South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

In South Park: The Fractured But Whole, the fantasy theme of its predecessor gives way to the equally popular subject of superheroes, parodying the current state of comic book-to-film oversaturation we see today. This shift is complemented by the change in the combat system, which proves cerebrally satisfying despite the juvenile sight of your main character using flatulence to overpower and outsmart everyone from ninjas to a red wine-enraged Randy Marsh. And when you add town exploration that awards practical character benefits, the resulting game is a delightfully fart-tinged journey that delivers satisfying gameplay and surprising absurdity in equal measure.

Like many South Park episodes, The Fractured But Whole’s story kicks off with Eric Cartman cooking up a self-serving scheme: the search for a missing cat so he can use the reward money to fund a movie franchise for his troupe of superheroes. Yet, this is South Park after all, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that what develops goes way beyond a simple feline rescue. We’re talking about police corruption with Lovecraftian twists and having to stomach debased attacks by pedophile bosses. As you once again play as the New Kid, you promptly join Cartman’s team, Coon and Friends, engaging in a host of bizarre stories that play fast and loose with crude humor and sensitive topics alike.

This is South Park through and through, where outrageous and unpredictable plot developments contrast against the day-to-day goings on of seemingly normal suburbanites. There’s also the typical smattering of references to recent real-life events, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Morgan Freeman running a taqueria. But the game follows the franchise blueprint of lampooning pop culture and society without in-depth commentary, typified by the non-combat difficulty slider where being black is supposedly the hardest setting, and being white is the easiest. It’s an opportunity to present something meaningful left half-realized as a flyby gag.

Seemingly more care was put into the game’s more benign comedic touches, starting with game title itself. ‘The Fractured But Whole’ isn’t a mere excuse to hide ‘butthole’ in a game title; it’s also a clever take on Captain America: Civil War, relevant since the game’s story involves two rival superhero teams. The Fractured But Whole is a consistent chucklefest where genuine laugh out loud moments are spread thin, which is forgivable for a playthrough that can last over 20 hours. Thanks to fast travel, completing missions comes at a steady pace, which means you’re only minutes away from a new scene that would warrant a chortle at the very least. That could be Mr. Mackey’s disturbing inquisitiveness about your sexual preferences or the City Wok staff moonlighting as ninjas. And even in the more private settings of a stranger’s bathroom, the minigame of dropping a deuce offers its own flavor of hilarity.

Your arduous rescue mission is filled with hostile encounters against everyone from sixth graders to the elderly. As a welcome change to the precision demands of the Stick of Truth’s RPG-inspired mechanics, Fractured But Whole employs tactics-style combat, prioritizing strategy-driven thoughtfulness over adept reflexes. While those new to tactical RPGs won’t have to worry about the intricacies of terrain effects or improving chemistry between squadmates, you’re nonetheless rewarded for thinking a couple turns ahead. Moreover, the modestly sized combat grids give the initial false impression that only rudimentary battle planning is needed for success. In actuality, these sometimes cramped spaces force you to think carefully on how to efficiently navigate your characters around the field, ideally to capitalize on their powers.

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It’s a superbly balanced combat system that values smart thinking while also offering the flexibility of personal preference when choosing your character’s class and abilities. Whether you like supporting and buffing friends or want to be the most powerful tank possible, you can complement your strengths with the many superfriends you amass over time. While it’s a stimulating challenge trying to make a great team, it’s even harder to come up with a bad one. For every hero that has a potent attack that can knock back enemies, there’s a buddy who can heal and buff. Another advantage is the accessibility of craftable health-restoring mexican food. This can turn the bulk of encounters into easy victories, though The Fractured But Whole offers its share of optional encounters above your fighting weight–as measured by your squad’s Might level–not to mention a number of challenging boss fights.

Growing your team’s Might is inextricably tied to every bit of forward progress you make, whether that’s wrapping up a story goal or completing the myriad side quests assigned by familiar townsfolk. From building a follower count on social media via the Coonstagram app or collecting gay romantic manga for Mister Tucker, experience earned through those missions accumulate to increase your levels and unlock slots for Might-boosting artifacts.

As you head to any map-marked objective, the various unexplored homes and businesses along the way are well-peppered with practical crafting items and side-mission collectables. Thanks to a number of quality-of-life conveniences, exploring seldom feels like a chore. Accessible drawers are well-marked with yellow handles, backpacks you’ve sifted through remain open, and when you’ve completed various collection missions, you’re rewarded by the quest giver immediately, saving you the trip to physically hand the goods. These benefits far outweigh The Fractured But Whole’s slight annoyances such as not knowing what attacks in battle result in friendly fire and the tiny font of your app updates.

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Aside from exploration and battles, South Park is loaded with environmental puzzles that–while hardly brain teasing–can elicit more than a giggle depending on how a hurdle is overcome. The most challenging obstacles are surmounted by your legendary farting abilities and select friends you can call in for an immediate assist. By combining your flatulence with the flight ability of Human Kite (aka Kyle’s superhero persona), you can reach higher, previously inaccessible areas. Toilet humor transcends to depravity when you fire Butters’ rodent out of your butt, launching it to reach and sabotage open electrical panels. While The Stick of Truth had its share of gassy gags, this sequel doubles down on farting as an essential multipurpose game mechanic, powerful enough to bend space and time at your whim. Not only does it prove useful in solving puzzles, it’s also invaluable in preventing enemies from using their turn in battle.

Much like The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole can be appreciated as a standalone adventure, accessible to those who’ve fallen off the TV series over a decade ago. Fans who have kept up will appreciate the handful of recent call backs to the show plus at least one timely spoof that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone previous said they would not tackle. And if there’s one aspect of the show that hasn’t changed in its 20-plus years, it is the endearing qualities of the kids’ reality-breaking imaginations. This is best exemplified in the classic pronouncement that the floor is lava, which is represented by initially impassible red building blocks strewn throughout the town.

Fractured But Whole succeeds as an interactive South Park mini-series, while effectively emulating the show’s current style of adult-targeted entertainment and satirization of political correctness. In other words, it’s consistently amusing and provocative without the edginess the series used to be known for. Both the game’s combat and explorative strengths effectively bridge the many comical plot developments, which range from mildly amusing to downright hilarious. It’s an accomplishment that this game will wholly entertain devoted fans while delivering a heap of jokes that won’t fly over the heads of casual viewers.

The Evil Within 2 Review

Innovating within the bounds of horror’s familiar tropes and rules is a difficult task, but one that The Evil Within 2 handles with grace. Developer Tango Gameworks cleverly introduces old-school horror design within the confines of a semi-open world that ultimately makes for a refreshing trip into a world of nightmares.

Picking up several years after the first game, we find the former detective Sebastian Castellanos in dire straits, still wracked with guilt over the loss of his family and haunted by his last visit into a nightmare version of reality. When a shadowy organization gives him the chance to set things right with his past and rescue his daughter from the dangerous and unstable world of Union, he willingly re-enters the haunting realm despite his residual trauma.

Right from the beginning, there’s a sense of deja vu as Sebastian wanders the eerie and unreal locations in Union. Despite being one of the few survivors from the first game, he oddly finds himself falling for the same tricks and set-ups that the world and its inhabitants lay out for him. While this could be chalked up to a simple retread, much of these instances make a point of illustrating some key differences from this game and the last.

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There’s generally more of an adventurous feel compared to the original’s isolated levels. With more side characters to interact with–opening up moments of dialogue that flesh out the story–and optional events scattered around the world, there’s a level of freedom and variety in The Evil Within 2 that was largely absent from the first game. However, there are a few notable sections where backtracking is required, which slows the pacing and sense of progression to a crawl.

Despite this, exploration is consistently enjoyable, rewarding treks to the places tucked away, where you can find details about Union’s history and meet other characters looking to survive the nightmare. With so many little details that add a lot to atmosphere, there’s a clear respect for The Evil Within’s world. The many nods to original game feel more impactful for it, giving a renewed appreciation for Sebastian’s previous adventure.

Compared to its predecessor’s singular levels in unique chapters, The Evil Within 2 possesses a more organic and interconnected set of places to explore–focusing on several large maps with multiple points of interest. While there’s still plenty of mind-bending and perspective-skewing set pieces, such as a tentacle creature with a large camera for an eye, the explorable spaces are the real standout. In many ways, it’s like traversing through a demented amusement park filled with hideous creations, forcing yourself to face past horrors. Adventuring to places not marked on the map often yields valuable resources, and also leads to some surprising encounters with obsessive ghosts and multiple unnerving, fourth-wall breaking events.

It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.
It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.

Over time, environments descend into chaos when Union inevitably grows unstable, turning a small town into a horrifying and unnerving shell of its former self. Streets vertically upend, and fire and blood exude from places they shouldn’t. The visual design of The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While Sebastian felt more like a mere sketch of a hardened and weary protagonist in his first outing, he feels better realized and more grounded in this sequel, giving a certain gravitas to his struggle. Showing bewilderment and confusion throughout the first game, he’s more confident and determined this time, even throwing in some fitting one-liners that poke fun at some of the dangers in the last game. The supporting cast of villains also feel more active in the ongoing events, and have a greater sense of place this time around–particularly with the eccentric serial killer artist who photographs his victims upon their deaths.

The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While there’s occasional moments of cheese and humor throughout–such as the inclusion of a goofy shooting range and collectible toys related to other Bethesda games–the levity never feels out of place, which is an accomplishment considering the game’s pervasive macabre atmosphere.

Putting a greater emphasis on the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within 2 demands resource management and bravery in its relatively spacious world. While common enemies are fewer in number compared to the original game, they’re far more threatening alone and can easily manhandle Sebastian. There’s a thoughtful approach to engagement and progression this time around, which means you’ll have to think twice about whether or not to engage a group of enemies. With that said, you have a sizable arsenal of weapons and gear–including the return of the Crossbow with six different ammo types–to take on the enemies as you see fit.

Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.
Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.

Throughout his journey, Sebastian carries a communication device, allowing him to keep track of main objectives, along with points of interest and intel on the fates of side characters in the area. How you go about dealing with these characters and exploring is up to you. Similarly, whether you avoid conflict with enemies or take out as many as possible along the way is down to your preferred playstyle. The Evil Within 2 accommodates those that prefer action as much as those that like to be stealthy. Combat is robust, thanks to improved weapon handling and character upgrading that allows you to focus on the specific areas of Sebastian’s skillset to enhance stealth, combat, and athleticism.

Sebastian can return to the safe haven of his mind to upgrade weapons and skills, and review case files and intel on various characters. With the Green Gel collected from fallen enemies–and the new Red Gel that unlocks upper tier upgrades–the core upgrading system has been greatly improved. Going beyond simply increasing damage of melee strikes and stamina length, new special perks can be unlocked such as the ever-useful Bottle Break skill that uses bottles as self-defense items when grabbed by enemies. Along with the expanded weapon upgrade system, using only weapon parts, the systems of progression feel far more nuanced and open.

Sebastian will have to scavenge for supplies and other materials to make up for the lack of ammo boxes and health items. While this may seem like it can make things easy, efficient crafting can only be done at dedicated workbenches, whereas crafting in the field via the radial inventory menu should be done a last resort as it costs twice as many materials. This crafting element adds a bit of a survivalist feel to The Evil Within 2, where you’re scrounging around corners to find materials, all while avoiding packs of enemies looking to pummel you.

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Though the game is challenging even on its standard difficulty level, it’s not unfair, and there are options for multiple playstyles. The standard Survival difficulty mode is manageable, and you won’t find yourself hitting a way due to lack of resources. However, the Nightmare mode raises the stakes, featuring slightly altered combat encounters, harder enemies, and fewer resources to find. If you’re up for a challenge of a different kind, the unlockable Classic mode will disable auto-saves, upgrades, and limit you to a finite amount of saves. In addition to extra unlockables for completing the tougher difficulties, the experiences they offer is more in keeping with the true survival horror experience, where resources are hard to come by, and the enemies are deadlier than before.

There’s a clear respect for the horror genre in The Evil Within 2, with a number of references to classic films and games. The game channels that style and tone into combat that feels brutal and raw, stealth that has an air of suspense, and unsettling confrontations with dangerous, otherworldly creatures. The Evil Within 2 doubles down on the core of what makes survival horror games great: the focus on disempowerment and obstacles, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes with surviving a harrowing assault.

Though there’s some occasional technical hiccups that result in some particularly frustrating moments and weird pacing issues, this horror sequel elevates the tense and impactful survival horror experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting. What this cerebral horror game does isn’t totally new, but it rarely feels routine, and offers plenty of surprises. Coming in at a lengthy and surprisingly packed 15-hour campaign, the sequel does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension and scares when it needs to, while also giving you the freedom to explore and proceed how you want. It’s a tough thing to balance, but The Evil Within 2 does it remarkably well, and in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression after its touching conclusion.

A Hat In Time Review

Though it’s not apparent at first, A Hat in Time has all the best ingredients of an N64-era 3D platformer. It’s cute and colorful with a wacky cast of characters; it offers a variety of collectibles to find on each level, some far easier to get than others; its worlds hide cheeky secrets and delightful details. While t he first of its four main worlds is disappointingly generic, once it opens up, A Hat in Time offers creative, charming areas that make it feel true to its beloved predecessors without getting stale.

A Hat in Time begins with you, a young girl and captain of your own spaceship, losing all the hourglass-like Time Pieces you need for fuel to get home. 40 of them cascade out your window (never mind that there’s a window in a spaceship) and scatter around a mysterious planet, meaning you have to venture down there to find them. Your first stop is Mafia Town. It’s a basic island level populated by identical, burly men who speak broken English, and the mafia theme is half-baked on top of that. But hopping through the seaside town, past “in cod we trust” graffitied on the walls, and using your special top hat’s objective-highlighting powers to find one of the missing Time Pieces is enough to get acquainted with everything–even the over-the-top voice acting, which you’ll probably mute as soon as you have a spare minute to flip through the settings.

You’d think time would be the game’s core conceit, but your hat is the star of the show. In addition to Time Pieces, each world also has balls of yarn for you to collect; once you have enough, you can knit a new hat with its own unique powers, like the ability to sprint or use short-range explosives. The yarn itself provides an incentive to explore, and in turn, each hat grants you access (or easier access) to new areas. For the most part, each world is separated into chapters with a Time Piece each, but the worlds themselves are open for you to explore so long as you have the right hats. If that wasn’t enough reason to look for all the secrets, you’ll also collect gems as you go that can be used to buy pins for your hats. Each pin gives you an extra buff, like magnetically attracting all pickups in your immediate vicinity, and they are definitely worth having in the later, trickier areas.

Once you have all that sorted out, you’ll have moved onto the next world, where A Hat in Time comes into its own. You start out in a movie studio, where an owl and a penguin are competing to win an award. The world’s chapters are split between their movie sets: half on the owl’s old-timey train and half in the penguin’s New Orleans-esque party town. You’re given a score based on the collectibles you get in each chapter, and the bird whose chapters you perform the best in is named the winner. It’s absolutely adorable and unexpected, and your reward for being a completionist and returning to the world later is a clever ending to an already interesting twist.

Each of the worlds in A Hat in Time unravel like this. You explore initially to get balls of yarn for new hats and gems for pins, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find more and more rewards. Sometimes it’s just a cute reference in a random book or a cheeky remark from an otherwise unimportant NPC. But there are also things you’ll have to work harder to find. Tricky platforming can lead to special collectibles called artifacts; you might find a crayon in one area and a box in another, and you have to arrange the full set in your spaceship. Once you combine them correctly, you unlock a special side level where you collect photographs that tell a story about the world. The complete photo albums are cute and flesh out the antagonists just a little bit, which is a treat after beating each of them in their boss fight. There are also bonus levels hidden in each area that take away all the side distractions and present you with clean platforming challenges (and beautiful, almost melancholic music).

While the platforming in A Hat in Time never gets terribly difficult, movement is smooth, and there are plenty of just-barely-made it moments that are simple but satisfying. Once you get the hookshot pin, you’ll be able to transition from the ground to a jump to swinging off a hook and back down to the ground seamlessly. Getting from place to place just feels good, and the challenge levels are legitimately fun places to show off the grace in movement you’ve developed. They are pure and fun and blend well with the more inventive landscapes you’re traversing for a 3D platforming homage that doesn’t feel by the numbers.

A Hat in Time is slow to start, but it’s brimming with the charm and collectible-finding joy of classic 3D platformers. Collectibles are both fun to find and help guide you to the game’s best secrets, and seeing everything there is to see is its own reward. The platforming isn’t particularly challenging, nor does it do anything especially new, but A Hat in Time’s cleverly themed worlds and witty quips lend it a more contemporary feel that’s just right for satisfying a 3D platforming craving.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions Review

When Nintendo announced a Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga remake for the 3DS, I wasn’t sure I needed it. The beautiful 2D art, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and blend of action- and turn-based RPG gameplay of the Game Boy Advance original still feels every bit as vibrant and engaging today as it did when it came out 15 years ago. But after playing through Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, I’m absolutely convinced that it is the definitive way to experience one of Nintendo’s best RPGs.

The premise is the same: The evil witch Cackletta and her talkative minion Fawful have devised a scheme to conquer both the Mushroom Kingdom and the neighboring Beanbean Kingdom, starting with turning Princess Peach’s voice into an explosive force. Bowser, angry that he can’t abduct Peach in this state, teams up with Mario and an (unwilling) Luigi to give chase in an airship, only for the brothers to crash-land in foreign territory. Mario and Luigi must brave the strange lands of Beanbean to stop Cackletta’s plan. And while that’s going on, Bowser’s armies are on their own quest to figure out just where the heck he vanished to.

While the core game remains the same, the already great visuals get a gorgeous update on 3DS. The art has been completely redone, from the core sprites of Mario and Luigi to the tiniest of background details, and the result is some of the most beautiful and vibrant 2D art around. Various character animations have also been touched up and expanded upon, giving the brothers and their foes a lot of extra personality through their movements. (Sit back and watch some of the duo’s idle animations during combat when you have a spare moment– – it’s a real treat.) The music has also been revised and expanded, with longer melodies and higher-quality instrumentation adding an additional spring to the step of the bouncy, energetic tunes from ace composer Yoko Shimomura. The only disappointment in the audiovisual department is the complete lack of a 3D option;: we’ve seen how good other “2D- art- in- 3D” games look on the 3DS, and given that the game has its fair share of perspective and platform puzzles, it would have been both a big help and a great visual enhancement.

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The silly story of Superstar Saga is brought to life through dialogue and events that evoke the whimsical, humorous nature of the Mario universe. Characters like the elegant Prince of the Beanbean Kingdom and the wicked Cackletta have memorable quirks that make their personas stand out. Even some of the more minor side NPCs, like the Chuckola Bros, have a notable amount of care and attention put into their speech. That still shows through after all these years–though the most memorable character, Fawful, doesn’t have quite the impact he once did, coming off an era where nonsensical JRPG translations were common.

The core gameplay remains primarily the same as the original game, with a few enhancements. You explore various environments from an overhead view, using special skills to navigate and solve puzzles when necessary. When you encounter an enemy, you enter a battle sequence that blends turn-based commands with timing-based button presses to both deal extra damage to enemies and evade or counter their attacks. Some subtle improvements from later games in the Mario and Luigi series have been added, too: The pair can now perform an emergency guard during combat by pressing the X button, reducing damage from enemy attacks if you’re not confident in your evasion skills. You can also retry boss fights on an easier difficulty if you get a game over. Story scenes can be sped up by holding down the R button, making some of the dialogue-heavy scenes zip by faster if you’ve seen them before (or if you’re a speed reader). These additions help streamline the experience, but by and large, if you remember the events of the original Superstar Saga, you’re going through the same motions in the remake.

Most the brand-new content is in a sub-game that opens a little over an hour into the main story. Called “Minion Quest,” this is a separate adventure with no bearing on the main story that follows a gallant Goomba who wants to find and rescue his Lord Bowser. To accomplish this, he needs to find other minions from Bowser’s army, convince them to band together, and fight against Fawful’s brainwashed hordes.

Instead of a traditional RPG, Minion Quest plays like a simplified real-time strategy game: You assemble a small army of troops from characters you’ve recruited and send them to battle against other armies. It feels pretty hands-off. Most of what you do is just watch characters bop each other and press buttons when prompted, since you can’t really control your army the way you would in a proper RTS (for example, you can’t tell troops to fall back and guard your commander if enemies break through your lines of defense). It can also get very frustrating and grindy–some quests practically demand you use a specific character type to counter a specific opponent, requiring you to either replay previous quests until you either randomly recruit enough of that character or get your levels high enough that it doesn’t matter. And sometimes even when you do bring a counter to the enemy’s forces, you can lose for reasons that feel completely arcane. As cute and charming as the cutscenes depicting the power struggle among Bowser’s army are, several of the fights in Minion Quest can really test your patience and willingness to continue.

Even though Minion Quest falters, it’s still an optional outing that doesn’t detract from what’s fundamentally an excellent adventure. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga has aged astonishingly well, and the various improvements offered in this remake only serve to make an already great game even better. Whether you’re a series veteran or visiting the Beanbean Kingdom for the very first time, there’s no better way to experience this classic RPG.

Gundam Versus Review

It’s hard not to get a kick out of watching giant robots slug it out, and that’s precisely what Gundam Versus is all about. It’s a celebration of all things Gundam on the surface, with over a hundred playable mechs from the many Gundam anime series since 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam. It’s a hybrid fighting game at heart that puts you in the pilot’s seat, tactically flying at enemies, dodging attacks, and slamming opponents through buildings. Undoubtedly it’s one for fans of the Gundam universe, but for those unfamiliar with the series and its origins, there’s still a whole lot of enjoyment to be had.

Gundam Versus plays more like a beat-em-up than a traditional fighting game, and depending on which game mode you choose, you’ll play as either a lone wolf or in a group with one or two CPU players–real players if you take it online–and team up to take down the enemy. In the single-player modes you’ll face pre-defined waves of enemies or a team of Gundam. Just beware: most dialogue is left untranslated. It won’t prevent you from knowing what to do, but you can’t easily follow what most characters have to say, save for your navigator.

Competitive multiplayer is more raw, focusing solely on Gundam-versus-Gundam bouts, which feel more dynamic and dramatic than merely facing off against AI. PvP is not just the most exciting way to play, but also the most gratifying. This is assuming you have a strong connection, as any server issues, which feel particularly prevalent in 3v3 modes, hurt the frame rate and render matches nigh unplayable.

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How you go about dispatching the enemy is largely dependent on the mech you choose to pilot. Not that selecting a particular style of Mobile Suit aligns you to one playstyle; thankfully you are free to attack opponents how you see fit. You can lay down cannon fire from long-range then close in for a quick melee combo, or take advantage of your Suit’s maneuverability, waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. But whether you’re effective on the battlefield comes down to how well you learn each mech’s particular behaviors.

Despite the Gundams’ impressive power, they are relatively simple to control. You can fly straight up into the air and change direction on a dime using power boosters; you just have to govern them appropriately to avoid overheating. Melee and ranged attacks typically require one button to activate, though you can often combine them for slightly more advanced attacks. However there are some subtle and not-so-subtle variations of this, which means there’s a heap of variety, but it can also feel inscrutable at times. Sometimes pulling back on the left stick and hitting your melee attack throws a block, using the Gundam’s giant shield for protection. But for others, this same move can unleash a devastating attack instead of providing the protection you’re seeking.

Hitting with ranged attacks is more about precise timing–and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s no free aim; everything offensive is governed by a locking system that cycles through enemies by tapping a button. Without a way to lead your target to make sure your shots are landing, often you can get a little lost when trying to cycle through to latch on to the one you want to take down. It could be a little smarter too, as it doesn’t take distance to the target into account when cycling. That split second can be the difference between nailing a sweet combo, or being on the receiving end of deadly flurry of blows that ends the round in a fireball. More annoying–and borderline unfair–is that enemies don’t take any damage from attacks while they’re staggered, but they can seemingly knock you about while you’re in the same position. Feeling like you’re at such a disadvantage under attack can lead to some incredibly frustrating defeats.

Having your mech shot down is something you get used to pretty fast, but it doesn’t mean the end of the battle. Respawns aren’t governed by a number of lives, but rather a Battlefield-style ticket-based system, where the number assigned to your Mobile Suit (as seen on the character select screen) represents the number of tickets respawning in that Mobile Suit will cost. Given the number of tickets you’re allotted changes on a per-battle basis, weighing up that cost versus the level of firepower they provide should factor into your choice. It’s all good and well to default to some of the more powerful suits, but they can be slower and more unwieldy, leaving you open to attack more often than you might be prepared for.

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The arenas within which you unleash robot hell give the appearance of being much larger than they really are; the playable area in each is pared down to only a small portion of the map. While this is somewhat disappointing, each of the environments has its own aesthetic style, from a space colony split in half by an asteroid that’s still embedded in its side, to the more familiar surroundings of a large earth city or an open forest or mountain range.

Some of the less spectacular ground and surrounding building textures are highlighted by nice lighting, but the overall scope and size of each arena does enough to make up for the missing detail. And many of the buildings and objects within each arena are destructible, crumbling to chunky pieces as you and your opponents launch all manner of missiles, lasers and big robot fists at each other. It’s a nice touch but also gives the impression of kicking over a tower of foam blocks, lacking the kind of visual quality and wow factor that would bring it up to par with many of the mechs’ attacks–some of which, by the way, look devastatingly powerful, with huge flashes of lasers, lights and explosions dominating the screen when they hit their target.

Gundam Versus is dedicated to the Gundam universe, and the treatment of the source material is easy to appreciate, even for someone unfamiliar with the series. That said, some loose mechanics, the paltry localization, and multiplayer’s inability to deal with less-than-perfect network connections aren’t easy to ignore. A smarter locking system, better demonstration of the differences between various Mobile Suits and the ability to attack downed enemies like they can to you would make for an improved experience, on the battlefield at least. But Gundam Versus nonetheless offers some light-hearted, robot smashing fun.

Gundam Versus Review

It’s hard not to get a kick out of watching giant robots slug it out, and that’s precisely what Gundam Versus is all about. It’s a celebration of all things Gundam on the surface, with over a hundred playable mechs from the many Gundam anime series since 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam. It’s a hybrid fighting game at heart that puts you in the pilot’s seat, tactically flying at enemies, dodging attacks, and slamming opponents through buildings. Undoubtedly it’s one for fans of the Gundam universe, but for those unfamiliar with the series and its origins, there’s still a whole lot of enjoyment to be had.

Gundam Versus plays more like a beat-em-up than a traditional fighting game, and depending on which game mode you choose, you’ll play as either a lone wolf or in a group with one or two CPU players–real players if you take it online–and team up to take down the enemy. In the single-player modes you’ll face pre-defined waves of enemies or a team of Gundam. Just beware: most dialogue is left untranslated. It won’t prevent you from knowing what to do, but you can’t easily follow what most characters have to say, save for your navigator.

Competitive multiplayer is more raw, focusing solely on Gundam-versus-Gundam bouts, which feel more dynamic and dramatic than merely facing off against AI. PvP is not just the most exciting way to play, but also the most gratifying. This is assuming you have a strong connection, as any server issues, which feel particularly prevalent in 3v3 modes, hurt the frame rate and render matches nigh unplayable.

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How you go about dispatching the enemy is largely dependent on the mech you choose to pilot. Not that selecting a particular style of Mobile Suit aligns you to one playstyle; thankfully you are free to attack opponents how you see fit. You can lay down cannon fire from long-range then close in for a quick melee combo, or take advantage of your Suit’s maneuverability, waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. But whether you’re effective on the battlefield comes down to how well you learn each mech’s particular behaviors.

Despite the Gundams’ impressive power, they are relatively simple to control. You can fly straight up into the air and change direction on a dime using power boosters; you just have to govern them appropriately to avoid overheating. Melee and ranged attacks typically require one button to activate, though you can often combine them for slightly more advanced attacks. However there are some subtle and not-so-subtle variations of this, which means there’s a heap of variety, but it can also feel inscrutable at times. Sometimes pulling back on the left stick and hitting your melee attack throws a block, using the Gundam’s giant shield for protection. But for others, this same move can unleash a devastating attack instead of providing the protection you’re seeking.

Hitting with ranged attacks is more about precise timing–and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s no free aim; everything offensive is governed by a locking system that cycles through enemies by tapping a button. Without a way to lead your target to make sure your shots are landing, often you can get a little lost when trying to cycle through to latch on to the one you want to take down. It could be a little smarter too, as it doesn’t take distance to the target into account when cycling. That split second can be the difference between nailing a sweet combo, or being on the receiving end of deadly flurry of blows that ends the round in a fireball. More annoying–and borderline unfair–is that enemies don’t take any damage from attacks while they’re staggered, but they can seemingly knock you about while you’re in the same position. Feeling like you’re at such a disadvantage under attack can lead to some incredibly frustrating defeats.

Having your mech shot down is something you get used to pretty fast, but it doesn’t mean the end of the battle. Respawns aren’t governed by a number of lives, but rather a Battlefield-style ticket-based system, where the number assigned to your Mobile Suit (as seen on the character select screen) represents the number of tickets respawning in that Mobile Suit will cost. Given the number of tickets you’re allotted changes on a per-battle basis, weighing up that cost versus the level of firepower they provide should factor into your choice. It’s all good and well to default to some of the more powerful suits, but they can be slower and more unwieldy, leaving you open to attack more often than you might be prepared for.

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The arenas within which you unleash robot hell give the appearance of being much larger than they really are; the playable area in each is pared down to only a small portion of the map. While this is somewhat disappointing, each of the environments has its own aesthetic style, from a space colony split in half by an asteroid that’s still embedded in its side, to the more familiar surroundings of a large earth city or an open forest or mountain range.

Some of the less spectacular ground and surrounding building textures are highlighted by nice lighting, but the overall scope and size of each arena does enough to make up for the missing detail. And many of the buildings and objects within each arena are destructible, crumbling to chunky pieces as you and your opponents launch all manner of missiles, lasers and big robot fists at each other. It’s a nice touch but also gives the impression of kicking over a tower of foam blocks, lacking the kind of visual quality and wow factor that would bring it up to par with many of the mechs’ attacks–some of which, by the way, look devastatingly powerful, with huge flashes of lasers, lights and explosions dominating the screen when they hit their target.

Gundam Versus is dedicated to the Gundam universe, and the treatment of the source material is easy to appreciate, even for someone unfamiliar with the series. That said, some loose mechanics, the paltry localization, and multiplayer’s inability to deal with less-than-perfect network connections aren’t easy to ignore. A smarter locking system, better demonstration of the differences between various Mobile Suits and the ability to attack downed enemies like they can to you would make for an improved experience, on the battlefield at least. But Gundam Versus nonetheless offers some light-hearted, robot smashing fun.

Middle-earth: Shadow Of War Review

One of the first people you meet in Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a woman with midnight black hair and a dress torn in intentionally strategic locations. You’ll then learn that she’s a version of Shelob, a giant deadly spider creature. The game explains her mysterious human form in time, and while fans of Lord of the Rings lore might have trouble embracing this unique interpretation of Tolkien storytelling, it shows that Shadow of War is a game that’s willing to take risks with its source material. And, in a way, this example represents the full arc of the game: off-putting in the beginning, disappointing in the end, but seeing how they explain it all is an exciting ride.

Like its predecessor, Shadow of War is populated by powerful Orc Captains that have specific strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits defined by the game’s Nemesis system. The number of fears, special abilities, and beneficial powers are much more robust than the first game, making it important to find a strategic approach to taking down some of the game’s more powerful foes. The amount of information you get about each Orc once you’ve revealed its vulnerabilities can feel almost overwhelming, but you quickly adapt to the game’s shorthand and what traits to look out for.

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Your primary goal is to raise an army against the forces of Mordor by recruiting every Orcish leader you meet. These characters strike the perfect balance of humor and absurdity against the dull seriousness of the human cast, and you’ll wish the quirkier denizens of Mordor could be constant companions instead of the brief vignettes that flash across the screen when you either kill or are killed by one. One especially colorful character I met was an Orc prophet who yelled at me about some serpent cult he was a part of; I ended up killing him, but it left a lot of questions in my mind about how Orc religions work.

Most of your time in Mordor is spent killing Orcs. Building off the first game, Shadow of War has a free-flowing combat system that lets you dominate creatures one-on-one but still stay in control when surrounded by a dozen or more adversaries. That momentum slows when too many things are happening on-screen at once, though. When an enemy captain is ready to be coerced over to your side an icon above his head turns green. Incoming attacks can be countered following a flashing prompt, and you have a slew of different abilities to take out legions of enemies. But the chaos of battle can make targeting opponents frustrating.

That’s a shame because Shadow of War’s most memorable moments revolve around its large-scale Siege battles, where you take over Orc-controlled fortresses using your own loyal followers. With an army of Orcs at your back, both pressing the offensive on a castle and protecting it are equally exciting, and the final entrance into the main hall of a fortress for the final fight feels as reverent and grand as walking into a towering cathedral in real life.

In the moment, these tense battles are the core of the Shadow of War experience, but the overarching narrative outside of the broad “tour Mordor, fight Sauron’s forces,” feels directionless. Part of that’s because you don’t spend enough time with any secondary characters (except for Gollum, whose brief appearance is somehow still too long). Characters you meet in the game have relatively short asides that range from the absolutely boring “save some Gondorians” to the furiously funny “learn how fight pits work with Bruz the Orc.” It’s hard to get invested in the stories of less interesting characters, and once you’ve completed a few of their quests, they disappear forever anyway. And, like most open-world games, after you’ve spent a couple hours running around collecting trinkets, it makes an NPC’s entreaty about an imminent enemy invasion feel less immediately pressing.

But, narrative problems aside, some of the setpieces are breathlessly fun. You ride a drake, team up with some ridiculous Orcs, fight an imposing, flame-winged Balrog, battle the Ringwraiths. It’s a greatest-hits compilation of the most bad-ass moments from The Lord of the Rings. After a slow-building introductory act, the game gains momentum as it crashes toward what seems like a final standoff against the forces of evil. And this fight addresses criticism of the previous game; it’s an epic multi-stage battle that does still have QTEs, but no more than the ones you find while playing through the game normally.

Bafflingly that battle isn’t the end of the game. Shadow of War continues on, but with its momentum drained completely. What should be an exciting climax instead descends into a tedious slog for a cutscene that doesn’t quite feel worth the time and effort. In the game’s actual final act, you cycle through the four fortresses you explored previously for a total of 20 more defending siege battles. If you haven’t upgraded the Orcs you met early in the game–and up until this point, there was no reason to–you have to replace and upgrade your entire retinue of Orcs to match this more powerful invading force.

It’s an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer.

The enemies you face level up with each encounter, so you’re also forced into upgrading each castle over and over again, either by building up your current Orc army or finding new fighters and replacing the old. This Sisyphean quest has no corresponding significant characters to keep you company or explain why it’s important to tackle the defense missions in the order you do. It’s not even clear, exactly, why you want to do them at all.

More than once I felt like giving up on this quest thinking I’d stumbled onto some optional side content that was clearly only made for obsessed completionists. But enduring on, I found that finishing every stage unlocks the final cutscene and credits. It did not feel worth it.

It’s an entire section that should have been cut or severely truncated, and playing through the repetitious levels felt like padding meant only to make the game last longer. But although the game’s final act is the most egregious, there are several other systems that Shadow of War fails to justify.

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Almost every item and Orc has some type of associated rarity (which scales from Common to Rare to Epic to Legendary), and with higher rarity comes more abilities. For Orcs, this means that they have additional, more powerful attributes that aren’t available elsewhere. For weapons, it includes perks like “48% chance that a headshot lights enemies on fire.” The buffs are useful, but the effects aren’t so amazing that you’d keep a significantly underpowered weapon or Orc just for its benefits. It feels like a system tacked on purely to add another set of items to collect.

The menu systems for your Orcs and weapons is the part that feels most overburdened. It’s grating that there’s no way to sort or search through your own army if, say, you need an Orc with a cursed weapon and an immunity to beast attacks to take out an especially tricky opponent. But to find out what skills are active based on your current weapon loadout, you have to go to each item in your menu and read up on what you have equipped. There’s no overview screen that lists out what effects you currently have active.

Like so many of the other game’s systems, the storefront feels less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition.

And buried within the weapon screens is yet another separate item menu, this one for gems. Gems are stat-boosters you find throughout the game that give each item yet another upgrade like increasing the chance that enemies killed with that weapon drop in-game currency or a 12.5% increase to the amount of experience you earn. They’re helpful, but managing the upgrades for yet another set of items that are nested as a menu within your own equipment amounts to busywork.

Even with the Russian nesting doll of item menus, the most initially intimidating and complex of Shadow of War’s systems is its skills menu. There are six primary skill tracks with points that have to be unlocked in order, and each skill has a separate unlockable set of 2-3 sub-skills (only one of which can be activated at any time). The ability grid is so dense and spread out that it’s a chore to read through and decide what to put your points into every time you level up. And reallocating in the middle of battle (say if you want an area of effect attack to shoot out flames instead of poison), involves too much work and slows down battle too much to be practical.

As an example of how overwrought with options the skill system is, there’s an upgrade that unlocks the ability to “collect items by walking over them.” In normal play, you actually have to manually push a button to pick up every item you come across. It’s an ability worth prioritizing when you’re looking to spend skill points, but it’s nonsensical that such a basic quality of life improvement isn’t just the default way item collection works.

Despite the bloated feel of its systems, you earn all of these skill points, weapons, and Orcs at such a frantic pace that the game doesn’t feel dragged down in the same way as it does by the final act.

Going beyond skills and menus, one of Shadow of War’s more controversial additions is its online storefront where you can pay real-world money to earn loot boxes that have guaranteed high-rarity Orcs and equipment. One early quest in the game gives you a small sum of the paid currency to purchase some loot boxes, but you can also buy them from the store using an earned in-game currency called Mirian.

In our experience with the game, loot boxes purchased with in-game currency only earned us Epic tier rewards, instead of the paid currency’s guaranteed Legendaries. [Editor’s Note 10/6 10:50 AM: It is possible to earn Legendary rewards from loot boxes bought with in-game currency, though they occur with less-frequency than Epic rewards.] However, the difference in quality between the Legendary and Epic Orc rewards, in practice, isn’t substantially different. And after finishing the game, even with buying a dozen or so 1,200 Mirian loot crates over the course of my adventure, I was still left with over 70,000 Mirian in reserve for buying plenty of more loot boxes. It’s also possible for Legendary items and Orcs to appear randomly in-game, so paying real money only serves as a guaranteed way to get one. Like so many of the other game’s systems, the paid storefront feels less predatory and more like an unnecessary addition.

And that addition sums up several of Shadow of War’s additions–things like the storefront and the menus and loot system don’t make the game terrible, it just would’ve been better without them. It tries to be larger than its predecessor, there are more abilities, more weapons, more Orcs, yet it leaves you wanting less. But at its core, it’s a fun experience with brilliant moments that provide fascinating insight into some of the untold stories of Middle-earth. I just wish it had known when to stop.

Editor’s note: GameSpot has updated the penultimate paragraph in this review to provide further clarification on the types of drops available through paid loot boxes. – Oct. 5, 2017, 5:33 PM PST

FIFA 18 Nintendo Switch Review

FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch is a tough game to categorize. When compared to the likes of FIFA’s past PS Vita, 3DS, and other mobile versions, it’s easily the best portable FIFA ever made. But compared to its current console cousin–FIFA 18 on PS4 / Xbox One–it’s lacking features and much of the shine that makes that version so appealing.

On the pitch, it actually replicates the other editions’ gameplay pretty well. Dribbling feels responsive, crosses are accurate, and overall match speed is faster than on PS4 / Xbox One, a change that better suits the Switch’s immediate pick-up-and-play sensibilities. Commentary is also just as impressive, and animations look as smooth as they do on current-gen (though you’re better off not looking at the cardboard cut-out crowds). Shots don’t pop like they do on PS4 and Xbox One, and the omission of player instructions is a frustrating and bizarre one. But playing a match of FIFA 18 on Switch is an enjoyable experience.

The problems arise when you consider the game as a package. FIFA’s Switch port is missing Pro Clubs and The Journey, meaning the only options to play offline are the bog standard Kick Off and aging Career Mode. I say “aging” because the Career Mode here is not the one included in FIFA 18 on PS4 and Xbox One–it’s more like the Career Mode seen in FIFA 16. It does not include the latest additions of dynamic news clips or interactive transfer negotiations because–like The Journey–they are powered by the Frostbite engine, which FIFA 18 on Switch does not use. With such a faithful recreation seen on the pitch, it’s disappointing that attention to detail is not reflected off it.

This means that, despite feeling good when you’re in a match, FIFA 18 doesn’t really offer much to do when you’re not connected to the internet. The Journey in particular would’ve been a perfect fit for a portable FIFA–a match on the way to work, another on the way home–but its omission leaves the only proper mode, save for the aforementioned Career Mode, as Ultimate Team.

FUT is, again, replicated well–it looks and plays like the real deal, and contains much of the live content the other versions boast, like Team of the Week and SBCs. However, once again, the Switch edition is missing the mode’s big new feature for this season, FUT Squad Battles. Ironically, Squad Battles are the feature that would have fit this version of Ultimate Team best–as a single-player portion, it would’ve been perfect to play a couple of matches while on the bus and have the game sync when I get home. Unfortunately, they’re missing from this version, and you can’t even access FUT’s menus when you’re not connected to EA’s servers. Of course, you can play it when you get home, but you’ll be playing a version of Ultimate Team missing many of the PS4 / Xbox One versions’ innovations from the past couple of years.

One advantage the Switch version has over the home console edition is the ability to play with a friend while on the go. FIFA 18 supports single Joy-Con play, meaning I was able to play football on my Switch against my brother on the way to an actual football match this weekend. It works, but I always felt l was struggling against the controls–fewer buttons and only one stick means there’s no way to use finesse shots, threaded through balls, knuckle shots, manual defending, skill moves, or driven passes. EA has come up with a clever workaround to allow you to knock the ball ahead–double tap the right trigger rather than using the absent right stick–but it’s a shame similar solutions haven’t been found for the other missing moves. It remains a convenient way to play a quick match against friends while on the go, but you’ll be fighting to get both Joy-Cons back before long.

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Unfortunately, the ability to play with friends is not reflected in FIFA 18’s online offering on Switch. While you can play online–in FUT or in the standard Seasons mode or a single match–there is no way to matchmake with friends unless they happen to be in the same room as you and have their Switch on them. It’s a glaring omission, and doesn’t do justice to the community EA has cultivated so well on Xbox and PlayStation.

FIFA 18 on Switch delivers some enjoyable soccer when on the pitch, but without Pro Clubs and The Journey, and in restricting all access to FUT when you’re not online, it shoots itself in the foot. Being able to play FIFA on the go or with a friend is gratifying, and if you’re happy to just play through Career Mode for the next year, then this port will satisfy your needs and is the best mobile FIFA you can buy, but compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions, this port is inferior in every other way.

FIFA 18 Nintendo Switch Review

FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch is a tough game to categorize. When compared to the likes of FIFA’s past PS Vita, 3DS, and other mobile versions, it’s easily the best portable FIFA ever made. But compared to its current console cousin–FIFA 18 on PS4 / Xbox One–it’s lacking features and much of the shine that makes that version so appealing.

On the pitch, it actually replicates the other editions’ gameplay pretty well. Dribbling feels responsive, crosses are accurate, and overall match speed is faster than on PS4 / Xbox One, a change that better suits the Switch’s immediate pick-up-and-play sensibilities. Commentary is also just as impressive, and animations look as smooth as they do on current-gen (though you’re better off not looking at the cardboard cut-out crowds). Shots don’t pop like they do on PS4 and Xbox One, and the omission of player instructions is a frustrating and bizarre one. But playing a match of FIFA 18 on Switch is an enjoyable experience.

The problems arise when you consider the game as a package. FIFA’s Switch port is missing Pro Clubs and The Journey, meaning the only options to play offline are the bog standard Kick Off and aging Career Mode. I say “aging” because the Career Mode here is not the one included in FIFA 18 on PS4 and Xbox One–it’s more like the Career Mode seen in FIFA 16. It does not include the latest additions of dynamic news clips or interactive transfer negotiations because–like The Journey–they are powered by the Frostbite engine, which FIFA 18 on Switch does not use. With such a faithful recreation seen on the pitch, it’s disappointing that attention to detail is not reflected off it.

This means that, despite feeling good when you’re in a match, FIFA 18 doesn’t really offer much to do when you’re not connected to the internet. The Journey in particular would’ve been a perfect fit for a portable FIFA–a match on the way to work, another on the way home–but its omission leaves the only proper mode, save for the aforementioned Career Mode, as Ultimate Team.

FUT is, again, replicated well–it looks and plays like the real deal, and contains much of the live content the other versions boast, like Team of the Week and SBCs. However, once again, the Switch edition is missing the mode’s big new feature for this season, FUT Squad Battles. Ironically, Squad Battles are the feature that would have fit this version of Ultimate Team best–as a single-player portion, it would’ve been perfect to play a couple of matches while on the bus and have the game sync when I get home. Unfortunately, they’re missing from this version, and you can’t even access FUT’s menus when you’re not connected to EA’s servers. Of course, you can play it when you get home, but you’ll be playing a version of Ultimate Team missing many of the PS4 / Xbox One versions’ innovations from the past couple of years.

One advantage the Switch version has over the home console edition is the ability to play with a friend while on the go. FIFA 18 supports single Joy-Con play, meaning I was able to play football on my Switch against my brother on the way to an actual football match this weekend. It works, but I always felt l was struggling against the controls–fewer buttons and only one stick means there’s no way to use finesse shots, threaded through balls, knuckle shots, manual defending, skill moves, or driven passes. EA has come up with a clever workaround to allow you to knock the ball ahead–double tap the right trigger rather than using the absent right stick–but it’s a shame similar solutions haven’t been found for the other missing moves. It remains a convenient way to play a quick match against friends while on the go, but you’ll be fighting to get both Joy-Cons back before long.

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Unfortunately, the ability to play with friends is not reflected in FIFA 18’s online offering on Switch. While you can play online–in FUT or in the standard Seasons mode or a single match–there is no way to matchmake with friends unless they happen to be in the same room as you and have their Switch on them. It’s a glaring omission, and doesn’t do justice to the community EA has cultivated so well on Xbox and PlayStation.

FIFA 18 on Switch delivers some enjoyable soccer when on the pitch, but without Pro Clubs and The Journey, and in restricting all access to FUT when you’re not online, it shoots itself in the foot. Being able to play FIFA on the go or with a friend is gratifying, and if you’re happy to just play through Career Mode for the next year, then this port will satisfy your needs and is the best mobile FIFA you can buy, but compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions, this port is inferior in every other way.

Forza Motorsport 7 Review

In Forza Motorsport 7, the familiarity of driving your favorite cars on beloved tracks goes hand in hand with the joys of discovery. It’s about owning sporty cars priced just out of reach in real life, whether that’s a Mazda RX-8 or an Infinity Q60. There’s exhilaration in taking those sweet rides down roads you’ve visited countless times and still finding something new around familiar bends. And whether you’re preoccupied with a pack of assertive Drivatars or fiercer real-life competitors, Forza 7–much like the other installments in developer Turn 10’s mainline racing series–is decidedly abundant in different ways to compete.

The first thing you’ll notice about Forza 7 is that it strips away the often amusing glorification and ostentatiousness of motorsport that decorated the series’ last few games. Granted, I loved the dulcet voice over of Jeremy Clarkson when he dispensed with insight and trivia on cars and courses. Forza 7 relies less on wooing you with superficial spectacles and instead lets the cars and courses speak for themselves. This break from the ceremonious aspects of motorsport is a welcome one, especially when all you want to do is race.

The career mode alone–dubbed Forza Driver’s Cup–encourages you to get down to business in a wide array of competitions spread across six championship series. Since you don’t need to enter all the races to win the cup, you’re offered the flexibility to compete with the types of cars you’re most used to. That said, the opening races effectively remind you of Forza 7’s vehicle variety, encouraging you to play outside your comfort zone. You can spend a dozen hours beelining for the cup, or more than double that if you want to get first in every race. There’s no clear theme to distinguish one series over another, but it’s easy to go along with Turn 10’s seemingly arbitrary playlists of tournaments, given the wide variety of cars and courses lining your journey.

Even after you’ve raised the final trophy in the Forza Driver’s Cup, the quest to build a respectable collection of cars goes on. As always, the draw of browsing the hundreds of cars in Forza is the tease of purchasing a new model like the 2017 Nissan GT-R or scratching that nostalgic itch with a Pacer X from the now-defunct American Motors Corporation. And while the recent withdrawal of Lexus and Toyota production models from racing games leaves a void in this robust roster, Turn 10 helps cushion the blow with a hearty selection of Porsches, a manufacturer that was missing from the launch version of Forza 6.

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Competition takes many forms in Forza 7. The friends-as-AI Drivatars return as a pleasing alternative to age-old CPU racing behaviors like rubber banding. Online you’ll find, more often than not, disorderly strangers who are as impolite as they are careless. Your best hope of winning is placing near the front of the starting grid. The alternative is, of course, participating in a private race, provided you can convince other friends and Forza players–ideally enough to fill a 24-car grid–to play fair and do their best at avoiding crashes. For the least chaotic approach to measuring and comparing greatness, Rivals presents a host of tough yet worthwhile asynchronous contests where you attempt to beat other players’ lap times. Unfortunately, the traditional Forza outlets of aggression like zombie or tag are not available in the launch version of Forza 7. The same goes for Forzathon and Leagues modes, unique timed events that enhance the replay value of Forza Motorsport 6 and Forza Horizon 3.

Like many Forza Motorsports before it, Forza 7’s greatest strength is its diversity of driving experiences, which says something for a series that relies mostly on circuit races, rather than adding point-to-point and off-road competition. The challenge of weaving a Mini Cooper through traffic at 45 miles per hour can be as thrilling as navigating your way through the various slopes and dips in Dubai Circuit of the Emirates. These moments are made all the more rewarding thanks to the 122 finely detailed and authentic track configurations spread across its 32 locations.

The last couple Forza Motorsports, along with Forza 7, are engrossing due to their true-to-life tracks and how surrounding environments are enhanced by changes in weather and time of day. Yet whereas Forza 6 had a premade rain condition for select tracks, Forza 7 has an impressive 16 variations of inclimate weather like thunderclouds and summer drizzle. Road Atlanta on an overcast day can exude the secluded quaintness of a course in the U.K. like the Top Gear Test Track. Suzuka–one of the oldest circuits in video games, dating back to Pole Position II–has never looked as good as when it’s accentuated by the sun as it breaks through clouds during an early morning race. The ability to set multiple changing weather states in a single match further adds character to these riveting tours. The right combination of car and weather conditions can give you a newfound appreciation for a track you’ve raced on hundreds of times in other games.

What has always set Forza Motorsport apart from other racing sims is the depth of its newcomer-friendly accessibility options. Forza 7 continues this tradition with an array of adjustable assists and difficulty settings. Naturally, many of Forza 7’s challenges arise when you’ve tweaked your settings just right so first place wins are hard fought. And with the return of mod cards–originally introduced in Forza Motorsport 6–you can self-impose other performance incentives for greater rewards. It’s mildly gratifying to receive bonus currency for great passing or cornering even if the game didn’t notice you shoved a couple cars when executing these supposedly graceful maneuvers.

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Mods are unlocked as part of Forza 7’s blind card system, known as Prize Crates. These packs evenly mix practical items like cars and mods with cosmetic goods such as badges and driver outfits. When you spend most of the game encased in a car’s cockpit, these detailed jumpsuits and helmets might seem like throwaway gear, but when you see your decorated driver in a convertible or the pre-race menu, envy blooms. After opening a dozen packs, I felt like I broke even, feeling elation when spending little to win a rare car, as well as heartbreak for buying the most expensive crate and ending up with only common items. While cars are now organized by loot-inspired rarity–based on their price ranges–you can still buy cars no matter the rarity without relying on the uncertainty of chance with the Prize Crates. And it should be added that having access to the Ultimate Edition gave me a VIP mod that doubled my earned XP over five races. While this perk temporarily accelerated my progression, it did not impact the quality of my overall experience.

By the time I had logged a couple dozen hours in Forza 7, the confluence of environmental and driving realism unexpectedly inspired me to recreate real-life racing events like the famous 1996 Zanardi pass at Laguna Seca. These are the kinds of experiments that Forza 7 inspires, thanks in part to the game’s variety and flexibility. Even with an imperfect roster and a selection of modes that doesn’t compare to the comprehensiveness of Forza 6 at launch, Forza Motorsport 7 is still a feature-rich and competition-diverse bundle of racing events that keep you coming back for more. The ability to control the weather to create rich, painterly cloudy backdrops goes a long way in making up for the lack of zombie modes and the Toyota MR2.