposts in such a way makes for a frustrating experience.

F1 2014 Review

Career mode takes you all the way through a race weekend from practice to qualifying, and then on to the big race itself. Again, the AI drivers are hard work, but keep plugging away and eventually you can shave seconds off your lap times to steal a podium spot. Handily, you can choose how long your season is, so you don’t have to commit to too much if you don’t want to. Scenario is by far the most interesting mode to play in. You’re given specific tasks to complete, such as having to complete a wet race on less than appropriate slick tyres, for which you’re awarded a medal based on your performance.

Despite F1 2014’s good points, it’s hard to get away from the fact that it’s little more than an inconsistent update of a great game. The cars are good fun once you get the hang of the new handling model, the visuals are surprisingly sharp (for the cars at least), and there’s more than enough punishing difficultly on offer for those after a real racing challenge. Ultimately, though, how big an F1 fan you are is going to dictate the value proposition here: if you’re fair-weather and already own the feature-packed F1 2013, just how badly do you want to drive the new cars?

A City Sleeps Review

A City Sleeps is a music-driven, bullet hell shooter with an invigorating soundtrack and a colorful, comic-like presentation. The hybrid of concepts feels fresh and fun in the beginning, and there are moments when the ideas harmonize, but the game rapidly runs out of new stages and music, and you’re left with nothing to do but replay the same levels at higher difficulty settings. At that point, your enthusiasm quickly falls through the cracks, well before you get access to the game’s advanced upgrades. Shoot-em-ups have a reputation for being challenging by design, especially the bullet hell variants, but for A City Sleeps, there are more hurdles than bullet patterns to overcome and it’s all to easy to find yourself tripping over the bumps along the way.

It’s interesting to see how A City Sleeps toys with the general makeup of a bullet hell shooter, though. Games such as Ikaruga, DoDonPachi, and Mushimesama are members of the infamous sub-genre, which are defined by their screen-filling, curtains of bullets. Nearly every bullet hell shooter scrolls in a unidirectional fashion, be it horizontally or vertically. Enemies come from one part of the screen, and thus, so do their bullets. The background scrolls from right to left in A City Sleeps, but in reality, this is a twin stick shooter like Geometry Wars, with a static field. The background may be moving in a single direction, but enemies and their bullets come from every direction, drastically increasing the amount of ground you need to monitor at a given moment.

It’s good that your weapon can fire in any direction, too, which affords you the flexibility to evade incoming fire and attack your enemies from any angle. You can close in and attack with a katana, which charges a meter for every successful strike. Once your meter is full, you can then slash at large swaths of enemies with a screen-sized spirit sword, which is invaluable during boss fights.

You’re also able to tap into the power of spirits by possessing idols that appear at fixed intervals throughout levels. Once possessed, these idols can emit healing energy, fire at enemies, or freeze them in their tracks, depending on the spirit you assign to them, and you have the ability to reassign spirits on the fly with a simple button combination. Exploiting this mechanic is an important aspect of your strategy, and thankfully, the game also slows to a snail’s pace when you initiate the possession process. You can unlock new properties for each spirit type, but only after you complete levels at advanced difficulty levels. In theory, the progression of abilities should work in step with the game’s difficulty, but you always feel like the game is two steps ahead of you, and unlike most shooters, you don’t earn weapon upgrades during levels. It’s frustrating that you have to beat levels to get the most useful upgrades when you feel woefully ill-equipped in the first place.

The background may be moving in a single direction, but enemies and their bullets come from every direction, drastically increasing the amount of ground you need to monitor at a given moment.

As is tradition, your character, in this case Poe the Dream Exorcist, is only vulnerable at the very center of her character model. Here, her hitbox clearly represented by a green beacon. Being able to quickly identify her weak spot is critical when you’re caught in the middle of a bullet wave, and in this instance, Harmonix has given you an advantage that you wouldn’t normally have. Feel lucky, because you move at a slightly lazy clip, and though you can dash at a fixed distance, it’s too big of a bound and thus not good for frequent use.

A City Sleeps is painfully difficult once you get past the first round of levels. This is partially because there are times when enemies attack you from every direction, pummeling you with dozens of bullets, but it’s also due to the way in which the background music influences your weapon. The music is great, and firing your weapon contributes to it in a satisfying way by emitting sounds to the beat, but your rate of fire is also dictated by said beat, which fluctuates throughout each level. In other words: you can’t count on your weapon firing in a consistent pattern at all times. In order to predict its behavior, you need to be in sync the music. Nevertheless, when enemies move at a consistent speed, regardless of the music, you’re at a disadvantage when you can’t defend yourself just the same.

Though it limits your potential firepower, the connection between the gameplay and music can be downright mesmerizing when you aren’t stuck in an insurmountable situation. The tracks are simple and mellow in the beginning, but as stages progress, your weapon, and the actions of possessed idols and your enemies, add new layers to the orchestra. As the combination of instruments ramps up, you feel increasingly engaged in the action. It’s not hard to feel in tune with the soundtrack, but this feeling fades away once the onslaught from your enemies reaches its peak and you struggle to find your footing.

You could argue that this connection between music and your weapon presents an unusual chance to balance multiple skills, but A City Sleeps ramps up the challenge too quickly to facilitate a proper learning curve. It would have been so much more enjoyable if the challenge grew in a smooth manner, because after you beat the game’s three levels, a paltry selection, all that’s left to do is replay them at harder difficulties. Not only is the game too repetitive as a result, but it’s hard to get much enjoyment from the process when it feels like you don’t have the tools you need to succeed. If the disbursement of upgrades were different, then maybe this wouldn’t be the case, but as is, you feel alienated by the odds well before you get the chance to equip yourself for success.

A City Sleeps leans on hardcore difficulty to compensate for its lack of content, and its use of music, while interesting, is a source of frustration, especially as the difficulty increases. It’s disappointing, because at its core, there are a lot of good ideas, but they never truly shine in the presence of the game’s issues. Highly-skilled shoot-em-up fans and bullet hell veterans will find an experience that lives up to their maniacal expectations, but unless you count yourself among the shooter elite, don’t expect A City Sleeps to hold your attention for long.

Fluster Cluck Review

Chickens in games are seldom ever funny, let alone charming. They’re only appealing if you go all out with the chicken theme like Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, or if they serve a practical purpose, like the Cuccos from The Legend of Zelda or the eggs from Resident Evil 4. In Fluster Cluck, developer Loot Entertainment assumes that chickens are both universally appealing and deserving of an introduction by a loud, obnoxious M.C.

Loot Entertainment prescribes to the notion that chickens are not only funny, but doubly so when you’re turning non-chickens into chickens. That’s the crux of Fluster Cluck: deliver more creatures into a chicken-conversion device than your opponents. The ability to shoot down your competitors while you’re carrying an innocent horse or camel is about as complex as the game gets. It’s frustratingly unfortunate that all the other parts that make up Fluster Cluck cannot adequately support such a simple and straightforward concept.

It’s not as fun as it looks, even in couch multiplayer.

Fluster Cluck’s maps are devoid of imagination; Loot Entertainment’s best designs and layouts are comparable to the least inspiring maps from refined multiplayer game collections like Nintendo Land and the Rayman Raving Rabbids series. That means these arenas fulfill the bare minimum requirements that constitute marginally interesting maps: multiple levels, a mix of narrow paths and open spaces, and non-symmetrical geography. Note that these attributes do not apply to every map in Fluster Cluck, just the entire playlist as a whole. Furthermore, the poor placement of spawn points and power-up wells do nothing to help these uninspired maps. Respawning on one of only two spots on a given map makes for a teeth-grinding session when, in the final minute of a match, that part of the arena has been cleaned out of victims to pick up. The A.I.’s aggressiveness and its focus on delivering creatures to convert leaves you no choice but to focus on chicken conversion yourself and ignore the remotely placed power-ups. It’s just as well, since the potency of these enhancements offers close to nothing compared to a well-aimed salvo of the primary weapon.

Between the pervasive winter of the most recent Dark Souls II add-on and the dank sewers of Outlast, recent games have proven that familiar game settings can still engage the player as long as there’s creative vision molding these environments. By contrast, Fluster Cluck underscores the generic aspects of these go-to surroundings. When you start from a pair of lush green pastures in the first two arenas and progress to the bright sands of Fluster Cluck’s deserts, which are of course accompanied by mundane and familiar Middle Eastern game music, you just can’t help but anticipate that the fire level is just around the corner (spoiler: it’s the obligatory zombie-infested urban wasteland instead).

Fluster Cluck ReviewBig surprise, the desert map also has an evening version.

Somehow, these aren’t the worst facets of Fluster Cluck’s arenas, as the game’s greatest test of patience involves the levels’ pipes. As Super Mario Bros. taught us, pipes and similar kinds of passages can add a lot to an otherwise ordinary level. With Fluster Cluck’s speed of play, the pipes work like portals in Portal, with no transitional sound effects or brief pauses. This does not work well in an arena, especially when there’s only one passage to the map’s goal. This is doubly upsetting when you have enemies on both sides of the pipe, bumping you like a helpless pinball in and out of the two sections connected by the pipe. It’s not fun when the most sensible way to get out of such a tough spot is to die.

Bumping against and shooting down your enemies make up the bulk of your interactions with others. They’re aggressive, but also predictable, often taking the most direct routes to the chicken converter. This leaves you with a decision: Do you charge into the scrum at the risk of getting toasted, or do you go off the beaten path at the expense of time? You should also consider the fact that any downed opponent can also be converted into a chicken, including yourself. Having to make these judgment calls every few seconds should make for stimulating play, but the high likelihood of dying every 10 to 20 seconds in a match infuriates more than it motivates. And even if you do win, you feel relief without the joy of victory.

Fluster Cluck ReviewThere’s no discernible difference in ammo types, no matter the color.

Fluster Cluck is sorely in need of an interactive tutorial, which would have been highly preferred to the rushed video rundown the game offers, an instructional clip that also serves as the game’s opening cutscene, and one that unwitting players might skip in a hurry to get into the action. Moreover, the distastefully roaring narrator is under the impression that we’re in the mid-’90s, when all manner of youth-targeted marketing was “Extreme!” Such delivery was tolerable at best back then; it’s simply abrasive today.

As the Smash Bros. series has proven time and time again, unpredictably and chaos can yield addictive results, provided there’s great game design behind them. Admittedly, repeat playthroughs and thoughtful study of each map in Fluster Cluck allowed me to wade through the disorder, making me a better player. Yet that road to enlightenment was paved with boredom and frustration, which left me emotionally spent by the time I cleared the final map. Not counting massively multiplayer delivery quests, my top benchmark for delivery-style games is still Choplifter. Fluster Cluck can be found at the opposite end of that spectrum.