Star Fox 2 Review

With the launch of the SNES Classic, Star Fox 2 gets the official release that was originally planned for 1995-96. The game was finished but ultimately scrapped during this transitional period for game consoles, when both the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were on the brink of delivering richer 3D experiences. It’s a game that’s hard to evaluate in 2017 without contextualizing it in the time it was created. But out of its 22-year limbo, Star Fox 2 is both an expression of technical limitations of the SNES platform and laudable modern game design.

At the start of a playthrough, you choose two pilots to embark on the campaign. The original cast of anthropomorphic critters–Fox, Slippy, Falco, and Peppy–returns with two new female characters in Miyu and Fay. Each character has their own special item, shield strength, speed, and ship design. The overworld map is where you swap between your two pilots, in case one is low on shields and needs a break between battle sequences. This approach detracts from the feeling of camaraderie present in the squadron-style premise of past Star Fox games, especially since you engage in fights as a duo or on your own. It does, however, make you responsible for managing characters’ statuses.

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Star Fox 2 breaks from tradition as it’s structured more as a game of base defense than a pure on-rails shooter. The overworld map operates in real time as you send your pilot duo off to defuse a multitude of interplanetary threats in the embattled Lylat system. And the core of the game is to take down Andross (again) before Corneria reaches 100% destruction at the hands of incoming forces. In order to get to Andross, you repel attacks in familiar locations like Macbeth, Titania, and Fortuna. His cronies and high-ranking pilots Star Wolf, Pigma, and Leon will intercept you at times; it’s in these instances where you engage in free-flowing 3D dogfights in space.

Free-roam planet missions differ slightly and offer Star Fox 2’s best moments. Your Arwing ship can transform into a land-based walker. Doing so causes the game to switch to manual acceleration and an alternate aiming system. It’s a showcase of rudimentary third-person shooting that feels surprisingly contemporary, especially with the 16-bit era as your frame of reference. The L and R shoulder buttons control your aim and the D-pad controls forward and backward movement and strafing. Swapping between air and land vehicles as you take down planetary bases is a highlight and peaks in the final level when the game opens up branching paths. But like the game itself, these moments come to a close very quickly.

Each run of the campaign is built around obtaining a high score, and making it to the final stage takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Since actual battles eat up real time, and the ultimate goal is to take down Andross before Corneria is destroyed, you’re encouraged to accomplish everything as soon as possible; plus, you get more points for faster mission completion. It’s a deliberate design decision, but it sacrifices the more intricate boss fights seen in the first Star Fox, which results in a game that feels too thin overall.

To the developers’ credit, the systems in place that make up the base-defense segments in Star Fox 2 instill a valuable sense of player agency. You decide where to go, what to defend, and how to juggle multiple threats; it’s in contrast to the distinct paths you choose in other Star Fox games. You’d be hard-pressed to repel every enemy, and you have to put a bit more foresight into your approach through the campaign, despite its brevity.

However, the biggest factor that holds back Star Fox 2 is its poor technical performance. While we can boil it down to the lack of system resources the original developers had to work with on the SNES, knowing this doesn’t negate the fact that the sluggish framerate and rudimentary visuals make dogfights laborious. You’ll find yourself mindlessly following target indicators since it’s nearly impossible to track enemy ships in the game. It’s hard to enjoy the pace of fights when Star Fox 2 runs almost like a slideshow.

Star Fox 2 can be praised for the ambitious structure that seemed to be ahead of its time, but the enjoyable moments are hamstrung by modern standards and expectations. Framerate issues and tech that wasn’t suited for this style of game prevent Star Fox 2’s vision from being fully realized, but it’s an important piece of gaming history kept alive with an official release. This game alone isn’t the driving force to seek out an SNES Classic, and you’ll want to consider the more time-tested games in the package.

Cuphead Review

Everything you’ve heard about Cuphead is true. It is a difficult side-scrolling shooter with relentless boss battles that demand rapid-fire actions and reactions. Think for too long, and you won’t stand a chance against the game’s toughest enemies. Battles may only last three minutes at most, but they feel far longer when you know that you can only absorb three hits before you have to start from scratch. When you are navigating your way around bullets, smaller enemies, and pitfalls, while simultaneously trying to damage your primary target, toppling Cuphead’s imposing bosses is both a monumental and rewarding task.

But difficult battles only tell half of the story. Cuphead’s 1930s cartoon aesthetic is endlessly charming, popping with color and expression unlike anything seen at this scale in a video game before. The sheer variety of characters and settings yields consistent delight as you go from one stage to the next, with everything bearing the telltale signs of grainy ’30s film and rudimentary production techniques. Cel-shading means something to a lot of people, but Cuphead truly re-creates the look of hand-drawn cel animation.

The characters and bosses that are clearly inspired by cartoon legends like Betty Boop break free from the expected to surprise you with something new. Never mind that Betty’s lookalike is a mermaid now; it’s the moment her head breaks free from her body and spews caustic skulls that gives you pause. If you can appreciate the unique animation style, you will be doubly impressed when you see what developer Studio MDHR has brought to the table. If its technical execution wasn’t enough, MDHR’s creativity puts Cuphead in a league of its own.

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A world map sets the stage for your adventure. As a Cup-thing who gambled with the devil, you now must go around collecting debts from the devil’s other acquaintances–the game’s bosses. Outside of one-on-one fights, you also have a few opportunities to run and gun through less-imposing platforming stages. These help break up the action and give you a chance to collect coins that can be cashed in for “weapons” and passive buffs. Coins are in short supply and can only be collected once, so farming to gain an advantage is out of the question. These stages don’t compare to Cuphead’s main attractions, but they add valuable substance nonetheless.

The mix of ammunition for your hand gun–character fire from their fingers–includes the likes of a spread shot, a charge blast, and a boomerang round. There are six in all, and each comes with a secondary attack that’s tied to a meter that fills when you successfully land shots on enemies. You can also earn meter by parrying pink projectiles and enemies, a task that requires you to jump towards an enemy and then tap jump again at just the right moment before impact. These range from a fireball and a ring of damaging gems to a burst of bulky, short-range arrows. Finally, you have a super art, which can only be fired when your entire meter is full, as opposed to spending one section of that meter to fire your weapon’s secondary attack. The one catch here is that when your meter is full, you can’t perform a secondary attack–you are inconveniently forced to unleash your super art, which isn’t always desirable.

Given that you are able to equip two weapons at once, the variety of loadouts you can equip before a fight allows for flexibility on your part. While you may benefit by bringing a specific set of arms into some boss battles–say, using tracer rounds to pick off minor enemies swarming overhead–you can still carry whatever you wish into battle so long as you have the confidence and knowledge meet the challenge ahead.

Learning the bosses’ attack pattern is oftentimes half the battle, and it’s typical to run through a fight multiple times until you see everything that might get thrown your way. Every boss fight consists of multiple stages or forms. Bosses will change shape, position, and behavior with each new phase. And within an individual phase, you may see as many as four different attacks, though you aren’t always guaranteed to see them all during subsequent fights. When bosses begin to mix multiple attacks at once, the potential for various deadly combos keeps you on your toes no matter how familiar you are with the fight in question.

The fear of the unexpected is part of what makes Cuphead such a thrilling game, beyond the frantic moment-to-moment tension. You only have three hit points per stage by default–you gain a fourth if you equip a charm that also weakens your firepower. But when the only question in your head is, “In what order will the boss’ attacks appear?” fights take on less-appealing light after the dozenth attempt. It’s in these moments you start to identify a few places where Cuphead could do a slightly better job of keeping you informed of your own progress and capabilities.

You never can tell exactly how close to death–or a phase change, for that matter–bosses are. At best, you can see a plotline of the battle after death, to loosely gauge your relative progress. In the face of defeat, you may begin to question if you’re carrying the right tools for the job. Beyond revisiting old fights, which is more arduous than it should be as you traverse the map slowly and can’t fast travel, there isn’t a great way to familiarize yourself with new weapons. And there’s unfortunately no way to tell exactly how much damage one weapon does compared to another. Vague descriptions are all you get.

If Cuphead’s fights were indeed puzzles with one correct solution, this would be incredibly frustrating. As it stands, there’s only a small amount of frustration to be found while fumbling with new weapons and dying in the process. It may sound like a minor thing to praise, but the fact that boss battles reload in one or two seconds is a godsend when it comes to trial-and-error tactics. And no matter how frustrating a boss may be, you can’t escape the draw of their expressive animations.

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Cuphead does support two-player local co-op as well, but it’s pretty evident that this makes life more difficult for you and your partner. Despite the intricate chaos that you face alone in any given fight, when you add another character and more projectiles on screen, playing with a friend makes it far more difficult to discern your surroundings, and much easier to slip up. You do have a small window of time to revive a fallen comrade by parrying their ghost, but it’s a mere few seconds while it floats up to the top of the screen before disappearing for the remainder of the fight.

For anyone interested in getting a taste of Cuphead without facing almost-guaranteed defeat, there are simpler versions of every boss that you can fight–but you won’t be able to access the final battle unless you beat every standard boss on the normal difficulty. And in reality, you may as well stick with the standard fights as Cuphead is relentless no matter how you play.

Cuphead has been a longtime coming, and it’s great to see that it lives up to its initial promises. It’s beautiful to look at, and with a pitch-perfect soundtrack, it flawlessly captures the era its developers so clearly revere. It’s also an intense action game that pulls no punches. It could benefit from a few tweaks, and two-player co-op doesn’t feel like the valuable addition you might imagine, but Cuphead remains a rare, unique game that truly stands out.

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

When I describe Danganronpa to people, I usually start with the murder part. The series’ main draw is its battle royale-style killing game, its participants high school students trapped in a school (or an island, in the case of Danganronpa 2) and unable to contact the outside world. The game master is a sentient teddy bear named Monokuma, and he tells them that if they want to leave, they have to get away with murder. But, if they’re caught red-handed, they’ll be executed, leaving the innocent ones to survive and continue the killing game.

Solving each murder in Danganronpa’s bizarre, darkly funny world has always been my favorite thing about the games. But the mysteries extend beyond the murders to the fate of the outside world, the truth of the killing game, and whether hope can truly defeat despair. While the first two games are mostly light on details about the world at large, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony focuses much more heavily on the bigger-picture questions. A surprising twist in the first case is followed by a series of rather lukewarm murders, but they’re a slow setup for greater mysteries that lead to a fantastic and unpredictable ending.

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Like the first two games, V3 is divided into chapters, each with visual novel storytelling, first-person exploration of the school grounds, a murder investigation, and a trial. It takes a while to get to the first murder, mostly because the students need time to wrap their heads around the killing game, and there’s a lot of back-and-forth as they decide what to do. Of course, that also gives you time to get to know the characters and figure out which ones are suspicious (or most likely to die). Once each murder happens, you’re launched into a point-and-click investigation, where you gather evidence in the form of “truth bullets” that you can use to literally shoot down contradictions and false statements during the ensuing trial.

Mechanically, Danganronpa is a bit all over the place. It looks best in its dialogue sequences and while exploring its 2D environments, its characters like cardboard cutouts that follow you wherever you look. 3D exploration is a bit more janky, reminiscent of an old corridor shooter. But the trials, especially, mix in a series of minigames and a ton of instructions designed to help you select answers. An anagram game has you spell out murder weapons or methods; a driving game cleverly called Psyche Taxi has you drive over letter pickups to form questions; the debate sections have you shooting down “white noise” statements to clear the path for your truth bullets. It’s a lot, but it’s charming in its weirdness and gets easier to handle with practice.

The biggest addition to trials is the ability to lie. Holding down triangle will convert your truth bullet into its opposite–for example, you can take the truth bullet containing someone’s lack of an alibi and turn it into a lie claiming you saw them, if you don’t think they’re the culprit. The idea is to use lies to direct the debate toward the truth, and it adds another dimension to the trials that keeps you on your toes.

Danganronpa’s murder cases are always extra bizarre in some way, and that often comes from its eccentric cast of characters. Each has an “Ultimate” talent, like the Ultimate Detective, that drives much of their personality, though they’re all deeper than that–and most are hiding something. V3 is no different. At first glance, even, V3’s characters seem a lot like reskins of past ones. There’s the gung-ho leader, the mysterious tsundere, one that’s so creepy that it almost makes them less threatening, the pervert, and the chaotic evil lunatic. The parallels aren’t just there, they’re suspiciously overt, down to the over-the-top dialogue that hits anime archetypes hard. It feels off somehow.

But in true Danganronpa fashion, anything that feels wrong is almost definitely that way for a reason. The first trial is proof of that; because the characters seemed so familiar and therefore predictable, I saw the false conclusion the game was trying to lead me to and figured the twist was obvious. The actual explanation for the murder, though, completely blindsided me. It was fresh, completely changed my perception of the characters, and set the stage for a shocking, exciting series of murder mysteries. That’s why the next few chapters were a bit disappointing.

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Compared to the first two main games, V3 feels exceptionally long. The “daily life” sections, where you get to know everyone around the academy while you wait for another body to turn up, take up more time than they need to. Most chapters took around eight to ten hours to complete in total. The cases in the middle of the game are drawn out, the trials long and winding (though not slow or boring, at least). Even when the culprit is totally unclear, the explanations lack the revelatory feeling of the first case. There are a few standout moments, especially when revealing the hidden depth to different characters, but it mostly plateaus.

It’s hard to explain why that works without spoiling the ending, but it becomes more clear when you focus less on the individual details of each case and more on everything else around them. There are a few things that still don’t work regardless, like the unrelenting, grating vulgarity of one of the characters, but the things that felt almost great turned out to lead somewhere much better. The ending payoff is more satisfying for it, even if it takes 40 hours to get there.

Danganronpa V3 doesn’t top the first two games overall. Its murder cases generally aren’t as memorable, and its slow pace can make it feel flat in the middle. But as a sequel to those two games, it does a great job of tying the loose threads together and remaining surprising to the very end. The characters are interesting, their collective story very long but still engaging, and unraveling the mysteries of Danganronpa is ultimately satisfying–even if, at times, its unpredictability seems predictable.

WRC 7 Review

Rallying is not only stunningly difficult, it’s terrifying. Barreling down narrow stretches of bumpy, loose-gravel roads lined with huge rocks, trees or sheer cliff faces at speeds nearing 140mph is about as butt-clenching an experience as you can imagine. It’s a sport that requires pure talent, but those who do it professionally manage do so with the same elegance and grace as a dancer performing a heavily choreographed routine. Watching them react to their co-drivers calls with a flick of the wheel and some fancy footwork can be mesmerizing. And with WRC 7: World Rally Championship, KT Racing has delivered a solid and focused test of off-road skill that, despite a few rough edges, puts you firmly in those dancing shoes whether you’re ready or not.

For the unfamiliar, Rallying is a series of time-trials run over three days, with each day consisting of a number of stages. At the end of the event, the driver with the fastest time across all three days takes home the championship points and the glory. Set on treacherous, narrow roads which can combine snow and ice, tarmac and gravel, teams utilize co-drivers to describe the road ahead using pace notes. It’s a tough, challenging sport that requires total concentration as missing a call can easily see the car launched violently off the road. WRC 7 leans hard into this mentality, taking it more towards the simulation end of the spectrum, and it shows.

Cars themselves can be a real handful. Without assists, of which there are few, you’ll need to be on top of your braking and steering, which feel very sensitive by default. Turning down the sensitivity helped alleviate this somewhat, but even with the assists on, you’re still in for a huge challenge. A few more player assists like stability control, or stronger effects applied to the ones already available, would have gone a long way in making the game feel more accessible.

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In a time where video games focus on making themselves pop with fancy special effects and extra side content, WRC 7 takes a more direct approach to both its presentation and gameplay. All the real-life teams, cars and sponsors are represented across the three tiers of competition; Junior WRC, WRC2 and the WRC, giving you the full gamut of options to choose from when taking on a single rally stage, an entire three day event or a full custom championship.

You can jump into a multiplayer rally, but chances are you’ll need to find some friends with the game in order to get the most out of it. Otherwise the best option for those who want to test themselves against others is via the leaderboards and the challenge mode, which picks a car and track combo and challenges you to put down your best time compared to others. The difference between this and the standard leaderboards being that you potentially earn the most points for your first attempt, and fewer points for each subsequent shot you take. It’s by far the easiest way to get your multiplayer kicks.

Each of the 13 different rally locations from this year’s World Rally Championship are represented, and they are easily the stars of the show. From the densely lined, snowy forest roads of Sweden to the rocky, sun-drenched gravel of Argentina, each of the different locales and stages has a real feeling of character that, while proving an incredible challenge, also serves to visually satisfy. Special stages are deeply packed with foliage, adding a quality and detail to the environment seldom seen in other rally games. Despite some minor shadow pop-in and objects in the distance lacking finer detail, it’s hard not to be impressed by the individual character of each venue.

While not quite as awe-inspiring as the numerous locales you plow through, each of the game’s 55 different team cars have all been modeled to accurately reflect their real-life counterparts. Slightly less spectacular are the cockpit interiors which, while matching the bare-bones structure of a beastly rally car, fail to live up to the finer level of environmental detail. Similarly, weather effects are present but unspectacular, particularly when driving in snow, which never manages to stick to your windshield.

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WRC 7’s mainstay game mode is the career, which lets you create a driver and sign them up to a team in the Junior WRC category with the goal being to rise up through the ranks. If you do well enough, you might be given an early shot for a single rally at a team in one of the higher tier championships. Better yet, earn a good finishing spot in the championship and rival teams from the other categories will swoop in and attempt to sign you up for next season.

There’s no upgrading your team, car parts or skills. You are a driver, and that’s what you’re here to do; drive. Your performance can change your team’s morale, which affects how efficiently they perform car repairs in the service area at the end of each day. Team morale is also affected by how well you match their preferred approach to racing: some want you to go all-out, pushing hard to go as fast as possible without too much cause for concern about damage. Smaller teams, though, may want you to protect the car, asking instead that you make sure to bring it home in one piece.

Although this is a nice idea in theory, in practice it doesn’t show much of an effect, if any, and it would be good to see more in terms of consequences for either failing or succeeding in sticking to the game plan. In line with this, car damage is forgiving both visually and mechanically, despite the ease of which you’ll find yourself rolling end-over-end after clipping an embankment. If you beat it up enough, parts will eventually fail or fall off entirely, but the cars can generally take a good beating before you need to worry too much.

For all its minor faults and bare-bones nature in comparison to others, WRC 7 is still an enjoyable, but seriously challenging rally title. It’s not the most welcoming game for newcomers, and even experienced racers will find some of the rougher stages tricky. But ultimately, that’s also the point. Rallying isn’t easy, and KT Racing have taken that much to heart.

Figment Review

Figment taught me that it’s often easier to fight the phobias in our heads when they’re singing catchy ditties and while dancing and spewing pseudoscience. Consider “Plague,” a spindly boss representing a fear of filth.

“I’ve got a vaccine for germs like you, full of autism, nausea, and flu,” he chants. How rude.

But that’s why the fight’s so satisfying. Figment literally lets me toss his filth right back at him and vanquish him by forcing his big, toothy mouth to take a shower. I’m pretty sure this isn’t what generations of philosophers had in mind when they told us to face our fears, but I imagine they’d be hard-pressed to disapprove.

So goes a typical five minutes in Figment, a colorful isometric puzzler that’s gently reminiscent of Bastion. Beyond that, it’s a psychological study that invites you to spend around six hours puzzling through the left and right halves of the brain of a person struggling with depression and trauma, all while tolerating horrid puns and manipulating fart clouds with windmills powered by dragonflies. Suffice it to say, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice this is not. That’s not to imply that Figment doesn’t pack a similar emotional punch in its commentaries on mental illness, but its methods differ. It’s short enough not to outstay its welcome, but long enough to craft a believable tale of deliverance from mental squalor.

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Figment doesn’t spend too long on the details of the background–only a few seconds of audio without visuals; a family’s car wreck that ends in a child’s screams. The vagueness feels intentional, as it lets you see the following hours as a metaphor for our own (potential) struggles with depression, inadequacy, and apathy. As such, it seems determined not to scare away any players who might benefit from its message, slamming you not with graphic imagery but with vividly colored storybook landscapes channeling Escher, Dalí, and Maurice Sendak. Personality abounds, whether it’s the bright greens of the creative side of the mind or the clockwork and steam of the logical left. It creatively embraces music beyond the song-and-dance routines of the bosses, right down to French horns jutting from cliffs or ukelele plants that strum in harmony with the soundtrack as you pass. By the time it decides to get gloomy as you’re navigating through stacks of unpaid bills and spilled coffee near the conscious mind, you’re ready to face it. It’s a beautiful transition.

Our hero? A mopey fellow named Dusty, who’s decked out in what looks like Max’s getup from Where the Wild Things Are. He’s the personification of the mind’s courage, but when his gushingly happy bird friend Piper shows up, he’s got little desire to do anything besides find some ice for his cocktail. Above all, Figment is the tale of how he regains his confidence, and the action kicks off after a nightmare runs off with Dusty’s scrapbook that’s been keeping him mired in the past.

It’s not a hard puzzler, but neither is it easy. Figment generally achieves a nice balance, apart from times when the aforementioned “waves of despair” seem a little too difficult to dodge.

Dusty and Piper’s extreme personalities would get annoying on their own, but they serve as foils for one another, and their contrasting banter is one of Figment’s great charms. Brace yourself, though, for lines like “The diarrhea dude is close” and “I smell the ending of this.” Figment also gets a little heavy-handed when it wants to make sure you understand this is all happening in the brain, as when Piper explains how picking up little metal orbs from fallen enemies will help increase Dusty’s health pool. “Look, the mind’s reward system just released a bunch of endorphins,” she exclaims. Pipe down, Piper. We get it.

Dusty does a bit of fighting with a wooden sword and some dodge rolls against creatures like “barf rats” infesting the mind, but these moments are rare and a little simple, serving mainly to provide a respite from the game’s puzzles–the meat of the gameplay. They’re remarkable in that they rarely repeat and fit the themes of the three big regions of the mind Dusty journeys through. Sometimes he’ll have to push around enigma blocks or figure out how to scare a thieving bird by tying a maraca to a snake’s tail. Sometimes he’ll have to shuffle batteries or help a train barge through multiple zones, or use “shell creatures” to block literal “waves of despair.” The best moments, though, are the boss fights, where the puzzles and combat all neatly work in tandem while the boss belts out a tune with off-color lyrics that might make Disney cringe.

It’s not a hard puzzler, but neither is it easy. Figment generally achieves a nice balance, apart from times when the aforementioned “waves of despair” seem a little too difficult to dodge. Most of the puzzles demand more patience than brainpower, and the approach fits the theme. Again, this is the tale of someone who’s learning how to have faith in himself again, and punishing puzzles that leave us banging our heads on our desks likely wouldn’t have the intended effect. As it is, it’s easier to believe Dusty’s relatively quick transition from mopey drunk to nightmare-slaying guardian because we’ve experienced those little mental victories along the way as well. Much as in Portal 2, the beauty of Figment’s puzzles is that they make you feel smart.

Some bugs still skitter through the mind, and not just the one representing arachnophobia in the middle act. On five different occasions Figment’s loading screens locked up while I jumped from one zone to the next, and once a floating platform I was on suddenly became intangible, sending poor Dusty to his doom. Nothing a reload wouldn’t fix, though. You shouldn’t take that as an excuse to miss out on Dusty’s journey, particularly since it ends on a surprisingly moving note after all the fart clouds and puns like “Holy molar!” Worth pursuing, too, are the little hidden items you can hunt down after finishing the game, which offer glimpses into the life of the person whose head you’ve been travelling through the whole time.

Figment is at once lighthearted and deep. It reminds us that dark things may lurk underneath otherwise pleasant surfaces, that grumpy egos may populate the shuttered houses of an otherwise beautiful mind. Sometimes Figment seems a little too silly for its ambitions, but that frivolity never manages to fully drown out its overarching message–that if we persevere and have a little faith in our abilities, things will likely turn out well in the long run. Or, at least, we’ll learn how to live with the pain.

NBA 2K18 Review

NBA 2K18 is a hardcore sports simulation. If you want to get good, you have to put in the work. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to improve your skills no matter how you want to play. And the fact that there’s so much to do is a bonus, because on the court, NBA 2K18 is also an amazingly well-crafted experience.

The first thing that strikes you is how it looks and feels like a real-life professional basketball game. The 2K series’ attention to detail has always been incredible, and this year is the best yet. Using the default camera, it’s almost hard to discern between the game and an actual NBA broadcast. Great, varied commentary and the three-way chemistry of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal during halftime make it feel like a Thursday night ballgame on TNT.

NBA 2K18 is also on Nintendo’s less powerful Switch, but don’t discount that version: it still looks great for what it is, even if it falls short of its bigger brothers. Of course, there’s the added bonus of playing in portable mode, which also helps diminish graphical flaws given the Switch’s small screen.

NBA 2K18’s controls remain largely the same since the introduction of the Pro Stick setup in 2K14. Movement is handled with the left stick, and the right stick controls things like shooting, where you finish your lay-ups, and ball handling. Alternatively, buttons can also be used to pass and shoot, so if you don’t like shooting with the stick, you don’t have to. But the stick controls are satisfying, especially when you cross over your defender and drive to the hoop for a layup. You feel like the ball is completely in your control.

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Succeeding in NBA 2K18 has always taken a certain level of basketball IQ. You need to not only be able to spot open teammates but also know when to pass and what type of pass is best for the situation. It’s also about setting screens, running hard defense, and understanding your players’ strengths. Thankfully there is a great way to learn everything you need to know through 2KU. This tutorial and training mode lets you learn everything from bounce passes to screen plays. It’s very robust, with freestyle and scrimmage options, and is super helpful in perfecting your game without having to rack up losses in one of the other modes.

There are numerous ways to play, with each game mode having several choices to ball. Play Now has choices to play one-off games against the AI, online, in the streetball Blacktop mode, or against friends. MyCareer lets you compete against other players in what was known in previous NBA 2K games as MyPark, a game of pick-up streetball now found in the MyCareer Neighborhood. They serve as fun ways to hone your skills, take some pressure off, and advance your experience and VC earnings.

MyTeam is a card-trading fantasy league where you build a team by unlocking cards with players, boosts, playbooks, and uniforms. It’s still the same solid NBA 2K18 basketball on the court, with the added twist of deck building. It’s also place to spend real-world money, if you so desire.

This year’s big hook is the expanded MyCareer, the story-driven create-a-player mode with the new Neighborhood central hub. You pick your position, favorite team, and then tweak the look of your player before the story begins. MyCareer starts off with a streetball tournament, where you try to prove your worth to team scouts. It has the same teammate ranking system as in past years, where your grade with your team goes up or down depending on your performance.

Outside of the court, MyCareer has a fairly typical rags-to-riches story, with you guiding your player from unknown rookie to much-hyped superstar. When you aren’t playing, you’re in the Neighborhood, a new addition that lets you wander around a few city blocks, playing games, practicing, buying clothes and shoes, and more. It almost feels like an MMO when you first drop in. You’re surrounded by other 2K18 players and their avatars, wandering around the neighborhood and working on achieving the ultimate 99 overall rating, known as OVR.

There are two general ways you can climb your player to the highest NBA 2K18 heights: you can train, play, and practice, or you can just spend a bunch of virtual currency and skirt the whole thing. A 99 OVR puts your player on-par with LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and perhaps the greatest to ever play the game, Michael Jordan. But getting there requires an enormous amount of work–unless you’re willing to pay, of course.

There’s a gym–excuse me, a “Gatorade Power Center”–in the Neighborhood that lets you build level and experience towards badges and increasing your next OVR level. The mini-games in the gym are exceptionally un-fun. They mostly involve alternating button presses or stick movements. Just starting a mini-game takes longer than actually playing it, as your character shakes their arms and gets into place in an excruciating, unskippable animation each and every time you do any of the workouts. If only there were a better way to build up your OVR and boost levels.

Oh right, microtransactions. You build up VC by playing games in MyCareer, which is standard 2K fare. But the amount of VC and experience you earn feels miniscule, even during sessions where you play at the top of your game. In past years, VC flowed more freely, so buying VC with real money feels almost like a necessary evil now. The game is too stingy on its own, which makes earning enough to advance your character a long and lonesome hill to climb.

Past iterations rewarded skilled players with difficulty multipliers. NBA 2K18 does away with all that. You can increase your earnings by having a great game, making baskets, sticking to your defensive assignment, and generally playing well. But there’s no reward for playing at the higher difficulties.

It’s also hard to build up your earnings early on in the MyCareer season because, as an unproven rookie, you don’t get a lot of minutes on the court. That lack of playing time severely limits your earning opportunities. There are other chances to earn VC, like answering trivia questions in loading screens, but the most you might earn is 500 VC if you manage to get every question correct. It’s not just stats that cry out for VC. Shoes, shirts, tattoos, even haircuts require you to spend virtual currency. It’s impossible to ignore how much easier it is to break out your credit card than to play your way to the top. It’s the difference between walking miles to work, or hiring an Uber.

Basketball is a way of life, and each year, NBA 2K is a big part of that cultural movement. Real NBA players worry about their NBA 2K ratings. This year’s entry is incredible in so many ways, from graphics, to soundtrack, to the different modes and ways to play hoops. It becomes clear early on that the fastest and easiest way to progress is by spending real money, slightly marring an otherwise tremendous experience.

Total War: Warhammer 2 Review

Stepping back into the world of Warhammer is always a fantastical journey, and with Total War: Warhammer 2, never before has an adaptation of the source material felt quite so natural.

With the second installment in its massive strategy game trilogy, developer Creative Assembly has begun flexing its design muscles. Battles are bigger and more expressively animated, and scores of soldiers of all different types–be they ghastly undead or blood-thirsty dinosaurs–sound impeccable, but the improvements run well beyond the aesthetic and into the fineries of tactical and strategic play.

Where the first entry in the series kept to standard Total War form with an open-ended, Risk-inspired campaign of territory control, now there’s a directed focus–a vortex which is said to seal away legions of Chaos Demons.

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Within the context of the Warhammer universe, Chaos is an all-consuming malevolent force that corrupts and distorts. Long ago, a ritual helped quarantine the forces of Chaos behind a seal so that normal life could thrive. Now, though, you, and a number of other forces across the map will be racing to take control of that seal–to whatever end.

Your target takes the form of a swirling Vortex comprised of magical energies. As you progress through a pre-made set of special quests, you’ll be able to start performing rituals that will, in time, allow you to wrench control of the Vortex from everyone else. But, since all the other races of the world are pushing towards the same end, your progress will be marked along a track with five milestones. Each time you (or anyone else) performs one of the five successive rituals, the pace of the entire campaign picks up.

This mode still balances Total War’s signature dualistic design. As you’re worrying about the stability of the Vortex, you’ll also need to manage cities and tax your people, as usual. You’ll research new tactics, weapons, and monsters, and conduct diplomatic consorts with the various races of Warhammer. And, should talks break down and two or more armies meet, you’ll be ushered into a tactical view that will task you with micromanaging your troops.

Rituals often take quite some time to complete, and, in the interim, three of your most powerful cities will be marked. Opposing factions will try to sack, capture, or raze any of them. And, if you don’t control all three by the end of the ritual timer, you’ll have to try again; and still deal with the invaders you directed to your lands.

Completing rituals marks major steps in the game, in part, because you’ll need to ensure the safety of your home front while you presumably press battle lines across the map. It complicates play with an interesting, macroscopic challenge that every player will be able to approach a little differently.

The global quest tracker/countdown has been seen before in Masters of Magic-descended strategy games, but here it’s backed with specific quests that play to the lore of each race within the Warhammer universe. Lord Mazdamundi, for example, is struggling to revive the great Slann mage-priests who once guided the feral Lizardmen on the fields of battle. And your quests will revive and recruit the long-slumbering Slann to use in your own armies. That’s quite distinct from the approach the Dark Elves or the rat-like Skaven will take to victory, for example. The former specializes in naval combat and tailor-made invasion vessels known as Black Arks, while the chittering clan rats of the Skaven are better suited to hit-and-run attacks. Their whole civilization being subterranean means they need not worry so much about foes razing their ritual sites.

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As you progress through the campaign, your foes become more numerous and the evil forces of Chaos will filter onto the map in an attempt to stop you. During the late-game, after 50 hours or more of play, they will be monstrously powerful. These are tests, in a sense, as they’ll gauge how well you’ve distributed your forces and managed the challenges posed to you thus far. And they encourage you to seek help from your neighbors, as it’s difficult to pull together the might all on your own. That brings up one of Warhammer 2’s most engaging consequences of the Vortex rituals.

Progression yields huge impacts for diplomacy, encouraging you to forge alliances with those of your own faction. This make sense, in play, because each group’s broad goals are distinct within the lore. Lizardmen, for example, believe themselves to be the only ones following the will of the old gods and they are among the closest this universe gets to an unambiguous “good.” Dark Elves, by contrast, are fueled by torture and slavery and causing pain to others. Should they wrench control of the Vortex, they will, of course, use it for their own violent ends. This confluence of goals can lead to the creation of confederations, which are a fancy name for one of the most useful ways to build your empire. Like minds can, over time, be persuaded to let themselves be absorbed. This merges politics, economies, and research trees, and gives you a quick, sudden expansion of territory, often with a new legion of eager soldiers for your command.

This keeps the game from chugging in the middle and latter stages, where you’d have to take back razed cities from marauders only to carry the dead weight of a developing province for a while before seeing any return. The new system both fits thematically and boosts the importance of diplomatic and factional ties on the map. Generally you’ll get along with your own groups better, but you’ll also find yourself stepping into long-standing political alliances, many of which aren’t always the easiest to navigate. The focus, of course, is still on the battles, but this breaks up long stretches of action with some careful maneuvering from time to time.

As you pick up more subjects and commission larger and larger armies, you’ll no doubt unearth some of the other major new additions to play. Choke point maps, for instance, give you a lot more to consider in your approach to special in-game locations. Some will funnel your forces through a bridge, giving you a very narrow front on which to concentrate, others will use different types of land to give bouts more depth.

Through a thousand tiny tweaks, they’ve refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.

The effect on play with that alone is huge, as it means many powerful strategies aren’t always applicable. At the same time, you may find that a holdout army formed of all cavalry can repel a far stronger force in the right conditions. In time, you’ll learn where these battlefields lie on the map. That, in turn, opens up countless other broad-scale strategies designed to guide foes to the points where you’ve got the strongest defenses. You could always do this to a degree, of course, but the results are far starker here, on top of adding much-needed variety to play. Combined with the pacing changes that the race to control the Vortex brings, Total War: Warhammer II feels fresh, even though you’ll be stepping into the same universe as last time.

Eye of the Vortex, as the single-player mode is called, is among the best a campaign of this type could be. It encourages the right amount of conflict to keep you moving, paces itself well, fits plenty of in-universe lore for diehard fans, and fine tunes about every other facet of its predecessor. Plus, as the game wears on, you can rest assured there’s a definite, clean ending. Someone’s going to complete the rituals–even if you don’t. At the same time, the multi-part and complex victory conditions can often lead to some of the most nail-biting matches around, made that much better by diverse maps that encourage novel tactics with each bout. Nothing feels quite as exhilarating as holding a key province against multiple unsuccessful assaults thanks to your own cunning.

Every piece in Total War: Warhammer II is designed to force you to innovate and create new plans on the fly, testing your prowess over and over in new and exciting ways. In fact, Warhammer II surpasses its predecessor in nearly every respect. Everything except the camera–which doesn’t zoom out far enough and has been a source of frustration for several Total War games now–and multiplayer..

The complaint with its online multiplayer is simple: there aren’t enough factions for competitive play. At present, you can only use the four groups featured in the Eye of the Vortex campaign–Dark Elves, High Elves, Lizardmen, and Skaven. Given that the first game started with five for multiplayer and rapidly expanded from there, it feels like a step backwards to have so few options for now. Not being able to pit vampires against dinosaurs is a shame. And it’d be cool to see how Elven dragons fair against the mighty Dwarves, but that’ll have to wait. There are some planned free content expansions coming, including a massive campaign map that spans the lands and races covered in both games, but that’s some time off. Those fans who were put off by the monetization of content in the first will likely have the same complaints, though they can rest assured that the base game is robust on its own.

With Warhammer II, Total War doesn’t reinvent anything so much as it iterates on the ideas that made the first so special. At its heart there’s still the marriage of Total War’s big-scale strategy and Warhammer’s precise tactical play. But, through a thousand tiny tweaks, they’ve refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.

NBA Live 18 Review

When it comes to bringing back some competition to the basketball video game genre, EA took inspiration from non-sports genres to mold its progression and character customization systems with NBA Live 18. These outside influences–which are represented in the game’s career mode called The One–help overshadow EA Sports’ standard issue modes like Ultimate Team and Franchise. And with the long-overdue inclusion of the WNBA, NBA Live returns to the court from a one-year hiatus with a respectable game, even if it’s not a complete package at the levels of EA’s more stable sports franchises.

The One follows EA Sports’ positive trend of featuring story-driven single player career modes. Although its premise of a derailed athlete making a comeback echoes this year’s Madden campaign, don’t expect a similarly heartfelt narrative and Telltale Games’ inspired designs. The One is less about physical recuperation and more about the rebuilding of one’s personal brand, based on how well you respond to trash talk and court challenges. It underscores how professional basketball culture has evolved with social media.

NBA Live 18 is the product of the times in more ways than one. While there is a specific path to greatness, The One is loaded with optional opportunities to build your cred and improve your skills beyond amassing wins throughout an NBA season like taking your talents to street courts. Picking a play style is akin to picking classes and subclasses in other genres. If you’re interested in being a guard, for example, you’ll have to decide if you’re a playmaker like John Wall, a backcourt defender like Mike Conley, a slasher like Russell Westbrook, or a point shooter like Steph Curry. With a total of 11 subclasses to choose from, The One delivers considerable replay value. There are also customizable trait loadouts to further gamify your career. Equipping and unequipping powers like improved shot blocking or better stamina isn’t authentic, but swapping and trying out different capabilities is nevertheless engaging.

Another riveting aspect of The One is how you’re persistently evaluated with every ball touch, whether you’re penalized for giving your assigned man an open look, or credited for a ferocious block. Even a missed layup turns out to be a positive if you showed effort by making an assertive drive to the hoop. While not new to basketball video games, this grading system motivates you to make every possession count.

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Experience gained through wins and by building your reputation feeds into your character’s growth. These points can be spent to make your baller well-rounded or specialized in one skill. It can be satisfying to max out the Dunk ability to help insure high percentage shots, even if it means other scoring talents don’t get better until later. The One excels for the depth at which you can customize your player with the talents you wish you had in real life.

It’s a journey enhanced by the fiction-building connective tissue found between games. Smartphone chats with best friends or your agent, and even impromptu interviews with reporters offer a simplified version of the life of a 21st century basketball player. Adding to this moderately immersive fiction is the tiresome exuberance of ESPN First Take’s Stephen A. Smith and his more tolerable co-host Max Kellerman, who both comment on your career milestones in unskippable cinematics. The more insightful intermissions are the videos that remind you of American basketball culture that exists beyond the NBA, like introductory videos on Rucker Park in New York and The Drew League in Los Angeles.

The One, as its title implies, is a predominantly solo career but this mode does present online opportunities to team up with others in five versus five matches. Playing with other people is as unpredictable as it is enthralling but a bigger draw of multiplayer is its team-based scrimmages against CPU-controlled legends like Allen Iverson or Gary Payton. These side matches add variety to a campaign already stacked in diverse activities and prove worthwhile as another avenue to grow your character.

Yet out of all the ways EA Sports pays respect to basketball, the inclusion of WNBA players and teams stands out. While it was disappointing that these women don’t get opportunities in the other modes or even online, it was satisfying to play as the LA Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike and Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm.

To some surprise, these new facets become the main draws of NBA Live 18, overshadowing the shallow Franchise mode and unremarkable Ultimate Team, both of which are serviceable but lack the engrossing richness of what you find in other EA Sports series. While you assume the role of a GM in Franchise, you lack the engaging power to negotiate complex contracts, customize players, or scout prospects before the draft. Ultimate Team is similarly simplistic, as the mode where you can experiment with dream teams online or against the CPU, but giving you little reason to come back after you’ve exhausted your wishlist of matchups.

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Whatever your mode of choice, keep your highlight reel expectations low. While the faces of NBA starters are impressive and do their real life counterparts justice, animations fall short compared to what you find in NBA 2K18. Still, these visual shortcomings don’t get in the way of the solid controls, which work well whether you’re a team player or a ball hog.

You can go far against the AI by using the basic moves, but there’s greater gratification found when mastering the more complex techniques, 12 control disciplines in all. Thanks to sufficient input responsiveness, you have the potential to dominate the low post as well as Dirk Nowitzki and handle the rock with flare on the level of Chris Paul. When you’re on a court of ten players and opportunities to score come and go in fractions of a second, the last thing you want to worry about are limited ball movement options. NBA Live 18 arms the player at any position with the weapons hold your own against others online.

NBA Live 18 is a welcome return for EA’s basketball series, but doesn’t come close to matching the greatness of NBA 2K11 or 2K16. By contrast, the strengths of The One underscore the uninspired designs of Franchise and Ultimate Team. These mainstays are fine and functional, but feel dated when held up against their deeper counterparts in Madden and NHL. That’s not to say this game is short on replayability. Between the WNBA matches and the position variety of The One, NBA Live 18 succeeds–albeit barely–as a viable alternative to NBA 2K18.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 Review

About midway through Divinity: Original Sin II’s campaign, I was called on to visit the family farm of a heroic colleague named Gareth. On arrival, I found him mourning his murdered parents and calling on me to help him take revenge. Pretty standard RPG stuff.

But when I went to the farmhouse in search of the killers, I was greeted by paladins who prevented me from going inside. I tried to change their minds during dialogue with the in-game persuasion skill. No dice. I was facing a brick wall with this quest. The only choice I had was to kill the paladins. So that’s exactly what I did. But after I stepped over their bodies to proceed into the farmhouse, I discovered that the murderers inside were possessed innocents. No way of releasing them from this magical mental bondage presented itself. The most expeditious way of moving forward with the quest was to kill them. I did that…and then discovered a love letter from a possessed woman to one of the paladins that had stopped me at the door.

Hello, guilt. It took me a long time to get over how bad I felt about killing these people. Part of me wanted to load a save and replay it all. But my victims were already dead. Going back and trying to change what I’d done wouldn’t wash the blood from my hands. I eventually moved forward and went on to kill a lot more people in even more heartbreaking ways. Still, I never forgot this scene at the farmhouse, because that was an “innocence lost” moment that opened my eyes to how affective and surprising Divinity II: Original Sin can be.

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I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so emotionally wrapped up game and its characters, and pulling at your heartstrings is not all that the game does well. Larian has crafted one of the finest role-playing epics of all time. Meaningful choices, evocative writing, and superb acting in the fully voiced script make for a wholly believable world. The detailed and free-flowing combat engine provides challenging and rewarding turn-based tactical battles that add tension to every action. Character depth includes seemingly endless options for creation, customization, and growth, making every member of your party more of a real individual than the usual collection of buffs and numbers found in most RPGs.

As with its predecessor from 2014, Divinity: Original Sin II’s setting remains the D&D-infused fantasy land of Rivellon, but the clock has been moved forward centuries from the original game so you don’t need any familiarity with the backstory to quickly get up to speed with what’s going on. You take on the role of a Sourceror, a name referring to those that draw arcane power from a mystic material called Source. This substance is controversial in Rivellon, because using it seems to inadvertently summon interdimensional monsters known as Voidwoken. Deploy Source powers and these bizarre creatures show up to kill everyone in sight. Because of this, you’re viewed as a danger to society by the Magisters, a governing body of inquisitors and warriors who claim to serve the Divine Order and protect society by rounding up and “curing” Sourcerors.

The story begins with you and the other members of your four-person party (that’s the maximum–you can play with any number of companions or even go solo) being sent off to the island prison of Fort Joy with Source-blocking collars around your necks. You soon realize that you have a greater destiny to fulfill, however. Much of this is tied to your past role in a war serving Lucian, sort of a god-king whose legacy has been taken up by Alexander, his son who now leads the Magisters. Eventually, you and the other members of your party discover that you are Godwoken, demigods who have a chance to ascend and basically replace the seven gods under threat by creatures from the Void.

This epic saga is a big undertaking. Expect to use up the better part of 60-70 hours to complete the main quest line and a good portion of the many side quests. The story isn’t just extensive, though; it’s detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs. Moral ambiguity is with you every step of the way as you progress from a prison boat to Fort Joy, to the sandy beaches and forests of Reaper’s Coast, to the tropical Nameless Isle, and finally the besieged city of Arx.

But while you start off with persecuted Sourcerors on one side and oppressive Magisters on the other, events soon carry you into a world of unrelenting grey where most people are trying to do the right thing, yet failing miserably. Some Sourcerors are criminals. Some Magisters are conflicted about what they are doing and want to change the system. Voidwoken may have good reasons behind their actions in Rivellon. Gods have enough hidden agendas that mortals may be better off without them. Even the paladin faction that shows up in the game as heroes turns into blinkered zealots, overseeing the siege of a city, leaving bodies overflowing atop buckling wooden carts in their wake.

Basically, nobody can be trusted or measured at face value; not even your comrades, as only one of you can ascend to godhood. You’re left wide open when it comes to determining a course of action, with very few moments forcing you down a particular path. Play good, play evil, play something in-between. This approach is incredibly freeing. It lets you guide your character and party according to your own moral compass, or lack of one. I don’t believe I’ve felt this attuned to a role-playing experience since I played pen-and-paper D&D many years ago.

The story isn’t just extensive, though; it’s detailed and gripping, largely due to how it avoids good-versus-evil fantasy archetypes common to RPGs.

Freedom with character design and development really boosts this feeling. Character depth is tremendous, and with every hero in the game comes with a wide range of core attributes plus civil abilities, combat abilities, skills, talents, Source abilities, and more. Five racial choices blend the expected–humans and dwarves–with the offbeat–elves who consume body parts, and self-conscious undead who hide their faces to avoid scaring NPCs.

You can roll your own protagonist or choose from one of six pre-defined characters representing each race. Each one comes with a specialized storyline that immerses you deeper into the saga. Even then, you’re allowed a free hand to customize everything. You’re even able to tell those joining your party what sort of adventurer you’d like them to be. Next to standard classes such as Fighters and Clerics are more innovative options such as Metamorphs and Shadowblades, and a slew of talents that dictate even more nuanced capabilities. So if you want to take on, say the arrogant lizard Red Prince or the sinister elf Sebille, you’re not locked into a set class as you would be in most RPGs.

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At a glance, combat is not much different from many computer RPGs. Battles are turn-based, with an allotment of action points governing your decisions. But Divinity: Original Sin II differs from its peers by consistently taking terrain and environmental elements into consideration. Pools of water can be frozen into slippery sheets of ice. High ground gives boosts to damage and low ground restricts it. And enemies turn these battlefield features into advantages, too. Hang out too close to a pool of oil and you can guarantee that an opponent will set it on fire. Evil archers and spellcasters always run or teleport to high locations so that they can snipe from relative safety.

As a result, battles are damn tough. You may have to play and lose some battles at least once in order to assess how the enemy can strike and determine a way to counter their advances. Thankfully, there are a number of difficulty options that let you control the pace of victory. The Explorer option nerfs enemies and boosts heroes to emphasize story over combat difficulty, so you get the flavor of the game without the serious challenge. Classic is the standard mode of play–tough but not insanely challenging. Tactician ups everything a little more, and Honor is the ultimate challenge, where you have just one save slot that gets deleted if everyone is killed. There is something here for just about every level of commitment and ability.

Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

I freewheeled in Classic mode as I went, directing characters into roles and training them based on what worked best in battle. Character progression felt as if I was molding real warriors through an adventure, pitfalls and all. I truly empathized with my party, to the point that I couldn’t let any of them go later on to try one of the other heroes on offer, like the witty and talented undead Fane. There’s one reason for a replay, but it’s not the only one.

Quest design in Divinity: Original Sin II is closer to a pen-and-paper feel than any computer RPG that I’ve ever played. The biggest reason for this is that you can screw up. An NPC can be randomly killed, shutting down a quest before it starts. Sometimes you simply cannot succeed at a skill check necessary to move a particular adventure along in the way you desire. Failing persuasion checks, as noted above in that farmhouse story, is fairly routine, forcing you to figure out another way forward and damn the consequences. Where most RPGs let you push on and experience almost everything in a single playthrough, it is impossible to experience all that this one has to offer in one play, or maybe even two or three.

Quests are not perfect, though. The journal system of tracking them isn’t nearly robust enough to keep up with how many you have going at any given time. You can’t search it, and even worse, key elements are frequently not included in the text descriptions. As a result of this quest confusion, I got lost more often than I should have. I spent too much time not sure what I was supposed to be doing due to vague journal entries, or wandering around searching for a key location that for reasons unknown was not noted on the map. I know some will believe this to be a good thing, that we finally have a serious RPG that doesn’t hold the hands of its players. But this issue seems more like a disconnect between how quests are offered up during the game and how they are tracked in the journal than any commitment to old-school difficulty.

In addition to the expansive single-player campaign, you can also play with friends cooperatively or dive into an even truer pen-and-paper role-playing simulation with Game Master mode–a section of the game that can live on potentially longer than Divinity’s own campaign. This is the kind of game that you’re best off playing online with friends; the involved story and the necessity to use teamwork in combat make the game too challenging if you’re adventuring with uncooperative strangers.

From lonely farmhouses through pitched battles with gods in far-flung dimensions, Divinity: Original Sin II is one of the most captivating role-playing games ever made. Its immaculately conceived and emotion-wrought fantasy world, topped by brilliant tactical combat, make it one of the finest games of the year thus far, and it has to be regarded as an instant classic in the pantheon of RPG greats.

Disclosure: Former GameSpot reviews editor Kevin VanOrd currently works at Larian Studios, serving as a writer on Divinity: Original Sin II.

Ruiner Review

There’s a certain flavour of brutality that some video games possess. An intoxicating river of violence that flows through the gameplay and drives a story through to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. It provokes a certain appeal that transforms a potentially generic experience into a bleak, brutal journey of blood, sweat and tears. This is where Ruiner lives and breathes.

In the year 2091, the city of Rengkok is a corrupt yet alluring hellhole. Gangs of murderous street kids roam the alleyways and corporate guards tell you where you’re not welcome. The failing conglomerate Heaven controls everything from military to entertainment and everyone in between is just trying to survive.

As rich as this backdrop is, it is a clothesline from which mass murder hangs. Your character is an internally wired lunatic whose only emotions are nods, shrugs and various moods which are displayed on an impressive LED helmet. Unfortunately, this technology is easily exploited and that’s where the story of Ruiner begins. Rebooted by a mysterious hacker named Her, you are told that Heaven has kidnapped your brother and you must tear Rengkok apart to find him. She calls you her ‘Puppy’ and as far you know, this is your only identity.

Visualised from an isometric perspective, Ruiner demands a lethally fast playstyle balanced with a methodical view towards defeating your enemies. Blood paints the floor as you cut a path through walls of bodies with swords, shotguns, pipes, rail guns and grenades. From dilapidated gang warehouses to thunderous steaming factories, the environments of Rengkok are your canvas for the art of death.

With a legion of inventive weapons and skills, mixed with abilities like a quick dash, shield, and the manipulation of enemies brains, everywhere you go quickly becomes a playground of murder. Ruiner strides knee-deep through carnage with such precision and confidence that sometimes all you can do is hang on and hope you come out alive the other side. As you begin to become accustomed to the sometimes brutally difficult combat, the game opens its doors to inventive boss encounters, and some profoundly satisfying melee combat scenarios.

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Cyborgs, assassins and gang leaders can kill with only a few strikes or bullets so if you don’t keep to the mantra of “move or die”, you’ll witness your demise many times. However, Ruiner never feels unfair. While it gives the early perception of being unforgiving, it is always clear where you went wrong, and you immediately want to jump straight back into battle to demonstrate that you have what it takes. Every enemy encounter gives you enough rope to hang yourself and it’s up to you to figure out how to escape the noose.

The most outstanding companion on this murderous journey is the music. Developer Reikon Games has assembled a myriad of artists to contribute to the driving, thumping soundtrack. From Polish techno to UK house tunes, the intoxicating soundscapes help propel the violence and drive Ruiner into that golden ‘one-more-go’ territory which can be difficult to escape.

Every enemy encounter gives you enough rope to hang yourself and it’s up to you to figure out how to escape the noose.

The characters that populate the city are a fascinating collection of outcasts, scumbags and manipulators. With names like Mechanix, Nerve and Traffic King, the cyberpunk landscape of Rengkok is littered with mysterious conversations and peculiar motivations. However, here lies Ruiner’s most glaring misstep. While every character has a compelling personality, not enough is done to bring them to the surface. The dialogue is well-written but most citizens you interact with are not as fully realised as they deserve to be. Loose ends begin to pile up and by the end of the story, you’re left wondering if a large part of the tapestry of Rengkok was left on the cutting room floor.

But this matters not when you’re inhaling the blood-drenched aesthetics of this universe. Cinematic lighting peeks through robotic factories and muted neon colours paint your path into a unique world of futuristic corruption, though the overwhelming presence of the colour red begins to notably dominate everything in the wake of your actions. From in-game menus to warehouse lighting, this theme is a constant reminder that bloodshed is your currency and your pockets are very deep indeed.

Violence in games can be designed as an incentive to move forward. When expertly crafted, it is a catalyst to continue when you might give up and go beyond where you thought your capabilities ended. In this respect, Ruiner succeeds masterfully. A lightning-fast lethality fits this cyberpunk world like a glove and pushes you into surprising tests of skill that become more rewarding with every slice and explosion.

Ruiner creates a future teeming with interesting concepts, fascinating people and hidden despair. But it is the combat which stands front and centre. Through the endless bodies that fall by your hand, the grim layers of the story peel away to divulge a few surprises about the meaning of life, death and revenge. It is a revealing journey that’s well worth taking but it is apparent from the opening scene to the mysterious finale, the only thing that is pure and absolute in the world of Ruiner is murder.