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Horizon Zero Dawn Review – Hunting Bigger Game

After more than a decade of work on its flagship Killzone
series, the sci-fi stalwarts at Guerrilla Games have made the jump from the FPS
genre to the increasingly crowded open-world format. While the developer hews
closely to the formula established by staple series like Assassin's Creed and
Far Cry, Horizon forges its own path with a grand sci-fi tale and smart,
challenging combat.

Horizon presents gamers with a classic hero's journey,
albeit with a lot more robot dinosaurs. Young protagonist Aloy is consumed with
unraveling the mysteries surrounding her birth, which led to her being an
outcast of the matriarchal Nora tribe. This quest for knowledge intertwines with
figuring out the state of their post-apocalyptic world, and the increasingly
violent machines that inhabit it. Where did these beasts come from, and what
happened to the ruined civilization that created them? Discovering the answers
takes Aloy to every corner of the harsh and primitive world.

Just when you've mastered the basics, Horizon's massive
world opens up. Aloy's first journey out west provides a remarkable sense of
discovery; the new desert landscape is teeming with different, deadlier
machines, along with new settlements to explore and beautiful vistas to behold.
Horizon's mysteries really sink their teeth in here; while it may lack the
power and meaningful choices of narrative-driven series like The Witcher and
Mass Effect, Guerrilla has crafted compelling lore for its post-apocalyptic
world. Unlike most open-world games, I looked forward to finding new audio logs
and emails that detail the old world's collapse, and the modern-day conflicts
between the isolationist Nora tribe, sun-worshipping Carja, and combative
Oseram give Aloy's quest more meaning and complexity. Most importantly, Horizon
isn't afraid to delve deep into heady sci-fi topics, and the myriad mysteries
it sets up are all answered in a marathon of revelations and explanations
toward the end of the game. Despite its flaws and foibles, Horizon's story
unexpectedly became one of the major driving forces of the game for me.

In fact, my only major complaint about Horizon is how
closely it clings to the established and increasingly tedious formula of
open-world games. Guerrilla has excelled at crafting a gigantic and gorgeous
world, but the activities that populate it feel all too familiar. You clear out
bandit camps, hunt animals for inventory upgrades, and track down various
collectibles that clutter your map. Every trip you undertake is disrupted by
the urge to collect more crafting items (your primary source of ammo), and
every exciting skirmish ends with the unexciting and ritualistic looting of
enemy corpses. This necessary scrounging periodically pumped the brakes on my
enthusiasm, but the story missions and action provide enough fuel to keep
things moving.

Thankfully, the story-based missions make up the bulk of
Horizon's adventure, and are spread across three tiers of importance: main
quests that reveal more secrets from Aloy's past and the precursor
civilization, side quests that follow up on narrative events and flesh out
Horizon's secondary characters, and errands that Aloy can complete for other
acquaintances. I was pleasantly surprised by all three tiers; the main and
secondary missions especially do a great job of detailing the world and
providing variety to the gameplay, whether you're sneaking through herds of patrolling
enemies, or making a mad dash through massive man-versus-machine battles. Even
simple errands present enough interesting twists and turns that I felt inspired
to complete them – if not for the story content, then for the sizable XP
rewards.

The mundane hunt for collectibles is also spiced up by
Horizon's engaging combat. Stalking through bandit camps and silently scoring
headshots is standard-yet-satisfying fare, but Horizon's robot dinosaurs really
steal the show. Each of the 25 different species of synthetic beast features
its own behaviors, attacks, and mechanical components that can be harvested or
exploited during the thick of combat. Every species demands a cautious and
thoughtful approach; even the weakest Watcher is capable of blinding you and
calling in deadlier allies at a moment's notice. Taking on a bigger foe like
the towering Thunderjaw feels like a full-fledged boss battle and requires
multistage strategies like chipping off armor to expose weak points for extra
damage, laying out traps to aid a hasty retreat, and tearing off powerful
weapons to use against your enemy. Unlocking new skills and customizing your
weapons with various mods helps even the odds, but you still have to think
through every encounter, and Horizon is better for it.

I picked up a few other minor gripes along Aloy's lengthy journey,
from a sketchy map system that is often more trouble than it's worth, to
annoying NPCs that look like roadies for a post-apocalyptic grunge band. Aloy
herself can be a real wet blanket sometimes, complaining about everything from
the weather to her boots being wet. Like the need to scrounge for crafting
items, these problems are small bumps that are easily forgiven and forgotten on
Horizon's long and winding road.

None of Horizon's faults stopped me from sinking 55 hours
into the game, or walking away supremely satisfied with the experience. Horizon
may not be a revolution for the open-world genre, but it is a highly polished
and compelling adventure that proves Guerrilla is more than a single franchise.

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For Honor Review – Battle-Scarred But Victorious

A horn sounds in the distance, signaling that our army is at its breaking point. I look down at the grassy field from the relative safety of a crumbling wall. One of my comrades is clashing with a knight, doing his best to block the unrelenting swings of his opponent’s morning star. Two of the knight’s allies come, and it’s three against one. I could run down and help, but even then we’d be outnumbered. Instead, I call in a volley of arrows. The projectiles rain down on our enemies, slaughtering them in seconds. Our ragged forces regroup, and we manage to narrowly pull a victory from what seemed like an inevitable loss. At its best, For Honor lets you live out the fantasies you had as a kid, where every stick was a blade and your backyard was a roiling battleground waiting for your swordsmanship to save the day.

For Honor’s setup is either supremely strange or just plain stupid: The best warriors from three different factions – knights, samurai, and vikings – have been pulled into a realm of war, where they continue to fight for 1,000 years. A campaign attempts to make sense of it all, but ultimately it’s an excuse to get a dozen heroes from various cultures together so they can fight to the death. I couldn’t say with any confidence what exactly is ultimately going on in For Honor’s story, aside from the fact that these guys like to fight.

The combat system is easily the highlight, working as a solid foundation for the rest of the diverse modes. It’s a 3D action/fighting hybrid that slashes its own unique path; the warriors have a variety of different weapons, including poison-tipped spears, battleaxes, and katana, but the fundamentals are the same regardless. Your hero can hold his or her weapon in three directional positions, for either attacking or defending. Switching positions is as simple as locking onto your opponent and moving the right analog stick. Add in feints, parries, block-breakers, and unique movesets, and you have a robust melee toolset.

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Battles are methodical and thoughtful. Button-mashers quickly run out of stamina, leaving them vulnerable. A refreshing amount of tension comes at the start of battle, and I loved how often the initial moments of contact would consist of me and my opponent circling one another while switching stances, looking for weaknesses and openings. This kind of psychological engagement is at its best in one-on-one duels or two-on-two brawls, where you’re able to focus your attention and get into your opponent’s head – and hopefully remove it. 

Things are more frantic in the Dominion mode, where two teams of four earn points by taking and controlling three points on a large map. Double- or triple-teaming the enemy is commonplace there, but For Honor helps even the odds by making it easier to block attacks coming from several directions and also allowing the outnumbered party to quickly fill a revenge meter. Once activated, it can knock attackers down, providing a chance for retribution or escape. Being able to endure such an onslaught, and even overcome it, is intensely satisfying, and one of my favorite things about For Honor.

Even though characters share the basics, don’t expect to jump between them at ease. You need to learn each hero’s range, chain attacks, and various feats if you want to be effective. As silly as the story is, it does a great job letting you try out several of the different classes to see which ones best fit your playstyle. Early on, I gravitated toward the Viking Warchief, but I found his limited stamina to be a problem (even after equipping items that boosted the stat). Once I started playing as the Samurai Kensei, however, I flourished. 

As you play more with the characters, you level them up and get better gear. Thankfully, their associated stat boosts don’t matter in the skill-based duels and brawls, but they can make a difference in some of the other modes. You can earn them via random drops or buy blind bundles of gear using the in-game currency, steel, which is earned in matches and daily missions. Earning steel through matches alone is a slow process, with a typical Dominion battle earning about 40. You need 500 steel to open the best bundles, and even more to purchase additional taunts, costumes, or other cosmetic items. Most of this is purely optional, but it’s a little gross to see more than $ 200 of microtransaction content laid out the first week of the game’s release – including the ability to fast-track your way to character feats that would take dozens of hours to otherwise unlock, or to purchase a special account status that earns you additional loot and XP.

For Honor’s battles can be great, but you also have to contend with the online infrastructure. In its current state, I experienced frequent disconnects and other networking issues. Players would vanish before my eyes, and the action would stutter as it replaced the missing person with an admittedly competent bot. That this happens at all is disconcerting, and more so when the screen hitches as an enemy sword is swinging at your face. Sometimes these disconnects also shatter online parties, requiring you to send another wave of invites. Ubisoft has big plans for For Honor in the months ahead, with a faction-based metagame, evolving stages, and additional characters to join the war. Hopefully, addressing these technical issues is even higher on the list of priorities, because they undermine an otherwise memorable experience.   

When everything lines up, For Honor is a brutal and rewarding game that makes you feel like an unstoppable warrior. Sure, sometimes you get kicked off a bridge (again) or your head gets lopped off, but those failures make your battlefield successes even sweeter.

www.GameInformer.com – The Feed

Twitch Runs Down Its 2016 With ‘Year In Review’ Browser Game And Charity Milestones Infographic

Twitch debuted a fun "Year In Review" browser game today, which includes various statistics of the streaming giant's 2016 performance. Taking control of a car on a road trip, it's a thin diversion that doesn't take long to complete, but is filled with fascinating statistics such as a record highs for the number of  unique streamers at a whopping 2.2 million.

Some other interesting tidbits include a total of 292 billion minutes of streaming content watched, and crowning Overwatch as the most watched game of 2016. There are also fun easter eggs for gamers to keep their eyes out for, including a brief dig at the expense of No Man's Sky, and a "Press F to Pay Respects" joke. To play the browser game for yourself, head to Twitch's Year in Review page. It even tailors the experience to you if you log in with your Twitch account.

Twitch also revealed this infographic, which details some of the streaming services contributions to charity through events like Extra Life and Games Done Quick. The graphic shows an impressive $ 25.3 million raised for charity in 2016, a 48% increase over 2015's 17 million. You can see it down below:

 

[Source: Twitch]

 

Our Take
Those are some seriously impressive numbers for Twitch, and a fun little way for the streaming service to give those tidbits to fans. Also, it's always great to see so much money raised for charities, all in the name of a passionate community's love for gaming.

www.GameInformer.com – The Feed

Fire Emblem Heroes Review – The Bare Necessities

Fire Emblem Heroes marks the latest push from Nintendo in the mobile market, with the strategy series following in the footsteps of both Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. The mobile version of Fire Emblem still plays mostly like a version of Fire Emblem you’d load up on your 3DS, with a tile battlefield and a turn-based system. You pit your units against an opposing army, and the side left standing at the end wins. However, certain features from the modern series are missing here, and a pesky free-to-play mechanic puts a cap on your entertainment returns unless you’re willing to pay.

At first glance, Fire Emblem Heroes seems meaty. A surprisingly lengthy story campaign exists as a tutorial mode and an excuse for you to fight against fan-favorites from the series, like Chrom from Awakening and Takumi from Fates. It’s not well-written, even by Fire Emblem’s clunky standards, but it does its job well enough, getting you from battle to battle quickly and giving you a villain to go up against.

Intelligent Systems has a done a fantastic job boiling down the complicated tactical elements from the series into something lightning fast and enjoyable. Battles in the main franchise can take up to an hour to finish, depending on various factors. In Heroes, everything is simplified. Your armies have fewer units, maps are smaller, and elimination of the other team is the only objective. The tradeoff here is that Heroes isn’t as rich or challenging as the main entries, often being weighted in favor of the player (especially if you’re lucky enough to draw a couple of strong characters). This simplicity doesn’t provide the depth fans may expect, but it allows you to complete matches while you’re standing in line or killing time.

Other defining traits of the series are absent in Heroes. Permadeath isn’t an option; if your characters die in battle, they aren’t gone forever. The romantic elements of both Awakening and Fates aren’t here either. Your characters will often make sultry or witty remarks but you can’t pair them with other party members to produce children. It’s hard not be a little disappointed to be playing a Fire Emblem game that lacks those two popular features.

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Despite missing features many fans would consider essential qualities of a Fire Emblem game, Heroes is a fun time with an enjoyable gameplay loop. You fight battles to earn orbs that you can then use to upgrade your castle, which affects how much experience your units earn, and summon new characters to fight for your army. Spending five orbs gets you a random hero, and there is excitement as you anticipate seeing whatever character you’ve unlocked. Unfortunately, this has diminishing returns as duplicates are in play, and the more heroes you unlock, the more likely you are to nab a character you already have.

To make matters worse, a stamina bar is tied to your game. A full stamina bar is worth 50 points. Early on, battles require two points but as the game goes on, the stamina cost goes up. It takes five minutes to regenerate a single point, which means it’s easy to run that bar down to zero in a short period of time, leaving you unable to play unless you use a stamina potion or spend an orb to regenerate the bar fully. Stamina potions can be gifted to you and orbs are won in battle, but orbs are also your currency for unlocking characters, so Heroes is unsubtly trying to strong arm you into buying orbs with real currency in order to keep the stamina up. It’s a dubious-bordering-on-insidious system that only gets worse as the game goes on, since orbs are harder to find and you commonly draw duplicates. The stamina bar is a huge drain on Heroes’ playability, especially in the later stages; I would gladly pay for a “full version” of the game to eliminate the mechanic altogether.

About 10 hours in, I hit a wall where I just wasn’t having fun battling or drawing characters anymore. Still, that’s 10 hours of entertainment as well as a solid foundation here for something more grand in the coming months if Intelligent Systems takes the initiative and adds more features (like permadeath in the campaign). For now, Fire Emblem Heroes is a flawed but enjoyable way to pass the time for fans as well as a solid starting point for anyone who’s been curious about the series but hasn’t dived in yet.

www.GameInformer.com – The Feed

Nioh Review – The Soul Of The Samurai

Nioh borrows heavily from other games that have inspired it, like Dark Souls and Diablo. Despite the foundation coming from familiar stock, the title manages to differentiate itself with complex combat, a mission system that fosters replayability, and creative customization. Pushing the player into extremely challenging encounters and environments creates immeasurable tension and stress, which can lead to sincere satisfaction and rich rewards for those with the tenacity to carry on through demon-infested lands. 

Nioh tracks the story of William, a Westerner who fate brings to feudal Japan. Demons and corruption run rampant in this twisted historical interpretation. It mixes characters from antiquity and murderous mythological monsters, and the combination works well as an outrageous backdrop. Numerous cutscenes tell a mostly incomprehensible story that only gets interesting at the end, but some interspersed and stylish vignettes that tell short character tales work much better to break up the action.

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Make no mistake, however – the core of Nioh is action. Unflinching, merciless action that’s fast, fluid, responsive, and precise. Attempting to button-mash your way to a win inevitably sends you packing to the checkpoint. You must learn at least one of many other mechanics at your disposal like swapping stances, blocking, parrying, ki pulsing, and dodging. Many of these can be chained together to make battle a highly choreographed dance of death that’s breathtaking to behold. Nioh’s combat is rich and rewarding, featuring on-the-fly flexibility and adaptation to dazzle your opponents (and yourself) with complex strings of abilities.

Just about every opponent you face can be deadly, but the stronger-than-normal Yokai command fear. You learn respect the first time a one-eyed giant lifts you up and pounds you into the earth, or when a Tengu appears from the sky to lift you away. The pacing of these terrifying creatures and their appearances is amazingly well done – just when you think you’ve finally figured out how to tackle a certain type of monster, a new, more difficult one is introduced to the family. However, even the Yokai are overshadowed by many of the boss encounters. These clashes run the gamut from forgettable to inspired, with many featuring bizarre or terrifying opponents, from a wisecracking smoking frog to an epic final boss fight that delivers in grandiosity, spectacle, and pressure.

While the combat and enemies are the omnipresent highlights of the game, the same cannot be said for the environments. Despite a few great locales, the overall scenery looks too much the same, with area recycling and repurposing. The environments also represent a real hazard to the player almost all the time. With pits of poison, trap doors, spike pits, rolling boulders, and roof spiders waiting to pounce, death waits around every corner – and dying simply because you couldn’t see it coming is frustrating. While you begin to check around every corner for the inevitable ambush and groan because every single room has a ranged bomb-thrower or cannon-sniper, some of the labyrinthine castles and dungeons are overly sadistic in their construction, as if a cackling developer is quietly watching and snickering as bats fly out of a cave, throwing you off a cliff.

Nioh is a difficult, challenging, intense game. However, some features can take the edge off, even if you are a casual player looking to get into the world of samurai. The loot system, which I was originally pretty skeptical about, is great. Loot is randomized to some extent and can drop in several color-coded rarities. You can then further customize and create loot from acquired materials at the blacksmith to craft items with the perfect modifiers and qualities that you’re looking for. You still can’t button-mash a boss down with your creations, but they help give you a fighting chance.

If you can’t find what you want, go knock out some side missions. Lots of them! Nioh is not a vast open world or a direct line from the beginning to the end but a series of missions, many of which are optional for players to go grab special items and farm loot, currency, and experience. You can repeat content as many times as you like, so if that boss you’re currently fighting is really roughing you up, take a breather and go get yourself a couple of backpacks of loot. Side missions are often a lot more fun and a lot less stressful than the main missions, involve fewer environmental death traps, and take only a few minutes with substantially less risk.

Along those lines, an assortment of other side activities are available for players, from the souped-up Twilight missions that let players take on much harder versions of previously completed content to a new game+ filled with new loot and new challenges. The story campaign took me around 40 hours to beat, and I feel like I’ve barely made a dent in everything Nioh has to offer.

Multiplayer features several types of online play, all which are fun and can be quite helpful if you’re having trouble tackling a boss. You can summon random people to help, play with friends, or even engage in a different game mode altogether in the Yokai realm – a sort of tuned-up version that lets players work together to tackle a different kind of challenge than a standard mission. Joining and helping another person offers essentially free resources at no risk, allowing you to stockpile currency that can be spent for gear, custom character skins, and emotes.

Nioh will break you down (and note this clearly, this is an uncompromising game that does not mind crushing your dreams) before it lifts you up, but you soon crave the thrill of mastering a new weapon or toppling a titanic boss. Endless optimization and customization, engaging encounters, and unparalleled combat by yourself or with a friend make Nioh an excellent choice for your next dark action/RPG.

www.GameInformer.com – The Feed

Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World Review – A Tight-Knit Port

Yoshi’s Woolly World is the best Yoshi’s Island game since the original released for Super Nintendo in 1995. Seeing its gameplay on a different platform seemed entirely possible, but the Wii U version took full advantage of the console’s HD visuals which made a port to the 3DS suspect. Thankfully, despite the small visual downgrade, Woolly World is still a great platformer, even on 3DS.

In a broad sense, Woolly World is unchanged from the Wii U version. Small things – like a different layout for the overworld – are present, but all the levels, controls, and general charm of a Nintendo platformer in a world made of yarn is all here on 3DS. It still looks great, too, and if you’re playing on New 3DS the framerate boosts to 60 FPS, making it a smoother experience.

Additions for Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World include a new auto-running mode starring Poochy and changes to mellow mode. Poochy’s auto-running levels are fun and give you a chance to collect gems, or complete missions like collecting certain items as you speed-run, or making sure you duck under that log. I like these new levels, but as a returning Woolly World fan, I would have liked to access them faster and without having to replay the campaign.

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Mellow mode, which is geared toward younger players, gives Yoshi wings and lets him fly through levels. On 3DS, a collection of Poochy Pups now follow Yoshi to help find secrets and can be used as yarn balls so you never run out of throwable items. The pups are cute, and a mode that lets my young daughter (who hasn’t mastered platforming yet) enjoy the cute visuals without getting frustrated is welcome.

Co-op mode, a destination for many in the Wii U version, is gone for 3DS, but I didn’t miss it. On Wii U, Woolly World functioned better as a single-player game. The Yoshis are large character models, and placing more than one on the screen could sometimes get claustrophobic.

If you skipped Woolly World on Wii U, Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World offers what is essentially a straight port. It doesn’t feel downgraded, even if the visuals aren’t quite as sharp. Exchanging co-op for the dedicated Poochy auto-run levels and a better mellow mode is a worthy trade. Woolly World is still the best Yoshi’s Island game since the original, even on this less-powerful platform.

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Hitman: Season 1 Review – The Complete Package Still Comes Up Short

Whether you love it or hate it, much of the discussion surrounding IO Interactive’s latest installment of Hitman has been focused on its episodic format. The decision to split the experience into individual levels and sell them piecemeal was a major focus (and criticism) in my review of Episode 1, and the slow drip feed of offerings since then ultimately led us to wait until the entire “season” was released before taking another critical look at the game. That time has come with the release of the final episode, and while playing through all six missions together does indeed offer a better experience, Agent 47’s latest outing fails to live up to his greatest hits. 

Whether you’re just now jumping into the full game or have been playing every episode as they release, Hitman’s story doesn’t offer much to get excited about. Aside from a few flashbacks that reveal how Agent 47 met his longtime handler Diana Burnwood, the sparse narrative tries (and fails) to convey a vast, twist-laden conspiracy in a handful of short, rendered clips. The mystery of who is behind Hitman’s disparate missions doesn’t materialize into anything meaningful, leaving you six big sandboxes to experiment in as you replay the story missions and sample the side content.

Unfortunately, the locations are too big for their own good. Like previous games, the new Hitman offers up a bevy of creative opportunities to snuff your targets. However, the enormous areas exacerbate all of the series’ weaknesses. Pulling off an elaborate kill means learning the layout of a labyrinthine environment, finding the necessary items for your scheme (which is now like finding a specific needle in a stack of needles), figuring out guard routes, acquiring the right disguises, and oftentimes maneuvering your target into the correct location by completing some inane secondary objective. It’s an inordinate amount of prep work for a series that already demands a lot of patience. 

The end result is you probably won’t stumble upon creative executions organically like the old games, and even if you do, you’re likely to miss a key component. In the Bangkok level, my attempts to kill a high-profile rockstar fell apart at the 11th hour. After obtaining multiple disguises to sneak past the hotel’s guards, infiltrate the band’s penthouse, and poison the doomed musician’s birthday cake, I found out my target wouldn’t even come down to the room to try the celebratory dessert because it was missing a topper. To get it would mean sneaking all the way back down to the ground floor, swapping disguises yet again, and then finding the actual object among the sprawling maze of kitchens and storage rooms. 

The solution (besides just shooting him in the head) is to use the “track opportunity” function, which is basically a Hitman for Dummies guide that leads you through each assassination option step by step. The system works fine, but it also strips Agent 47 of his agency, and diminishes some of the magic the series is built on. Either you accept the guided tour or you waste a lot more time trying to find everything yourself. Either way, the thrill of discovery takes a hit.

Hitman’s later episodes only become more unforgiving. IO Interactive isn’t afraid to ratchet up the difficulty by loading environments with eagle-eyed foes. Episode 5 tasks 47 with taking out four targets on a militia training camp in Colorado, which means every NPC is armed and on the lookout for intruders. Episode 6 takes place inside a high-tech spa where every door is electronically locked based on your disguise, leaving you with few places to hide. I appreciate new wrinkles and challenges being introduced to Hitman’s gameplay, but they all result in more trial and error, which can quickly cross the line into frustration.

The gameplay also suffers from more ambiguity. As in Absolution, Some NPCs can see through your disguises, but you won’t know which ones until you’re wearing it. In the Marrakesh level, I jumped through numerous hoops to obtain a guard uniform, only to find out it had no effect on the majority of identically dressed guards in the embassy. Some wonky A.I. behavior also makes it hard to tell when NPCs will notice you or respond with force; performing the same actions on multiple attempts sometimes result in different outcomes. Rolling with the punches has always been part of the Hitman formula, but the longer the missions are, the more of a problem unpredictability becomes. I used to revel in trying to achieve the perfect hit and the coveted Silent Assassin rating that comes along with it. Now most missions are a slog just to get through, and I feel less inclined to repeat them.

While the six main missions still contain some classic Hitman moments, the bonus content is less compelling. Outside of the PS4-exclusive Sarajevo Six missions, Hitman’s other missions all revolve around killing random NPCs in less creative and more repetitive ways. This includes the Escalation missions, which task you with redoing the same assassination five times in a row with increasingly complex parameters. I enjoyed some of the extra content, but not enough to keep me consistently coming back. On the bright side, IO Interactive has finally added search options for user-created Contracts, making it much easier to share custom missions with your friends and find content you're interested in.

Unfortunately, some of Hitman’s other shortcomings have remained over the year-long release schedule. Diving back in, I forgot just how crippled the game is if you’re not online – lose your Internet connection while playing, and you also lose all the secondary missions, unlocked weapons and gear, bonuses challenges, and even your in-game stats. I also ran into some slow-loading texture problems, which rendered Hitman’s iconic barcode tattoo into an inky smudge for minutes at a time, along with other textures in the environment. IO Interactive continues to rely on the same small pool of voice actors for NPCs, whose lame banter about politics, economics, and philosophy will make you wish everyone was on your hit list.

Agent 47’s ultimate skill has always been patience, and the newest Hitman demands the same from the player more than ever before. Some may enjoy devoting hours to planning and pulling off the perfect hit, but the supersized levels have made 47’s latest adventure an overly drawn-out affair, above and beyond the initial episodic release schedule.

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This review was originally published on November 15, 2016.

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Double Dragon IV Review – Nostalgia Is Not Enough

The Double Dragon franchise was instrumental in turning brawlers into a bustling genre during the arcade era. Jimmy and Billy Lee now return decades later (once again tasked with rescuing Marian), and their journey takes them down memory lane for franchise fans with tons of foes from previous entries and a juiced-up soundtrack that brings the old tunes out with a fresh twist. If you’re looking for a title drenched in nostalgia – right down to the retro graphics and mind-numbing platforming challenges – this is one you don’t want to miss. But recalling your memories of Double Dragons long past may be more enjoyable than this new experience.

You punch, kick, and spin your way through missions to get to the end of story mode, which only takes a few hours if you continually need to restart levels (the game itself is much shorter). Docks, casinos, warehouses with conveyor belts, and other locales conjure up notions of the classic titles. The sounds and settings transport you back into one of those old games, right down to the signature clink of a metal bat hitting the ground. Classic opponents like Abobo, Burnov, and Linda are immediately recognizable, and there are a few new faces as well. 

The walk down memory lane is marred by the fact that it’s simply not fun. Double Dragon IV is a boring slog that feels like busywork with no real weight behind it, as you can continue more or less where you left off even if you run out of credits. Because there’s no real progression or development beyond unlocking characters, it’s jarring that even games like 1989’s River City Ransom give the player far more ways to customize and develop in today’s world of interactive entertainment. The final battle with a new antagonist is dull, the ending is ridiculous, and the glimmer of combat fades by the third time you chuck a tire at an enemy. The A.I. often leaves enemies simply standing still waiting for you to act, or freaking out completely. I understand that these aspects can mostly be written off as part of the appeal to nostalgia, and if you are here for a ride through an interactive Double Dragon screensaver, the journey may work for you – but it certainly didn’t for me. 

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Once you complete the story, you unlock a mode called Tower. Tower is a one-life survival battle that pits you against all kinds of foes as you try to make the climb to the top, and is tied to character unlocks that give the game its only form of replayability and interest. Based on your performance in the Tower, you can unlock characters to play in all game modes, so you can take on story or tower mode playing as smoke-bomb popping, shuriken-tossing Ayumi, sumo wrestler Kodani, or even the larger-than-life Abobo. This is a cool addition that lets you play in different ways, but at the end of the day, you’re just going through the same motions with some different sprites.

Double Dragon IV has some nostalgia value for longstanding fans of the franchise or those that just want a glimpse of what brawlers looked like in times long gone, but it offers little in terms of compelling gameplay or interesting mechanics. I’m a big fan of seeing old series recapture glory, but in this case, Double Dragon is an experience better left in the past.

www.GameInformer.com – The Feed

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue Review – A Great Collection Leading Into What Comes Next

After
various spin-offs and re-releases, the buildup to Kingdom Hearts III has been
nothing if not drawn out. Kingdom Hearts II launched more than a decade ago,
and a whole new generation of gamers can play the early entries thanks to HD
remasters on PS3 (and later this year on the PS4). Final Chapter Prologue
should be the last new remaster before Kingdom Hearts III; it includes Dream
Drop Distance (originally a 3DS exclusive) for the first time on the big
screen. Additionally, an episode starring Aqua and a mini-movie, which shows
how this crazy journey all began, are both new for this entry. As convoluted as
the Kingdom Hearts storyline is, after playing through this collection, I have
a clearer understanding of the narrative leading into Kingdom Hearts III. Even
without the extra story context, Final Chapter Prologue is fun on its own, and
Square Enix did a wonderful job making this a worthwhile collection and not
just a port of Dream Drop Distance.

The most appealing part
of the collection is A Fragmentary Passage, which follows Aqua after the events
of Birth By Sleep. The episode took me about three hours to complete, but if
you collect every treasure, you can extend that an extra hour. Aqua is one of
my favorite characters due to her selflessness and determination to save the
world, and getting some resolution to her story was satisfying. I won't spoil
anything, but playing the episode only makes me more excited for what potential
role she might play in Kingdom Hearts III.

A Fragmentary Passage
takes you through various levels, each with its own gimmick. For instance, in
the first world, Aqua must locate five clock gears, platforming on high ledges
and rooftops, while battling enemies to achieve them. In another, she must go
through mirrors and uses their reflections to create ledges or manipulate
gravity. Square Enix says A Fragmentary Passage uses development tools similar
to Kingdom Hearts III, showing off more expansive environments and the ease of
getting around them using the air slide and a powerful double jump, so it's
almost a first look at how the tech has advanced for the upcoming entry. It
makes me excited for Kingdom Hearts III's exploration. The episode also shows
off the smoothest combat I've experienced in the series, playing out in a
faster, more fluid pace. Camera issues didn't plague me as much as past entries
have, either.

While some cool boss
fights, like a titan that takes up most of the landscape and a tower of
Heartless that morph into different shapes, test your skills, these baddies
often repeat through the short levels, and a lot of the objectives feel like
busy work. You're never just locating one thing – it's usually five, or
backtracking to get what you need. The journey is breezy, so if you're looking
for a challenge, I recommend starting on Proud Mode. You can unlock Critical
Mode after completing A Fragmentary Passage on any mode for the highest
challenge, which really tests your combat prowess.

A Fragmentary Passage isn't perfect, but I'm
glad Square Enix included completely new content, and dressing up Aqua by
completing challenges is a fun bonus. My Aqua ended up wearing Minnie Mouse
ears and having a red-and-white dress with ribbons to match. At the end of the
episode, a lengthy scene (presumably from Kingdom Hearts III) allows you to
finally see the characters embark on the next part of their journey, which is
really what we've been waiting all this time for – to see that Kingdom Hearts'
plot is moving forward instead of explaining past elements.

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The collection also features an HD movie, Kingdom
Hearts Back Cover
, which runs a little
over an hour. The movies in these collections haven't always been that
impressive, and I was skeptical knowing that this was based on a mobile game's
story, but Square Enix really spruced it up. It's the best movie featured in
all the HD collections up to this point, and sheds worthwhile light on the
series' early history and how the prophecy of darkness affected the
Foretellers. The movie is a good look at what set the events of Kingdom Hearts
into motion, and has some memorable betrayals and action sequences, as everyone
tries to do what they think is right to save the world from its dark fate.

Dream Drop Distance HD is the part of the
collection you can sink the most time into, and Square Enix has made plenty of
enhancements and changes to get the 3DS game running smoothly on console. The
battles are faster-paced, the camera benefits from a larger screen, and load
times are improved from the original handheld version. The controls are also
better on the PS4, feeling less clunky. Square Enix updated the minigames and
abilities that previously used the 3DS' touchscreen, although it's not always
an improvement. For instance, the reality-shift slingshot worked much better
with touch controls, and petting your Dreameaters felt more natural with a
stylus. Still, this version is far from just a visual upgrade (although it does
look fantastic on PS4). For those who haven't played Dream Drop Distance, or
want a refresher, this is the best way to go.

Final Chapter Prologue is a solid collection that I
enjoyed playing, and got me more excited for Kingdom Hearts III due to how it
sets up everything so wonderfully. I wish I were playing Kingdom Hearts III
instead of another remaster, but this is the best collection for getting you
prepped for what's ahead. 

What’s In 2.8?
The only previous game included in Kingdom Hearts 2.8 is Dream Drop Distance; it does not have Kingdom Hearts I or II in it. If you want to play those, you need to buy Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 for PlayStation 3, or wait for the announced PS4 versions.

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Resident Evil 7 Review – A Familiar Taste Of Blood

Few opening acts scream reinvention more than Resident Evil 7’s. Instead of pumping lead into zombies and creatures born of man-made viruses, the player is isolated and hunted by a deadly apparition. The series has always relied on scientific explanation for its grotesqueries, but with objects moving on their own and ghostly beings flashing in and out of reality, the introductory moments are clearly supernatural – or that’s what Capcom wants you to believe. The first taste of this adventure doesn’t embody Resident Evil; it feels like a new experience designed to feed off of player senses and fears in a different way. The atmosphere is tense, unsettling, overly gory, and makes for a hell of a beginning to a game, especially when you see how it all comes together.

The scares are viewed through the eyes of Ethan Winters, a middle-aged everyman summoned to a run-down estate in Dulvey, Louisiana, to search for his missing wife, Mia. The invitation comes in the form of a VHS tape showing Mia, who has been missing for three years, alive but distressed. The game roars out of the gates with a big emotional hook, as well as a high level of ambiguity as to what's happening in Dulvey.

The narrative unravels quickly, however. Ethan fades into the background, doing little to establish a connection to his world. His personality is as transparent as the specters he encounters, and he somehow remains mostly silent in the face of huge, life-altering events. Capcom may have wanted the player to react to these events instead of Ethan, but he’s involved enough in the story that it feels like big chunks of dialogue and exposition are missing, especially when he verbally reacts to inconsequential things like a wall covered in millipedes, but doesn’t say anything when he or people around him are in danger. The story ends up being more voyeuristic and about the people of the estate than your protagonist’s personal stake in it. The story flow suffers from the lack of Ethan’s input; I thought the game glitched out when he didn’t react to a huge event in the game’s first hour. It turns out he just had nothing to say – no reaction whatsoever. Thankfully, Mia is a powerful force in this tale, and as we get to know her, the world also comes into shape. By the end of the game, Ethan is reduced to little more than a pair of hands holding a gun.

Much like any Resident Evil game, the adventure isn’t just contained to one location, but the bulk of exploration unfolds in the estate, which belongs to the Baker family, a rowdy mishmash of personalities that range from a hillbilly father and verbally abusive mother to a comatose grandmother and a son who is as deranged as The Joker. The Bakers take center stage, and are equally important to the story as they are to re-establishing Resident Evil’s traditional conventions and lore. None of these characters will likely be remembered as Resident Evil greats, but they are interesting in their own disturbing ways. The threat they pose is greater than their personalities. The powers they wield are also interesting, and they are constant threats. Much like the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, these characters appear over and over again, even when you least expect them. Don't trust walls; they crumble easily in this world.

The opening act, while powerful and different, is a smokescreen of sorts that gives way to an experience that draws heavily from the original PlayStation 1 Resident Evil titles. Navigating the estate begins with jump scares, but eventually gives way to one locked door after another. The act of opening doors may not sound like much fun, but the exploration and gameplay that leads to the securing of items is rarely mundane or repetitive. I had fun with most environmental navigation, even if some of it is ludicrous in design.

In classic Resident Evil fashion, the house's architecture doesn’t make a lick of sense. The player is forced to hunt down keys, find animal-shaped objects to insert into mechanical devices, and scour the environment high and low to find healing items and ammo. You even find yourself thinking long and hard about inventory management every step of the way, questioning when to bring extra firepower, healing items, or that damn crank that somehow makes it into every Resident Evil game. Again, this sounds tedious, but it isn’t. It just makes you nervous about your odds and readiness for the next step of the game.

The discovery process is excellently crafted, as is the house, and the switch to a first-person perspective allows Capcom to make finding items more interesting, as an object of interest may be obscured from view at certain angles. Part of the fun of the house is getting to know the Bakers from their possessions and hobbies. The weirdest bit of fiction is Capcom insisting the player should know the Bakers love football, not just from references in the house, but by turning bobblehead football players into one of the game’s collectibles. It’s always jarring to see a vibrant, purple bobblehead toy sitting in a room full of gore.

Ghostly events occur periodically in the second act, which is the bulk of the game, but the focus is more on exploration and combat. I won’t spoil exactly what you are doing, but a steady hand with a pistol is a necessity for headshots, as is the wherewithal to know when to bring out more powerful firearms like a shotgun or grenade launcher. The enemies are nicely varied, as are the bosses, which require different strategies and are usually spectacular in appearance. Don’t expect combat every step of the way; you fire fewer shots in this game than any other Resident Evil. That shouldn’t be taken as a complaint, however. The gunplay is nicely polished and fits well into the context of the world. Only one combat-based encounter is problematic, mostly because progress isn't clearly communicated. All you know is you have a chainsaw, and it cuts flesh, but it doesn't get the job done quickly. This fight led to several "game over" screens as I searched for solutions.

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Capcom fills any lulls in the action with interesting gameplay deviations and scenario designs, such as stealth sequences where you have to avoid a Baker, or enemies populating previously explored areas. When you are low on ammo, seeing an enemy in an area you thought was safe ups the intensity damatically. You can tell a lot of thought went into balancing this adventure, both to be challenging and fair. Save points are littered liberally throughout the house, and checkpoints are also offered so little progress is ever lost. This is one of those games where progress is always rewarded with new things to see or do, whether that’s something small like the discovery of walls coated in mold or a big development like playing as a different character for stretches of the game.

Any concerns I had of Capcom deviating too far from Resident Evil’s universe were wiped out by the time the credits rolled. I love how the ghost story is integrated into the series’ lore. Yes, this game eventually goes deep with its scientific explanations. It’s a slow unveiling of information that sets up the series nicely for future installments.

Capcom has successfully reinvented Resident Evil in the past, the most notable deviation being the brilliant Resident Evil 4. This new vision doesn’t reach the same heights of spectacle and gameplay innovation as that breakthrough release, but is a welcome addition to the series (both in terms of gameplay and lore), and a nice entry point for newcomers.

Horror Enhanced by VR?
The PlayStation 4 version is equipped with PlayStation VR functionality, allowing players to experience the same game from a more intimate perspective. As much as I enjoyed seeing this world up close and personal (not to mention aiming through head tracking), the VR integration is riddled with issues. Unless you play the game from a standing position to manually turn your body, your best option from the sitting position is to use set angles for turning – meaning your character turns 30 degrees each time the analog stick is tapped. It’s a clunky way of moving through the world, but it likely won’t make you sick. The alternative is to turn on smooth movement, which allows you to turn freely by pressing the right analog stick. This option didn’t sit well with me. Every spin made my stomach churn. No variations in rotation speed alleviated the sensation that something wasn’t right. Basically, play it standing, or don’t play it in VR.

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