Game reviews

, | Game reviews
Offworld_Trading_Company_review

M.U.L.E. was Dani Bunten’s ingenious commodities-driven deathmatch bidding arena. I didn’t play it when it came out in 1983, because it wasn’t on the Apple II. I didn’t even know what it was back then. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally tried it with some friends. In the same room, of course. That’s how all games worked back then. I figured we’d try it, although I thought we were in for the strategy game equivalent of Pong. No one wants to play Pong ever again, just like no one wants to gin his own cotton, read Beowulf on a long flight, or hang up a poster of the Bayeux Tapestry in his living room. Pong is a musty relic with no modern relevance beyond its role in videogame history. That’s what I figured was going on with M.U.L.E.

But it turned out M.U.L.E. was (and still is) an amazing game. Sure, it’s ugly. Good graphics hadn’t been invented back in 1983. But Bunten managed a simple — not simplistic! — player-driven cutthroat economy based on real estate, commodities, and auctions. God, I’m making it sound boring, I know. But it’s really not. It’s really, really not. M.U.L.E. is freakishly before-its-time game design, as if someone had made the movie Casablanca at the moment the daguerreotype had been invented. The only reason you’re not playing M.U.L.E. today, in some form or another, is because the videogame industry — really, it was more of a scene at that point — was about to explode based on Doom’s appeal to adolescent male power fantasies learned from action movies. It would take a while before the rest of the world discovered what we were up to, and by that time, Sid Meier and Will Wright had carved out their own niche where Dani Bunten’s work would have been.

But M.U.L.E. is a nearly unrivaled work of game design genius that will hold up if you gather four friends around a single screen. Sure, some of it is dated. You play it with joysticks, for Pete’s sake. We don’t even have those anymore! But the design is timeless.

After the jump, if it kicks like a M.U.L.E… Continue reading →

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The_Next_World_review

I don’t mind that The Next World bills itself as a strategy visual novel, but has precious little strategy, or even that it makes what little strategy it has surprisingly opaque. I don’t mind that it uses the sort of simple artwork you’d find in an indie comic book or a JRPG with a meager budget. Frankly, I don’t even mind that the writing is mediocre, on par with your garden-variety young adult fiction. “Nice wheels,” exclaims one of the survivors when she sees a salvaged scout rover roll up. Just that morning, she lived through a crash that killed hundreds of her spaceship’s crew and stranded the survivors on a barren planet without a breathable atmosphere with nothing but the air in their EVA suits. Odds are she’ll be dead before the night is over. So, nice wheels. Not “sweet ride”, or “bitchin’ buggy”, or “let’s live our lives a quarter mile at a time”? Nice wheels. Like I said, no worse than your usual young adult fiction or Mass Effect game. You can romance her later if you want. Just pick the “flirt” option.

I don’t mind these things because The Next World tells a story that makes me wonder what’s going to happen next. It opens with the desperate survivors of a crash milling about on the sand of a strange land, struggling with who to put in charge, how to survive, what this place is, and how they got there. To The Next World’s credit, the answers aren’t Jack, by finding a bunker, limbo, and something something Dharma Initiative something EMP blast something. For all its similarities to a certain TV show, this story has a sense of focus, and a plot that methodically unfolds, one beat at a time, with a clear sense of direction. These are no randomly spun out episodes. This isn’t an emergent narrative. This is a game that’s far too brittle for the King of Dragon Pass comparisons I’ve seen. What happens next is something the writers have wanted to tell me all along. This is, after all, a visual novel.

After the jump, then why haven’t I found out what happens next? Continue reading →

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Booty_review

Someone has gotten up to make a phone call real quick. Someone else is looking up a rule. Do you need to roll equal to or greater than? He could have sworn it was on this page, but he’s not seeing it. The two guys across the table are talking about the Star Wars movie again. I can’t believe they don’t know what a luggabeast is called, so I get into the conversation. When the guy making the phone call comes back to take his turn, he just sits there and stares at his cards. Why isn’t he taking his turn? I eventually realize that they’re looking at me expectantly.

“Oh, is it my turn?”

A cardinal sin in a boardgame is wasting my time. A $200 game that isn’t very good is one thing. But a game that recreates what I do in line at the supermarket, in my dentist’s office, and when the 405 is jammed up? Indefensible. Games should not be about waiting. Ideally, a game will always keep everyone involved. One of my favorite solutions to the “oh is it my turn?” problem is Booty.

After the jump, Booty call, y’all Continue reading →

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TotH1

Everybody gets old — the question is, how do you realize it? I realized I was old when I stopped being surprised by things that would have shocked me in my twenties. Russia ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. US soon to be ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. Game touted as Computer Squad Leader ends up being disappointing? Well…

After the jump, okay, I can still be surprised by some things. Continue reading →

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Grim_Dawn_review

When making an action RPG, the most important task — important above all else! — is to get the moment-to-moment hack-and-slash right. It has to be gratifyingly chaotic, splashy but not too confusing. The camera can’t be zoomed out so far that you can’t appreciate your character and her gear, but neither can it be zoomed in so far that you can’t see monsters coming. It’s a difficult balancing act. No one does it better than Blizzard, which is hardly surprising given how much practice they’ve had.

If you can’t get this stuff right, there’s no reason to continue development. Just throw in the towel and make some free-to-play thing for the Apple Store about waiting for crops to grow. But if you get that stuff right, if you tune and tweak and cajole and code and flex videocards and wring every ounce of sweat from your animators and carefully calculate the line between too much and too little — if you do all that — then you’re half way there. Next comes the really hard part.

After the jump, the Iron way Continue reading →

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Gremlins_Inc_review

That will be your first reaction to Gremlins Inc, a videogame boardgame that’s looks awfully, well, busy. Busy would be the kind way to put it. Mess is more likely what you’ll think. It’s what I thought. What a chaotic tangle of tiny pictures and arrows! Is that some sort of artwork lurking behind it all? What is that back there? A gremlin warren? Is there a way to see text labels for all these icons? Or even just a legend?

After the jump, wet and fed after midnight? Continue reading →

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Mystery_boardgame_review_featured

Chapter One: The Mysterious Hallway

The Gashlycrumb Tinies, or After the Outing by Edward Gorey was published in 1963. Neville was born shortly thereafter. He then spent some time growing. At some point in the process, before it had advanced significantly, he happened upon a poster of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. It was divided into 26 panels. Each panel was a letter of the alphabet and each letter was a child and each child was in the process of his or her demise. The poster was framed in someone’s hallway. He couldn’t recall whose. He couldn’t even recall how old he was. But he was old enough to be fascinated and confused by the terrible fates of these children, laid out in a grid of pen-and-ink snapshots. Why was Yorick’s head knocked in? Did someone find Fanny’s dessicated body in the swamp? What did it look like? So Una fell down the drain, but then what? Was she drowned? Suffocated? Simply lost? How can someone be devoured by mice? Rats, sure. But mice? What does ennui mean?

Neville then spent some more time growing. These questions receded into the back of his mind, mostly forgotten because whoever’s hallway that was, it wasn’t someplace he frequented.

After the jump, Chapter Two: The Fortuitous Discovery Continue reading →

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PvZ_Garden_Warfare_2_review

The (unfair) narrative about Star Wars: Battlefront is that it’s a multiplayer-only shooter, like the Battlefield series by the same developer. Which is news to me. I’ve played plenty of single-player and plenty of local splitscreen with a friend. One of the hooks for me is that when I beat a map on the hard difficulty setting, I’m no longer limited to the designated loadouts. Now I can bring in whatever equipment I want to help me beat it on expert. Here I come with my choice of thermal detonators, jump packs, personal shields, and bowcasters. It’s a great incentive to play the higher difficulty levels and a perfectly cromulent single-player and splitscreen pursuit.

Wait. Hold on just a minute. I’ve beaten Hoth on hard. But before I can go charging back in with thermal detonators, jump packs, personal shields, and bowcasters, it turns out I have to unlock them first by leveling up. The thermal detonator is easy. I unlocked that so long ago maybe I didn’t even have to unlock it. But the bowcaster? I can’t use that until I’m level 32. And that will never — I repeat, never — happen until I’ve spent many hours playing online against random strangers.

Okay, maybe it’s multiplayer only, after all.

After the jump, hell and shooters are other people. Continue reading →

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Superhot_review

You know that part in a movie shootout when the bad guy runs out of bullets and he throws the gun at the good guy? Because why not? What else are you going to do with an empty gun? But it never works in the movies because the good guy tricks the bad guy by ducking.

Superhot, which is not the movies, will have none of this nonsense.

After the jump, what’s white and red and white all over? Continue reading →

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Far_Cry_Primal_review

Ubisoft could do this in their sleep. Sometimes it feels like they have. Far Cry’s evolution over the last three games has been, uh, glacial. Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4, and Far Cry Primal consist of the same gameplay verbs applied to mostly different nouns. Upgrade your guns (bows and spears). Throw grenades (beehives). Clear out bases (bonfires) to capture fast travel points. Tag enemies with your camera (owl). Ride an elephant (woolly mammoth) into battle. Wreak havoc when you release wild animals (wild animals). Unlock the grappling hook (grappling hook).

After the jump, macaroni and skill trees Continue reading →

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Rise_of_the_Tomb_Raider_review

In the original Tomb Raider — the most recent original Tomb Raider — our cast of characters is shipwrecked on a sinister island. Lara Croft becomes their unlikely savior. Well, of the ones that survive. Because the template isn’t pulp adventure; Tomb Raider is a horror story in which our heroine is transformed by violence and death. As she descends into increasingly nightmarish levels, the island’s mysterious background emerges and the members of the cast meet their various fates. It’s an exciting character-driven story about peril, heroism, and violence. Just describing it makes me want to play it again.

Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, is the typical ham-handed videogame story, clumsy, cringe-worthy, and aimless.

After the jump, other than that, it’s pretty good. Continue reading →

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Layers_of_Fear_review

Layers of Fear tries to ask a few questions. Can a videogame play with the idea that you have no idea what reality has been constructed behind your back when you’re not looking? Can it violate the laws of physics? Can it ruthlessly deconstruct physical space? Can it do zero-G? Those are the questions it intends to ask. Of course, anybody who has ever played a videogame already knows the answers. But Layers of Fear asks anyway.

And then it jumps in your face and makes a loud noise.

After the jumpscare, another jumpscare, and another, and another, and another. Continue reading →

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Soma_review

If you haven’t played Soma, I’m jealous that you get to experience it for the first time. I hope you didn’t read any reviews. Possibly including this one. All you should know going in is that it’s by indie horror developer Frictional Games and that it’s something about an underwater base. Oops. I wish you didn’t even know that second bit. But, really, there’s no avoiding it. Whether it’s the screenshots or the “set below the waves of the Atlantic ocean” in the product description, that particular cat is well and truly out of the bag.

After the jump– wait, should I even click past the jump? Continue reading →

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Clockwork_Wars_review

A tech tree should be a game’s skeleton, giving it its shape. And since a tech tree is variable, it should create distinct shapes. These choices will make this kind of game; those choices will make that kind of game. A tech tree is a way to let a game design itself as it’s played. A latticework of possibilities, different every time. Clockwork Wars is my favorite example of a tech tree in a boardgame.

After the jump, wait, there are tech trees in boardgames? Continue reading →

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Firewatch_3_review

We should know by now what videogames can and can’t do as a medium. When they’re not aping movies, they can tell riveting environmental stories in contained settings with gratifying payoffs (Gone Home, Bioshocks 1 and 2, Portal). In the context of gameplay, they can use animation, voice acting, and writing to establish effective relationships among characters (Uncharted, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Grand Theft Auto V). They can create a sense of mystery (Myst and a hundred other games).

What they can’t do is what Firewatch is attempting.

After the jump, putting the watch in Firewatch. Continue reading →

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