Game reviews


You can take a look at Tom Chick's Patreon page (the link is at the top of the page) for more than you'll ever want to know about this site's approach to reviews. But the overarching idea is that a review is an expression of someone's experience with a videogame. It is subjective. It is not advice. It is not a buyer's guide. It should be valuable to people who have and haven't played the game. Furthermore, our ratings using the full range of the 1-5 scale and they are simply shorthand for how much we liked a given game. You can find details here.

And we hope you'll participate in the discussion following any review! If you've taken the time to read our opinion, the least we can do is read yours as well.

Latest Game reviews

Sea of Solitude carries a copy of The Bell Jar wherever it goes

, | Game reviews

It’s probably not a good sign that some girl is reading from her diary about how her boyfriend is all moody and stuff, but I’m distracted by the fact that her footprints aren’t lining up with her feet.  Whenever she puts a foot down, the footprint appears about two inches to the outside side and a full foot-length behind her. Is she phase-shifted? Is this a metaphor for being out of sorts with yourself?  Or is this just what you get with indie games like Sea of Solitude? A heap of emotional poetry spackled over some half-baked attempt at a game, where lining up footprints doesn’t really matter because the real reason we’re all here is to hear someone hold forth about the life lessons she learned when she was in high school.

I’m guessing the latter.

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Champions of Hara is, at last, the Mage Knight we deserve

, | Game reviews

Vlaada Chvatil is a brilliant game designer.  But he’s not much of a storyteller. Like a lot of renowned Eurogame designers, his genius is mechanical instead of imaginative.  Nowhere is this more apparent than Mage Knight, a mercilessly Teutonic exercise in optimization. Bone dry, personality free, almost completely non-interactive when played with others, challenging only for the clock counting down to an inevitable failstate.  Mage Knight demands that you hurry up and optimize faster. That is its core gameplay. Take your time and you lose. Quickly optimize its clockwork interactions and you might win.

It fares a bit better when someone comes along to apply the imagination part.  For instance, Andrew Parks and the Star Trek license. Parks’ Star Trek: Frontiers, an official Mage Knight game, applies a splashy coat of Star Trek paint.  The hand management now represents tuning your starship’s performance. The cards are your crew members. The cities you’re supposed to conquer are mighty Borg Cubes.  The diplomacy is actually diplomacy. Now the cardboard isn’t so bland. Design by Chvatil, flavor by Parks.

But no one has done more for Mage Knight than Walter Barber.

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So you want to be a wargamer? Skip the plinky-dinky and go with Gettysburg

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Ask a wargamer for a list of “introductory” wargames, and you’ll inevitably get a list of games that look remarkably like the games that person first played when starting in the hobby. Regardless of release date, these games have hexes, a limited number of units, and simple combat results tables, usually odds-based but sometimes just using differentials. The idea seems to be that if you just peel off all the special movement and overrun and supply rules, the simplest things for a new player to master are simply a bunch of hex-based combinatorial exercises.

The problem is that this looks at introductory wargaming from the perspective of a veteran, who has already assimilated the whole wargaming paradigm of force concentration and plinky-dinky factor counting, so stripping off all the “chrome” leaves a simply math puzzle that any grognard can immediately recognize. Unfortunately, for most normal people, the idea of arranging a bunch of chits so that exactly 21 “combat factors” are adjacent to that hex while another 14 are adjacent to that hex, while having to stay within the limits of a different “movement factor” printed on each unit seems like an impossible (and unpalatable) cardboard combat crossword, never mind trying to figure out what it all means. The Battle of the Bulge? What does that have to do with fitting two or three units in a hex that have numbers adding up to twelve?

If you ask Mark Herman what an introductory wargame is, you get a very concise and coherent answer.

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The truly eternal Empire of the Sun…is a wargame

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I recently said that you should pay attention to questions designers are asking. But what I didn’t say was that often, these are questions the players have given them. I’m pretty sure this is what has given us such a lackluster roster of Pacific theater wargames over the years. “How do these carriers fight??” “Where are the critical hits??” Reasonable questions to ask about a campaign marked by carrier battles by a generation brought up reading Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory. So designers chased mechanics that allowed players to recreate specific encounters with ships and planes, while not quite knowing how to integrate this into a larger context. The logistical considerations, huge distances, intermittent pace of fighting, and lack of clear front lines all conspired to stymie designers from the beginning of the hobby. SPI’s infamous U.S.N. showed how back in 1971 there just wasn’t the development skill and mechanics vocabulary to address such a complex design problem. John Prados, designer of the revolutionary Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, failed utterly to adapt his economic system to the Pacific with 1977’s Pearl Harbor. That same year, a game that focused almost entirely on the ships fighting came as close as anyone could for a long time. And no one calls Victory in the Pacific a realistic wargame.

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Anthem is a dirge for game design

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This is Anthem. It’s super-suit barrel rolls, jet-assisted power punches, and raining fire from the sky. It’s exploring the ruins of a long-dead precursor race that created the world with a song. It’s sniping, machine gunning, and shotgunning your way through overwhelming odds. It’s bum-rushing bad guys while slamming them into a bulwark of steel. It’s holding the line against hordes of merciless enemies. It’s standing up and protecting a civilization on the brink. It’s BioWare taking the lessons learned in Mass Effect and applying them to a wholly original and exciting world. It’s a triumphant chorus.

This too is Anthem. It’s loading screens on loading screens on loading screens. It’s an inventory menu that you can’t access unless you’re home. It’s brain-dead enemies that sometimes forget they’re fighting you. It’s multiplayer that doesn’t care about synergy or tactics. It’s loot that bores you and doesn’t seem to matter until the end of the campaign. It’s non-player characters vomiting their life stories at you. It’s BioWare ignoring the lessons learned in the rest of gaming and throwing their hands up in surrender. It’s a sad trombone.

Which Anthem will sing to you?

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The unexpected nuance of White Tribe and its racist rump-colonial regime

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If you spend enough time playing wargames, you eventually start paying attention to the questions designers are trying to answer. Some seem to have no answer at all.  The “WW2 European Theater in an evening” problem has been out there for decades. Hitler’s Reich is the most recent one to strike out looking with a bewildered glance at the umpire. Sometimes answers come from unexpected directions, when talented designers change the question entirely so that the solution becomes obvious. Skies Above the Reich took what seemed to be an insoluble problem of solo daylight bombing over Germany, inverted the perspective, and wrapped it up in an impossibly neat package, like Fermat’s Last Theorem.

And sometimes the whole problem space shifts, and you don’t notice until the seismic disturbance knocks you over.

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In Worbital, no one can hear you giggle. Unless you’re playing with voice chat.

, | Game reviews

I spend a lot of time moping around, mourning the death of traditional RTSs after everyone else has gone off to play some dumb MOBA.  I can’t even muster the energy to rail against MOBAs, because I’m too busy being dejected that Starcraft online would just be a string of humiliating defeats. I’m a lot fun at parties. At least it keeps me busy. Mourning the death of traditional RTSs is a full time job.

But sometimes I get a vacation.  Sometimes something like Infested Planet, Tooth and Tail, or Offworld Trading Company comes along and brings me a little joy.  Today is one such day.

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Blackstone Fortress has plenty of figures, but not much character

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The latest dungeon crawl to sprawl across my table is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress, a hundred plus dollar monstrosity that Games Workshop has stooped to my level to offer.  That level being people who would play a Warhammer game, if not for the painting of a bunch of miniatures, the finding of a tape measure, and the task of pressing into service a friend who will then have to paint his own miniatures.  We can share a tape measure, however. If I were willing to go to those lengths and drag someone along with me, I’d be playing Netrunner regularly.

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Misunderstanding Terraforming Mars

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Terraforming Mars is a great boardgame about an economic engine that traffics in money, metals, and energy, which are then funneled into projects to gradually turn Mars from a barren red board into a host for scientific marvels, lush forests, teeming cities, and sparkling oceans. It’s one of those lovely marriages of theme and mechanics that most boardgames aspire to.

Sadly, it’s a terrible videogame. Continue reading →

Over Diablo III? Now that it’s on the Switch, I don’t think I’ll ever get over Diablo III.

, | Game reviews

Here I am playing pretty much the exact same game a fifth time over. I first played Diablo III when it came out for the PC. Again when the Necromancer was added. Again for the Xbox 360. Again for the Playstation 4. And now for the Switch. Nothing has changed since the last time. And of course, none of my progress has been carried over because, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are like divorced parents who refuse to talk to each other, much less come together to support a single game. Everyone’s gotta be his own gatekeeper these days.

So, naturally, the ennui sets in quickly and I commence the dull slog through content I’ve already seen a hundred times, right?

As if. Continue reading →

Red Dead Redemption 2 and the love song of J. Arthur Morgan

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Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of homespun wisdom, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

–with apologies to T.S. Eliot

The camp is celebrating because one of the gang members has returned, rescued from certain death. A night of carousing has begun. Mary-Beth asks Arthur to dance. He’s not much of a fella for dancing, he tells her. Oh, it’s okay, Arthur, she says, just ’cause you dance don’t mean you’re not still angry and sad.

Is that what you think of me? he asks good naturedly.

Sad in a good way, like a romantic poet.

Well, that’s about all I can muster, he drawls. They dance in the firelight to a merry accordion.

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Strange Brigade is a rip-roaring thrill ride, but isn’t equipped to soldier on

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I’m not sure there’s anything particularly new or even special about Strange Brigade. You could call out its commitment to serial pulp adventures set in the 40s. Or, as it’s known these days, Indiana Jones. These characters and their weapons are the trappings of an era when a pilot was called an aviator and pith helmets weren’t ironic. Steamer trucks full of weapons and nary an assault rifle in sight. Zeppelins, tents and short wave radios at excavation sites of ancient Egyptian ruins, an incredibly annoying announcer trying his darndest to sound like announcers of yore. You gotta give developer Rebellion credit for their commitment to the aesthetic.

But really, Strange Brigade is the simple act of shooting powerful guns at monsters. And lobbing the occasional grenade. And even more occasionally popping off some magic power because, well, that might as well be in there if we’re going to have zombies and skeletons. For the most part it works splendidly. Simple, gratifying, quick, accessible, with a unique sense of character, to boot. So why have I stopped playing?

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Shadow of the Tomb Raider brings Lara Croft full circle

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“I’ve only got one chance at this,” Lara says urgently.

I’m lining her up to make a jump I know she’ll easily make. Why did Square Enix decide to make her say “I’ve got one chance at this”? First of all, it’s not true. I have literally unlimited chances. But this isn’t even a particularly tense moment. Yet someone at Square Enix’ Montreal studio wrote that line, someone told actress Camilla Luddington to say those words in the sound booth, and someone decided to put that audio bit in front of this jump, which is just another of the dozens upon dozens of unremarkable jumps in this insipid retread.

I shouldn’t have been thinking about a dumb line at that point in the game. The climax was in high gear. Serious action was supposedly happening. The fate of the world was hanging in the balance, or something. I should have been caught up in the game. The line should have tapped into my sense of urgency at getting Lara where she needed to be. But by this point, I had been hate-playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider for some time, the same way I hate-watched Walking Dead or Lost. I’ve come this far. Might as well see it through.

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Space Base flushes Machi Koro out the airlock

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Machi Koro sure is cute. The quaint fields, orchards, bakeries, and cafes. The sushi bar and flower stand and pizza joint. Even when it gets serious with tax offices, furniture factories, and airports, it’s still cute. It refuses to be anything other than a lightweight opportunity for a few folks to roll dice and pass around cardboard coins. Someone eventually gathers enough cardboard coins to finish his city. Presumably fun was had.

What I appreciate most about Machi Koro is how every turn is everyone’s turn. In other games, the act of rolling dice is something you do for yourself. It’s my turn, it’s my roll, the number is my result. You’ll get your own result from your own roll on your own turn. The simple twist in Machi Koro is that although we take turns rolling, the result is for all of us. If you roll the right number, you’ll activate my buildings. This means there’s technically no down time, that it’s always everyone’s turn. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do pacing right.

But with Space Base, the concept really takes off. Continue reading →

Daybreak is precisely what State of Decay 2 didn’t need

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Among the many great things about the first State of Decay was its post-release support. The Breakdown DLC added infinite replayability to the core game along with progressively greater difficulty as you got further, with unlockable characters along the way. It very nearly turned State of Decay into a rogue-like. But that was five years ago, before we were kicking the term “rogue-like” around so freely. Then the Lifeline DLC shifted the tone, action, setting, and progression someplace new, with new kinds of characters who played the game differently. So what happened with State of Decay 2 that we get this new Daybreak DLC?

Daybreak is nothing you haven’t seen before, done better. It adds a four-player horde mode, played on a single unimaginative map, as a drawn-out and repetitive slog to unlock gear to draw out the repetitive slog even further. Along the way, bits of gear might trickle into your actual State of Decay game. But your time would be better spent just playing State of Decay 2 to find more stuff instead of grinding away at this half-baked horde mode to discover, oh, look, I got a new kind of hammer in Daybreak that now I can buy in State of Decay 2. Frankly, I would have been more excited by unlockable hats.

Daybreak is always and only four players, so if you can’t find an online game, some bots will tag along. They better because there’s no adjustable difficulty or variable challenge levels. You just live through the same number of waves, comprised of the same creatures, throwing themselves at the same wall, with the same clock counting down the same amount of time, culminating in the same cluster of superzombies with their thousand hit points, every time you play. Every single time. Each like the last. Except maybe you have a new type of shotgun or grenade. If you want State of Decay minus the expansive maps, dynamic crises, characters with personality, and constant threat of the unknown, Daybreak is for you!

However, please make sure you haven’t played Metal Gear Solid: Survive, Strange Brigade, Fortnite, or any of the other games actually designed to do zombie horde modes. Daybreak is glaringly bare bones compared to the game designs it’s aping. It chugs along, herkyjerky and weirdly clumy, trying to do something it wasn’t built to do. I have yet to have a smooth multiplayer experience in State of Decay 2. Yet someone at Undead Labs or Microsoft is intent on making it a selling point.

Previously, Undead Labs’ approach to State of Decay has been to embrace what makes it unique, to double-down on the idea of open-world resource management and community survival, with zombies, vehicles, and a vivid sense of place. It stands apart from Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, 7 Days to Die, and anything else with zombies. But Daybreak feels like it was made by someone who has no clue what makes State of Decay special. This $10 DLC has no interest in standing apart, much less participating in State of Decay’s unique identity. Instead, it plays like a weak attempt to pander to people who aren’t playing State of Decay, leaving the rest of us to wonder what happened.