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21st August 2017
A Blast From The Past

A Blast From The Past

Sega started the year off with a wonderful surprise in the form of Yakuza 0. The series has been around for a decade, but that prequel entry held the door open for new players who hadn’t yet been admitted to the club. I was among those new players and, like many, I was excited to continue following the adventures of Kazuma Kiryu and company. Yakuza Kiwami makes it simple. It’s a PS4 remake of the PS2 original, and a direct successor to Yakuza 0 – both in presentation and narrative. It’s mostly more of the same great game, though it’s noticeably stifled by being bound to a 10-year-old release.

The series has been compared to Grand Theft Auto, but it’s more like an open-world RPG/brawler. Rather than focus on driving around and causing mayhem, your character wanders the streets of a fictionalized Tokyo district, battling bad guys and enhancing his arcade-inspired fighting abilities.

Yakuza Kiwami’s story begins several years after the events of Yakuza 0, with Kiryu now a respected player in Japan’s criminal underworld. He gets caught up in a murder and ends up serving 10 years in prison. After his release (and a merciful time skip), he has to unravel a mystery involving murder and the theft of 10 billion yen. It’s melodramatic stuff that teeters on the edge of being needlessly complicated, but the cast of menacing thugs and honorable criminals kept me from being tempted to skip the lengthy cutscenes.  

While the campaign veers toward being self-serious, it’s a hard turn from the side missions. These optional diversions make up the bulk of the long running time, and they primarily focus on helping citizens by giving them items or offering some form of protection. Most of these feel like relics of the original release, and they don’t often expand the formula in any interesting ways like some of Yakuza 0’s did with weird trivia or one-off stealth sequences. I understand this is a remake of a decade-old game, but that doesn’t make the repetitive side missions any easier to stomach. Minigames including darts, pool, and skill-crane challenges are back, and they’re a nice break from all the fetching and fighting.

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Sega added some new activities that weren’t in the original release, including the return of Yakuza 0’s pocket racers and a bug-battling arcade game, each of which includes a multi-stage quest chain. I enjoyed catching up with Pocket Circuit Fighter and the crew of kid racers, and even though they’re clearly getting older, they still enjoy racing the customizable toys. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about MesuKing: Battle Bug Beauties. This card game is a dead-simple rock-paper-scissors challenge, with the main attraction being that you watch women in skimpy insect-inspired costumes grapple and writhe around. It’s creepier than a bucket of centipedes, and absolutely no fun at all.

The biggest addition is the inclusion of the new Majima Everywhere system. You can’t play as Goro Majima in Yakuza Kiwami, but he does play a newly elevated role. Kiryu got a little soft during his time in prison, according to Majima, and the character wants to help Kiryu get his mojo back. He helps by challenging Kiryu to random battles in the world. These encounters can be as simple as running into Majima, or getting jumped in the middle of another battle. He also pops out from under manhole covers and a variety of strange disguises. Each battle rewards you with experience to upgrade your abilities, as well as a chance to unlock moves in your special dragon style of combat. Combat is simple and satisfying, with over-the-top animations that add weight to the brawling action.

Majima’s transformation from Yakuza 0’s stoic nightclub manager to the so-called Mad Dog of Shimano is jarring, and there isn’t any connective tissue that explains it in any satisfying way. That’s largely a criticism of Yakuza 0, but a new explanatory cutscene or two would have gone a long way. I learned to tolerate his oddball Joker-meets-Jar Jar persona, however, possibly because most of our encounters ended up with me smashing a bicycle over his back.

I had a lot of fun with Yakuza Kiwami, but it occupies a strange place. I commend Sega for the extra lengths it took with the remake – including replacing the Western actors from the original release with all-new dialogue from the Japanese actors – but feels like a relic at times. The game’s overall scale is still impressively large, but there’s only one main area to explore. Visiting the first entry, enhanced as it is, certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the strides that the series made later. That’s probably not what Sega was hoping for here, but it’s unavoidable considering the close proximity to Yakuza 0’s release.

19th August 2017
Madden NFL 18 Review

Madden NFL 18 Review

After almost 30 years, the Madden NFL series is rarely surprising. Fans think they know what to expect each year: a handful of small but meaningful mechanical tweaks, roster updates, and slight graphical bumps. Madden NFL 18, however, is highlighted by one of the most significant additions in series history--a full story mode--and a new, much more graphically capable engine. And due in large part to the Longshot story, it is a marked improvement over the last several entries in the series.

Madden has rarely tackled the personal side of football, choosing instead to present it as a chess-like competition: you are the coach and master, the players are your instruments to score. Of course, that's not how football is treated in the real world, so to see that change in Madden is intriguing in theory, and gratifying in practice. For the first time in Madden, Longshot actually references how much so many people invest in the sport, and how high the stakes are for them. For instance, main character Devin Wade, the star football player from his small Texas town, quit his college team after a family tragedy. You navigate through Wade's attempt to return to football, traveling to the NFL Combine in order to impress scouts.

Longshot is unexpectedly deep--it's a fully fledged, Telltale-style adventure game with multiple endings, broken up by short moments of playing football. It presents you with decisions that affect both the people around you and the scouts' perception of you. As with Telltale games, there's an illusion of greater choice that isn't necessarily there, but Longshot succeeds because it makes minor choices feel important. Do you reach for celebrity at the expense of Wade's best friend, Colt Cruise? Or do you carry him along at the risk of running afoul of your coach and scouts who think Wade depends on him too much?

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For every moment that conveys Wade's commitment, his inner demons, and his friendship with Cruise, there are corresponding moments of absurd spectacle. Wade's journey from obscurity to superstardom unfortunately doesn't take place entirely in intimate, personal story beats a la Friday Night Lights, but rather in the spotlights of a ridiculously excessive reality show. During these sequences and the challenges it presents him with, Wade evokes annoyance, confusion, and anger at the gaminess of the reality show. The executive producer hits every trope of an over-the-top, ratings-obsessed showrunner, and Wade grows disillusioned with the entire process. He was thrust into an absurd situation that was built to manufacture drama, so it makes sense that he would be upset.

These story sequences and their associated mini-games and challenges don't fit well with the core narrative of two small-town football players trying to break into the NFL. Wade and Cruise don't need extra drama to make them care about the sport, so why does the story give us a reality show, as if to suggest that the stakes aren't high enough already?

Longshot is saved, however, by the quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie. It soars when its characters speak honestly about their love of the sport, and it nails the sense that football offers something bigger--a connection to a community, and a way to achieve greatness. Longshot's numerous flashbacks to Wade's time in high school and college show a relatable and deeply troubled character; the commentators for Wade's high school games banter about the players that they, of course, know personally; and Wade, Cruise, and the whole state championship-winning team are treated as heroes in their town for years afterwards.

In spite of its issues, this first attempt at a story mode creates an excellent foundation for future iterations. Further, when you've finished Longshot, you can dive into Madden Ultimate Team to play through some of Devin Wade's most memorable football scenarios.

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Madden Ultimate Team is undoubtedly Madden's deepest mode, which has received a suite of updates to make it even more appealing to players. MUT tasks you with building a fantasy team from player cards (and yes, you can still buy packs of more powerful cards for real money). In Madden 18, you'll get player cards representing Devin Wade, Colt Cruise, and other characters from Longshot, and forming a Longshot-focused MUT team will let you participate in around 30 challenges. Although these challenges are generally not much more than normal Madden scenarios with Longshot player models, they're still entertaining enough to be worth playing.

But the main draw of MUT is multiplayer--and this year, you can team up with friends to take on others. Since Madden 25 launched in 2013, the series has conspicuously lacked any online cooperative team play. Madden 18's MUT Squads finally reintroduces it. In the mode, one person plays as the offensive captain, one plays as the defensive captain, and one plays as the coach. It's a welcome addition that gives players more options if they're not interested in the solo competitive MUT modes.

On the field, Madden 18 looks beautiful. The game is the first in the series to use EA's Frostbite engine, and as a result certain moments look nearly photorealistic. Stadiums feature minute details, while player models show everything from arm tattoos to jersey wrinkles. Stadium lighting is a particular high point; for example, afternoon sunlight--partly blocked by the stadium edges--filters down onto parts of the field and realistically illuminates players as they run into the light. The developer also comes closer than ever to finally eliminating the trademark dead eyes of Madden players. Eyes still look inhumanly glossy, but at least they move and are more detailed, and faces are more expressive.

The transition to Frostbite isn't perfect, though. Outside of stadiums, environments generally look bland and featureless, especially during certain segments of Longshot. Additionally, with more human-like player movement comes some bizarre graphical bugs, such as a player's leg clipping through his tackler's chest, or two players getting hung up on each other as they try to stand up.

As with past Maddens, EA is trying to make sure that the game reflects real NFL events as much as possible, which means weekly roster and player stat updates. If a player is traded in real life, you can expect that to be represented in the game quickly. This year, EA has also added the "Play Now Live" mode, which has quickly become my favorite new feature in the game. This allows you to jump quickly into any of the week's matchups, and both teams will reflect the actual lineups set to play. As a result, I was able to select last week's preseason game between the Jaguars and Patriots, and it had already been set up with the correct time of day, stadium, and rosters. EA Tiburon has also introduced the ability to turn any Play Now Live game into a franchise, letting you jump into a full season immediately after completing a game. I was able to build upon my performance in that Jaguars-Patriots game without having to set it up in the Franchise mode menus. Even though Franchise Mode hasn't received many updates from last year's version, these starting points make it a whole lot easier and more enticing to play through an entire season.

As I progressed through my season with the Patriots, accruing both successes and failures, I noticed that the commentators started referring to events that had happened in past games--more so than in previous installments in the series. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis debuted as Madden commentators last year, and their rapport was already great then. They have returned in Madden 18 with even more back-and-forth dialogue, covering an impressive range of situations. Most notably, though, their commentary is full of context for both the game and the season. So, when my Patriots met the Dolphins in the Wildcard round of the playoffs, both teams with a 9-7 record, Davis and Gaudin discussed how the AFC East was a particularly weak division. They referenced the other teams in the playoffs and how they got there, and they called out events from earlier in the game. Further, EA promises it will continually update the Play Now Live commentary so that Gaudin and Davis refer to what is happening in the NFL.

Overall, Madden 18 marks an unusually large shakeup in a series that, due to its annualized releases, rarely features much more than small, iterative changes. The Frostbite engine allows the game to reach new levels of realism in its visuals, and EA has put a lot of effort into constantly evolving the game to keep it in line with real-world events. But it is the Longshot story mode that defines Madden 18. Some of Longshot is unnecessary spectacle, but its lasting value comes from the humanity that it brings to the game. The moments of vulnerability and sincerity between Devin Wade and Colt Cruise during the story are worthy of celebration and give the overall game a weight that Madden hasn't had before. And if that's not enough to entice you, it's also simply a terrific football game.

19th August 2017
Undertale Review

Undertale Review

Update: We've now tested the PlayStation 4 version of Undertale, and have updated the score to reflect the new port.

Undertale's opening cinematic hints at a cliche RPG where you awake in a mysterious world and embark on a journey in hopes of returning to your normal life. Despite the familiar premise, you quickly discover that looks can be deceiving. While many games can take a heavy-handed approach to teaching you the basics, Undertale does so in a way that not only introduces you to the tone of the game, but teaches you not to accept anything at face value. The first character you meet compels you to play nice, but as the cheerful music turns to sinister laughter and your new "friend" declares you an idiot, you get it: expect the unexpected. Undertale makes a name for itself with unusual storytelling techniques and combat mechanics, setting itself apart from the games it seems to imitate. It's also cleverly written and constantly subverts your expectations. There are so many wonderful experiences in store that are tempting to spoil, but to go into too much detail would ruin the element of surprise: one of Undertale's best assets.

While it seems to be a game that's designed for RPG fans first and foremost, a lot of Undertale's jokes have universal appeal. A pair of comically incompetent skeletons regularly spout puns and jokes while attempting--and failing--to halt your progress, and the social ineptitude exhibited by one character when they try to express their feelings for another is a regular source of laughter. With clever characterization and unexpected responses to actions we've been conditioned to view as predictable, Undertale elicits laughter and delight with ease.

"Take the ferry for 3 gold."

You're encouraged to stop and engage with NPCs rather than charge through the story, and you should, because the varied and entertaining cast of monsters reveal valuable information about the wider world. This quality isn't unique, but here, it leads to unusual exchanges that are filled with great quips, simultaneously poking fun at games and human nature alike. The script tip-toes into parody, but an air of earnest thought lifts it above mere mockery. Silly as it can be, Undertale delivers poignant observations that challenge the status-quo.

It's also the sort of experience that encourages you to come back for a second or third round. This is especially true because, over the course of roughly five hours, you make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The importance of choice is often felt during combat, which lets you pick between fighting or talking your way out of conflict.

Sometimes the secret to winning is a little bit of love.
Sometimes the secret to winning is a little bit of love.

Trying to pacify opponents is a far more rewarding experience than simply fighting, and its a process that's unique to each type of enemy. To earn their favor, you have to analyse an enemy's behavior and figure out the right course of action. In one scenario, you can attempt to befriend a violent dog, in another, you might want to cheer up a ghost with low self-esteem; your success will depend on your ability to empathize and react. Navigating social puzzles is a refreshing change of pace for what seems like traditional combat, and the variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Because not all enemies are easily wooed, you eventually need to defend yourself regardless if you intend to fight or not. Undertale handles this with a quirky mechanic that feels out of place at first, but it eventually grows on you because it makes combat engaging and unpredictable in a good way. Enemy attacks appear as waves of projectiles that fly within a square pen, and as they fly by, you have to steer a small heart icon out of their flightpath to avoid taking damage. It's an unusual mechanic, but it's simple to understand and rewarding in the sense that it lets your reflexes-rather than statistics or dice rolls--dictate the outcome of a fight.

The variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Even within combat, Undertale layers on the humor. Sometimes you're dodging bullets, but you also need to watch out for frogs, arms with flexing biceps, and even the tears of a depressed opponent. Linking the shape, size, and behavior of projectiles with enemies' personalities keeps things challenging, and opens the door for even more laughs as you fend off absurd attacks.

Hey, what are friends for?Hey, what are friends for?
Hey, what are friends for?

It would be a crime not to mention Undertale's soundtrack, which is loaded with beautiful bit-based melodies that blend perfectly with the action on-screen. Each boss gets its own theme song, which do a great job of enhancing their particular personality. These tracks in particular bring energy and vigor, putting you on the edge of your seat as you try to fight or befriend your opponent. Outside of battle, tracks set the appropriate mood, too, from the quirky jingle in Temmie Village, to somber melodies that build tension near the end of the game. Regardless of its retro style, Undertale's soundtrack has timeless appeal and is great at evoking emotions.

Without spoiling the many ways it will screw with your expectations, it isn't possible to truly capture how wonderful Undertale is. You wouldn't know it with a passing glance, but it's one of the most progressive and innovative RPGs to come in a long time, breaking down tradition for the sake of invention, with great success.

18th August 2017
The Pillars Of The Earth Review

The Pillars Of The Earth Review

For those with patience, there's a wonderful story of political corruption, self-discovery, and religious reliance to be found in The Pillars of the Earth. However, for anyone with a short attention span, it'd be hard to recommend this game as its slow pace and often drip-feed-style storytelling can make it tough to get through. Stick it out, however, and you find that this first episode (of three) hints at a larger, more meaningful story to come.

Based on Ken Follet's 1989 novel of the same name, this adventure game gives you control of two characters with intertwining stories. The first of which is Philip, an abbey Prior who's more or less responsible for a war between two English settlements. Philip, while sometimes unsure of himself, is portrayed as a considerate, mindful character. His counterpart is Jack, a child who's grown up off the grid, living in a cave with only his mother. Jack is far less sure of himself and, at the encouragement of his mother, hardly trusts the world around him.

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Following these two characters is a highlight of The Pillars of the Earth, seeing the way their stories eventually come together and influence one another. But it's the story at large and its cast of secondary characters that make this world worth inhabiting. Each environment, scene, and character also has their own unique, hand-painted look to them, often with grand senses of scale and depth.

Set in the 12th century, The Pillars Of The Earth tackles plot points both grandiose and granular. After King Henry I of England dies without a set heir, his nephew and daughter feud over which of them should take his place. This clash causes turmoil in England, leading to eventual wars. And while political strife makes up a lot of the overarching story, The Pillars Of The Earth isn't afraid to dive deeper into its characters, showing quiet, intimate moments where, for example, Jack learns about his upbringing or Philip writes letters to his brother. The dichotomy between these two layers keeps you--for the most part--intrigued along the way.

A large cast of unique characters fleshes out this tale, adding secondary layers of motivation to the game's story. Within the first few minutes, you meet all of the the monks at Kingsbridge cathedral, where Philip has been named Prior. Each of them has a unique relationship with Philip, and it's your job to navigate their conversations and form alliances whenever possible. Furthermore, Jack's uncertainty about the world combines with his childhood curiosity. These moments are helped along with strong voice acting and a wonderful script that's packed with emotion.

And yet despite the interesting characters and stories that await, it's still difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pillars of the Earth. While it's certainly not uncommon for adventure games to forego action for narrative, The Pillars of the Earth moves at a snail's pace. There is drama, but little in the way of tangible tension.

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And unfortunately, there are a slew of technical issues to contend with along the way. Loading new environments often slows the framerate down to a chug (on Xbox One), and characters would sometimes talk over one another, making it difficult to follow either line of dialogue. The game also enters a load screen nearly every time it plays a new scene, which is a lot. For a game with an already slow pace, this can really hinder a lot of interest as you're forced to sit through extra screens and endure poor framerates just to get to the next story beat.

It'll be interesting to see how The Pillars of the Earth evolves over its next two episodes. As of right now, it's crafted a fascinating story full of great characters. It might not be a game for everyone as it deliberately chooses to take its time getting to the point. However, if you enjoy gripping dramas, and don't mind sitting still for a bit, The Pillars of the Earth will reward your patience with the beginning of what appears to be a fascinating tale.

17th August 2017
A Tale Of Two Halves

A Tale Of Two Halves

Fans are sometimes confused by the players NFL teams draft. Players are taken at positions the team is already strong at, while weaknesses are seemingly ignored. Fans deem some players a reach, and don't understand why their favorites weren't drafted. A coherent philosophy is not always apparent from the outside looking in. Madden NFL 18 produces a similar reaction. It plays to its competitive/hardcore side seemingly at the expense of its career-focused Connected Franchise mode (CFM), and its Longshot story mode is an entirely different kind of experience. But Madden 18 can't easily be characterized by what's on the back of the box. Underneath what seems like a collection of thrown-together or even uninteresting features is a good game whose rewards are less readily apparent.

The Longshot story exemplifies this situation. This four-hour mode follows college dropout Devin Wade's attempt to get into the NFL. The story is more about provoking feelings about Devin, the Texas football environment he grew up in, and the friends that helped him along the way than it is about player freedom, skill-based gameplay, and making sure all your choices are precisely reflected in a particular ending. Gameplay consists of quick-time events (including dialog options), Devin playing QB in the normal Madden style, and some minigames. However, the excitement comes not from the gameplay, but from understanding Devin's mindset and making decisions that feel true in tense situations. By that measure, it's a success.

While Longshot is an experience everyone can relate to, Madden 18's overall bent toward competitive players and Ultimate Team mode lurches the game in an entirely different direction. The grind for cards that is Ultimate Team gets even more onion layers through a leveling system, player upgrades, and team tokens. Earning more stuff to apply may sound appealing, but these additions are just more gates that contribute to the mode's already brutal grind. These don't interfere with the beginning stages of the mode, but they create card inflation. For diehard MUT players this extends the experience, but for me it's more bloat.

Ultimate Team gets even more competitive through 3v3 co-op MUT Squads. Its team-based play requires the coordination of seasoned players who can run a pass route and stay focused on their roles. Get two user-controlled receivers in a bunch formation, however, and things can get sloppy. The mode has its moments when everyone contributes, but even on a good play, you're often isolated on the field or arriving late to the action (although the player switching is good), limiting its appeal.

MUT Squads may not always be engrossing, but you can still reap the benefits of one of its features: the new wide receiver vs. defensive back chess match mechanics where WRs and DBs use the right analog stick to get better positioning on each other. Similarly, competitive players will love playing with the target-passing QB mechanic to place the ball where only the receiver can catch it.

These are features that most people won't use, but they have value. I didn't use target passing much because keeping track of the extra cursor isn't easy, but I was elated when I threw a pinpoint bomb to the sideline. When I disrupted a WR's route long enough to cause a coverage sack while playing defensive back, I felt like I was standing on my own Revis Island. The value of these features isn't measured in the total time you use them, but in the enjoyment you get and their usefulness, so give them a try.

Another thing that both hardcore and casual players can savor is the feel of the running game. It controls smoothly with just the left analog stick, and from there you can add jukes and spins, which have extra importance. Overall the game has more big runs and crushing hits than last year, particularly in the optional competitive play style.

Madden 18 exhibits a split nature in other ways. The Frostbite engine adds great detail and a color warmth, but the framerate stutters. The offensive line does a great job getting to the second level and opening up more visible running lanes, but magnet tackles still rule behind the line of scrimmage. More QB incompletions occur, but some beggar belief, such as when your QB plants his feet and misses a wide-open receiver by a mile just because a defender was closing your pocket. The commentary includes added lines tying in the situational context of the game, but some of the info mentioned is wrong.

As for CFM, it has its own contradiction. The mode is largely the same, but its stasis feels different because with more short and mid-length injuries, team depth is paramount. This puts a renewed importance on your scouting, drafting (which now lets you create a custom draft board), and free agency even though these areas need overhauls to import more NFL drama, user options like more complex contracts, and an expanded coaching staff to reflect the importance of a good team structure. The tweak to injuries is not the complete rejuvenation I wanted, but it provides a spark nevertheless.

Madden 18 is missing a host of fixes, wishlist staples, and improvements, but it doesn't have to appease to have worth. It captures the joy that I find in playing video game football even after all these years. That's not just a love of the sport with a license slapped on it; it's the continuing refinement of gameplay and modes that still has the ability to surprise and excite.

For more on the Longshot story mode, check out my primer and take a look at it in action. Also read my guide on Madden 18's Target Passing.

17th August 2017
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Review

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Review

Team chemistry abounds in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, which is not surprising for a side story to a series famous for its AI-partner-driven gameplay. A decade's worth of adventures and a conclusive epilogue might place franchise mainstay Nathan Drake on permanent retirement, so now is as fitting a moment as any to wander and fight through a new Uncharted from a fresh perspective. With a roster of characters as large as Uncharted's, developer Naughty Dog had a wealth of promising pairings to choose from. After playing through The Lost Legacy, it's hard to imagine a better Drake-less pairing than the treasure hunter Chloe Frazer and ex-mercenary Nadine Ross. Not only do they prove themselves as capable adventurers, but also entertaining ones with the kind of chemistry that doesn't rely on Nathan Drake-inspired wisecracks.

The duo's vastly different backgrounds and motivations create a dynamic ripe for a classic apprehensive alliance and the tensions that come with it. Seeking an artifact called the Tusk of Ganesh in the Western Ghats of India, the pair find themselves racing against Asav, a perpetually angry warlord who places highly in the Uncharted villain ruthlessness power rankings. It's also a quest rich in exposition and substance, with lot of credit given to the well-written banter between Chloe and Nadine. Not only is it engaging to hear them bring down their emotional barriers of mistrust, but the small talk helps fill in the blanks since the events of Uncharted 4. Moveover, the dialogue eventually reveals the meaning of the game's subtitle, which shines a light on Chloe's personal drive to find the tusk. Just the fact that her history differs from Nathan Drake's opens the door for new insights on recurring Uncharted themes, namely the dangers of ambition and the relationships that can suffer as a result. These are messages that adventure genre fans can appreciate even without a connection to the series' past.

The dense vegetation of India and its peppering of ruins reflect Naughty Dog's amusingly consistent attachment to jungles in Uncharted. In The Lost Legacy, the studio doubles down on tropical forests with striking results. The lush surroundings and detailed remains of ancient civilizations are fitting trivia-laden conversation starters for Chloe and Nadine. And despite that The Lost Legacy is shorter than even the first Uncharted--six hours compared to eight--these insightful archeological chats about Hindu mythology don't feel forced or rushed.

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Such refined moments are indicative of The Lost Legacy's impressive conciseness, packing a ton of Uncharted history in its moment-to-moment experiences. For those new to Uncharted, that translates to a lot of death-defying stunts any given minute. Moreover, the stealth tutorial is fittingly brief, chase sequences are consistently riveting, and climbing sections never feel drawn out. All the while there's an ebb and flow to both the pacing of the narrative and how gameplay sections are spread out. In other words, for every instance of high intensity, there's a well-placed opportunity to take a breather.

The jungles also provide the ideal setting for Naughty Dog to expand and refine its open, free-roaming designs previously seen in the much praised Madagascar map of A Thief's End. This new open map--which is the setting of two of The Lost Legacy's chapters--demands a lot of driving, but going over your own beaten paths doesn't feels like a chore. This is thanks to the wealth of timeworn man-made remains worth exploring and--more often than not--climbing. While you're challenged with navigating up these structures, thoughtful level design ensures the way down is an easy and quick descent. For a game that originated as a more modest expansion to Uncharted 4 with the projected size and scale of The Last of Us: Left Behind, this section alone illustrates why Chloe and Nadine's adventure warranted a larger production.

Both expansive and confined areas prove memorable for the host of combat encounters that invite player ingenuity and improvisation. Many of The Lost Legacy's shootouts offer a wealth of emergent and new gunplay opportunities after every death and retry. It's not a mere race of exchanging gunfire; there are plenty of chances to outflank Asav's army by making use of columns and elevated platforms rather than fighting enemies head-on. It's a showcase of easily executable simple pleasures, like striking enemies from above and knocking out a soldier from around a corner.

That's not to say there are no other ways to outwit these squads. Clearing a fully-staffed patrol with a dozen discreetly-thrown grenades with zero detection isn't only possible but also a satisfying rush. Playing as a ninja and triggering no alert states is even harder, but many of the combat areas are large and well-designed enough that such gratifying outcomes are possible. Just don't expect many--if any--opportunities to play the pacifist; the more linear levels require full sweeps and takedowns of whole crews.

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There’s never been a more even mix of puzzles, combat, and exploration in the Uncharted series than in The Lost Legacy. While the series has had its share of dry switch-activation chores disguised as puzzles, this game keeps such sections to a minimum. This new batch of quandaries will stump you long enough to make the feeling of solving them rewarding. And sinces these obstacles are visually themed on the Hindu gods that are the focus of the duo's quest, no prior Uncharted experience is necessary to solve these puzzles.

Unfortunately, adequate time was not available to evaluate the game's multiplayer and wave-based Survival modes. As these are the exact game types of Uncharted 4's online component--that use the same servers no less--you can expect a level of chaotic gunplay and melee combat not found in The Lost Legacy's story mode. A contrast to the less aggressive enemies in the campaign, fighting against real-life players is a veritable free-for-all where you're using everything from rope swinging to RPGs to survive. The common supernatural powers found in sought-after artifacts, the motivation of earning gold to summon AI support soldiers, and a time-sucking progression system adds depth to what would've been an otherwise forgettable adversarial online mode.

The Lost Legacy doesn't signify a new era for Uncharted so much as it presents an opportunity to show the series from new perspectives, for which Chloe and the AI-controlled Nadine are perfectly capable. With a new playable treasure hunter comes new settings and character motivations, wrapped in a comfortingly familiar Uncharted package. The thrill of playing through set pieces that call back scenes from the earlier games is all the more enhanced when seen through the gameplay mechanics introduced in A Thief's End. The initial hours of The Lost Legacy give an "Uncharted Greatest Hits" vibe, but it grows into a more nuanced, clever experience, ranking among the best in the series while also making its own mark as a standalone Uncharted that isn't anchored to Nathan Drake's harrowing exploits.

17th August 2017
The Heart Of Adventure Is Bigger Than One Hero

The Heart Of Adventure Is Bigger Than One Hero

Nathan Drake’s days of adventuring are over. As we watched him hang up his holster and rope to begin a new chapter in his life, Naughty Dog’s scribes doubled down on the message of “it’s over.” Video game protagonists rarely walk off into the sunset, but Drake’s farewell is as definitive as they come. Naughty Dog wrote Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as a conclusion to Drake’s story, and it ended on a poetic and satisfying note. To bring him back in starring role would be foolish. It really is over. Is Drake’s name synonymous with Uncharted? He’s wonderfully charismatic and endearing, but we now know he isn’t the lifeblood of it.

The Lost Legacy is every bit as riveting and accomplished as any Uncharted title. We learn that the heart of the adventure trumps everything else, and can extend to any character.

Chloe Frazer fits into the starring role admirably, but never once is written in a way where you feel she is replacing or replicating Drake. She’s just as playful, but she’s wired differently; she’s more than the untrustworthy hustler we briefly got acquainted with in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Figuring out who she is takes time in The Lost Legacy, partially because she’s incredibly guarded, but also because you are getting to know her in the midst of an adventure.

Chloe is nearing the end of a heist she organized with Nadine Ross, the former paramilitary boss turned treasure seeker from Uncharted 4, who is in many ways the polar opposite of Chloe, pragmatic and fixated on results.  We are left wondering why they are together for a little too long, but satisfying answers eventually arrive. As the confusion melts away, Chloe and Nadine settle into a nice (yet somewhat turbulent) groove, and end up being a fascinating duo to track. They’re funny, terse, and wonderfully unpredictable in both their actions and words – their chemistry works even as they frequently butt heads.  

Chloe and Nadine are in hot pursuit of the Golden Tusk of Ganesh, which they believe is located in the long-lost ruins of the Hoysala Empire located in India’s Western Ghats, another part of the world Naughty Dog turns into a scenic work of art for players to explore. The duo are soon at odds with an insurgent rebel leader named Asav, who initially appears to be just another madman who loves treasure, but is later revealed to be far more dangerous and cunning than anticipated. Asav moves the narrative needle just as much as the heroes, and the story soars from the uncertainty of his actions.

I just wish Naughty Dog wouldn’t have felt the need to reference the Drakes so often – a distraction that frequently entertains and can be interesting, but is placed more in the spotlight than is needed and diminishes Chloe and Nadine’s ownership of the adventure.

The Lost Legacy was originally intended to be a bonus episode for Uncharted 4, but ends up being a legitimate sequel that is every bit as fully featured as any of Drake’s adventures – it’s just a little shorter. I would never say any of the Uncharted games are too long – they always leave me wanting more – but this new entry demonstrates brevity works just as well, as the journey feels more urgent and streamlined.

The Lost Legacy’s gameplay is a direct continuation of Uncharted 4, hanging its hat firmly on the same grapple hook, stealth, and open-world exploration Drake used. Outside of a lock-pick mechanic – which can deliver high intensity when used in areas where enemies are on patrol – Naughty Dog doesn’t introduce much that can be classified as “new.” As I worked my way across India’s lost ruins and gorgeous jungles, I never felt the gameplay needed a shot of something different. The spectacle is always so huge, and the next discovery is always so enticing that I didn’t think about the actions that got me there – other than they are fun and reliable.

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Although the gameplay mechanics fit like a well-worn glove, Naughty Dog still has a few tricks up its sleeves. The puzzle contraptions that were invented to hide the Golden Tusk of Ganesh are challenging, clever, and again all about spectacle. Two of these puzzles rank among my favorites in the series – one dealing with platforms and swinging axes, and another that uses silhouettes in a fascinating way. I’d even say these slower gameplay moments are more impressive than the series’ signature setpieces, where everything explodes and collapses. Yes, Lost Legacy has plenty of that, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

Given just how fully featured this adventure is, Lost Legacy could have easily been Uncharted 5. Where Naughty Dog goes next is anyone’s guess, but I would love to see Chloe and Nadine return for another hunt, as they’re every bit as engaging as the Drake family. They make a hell of a team.

Multiplayer Worth Your Time
The Lost Legacy comes packaged with all of Uncharted 4’s multiplayer content, along with a fun cooperative Survival mode for up to three players. People jumping into The Lost Legacy’s multiplayer join the existing base of Uncharted 4 players. The release of Lost Legacy brings a few additions, including a new Survival Arena mode, featuring 10 waves of combat, some ending with warlord boss fights. You’ll also find Asav as a playable character. New skins are included for Lost Legacy’s notable players. I enjoyed Uncharted 4’s multiplayer thoroughly for its combination of run-and-gun and traversal mechanics. This is yet another chance to see just how fun it can be.
16th August 2017
Picking Up The Pace

Picking Up The Pace

The premiere episode of Minecraft: Story Mode's new season faced pacing issues, but it effectively set up the rest of the season with an interesting antagonist that rivaled the Wither Storm from the first season. With that in mind, I looked ahead with curiosity on where the next entry would take Jesse and friends, and this episode delivers on the promise of a threatening big bad, and the improved pacing makes Minecraft: Story Mode's aging formula as enjoyable as it's ever been.

By now, veteran players of Telltale's episodic adventures know what to expect; each episode presents you with a series of scenes that have you complete quick-time events, choose dialogue, and solve exploration-based puzzles. Along the way, your choices loosely influence the way the story plays out. Minecraft: Story Mode is no different. Giant Consequences is light on combat, but it makes up for it with lots of quick-time events to capitalize on big set-pieces and a fun shooting-gallery mini-game.

Early on, you face off against a massive creature controlled by the Admin, a seemingly omnipotent creature who is said to have built the world that Jesse inhabits. The scale of this encounter is reminiscent of the climax of season one, and the banter between Jesse and the Admin is entertaining. Hearing the Admin recite parts of Jesse's adventures from the first season is a sobering reminder of just how powerful he is.

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Though I was unsure of Jesse's new party of adventurers for season two, I warmed up to most of them throughout this episode. The delusional wannabe-rival character Stella still irks me, but she's supposed to. Characters like the gruff Jack and the underdog Radar grew on me as their arcs matured and their charm shined through. I liked watching the constantly doubted Radar overcome his fears to try and prove the naysayers wrong. And while I don't want to spoil anything, I enjoyed a couple of the characters deliver some fun reveals near the end of this episode.

The first episode of this season introduced improved combat that added new elements like dodge-rolls and a stamina bar, as well as a new way to craft entire structures using the resources in your inventory on a grid-based platform. I was delighted not only to see the structure I built in the first episode reappear in Giant Consequences, but also the opportunity to build a new structure that I hope will make an appearance in a future episode. By allowing players to flex their creativity in new ways, Telltale is giving its Minecraft series more of what made the masses fall in love with that property in the first place, and helping to further differentiate it from its plethora of other licensed series.

With a breakneck pace and action-packed events, the sophomore episode of season two has me hoping that the series can carry this momentum forward. Though I'm anticipating the typical Telltale pattern where all your choices end up not making much of a difference at the season's conclusion, I'm at least enjoying the ride to that point.

16th August 2017
The Long Dark Review

The Long Dark Review

As The Long Dark emerges after years in early access, it introduces the first two chapters in a five-part story, called Wintermute. The game's demanding survival mechanics have the potential to mesh well with the story of a plane crash survivor stuck in the Canadian wilderness of Great Bear, but it's too early to say whether or not Wintermute's narrative ultimately pays off. It is, however, clearly off to a rocky start, leaving the more open-ended sandbox mode as the best reason to jump into The Long Dark today.

During Wintermute, you play as Will Mackenzie, a loner pilot working in the northern reaches of Canada, who agrees to help transport his distressed ex-wife and her mysterious cargo somewhere into the far reaches of the woods. Though there are a few revealing moments shared between Will and Dr. Astrid Greenwood before their plane comes crashing down, the quick and cliched implication of an emotional backstory through suggestive and vague dialogue makes a weak first impression. It certainly doesn't help that many of the scenes throughout Wintermute's first two episodes are hampered by odd animation jitters and floating objects that pop in and out frame.

While you both survive the sudden crash that cuts your conversation short, you are separated from one another, and Will succumbs to injuries that make surviving the harsh winterscape a true challenge. Recovering from the crash acts as the game's tutorial, throwing you into the basics of survival. Whether it's seeking shelter, starting a fire, or generally looking after your vital signs, almost everything you need is covered, giving you some confidence before you set out on a journey to find your lost passenger. Learning how to make the most of The Long Dark's survival mechanics is no simple task, but these foundational steps are relatively easy compared to the hurdles that lie ahead.

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Despite Mackenzie's apparent desperation to find Astrid, he's more than happy to scout the countryside to gather things for other people, ultimately earning nothing for himself except scraps of information about Astrid's possible whereabouts and increased knowledge of the wild. It's frustrating to watch--and even more frustrating to play.

As you carry on, most of your time will be spent scouring abandoned structures for granola bars, harvesting meat from animal carcasses found frozen in ice, and dodging the elements as best you can. Tools like knives and hatchets can be built provided you have the right blueprints, parts, and access to a forge or a workbench. They also need to be maintained using spare parts, which can be gathered by breaking down extra items. Annoyingly, inventory management doesn't let you optimise your carry weight by combining like items, so instead of being able to do something like emptying lantern fuel containers into a jerry can, you're forced to carry them all around separately. Be careful where you tread, as well, as it's not uncommon to get stuck in geometry without the means to free yourself--you aren't able to jump, only crouch and walk.

Mackenzie's survival knowledge is minimal to begin with, so his crafting abilities are minimal at best, but what he can make is essential. Blueprints can be found to learn how to craft new items, though these are extremely few and far between. In my experience, most crafting time is spent breaking down things found in the world; spare chairs, tables, curtains, old bedrolls, there's a lot that can be fixed into something else, and it could be life-saving. By combining some sticks, a bit of spare cloth, and some lantern fuel, you can make a simple torch, providing not just light and heat but also warding off any potential predators that may be circling nearby.

The first episode never really lets go of your hand, keeping you close to a small township for most of its entirety--and rarely asking you to venture to edges of the playable area just beyond the town limits. It's not until the second episode that you're set free--albeit under the conflicting pretense of playing fetch for someone else--across three large expanses of untamed wilderness.

Refreshingly, these spaces are deathly beautiful and a showcase for The Long Dark's striking visual style. When the aurora borealis shines at night, it's nothing short of stunning--the green hues bounce softly off of snow-covered surroundings. Likewise, the stark pink and orange sunsets that wash over Great Bear are consistently captivating. They are easy come, easy go, due to the game's dynamic weather system, but it's impressive how the world--and your place within it--can turn on a dime, choking clear skies with a gusty snowstorm, turning a moment of peace into a chaotic dash for shelter.

When you set aside the available Wintermute episodes--which, crucially, you can--The Long Dark's tough yet rewarding gameplay owns the spotlight.

When you set aside the available Wintermute episodes--which, crucially, you can--The Long Dark's tough yet rewarding gameplay owns the spotlight. Survival mode is unforgiving, but it plays to the game's best strength, and you can always dial down the difficulty to keep going--likewise, if you're finding it too easy, you can ramp it up as well. The sandbox also has five challenges you can attempt if you require a hint of direction, offering a more catered survival experience, but without the stringent procession of tasks seen in Wintermute.

Stricken from frostbite, and desperately wanting shelter from a violent blizzard, the feeling of helplessness in the sandbox mode gets overwhelming, and it's in these moments of desperation that The Long Dark is most effective. And thus every minute you survive, and every meter of progress you make, feels remarkably rewarding--the result of a series of calculated decisions you made in the face of depressingly unfavorable odds.

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When the weather isn't out to kill you, chances are you'll find some wildlife that would be more than happy to try. A lone wolf can be handled by waving around a lit torch or flare in its face, but if a pack gets a whiff of you nearby, the only option is to run. And did I mention bears? There are bears, and they aren't interested in being friendly. Death comes swiftly and brutally at the hands of the animals in The Long Dark, a stark contrast to the slow fade into darkness that comes with growing colder and hungrier.

It's important to remember that The Long Dark is just waking up from early access. It's cold, hungry, and huddled somewhere under a rock face, but it's just gotten the fire started. Another three story episodes are still due, so there is time to turn things around for Will and Astrid. However, because the best parts of The Long Dark are already alive and well in survival mode, perhaps Wintermute's weak beginning is reason enough to stick to what's worked for the game all along, blemishes and all.