Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

“Can’t Kill Progress”

Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher:
Square Enix
Format: 
PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: 
August 23, 2016
Copy purchased

There’s very little that goes unnoticed in developer Eidos Montreal’s return to the Deus Ex universe. Five years removed from the visionary Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided welcomes Adam Jensen back into the fold of a world dealing with the catastrophic aftermath of the previous game’s augmented attacks. Akin to its predecessor, Mankind Divided is rooted in believable fiction, reinforced with rich narrative nuance and societal applications.

Eidos doesn’t turn a blind eye to themes of prejudice, corrupt leadership, or terrorism, tackling all with confidence and maturity. Despite a few overly “on the nose” sections of commentary, Mankind Divided presents itself with an even-keeled temperament that takes on complex issues with consistent assertiveness. Mechanically just as strong as its storytelling, taking control of Jensen’s abilities remains a highlight throughout the lengthy, yet focused campaign, lasting upwards of 30 hours. Fantastic writing, superb gameplay, and a strong understanding of world design, elevates Mankind Divided to a pedestal where the year’s best games reside. In defiance of its full potential, a small, though significant handful of problems arise in the face of Mankind Divided’s greatness. Greedy, ill-justified microtransactions, a superfluous gameplay mode, and an abrupt narrative conclusion, take chips out of Deus Ex’s robust armor of quality. However, the lasting appeal of Mankind Divided intensifies beyond its lesser traits, sprouting into a bold, rewarding, and smartly crafted piece of work.Deus Ex Mankind Divided (Braxton Haugen) Image 1Set two years after the “Aug Incident” that brought Human Revolution to a close, Mankind Divided picks up its narrative strings in the wake of the fallout. Costing the lives of millions on a global scale, the incident was an intentional attack that caused every augmented citizen on the planet to suddenly become savagely violent, viciously going after everyone around them. Social tension, unrectifiable mental wounds, and political unrest have arisen from the ashes, in turn, dividing mankind. The scars left on the world from the incident are found all throughout Mankind Divided, showing themselves within emotionally evocative and believable instances that conjure a sympathy for those involved. That sympathy transitions fluidly to Adam Jensen, Deus Ex’s hardened, well-realized protagonist. Stepping back into his shoes and wearing the title of augmented government agent once again proved a satisfying endeavor, one that continued to build off of Human Revolution’s strides with Jensen as a character. Wrapped up in a constantly thickening plot, Adam is once again faced with unweaving a complex conspiracy with global stakes and far-reaching implications.

MANKIND DIVIDED IS THE EVOLUTION OF ITS PREDECESSOR’S ACHIEVEMENTS

Notably smaller in scope than its predecessor, Mankind Divided drops you in the city of Prague. Broken up into various districts with their own unique identity, simply strolling about the streets is captivating and often intense. There’s a sense of defeat, cruelty, and disdain that hangs in the air like a plume of smoke, seeping into the lungs of its residents. However, even with tension and violence at fever pitch within the city, Prague maintained an unwavering spirt that called me to explore and learn more. Sending these signals is one thing, yet reinforcing them with the necessary substance to strengthen immersion, is another.

Fortunately, Mankind Divided’s expertise lies in its aptitude to convey depth within the smallest of touches. From dialogue interactions with NPCs, to richly crafted side missions sprinkled about Prague, never once did I find myself at a loss of what to do next. There was always the promise of something important to the broader narrative around the corner, instilling a level of agency that transcended into almost every other aspect of the package. In terms of overall world design, Mankind Divided quickly surpasses the highs of its predecessor, putting forth more interesting missions to partake in and narrative stones to uncover. Of course, little of this would matter if Mankind Divided failed to embody an enjoyable gameplay routine. Entrenching itself within choice-driven RPG elements and the astute capability to embrace multiple approaches to combat, Mankind Divided’s mechanics largely succeed with flying colors.Deus Ex Mankind Divided (Braxton Haugen) Image 2At the center of the gameplay’s many accomplishments are Jensen’s augments, providing a slew of customizable upgrades, gadgets, and newfound skills to better aline with your playstyle. Whether looking for a loadout of augmentations that will aid your efforts in tackling situations non-lethally and from the shadows, or opting for a more merciless approach, Mankind Divided offers the necessary tools to make both options feel worthwhile.

Catering augments situationally is also a joy, allowing for players not exclusively dedicated to a specific playstyle to experiment around with a grander arsenal. Finding an augment build that suits exactly how you want to take on a situation is rewarding and invigorating, a revelation that maintained its novelty until the credits rolled. Tinkering with augmentations isn’t where Mankind Divided’s gameplay strengths begin and end, however, instead acting as an important puzzle piece in synchronizing core mechanics with more eccentric abilities. Striking a graceful balance between the basic mechanics of traversal, cover, and gunplay, with the creative means of approach, is one of Deus Ex’s specialties.

Hacking into a keypad in order to unlock a set of doors to a restricted area proved more effective than engaging in a bloody gunfight with the same intentions to enter the area. The beauty of this is there isn’t one specific correct way to take on an encounter. Within in each new, highly detailed location the narrative leads you, a rich breadth of variety awaits, offering numerous paths seeking the same end. With a brief exception pertaining to an altercation that leans heavily toward one style of play over another, Mankind Divided never limits its mechanical scope. Welcoming a wide range of playstyles to flourish freely, combat and choice based encounters kept their freshness alive and well as the ensuing conspiracy played out around them. Mankind Divided’s gameplay is at its best when compiling everything it has to offer. With Jensen free to approach missions in any style he sees fit, a cohesive blend of stealth, combat, hacking and social interaction, potentially await. On the other hand, dedicating yourself to one specific approach opens up another door with a unique assortment of depth behind it. Completing tasks lethally or non-lethally, feels like two separate games unto themselves, both of which impress and satisfy in their own right. Flexibility is king within Mankind Divided, interjecting a great deal of replayability and shifting immersion that kept me captivated from start to finish.Deus Ex Mankind Divided (Braxton Haugen) Image 3Built upon morally gray lines and political turmoil, Mankind Divided’s story is focused, meticulously paced, and cleverly written. There’s a superb cohesion in the way Deus Ex’s world responds and adapts to the structured twists of its narrative. The world is expertly malleable, constantly shifting and working with your own actions to shape its character. This dynamic lends responsibility to the player, forcing them to take a hard look at the affects they’re putting into motion in the wake of their presence. It’s a brilliant touch and one that confidently backs up its potential with an infectious subtlety and realistic assertiveness. Apparent within direct social interaction with NPCs, as well as the story’s overall beats, Mankind Divided presents itself with an identity that allows it to adjust and even slightly reinvent itself, based off your impact. Extending tangible repercussion to the broader structure of the story, there’s a refreshing, inescapable agency pulsating throughout the world of Deus Ex.

Recognizing this achievement makes coming to terms with the sour taste left in my mouth by Mankind Divided’s abrupt ending, all the harder. As the credits began to roll, I found myself taken aback by the sheer nonchalant nature of the finale. Following hours of invigorating ramping tensions, plot threads, and character strides, Mankind Divided jarringly pumps its brakes, leaving desirable story threads dangling messily. Poorly justified and coming from out of nowhere, the resolution, or lack thereof, provoked audible exclamation as I was sidelined by its bluntness. The wonderful pace that had led the project until then ceased to transition over into Mankind Divided’s idea of a conclusion. Instead, closing the curtains with little warning, let alone providing answers to the plethora of questions raised throughout the game’s substantial amount of story content. While the sudden denouement certainly diminishes Mankind Divided’s lasting narrative impression, it doesn’t considerably harm the excellent journey leading up to it. The rewarding gameplay, creative world design, and smartly crafted missions maintain their luster, even in the face of a finale that doesn’t do them the justice they deserve.

THERE’S A CRAFTSMANSHIP TO DEUS EX’S CLEVER, OPEN-ENDED DESIGN

After completing the largely fantastic story, Mankind Divided puts forth a multiplayer-focused gameplay mode titled Breach. Not long after diving into the mode did it become abundantly clear Breach had very little to offer or even much to stand for, outside of its financial incentive to dip into your wallet. Negatively surpassing the underwhelming narrative climax, lip syncing issues, and infrequent, yet noticeably janky animation, Breach is an unnecessary addition to a package that would’ve been better off without it. Rooted within a virtual reality setting and presented with a visually minimalist art style, Breach sets its sights on giving players various missions to take on with the idea of topping leaderboards.

While mechanically competent, Breach shares little in terms of quality with the rest of Mankind Divided. In practice, missions function as a set of tasks to complete, usually consisting of hacking into data storage pillars and proceeding toward the extraction point as quickly as possible. On top of simply being monotonous, Breach feels like it exists solely as a means to encourage additional spending. Constructed upon a shameless free-to-play model, Breach constantly elbows you into looking at its purchasable in-game packs. Worse yet, the predatory inclusion of microtransactions within the mode isn’t where Mankind Divided’s use of them ends, bleeding over into the campaign’s ecosystem where non-renewable packs including weapons and currency can be purchased as well. To put it candidly, these incorporations are exhaustive, offensive, and entirely unnecessary components to Eidos Montreal’s valiant efforts.Deus Ex Mankind Divided (Braxton Haugen) Image 4ConclusionDeus Ex: Mankind Divided is an excellent exercise in refinement. Proudly running with its predecessor’s torch, Eidos Montreal’s builds off of the highs established by Human Revolution five years ago. Save for a few notable rough patches throughout, Mankind Divided captivates with its meticulous design from start to finish. Whether it be the stories gleaned from its maturely crafted world, or the invigorating gameplay home to ample variety, Mankind Divided is chock-full of nuance and gratification that consistently impresses. Supporting a wide range of playstyles backed up with the tools to make them feel rewarding, Deus Ex conducts itself with an admirable open-mindedness and motive to follow-through. Rarely did Mankind Divided feel as if it had overlooked something, constantly prioritizing an astute attention to detail that lent its starkly portrayed world a believability that had me enraptured from the opening cinematic. Carefully crafted writing, presentation, and mechanical modeling, raise Mankind Divided to the same highs as its superb predecessor, a feat that shall not be taken lightly.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Find me @BraxHaugen.


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Hitman: Episode 4 – Bangkok Review

“Checking In”

Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: August 16, 2016
Copy purchased

Rejuvenating the quality of the season coming off Marrakesh’s low point, Hitman: Episode 4 – Bangkok, puts IO Interactive’s episodic series back on track. Moving past the midway point, Agent 47’s latest appearance is the embodiment of the season’s strongest elements thus far. Sporting fantastic level design, encouraging replayability, and offering players a rich breadth of variety, Hitman’s latest episode is a solid installment in the growing lineup of bitesized adventures. Taking place in a picturesque Thai riverside resort, Bangkok’s welcoming hotel setting is a fitting location for Hitman to flex its stealth muscles. From the smartly realized design interiors, to intricate gameplay options on display, Hitman’s fourth episode proves the season still has the necessary components to make it a success.HITMAN - Bangkok Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1Making my way to the front desk of the luxurious Himmapan Hotel to retrieve a room key, I brushed passed one of the two targets on the mission docket. Easily one of Bangkok’s most prominent highlights is the fact the two people in the crosshairs are atop the list of intrigue this season. Visiting the resort is a world-renowned band hard at work on their highly anticipated new record. However, Agent 47 isn’t on location for stargazing. Tasked with eliminating the band’s lead voice talent and bassist, Jordan Cross, along with a family lawyer who assisted Jordan in getting away with murder, 47 hasn’t touched down in Thailand for vacation. Both targets are cleverly placed throughout the hotel, fitting into their own unique patterns. The resort is inhabited with a heavy security presence due to the arrival of the band, with hotel and private guards stationed throughout. Setting my sights on the corrupt lawyer, I made preparations to dispose of him from the shadows. Following a series of effective distractions, matched with the necessary disguises, the lawyer met his doom with a kitchen knife hurled into his head. With the lawyer taken care of, I shifted my focus to the main event, Cross.

BANGKOK IS A CONFIDENT STEP BACK IN THE RIGHTFUL DESIGN DIRECTION

Bringing justice to Jordan Cross was a challenging and rewarding endeavor that came to fruition at the hands of patience and a clean shot to the head. While on the job, exploring the hotel was a pleasure. Each room felt believable and lived in, creating a sense of atmosphere that rivaled Sapienza’s seaside villa. Akin to past episodes, eliminating your targets can be done in numerous ways, from following the path of scripted opportunities, to simply unleashing a clip of silenced pistol rounds into a unsuspecting perpetrator. What keeps these opportunities fresh is the location they’re set in, consistently allowing for new and inventive forms of execution to play out. The carrot on the end of the stick mentality remains enough to inspire multiple playthroughs, all of which brought creative stories and memorable moments. Once again, the additional missions following the completion of the story chapter underwhelm in the face of their robust counterpart. Escalation missions grow tedious and redundant, lacking the novelty seen in the mainline campaign. Another bothersome blemish on the otherwise strong atmosphere are the accents of NPCs overheard when making your way through the hotel. While slightly more justifiable within the touristy setting than the painful voice acting that littered Marrakesh, the obnoxious reliance on American accents still occasionally pulled me out of the experience.HITMAN - Bangkok Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2ConclusionHitman: Episode 4 – Bangkok is a comforting success, directing the course of the season back toward its initial promise. Though Bangkok doesn’t quite reach the highs of Sapienza, it fits nicely alongside Paris’ introductory mission, and quickly surpasses the disappointment found in Marrakesh. Checking out of the Himmapan, I was once again filled with the optimism that greeted me during the season’s premiere. The distribution model continues to leave more to be desired following the completion of an episode and the weak extras drag the replayability down, but when everything comes together, the results are tense and engaging. With just two episodes left, IO Interactive’s first season is shaping up to be a solid installment in the iconic saga. Returning to the roots of what made the franchise special, while also interjecting more realistic life into the picture, 2016’s take on Hitman is a reminder of the longevity the series proudly carries with it, and Bangkok, in that respect, is the strongest one yet.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Hitman: Episode 4 – Bangkok. Find me @BraxHaugen.


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Bound Review

“Just Dance”

Developer: Plastic Studios
Publisher:
SIE Santa Monica Studio
Format: 
PS4 (reviewed)
Released: August 
16, 2016
Copy purchased

Bound is a poetic and artistically beautiful exploration of emotions held hostage. Its subtly led narrative and focus on style venture into therapeutic territory as you navigate its abstractly constructed world. From a pure presentational standpoint, developer, Plastic, has crafted an elegant and inviting display of choreography. Bound strives to achieve grace in all of facets, and while the experience remains visually attractive throughout, the same consistent praises can’t be crowned on the mechanics steering the dreamlike journey.

Falling short in comparison to the rest of the package, gameplay design is often an obstructively noticeable interruption, accompanied by messy mechanics. From an unreliable camera that frequently halted the cinematic pace, to frustrating controls which prompted plenty of unnecessary failures, Bound stumbles in its vision to create a cohesively elegant experience. Struck by its aesthetic beauty, I was enraptured by the ballerina-centric animations and musically captivating score that acts as an impeccable backdrop to the geometric world design. Every bit of me wanted to love Bound, as its beauty isn’t anything to be scoffed at, but I couldn’t overlook the messy side of its construction. Bound is the embodiment of two very different games, one standing as an artistically evocative tale of family relationships, the other, a mechanically mediocre platformer.

Striking a balance that maintains each vision is Bound’s biggest struggle. It’s a battle the title ultimately comes away from with equally as inspiring wins, as it does frustrating losses. This back and forth of peaks and valleys, lands Bound in a middle ground that holds the title back from greatness, but also keeps it from falling into a void of mediocrity.Bound Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1Tucked under the surface of Bound’s captivating aesthetic, is an emotionally charged story about family, commitment, and closure. Told through portal-like narrative encapsulations, Bound’s style of storytelling is simple, yet tonally cryptic. I found myself reading into the state of the surrounding world quite frequently, coming to my own conclusions regarding the meaning of various plot threads. While visually minimalist on the surface, there’s a deeper level of emotion at play within the short, yet competently paced few hours it takes to complete the adventure. Imaginative in much of its design, Bound kept me engaged with its shifting storytelling direction as it rhythmically danced along. Much like the alluring nature of the vibrant setting, the detailed animations of the mysterious protagonist are handled with a visual elegance. Assuming the role of a princess, you’re tasked with the responsibility of protecting your mother’s kingdom from the daunting monster that lurks within. Similar to your traditional fairytale, Bound isn’t afraid to flaunt its inspiration. In spite of the seemingly routine premise, there’s a significant emotional resonance to be felt whilst spinning in gleeful dance.

BOUND IS POETICALLY AND VISUALLY MESMERIZING, YET OFTEN UNEVEN

Looming over the wonder of Bound’s world are invasive mechanical shortcomings that quickly begin to derail the atmospheric progress being made around them. For as much as the sly animation and intriguing level design convey a sense of polish, the same can’t be said for the moment to moment gameplay. Movement is stiff, restrictive, and frequently unresponsive, repressing the momentum of traversing a landscape to the pits of the experience. Much of the platforming sections come across as an afterthought, with simple directions to follow and little opposition presented along the way to challenge a skill set. There are moments where Bound hints at breaking free from its design structure, allowing uninterrupted freedom for the player to express themselves within. However, these ambitions fail to exist, falling back on a gameplay loop that’s mechanically pointless.

Many of Bound’s aspects find themselves caught in wanting to have their cake and eat it too. The experience strives toward artistic achievement, while also yearning for responsive gameplay to heighten the immersion. In regards to the aesthetic and narrative design, Bound fulfills its vision superbly, yet stumbles in places where it counts for the project to flourish as a game. I may have been singing a different tune to this title if it had approached gameplay in a more uninvolved manner, opting instead for an experience along the lines of a walking simulator. Bound’s biggest blunder is being tightly wrapped up in self-imposed limitations, letting the qualms of its mechanics manifest into a deal breaker.Bound Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 3ConclusionBound isn’t the full realization of its potential, but it’s certainly not without its share of momentary achievement. Dancing through the artistically vibrant world pulsating with stylish flare, remained a joyful endeavor, even when having to put up with subpar mechanics. Woven within Bound’s shortcomings, is a fascinating game about coming to terms with emotions, presented in a subtle, yet relatable fashion. It’s an expressive experience, and while the game makes a disruptive habit of getting in its own way, there’s still a poignant beauty to get lost in. Throughout its entire duration, Bound feels like an elaborate crescendo to something profound. What waits at the end of the journey is indeed important, bestowing the player with a motive to reflect. That reflection renews the exuberance felt in the briskly paced opening moments, but also restates the fact that the road getting there was turbulent and often tedious. This thoughtful initiative sparked by the narrative conclusion summarizes Bound, itself, quite impeccably. For both better or worse.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Bound. Find me @BraxHaugen.


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No Man’s Sky Review

“Space Cowboy”

Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: August 9, 2016
Copy purchased 

No Man’s Sky is the embodiment of a creative entity larger than life itself. After a monumental wave of hype leading into its release, No Man’s Sky has finally arrived. And simply put, it’s not the game many of us had it pinned as. On one hand, No Man’s Sky is a groundbreaking technical achievement, yet on the other, Hello Games’ galactic endeavor is frustratingly obtuse, lacking in personality, and drenched in inescapable repetition. For every moment I spent succumbing to the palpable scale on display throughout each realm of the universe, an equally as revelatory drawback revealed itself. No Man’s Sky lives on the whisking fumes of novelty, a driving force that initially carries the experience to great heights, though eventually fades into the background as more unsavory elements set in. There’s an unprecedented range of emotions that come with embarking upon the adventure that awaits; some exhilarating, others infuriating. Pushing the extremely overhyped expectations aside, No Man’s Sky is a fascinating, occasionally beautiful, and unique game, weighed down by impending pressures of boredom and redundancy.No Man's Sky Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1Encompassing some of the most ambitious concepts in a video game to date, No Man’s Sky is still worthy of praise on many levels, even when taking into consideration its abundance of shortcomings. Marketed as one of the largest games ever created, Hello Games have kept to their bold claims regarding scale. Impressively following through with the proposition that players are free to explore within a procedurally generated universe–including over 18 quintillion planets designed to scale–No Man’s Sky feels unfathomably expansive. However, that scale comes at a cost. In the process of focusing on size and the expanse therein, the character of the game is lost somewhere in space. We’re left with a static personality to carry No Man’s Sky’s galactic charm, a weak link in the initial hours that slowly begin to become more problematic.

Lacking any real clear means to an end, the act of playing No Man’s Sky is built upon a seemingly endless churn of activities, much of which fall short of their intended substance. You’ll explore various systems among the stars, mine resources, trade goods, attempt to survive within harsh conditions, and engage in occasional combat. As far as structure goes, No Man’s Sky isn’t much of a committed facilitator. It’s a game of no concrete guarantees, instead reliant upon one’s own burning motivation to explore. There’s no promise that what you’ll find in a solar system will be of any interest, or even enjoyment, but there’s something to be said for No Man’s Sky’s dedication to vision. Constantly keeping in mind its priorities, the title is able to achieve moments of pure, awe-inspiring wonder, yet they are short-lived. Ironically, for as open ended as No Man’s Sky prides itself at being, it can feel cripplingly small-minded. It’s a game of fleeting, though triumphant success, rooted in commendable ambition that leads to both grand highs and devastating lows.

NO MAN’S SKY LIVES ON THE WHISKING FUMES OF UNEXPLORED NOVELTY

Atop No Man’s Sky’s strongest elements sits the joyful wonder of unfettered exploration. Never before have I felt as sizably insignificant in a video game. Witnessing the sheer vastness of the universe is a special collection of moments that deeply impresses within the opening hours. However, the same level of amazement which elevates No Man’s Sky’s relatively positive, first impression, fails to stick around; their initial presence can’t be restated enough.

These embryonic instances of atmosphere and design coming together as one, act as some of the most powerful revelations I’ve experienced in a game. While the sustainability of these emotions are brief, No Man’s Sky still touts its ability to evoke them in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s about where No Man’s Sky’s skill to conjure genuine excitement and entertainment stop. The experience is intricate and frequently daunting, however, its complexity isn’t earned by interjecting depth into moment to moment gameplay. Instead, No Man’s Sky achieves its complexity by hounding the player with an array of tasks to engage in, many of which begin to grate on the enjoyment of the larger picture. With so many systems to constantly be aware of, there are moments where No Man’s Sky feels like yet another installment in the crafting-centered genre of survival games. Without the intriguing procedural world design and aesthetic heavy setting, No Man’s Sky is just another example of a resource management survival game. Many core elements essential to the package are seemingly overlooked or utterly forgotten in the wake of mismanaged execution that prioritizes scale.No Man's Sky Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2As I traveled further into the galactic expanse, I found my mind drifting back to where my adventure began. Following the greeting title screen, No Man’s Sky starts by placing you on a planet with the objective to repair your damage spacecraft using resources found within the environment. What makes the checkbox task feel special is how it’s presented within the surrounding setting. The planet in which you start the game on is unique to you, specifically, with each player beginning their journey on their own home planet. It’s a small, but effective touch that instills the sense of scale to come. Immediately overwhelming, No Man’s Sky resists holding your hand as soon as you step forward.

There’s no flashing arrow or checkpoint to follow, only your own set of priorities. Once overcoming the slightly confusing inventory collection and management system that ties back into the core gameplay, it can feel freeing not to be pushed in any one direction. Narratively passive, No Man’s Sky takes a backseat approach when it comes to steering the player in a certain direction. The closest it comes to a mainline story or path to follow is twofold. First is the Atlas path, second is finding the center of the universe. Neither path holds the necessary involvement long enough to maintain a quenching motivation, curtailing the desire to continue. Both options feel unnecessarily prolonged, unsatisfying, and destructively repetitious.No Man's Sky Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 3During your journey, a myriad of tasks will surface for you to take part in. Chief to them is touching down on planets to explore, discovering new life, and mining for resources, among other menial endeavors meant to aid your venture. Repeating this process every time you enter a new solar system is the name of the game, taking up the lion’s share of the gameplay. Reinforcing the resource-geared gameplay loop is a trading ecosystem spanning the entire galaxy. With a currency incentive to collect and sell what you find on planets, No Man’s Sky deeply roots itself in a routine churn of boxes to check.

Past a certain point the luster is lost in playing your role in the ecosystem. This takes a consequential chip out of the potential longevity that’s touted to be a pivotal aspect of the experience. When it comes down to it, the short list of exercises that occupy the space of what you’ll actually be doing in the game grows dull and succumbs to a tiresome slog of mind-numbing repetition. At times it can feel like No Man’s Sky is trying to hide its problems behind the scale it embodies, in turn, devaluing the success of its most significant accomplishments.

A SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS NEEDED WHEN LOOKING TO IMMERSE YOURSELF

No Man’s Sky isn’t what I’d anticipated in many respects and that’s perfectly okay. However, even with my conservatively optimistic expectations, one aspect in particular stood out as a major letdown: immersion, or the lack thereof. I was by no means looking to No Man’s Sky for it to be the end-all of video games, but I did hope for it to provide a level of escape driven by unique scale. On paper it wildly succeeds, presented with a seemingly boundless universe to explore, ripe with galactic intricacies. Nevertheless there’s more to the picture than simply size. Personality and character account for a lot in games, and No Man’s Sky struggles to interject much of these traits into its building blocks. I couldn’t help but to get ripped out of the experience on numerous occasions do to the overall stiffly staged quality the presentation personifies. From static interactions with NPCs that go no deeper than text conversation with simplistic pop-up character models, to the bland routine of farming resources, the entire universe feels lifeless and unmoving come a certain point. The galaxy comes across devoid of its own character, acting as if it’s the player’s duty to imagine their own version of it.

While a technical marvel on so many levels, No Man’s Sky also falls victim to an assortment of performance hiccups. Ranging from notable frame rate drops to numerous hard crashes, No Man’s Sky is by no means in great technical shape. Within my collection of hours spent flying around the universe, I’ve been interrupted by just short of a dozen crashes. Frustrating and discouraging, these bumps in the road are heightened by considerable losses of progress and long load times to reenter the game.No Man's Sky Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 4No Man’s Sky is visually competent, only occasionally rising above the simply passable graphical quality that hangs in the air for most of the experience. Out of the large portion of planets I touched down on, very few stood out as aesthetically striking. And even then, distracting from their temporary beauty is excessive texture pop-ins, visible from on foot and in the air. Additionally, when utilizing your mining to collect resources, taking chunks out of structural deposits doesn’t engage any sort of physics reaction once having removed the base. This leaves the remaining resources to statically float in air, restating the required suspension of disbelief if looking to truly immerse yourself within No Man’s Sky.

Each time I boarded my ship, having stepped away from the game for any increment of time, I was engulfed with a brief, though reoccurring, sense of hope. The proposition of No Man’s Sky’s near infinite world still had me wanting to believe in its magic, even when the problems came knocking. This optimistic revelation proceeded to repeat itself for hours, until one minute as I stood at the peak of a quiet ridge, they stopped. With my motive to continue, fading alongside the breeze moving the grass at my feet, I’d come to terms with the fact No Man’s Sky had no closure to offer me. I’d spent hours following the Atlas path, only to lose my will to see it through. I then transitioned to finding the center of the universe, and eventually walked away from both treks without resolve. Each journey lacked the pace and consistency to align with the gameplay in a satisfying light, managing to extract the perseverance necessary to see either one through. Standing on the ridge with all these realizations rushing to me, I let out an audible sigh. I knew this planet would be my last stop. I knew this is where my journey would end.No Man's Sky Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 5ConclusionNo Man’s Sky is an oxymoron of design. Sprawling in scale and groundbreaking in technical execution, Hello Games has created a genuinely pioneering piece of work. Yet, in the process of sizable expansion, much of No Man’s Sky ends up feeling constrained, staged, and shallow. In its best moments, the game is beautifully introspective. Simply being left alone with my own thoughts in the face of an incomprehensibly expansive universe, culminated into some of the most profound moments I’ve witnessed in all of games. The loneliness of the entire galactic undertaking is also impactful, though little is done to refine it into a prominent strength. Even the initially meditative routine of traveling through space looses its calming charm in the presence of irrefutable repetition. No Man’s Sky is a wonderful idea, but in its current shape, it’s far from reaching the potential that sparked its initial hype. I was constantly left asking the question “Is this it?” as I continued toward the next solar system. By the end of my tedious, awe-inspiring, and exhaustive adventure, I did get an answer to my much raised question.

That’s it.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on No Man’s Sky. Find me @BraxHaugen.


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Batman: Episode 1 – Realm of Shadows Review

“Welcome To Gotham”

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Format: iOS, Android, PC, Mac, PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: August 2, 2016
Copy purchased

The iconic Caped Crusader has taken many forms over the years, transcending an array of mediums, from comics, to blockbusters, and everything in between. Coming from someone who looks to Batman as the most compelling superhero ever created, Telltale Games’ take on the Dark Knight had me hopeful. With the strong writing acumen Telltale has become known for, the potential for one of the best video game adaptations of Batman is certainly here. In spite of expectations, the premiere episode, Realm of Shadows, stumbles to get the season running on the right note.Batman- Episode 1 - Realm of Shadows Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1There are moments in which Realm of Shadows flexes its talent, demonstrating the series is capable of great highs, yet as it stands now, the premiere isn’t enough to settle the nagging reservation heading forward. Overblown dialogue, meandering character actions, and some weakly-orchestrated fight scenes, bring the episode a sub-par feeling of quality. Saving Batman’s debut episode, however, is the promise of what comes next. Realm of Shadows picks up its momentum towards the latter half, focusing on developing the increasingly intricate story at play. Multifaceted, Telltale’s narrative is one intwined in both the realities of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Their juxtaposition of personas stand as the foundation of the story, acting as a sturdy backdrop for what’s to come. The opening episode is also a fair introduction to the world, exploring the modern identity of Gotham and the inner workings of its political and social climate. Gotham feels like a real city reflecting on its golden age, holding its head high in hopes of a crime free and corruption free tomorrow.

REALM OF SHADOWS IS PASSABLE, IF NOT SLIGHTLY UNDERWHELMING

Eager to see that movement is Bruce Wayne, aligning himself with Harvey Dent to put into motion positive political change. In Bruce’s shoes, you’ll make decisions that have an affect on Harvey’s campaign, either weakening or strengthening his odds of success. In traditional Telltale fashion, decisions play out under the constraints of a timer, lending a palpable sense of tension to interactions, no matter how big or small. The most compelling aspect about making decisions as Bruce, is knowing, or not knowing, how the decision will affect Batman, and vice versa. It’s an interesting dimension that gives credence to Telltale’s narrative ambition, strengthening the story as a whole. Working against these strides, is an annoying overreliance on expositional dialogue and previously tread upon storytelling. By now, everyone understands the fate of Bruce’s parents and the motivation of Batman, yet Telltale doubles down on reiterating what can be considered basic Batman lore. This decision leads to multiple momentum-halting segments of the episode which drag on far too long. Affecting both Bruce and Batman’s segments, the familiar writing can begin to feel exhausting.Batman- Episode 1 - Realm of Shadows Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2Unfortunately, similar disappointments are to be found within the few action sequences that color the dialogue-heavy episode. Presented in quick time event centered combat–akin to past Telltale games–trowing punching as Batman feels scripted and heavily constrained. The cinematic flare accomplished during these scenes is impressive, but it’s not enough to make you feel like Batman himself. I couldn’t help feeling like a viewer of the action, rather than a direct participant. Made most apparent when missing the window to execute upon a QTE, Realm of Shadows’ combat portions reveal a lack of potential failure, allowing for missed QTEs to effectively have no impact on the fate of the gameplay encounter. While in theory it wouldn’t make sense for Batman to get pummeled by simple thugs, the way fights operate are in need of substantial changes if looking to embrace any sort of tension. As of now, the combat in Telltale’s Batman comes across as a façade, a weak point that’s in dire need of refinement come later episodes.Batman- Episode 1 - Realm of Shadows Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 3ConclusionRealm of Shadows isn’t a great first impression for Telltale’s Batman series. Riddled with unevenly paced dialogue and restrained action sequences, the premiere episode is lacking in more areas than one. That said, the assortment of plot threads hanging in the air could very well evolve into something incredibly compelling. On paper, there’s no reason why Telltale’s newest series should be anything less than good, sporting a skilled cast of voice actors, a talented team of writers, and perhaps most importantly, creative freedom over the Batman license. Realm of Shadows, however, challenges that notion, coming out the gate with a jumbled, exposition-reliant, and occasionally enjoyable episodic look at the World’s Greatest Detective.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Batman: Episode 1 – Realm of Shadows. Find me @BraxHaugen.


6.5

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ABZU Review

“Riveting Reflection”

Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 
505 Games
Format: PC, 
PS4 (reviewed)
Released:
August 2, 2016
Copy purchased

ABZÛ conducts itself with a rare, beautiful, and often astonishing gracefulness. Acting as the first game from the newly assembled development studio, Giant Squid, founded by Flower and Journey art director, Matt Nava, ABZÛ is a spiritual successor of sorts. Certainly not a carbon copy of what came before it, Giant Squid’s underwater endeavor is therapeutic and refreshing, injecting a poignant sense of life into all of its submerged facets.

The game’s influence extends beyond the title itself, displaying a creative easel of meditative artistry that offers a welcome escape from reality’s boisterous vocals. While peppered with a few tense moments, ABZÛ’s is mostly a peaceful endeavor, unconfined from traditional gameplay and design structure. Splashing, diving, and floating about the vastness of open water and enclosed caverns as sea life surrounds you, is a deeply resonant and newly embarked upon feeling. ABZÛ gave me a unique look at an untouched frontier and a deep dive into what lives among the depths of the ocean. The short, yet effective venture provided a nuanced perspective on the inner workings of an ecosystem and the unspoken bonds therein, invoking an uncommon rush of emotions. ABZÛ is a wonderful and assertively confident exploration of life, and its layered, thought-provoking impact won’t escape me anytime soon.ABZU Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1First impression may lead you to believe ABZÛ is simply a swimming simulator. And while that assertion isn’t completely false, there’s more to ABZÛ than a quick glance from the surface can glean. In order to better understand it, one must submerge themselves in the Giant Squid’s colorful and delightful portrayal of the deep blue sea. Just existing within ABZÛ’s world is purely captivating. Forgoing a traditional introduction, ABZÛ impressively begins with no narrative context to what’s happing, placing you in the role of a mysterious diver. The nameless protagonist is silent and the story surrounding them is completely nonverbal, interposing a sense of unfettered purity. Nothing ever gets in the way of ABZÛ’s silent narrative, allowing the title to confidently hone in on its aquatic-based presentation. Much like Journey, ABZÛ never struggles to invoke emotion. Each time the game focuses on summoning a specific sentiment, the swiftness and ease on display are impressive. For a game set in an otherworldly environment, ABZÛ manages to comfort you with its serene sense of place. There’s no blatant story to follow here, but the calming wonder of exploring the ocean’s depths is powerful enough to rival thousands of lines of dialogue.

ABZÛ IS ARTISTICALLY STUNNING AND EMOTIONALLY EVOCATIVE

Propelling you through its just under three hour runtime, ABZÛ’s setting comes with a gravitational pull of beauty. Beckoning your attention, the detailed locales and underwater life is easy to lose yourself in. Whether exploring sunken civilizations or swimming alongside monumental sized whales, ABZÛ plays with the scale of encounters in clever and constantly inventive ways. In one instance, the camera began to methodically pull black, putting into perspective the size and ultimate insignificance of the mysterious diver in the face of the ocean’s more substantial occupants. Communicated beautifully, ABZÛ is an exercise in developing a sense of place. Nothing stands out more than the ocean itself, acting  as a key player in forming what makes the experience so incredibly memorable.

Musically, ABZÛ flourishes. Each note of the Austin Wintory’s score is breathtaking, invoking palpable, emotional feedback as the music swells. Synchronizing the world’s captivating tone with a beautiful soundtrack is among ABZÛ’s most pronounced strengths, never lessening its masterful quality through the duration of the experience. It’s a striking fantasia of excellence, and one that I’ll be keeping on repeat for sometime to come.ABZU Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2Going off of presentation alone, ABZÛ is one of better looking and tonally crafted games of recent years. Nevertheless, there’s more to it than its supremely refined coat of polish that glistens throughout the odyssey. Where ABZÛ is held back from excelling beyond greatness, is in the simple, though largely uninvolved gameplay it embodies. While traversing about the gorgeously-realized sea floor, very little challenge or basic skill is presented or asked of the player. Initially, the less involved emphasis on mechanical driven gameplay is refreshing, offering a departure from the barrage of tutorials that have become commonplace. However, as peaceful as ABZÛ’s “hands-off” approach to gameplay is, it ultimately holds the title back from reaching the same level of profoundness that made Journey a masterpiece. Gameplay wasn’t the total focus there, but it also wasn’t an afterthought. It isn’t completely one here either, but the agency the player has at any given time can feel restrained. ABZÛ’s gameplay is accessible to a fault, sticking to a short list of functions entailing diving, boosting swim speed, performing tricks, and my personal favorite, riding the larger fish in the sea. Even when recognizing its strengths, I was left wanting more from ABZÛ’s gameplay.ABZU Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 4It’s impossible not to draw similarities between ABZÛ and Thatgamecompany’s Journey. Embodying many of the same visual and mechanical traits as its spiritual predecessors, ABZÛ is very much the thematic continuation of what Journey accomplished at the time of its release. Even in the act of hitting many of the same narrative, aesthetic, and emotional beats as Journey, ABZÛ remains original and refreshing. Relying on themes strongly reminiscent of the ones drifting through the whisking sands of Journey’s gorgeous desert, the underwater setting brings a new dimension to the peaceful and often emotional messages at work.

BEING SURROUNDED BY THE SEA IS THERAPEUTIC AND AWE-INSPIRING

Absent from ABZÛ is the riveting incorporation of multiplayer that painted Journey’s adventure with unforgettable interaction between others. However, the absence of the feature doesn’t hurt the package, for ABZÛ isn’t a lonely game. You’re constantly in the presence of colorful and flourishing life, from thousands of fish, to luscious plant life shrouding the seabed. Surrounded by the sea’s inhabitants is a comforting, awe-inspiring, and occasionally frightening experience, showcasing a world rarely explored as extensively within games.ABZU Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 3ConclusionABZÛ is disarmingly meditative. Swooped up in the vibrant and striking visual hues of the ocean’s vast expanse, I was utterly enthralled from start to finish. The level of immersion surging through the waves of ABZÛ is impeccable, rarely showing cracks in its presentation. Carried along at a speedy momentum, no time is wasted and each sequence makes the most of its thematic potential. The biggest issue looming over ABZÛ’s greatness is the lack of mechanical agency it lends the player. For as impactful as the underlying, subtly conveyed narrative is, the same sense of tangible feedback can’t be said for the player’s own role. Sure, from a gameplay perspective everything performs competently, but the depth of the mechanics stop at the surface. Nevertheless, even with a few “hands-off” feeling moments, ABZÛ remains simply wonderful in presentation. Calm, collect, and at times astoundingly profound, Giant Squid has come out of the gate with an enrapturing winner.

 Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on ABZÛ. Find me @BraxHaugen.

8.5
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Headlander Review

“Ground Control”

Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: 
Adult Swim
Format: PC, 
PS4 (reviewed)
Released: July
 26, 2016
Copy purchased

Headlander is corny, unconventional, and consistently some of the zaniest enjoyment I’ve had with a game this year. Double Fine’s latest embodies the approach of a side-scrolling metroidvania, communicating its retro 70’s sci-fi aesthetic with catchy visuals and stunning sound design. Reinforced by quirky humor sure to provoke a grin, Headlander’s stylistic highs work cohesively with the rest of the experience. This synchronization of strengths creates for a memorable space venture fused together with charm, fashion, and novel gameplay concepts. While the road certainly has some notable bumps in it–including a few truly enraging moments–Headlander mostly comes out on top, offering a wacky and inventive take on a beloved genre.Headlander Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1The differences between your average metroidvania titles and Headlander are apparent from the get-go. Beginning with the immediate realization you’re in control of a rocket-powered helmet, incasing a head, Headlander prides itself on subverting common expectations. In comparison to filling the role of a more “boots on the ground” type of protagonist, Double Fine’s nuanced approach to its lead character lends a great deal of uniqueness to the core gameplay driving the experience. In search of a body and answers, you’ll navigate about an array of environments seeping with colorful flare and offbeat humor. Guiding you in your efforts to garner the truth is a faceless man named Earl, issuing commands and humorous interjections over your helmet’s communication functionality. Providing insightful background on the state of the world and leading you from one objective to the other, Earl acts as useful and likable company as you explore. These same personable traits ring true for Headlander’s many exotic robotic NPCs, whom spend their time wondering throughout the world map rambling on about their lives and silly ambitions. A good amount of dialogue overheard during my trek, invoked chuckles, feeding into genuine laugh-out-loud moments that reflected Double Fine’s signature quirky charm.

HEADLANDER IS AN EXAMPLE OF A ZANY IDEA COME TO FRUITION 

Keeping with the flashy momentum of the story, Headlander’s gameplay is fast, thoughtful, and well-tuned. In terms of mechanical performance, Headlander acts as one of Double Fine’s finer projects in recent years. Controls are fluid and responsive, applying to both playable forms: jetting around in the helmet and occupying robotic bodies. Attaching to a body is a simple mechanic, yet is one that provides ample variety throughout the experience. Weather removing the head of an unsuspecting robotic bystander, confrontational adversary, or dog, yes, you can be a dog. Headlander does an excellent job at placing you in the shoes of many different characters. More impressively, is the diversity each new body comes with. Some are simply there for your amusement, while others act as a necessary stepping stone to progressing through the narrative.Headlander Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2As a floating head equipped with rocket boosters, you’ll zoom around the multilayered map encountering vibrant combat sections, hidden upgrades, and shortcuts to more effectively traverse the world. Headlander’s combat proved to be among the highlights of the experience, imploring players to experiment with different playstyles. Weather constantly body switching, firing colorful laser beams from cover, or smashing into enemies with upgraded helmet attack abilities, the confrontations lining the color-rich corridors and public spaces of Headlander never got old. There was always more than one way to go about combat encounters, with the exception of a few poorly handled boss battles.

By and large, Headlander takes a back seat approach to puzzle solving. Sticking to the graspable concept of color coded admission, the most common obstacle to push through being doors that only allow specific robots coated with the required color to enter. Thanks to the amusing body switching mechanic, tricking these security doors are simple, never substantially getting in the way of the title’s energetic pacing. More so than past Double Fine projects, Headlander is an exercise in mechanical refinement, placing a heavier emphasis on gameplay and aesthetic than traditional storytelling. While initially somewhat confusing considering the narrative pedigree of its predecessors, Headlander strikes out on its own merits, developing a unique set of priorities that ultimately lead it to greatness.Headlander Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 4For as consistently fresh as Headlander presents itself, Double Fine’s 70’s sci-fi romp occasionally stumbles. Chief to the title’s downfalls are two underwhelming boss encounters and an assortment of infrequent, though substantial technical issues. In regards to the boss battles, each climactic sequence is actively at odds with the frenetic and largely accessible pace that proceeded them. The first of the encounters is palatable, if not slightly disjointed from the gameplay interactions before it. The second however, is another story. Acting as the game’s last hurrah, your confrontation with Methuselah (the game’s antagonist) is led up to with vigor, yet the encounter itself falls completely flat. Prolonged and underwhelming, the final confrontation pales in comparison to the bulk of the adventure. Worse yet, I suffered a handful of hard crashes when making my way through Headlander’s close to 10-hour story. Fortunately, thanks to a generous checkpoint system, I was able to get away without losing much progress. Nevertheless, it was an unnecessary annoyance that tainted the flow of enjoyment that was otherwise surging strong. The frustrating thing about these moments is that Headlander has the right to be better, failing to align with the immense polish of the rest of the experience.Headlander Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 3ConclusionIn spite of a few unsavory design moments and technical hiccups, Headlander remains one of my favorite projects from Double Fine in recent memory. The creativity on display throughout the retro infused adventure is contagiously joyful, proliferating the humor and personality throughout. When it comes down to it, the strange nature of the narrative setup is simply a jumping off point for the gameplay to grow into its own. Flying around as a head, engaging in various combat and puzzle encounters remained a novel concept until the credits rolled. Smartly, Headlander avoids overstaying its welcome, keeping the pace of the project in mind at all times. While I could have gone with a bit more thorough narrative payoff and exploration, the trade-off was a visible and ultimately necessary sacrifice to keep things rolling speedily. This concession holds Headlander back from joining the same storytelling pedestal as Double Fine’s past endeavors, however, it stands as the most mechanically enjoyable of the developer’s offerings this generation. There are certainly a couple of components that could have been handled more effectively, yet they didn’t stop me from having a great time with Headlander’s fresh and funny take on the age-old genre.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Headlander. Find me @BraxHaugen.


8
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Riptide GP: Renegade Review

“Taking On Water”

Developer: Vector Unit
Publisher: 
Vector Unit
Format: PC, 
PS4 (reviewed)
Released: July
 26, 2016
Copy supplied by publisher

Perhaps years ago, Riptide GP: Renegade would have had the necessary components to impress. Coming with a wide variety of modes, maps, and customization, Renegade is in possession of the hard numbers to support a worth-while water racer. However, Riptide GP: Renegade fails to meet the highs of its vibrant 90s arcade influences, drifting to the wayside as it falls victim to its lesser qualities. Poor visuals, obtuse pacing in career mode, and an overall lack of aesthetic zest, rob Renegade of the opportunity to sit upon the genre’s throne. The entire experience struggles to make much of a positive impression, putting forth a wealth of activities for players to compete in, then proceeding to stumble when attempting to reinforce them with anything exhilarating. Riptide GP: Renegade isn’t offensively bad, but the bland and drab nature of its gameplay, visual design, and tedious progression, hold it back from being impressive.Riptide GP- Renegade Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 1At the core of Riptide GP: Renegade is an expansive career to participate in, offering racers a slew of different modes and maps to sink their teeth into. The initial scope of the mode is admirable, teasing an impending venture ripe with the versatility to inspire replayability. However, for as extensive and lengthy as Renegade’s story portion is, it can feel more exhausting than exhilarating. Mechanically, developer Vector Unit’s arcade water racer is par for the course. Accelerating with R2, preforming elaborate stunts with the joysticks, and boosting with X, the basic controls are about where they should be. This accessibility lends a level of graspable ease to pulling off stunts while airborne, making for an  somewhat enjoyable gameplay routine when racing around the various tracks. That said, the pattern wears thin before Renegade is able to fully plant its feet, causing for an experience that eventually devolves into a series of procrastinations. It becomes clear after a while that the full-scale career isn’t as diverse as it initially seemed, often drowning in repetition and ill-crafted ramping difficulty. The story attempted to be told here is also rather lackluster, bogged down by annoying text interjections from the career’s more prominent characters.

RENEGADE HOUSES A WEALTH OF ACTIVITIES, BUT STILL SUFFERS FROM REPETITION AND POOR PACE

Aside from Riptide GP: Renegade’s obnoxious narrative remarks, the project is also graphically rough around the edges, battling poor environmental textures and occasionally crude animations. Working with a noticeably low budget, Renegade can look and feel flat. Key aspects such as water physics, stunts, and the visual appeal of select maps, can actively work against the potential enjoyment to be extracted from Renegade’s more desirable components. Racing at breakneck speeds can be electrifying, especially when executing an array of death-defying stunts following a massive jump.

Even more commendable is Riptide GP: Renegade’s sweeping collection of activities. From online and splitscreen multiplayer, to leaderboard and career modes, the project certainly isn’t hurting for things to do; however, there’s a catch. Riptide GP: Renegade squanders its potential with increasingly obvious repetition, requiring multiple repeats of certain events if looking to make your way through the career’s entirety. These moments of redundancy severely halt the pace of play, demanding you return to past races in order to earn more in-game money and net more XP, which then goes into upgrading. It’s here where Renegade feels like an unnecessary grind, resulting in the realization that my skills had next to nothing to do with the fate of specific races. Instead, the only way to win would be upgrading the statistics of my hydrojet to the point it would be deemed passable. This isn’t an issue inherently, but the way in which the process is presentationally executed can be discouraging.Riptide GP- Renegade Review (Braxton Haugen) Image 2ConclusionAll is not lost with Riptide GP: Renegade. There are glimmers of thrills as you drift your turbo-powered jet ski around the winding courses, nevertheless, they’re not enough to sustain an impactful lasting impression. What we’re left with is a bland, repetitive, and occasionally enjoyable jaunt back to the nostalgic arcade racers of the 90s. The breadth of modes to experiment within are admirable, ranging from career, to leaderboards, to multiplayer options including both online and splitscreen. Riptide GP: Renegade isn’t lacking a volume of content, rather a fresh variety of activities to partake in and longterm incentives to maintain one’s dedication. There came a point where Renegade lost its motive for me to continue, failing to encourage spending more time on the water. In turn, this created for a swift loss of interest, pushing me away from spending more hours grinding to improve the effectiveness of my racer. Reminiscent of trailing behind in a high-stakes race, Riptide GP: Renegade often feels like mediocrity is nipping at its toes. Pulling it away from the finish line, Renegade’s more underwhelming tendencies eventually culminate into enveloping frustrations, holding back the title from the nostalgic highs of the experiences it pays homage to.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Riptide GP: Renegade. Find me @BraxHaugen.


5
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Kill Strain Review

“Straining Potential”

Developer: SIE San Diego Studio
Publisher: 
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Format: 
PS4 (reviewed)
Released: July
 12/19, 2016
F
ree-to-play

It’s not everyday a first-party exclusive on PlayStation 4 slips under the radar, managing to pull off a stealthy release. Sony San Diego’s free-to-play MOBA, mixed with twin stick shooter, Kill Strain has done just that. Having been long in development and undergone much beta testing, Kill Strain is here. While the final build occasionally shows traits of unrefined design with sluggish progression and an occasional choppy performance, Kill Strain still provided enough enjoyment to make my brief venture into its competitive multiplayer scene feel worthwhile.

Making a free-to-play model feel effective and respectful of players’ time is always a tedious undertaking, one that comes with a myriad of potential problems. Knowing Kill Strain leaned on this model concerned me prior to jumping in, but after spending time with Sony’s San Diego’s twin-stick shooter, deeply layered with MOBA attributes, my reservation was settled. Kill Strain isn’t a great game, but the free-to play model it employs refrains from acting as the overbearing killer it had the makings to be. Certainly coming with its fair share of annoyances, the payment model is far from perfect, casting ample irritation on otherwise promising aspects. The way microtransactions are worked into the game could use a lot of work, yet they’re still better than many of the poor examples ruining the “free-to-play” term for everyone else. However, when in the heat of the moment, Kill Strain excels past the mounting vexation that threatens to ruin the experience, offering an enjoyable vision of a twin-stick MOBA comprised of nuances and frustrations, alike.Kill Strain Review (Braxton Haugen) Screenshot 1Admittedly, MOBAs have never been my thing. I’ve always failed to see their continual pull, yet express a level of deep respect for their success and growing popularity. Kill Strain’s top-down, 5v2v5 competitive structure caught my eye thanks to its spin on the more traditional MOBA platform. Chiefly, Kill Strain isn’t point-and-click, rather adopting a twin-stick playstyle that lends a unique breadth of mechanical variety not seen in other popular examples of the genre. Do to this design, I found myself wrapped up in the conflict at hand much more quickly than, say, trying to understand the intricacies of Dota. The learning curve Kill Strain is built upon is relatively simple, making for an easy to grasp first impression. While helpful when originally getting acquainted with the core concepts, Kill Strain’s initially applaudable simplicities eventually hurt the project in the long run. There is a notable lack of compelling motive to continue, instilling a sense of boredom and repetition to all matches past a certain point. Kill Strain excels when it comes to the short game, but stumbles just about everywhere else.

ACCESSIBILITY IS KEY IN MAKING KILL STRAIN DIGESTIBLE, MATCH TO MATCH

Kill Strain’s match framework, however, comes with promise. Three teams deploy in front of their bases where they’re then tasked to destroy their adversaries’ respective headquarters. Comprised of two human teams with five players–referred to as mercs–and one mutant team made up initially of only two combatants, the ensuing action is frantic and layered. Additionally, the two core members of the mutant team possess the ability to turn freshly killed human players into mutants, growing the size and threat of their presence in battle. When everything comes together and operates in Kill Strain’s favor, it offered some of the more enjoyable moments I’ve had with the MOBA genre, yet. It’s a flawed and unevenly paced experience, but there is something to Kill Strain that had me hooked for a second.

Unfortunately, that revelation is short-lived. The way new mercs and mutants are unlocked with in-game currency–which can be purchased via microtransactions–proves to be increasingly troublesome the more you play. Leveling takes time, and the awards gleaned from full matches are small in comparison to the in-game asking price for almost everything in the game’s store. Knowing this whole system can be forgone if willing to pay real money is off-putting, and Kill Strain does little to subvert these common problems with the model. Technical caveats are also to be found, with the likes of infrequent, though impactful frame rate drops and unreliable server stability. Eventually, these annoyances mounted into frustration, pushing me away from wanting to continue onto the next match.

Furthermore, the project’s personality is never really given the opportunity to shine through, creating a bleak void of blandness. There’s a genuinely intriguing story to be extracted from Kill Strain’s lore, but aside from the introductory cinematic and descriptive bios, little substance is found within the actual title, itself. While gameplay is the obvious priority here, even it begins to wear thin, boiling down Kill Strain into an experience that impresses upon first look, yet proceeds to wane in quality the longer you linger.Kill Strain Review (Braxton Haugen) Screenshot 2ConclusionKill Strain is ultimately nothing to write home about, bogged down by run-of-the-mill technical hindrances and slow, exploitable progression. That said, even for all its weaknesses, Sony’s San Diego’s unique hybrid-like take on the MOBA formula provided me with some of the more memorable moments I’ve had with the genre in recent memory. From a gameplay perspective, the twin-stick shooting feels solid, mechanically differentiating the game from its peers. This kind of accessibility plays an enormous hand in giving Kill Strain an easy to grasp concept, allowing the game to shift its focus to refining gameplay aspects rather than thoroughly explaining what’s going on. Yet, even with its sprinkles of nuances, Kill Strain struggled to keep my attention beyond its opening hours. Matches overstay their welcome–no matter what side you’re playing–lobbies are unreliable, and the core progression in place to encourage replayability is tainted by the free-to-play model. Underneath these frustrations is a fresh experience clawing to break free and forge new ground for its respective genre, though as it stands now, victory is out of reach for Kill Strain.

Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Kill Strain. Find me @BraxHaugen.


6
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Furi Review

“Breaker Of Chains”

Developer: The Game Bakers
Publisher: 
The Game Bakers
Format: 
PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: July
 5, 2016
Copy purchased

If not for constantly getting in the way of itself, the trippy new project from The Game Bakers may have had a shot at greatness. Furi is a mechanically competent, visually unpolished, and narratively incoherent venture, carrying ambitious ideas on its shoulders with occasionally promising execution. Unfortunately, The Game Bakers’ stylistic bullet hell, mixed with sword fighter, suffers from poor writing and structure that fails to take the game anywhere of consequence. Instead, Furi feels like it spins its wheels, plotting where to steer the story next, ultimately procrastinating until the credits roll. It’s an empty game, ironically teeming with a methodology built on style, both in its music and art. However, for as strong as a tonal personality Furi leans on, it’s not enough to justifiably waive the frequently imbalanced gameplay or nonsensical tale it attempts to tell.Furi Review (Braxton Haugen) Screenshot 1Furi is the type of game that won’t have trouble weaving its way into the hearts of a niche group of fans. It has the makings to develop a cult following, drawn out by the stilted, yet mysteriously presented storytelling and intriguing world design. At times, Furi shows progress toward achieving something exciting, mixing an evocative mood with mechanical intensity, coming close to forming a unique trek for revenge. Assuming the role of an unnamed swordsman recently escaped from captivity, you’ll travel throughout a dreamlike world looking for an exit. Standing in your way of long-sought freedom are an array of bosses to face in combat, known as Jailers. Moving from one challenging adversary to another, Furi is made up almost solely of boss encounters, with the exception of cinematic sections where you control the hero as he strolls about the land in search of his next battle. In these moments of solace, Furi impresses, outshining its gameplay and trite story. The whole ordeal is simplistic when boiled down, embodying a straightforward vision that remains dedicated to its central goals, beginning to end. The perplexing and sometimes frustrating nature of Furi’s various core elements, inevitably inflict more slashes on itself, than its array of daunting bosses.

FURI IS A STYLISTIC MELD OF FANTASTIC IDEAS WITH MEDIOCRE EXECUTION

In terms of gameplay, Furi feels solid and satisfying when things come together. Strongest when mixing flashy twin stick shooting with melee combat in the heat of a tense battle, Furi occasionally generates memorable moments. Mostly appearing when chaining together a series of powerful attacks, or gracefully dodging a bullet hell portion of a boss’s evolution, fervent adversarial encounters weren’t in short supply.

Elevating each of these battles was the fantastic soundtrack surging contagious energy throughout the undertaking to bring down the next Jailer. Fresh, electronic beats considerably heightened the rush, as well as investment dedicated to the frantic, often overwhelming combat. Without a doubt the most presentationally consistent and well-orchestrated aspect of the package, Furi wisely blends music with distinct visual style and emphasis on action. It’s one of the few positive traits the title confidently upholds, standing tall even when the rest of the experience begins to reveal substantial cracks. Furi’s primary downfall is the overall structure, an unfortunate place to reside, considering how much of the game depends on it to maintain momentum. Gameplay, narrative, and pace, all suffer due to the formalities of Furi’s straightforward, yet frequently harmful structural rhythm. Battles almost always lost their luster as the fight raged on, annoyingly upping the challenge of the select foe the closer you got to victory–in turn unsavorily extracting the enjoyment of the encounter almost entirely.

This frequent display of unevenness within the heat of a confrontation, matched with the polarizing pompousness of the preachy storytelling, gave Furi an overall unapproachable vibe that pushed me further and further away the longer it went on. It’s blatantly visible just how much of a narrative statement wants to shine through here, though awful dialogue and painfully predictable turns prevent Furi from making even the slightest of points.Furi Review (Braxton Haugen) Screenshot 2ConclusionFuri is chasing an experience greater than itself. Admirable of ambition alone, The Game Bakers’ newest project may be notably rough around the edges, but it isn’t without impressive elements. Complimented nicely by a robust soundtrack and cinematic flare, even Furi’s more underwhelming moments were respectably stated with a firm dedication to tone. This maintained sense of vision–while sometimes obnoxious–elevates Furi higher than it would if simply riding on gameplay and narrative to sell the package. Mechanically, Furi doesn’t necessarily struggle, holding up just fine when the sword leaves its sheath. What kills the enjoyment from playing, is the poorly managed ramping difficulty apparent in nearly every boss encounter. Draining the cadence of combat, time and time again, the frustrating pace of most battles pushed me over the edge—a continual revelation far more impactful on the harder difficulties. At its best, Furi brings to the table high-octane action and a pulsating vibe consistent to its mood. Yet the noticeable lack of polish surrounding the project’s stronger aspects, considerably undermine their accomplishments. Constant screen tearing and infrequent, yet invasive framerate drops add to Furi’s shortcomings, chipping away its stylistic coat. Slowly, but surely, these flaws manifest into more than just minor annoyances, joining the title’s offensively poor dialogue, unrefined difficulty, and frustratingly disjointed take on storytelling. For a game centered around striking blows on your enemies, Furi struggles to stick the hits of its own, necessary to amount to anything special.

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5.5
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