Knights of Sidonia Season 2 Review – Don’t Mecha Around

Knights of Sidonia

While the first season of Knights of Sidonia managed to blend realism with robots and aliens into a decent drama, the second season stumbles just as much as it flies off into the great beyond. It often fails to deliver its narrative with any appreciable pacing and occasionally dips into unfortunate cliché territory, but it still crafts a worthwhile, character-driven story.

Picking up right where the first season left off as a streaming Netflix Original, we find Nagate Tanikaze in the throws of fame following the spectacular battle with the Crimson Hawk Moth. But of course, the Gauna once again are at the doorstep of Sidonia, but with an interesting twist: they’ve developed countermeasures to the previous silver bullet armaments of core-piercing rounds.

This is where we’re introduced to the big impetus for the season in Tsumugi Shiraui, a Gauna/human hybrid “piloted” by “Norio Kunato.” Now let me explain the scare quotes. First off, as a hybrid, Tsumugi doesn’t actually need a pilot. Instead, she is a fully conscious being that can simply be directed how to act in battle. Second, Kunato isn’t actually Kunato. He’s been taken over by a parasite and now is under Ochiai’s control.

On her own, Tsumugi is a pretty interesting creation. Standing at the same height as a mechanical Garde with a Gauna-like complexion, she is as unsettling as the things that have been ravaging what remains of humanity for the past millennium. However, she only bears the awareness of a newborn, though her intelligence seems to be fully developed.

Tsumugi, much like everyone aboard Sidonia, doesn’t quite understand what she is. Her first formal introduction to the Garde pilots is disastrous as she causes what is basically an earthquake with her gentle swaying, rekindling the fears of those present for the previous hybrid debacle a hundred years prior.

It’s fascinating to watch her meander around the trust and admiration of those aboard Sidonia, just as she delves more personally into the lives of Tanikaze and Izana Shinatose. Despite being part Gauna and bearing the voice of his mostly dead girlfriend Shizuka Hoshijiro, Tanikaze is immediately engrossed by Tsugumi’s existence. This happens simultaneously while Izana, a middlesex friend and fellow pilot, nurtures feelings for Tanikaze that emerged last season.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

This makes for a strange but entirely interesting love triangle that informs a great deal of the drama in the season. It makes for each character’s arcs and resolutions and actions all the more weighty and believable. (Well, as believable as a space opera about mechs and aliens can get.) You mix in Tanikaze’s lingering memories of Hoshijiro and Tsugumi’s rapid and tumultuous integration into human society and you have a delectable story.

It would be a lot more digestible, however, if the pacing was simply better. It’s incredible how much of each episode is incredibly pointless in both the overall plot as well as character development. If you wanted, you could get away with just watching the little recaps at the beginning of each episode and nothing else.

The show seems to mire itself in frivolity while giving the viewer an incredibly compressed retelling of major events. It’s not that all of the side dishes are fluff, but they seem to come up at the immense sacrifice of providing any meat. For example, the aforementioned Ochiai parasite controlling Kunato? It played like an everyday event. So did the sudden acceptance of Tsugumi with the vast majority of Sidonia. Weren’t these people angry at her existence just, like, five minutes ago?

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

There seems to be some additional transformation into a stereotypical anime as well. While the first season seemed to relish the idea of only wearing an anime’s skin and steeping itself in the rigors of a Battlestar Galactica, this go-round falls for far too many traps of the genre.

The drama of going into a Garde seems to have all but evaporated as the constant worry over space logistics has disappeared and the suits have reached Gundam-levels of durability. Tsumugi starts out and never leaves the realm of a deus ex machina with a voice, basically bending previously established rules to her will.

And then there’s the thick smattering of anime-style sexuality and the jokes that derive therefrom. The number of times Tanikaze stumbles across a set of barely covered breasts or visually vulnerable upskirt even in the first few episodes is laughable, eye roll-inducing, and generally off-putting. Then the predictable recourse manifests: punched in the face, kicked into a wall, girly scream while cutting to an exterior shot.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

Perhaps it won’t bother many other viewers (if you are part of a genre, sometimes you just have to embrace it), but it came across mostly as childish in terms of both craft and content. And when you throw in the talking penis with tentacles that is the extremely mobile, expressive, and handsy appendage of Tsumugi’s, it only serves to remove you from the previously compelling and well-developed world of the show.

There are so many problems with the second season of Knights of Sidonia, but with a quality story involving a handful of complex characters, it’s hard to see them as much more than quibbles. Once it’s all over, though, you can’t help but look back and see them all piled up in the corner and wonder how it is you managed to look past it all. It’s still a good show, but not as good as you’d like it to be.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Watch the Full E3 2015 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Demo

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

You’ve undoubtedly seen the demo for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End from the Sony press conference this year at E3. It was, also beyond the shadow of a doubt, a banger of a demo. With the frozen Nathan Drake, we learned that the project was far along enough to show it live. And we learned that it is a big, beautiful, and exciting game.

I guess we already knew that last part, or at least assumed it. Coming from Naughty Dog and after three other very successful and rather good Uncharted games, that kind of quality and scope is expected. What we saw, though, appeared to be almost exactly what we’ve seen before: shooting dudes, jumping on stuff, and slinging sass.

Apparently, that is not totally representative. Uncharted 4 sounds like it’s going to be skewing slightly towards the ideal of an open world, not that we see it even in this extended demo with Drake’s brother Sam working alongside his explosive antics. (Hot damn is it gorgeous, though.) In this interview with Polygon’s Megan Farokhmanesh, it’s stated that there won’t just be vehicle set pieces like in the past but they will rather play an integral part in exploration.

During the demo, for example, players are free to escape the market at their own pace. All roads will eventually take you to your destination — which is essentially just the bottom of the hill — but how you get there is up to you.

Lead designer Kurt Margenau continues on to say, “Everything you see, you can go to. We’re not going to arbitrarily block you.” They’ll still continue to bring the heat in terms of huge, memorable beats and whatnot, but there will apparently be a lot more flexibility in terms of where Nathan can go.

That’s an interesting decision because I never quite found the linearity of the past Uncharted games to be all that limiting. The entire franchise was built around the premise of bringing the flawed but enchanted heroism and adventures of Indiana Jones to the video game world, and to that end, they succeeded. They hit all the marks of what makes Indy, well, Indy.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

But perhaps this is playing into some idea that this game needs to do something more than just incrementally improve on what many viewed as a platonic ideal for action-adventure games. The series has already gone the predictable arc of trilogies, and there’s certainly nothing wrong in proving you can do something better than you’ve done before (and we have seen the truck-jumping bit before), which makes this seemingly internal pressure to try something brazenly new all the more interesting.

If you recall the demo from the PlayStation Experience last year, we saw Drake clamber around a rather sizable jungle environment and take out a bevy of bad guys. Looking back on it, it definitely felt like the breadth of the geography was indicative of an open world. It’s the kind of setting you would cross a few times between hub-like structures (I doubt it’s going that open) before getting into a scrape.

Or maybe that’s confirmation bias. Who knows. The Uncharted 4 development story gets more interesting considering how much of The Last of Us is going into it. Not only is the enemy AI making a showing (guess that The Last of Us Remastered port to PlayStation 4 is bearing bonus fruit) but since former series creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond’s departures in March of last year, The Last of Us leads Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley took over.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

And in that transition, they apparently scrapped eight months of work, according to voice actor Nolan North (who plays Drake) in a recent MetroCon panel. It doesn’t quite sound like an entire finish product was thrown away but rather Druckmann and Straley took where the game was already headed and added their own creative spice to it, which is totally understandable. It’s difficult to take something in someone else’s voice and both finish it and make it better when both the past and present styles are so specific and recognizable.

Of course, it’s all up in the air. You can’t and shouldn’t judge an unfinished game because, very obviously, it’s unfinished. You can express opinions regarding that thing that it is, but that’s not a product for you to hold with or against a studio, just like you don’t look at a stack of notecards and tell Steven Spielberg it’s a terrible movie. But as it sits now, Uncharted 4 looks like a particularly interesting thing.

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You Should Probably Play Her Story

Her Story

Tomorrow you’re going to say the last time you were moved by a game was today. Her Story is a totally strange, odd little bird of a thing that compels you to move forward through a haze with an unstated promise of clarity on the other side. And that’s the prize of it all: getting lost in the maze is just as fascinating as the truth is shocking.

Her Story is the latest from Sam Barlow, the fellow behind the equally unique and compelling Aisle and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In it, you attempt to unearth the truth behind a 1994 mystery wherein a woman is interviewed over the course of several conversations with the police regarding her missing husband.

Those interviews are broken up into little 15-second chunks (some are even shorter at three or four seconds) of FMV footage that you’ll have to search for using an exceedingly simple computer interface, one purposefully emulating the experience of using Windows 3.1 and the like. It’s a database search of all the conversations you have with this woman and is kicked off with a simple query: murder.

It’s remarkable how this fragmented memory, distributed amongst over 200 clips, works so well to push the player forward into believing they are being clever. It’s a fascinating design because to find more clips, you have to search for words and phrases into the computer. But only five are returned at a time, though many more may contain the query.

Searching for “you” or “I,” for instance, will land you with too many results. You have to really pay attention to both what this woman is saying and how she says it to find the right thing to ask for. You’ll start off casually tagging videos with things that pique your interest, but eventually you’ll have you nose to the screen and drowning in questions.

It’s a design that amazingly makes you feel like you are discovering things just as well as if you weren’t along a set of likely paths determined by Barlow. Picking up on phrases or themes that this woman seems to obsess over or land particularly heavy on or pauses after gives you such a thrill to chase.

Her Story

I can only imagine it’s what dogs must feel seeing so many cars to chase. Where are they going? What are they? Why are they? I guess I’ll just have to catch one to find out. But in this case it was seeing locations and names whizz by, my tail wagging as I anticipated in running down all of them. It’s tantalizing as it frustrating, knowing I’ll pass by so many curious invitations just to accept another one.

The fact that you’ll be piecing together across several days and stories makes the whole process cerebrally intensive and all the more rewarding when you finally understand how it all fits together. There’s a sense of inevitability across the whole endeavor, as you dip from assumption to conclusion while avoiding the truth.

A lot of that has to do with the woman’s performance. She (Viva Seifert) is endearing and disturbing and grotesque and beautiful and terrifying and warming and everything in between as she recounts her childhood, her marriage, and her husband’s disappearance. There are several clips that even in their short runtimes are some of the most…unnerving things I’ve ever seen.

Her Story

Even if you don’t play games, you should give this a whirl. Hell, watch someone else play it and tag along for the ride; it’s great in co-op, too. Barlow says, “If you can Google, you can play Her Story,” and it’s a worthwhile ride. For six dollars (on sale for five right now), just give Her Story a chance.

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Batman: Arkham Knight Review – Batter Up

Batman: Arkham Knight

Rocksteady Studios return to the series is a fantastic one. In closing out the same tale that they started back in 2009, they have gone back to their already stellar framework and improved upon it in ways that probably few fans could have guessed (or even desired on their own). Batman: Arkham Knight is as much as a statement about Rocksteady’s pride and talent as it is simply a fantastic game.

Arkham Knight throws us back into the present day for Batman, one year after the events of Batman: Arkham City. Scarecrow is back and has forced a city-wide evacuation in Gotham with the threat of a new fear toxin. This leaves a vacuum in which his militia fills, an effort led by a mysterious Arkham Knight fellow who seems to have some sort of history with Bats, as well as all of the Big Bad Guys of Gotham.

The Dark Knight, however, is dealing with his own set of problems. Coming out of the events of Arkham City, our brooding hero has to deal with the death and absence of the Joker. (Slight spoiler alert ahead for Arkham Knight.) It begins to manifest somewhat physically as a brush with Scarecrow’s toxin reacts with the Joker’s blood in him and he begins to hallucinate.

This is easily the strongest component of the game. Its narrative is just top-notch throughout with some spectacular turns sprinkled all around. The singular flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum is missing, but it also fixes the broad and reaching plot of Arkham City.

But most importantly, it is thematically dense and significant. Batman and Joker have always been closer than the Caped Crusader would rather admit, but this game addresses it in an exceptionally potent way. Batman can throw around tough guy lines (like responding to a concern about the militia taking him down with a gruff “they won’t”) but the Joker that’s inside his head is voicing all the fears and doubts and insecurities that his gravel-soaked machismo hides.

Some of the twists are not even twists in the conventional sense, but rather that the game does a great job of building up to increasing degrees of “oh no oh no oh no” instead of a single “buhhhWHAT.” It cultivates a sense of dread of the inevitable that, unfortunately, will likely land under the category of Divisive.

Batman: Arkham Knight

The story, however, manages to inform some of the gameplay in interesting ways. For instance, just as Scarecrow has cobbled together the likes of the Penguin, Two-Face, et al. in an uneasy alliance, Batman has friends he works with. There’s a new Dual Play mechanic that allows you to switch between characters like Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing in combat and predator sections as well as outside of them.

It adds a much needed wrinkle to an old fighting system. That’s not to say that it’s not good (it’s just as great as you remember and a welcome reminder of how to do it right) but there certainly was a monotonous drone to it all as you reached the ends of the past games. Having you dip in and out of different move sets and teaming up for dual takedowns adds spice and variety to it all, reminding you to still have fun with it.

Other than that, though, the combat is still the Freeflow system. The difference is that Rocksteady has tweaked how you use Batman’s gadgets into a more manageable button structure as well as how they fit into reactions to certain enemies. That was a huge problem with Arkham Origins; at a certain point, it all got so convoluted that you just regressed into a meat and potatoes kind of fighter instead of a resourceful, skillful one.

Batman: Arkham Knight

A lot of that has to do with the enemy designs and progressions. There isn’t much of a tutorial to speak of—almost a self-aware recognition of this being “another” Arkham game—but instead relies on throwing complexity to you and have you figure it out. And it works because it’s intuitive. From preparing for encounters to strategizing the mixed use of combat and stealth techniques, it just makes sense.

Medics revive so you stop that, but you soon find out they can charge dudes up with electricity, a concept you are introduced to with henchmen with stun sticks. So now you have a similar enemy created preemptively by another one that can also bring them back. At this point, you have an idea of how to deal with the results and a priority. It’s a guidance that has a stunning lack of hand-holding that is most welcome.

Most of the game, actually, doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s better for it. From excising button prompts where most other games would harangue to letting you figure out how to find missions, it just puts you out there. There’s a bit early on where you are trapped as you attempt a rescue mission, and there’s no indication of what to do. For all you know, this is the end. But the solution teaches you how the game wants you to think about this pickles and how to get out of them: this isn’t just Batman anymore.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Namely, there’s also, like, a two-ton tank called the Batmobile. This is probably another portion of the game that will be divisive as hell, but it is handled deftly enough that it’s a welcome respite from punching people in the face and hiding in rafters. There’s pursuit stuff that has you chasing down cars (mostly okay), the Riddler race challenges (novel and pleasantly chaotic), environmental puzzles (strangely engaging), and the tank battles (superb).

Truly, the pursuits are mostly harmless palate cleansers for the other Batmobile shenanigans. You just chase other cars and try to lock-on with missiles. The Riddler races are more interesting in that you have to simultaneously manage the race track while maneuvering the Batmobile up walls and on ceilings and through the air.

And then there’s the battles. They have you up against an army of drones that require you to dodge shells and missiles while peppering airborne buzzers and blasting other tanks. It’s both frantic and measured in a way that the series hasn’t explored before. You’re keeping in mind timing and spacing and monitoring your secondary weapon gauges and anticipating openings and cover all at the same time. Save for the pseudo stealth bits where you fight Cobra tanks, it’s pretty great.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Side missions also make a return, which almost goes without saying since this is an open world game. But this time around, rather than being of the ilk of “go here, do this, come back,” each individual kind of mission plays into a specific subplot that feels wholly unique. From tracking a giant bat to helping out Catwoman to playing an entirely different character, it all feels substantially personal.

The way you touch base each time you switch between objectives is great, too. It adds context and immerses you at the same time. If you go from the main story to say you’re going to go track down gun runners, Alfred will chime in with something about Nightwing. Or maybe Batman himself will comment on the situation himself. It’s a little touch that works wonders.

There’s also a lot of times where you’ll get into a mission and that mission kind of sends you, well, nowhere. Or seemingly nowhere as there’s nothing to do there. Instead, you have to actually seek it out, kind of playing into the idea that you’re actually Batman searching for clues and not somebody playing a game and going down a checklist of objective markers on the map.

Batman: Arkham Knight

It’s not all gravy, though it does come very close. There were more than a forgettable amount of bugs from missed mission triggers to enemies getting stuck on geometry. (Note that this is the PlayStation 4 version being reviewed, not the stupidly broken PC version.) And it’s still hard to wrap your head around the idea of Batmobile stealth in tight quarters where everything it touches somehow crumbles like a dry sand castle.

There’s also a layer of endings after the story ending that is, well, either wholly disappointing or absolutely baffling, depending on your patience for collectibles. And that’s not to mention the main narrative’s linchpin twist and gameplay’s Batmobile bits, which already are splitting opinions like toppings requests in a dorm room. There is likely to be no middle ground on loving or hating those things.

Take those little lumps out, though, and it is pure, uncut, grade-A gravy. If you think you’ve had your fill of the Batman: Arkham games, you might want to give this one a try anyways. There is value to the masterful refinement of a craft, and Batman: Arkham Knight just might be that.

Batman: Arkham Knight

+ Fantastic and thoughtful narrative about Batman’s nature
+ Return and girding of a defining combat system
+ Batmobile sections work well at adding variety
+ Mixing stealth and combat elements makes both more contemplative
– More than a few bugs

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight
Release: June 23, 2015
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.batmanarkhamknight.com/

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Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Proof in the Arkham Pudding

Franchises tend to follow a somewhat depressing arc. Be it movies or video games or books, they have a habit of going through three distinct phases (especially if it’s a trilogy). The first, if it’s worth sparking a series at all, is usually full of surprise and life. It’s like a low-key discovery of fire, like holy shit we made something.

The second stage is when all the ideas that were too big or too ambitious make it in, hopefully with the creators’ ability to manufacture their desires keeping pace with their heads in the clouds. This means producers learn how to produce better and developers learn how to use their tools better while directors aim for big set pieces and game designers throw in gem after gem they had to throw in the trash the last time around.

It takes a mild step down, however, at the third part. It’s not quite a too-comfortable situation, but it’s close. All the gold got mined out of the brains for the second bit, and now they’re running on empty. They’re trying to paint bags of rocks rather than digging like they had for years before, pining for this project to be made. It’s more competent than ever, but the spark is gone.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

You’ll probably want to argue that last one—and rightly so—but the crux of it is true: it’s a step down. Take a look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Or what about SCE Santa Monica’s God of War or BioWare’s Mass Effect or Naughty Dog’s Uncharted?

With the exception of The Godfather, the third installment was still quite good and worthy in closing out a trilogy, but they also felt…sterile. Like a sigh of deliberating how to get through this. They’ve done it before at quite a remarkable level, so the blueprint is right there. Now they just need to get it done as opposed to wanting to get it done. (True or not, that’s how it feels playing or watching those things.)

The reason I bring this up is because of the Batman: Arkham series, the latest entry of which came out this week. It’s been doing quite well with review scores (we’ll have one up shortly), but it has been begging the question with a lot of writers and fans alike: was this game necessary?

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Perhaps not for any of us outside of Rocksteady Studios, the developers behind the franchise, but for them, it sure seems like it. The interesting thing is that while there have been four main releases in the Arkham lineup, the third one was actually made by Warner Bros. Games Montreal and is the only one not directed by Sefton Hill.

Before that, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City certainly fit the mold. Asylum was a tight little package that flowed well within itself, telling a taut story with an impeccable (and revolutionary) set of mechanics and gameplay. And then City blew it wide open by turning an island into a full-blown city and taking much of what players loved from before to another level.

And then Origins was, well, just kind of okay. It kind of just made the city bigger and added perhaps the single most unnecessary multiplayer component ever conceived. It wasn’t the usual third step down because the series runners ran out of steam or got complacent or whatever; it was because the reins were thrown into hands that had never ridden this horse before.

Batman: Arkham City

This is where I begin to believe that yes, Knight is necessary. It breaks so hard from the typical franchise quality arc that that single-handedly makes it noteworthy. It’s not developers diving back in for a fourth go-around as they figure out what new IP to cultivate and iterate on but is instead a studio reclaiming their title of steward to Batman.

I’ll get into more detail in the review, but Knight is both a refinement and an expansion on what we liked and didn’t like from City that Origins just seemed to miss, neglect, or actually exacerbate. The story is deft and drums up legitimate drama. Combat has new layers of complexity but streamlines it into a speedy little missile of rewarding, buzzing thinking of the frantic variety.

This is just as the stealth sections have entirely new wrinkles that make sneaking around vantage points and floor grates come across as simultaneously reengineered and reinvented. And they way they are presented to you through various framing devices, they actually affect how you tool around with it all. The encounter design, specifically, shames Origins as that game seemed to support pugilism even in the midst of choking someone out.

Batman: Arkham Knight

And that’s even while Rocksteady saw fit to add an entirely new and substantial thing to the game: the Batmobile. There are dexterity-demanding races and navigational puzzles and tank combat and bits that mesh Batman and the vehicle together as separate entities in the same environment for race-puzzle-combat scenarios. There are a lot of design concessions to fit the narrative and vice versa and the reception for its sections will be divided, but my goodness is it ambitious.

That is the quality that seems to always lack after a series goes past the second entry. It lacks the punch—that swing at a weight class far higher than its own—that makes the first two so potent. Rocksteady, however, didn’t get a third one and instead had to go for the fourth. While no artistic endeavor may ever be necessary from the viewing side, it seems that it can be for the artist. They’ve still got more to say.

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Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – Hands-on at E3 2015

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

“Sweet baby Jesus, it’s happening.” Yes, brain that apparently watched Talladega Nights recently, it is happening. A sequel to 2008’s Mirror’s Edge is in development. Well, one has been in varying states of development since 2011, but it came and went like a Mary Poppins of gaming: swiftly happy and then suddenly sad.

But that’s all behind us and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is mostly around the corner. With a hands-on showing at E3 this year, you are set loose upon the city with a sampling of some side missions to tackle. It’s not much, but it’s enough to say that Catalyst seems to be a wonderful confluence of old and new.

You once again settle into the red shoes of Faith, the series’ parkour-enabled protagonist. The game aims to explore Faith’s origins while exposing the underlying evils simmering in the City of Glass. You play from a first-person perspective, using a complex but rewarding control scheme to slide under obstacles, clamber up walls, and leap from roof to roof.

The two biggest changes, though, are where the meat is at. First off, there is no gun combat in Catalyst. In the first Mirror’s Edge, Faith admonished the use of firearms, a notion the game reinforced by only providing one or two shots per gun acquired. But now, Faith doesn’t wield them at all.

Instead, the focus is on movement as a weapon. As long as you are in a successful and flowing line, Faith is invincible and able to take down the enemies that crop up on your way. It rewards you for skillfully playing the game as both you and the developers desire, not having you work around a strangely long-distance concession for effective henchmen.

The second change is that Faith will be operating in an open world. Rather than moving between discrete levels where the end of one sequence leads directly to the start of another, you will be futzing about within the actual City of Glass.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

To be totally honest, that bit terrified me when it was announced during EA’s press conference. I loved that the entirety of the first game was aimed at being a single flow, not just between levels but within the stages themselves as well. But the open world actually works.

Even the idea of an Ubisoft-esque map full of blips of courier and hacking and time attack missions doesn’t seem so bad because it feels still like that single flow I liked so much before. Momentum and movement makes dashing around the city while racing Icarus (another runner from the story) or bashing the heads of dozens of guards on a rooftop seem more contiguous than you’d imagine.

It all feels like a natural extension of the core premise of a fluid existence. Go high to mantle a wall and then go low to roll out of the big landing and then go high to kick a dude’s face in. It’s a promising refinement of what we remember from before. Let’s just hope Mirror’s Edge Catalyst can figure out what else to spruce up and what to drop.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst comes out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 23, 2016.

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Cuphead – Hands-on at E3 2015

Cuphead

Finally getting my hands on the most intriguing surprise of E3 2014 was both a joy and a buzzkill. Going into it after a year of wondering what it was, my expectations were basically nonexistent save for its visual flair. And it does not disappoint. Cuphead from Studio MDHR is an unequivocally beautiful game. I’m so glad to find out that it’s also a promising one.

First off, the premise: you are Cuphead, and you and your friend Mugman made a bet with the devil. It almost obviously goes sour, and the two are soon locked into doing the devil’s bidding. The pair fill their heads with some fine grain liquor and proceed to go out guns blazing. (And with Mugman in the mix, you can co-op the game with a buddy.)

Its aesthetics throw back to the animation stylings of the early 1900s like that of Max Fleischer‘s Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie but its gameplay is straight out of the 1980s. It’s a side-scrolling shooter that is very much in the vein of Contra and the like except almost exclusively a protracted boss rush à la Shadow of the Colossus. (I guess that’s more accurately a boss game.)

And gosh is it brutal. You run, you jump, and you shoot, but most importantly, you die. You have to have the dexterity and reaction time to survive just as much as you must have the ability to learn and retain patterns until they become habit and intuition instead of studied motions.

You can also time a midair jump to deflect certain enemy projectiles, which will in turn charge your super weapon. If you do it enough, you’ll gain use of an ass-kicking beam attack, but if you miss (and you will; the timing is super tight), you take damage. It’s okay, though. That super is only somewhat essential to beating the bosses.

The noteworthy part in all of this is that it comes with great variety. You’ll face pugilistic frogs, psychic carrots, and ornery slot machines, and all of them fight uniquely. It’s one thing to have an expertly punishing game but it’s another to make so much of it feel consistently fresh.

Cuphead

The audio and visuals certainly don’t hurt either. It’s a lusciously smooth and lovingly drawn game from just two brothers (which might explain why it went with the boss rush structure) with a pitch-perfect original, totally manic jazz soundtrack. The adorable characters and animations do betray the sweaty palms and enraged screams into the night that it holds for your future, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cuphead looks to be shaping up quite nicely. It’s got flair to go along with what seems like a competent core of run and gun gameplay. So what’s the buzzkill? It’s not out until 2016 for Xbox One and PC.

(Read more about the game’s development in this SlashGear interview from last year. It’s fascinating.)

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Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens – Hands-on at E3 2015

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Let’s get this right out of the way: HoloLens, Microsoft’s response to the virtual reality resurgence of late, is incredibly cool. It’s not necessarily impressive, but it is undoubtedly neato. You throw it on like any other VR headset but it instead opts for an augmented reality experience, altering what you can already see rather than replacing it wholesale.

If you saw the Microsoft press conference earlier in the week, then you’ve seen what they’re selling you. The Minecraft demo is the goal for the product, and it kind of delivers on that; you certainly are seeing things that aren’t there. The odd part is the field of view.

Namely, it’s not that great. The stage demo and the special camera rig to display it shows it as an all-encompassing experience. It’s not that. Imagine you are peering through another smaller seamless window in the headset about the size of a deck of cards hovering a foot or so in front of you. That’s what you see. It’s disappointing but not necessarily jarring.

Preceding a demo of Halo 5: Guardians, there was a super high to-do about a multiplayer briefing. The area was mocked up to be a UNSC facility with UNSC scientists milling about. It all felt very much like a marketing coma-inducing simulacrum. The lab coats measured our interpupillary distances and then we were sent on our goggled way.

You look to the left down a corridor and what you see is almost unbelievable. It would have been breathtaking if survival in the video game industry required some amount of emotional culling. It was a Halo waypoint. Not a poster of one plastered on the wall or some styrofoam approximation hung from the ceiling. It was a waypoint, counting down the meters until you reached it.

Once you got there, you were directed to another room. In it was a window. Well, not a real one, but one projected by HoloLens. Peering through, you can see all manner of Pelicans and marines and whatnot. This is no longer some PR-purchased estimation of Halo. This suddenly became the UNSC Infinity.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Turning around, there’s a briefing table with a hologram of the Infinity floating there. You can actually use a virtual pointer to spin it around, which was pretty fun just by itself. But then it’s replaced by Spartan commander Sarah Palmer detailing how the new Warzone mode works.

All the while, you can walk around the table, circling the future like a hungry shark. It tracks just as well and you’d like it to with no stuttering or jumping. With no hanging circuitry or wires, the headset is light, too, almost leaving you to forget it’s even there on your noggin.

The magic, however, begins to falter due to the aforementioned viewing real estate. You pretty much have to be backed up all the way to see everything in a way that doesn’t feel like peering through a mail slot. Forcing you to physically accommodate the limitations of the system breaks the sensation of being aboard a UNSC ship and suddenly you’re back in a room with several strangers wearing things on their heads.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

It’s an odd feeling, for sure. I’ve worked with this technology before from the engineering and programming side, so knowing its actual limits based on current research and development has tempered by excitement, but experiencing it all in the context of a world I know fairly well makes it smile-inducing all over again.

And knowing it’s still not all quite there similarly curbs giddiness. The field of view is the biggest problem, but it also leads into an issue with proximity. The closer you get, the more the illusion of immersion breaks not only because you stop seeing everything at once but also because you start to see jagged edges and some slightly ragged tracking. It’s at a low degree and a rarity, but it’s enough.

There’s not quite an applicable use for this just yet. There wasn’t much to get from this that you couldn’t get from the Warzone trailer and it’s definitely not plausible for this to exist in every player’s house (not that Microsoft would even consider that option, but still). It was slick, though, and absolutely does the job of getting the idea of what’s possible with HoloLens stuck in your mind.

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PlayStation E3 2015 Recap

PlayStation E3 2015

Sony this year came out with some heat. We all thought most of it would just be rumors because—let’s face it—a lot of it sounded absurd. A comeback? A remake? Oh come on. We should know better by now. Go back to your village and take your pipe dreams with you.

But wham, bam, holy shit. We really shouldn’t be calling out “winners” for this sort of thing, but this press conference did actually bring down the Internet. Feel free to read on or rewatch the entire thing.

The Last Guardian

Ummm, what? I guess sometimes vaporware comes back from the dead. After being in and out of development and existence for the past 2007, it was pretty safe to assume the long awaited project was simply dead and buried. After the trauma of numerous rumors, the latest rumblings that we’d see The Last Guardian at this E3 seemed to only freshen up old wounds.

But it’s all true. Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida confirmed it would release for PlayStation 4 in 2016. Coming from Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda, the same combo that brought you Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, its expectations were high. After all these delays, are they just as lofty?

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games, developer of the Killzone series, is throwing quite the delicious curveball here. Going from a stock FPS to this is rather incredible. Perhaps filling the PlayStation 4’s required space marine quota earned them some laterality.

But Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fascinating premise. Something along the course of humanity’s development caused them to plunge back into a pre-civilization structure except machines are still rampant and necessary. So instead of hunting for food, they hunt for parts. Sure, the gameplay looks fun enough, but that setup is incredible.

Hitman

Even if you don’t care for the Hitman games, this is a well put together trailer. It finely composes the idea that he’s a killer of tactics, brutality, and skill. Also, the backing track that surreptitiously features ragged breathing slowly sinks in and is reinforced by the kill shot.

The trailer itself, however, doesn’t reveal much except that the series still animates people a bit too cartoonishly. I guess Square Enix assumes we already know what to expect from the game, which is kind of a sad notion anyway. Hitman lands on PlayStation 4 and PC on December 8. (Franchise reboots that simply start off with the same name is an organizational nightmare, by the way.)

Dreams

Media Molecule is still very much about games in which you create, if you were wondering. The latest is Dreams, and while the trailer is very obtuse about what you’ll actually be doing, you’ll definitely be creating…something.

It looks like you’ll be using your controller to sculpt out characters inside of scenes. The “dreams” motif comes in where everything is fast and impressionistic rather than details and builds upon a previously known (read: made) lexicon of items. You can then grab your creations and puppeteer them to life. (The short demo preceding the trailer shows more than anyone could ever say with words.)

Destiny: The Taken King

While I found Destiny to be somewhat lacking in its original release, the more that Bungie puts out for the game, the more I want to go back and play it. It seems like they’re solving the two biggest problems simultaneously with each DLC, being the lack of content for a massive world and a refinement of how to use that world in interesting ways.

Coming September 15, The Taken King will cost $39.99 for the regular edition and $79.99 for the collector’s edition, both of which will also include Destiny itself. The expansion will include new Guardian subclasses and super moves.

Final Fantasy VII

Part of the crazy heat Sony threw around yesterday. Even more dubious than The Last Guardian comeback rumors, we heard voices on the wind talk of a Final Fantasy VII remake, something fans have been clamoring for since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

And now it’s happening. This isn’t a tech demo or a PC version or an upgraded PC version for PlayStation 4, but this is a remake. At this point, it’s unclear as to what that means. This could end up just an HD remaster for all we know, but hopefully they’re not just misleading us with the word “remake.”

The bigger question, however, is if anyone still cares. Tetsuya Nomura is coming on as director after guiding the Kingdom Hearts series (and directing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) while Yoshinori Kitase, original director of Final Fantasy VII, will be returning to produce. Is that enough to garner interest beyond the 18-year-old fan base?

No Man’s Sky

This is the first lengthy gameplay demo anyone outside of the press has seen from No Man’s Sky. Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray hopefully imparted upon the audience the sheer size of what they’re attempting with this procedurally generated universe simulator. (If you still don’t get it, read this piece over at The New Yorker.)

Still no release date, but we do learn that every world is fully destructible. Plus there are fish!

Shenmue III

And here’s the real surprise of the event. No one was even expecting this, but Yu Suzuki, creator of an immense number of classics like Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, and Virtua Fighter, came out on stage to announce that he’d like to revitalize the Shenmue franchise through Kickstarter.

And then everyone lost their god damn minds. Which is the appropriate response, I might add. It brought down Kickstarter itself for a brief time as it rocketed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It’s already hit its $2 million goal in its first day. If you’re not jacked for this, then you’re a fool. Or you were too young to have played the first two.

Call of Duty

Now we know why Call of Duty was mysteriously absent during Microsoft press conference. PlayStation CEO Andrew House announced that Sony will get all of the military shooter’s map packs first. The deal will start up with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, coming to PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One November 6.

Map packs have traditionally gone to Xbox platforms first since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2007. While not necessarily everyone’s thing, this is a huge move for PlayStation.

Firewatch

Firewatch is pretty much exactly the kind of game I love playing. Or at least it’s the kind of game I love thinking that I would love playing based on the trailer because the trailer sells a very particular kind of game.

The adventure game from Campo Santo and director Jake Rodkin (co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast) tells the story of a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. Numerous mysteries begin to unfold as he goes about his patrols.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

While the return of the Uncharted series still doesn’t seem like the best creative decision, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still looks pretty incredible. Like, visually, I mean. It seems like it’ll play like the other games, so you probably already know if you’ll be into that or not, but there’s certainly something to be said for a masterful refinement of a craft.

After a little technical hiccup where protagonist Nathan Drake froze in front of a still animating crowd, we go on a classic Uncharted whirlwind ride of shooting bad guys, running from overwhelming odds, shooting more guys, and (as a franchise first) driving a vehicle. Oh, and crackin’ some wise. Don’t forget that.

There are some other odds and ends that came out of the conference (like a new Street Fighter V trailer), but that’s the gist of it. There were several genuine surprises, capping off a rather momentous start to this year’s E3. Look for more coverage as the show continues the rest of the week.

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Microsoft E3 2015 Recap

Microsoft E3 2015

There was actually something genuinely surprising about the Microsoft press event yesterday, but it’s probably not what you think: there wasn’t even a sliver of a presence for Call of Duty. That showing has been happening like clockwork for the past forever and it wasn’t there this year.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad or even how I feel about it, but it’s certainly remarkable. But there was plenty of other news for the Redmond company and their little gaming machine that could (and then did and became a beast of an ecosystem for entertainment).

You can also watch the entire presentation if you’d rather do that.

Halo 5: Guardians

There was a substantial co-op demonstration that happened. And that just about sums that up. At this point I’m pretty sure you know if you’re going to buy a new Halo game or not, let alone get excited for hearing 343 Industries studio head Bonnie Ross talk about the brand new engine that runs single and multiplayer at 60 fps.

Warzone, however, sounds pretty fun. It’s a new 24-player mode where you’ll face off against both AI and player-controlled enemies via drop-in, drop-out co-op. The maps are massive at four times bigger than you’re used to. Josh Holmes of 343 appropriately called it “ambitious.”

Backwards Compatibility

This is an ostensibly big move. This will open up an entire generation’s worth of games up to Xbox One owners for free (so far it’s just a smattering of titles) and will definitely set the system apart from the PlayStation 4 feature set, something they’re keenly aware of.

“We won’t charge you to play the games you already own,” said head of platform engineering Mike Ybarra, an obvious jab at the fact that PlayStation 4’s backwards compatibility works only so much that you can stream old games via PlayStation Now. Ybarra says it won’t take any extra development from studios and players just need the original disc to download a new digital version. It’ll be available to everyone this holiday season.

Fallout 4

Here’s so more Fallout 4 footage, including stuff we didn’t get to see yesterday during Bethesda’s event. I mean, it all follows the same path of content, but it’s bonus gameplay at some parts.

Game director Todd Howard also announced that PC mods will work for the Xbox One version of the game, but not right at launch; that will get added somewhere in 2016. And they’ll hopefully bring that same compatibility to the PlayStation 4 version.

Forza Motorsport 6

We already know there’s a new Forza game. Even if you didn’t know that, it seems like you could have assumed that anyways. Turn 10 Studios’ Dan Greenawalt says there will be over 450 cars and 24-player multiplayer. That’s kind of all the excitement I can muster for this.

Tacoma

Even if Tacoma just ended up being Gone Home in space, I’d still be cool with that. But developers Fullbright has earned more respect than that. It’s very obviously going to be about a singular experience and story-driven, but rehashing the same ground is (hopefully) beyond them.

Co-founder Steve Gaynor announced that their upcoming game will come to Xbox One and PC first before hitting Linux and Mac.

The Long Dark

Billed as “the first survival game on Xbox One,” The Long Dark is very obviously a survival game. You’re out all alone in a frozen wilderness and have to face the cold and wolves and whatnot.

The bigger tidbit coinciding with this is that Microsoft now offers Xbox One Game Preview, their own Early Access. The Long Dark isn’t out now, but you can play it on Game Preview right now. (Game Preview is not be confused with the Xbox One Preview program, although it exists within that and, yeah, you get it.)

Ion

Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, announced his new project Ion. It will also be available on Game Preview first and will attempt to realize Hall’s vision of “a game that wasn’t a game.” The press release describes the game as “an emergent narrative massively-multiplayer online game in which players build, live and inevitably die in huge floating galactic constructions.”

It aims to feature fully simulated environments involving power grids and heating and a bunch of other things to maintain space living. It seems pretty neat, though it may cross that line into too ambitious real quick.

Sea of Thieves

Rare is making a new game! What more do you need to know? Hopefully not much more because they didn’t give us much more.

Rare Replay

Coming August 4 to the Xbox One, the Rare Replay collection will feature just about every game you’d want to play from Rare’s history. This includes some serious bangers like Battletoads, Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Blast Corps. If this doesn’t excite you then you must be dead inside.

Gears of War Ultimate Edition

This remastered version of the original Gears of War will come to Xbox One on August 25. It’ll have updated graphics (which Kotaku has a nice comparison of), integrated Gears of War 3 gameplay features, and the additional content previously exclusive to the PC version from 2007.

Gears of War 4

I dunno. Are you guys excited for a new Gears of War? I’m interested, I guess, but not necessarily looking forward to it. It’ll be the first one not developed by Epic Games. Maybe there will be a fresh take on some of the old staples of the series we’ve grown accustomed to? Gears of War 4 will hit during holidays 2016.

HoloLens

This is a pretty impressive demo for Minecraft with HoloLens, Microsoft’s 3D head-mounted display technology. In it, one player is on a Surface tablet playing the game while the other assumes a more godlike role through HoloLens, able to peer into the entire world and manipulate it from on high.

But it’s also very much unbelievable and in a not great way. Do you remember what we were promised with Kinect? Yeah. And having worked with this sort of tech before, I’m all the more wary. Still cool, though.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

There was also a trailer that came out, but that’s pretty much inconsequential compared to the gameplay demo they threw down. It’s coming across as even more Nathan Drake than before, but it still looks great. Drake’s defining characteristic is that he’s lucky as shit and knows it. Lara didn’t have that.

In 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara started with getting impaled and it somehow went downhill from there. But this demo shows Lara dodging bullet after bullet and that’s kind of Drake’s thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it seems worth mentioning.

And that’s it! Actually, there was a lot more like the above promo for the new Xbox One interface, the Xbox Elite controller (which will cost a whopping $150), and a bunch of other games, but these were kind of the big hitters. It’s fantastic that Microsoft focused so hard on games this year. It felt refreshing.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a distinct lack of Kinect talk, and with the lack of Kinect in the new Xbox One bundles, it calls to question if Kinect is being swept under the rug. I don’t necessarily buy it, but Ben Kuchera raises some good points over at Polygon.

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