Game reviews

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.

Skies Above the Reich flies circles around the competition

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Sometimes one new idea can stifle decades of opportunities. Solitaire wargames were almost unknown when On Target Games — basically a one-man operation in West Allis, WI — published B-17: Queen of the Skies back in 1981. A game you played yourself, by rolling dice and generating a narrative about your bomber crew, was oddly compelling in an era when many gamers were forced to solo games for lack of opponents. Avalon Hill saw the obvious potential and acquired it, and published a much nicer-looking version in 1983. Despite the fact that it was, as Greg Costikyan described it at GDC in 2009, “little more than a series of tables on which the player rolls dice,” it seemed to have some essential magic that designers chased for years. Thirty-five years later, in 2018, Legion Wargames released Target for Today, an essentially “upgraded” version of B-17 (after having published a similar bomber-centric game, B-29 Superfortress, in 2011). In between, games like Patton’s Best and The Hunters — and others — helped codify the “story through charts and tables” design school that exempted designers from having to think too hard.

The idea of piloting a bomber through a series of missions is such an obvious story hook that there have been plenty of cardboard and digital entrants in the genre, from 50 Mission Crush to B-17: The Mighty Eighth to the very recent Bomber Crew. But tabletop depictions of the skies above wartime Germany can’t recreate the frantic action of air combat the way a digital game can, so boardgame designers have anchored their games in the desire for mission-to-mission progression, flying repeatedly over the terrain of occupied Europe in an attempt to weave stories out of the unvarying path of a single aircraft.

The key realization that Jeremy White (designer of The Dambuster Raid and The Doolittle Raid solitaire games) and Mark Aasted, designers of Skies Above the Reich, forced on me was that there was nothing wrong with following a bomber on a series of missions. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with following a bunch of bombers on a bunch of missions, as Dan Verssen’s B-17: Flying Fortress Leader and Erik von Rossing’s A Wing and a Prayer did. The problem was the missions themselves: as soon as you knew where you were going, your bombers just had to take off and go there. Meaning you could react to events, but couldn’t drive them. But who could possibly drive events in a game about the bombing of Germany? The bombers are certainly a designer’s last hope.

No. There is another. Continue reading →

Cue Moondance for Victor Vran on the Switch. No, seriously, cue Moondance.

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Of all the action RPGs out there — sheesh, there are a bunch of them! — you’ll find plenty that know how to situate the mindlessness of hack-and-slash in a larger and less mindless context. Soldak’s Zombicide drops you into evolving worlds to navigate a web of creatures and factions chasing their own agendas. The hand-made geography of Grim Dawn, a game built to encourage you to explore its nooks and crannies, trumps any procedural arrangement of dungeon tiles under forest paths next to castle walls. The intricacy of a Path of Exile character build, wending its way through that ridiculously complex chart, like some advanced celestial navigation. The breadth, personality, and dynamism Guild Wars 2 brings to traditional MMO world-building.

All of these action RPGs offer compelling reasons to wade through potentially repetitive slaughter to level up a character. They all understand how to answer the question “Why?”. But none of them compares to Diablo when it comes to the moment-to-moment hack-and-slash. The animation, the rhythm, the variety, the information-rich chaos. Where the blade meets the bone, where the arrow meets the artery, where the fireball meets the flesh, that’s where Blizzard truly excels. The why of Diablo falls away before the glory of its what.

And then there’s Victor Vran. Continue reading →

Gladius learns all the right lessons from all the wrong Civilizations

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It’s clear early on what game the Gladius developers have been playing. And not just from the interface. Not even from the fact that you start with a settler and two warriors. But from the way it gallops apace. The turns tick-tock along with the nearly clockwork drumbeat of your thumb on the spacebar. This needs your attention, then that, then this, then you’re done with the turn. Spacebar, spacebar, spacebar. Units then cities then end turn. Thumb thumb thumb from units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. Units to cities to tech tree to end turn. Units to cities to end turn. It’s a steady sequence, designed so that the act of playing is rhythm and the act of not playing is dissonance. Why would you want to mess up that rhythm? It would be more natural to keep playing than to stop playing. Units to cities to end turn.

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Sol: Last Days of a Star throws a graceful apocalypse party and everyone’s invited

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The premise of Sol: Last Days of a Star is that the sun is about to go supernova. She’s gonna blow any moment and you’ve got to beat feet, which is no mean feat, given that suns are a real drag. All that gravity, you know. Your only hope is to harvest sun energy to build up momentum to slip the fiery bonds of Sol.

The sun machine is coming down and there’s gonna be a party. Continue reading →

The astonishing cluelessness of The Crew 2

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The Crew 2 is a real surprise. Not at all what I expected. It’s actually astonishing. Maybe even breathtaking. It seems completely, utterly, stupenduously, jaw-droppingly unaware of why I played The Crew. It flagrantly violates the conventional wisdom that videogame sequels are better because game design is an iterative process. Design something, improve on it for the sequel, repeat. But The Crew 2 doesn’t feel the least bit iterative. It simply can’t compare to The Crew. It’s as if it never even heard of it. It’s not just one step forward, two steps back. It’s not even no steps forward, two steps back. It’s popping the clutch when you didn’t know the car was in reverse and plunging over a cliff. It is one of the worst open-world games I’ve played, and easily the worst caRPG I’ve ever played.

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Is Cultist Simulator for you? Take this quiz and find out!

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Please read these four selections from Cultist Simulator. After you read them, there will be a short quiz.

“It enters the world one limb at a time, questing like a serpent, cawing like a crow, throbbing like a vein. It will cuddle close against my leg, if I let it, and afterwards I will have to dispose of my shoes.”

“In the forest where the moon couldn’t go, the boughs of the trees were woven together like bandages or lovers.”

“His face is creased by so many wrinkles that his features lie buried amid shadowy pockets of skin. Still, the dwarf’s well-practiced habits have left telltale tracks of a welcoming rictus across his visage.”

“In the display cases of the impossible museum, I always see an apple white as snow and hard as marble. A golden beetle in a stern box. A coy geometry awaiting my touch. A black envelope bursting with spring. A brass opera-box for instruments of record and measure. A storm in a tin. I always wake before I see the aisle’s end.”

And now for the quiz: Continue reading →

Are the exotic new dangers of Pathfinder: Mummy’s Mask worth the hassle?

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It’s been a while since I’ve rooted around in an actual Pathfinder Adventure Card Game box. Four and a half years, to be exact. Oh, I’ve played plenty since then. Obsidian’s videogame version is a spot-on transliteration that’s arguably better than the tabletop version for how it streamlines out all the fussing with cards, and dice, and rules exceptions, and cards, and cards, and table space, and more cards, and cards that have to be kept just so, and cards, and looking up the rules, and also a whole bunch of cards. On the PC, all that stuff purrs quietly under the hood while you flip virtual cards, and huck virtual dice, and level up your characters as smoothly as if you were playing Diablo.

I say this videogame version is arguably better. But the operative word is “arguably”. Continue reading →

A new dawn rises in State of Decay 2

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Night of the Living Dead invented zombies. So what if the word zombie comes from Haitian mythology? So what if the concept was inspired by the “vampires” in Richard Matheson’s Last Man on Earth? So what if the theme is a variation on the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers? When George Romero gathered some buddies to make a no-budget amateur movie in Pittsburgh, thousands of miles from Hollywood, he invented a new mythology. But it wouldn’t be fully realized until Dawn of the Dead. Years later, with a budget for better production values, with a larger crew on a more conventional shoot, with better actors, better effects, better cinematography, a better set, better distribution, and better marketing, he realized a fuller expression of what he created in his first movie. They’re both classics. But Dawn of the Dead is a timeless work of genre filmmaking and mythology.

State of Decay 2 is to State of Decay what Dawn of the Dead is to Night of the Living Dead. Continue reading →

The absurd intricate Pax Renaissance recalls how money saved the world

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If you play enough boardgames, you’ll pick up the shorthand to communicate the basics of any particular game. This one is worker placement with territory control, that one is a deck-builder with drafting, and the stuff in the back of the closet is a bunch of dudes-on-a-board Ameritrash nonsense. Of course, you need to mention the theme. Set collection in a medieval village, push-your-luck with elfs and dragons, screw-your-neighbor with spaceships, or points salad in ancient Rome.

You can’t do this with a Phil Eklund game. You just say “it’s a Phil Eklund game”. Continue reading →

Metal Gear Survive set to expire in 23 days

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While I’m waiting for State of Decay 2 — checking my calendar, I see it’s 23 interminable days to go — I’ve got another zombie survival game to indulge my resource scavenging, survivor nurturing, and base-building needs. It even acknowledges the Metal Gear Solid V shaped hole in my heart. It doesn’t fill it, but it’s clearly trying to kick in a little dirt. I suppose I should appreciate the effort. Anything to make the next three weeks seem a little shorter.

Wait, what game are we talking about? Continue reading →

Far Cry 5 is more effective — and relevant — than it knows

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I don’t hate the cultists in Far Cry 5 because they’ve brainwashed their followers, stockpiled firearms, bought up all the property, co-opted law enforcement agencies, dumped toxic waste into clean rivers, and installed a right-wing theocracy. Whatever. Cultists gonna cult. I hate them because they’re interrupting Ubisoft’s best open world since Far Cry 2.

I’ve come here to shoot, fish, drive around, blow shit up, and pet a mountain lion. I’m delighted with these parts of Far Cry 5. What a fantastic place to pursue happiness and bear arms, among this rogue’s gallery of people doing the same thing. But then I’m drugged and dragged into a mandatory cutscene.

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Hexplore It’s unique mix of dragons, dry erase markers, math, and maps that matter

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All right, let’s get this out of the way. The name “Hexplore It”, or “HEXplore It” if you want to get technical. Why would someone call this game that? Maybe it’s a warning that the map has hexes, but who’s still scared of hexes these days? I’m more scared of square tiles. Can I move diagonally? Does it cost extra? Why not? There’s less to remember with hexes. The Hexplore It developers went further, though. One of the faces on each die is marked with a HEX logo. Replacing the 6 on the d6 makes sense, since a hexagon has six sides, a six-sided die, fair enough. But how do they explain the 1 on the d10 being replaced by a HEX logo? And more importantly, why would a crunchy, in-depth, detailed, hardcore fantasy saga get a name that sounds like something inflicted on third graders forced to learn geometry? Fortunately, the folks who made this game gave it the subtitle “Valley of the Dead King”, which is a much more sensible name for a hardcore fantasy saga. They’re currently Kickstartering a sequel subtitled “The Forests of Adrimon”. Think of Hexplore It as an unfortunate prefix.

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