Monthly Archives: November 2013

Need for Speed: Rivals Review: Headed Nowhere Fast

Need for Speed: Rivals

Need for Speed: Rivals is certainly not a bad game but it definitely is an awkward one. It is full of mechanics that are more or less copacetic towards building excitement and engaging the player, but the husk surrounding it is mostly devoid of giving reason to care about any of it.

Rivals by Ghost Games is the latest in the Need for Speed franchise and one of the few surviving racing games that still falls under the arcade banner. It follows the second Need for Speed: Most Wanted by Criterion Games, a massively likable and successful game, and manages to crib a lot of what worked for that title into its own framework.

It tells the story of cops versus racers and allows you to play both sides. The story beats are delivered to you through stitched-together bits and pieces of fake news stories and totally gnar candid footage of racers eluding cops or our boys in blue really sticking it to those hooligans.

And boy is it horrible. The writing can only be described as lousy. The words follow the prescriptive English syntax, but when it comes to the meaningful use of those words, they say no thank you and we’re taken for a ride on the Nonsense Express. It’s cheesy and overwrought and would be laughable if your forehead wasn’t so sore from every other time you’ve slapped it.

The story itself is rather…disturbing. Cops are portrayed as bullies that grew up with a desire to be armed with a badge, a gun, and healthy sense of self-righteousness. All they want is to see every street racer in the ground rather than behind bars. And racers are maniacs that view the law as some sort of foe made to be rammed into walls and blown to bits with various car weaponry. Neither side feels especially worthy or sane.

Speaking of weaponry, we are treated to quite a bit. All of these real life cars have two slots that can be equipped with things like EMPs, static mines, and turbo boosts that the game calls Pursuit Tech. They can only be used a certain number of times in total and in a span of time, but they certain do manage to add chaos when cars clump up. A single well-placed ESF can cause absolute pandemonium, and it’s just delectable.

Need for Speed: Rivals

But that rarely happens, or at least it rarely happens in any significant way. As soon as you boot up the game, you will be thrown into a multiplayer, online-connected open world unless you tell it otherwise. With up to five other human players darting around streets containing other AI drivers, you’d think there would be a lot more to do.

There isn’t. Most of your time will be spent either driving to events marked on the map or driving to hideouts and command posts so you can warp to the event markers. And when you do try to load into one where cars are driving by, it takes so long to load that they’re all long gone by the time you hit the gas. The world is just so big and the player count so small that unless you have a posse ready to roll, you’ll either be spending a lot of time with AI or convincing strangers to meet up with you. (You’re parents should have already told you that was a bad idea.)

Then when they do meet up with you, they’ll most likely be other racers instead of cops. While the potential for telling a parallel, conflicting story that informs the gameplay is great, it’s squandered on an imbalanced division of intrigue on each side because the reward for playing racer is so much greater and more enjoyable than anything the cop side has to offer.

Need for Speed: Rivals

Racers constantly ride a line of risk and reward as the longer you stay out on the road and accomplish goals and win races, you earn insane amounts of Speed Points as your multiplier goes higher and higher, which enables you to buy more upgrades and more cars faster. It’s fantastic at building up intrinsic drama at the end of each completed Speedlist item where you’re rewarded with beaucoup SP. Do you keep going for crazy gain or do you play it safe and slowly build up your stores?

Cops, however, only ever gain SP by busting and wrecking racers. They never have to buy cars but they also never get to upgrade their rides. It’s a very tepid affair where you drive around looking for a racer, flip on the cherries and berries, and then ram the rear over and over again until they stall out. Case in point: I rarely had a session with more than one human-controlled cop.

When the game all comes together as intended, though, it is quite spectacular. As player racers try to get from event to event and win unscathed, player cops will try to catch them. And during the race, players not involved in any of it will become entangled in the pursuit. It’s a fantastically chaotic thing watching two ad hoc teams collide in the middle of a snow-laden highway, smashing between walls and cars and destroying every fence in sight.

Need for Speed: Rivals

It’s all supported by stellar control. The cars handle just as you would hope, which is to say absolutely geared towards moving fast and moving forward with just enough control to let you dodge traffic, narrowly avoid traps, and pull off huge arcing drifts. Actually playing the game is a phenomenal experience, but the series has handled superbly for the past few games, to expect otherwise would be nuts.

And that’s all wrapped with a beautiful bow on top. The graphics on the PlayStation 4 version are not necessarily mind-blowing but they certainly are refined to the point of being impressive. The Frostbite Engine continues to prove its robustness at rendering floating leaves and faraway vistas. Plus, the thumping, driving house/electro beats kind make you want to drive fast anyways and slink back in your seat as you only feel the world fly past you.

But none of that fixes the problem of isolation. The underlying framework to Need for Speed: Rivals is a blast. But the core conceit of being in an online open world full of other players, racers and cops willing to both help and hinder you, is broken. Six players and no systemic impetus for interaction is not enough to make the game feel anything more than a notch above lifeless even though so much of it is just waiting to bust free.

Need for Speed: Rivals

+ Looks great, sounds great, and handles like a dream
+ When the game works, it works wonderfully
+ Being a racer is exciting and is a constant roll of the dice
– Being a cop is a rather droll, repetitive experience
– The game rarely fulfills its promise in any meaningful way
– A story full of bad writing and insane premises

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Need for Speed: Rivals
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Arcade racer
Developer: Ghost Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Players: single-player offline, six players online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.needforspeed.com/

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: Hot Stuff

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Despite its many flaws, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire comes together to become quite the nice little package. There are so many things built into the narrative and the production that are poised to foil many of the best efforts of fantastic actors and amazing screenwriters, but the second in the book-to-film franchise pulls off many of its ambitions with deft moves.

In the follow-up to the 2012 big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games, we track the continuing story of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark as they return from the 74th Hunger Games as victors despite some foul play and bending of the rules. Their relationship remains ill-defined as Liam Hemsworth’s chiseled Gale Hawthorne back home in District 12 lingers about as her townie beau.

Mentor and past victor Haymitch Abernathy drunkenly lives about between Katniss and Peeta’s upgraded homes, all of them awaiting the upcoming tours, a regular event where victors boast the virtues of the Capitol. That is until President Coriolanus Snow comes by demanding that Katniss set things right by being his puppet.

As you can probably guess by the trailers, things don’t go very well and the pair end up in the 75th Hunger Games despite already surviving their systematic crucible the first time around. This was my primary concern, having not read the books or remembering much of the first movie, that the reason they get dragged back into the arena would be heavily contrived. Were they not entitled to a life free from questionable morals and sharp arrows?

It seems that either books author Suzanne Collins or screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (with his impressive résumé of Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Michael Arndt (with a similarly astounding background of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3) took that into account and one of the first moments of the movie spends upwards of seven minutes explaining the reason this tension between Snow and Katniss exists, and then again later in the movie to layout why it’s justified they have to fight once more.

The thing is, though, that it sets up more than it waves away and it all most pays off handsomely. Catching Fire is a thematically interesting movie even though it may not be all that consistent (which we’ll get to in a second). It primarily addresses the conflict of authority versus independence—of oppression against free will—and it does so fantastically. Every time Katniss and Snow butt heads, we are reminded exactly of the feeling we get when we are turned down, dismissively brushed aside with a silent and implicit non-reason of “because I said so.”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

And then when we see crisis hit home and beyond, we are forced to think on the meta narrative of self versus community, a theme that plays both with and against the one of fighting a system. It’s a cognitive opposition that introduces wrinkles into our head while adding drama to the story, pulling double duty without throwing in unnecessary complications. And of course we have the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, which manages to get between delivered love, earned love, and sacrificial love rather handily.

The problem is that most of this drama is front-loaded. It’s a structure that works rather well for a book; the narration can make a conversation as tense as a battle scene. But in a movie, it comes across as a hard swing from talking to killing. It’s so drastic while being expected that it feels unnatural and almost unwelcome, though the change of pace is quite nice. We get all the drama in the first hour and then a bunch of dead people in the second hour and twists in the final minutes. If not for the pedigree and talent of the screenwriters, I doubt it would have worked.

Topping off the pile of goodness is the acting. There are some real duds in there, of course (*cough*Lenny Kravitz*cough*), but there are some particular pairings that carrying substantial heft, some of which is surprising. Jennifer Lawrence is, as you would expect, stellar. There is a scene in an elevator with Peeta and Johanna Mason in which Lawrence manages to exude such an astounding range of facial expressions and emotions that you would think she was teaching a master class instead of acting a teen film adaptation.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

And when she pairs up with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, it is exemplary. They really know how to play off each other’s stacked-up character traits and make a scene (or even a quick glance) incredibly dramatic. More surprisingly is when Lawrence shares a scene with Hemsworth. He is able to convey strength alongside vulnerability with a handful of determination in an instant. And of course can you expect anything besides a great time with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson?

All of that great (and bad) acting, though, serves to distract from problems with the story. Or perhaps not problems, but things left unattended to that were most likely drawn out to satisfaction in the book. There’s a hard-ass Peacekeeper marshal that seemingly leaves just as quickly as he arrives to no other point or purpose than to gin up some sparks. And then the twist is only half alluded to throughout the movie while the rest is confusingly either too heavy-handed or too subtle to be proper foreshadowing. You can see the ending from a mile away, but you’re not sure why.

And this may be just a personal quibble, but the production design of the film is still terrible. It feels like the baseline or first draft interpretation of Bizarro world opulence and poverty. Oh, poor people? Let’s just put them in denim that is mysteriously pristine. Oh, rich people? Let’s make them wear colorful, gaudy garb that looks like it was made specifically for a movie. It all feels so far from authentic that wax-covered posters at Madame Tussauds would be more convincing. There were also moments when you could tell someone’s reach exceeded his grasp as ambitious shots came across as cloying.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’m not a fan of The Hunger Games. I barely could remember what that three-finger salute was that people were getting beaten over meant. But I do think The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a good film. Its singular problems are great and obvious, and yet its gestalt comes together to be something worthwhile. If it can make a casual observer lean in, anticipating dramatic payoff, and a diehard fan to my left cry somewhere around four to six times, then this movie is definitely doing something right.

+ Many of the leads produce some fantastic performances
+ Carries a thematic complexity that was largely unexpected but very welcome
+ Payoff trumps contrivances to a satisfactory conclusion/cliffhanger
– The unorthodox, bifurcated structure is also a weak one
– Production design feels disingenuous and ham-fisted

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Trying Too Hard

Trying Too Hard

Aaaaand it’s here. Do you feel it? We’re in the next generation. Or the current generation now, I guess. Today saw the retail release of the Xbox One for most of the world, a week after the release of the PlayStation 4 and a year after the release of the Wii U. Over the past seven or so days, though, a theme has emerged in these launch titles.

There’s a sneaking suspicion that starts to bubble up while you watch trailers and hands-off demos, but years of training yourself to not trust marketing shenanigans has ingrained a deep sense of cynicism with such footage. Remember when the term “bullshot” was all the rage? It taught consumers a valuable lesson that journalists have to deal with on a daily basis.

Then you play the games and there is confirmation. Why is there so much trash everywhere? Did someone turn on a fan? Everyone’s hair is flowing like a god damn L’Oreal commercial directed by Fabio. It feels a bit childish. It feels disingenuous. It feels like they’re trying too hard.

Killzone: Shadow Fall

That’s probably because they are trying just a smidge too much. If you look at Killzone: Shadow Fall, it’s easy to see a beautiful game, even more than its stunning predecessor. The colors are varied and vibrant, skewed to a level of alien saturation that feels both inviting and uneasy. But then it spends the first 20 minutes cramming your camera into the face of dude after dude.

We get it, okay, you have more memory. Check out this killer textures! Aliasing? What aliasing! And look into this man’s eyes. Doesn’t it remind you of the first time you heard Jeff Buckley sing “Hallelujah“? (Maybe Leonard Cohen if you’re older.) Oh wait, now look at this dude’s eyes. KEEP LOOKING AT ALL OF THESE IMMACULATELY RENDERED EYEBALLS.

Then there’s the issue of trash. Not to say any of these launch games are garbage, but there sure is a lot of debris floating around in them. Shadow Fall has it bad, as evidenced in the opening scene with the inciting explosion, so that’s somewhat justified. Battlefield 4 has birds out the wazoo, but we’ll allow it since they’re at least outside when they’re flying.

Need for Speed: Rivals

Need for Speed: Rivals has leaves blowing across every single street, but at least there are trees. No wait, those are evergreen. The leaves don’t even match the trees. Okay, this is getting out of hand. Now these developers are really just showing off.

But we can’t really blame them. They’ve had to deal with the limitations of devices hamstrung by technology eight years old at this point while developing for the PC has been a rapidly growing and educational experience. Now they are off the chain, let loose to put in as many dynamic lights and particle effects as their hearts desire.

There are thousands of light-generating and light-affecting particles in the air, something you wouldn’t have seen in the last generation. They are all independent actors in a physics-bound representation of the world, not statically animated sprites pouring out of a point generator. And reflections? Oh, don’t get them started.

Battlefield 4

It’s hard to blame them wanting to show off all these new toys that they’ve been teased since high end PC hardware hit commodity prices, justifying the time and money they spent on making these graphical fantasies a reality. And these games are beautiful. Battlefield 4 and Shadow Fall look just stellar.

But it doesn’t stop it all from feeling like a kid running back and forth from his room and the living room to show you his latest toy. This one has karate chop action and this one has an attachable cannon arm and this one got a law degree from Harvard despite a rough upbringing. And we notice. As a consumer, it’s hard to ignore something so obvious.

That is, to a degree, the purpose of launch games, though. All those floating rubber ducks on the PlayStation 3? Showing off. The insanely fluttering hair of every single god damn character in Ryse: Son of Rome? Flaunting it. That doesn’t make it any less tiring, though. American photographer Alfred Stieglitz said, “There is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” I guess that one didn’t take.

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In the Periphery

In the Periphery

One more day. One more day and we’ll be fully entrenched in the next generation of video game consoles as Microsoft’s Xbox One comes out, following a week of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and over a year of Nintendo’s Wii U. All three come after the longest console cycle since forever.

Or at least it feels like forever. It’s been eight years since the release of the Xbox 360. Before that, it was seven years, and before that, it was a paltry four years. And each one of those was largely defined by consoles doubling processing capabilities with Nintendo going so far as naming the Nintendo 64 after its CPU word size.

Since then, that little number stopped mattering as much. Not only because as computing power started to factor in parallelism and multiple cores and GPUs and components that used to be considerations only of PC gamers, but also because many realized that didn’t make games egregiously better or worse. Consoles soon became defined by their heavy hitter franchises instead of bowing to the 8-bit or 16-bit era banners.

DualShock 4

That is a hard sell, though, when it comes to new hardware. Games are subjective and ever-changing but when you can pin an upgrade on a bigger number, new generations are easier to pitch to consumers. Controllers, of course, were a consistent solution. They’re a necessary component and they can always be improved from a visual, tangible perspective.

Nintendo, in a way, saw this and put their full stock behind the idea with the Wii. It was a hard swing and got a lot of attention by being so alarmingly different in an objective, fundamental way. The great thing then was that Nintendo backed it up with quality games like Wii Sports, Super Mario Galaxy, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Regardless of Nintendo’s varying success with its continuing tactic of drastic differentiation, it sparked something in Sony and Microsoft. Attaching something bombastic and, more importantly, physical to a console’s marketing works like gangbusters. This introduced the Kinect five years into the Xbox 360’s lifecycle and the Move only one week prior for the PlayStation 3.

Kinect

One of those succeeded and has since lingered with the new generation in the Xbox One with an upgraded Kinect. Sony ditched the Move, kept motion controls in the controller, and aped a great deal of functionality from the Kinect with a new PlayStation Camera. Most impressively, these contribute some of the most meaningful upgrades to the consoles.

The new Kinect functions wonderfully as an input for both audio and visual needs (e.g. Skype, game chat, etc.) but also innovates by enabling battery-saving tactics. The system will track when you set down the controller and then put it in a low power state, so even though there isn’t a rechargeable battery pack option for the new Xbox One controllers, a single pair of AA batteries will last over a week of nonstop gaming.

The PlayStation Camera is a generation behind the Kinect and similarly a generation behind capabilities, but does enable facial recognition log in, albeit at a pace slower than pressing buttons on a controller. But at least now Sony gamers have an excuse to yell at their consoles, too. For the PlayStation 4, much more lies within the controller.

PlayStation Camera

The DualShock 4 is a much better design than the DualShock 3, an iteration on the long-standing design that was the pinnacle of controllers before the Xbox 360’s game pad, as it no longer hurts to hold one for more than 30 minutes at a time. But it also contains a small speaker, for which a very compelling argument was made with Resogun. This means the controller itself has audio processing capabilities, something Sony has tapped into by allowing all system audio to go through a headphone jack in the DualShock 4. Both of these are small but extremely useful and substantial additions.

Speaking of controllers, consider that the Xbox One’s controllers now have localized rumble in each of its triggers. Even in this rather mediocre launch lineup, this strange development has added a new layer of physical feedback to games. At such a nascent stage, the potential is already noticeably high, almost inspiring the same aspirations as when rumble was still relegated to a detached plug-in pack.

These mostly seem like minute, throwaway additions. Who cares if your triggers rumble? Who gives a flip if there’s a camera saving your controller’s battery? The answer should be everybody when you consider that games, for the most part, are hitting an all-time high of cross platform accessibility. Look at your launch titles: Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Need for Speed: Rivals, etc.

Xbox One Reveal

And now services are reaching parity as well with subscription-based freebies and multiplayer, robust digital storefronts, and so on. That or the things we were promised aren’t as grand as they were originally pitched. Or they simply don’t exist yet. Streaming? Cloud-based gaming? There’s either going to be a lot of apologies or a lot of patches coming in the next few months.

It’s becoming apparent that the war, as it were, is going to be won with these tiny details. All these minuscule innovations are going to add up and eventually we’ll see something totaling up into a giant step forward. It’s no longer about a single number or some drastic, waggling swing for the motion control fences. It’s about the details. After all, what’s left but details?

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Resogun Review: Fire Away

Resogun

What works so well about Resogun is that it doesn’t hold anything back. It doesn’t care if you think it’s just like Defender (which it is), it doesn’t care that levels end with a display of technical prowess and showmanship (so many voxels), and it definitely doesn’t care that it just gave you a bomb half a second after you really could have used one (that seems a lot like you’re fault). It just cares that you’re doing your damnedest to save the last humans.

Resogun is the latest from Finnish developer Housemarque, a studio you may remember from Super Stardust HD. Nary a year into Sony’s last console launch with the PlayStation 3, Housemarque made quite the splash with the old school Asteroids/Robotron mashup, going from developing for N-Gage and Gizmondo to making Dead Nation and Outland. They seem to have found their niche as they continue the trend of success with another retro-design space shooter.

In it, you play as one of several space fighter ships, scrolling left and right as you attempt to rescue the last humans from the grasps of the Sentients. The structure is most obviously inspired by Defender, but the twist is that the humans are locked up and have to be freed by defeating green glowing enemies called Keepers. Once you do that, you have to go track them down before they’re killed or abducted.

It’s a fantastic wrinkle to a framework we’re all familiar with for many reasons, namely because it all coincides with a bullet hell slant. There are a lot—like a lot—of enemies coming at you, some of which fire bullets while others move insanely fast unless you bust them up with a few shots and these really annoying ones that set up laser barriers that you have to destroy before you can pass.

So in the middle of simply trying to survive, you have to also pay attention to when the speaker in your controller calls out that Keepers are coming because if you don’t track them down and kill them, you lose that human. You can see a green orb fly out of their alien corpses to the free human, or you can follow the arrow coming out of your ship. And if you miss both of those cues, you can look at the counter (there are 10 humans per level) to see the status of each hostage: dead, alive, freed, dead from failure to rescue, rescued, dead from dying, etc.

If that sounds like a lot of information, that’s because it is. You also have to keep tabs on whether or not your overdrive is powered up (necessary for finishing the harder difficulties as it is insanely powerful, slightly freezing time and firing a giant Fuck You laser) and how many bombs you have left and if you have any shields left and and and.

Resogun

And that’s part of the beauty of Resogun. It really doesn’t hold anything back, but it does it fairly. It gives you all the information you could ever need at any point such as how many lives you have left or if you just earned a bomb or where a human is. It’s up to you to keep track of it all or check on it at your own risk because hey, guess what, there are more bad guys coming your way.

It never feels overwhelming, though. It feels precisely as tense as it needs to be without forcing you to rip a controller in half after every death. Much like any bullet hell game, there’s always a way out. It’s just up to you to have the dexterity and reflexes and awareness to know where that exit is. Whether it’s a bomb or a boost or just deft maneuvering, it’s up to you to know what to do and when and where.

Part of that is the level design. They vary in content, but the overall structure is always the same, which is a cylindrical 2D plane. At any given moment, you can glance off into the background to see what is coming around the endless bend. It lends the game a very gladiatorial feel, being locked up in a pit with these heathens. You’re made to lose but you’re determined to come out on top.

Resogun

This has to be one of the most empowering games I’ve ever played. One hit and you’re dead, but your mobility, your powers, and your foresight all enable you to be better than these droves of enemies. In any given moment, you are tracking and modeling in your mind at least half a dozen of possible outcomes. They’re closing in, you’re out of bombs, and you don’t have overdrive.

Your only hope is to boost free, grab the human, throw him into the goal, and slug it out in the open. Just like Resogun, you have to be relentless. It’s taxing and calming and punishing and rewarding all at the same time. This is a game that you should most definitely play, and given that it’s a PlayStation 4 exclusive free with PlayStation Plus and all new consoles come with 30 free days of Plus, you have no excuse to waste your entire night playing Resogun.

+ Looks gorgeous and sounds amazing
+ Makes the speaker in the controller a great idea instead of a dumb addition
+ An unbelievably well-crafted blend of familiar designs into something new and exciting
+ Nothing has been as rewarding this year as throwing a human into a goal and boosting away to rescue another

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Resogun

Game Review: Resogun
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Side-scrolling shoot ’em up
Developer: Housemarque
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4
Players: single-player offline, two players online
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.resogun.com/

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Contrast Review: Just a Shadow

Contrast

It’s appropriate that Contrast deals with shadows. As light falls upon a floor and casts shapes on the ground, you understand that these objects are really just a single face of something else: a box, a lamp, or a person. And just like that, the game itself features many single attributes that could make something great. Contrast, however, never quite comes together in the way you’d hope.

Contrast is the first release from Montreal-based Compulsion Games. It tells the story of a little girl named Didi and her invisible friend Dawn, a slinky acrobatic woman, as they explore via puzzle-solving and platform-jumping the mysteriously broken world of a 1920s Europe. Or maybe it’s a 1930s US. It’s really hard to tell.

It’s hard to tell a lot of things about the games story, actually, but not in any meaningful or interesting way. The noir setting is visually beautiful with an almost ethereal bloom that highlights the otherworldly art deco design. If we lived in a world of floating detached streets and shadow people, this is how I would want it to look.

All of which should be in service of both the story and the gameplay, and it almost fails on both fronts. The story starts with two sizable scoops of mystery. How can Didi see Dawn but no one else can? What does her mom know about her father’s disappearance that she isn’t telling us? Where does Dawn go when she isn’t with Didi? It’s a great invitation for exploration with Didi being a peppy and lovable leader for the expedition.

We eventually get the answer to one of those as the action and puzzle bits are strung together with a story told through shadow people on exceedingly well lit walls. The story then falls down a hole of family dysfunction and mobsters and finding yourself, most of which is told through collectibles and moves in an engaging—if predictable—direction.

And then it ends. The ending feels as abrupt as if I were to en—

Contrast

Yeah, it felt a lot like that. It ends with a twist that we had no reason to suspect or even justify upon subsequent revisits, the worst qualities of a twist. It answers absolutely zero questions and opens an infinite number of cans of infinite worms.

The length contributes some problems to the gameplay as well. In the game, you play as Dawn, a silent but very capable woman with the ability to shift in and out of shadows. This allows her to run along other shadows as an almost alternate, 2D representation of the world.

The range of abilities that we gain is limited to picking up objects and dashing through smaller shadows, and that fuels intrigue for a solid hour or so of puzzle-solving. But it feels as though the game takes an extremely linear slant, a severe change from an opening bit when you have the choice to wander a carnival and go about your quest at your leisure.

Contrast

You’ll go a single direction, jump along a set path, and go on to the next part. Towards the end, there’s a platforming sequence that mirrors the rhythm of an earlier one where you watch a shadow performance on a wall as you try to clamber up their sloping arms and backs. As you hit each intermediary point, the scene progresses. It feels like a minor bump above a quick-time event.

This highlights two problems: 1) much of the solving process feels repetitive, almost brute forcing your way from going on direction, realizing you can’t go further, and then turning back or shifting into a shadow; and 2) the game is rather buggy. Nothing is ever broken, but no less than a dozen times per act I would find myself floating on geometry, assuming a strangely Vitruvian Man-esque pose. All you have to do is dash and you’ll break free, but it’s an odd and extremely consistent quirk.

And trying to climb up shadows that you can dynamically set yourself is a nightmare. Some slopes you think would be too steep, but you walk up them as easily as if you were covered in glue. Other times, you have to Skyrim bunny hop your way up a nearly flat expanse. It often feels like smashing your head against a locked door because oh wait it’s not a door it’s a wall someone forgot to put in a door.

Contrast

At a preview with the game back at PAX Prime, I solved a puzzle despite neglecting one of the key components of Dawn’s shadow-shifting abilities, and it was wonderful. With her full range of abilities, Contrast‘s puzzles felt a lot less inspired. There was such potential here: a deliciously jazzy world, a story told through shadows, and a mechanic that forces your mind to blend 2D and 3D perspectives.

And it never quite gets there. Contrast gathers all the parts and puts together a piece that is too simple and too short to fully explore its own framework. The challenge in platforming is figuring out what it and isn’t acceptable and never tests your dexterity and the puzzles only force you to determine which paths are open and which are closed. Neither Dawn nor Didi’s stories seem complete (Dawn, in particular, amounts to little more than a forklift). Contrast casts a fascinating, beautiful shadow, but its constituent parts never hit that same level.

+ The jazzy noir world is delectable and ethereal in a way that provokes a lot of intrinsic questions
+ Didi’s story has some great layers, even if the dovetail is somewhat predictable
+ Shifting between shadows forces your brain to track a fantastic mix of 2D and 3D mental models
– Much of the platforming feels frustrating, bordering on being what could be considered broken
– The puzzles become mind-numbingly linear, testing the bounds of what is a “puzzle”
– You get shortchanged on the questions/answers ratio and it is more bewildering than Dawn’s existence

Contrast

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: Contrast
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Third-person puzzle platformer
Developer: Compulsion Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PC
Players: single-player
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.contrast-thegame.com/

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PlayStation 4 Launch Event Recap: Uncharted, The Last of Us, and More

PlayStation 4 Launch Event Recap: Uncharted, The Last of Us, and More

How was your night last night? Go out anywhere? Maybe stand in a big line and get a $400 piece of technology? I didn’t, but I did go check out a couple of midnight launches of the PlayStation 4. For one of the biggest metroplexes in the country, Dallas didn’t really have anything crazy to offer, although a couple of dudes offered me some queso, so there’s that.

UPDATE: just kidding. Apparently I missed Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant buying five lucky line-standers their PlayStation 4s.

Of course, it (and whatever was happening at your closest GameStop) didn’t compare to Sony’s big launch event in New York. It was just a big ol’ celebration for Sony’s step into the next generation, but they still decided to throw some news in there. Geoff Keighley even asked about The Last Guardian! (We’ll get to that in a second.)

New Uncharted for PS4

In perhaps the teaseriest tease of all teases, we see nothing more about the upcoming Uncharted for the PlayStation 4 except that 1) it exists, and 2) it has betrayal. Oh, also, I guess that is has a super high resolution logo?

At least it tells us what Naughty Dog has been up to since putting out Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and The Last of Us. And over on the PlayStation Blog, it has been confirmed that creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond are both attached to the rather green project and that Todd Stashwick of Heroes fame provides the excellent voiceover.

The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC

Speaking of Naughty Dog, we see them release their first single-player DLC with Left Behind. The teaser is short and poised for a lot of emotional drama as the franchise is wont to do: Ellie and Riley Abel, her school chum from the Quarantine Zone, happen across a carousel.

Like, nothing happy can come from that, right? But it will hopefully at least be a fantastically sad. It’s based somewhat on the Dark Horse comics The Last of Us: American Dreams (which are pretty great) where it shows Ellie and Riley meeting, but this is Ellie telling Joel what happens after that.

Don’t worry, I’ll bring the tissues. Look for it in early 2014 for $14.99.

Destiny Beta

Along with the above trailer, Bungie COO Pete Parsons (what a comic book superhero name) announced that the beta for their upcoming online first-person shooter Destiny would be coming first to the PlayStation 4.

“We’re going to give first access to the PlayStation nation, PS4 and PS3 owners,” he said. If you want to get in on it, you’ll have to have preordered before October 1st, though I’m sure there will be other avenues available as it creeps closer.

Classic Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

I guess not everything old made it out when the new stepped in. In a confusingly nostalgic move, Konami will be including Classic Snake as a skin in the Sony-exclusive mission “Déjà Vu” for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. So yay next-gen graphics? Whatever, as long as I get to choke dudes.

Dammit

Geoff Keighley asked Sony’s Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida and Vice President of Publisher Relations Adam Boyes about Team Ico’s mysteriously missing The Last Guardian. God dammit. JUST GIVE IT TO ME.

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Thor: The Dark World Review: Mercurial Motions

Thor: The Dark World

You feel like you’re being hustled, but for no particular reason. This story, this presentation, is going just fine, and yet they’re moving through it with the speed and determination of a Global Guts contender. Just what, exactly, are they trying to hide? Nothing is spectacularly wrong. Just take it easy.

This is an awful lot what it’s like watching Thor: The Dark World, the Asgardian entry into the second phase of Marvel’s motion picture universe. Nothing is egregiously broken about it while nothing similarly stands above it all, and yet it feels like director Alan Taylor is trying to push us along before we see the cracks in the wall.

The strangest part of it is that it doesn’t quite feel necessary, perhaps because the film pulls of the ruse so well, or at least inoffensively. Its greatest strength just might be that it moves at such an incredible clip, cooking along like someone ordered enough Hot Pockets for the whole of Connecticut.

It tells the continuing story of Thor, god of Thunder and recent contributor to The Avengers’ victory in New York against Loki and Chitauri. This time, a Dark Elf foe named Malekith has awoken from his eons of slumber after a failed attempt to destroy the nine realms during the last Convergence event (when the whole universe is in alignment). Foiled by Thor’s grandfather Bor, Malekith’s impossibly powerful weapon called the Aether is taken and hidden.

To the world, the Dark Elves fell that day for good and the Aether, a flowing black and red fluid, was destroyed. Malekith, however, sacrificed nearly his entire army and race to guarantee his survival and stowed away until his time to strike, preferably just in time to get the Aether and use it at the next Convergence.

This is a story that concerns the entirety of human, Asgardian, and all existence. Should Malekith succeed, nearly all life will be extinguished and the worlds restored to its original, ill-defined form. And yet it doesn’t feel like that. This feels infinitely more inconsequential than, say, the first Captain America film, which really only concerned itself with the destruction of a few countries. (Having the gravitas of the Captain America: The Winter Soldier trailer precede the film doesn’t help things either.)

Thor: The Dark World

It’s because the film moves deftly between failings while conveying to you the minimal amount of story, which sounds bad but actually works well for Thor. The biggest problem with the first film—of which I was a fan, so take that as you will—was the clash of the fantastical with the real. Consider the rest of the Marvel universe that we’ve seen: a high school photographer turned hero, a shrimpy zealot wins a war, and a drunken billionaire playboy genius breaks science. Given their relative proximity to reality, where does a Norse demigod fit in?

Glossing over that and many other problems, though, doesn’t necessary resolve those issues but it certainly alleviates it. The film opens with exposition, but quickly jumps into action. And then we are met with humor and mystery. And before we tired of that, we are shuttled off to a scene of fighting and comic book quips. Before anything has time to bore us, we are availed with something we hadn’t seen since two tonal shifts ago.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t genuine strengths to the movie. Chris Hemsworth as the exceedingly muscular god of thunder is as charming as ever, convincing you that were you to ever befall tragedy, he should be the one you bring you out. Kat Dennings finally finds her footing (or, more like it, is given the opportunity) as the comedic relief.

Thor: The Dark World

Tom Hiddleston, however, is once again the standout. His portrayal of Loki is, without a doubt, exceptional. He is equal parts psychotic and vulnerable, conveying to you in a single moment—a single glance at the camera—that he is hurt beyond all reproach and is justified in his actions and motivations, though we know better. His menace is only matched by his broken heart, providing perhaps the only viable foil for the stoic Thor.

Combining the smile-inducing Hemsworth and the terrifyingly endearing Hiddleston, we are given a sibling relationship we can believe in, in spite of the often overly simplistic and clumsy dialogue. Anthony Hopkins even overcomes the desire to overact overwrought lines and a dramatic character by giving us a grounded Odin.

It’s strange that Natalie Portman, a highlight of the first film, is the least empathetic component in this sequel as Jane Foster. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith doesn’t fair much better, though that may be because he isn’t given much more to work with beyond staring into space and clenching his Dark Elf jaw.

Thor: The Dark World

If you have any desire to see the film in 3D (via post-production), all I have to say is that it didn’t hurt the experience. After watching it once in both in tertiary and binary dimensions, the only time the third dimension stuck out was during an assault sequence in the middle and the highly digitized ending sequence. While impressive, the cost doesn’t necessarily seem justified.

The look of the movie, however, is overall fantastic. The flagrant display of mythological influence is still there when Asgard is on display, but the earthly portion of the film is so much more grounded than before. Seeing Thor and Malekith tumble about the UK doesn’t look like a poor Photoshop job at all this time around, the color palette much tamer and connected to a less sprightly palette. It makes it much easier to swallow the pill of a god walking around our planet.

I really meant it when nothing is spectacularly broken with this sequel. It is, without reservation, a fine film, but it does so at the expense of saying or showing anything substantial. By moving between keyframes with a single and short-lived tweening motion, it stops you from realizing that it stops short of highlighting the gravity of a universal destruction or the failure of an imprecise and meandering script or any number of commensurate problems.

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World is a solid movie, but it’s not a great one. It’s a good thing, then, that it pushes you ahead to the next bit before you realize what’s wrong with the current one.

+ Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston seems to be born for their roles
+ It knows when to move on before it wears out its welcome
+ The aesthetic of the film finally fits its otherworldly and earthly components
– Weak writing fails to convey the severity of Malekith’s plan
– Glosses over several interesting or important plot points for the sake of pace

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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In and Out of the Infinite

In and Out of the Infinite

Spoiler alert: this concerns the first episode of the Burial at Sea DLC for BioShock Infinite. Not only is it necessary to have gone through the main story of BioShock Infinite to play Burial at Sea, it’s also necessary for this discussion and most criticism to take place. So go play it if you haven’t, or resign yourself to ruining one of the better twists video games has to offer.

BioShock Infinite was a strange game in so many ways. Its designs were as grand as its story and eventual ending, but its execution often felt little. Every arena in which you did battle was expansive and often spread out over several floating buildings in eerily majestic but obviously broken Columbia, but they were also just that: battle arenas. Those had gone the way of Unreal Tournament and the like but Irrational Games saw fit to bring them back and flood them with high resolution enemies.

The plot similarly felt self-opposed. At every turn, it seemed determined to make it a selfishly small tale concerning multiple universes and multiple selves when the questions inspired by the woven mesh of timelines and possibilities lends itself to a broad and encompassing tale. Of course, the ending (and the heart) makes it all worth it, filling your subconscious with thoughts on nihilism until days later you just go “…WHOA” while you’re eating your cereal, but it is thematically inconsistent even in the context of the twist.

BioShock Infinite

The experience of actually playing the game to get through the story, though, is rather important. The duress pressed upon you as you try to sort out the mystery of untimely nosebleeds and strangely affable twins appearing out of thing air is part of the revelation at the end: all that effort doesn’t matter. You are a single thread, a strand already pulled and unraveled to its end, as an infinite number of similar threads also come loose.

It makes the lesson stick, the notion that you are the both the beginning and ending to an entire story, but you are still nothing more than a lone, indecipherable component to the whole of the universe. Your actions mean so much to you, but on the grand scale, you are inconsequential. (Also, deal with it.)

This is part of the greatest strength and weakness of the Burial at Sea DLC. In it, you play once again as Booker DeWitt, except now you are a private investigator in the underwater utopia of Rapture. With a decidedly noir flair, a femme fatale’d version of Elizabeth comes into your office one day and asks for your help to find a girl named Sally.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1

The kicker, however, is that this is the Rapture before it falls. This inciting incident takes place on December 31, 1958, mere hours before the waterlogged city becomes the dark, hellish nightmare filled with Splicers and Big Daddies that you’re familiar with. And this is the first instance of Booker and Elizabeth meeting in this particular universe, so you get to see two familiar faces meet two different versions of each other.

It is haunting. It is chilling. Even more than walking through the unnerving, twisted, spotless introduction to Columbia at the beginning of BioShock Infinite, exploring Rapture before its self-determined destruction is disturbing. You recognize bits and pieces of a machine you only knew as a rusted and infested rotting at the bottom of the ocean. You know what awaits, and how terrible it is. Knowledge of the city’s history lends itself to overwhelming malaise and it’s just fantastic.

And just like the beginning of BioShock Infinite, it is beautiful and perhaps the best part of the entire game. Exploring this new world and unearthing the answers and accompanying questions are what made that prologue so great. (Gone Home, an absolutely stellar piece of digital entertainment, was all about this process and managed to tell a simultaneously heartbreaking and fulfilling tale of growing up and learning.)

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1

The difference here, though, is that we’ve already gone through the ending of the main game as we play through this DLC. We know the surprise at the end, the ultimate truth to our existence in this reality of parallel lives and intersecting existences: it’s all moot.

Nothing we do matters. Or rather, everything we do is predetermined, every choice a variable in an infinitely expanding table of calculated inputs and outputs. At every junction of existence, a permutation exists where you go down a different path. Instead of scrambling your eggs, you fry them. Instead of Booker agreeing to help Elizabeth, he declines. Our experience with BioShock Infinite makes the nature of stories (that is predetermined) all too apparent.

It all lends a fruitless air to the short but taut three-hour downloadable piece of gaming. Curiosity pushes us to see exactly how each pillar of Rapture crumbles into the manic abyss, but experience repels us from playing just another bit role in a script written long ago. It’s a terrible balance to play with, trying to make anything smaller than a universal truth unveiled just as compelling. But sometimes strength and weakness are the same thing.

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An Afternoon with Ouya Eight Months Later

An Afternoon with Ouya Eight Months Later

We’re four days away from the North American release of Sony’s PlayStation 4, so what better than to check in with the instigator of the next generation: the Ouya! Just kidding; it didn’t do that. It didn’t really do much of anything back then, to be honest.

The device itself is as it was eight months ago: bland. But Britton and I were curious as to what had changed on the digital shelves of the Ouya marketplace. The answer, it appears, is not much, the process of digging the console out of his closet more exciting than unearthing the tepid software treasures.

There are a few new titles, a bevy of system updates, and some unresolved issues involving full OS freezes, buggy controllers, and invincible anthropomorphic frogs. Join us!

It’s a super long video, so if you pop it open on YouTube, you’ll see a bunch of time-coded links in the description so you can jump between all the inanity at your leisure. Or just sit through nearly an hour of two dudes testing the bounds of friendly sadism. (Watch the last episode, too!)

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