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Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Price: $39.88
61 used & new from $31.75

3 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Mario and Sonic Explore The Depth of Human Suffering, March 28, 2016
If you want to understand the true depth of human suffering, be sure to pick up a copy of Mario and Sonic at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

If you don't, avoid this game like the plague.

I've never picked up an entry in the long-running Mario and Sonic Do A Sport Thing series, and for good reason. They've always kind of looked like kids' games. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. There's always a place for kids' games. I mean, heck, Mario and Sonic's series are both basically for kids. It's just that they're generally good games, so anybody can enjoy them. But the Mario and Sonic Hit The Gym Jamboree franchise always looked like a certain type of kids' game. The kind of kids game full of trite mini-games, no depth, no content, and no reason to actually exist. But I guess, as somebody who likes Mario and loves Sonic, I was destined to cross paths in one way or another with one of these games. So why not this one?

Why not this one? Because Mario and Sonic's Rootin' Scootin' Way Past Cool 2016 Rio Olympic Games is one of the most fundamentally awful video games I've ever had the displeasure of suffering through. No, really. That's not a joke. I'm not just being harsh on a children's game. This is actually one of the most fundamentally garbage games on the 3DS, or any console for that matter. It may even be the worst game I've played that has Mario or Sonic in it. Think about that for a second. Worse that Mario Is Missing or Hotel Mario. Worse than Sonic Labyrinth or Sonic R. Think about that. Let it sink in. Done?

I'm not even sure where to begin with this one, folks. For starters, let's talk about the main brunt of the game: the story mode. Path to the Games? Road to the Gold? I don't know what it's called, I got rid of the thing over the weekend, but it was something like that. You pick a Mii, you choose a side, you do a ton of mini-games, you beat another mini-game, you buy a costume so you can do another mini-game, then you win that mini-game. After you win enough mini-games, you get to go to another map. Guess what you do on that map? You play. More. Freaking. Mini-games. That's it. That's all there is to it.

It doesn't matter if you side with Team Mario or Team Sonic, because you're going to have to do practically the same things. It just depends on which shallow interpretation of characters you want to spend multiple hours of your life talking to. Do you want to talk to princesses and turtles, or do you want to live out a DeviantArt member's wild furry fantasy? Your call. But honestly, they might as well be called Team Garbage or Team Bunghole, because they both stink. Not to mention the fact that it's basically the same mode as that really bad Mario Golf that hit the 3DS a few years back. Just a longer, and with more artificial difficulty. Because if there was one thing I wanted more of from Mario Golf, it was playing as a stupid Mii.

I would go into the mini-games specific to the story, and how bad they are, but I'll go straight into talking about the gameplay overall: it's awful. The Rhythmic Gymnastics is the exact gameplay as Hatsune Miku Project Diva DX, except with about three songs. The BMX requires rapid mashing of a button and feels like carpal tunnel waiting to happen as opposed to fun BMX racing. None of the touch screen games are close to responsive and are more likely to damage your screen and nerves than be fun. Golf, freaking golf is somehow messed up, thanks to the developers having the bright idea to use the touch screen to play. Soccer, one of the big draws, is awful, thanks to wonky controls and broken AI. There are probably over twenty events on display here. I played them all. None of them are fun. No, really. None. Zip. Zilch. They're all awful, and you'll feel awful if you play them. I mean, the horse-riding one is kind of neat, I guess. Maybe. But... there's like one track. That's it. Same with everything here.

And the sad thing is, there are two versions of each event. The "real" version, and the version that's a whacked-out fantasy one. They all basically play the same, though, and not even dumb garbage happening on screen can make any of this ice pick to the skull of a game fun. It's just a non-stop soap enema in game form, no matter which mode you choose. It's a sudsy enema distilled onto a tiny cartridge and foisted upon unsuspecting children. And by the time you realize what you've given those children, it's too late. The bubble bath enema has already been delivered. Mario and Sonic Give Out Soap Enemas. That would have been a better title for this one.

Oh, I guess I should talk about the visuals, but really, why? They just make me upset. A lot of time has been put into some great renders of characters we don't get to see enough of. Like, I really want to see more of Princess Daisy, or Blaze the Cat, or Waluigi. But not like this. I've been wanting the Sonic series to put more of the supporting cast in the games for years, but... not like this. Not in this barren wasteland of a soulless husk of a mini-game enema collection masquerading as children's entertainment. It's like watching Charles Bronson in the last Death Wish movie. You just feel bad. You know they don't want to be there, but the cruel hands of developers manipulate them like puppets, contorting them into sportsball-related poses for the sake of a few quick bucks. They're pimps. Video game pimps. And these visuals? They're basically furry prostitution. You can quote me on that.

Nothing about Mario and Sonic at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games is good. The visuals are depressing. The gameplay is busted. The amount of content feels like a threat as opposed to a selling point. It's just a sad carnival of cringe that makes me think of everyone involved differently. And after I spent a while with it and played another game, I realized that a pixel on my New 3DS, barely three months old, had died.

That means that, no matter what, no matter what I play, no matter how many years pass, this game has left a permanent mark on my life.

Don't let Mario and Sonic at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games ruin your life, too. And don't let it ruin the lives of any children you know. If you see a copy of it, see if you can talk to a sales associate about burning it. Because a heap of melted, molten plastic would be more a contribution to this world than this miserable disaster.

Pros:
- The visuals are okay.
- It's basically functional.

Cons:
- Everything else.

Score: 1
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 23, 2016 1:07 PM PDT


Far Cry Primal - PlayStation 4 Standard Edition
Far Cry Primal - PlayStation 4 Standard Edition
Price: $34.99
139 used & new from $29.99

18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let's Go Clubbing, March 2, 2016
As I mentioned when I reviewed Just Cause 3, open-world games are getting to be a little rote. Free some outposts, blow up a thing, do enough stuff to progress the story, complete enough blah blah to upgrade your blah blah. While the scale and scope of video game worlds are more impressive than ever, the things developers are expecting players to be impressed by are getting to be, well... unimpressive.

Thank God for Far Cry Primal, then, which steers a wooly mammoth right into the competition.

Which wasn't my expectation, to be sure. The release of Far Cry 3 back in 2012 gave way to Far Cry: Blood Dragon, a fifteen-buck expansion that took the same basic gameplay and slapped a cheesy 80's coat of paint on it. It worked, yes, but part of the reason it worked so well was the price point. Asking sixty bucks for it would have been a bit much. That's why I was afraid Primal would be Far Cry 4's equivalent to Blood Dragon: a reskin, through and through, but with a retail price tag instead of a DLC one.

How wrong I was. Primal is not only a full-fledged experience, well worth every dollar spent on it, but also arguably the best Far Cry yet. Yes, in a franchise famous for open-world gunplay and large-scale destruction, a game where players are armed with spears and ride animals is perhaps the finest entry yet.

The reason for that, I'd contend, is that it does a particularly excellent job of making you forget you're ever playing a Ubisoft game to begin with. From Watch Dogs to Assassin's Creed to Far Cry to even The Crew, most every game to come from the French publisher bleeds together into a homogenous glob of sameness. Climb a thing to uncover more map, liberate so and so areas to get more so and so things, do enough stuff from a stuff-giver-person to get more stuff so you can help more stuff-giver-people. It's all very rote.

And, make no mistake, Far Cry Primal has the same basic skeleton of those games. But it's how the bones of that skeleton are rearranged, and the flesh and blood on top of it that makes it such a compelling experience.

For starters, the setting, characters, and arsenal all combine to make it feel like something fresh and original. When's the last time you built huts for cavepeople in a game, or rode a wooly mammoth through an enemy's village? How does your attack strategy change when sniper scopes and explosives aren't a thing? Are there really that many strong hunter women and one-armed men who urinate on you in video games? Primal is filled to the brim with a collection of oddities, as if the developers decided to stop kowtowing to the mainstream and just go completely bonkers with anything and everything. It pays off, because everything here is something unusually strange and different for Ubisoft. Which I like. Keep it up.

All of this works to hide the fact that the narrative is, while fun, not exactly original or clever. Big bad evil tribes have marginalized your tribe, which is clearly superior for reasons. Your job is, obviously, to completely wreck all the other tribes until you unify all of Oros under the Wenja tribe.

Sound familiar? It should, because it's basically the plot of the last two Far Cry games. A lone dude preserves the legacy of blah blah group of people for blah blah reasons and restores glory to said blah blah group of people. Now, this isn't a bad narrative, by any means. But it's definitely rehashed. It's fortunate that the dialogue and cast are both so top-notch, because if they were't, I'd be a little more critical. As it stands, though, I'd say that the narrative is inoffensive, and you're really going to be staying for the players involved more than anything.

Well, that and the gameplay, which is, in my opinion, the best in the series. Yes, again, I realize that Far Cry is a game about open-world shootbangs, and if you'll notice, Primal has little to no shootbangs. I actually hesitate to call it a Far Cry game at all, because it really feels like its own new IP. But because it is part of the franchise, I have to concede that it works better than any entry. The melee combat is fast and brutal. The ranged combat requires the utmost precision and punishes every missed shot. Movement feels more fluid and dynamic than ever before.

Whether you're scaling a cliff while fending off eagles from pecking you to death, or setting fire to a village as you throw spears into enemy tribes, there's a sense of fluidity and precision that I've never felt from an open-world Ubisoft title. It's pretty refreshing. The consistent mixing up of objectives helps, too.

Carrying out those objectives is more fun this time around, too, thanks to the heaping helping of new features. Training animals, while still basically a contextualized action, is rewarding, as different animals have different pros and cons, and are suited to different situations. Finding villagers actually feels worth it, because it brings your population up, which lets you build new huts, which lets you get new gear. Even the franchise's usual "tag enemies" gimmick is livened up by the addition of an owl, who can scout out territory and even function as a drone that players can bring raining down on unsuspecting enemies.

In other words, facets of other, lesser games are on display here. But in Primal, those facets are actually arranged in a way that manages to feel compelling, and not like a tedious checklist of stuff to do. Just Cause 3, Watch Dogs, Fallout 4 and even the excellent Assassin's Creed Syndicate are just four of the recent games that made me ask, "why am I even doing this?" I never asked that in Primal. I just grinned and got excited about unlocking more junk and more stuff to do.

It also doesn't hurt that the game is flatout gorgeous, either. Playing on a PS4, I was constantly convinced that I was playing a PC game on High or Very High settings, as the visuals were often lifelike in nature and the performance never dipped once. Light trickles in through trees that sway in the wind as grass crunches beneath your feet and you push through dynamic foliage, stalking an uncannily realistic enemy before impaling them and their squad. It sucks you in to the point where you'll forget you're even playing a game.

The textures, the shadow work, the animations... everything about Primal is nothing short of astonishing. I would hazard to call it a landmark work for visuals in console gaming, in fact. Nothing I've played on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, thus far, has managed to look this great while maintaining such pitch-perfect performance. This is exactly the kind of game I thought we'd be getting when this generation of consoles launched.

Far Cry Primal is, in fact, that kind of game as a whole. Everything about Primal feels like a step above its competitors, and then some. The story is a bit by-the-numbers, sure, and the music is a bit unremarkable. But when everything else about your game is so brilliant, and manages to capture you so completely, it's easier to forgive both those things.

Ubisoft has managed to make a game that retains all of its signature open-world elements, yet Primal's coat of paint is so arresting, so convincing that I can't help but concede that they're finally onto something.

Score: 9
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 3, 2016 10:17 PM PST


Unravel - PS4 [Digital Code]
Unravel - PS4 [Digital Code]
Price: $19.99

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Epic Yarn, February 14, 2016
Is a game best known for its awkward E3 presentation worth getting wrapped up in? Or is it just another puzzle-platformer in a market full of them?

Unravel follows Yarny, an anthropomorphic little yarn creature who falls out of a lonely old woman's knitting basket. Players guide him through a dozen unique worlds to gather various trinkets that hold some sort of significance to the old woman, and gradually restore her memories of a world that's seemingly left her behind.

The narrative is murky and mysterious, yet never really gets overbearingly dark. That's because, at its core, Unravel is a game about hope. Its touching story reminds players that even the smallest things can help the most downtrodden people feel some semblance of joy.

The idea of exploring a world to recover somebody's memories is pretty much old hat in gaming at this point, and yet I never felt like what Unravel was attempting to do was uninspired. It's very clear that a lot of love and care was put into crafting this small, emotional tale, and it's enough to forgive the somewhat derivative premise. A sincere yarn with a lot of personality, Yarny's tale is one that's both cute and touching in equal amounts.

That feeling of good will carries on to the gameplay itself. When it was first revealed, I'll admit that I, frankly, was not too enthused about Unravel. After the successes of Braid, Fez and Limbo, it feels like the hot new trend for a major indie release is to be a 2D puzzle platformer with a secretly emotional narrative. However, the sheer joy that one feels while playing Unravel was enough to make most of my bitter cynicism melt away. While the controls and platforming are pretty bog-standard, they still get the job done. And here, the job is for players to amble around large worlds, be astonished at the scale, and solve a series of puzzles.

The puzzles, however, are my chief complaint with Unravel. Quite honestly, one gets a bit tired of them after, say, three or four levels. That isn't to say that the puzzles are necessarily bad, per se, only that it becomes readily apparent that they're present to extend the length of the game and not much else. While some of the solutions and ideas behind them are original, those ideas get repeated early on in the game, and it doesn't really let up from there. Simply put, puzzles are present only to pad out gameplay length and to activate large set pieces. Which, granted, is generally how puzzles in games work, but when I can see through it so easily instead of getting lost in the game itself, it's a bit of a letdown.

That being said, the latter examples are definitely the more impressive, and it makes it easy to forgive some rudimentary puzzle-solving in order to do some of the cool things on display here. Whether it's revving a boat's motor, crashing a tricycle through a gate, or steering a kite through a dense forest, the big set piece moments in Unravel are some of the best out there, and make it easy for one to forgive the occasional repeated puzzle.

A major factor in what makes these set pieces work is how astonishingly gorgeous this game is. For a title with little to no promotion since its reveal, Unravel is easily one of the prettiest games I've ever played. Its aesthetic is similar to that of Pikmin or Chibi Robo: a tiny creature gets lost in a practically photo-realistic copy of the real world. Only here, the word "practically" barely applies, as the game depicts rippling waves, swaying branches, dew-covered plants and murky marshes with loving, painstaking detail. So much so, in fact, that one often feels that they're guiding a tiny computer-generated creature through high-definition footage of real wilderness.

On top of just being downright pretty, however, Unravel impresses most with its sense of scale. Puddles become ponds, moose become monsters, and everything we take for granted becomes a large scale obstacle for Yarny to find new ways to circumnavigate. With all of the games on the market about being a tiny thing navigating a bunch of large things, I have to concede that Unravel does it best.

And it's because of this that Unravel is a must-play in my book. Despite a healthy amount of puzzles that run together, the touching narrative, lush landscapes and astonishing visuals make for a memorable platformer in a world filled to the brim with them. Yarny is an endearing protagonist, and the world he (or she, or it) inhabits is one that I won't soon forget

Pros:
- An emotional and sincere story.
- Sense of scale is truly breathtaking.
- Visually astonishing.
- A lot of a content for twenty bucks.

Cons:
- Repetitive puzzles.
- Hidden collectibles serve no real purpose.

Score: 9
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 7, 2016 2:03 PM PST


Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam - Nintendo 3DS
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $34.00
78 used & new from $24.95

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Come On and Slam, If You Wanna Jam, February 1, 2016
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
The Paper Mario series really hasn't seen much love overall, has it? Comparatively speaking, it has some of the least entries in terms of Mario sub-series, and only two of those are really even stylistically similar. After a couple of turn-based RPG outings, the series was overhauled in the platforming-hybrid Super Paper Mario, taking the stylistic elements and stripping away literally everything else. Also, Sticker Star happened, and honestly, that's one crumbled-up scrap of paper that belongs in the trash can of gaming history.

That being said, it makes sense for Nintendo to take their most successful Mario-based role-playing franchise and crash it into the cult-hit series. They're both RPGs. They both have Mario. They're both funny. But does this idea work, or is it something that only sounds good on paper?

Really, the term "RPG" has to be used very loosely when talking about this game, because as anyone who's played a Mario & Luigi entry can attest to, this is a franchise that really isn't happy unless it's turning role-playing conventions on their head every five seconds. In Bowser's Inside Story, there was weird puzzle-platforming inside of Bowser's body. In Dream Team, there was bizarre "you're in Luigi's dreams" hijnks. It's definitely true that there's leveling up, turn-based battles, and the other bread-and-butter associated with traditional RPGs, but it's a far cry from the more definitive structures found in the first two Paper Mario titles and, for that matter, Super Mario RPG.

What's odd, then, is that crashing this franchise into Paper Mario didn't result in something more typical. Instead, it resulted in perhaps the most wildly experimental, varied entry yet. Even Paper Jam's turn-based battles are the strangest amalgamation of mechanics I've seen in the franchise to date, and definitely a shock to the system of anyone expecting a "normal" RPG.

While I'm not usually one to complain about unconventional blends of gameplay styles, I will say that, sadly, a lot of these mechanics add to a general lack of cohesion. In the span of thirty minutes, players can wildly swing from a turn-based battle to a collect-a-thon mission to a "find the hidden object" deal to "use a giant papercraft tank to take down enemies." Even in the middle of battles, there are new, weird gimmicks that players need to get the hang of. For example, Paper Mario's core mechanic consists of continually copying himself, which not only serves as his health, but also keeps his attacks from not completely sucking. That's stacked on top of the usual "dodge attacks and accurately hit buttons to do damage" schtick that's a hallmark of both franchises.

The good news is that, despite the game feeling like a grab-bag of different gimmicks, most of those gimmicks are pretty arresting. I really do think the papercraft battles are a lot of genuine fun, and have a distinct strategy and finesse to them. I also dig how Paper Mario is a totally different beast to use than Mario and Luigi in battle, as it definitely adds a sense of variety. That said, one sometimes wishes for a bit more consistency when there's an abrupt shift to a different gimmick that utterly blows.

Case in point: the monotonous "Toad Hunts," which are not optional affairs. No, these obnoxious stages, which require players to either chase Toads into each other to catch them, or to scan the environment for hidden Toads, are required to progress in the game. It's a shame, because they're easily the least fun part of the entire package. The directions are often counter-intuitive, they take too long for my liking, and I genuinely feel as if the rationale behind doing them (development of new technology to take on both Bowsers) is weak tea, at best.

And yes, I did say "both Bowsers." If you weren't already aware, Paper Jam's narrative concerns a magical book that holds the entirety of Paper Mario's universe getting flung open by accident (thanks, Luigi,) which sends the book's inhabitants crashing into regular ol' Mario's world. This means that the three-dimensional Mario interacts with the flat Mario, the normal Peach pals around with the paper Peach, and Luigi is pretty much on his own, because... screw Paper Luigi, I guess? But I digress. The central conflict has the Bowsers of both worlds forming a shaky alliance to kidnap both princesses, and both Bowser Jr.'s scheming to destroy the magical book so they can keep playing together.

As one might guess, this isn't exactly the most nuanced or in-depth narrative out there, but for what it is, it's great. And what it is, exactly, is a joke-a-second romp that pokes loving fun at the Mario franchise and stretches the "flat world meets 3D world" gags to their logical extremes. The dialogue here is easily the high point of the package, and practically makes it worth slogging through the Toad Hunts just to get to more of it. And even those have some clever jokes that make it easy to forget that you're doing a repetitive task for practically no reasons. Well. Almost.

The package is tied together by some impressive production values, especially for the 3DS. The pseudo-2D sprites that are a hallmark of the Mario & Luigi series look phenomenal here; their animations are fluid and lifelike in that Disney movie sort of way. The paper sprites also look great, with their signature visual trickery juxtaposed against a 3D environment, making their presence infinitely more interesting than the stuff we saw in Sticker Star. All of these sprites inhabit a vibrant, dynamic series of worlds that are positively teeming with personality, and are all a joy to explore.

Oh, there's also some amiibo stuff here, too. You scan an amiibo, you get a special card, that card does stuff in battle. It's non-essential, but it's a neat gimmick regardless. The same could be said of the New 3DS functionality, which allows players to pan the map while exploring, and to control the camera while in papercraft battles. Again, non-essential, but a nice thing to include.

On the whole, there are a lot of nitpicks I have with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. The lack of cohesion, the Toad Hunts, the inability to rein in its own ambition. But unlike lesser games, which can be made or broken by those things, Paper Jam is still an excellent title, in spite of its problems. Most of the gimmicks work, the story is a riot, the visuals are gorgeous, and it's a great title to play in short bursts or extended sessions.

While I do wish we could get a more focused experience in the vein of the classic Paper Mario titles, there's no denying that this is the best use of the property since the early 2000's, as well as one of the best Mario & Luigi entries.

Pros:
- A hilarious story packed with fresh humor.
- Dynamic, varied gameplay.
- Loads of content to be found.
- Quirky, fun visuals and a great score.

Cons:
- Disjointed and unfocused at parts.
- A bit gimmicky in some areas.
- Toad Hunt


Xenoblade Chronicles X Collector's Edition Guide
Xenoblade Chronicles X Collector's Edition Guide
by Prima Games
Edition: Hardcover
40 used & new from $30.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Incomplete Chronicles, December 26, 2015
I usually write very long and detailed reviews, as some of you may know, but this will be super brief.

Basically, this guide is good as two things: a pretty collector's item and a handy starter's guide to a lot of the stuff you'll find in Xenoblade Chronicles X. The bestiary and guide to side-quests, in particular, are both quite excellent. Make no mistake, this guide is not useless, and I have found myself consulting it a few times.

That said? There are some absolutely unforgivable omissions here. There are whole story missions where crucial navigation info is just left out. There are affinity missions that completely leave out whole objectives that show up in the game. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The actual "strategy" part of the guide is woefully lacking, and it's a shame that this is what you get for 35 smackers. As a whole, it ends up feeling incomplete and rushed, and sometimes feels like the writer hasn't seen everything the game has to offer in some glaringly obvious spots.

So, is it the worst strategy guide out there? Nah. It's competent and snazzy, but in areas where it matters most, it not only doesn't perform, but doesn't even try. If you like Xenoblade Chronicles X, and you want a handy tome to have by your side for grinding, enemy encounters, and items, then it's great, especially if you have the money to blow. But if you're tight on cash and plan to use this as your only source of info for the game, save your money, as it'll end up getting you stuck more than once.


Devil's Third - Wii U Standard Edition
Devil's Third - Wii U Standard Edition
Price: $58.69
28 used & new from $52.82

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dealing With The Devil, December 20, 2015
It wouldn't be far off to say that Devil's Third has been one of my most hotly-anticipated games ever announced. Sure, I was never the biggest fan of Itagaki's other big action series, Ninja Gaiden, but I always liked the general aesthetic and atmosphere of those games. Every Dead or Alive up until the abysmal fifth main entry was pretty solid, too. But what really drew me into the original announcement trailer for Devil's Third was not Itagaki's pedigree, but rather, how over-the-top everything looked. Running on walls, shooting limbs off of people in mid-air, seamlessly switching between hack-and-slash and shooting mechanics... it looked absurd in all the right ways.

After nearing death several times, Devil's Third has finally been cranked out by Nintendo. And while the state that the final product in is troubling, to say the very least, and basically none of that initial trailer is in the game, what we get is more or less what I wanted from Tomonobu Itagaki's freshman post-Team Ninja outing.

I say "more or less" because, frankly, there's no way around one simple fact: this game is a complete and total mess in more ways than one. The framerate is junk. The shooting mechanics are sloppy. The physics engine is catastrophically absurd. If any of those things sound like things that would make you unhappy, ignore the rest of this review. I preface with this only to give potential fair warning that, in a year full of polished 60 dollar releases, Devil's Third is woefully unprepared to compete for your dollar, especially in a month where the unfathomably good Xenoblade Chroncles X also hit the Wii U.

But does any of that mean that I don't like Devil's Third? Surprisingly? No, not really.

How is this possible, though? Logic dictates that a game which releases in a state that feels incomplete deserves lambasting and scorn. Indeed, my most successful review to date is my shredding of the horrifically bad Assassin's Creed Unity, which released in a buggy, broken, unplayable state that Ubisoft ought to have been ashamed of. What's the difference, then? Devil's Third is certainly buggy, and it could be argued some aspects of it are broken.

The difference between this and a AAA game that releases in a practically unplayable state is that while most games in that latter category are cynical, focus-tested exercises in monotony and repetition, Devil's Third is, for the most part, a total blast. From start to finish, but mainly in the game's far superior second half, the entire experience is a bizarre acid trip of original ideas and cliches, thrown into the psychedelic blender that is the mind of Tomonobu Itagaki, then poured into a cup that happens to be on fire. That rings true for the gameplay, the story, the aesthetic... everything. This game is a wild and wacky trip that's almost incomparable to anything else on the market.

That's made clear from the game's opening cutscene, in which former terrorist Ivan the Terrible is serving an 850 year sentence in Guantanamo Bay. In his cell, he's playing drums with a strobe light set-up while having flashbacks to his days of running with his terrorist peeps. After being called to break up a prison riot occurring inside of Guantanamo Bay, Ivan is forced to confront his past when his old friends blow up every satellite in space and therefore take out every source of electricity on earth. There are also ninjas, mutants with jetpacks, sword fights above a fiery abyss, and a boss fight with a woman in lingerie who uses bedroom moves to subdue you.

If you couldn't tell, the narrative here is completely bonkers, and in many respects, an incoherent mixture of technological jargon, weapon fetishism, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Oh, and samurai films. Can't forget that. Point is, there's nothing quite like Devil's Third out there. Well, except for Metal Gear, which does basically the same thing, but in a much more polished, self-serious way.

Only... I quite like the gonzo, irreverent tone that Itagaki's cooked up here. In a gaming landscape where wacky action games are becoming increasingly few and far in between (even the newest Metal Gear was a disappointingly dour affair,) there's something to be said for a developer who says to hell with consistency and decides to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into their game, blissfully ignorant as to how things could possibly go wrong. Macho one-liners are cracked during ethical dilemmas concerning animal testing and human experimentation. Heads and limbs and blood fly everywhere in a game that's supposed to be questioning the morality of killing. The protagonist literally runs into battles with no shirt on, despite every single weapon being licensed from real companies and depicted exactly how they would behave on the battlefield. It's all a weird, whacked-out, incongruous mess, but in a way that I find aggressively entertaining. One of the things that kept me going was simply wondering what kind of insane crap Itagaki could throw in next, and frankly, the climax of the game completely blew my expectations out of the water in that respect.

That said, lack of consistency isn't always a good thing, and such is the case with the gameplay. Unfortunately, the first quarter to half of the game is, quite frankly, not that fun. It's a poorly-designed series of shooting galleries loaded with cheap kills and bad level layouts. Coupled with a framerate that will dip severely when nothing's even happening, the entire experience seemed like it was going to be an unpleasant slog.

Imagine my surprise when the game finally starts to gain some semblance of fun after the first hour or two. I'm not really even sure what did it, either. The framerate's still bad, and the shooting's still not great. But once Ivan shoots his way through a city of not-zombie zombies, the game's pace picks up, and there winds up being a lot to love. The level designs become increasingly unique, with Russian space stations, feudal Japanese cities, and World War II trenches getting thrown into the mix. Enemies start becoming more varied and fun to kill, and a wider arsenal is opened up for players to enjoy.

Don't get me wrong: the whole package is still wonky, janky, and, by many standards, bad. But in a way, it's the good kind of bad. The kind of bad that Suda 51 and SWERY specialize in, albeit delivered in a less immediately enjoyable way. Bad physics often result in unintentional comedy, baffling storytelling decisions are relentlessly entertaining, and unrealistic violence is both satisfying and hilarious. If the game were a self-serious, joyless, gritty affair that was trying to push a zillion units and become the next big thing, then I'd be a bit more critical. But somehow, I don't get the impression that was ever what Itagaki was trying to do. Instead, it feels like he had a few wild ideas, then pieced the rest together in a strange way that only he could cook up. As a result, the whole thing feels like video game equivalent of a particularly good SyFy Saturday Night Movie.

The visuals are on par with that, too, because they're bad. Like, really, really bad. We're talking Wii to early 360 quality, and that's not even hyperbole. Like, I've played way prettier games on the Wii, and maybe even the PS2. Now, granted, once the cool scenery kicks in, one almost forgets and forgives the lack of horsepower, and in fact, there's a noticeable bump in visual fidelity as the game wears on. Personally, with the overall lack of polish in those sections, it feels like the first 2-3 levels were just slapped on for the sake of explaining the controls.

And honestly, that might be the biggest gripe with Devil's Third overall: it just doesn't feel finished. Honestly, it feels like a game that Nintendo came to in mid-development, then made Valhalla crank out whatever they had with no regard for quality, then abandoned it like a redheaded stepchild when they realized that the game needed at least 6-12 more months of dev time. It's clear, from execution to performance to the early stages held in comparison to the later ones, that this version of Itagaki's vision was not the one intended to see the light of day.

That's unfortunate, too, because what's here is something that I genuinely enjoyed, despite early hours of cursing at the game and wishing it would go die in a fire. Is it great? Nope. Is it polished? Not at all. Does it hold a candle to what I consider to be some of the best titles of the year? Nah, son. But what's here is a blast to play, for the most part, and something that I have the full intention of going through again once or twice. There's even a pretty neat multiplayer mode on top of the campaign, one that has a pretty healthy amount of content.

Devil's Third is the type of weird, wonky insanity that I expected it to be from the get-go, essentially. Only, once can only imagine what kind of game Itagaki could have produced with better resources, and better oversight on Nintendo's part. One can only imagine what this game would have been like had wall-running, different protagonists, and all the other stuff initially promised remained intact. I can definitely see this game picking up a cult audience, one that I'd definitely count myself a member of, but I honestly feel like with better execution, more oversight, and better testing, this could have been more than a cult game. It could have, perhaps, been a hit.

Here's hoping there's a Devil's Fourth, huh?

But that's all speculation at this point. When all is said and done, despite all of its misgivings, my five-year wait for Devil's Third ultimaely paid off. It's not perfect, but it's memorable and fun, if sometimes for the entirely wrong reasons. I'll take that over a big-budget, bog-standard open-world game with same-y missions and microtransactions any day of the week.

Pros
- Completely insane from start to finish.
- Unintentional comedy event of 2015.
- Melee combat is satisfying.
- Second half has memorable set pieces.
- Robust multiplayer that people are actually playing.
- A really great soundtrack.

Cons
- Abhorrent visuals.
- Framerate is almost as bad as Fallout 4's.
- Artificial difficulty is frustrating.
- Shooting mechanics are janky.
- Treatment of women is laughably bad.

Score: 7
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 23, 2015 10:14 AM PST


Just Cause 3 - PlayStation 4
Just Cause 3 - PlayStation 4
Price: $49.99
94 used & new from $27.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grappling To Greatness, December 8, 2015
Every once in a while, a game will come out that doesn't get the justice it deserves. Whether that's little to no press, bad sales, or overshadowing by bigger brands, these games are unsung heroes of their mediums. They'll often do new things, or improve on preexisting ideas.

Just Cause, as a franchise, has historically been one of those series. Let's hope this one doesn't continue the trend, because it deserves its due.

That's not to say, of course, that Just Cause 3 is some obscure, underground franchise, of course, because it's certainly not at this point. Perhaps it doesn't have the brand recognition of a Grand Theft Auto or a Far Cry, but it's definitely come a long way from its roots as a janky yet lovable stunt simulator back in 2006. That's thanks, in large part, to a dedicated online community committed to doing ridiculous things in the fantastic sequel and posting the results online.

It's that community that Just Cause 3 feels like quite the love letter to, because practically every ridiculous thing you could just so happen to do in past games is now actively encouraged and turned into a core mechanic. Cars are eschewed in favor of traversing the environment with your magic parachute, something the game straight-up tells you is the best way to travel. Tethering things is now encouraged and even pushed to be equally as useful as your guns. Any ridiculous thing that you ever tried to do in the past couple of games is here and easier to do than ever before, along with a whole spate of other new mechanics. Basically, it feels like Avalanche watched how people screwed with their last sandbox, then implemented everything they saw.

The result of that is a game that's a relentless blast, even at several hours into the whole thing. It can't be stressed enough just how pliable the gameplay here is. You can crash into a base in a helicopter or a tank, then blow that vehicle up to take out a bunch of bad guys. You can set off a series of explosions by jumping a sports car into a water tower. You can tether a fuel tank to a satellite dish then blow both of them up while gliding away. You can take down armies of soldiers without firing a single shot or lobbing a single grenade. If you can think of it, Just Cause 3 will let you do it, and it's a better experience for it

Oh, and you can fly around with a wingsuit now, which defies physics in the most glorious ways possible. Cool stuff.

While most modern open-world games are satisfied with giving players easy-to-grasp mechanics, then making them do the same thing over and over again, Just Cause 3 laughs at that idea before blowing it to smithereens. There's no denying that the system of progression here is the same as we've seen in oh-so-many open world titles (liberate a base, blow a thing up, kill some things, capture a whole region of the map, then do it again,) but the way it's presented here feels fresh thanks to how it's executed. Instead of doing the same thing at each place, players can go about it any which way they choose. Players are given mechanics to master and strategies to adopt, rather than simplistic, cut-and-dry objectives that stifle creativity. The objectives are just templates, rough sketches for the player to complete, with explosions, tethers, and miscellaneous vehicles being the artistic implements.

With all this going on, it's easy to forget that there's actually a story here. Which you shouldn't, actually, because it's the best that the franchise has had thus far. Basically, San Marino is where Rico grew up, and he's returned home to liberate it from a tyrannical dictator. This means that aside from toppling statues and obliterating hapless henchmen, Rico has dinner with family, pals around with his childhood friend (who's basically Roman from Grand Theft Auto IV,) and muses on how he wants to give his home back to the people. There's even a diverse cast of memorable characters, as opposed to unremarkable faction leaders and Sheldon. I mean, don't worry, Sheldon's still here, and still as lovably despicable as ever, but it's nice to have other characters for Rico to feed off of. It creates a vibe not dissimilar to the Fast & Furious franchise: a fast, loose action romp with a cast of wise-cracking characters doing crazy things.

Am I saying that Just Cause 3 is a surefire candidate for having the best narrative in a game this year? Nah. Not at all, not even close. But compared to what we've gotten before, there's a lot more heft, and a great deal more intrigue beyond "kill the dictator because he's doing a bad thing, also blow stuff up." It's nice having a big cast, it's nice having more purpose behind the chaos, and it's nice having Rico be a bit more than "Duke Nukem if he weren't a chauvinist."

And yet, despite all of these positives, and despite Just Cause 3 severely improving on the whole open-world formula in ways that will probably go unappreciated, I feel that it's not quite enough for me to shake the feeling that I've done this all before. Yes, San Marino is a fun place to stomp around, and yes, the views are breathtaking and the map is huge and the side-activities are pretty cool (bomb cars!) But for some reason, it feels very much a victim of being an open-world action game in a market crowded with them. While Avalanche's Mad Max is a game that came up with a thoroughly compelling and convincing post-apocalyptic wasteland, then loaded it with side-activities that made sense in the context of the narrative, Just Cause 3 just has a whole bunch of stuff that feels as if it's there just because it can be.

Aside from some cool perks and upgrades, and aside from the abundance of choice available in how to do certain challenges, there's no way around it: "race through the checkpoints" and "do a certain thing but really fast" are things that feel tacked-on for the sake of just having more stuff. And with many key upgrades locked behind some of these challenges, it's pretty disappointing to have to slog through the same sort of objectives we've been seeing since the early 2000's just to get access to jet-boosted explosives, better tether strength, and nitro boosts on cars. Wouldn't it make more sense to lock these abilities behind story missions, or the toppling of certain bases?

While it's definitely an improvement over Far Cry's tedious "hunt enough of a thing to get a thing" system, which never really felt worth it, it's rarely fun to do the sort of stuff Just Cause 3 expects of players to get to the good stuff. It dilutes the stellar quality found elsewhere in the game, and speaking personally, it greatly impeded on my fun at times.

Which isn't to say that Just Cause 3 isn't a blast and half for most of the time I've spent with it. It's the cream of the crop of its type of game, and it's still a consistently fun time throughout. Speaking personally, I know it's a beautiful, engaging game I'll be coming back to for a good long while, and there's no denying that there's a heck of a lot to do here, most of it open to however players want to approach any given situation. Despite varying obnoxious ways of locking content behind pedestrian activities, and despite being an open-world title of a very certain variety in an overstuffed market, Just Cause 3 still manages to impress and exhilarate during its slower moments. The fact remains that San Marino is a great place to get lost in, and the ways in which players can get lost number in the hundreds, if not thousands.

Just Cause 3 is a firm step in a more streamlined and yet more dynamic direction for Eidos' stalwart franchise, thanks to implementing time-saving ways of transportation, mission progression, and overall access to the basics of what you'll need to have a blast. In spite of a few kinks that prevent it from being the non-stop dose of adrenaline that it could be, it's the most exciting open-world action title this year, and a considerable improvement over what's on the market.

Pros
- A large world with plenty to do.
- Dynamic, varied gameplay.
- A surprisingly engaging narrative.
- Stunning graphics.
- Tethering stuff is practically an art form.

Cons
- A large chunk of filler objectives.
- Sort of same-y when compared with other stuff on the market.
- Occasionally lengthy load times can irritate.
- Filler objectives often lock some of the coolest stuff behind them.


Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon - Nintendo 3DS Standard Edition
Price: $36.53
108 used & new from $29.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Mystery" Worth Investigating, November 28, 2015
I've gotten a bit of a third wind when it comes to the Pokemon franchise as a whole.

When I was a kid, I lapped up pretty much anything and everything I could related to the series. The cards, the anime, the games, the toys, the bedspreads, the toothbrushes (really!)... I was obsessed, like most kids of my generation. I fell out of it until the beginning of high school, when a few of my friends got me hooked again, and I obsessively went to GameStop at each launch to buy both versions, even sleeping in my clothes and shoes one night so I could be ready as soon as I got up. Going into college, though, interest starting withering up again. I just felt like the series was repeating itself, and that not enough was really there to keep me going. I even wrote a super hipster blog post about it on my favorite gaming site. I was done for good... probably.

But now, as I'm writing this, I just got back from McDonald's, where I bought two of their new Pokemon Happy Meal toys; I've sunk a bunch of time in Pokemon Omega Ruby; and I'm even thinking of going back and trying to go through X and Y... on top of buying Torchic and Vulpix plushes. Part of the reason for this latest change in heart? Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon made it easy to fall in love with this series again.

Which is pretty odd, considering the other entries in Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon line of spin-offs didn't really phase me. In fact, they were part of the reason that I started to care less and less about the franchise... on top of the fact that my ex-girlfriend was obsessed with it. But I digress: I've never thought they were really that great. Blue Rescue Team was probably the best one, though. It had a sense of whimsy, humor, and was hard in that way that was mostly not frustrating... at first blush, anyway.

But with each subsequent entry, it just got desperate. The plots got too bland, and were sprinkled with some of the worst narrative choices I could think of. The gameplay didn't evolve all that much, and in fact, got dumbed down from the first game. And then, Gates of Infinity hit, and that seemed to just be the end of it all. The ultimate in bland design, bad storytelling, and a sacrifice of the aesthetics that I'd grown fond of. It felt like the logical conclusion to the route Chunsoft had been taking the series.

Which is why, in many ways, Super Mystery Dungeon feels like a distinct attempt to reboot the franchise as opposed to continue it. Ken Sugimori's art is on the box again, instead of ugly 3D renders. The plot is back to being simple and cute, for the most part. And, most importantly, it all feels fresh again... yet familiar enough to satiate fans of the franchise.

See, the basic conceit, flow, and progression of a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game are still here, and then some. You do a personality test, you get assigned a Pokemon, you realize that you're a human trapped in a Pokemon body, then you go on adventures with a companion. You'll wind up joining some sort of a guild that revolves around exploring dungeons, and you'll probably end up getting new companions, and interacting with the umpteen zillion different Pokemon that are in here. It's not too radical of a change.

The big change that makes it all work, though, is that the old rigmarole has gotten a fresh coat of paint slapped onto it, and quite a shiny coat to boot. Dialogue no longer straddles the uncomfortable line of "childishly simple" and "weirdly complicated," and instead, winds up being a really fun mixture of "gut-bustingly funny" and "microscopically epic." Yes, this is still distinctly a game for kids. It's about little children Pokemon going to school, getting into mischief, making friends, and having adventures. But the writing is snappier than ever before, with each Pokemon having their own distinct style of speech, and the stuff they say managing to make me constantly have a smile on my face, and even laugh out loud a few times. It's for kids in the same nostalgic, charming way that Peanuts is, and not in the cloying, obnoxious way that Family Circus is, in other words.

And that good dialogue has to carry the game for a while, because it definitely takes a bit for things to start going. A large portion of the early game revolves around very small excursions before finally, hours later, starting to dive into the bigger, more substantial stuff that revolves all the world's Legendary Pokemon getting turned to stone. Personally, I didn't mind this. Instead of being an everyday, ordinary Pokemon getting thrust into greatness, players have to slowly adopt the role of everyday, ordinary Pokemon, and then, after they get used to that, are forced to confront all the consequential, world-altering stuff. It gives the game a distinct sense of scale, which I admire. And after you finish the main brunt of the plot, the game really opens up, with tons to do, lots to see, and approximately seventy billion Pokemon to meet.

Even better, all of this isn't even a chore to get to. In fact, for the first time, I would hazard to say that a Mystery Dungeon game is actually fun. Stalwarts and diehards forgive me, but I've never totally understood the appeal. The "move around on a grid, die in one hit, then lose everything and about five hours of progress" approach has felt even more unforgiving than something From Software would cook up, and then some. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shiren The Wanderer, Izuna (it's basically one)... I grow tired and just give up after a while. And as I can attest to with the later Pokemon-themed entries, making it easier doesn't fix it, either; it just makes it feel more tedious. I like the basic gameplay, but the flow eventually makes me irate.

Super Mystery Dungeon, however, manages to capture the spirit of the early hours of Blue Rescue Team, then keeps milking it for the entire game, much to my delight. Make no mistake, Chunsoft has cooked up another devilishly hard game, and have gone back to the strict "die and lose everything" formula. And yet, it doesn't feel discouraging. The field of movement feels much more fair. The enemies don't have massive difficulty spikes with each level of a dungeon. Your Pokemon's belly is the only one you have to worry about feeding. You can even use an item to save inside of dungeons now.

A lot of these tweaks may sound small, but they go a long way into making Super Mystery Dungeon an enjoyably challenging experience as opposed to a cheap exercise in frustration. It's a lot more fun to die and realize where I went wrong, and rest easy knowing I saved and stashed my items somewhere, as opposed to dying and losing everything and hating the game and hating myself and then smashing the cartridge against a rock. It's hard but rewarding, is what I'm trying to say.

Oh, and you can play as every starter Pokemon ever, too. That's pretty cool. You don't even have to use the one you get from taking the quiz, which is pretty much the only thing Gates to Infinity got right. I did, though. It feels lame not following through with the one the game gives me.

Anyway.

Basically, Super Mystery Dungeon's gameplay is a riff on the same stuff we've gotten from past entries, but it's a pretty major riff considering how little these games have changed from entry to entry. Every tweak, every addition, every minor feature seems like a calculated attempt at earning goodwill back from the most jaded of franchise devotees and the most dismissive of longtime critics. The result is a grid-based RPG with a great deal of depth, a nice flow, and a metric ton of content to keep players occupied for ages to come.

It's all really pretty, too. Of course, I still miss the 2D sprites, because I'm a sucker for good sprite-work, which all of the games pre-Gates had in spades. But it seems Chunsoft is firmly committed to taking the franchise in a polygonal direction, and at least this time, they've done it right. Everything is bright, colorful, happy, cheerful, and pretty much any other superlative in that vein. Textures are smooth and surprisingly detailed, too, bringing life to the expressive, bouncy character animations. To round it all out, there's a consistently smooth framerate the entire time, which is impressive considering how crisp everything looks, and a feat that no 3DS entry of the main Pokemon franchise has managed yet. Which is really sad, if you think about it.

The only real serious critique here is the music. As silly as this may sound to some, the music actually stands out to me in this game as mediocre, and even outright bad in extreme cases. This franchise has always had pretty great music, but this time around, it's all pretty generic, rote stuff that doesn't inspire much enthusiasm. Granted, it definitely gets better when more serious stuff starts happening, narrative-wise, but for the first major portion of the game, the soundtrack is just lame and forgettable, and feels childish in a distinctly obnoxious way.

And yet, that's a fairly minor knock when looking at the rest of the package. Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is, as I said above, a soft reboot for the franchise. It took the core strengths of the early entries, then eliminated all of the excess growth that had latched onto subsequent games and fermented into bland moldiness. On top of that, it refined core mechanics that have desperately needed fine-tuning for over a decade at this point, and by proxy, pushed not only the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series forward, but the entirety of the Mystery Dungeon brand as well.

Will people who hate this style of game suddenly fall in love with it? Nope. It's still very much its own thing, love it or hate it. But as somebody who's always loved the gameplay but hated everything else, I can firmly say that Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is a game that's not only the best in its series, but the very best (like no one ever was, even,) in its own style of gameplay. It's one of the better RPGs this year, and a solid game for both role-playing fans and Pokemaniacs alike.

If Nintendo keeps up games of this caliber, then count me as a Pokemon fan again for the foreseeable future.

Pros
- A fun, cute story that eventually turns into a whimsical epic.
- Great dialogue with memorable characters.
- Engaging, deep gameplay with a steep but fair challenge.
- Super cute art style with great visuals.

Cons
- Mediocre, and sometimes insipid, musical score.
- Won't do much to sway people who hate Mystery Dungeon games.

Score: 9


Rise of the Tomb Raider - Xbox One
Rise of the Tomb Raider - Xbox One
Price: Click here to see our price
117 used & new from $25.95

43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars She Has Risen, November 12, 2015
Tomb Raider II is often considered to be the finest of Lara Croft's many adventures, and for good reason. Core Design took everything that worked with its 1996 landmark game, then polished it into an epic adventure that spanned the globe. Pretty much all of the weird little quirks, bugs, and things that just flat-out didn't work in the first game were gone, and what we were left with was one of finest video games to date. Speaking personally, there were action/adventure games before Tomb Raider II, and then there were ones after it. The difference was night and day. It was just that good.

Taking that into consideration, would it be fair to consider Rise of the Tomb Raider a new Tomb Raider II? It's a sequel to 2013's dynamite reboot, and a second step in the bold new direction that series started walking in. I only ask because I can't think of playing another game of this variety without inevitably comparing it to the sublime feat that Crystal Dynamics has achieved here.

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. See, ever since Naughty Dog overhauled what people thought of as a typical "action/adventure" game in 2007, the once-revered Tomb Raider franchise began to struggle against its sleeker, more streamlined competition. Crystal Dynamics' half-response, Underworld, was undoubtedly a stellar game, and had some of the finest set pieces I've ever seen conceptualized. That said, something had to give. Despite a 2005 revamp, Tomb Raider's central dynamics and core design philosophies were still holding the game in the pass. Despite my fondness for them, there was no denying that what used to work was no longer marketable.

And then came 2013. Tomb Raider, a game I openly roasted pre-release, ended up garnering a perfect score from me, in a year already slammed with amazing games. Basically, it took everything that made Uncharted famous, then did it ten times better. Huge set pieces, blistering action, pitch-perfect shooting mechanics, a stellar plot... it really did have it all. Except... one thing. One thing, despite my love for it, did make me pine for the old days of the franchise. With the emphasis on fast-paced action, there was a general feeling of linearity to the whole thing. By emulating Uncharted, it also emulated that franchise's focus on big corridors as opposed the expansive worlds that Lara Croft was known for exploring.

Which makes it all too funny, then, that I spent the first few hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider remarking to myself, "it's too big!" And, indeed, the first thing one notices when booting up Crystal Dynamics' follow-up is that it's a truly huge game. Perhaps it doesn't have the map size of a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game, but what it lacks in square mileage, it makes up for with sheer amount of things to do, stuff to see, tiny nooks and crannies to scope out. Playing this in tandem with Fallout 4 over the course of this week, I've felt infinitely more pulled into Rise's world, and felt way more compelled to do all of the stuff here.

Perhaps that's because Crystal Dynamics has actually put the "adventure" back in "action/adventure" with this game. The genre has, as of late, become a modified sort of corridor shooter, just with pretty set pieces. At no point during any Uncharted game, or any of the countless imitators it spawned, did I feel like I was on an adventure of any sort. I just felt like I was shooting things in exotic locations. Same with Tomb Raider, to be honest.

But in Rise? I felt like I was a kid cracking open one of Lara Croft's adventures for the first time, all over again. The huge dungeons to pillage, the hidden traps to avoid, the tricky set pieces to scale... they're all back, and arguably better than ever. From start to finish, I never stopped feeling like I was a tiny, insignificant little speck in the face of everything that was around me. Considering that video games so often try to make players feel like the exact center of the known universe, it's a refreshing change of pace to feel out of your element, tiny in the face of something huge. To a minor extent, it's almost the same type of feeling Bloodborne instills in players. Totally different game, of course, but that mood of being something small trying to conquer something large is ever-present here, albeit to a slightly more restrained extent.

It's impressive that Crystal Dynamics makes Lara feel so tiny here, too, because this is perhaps the most deeply personal Tomb Raider game we've gotten since the almost-masterpiece that was Legend, from a narrative standpoint. In the 2013 game, Lara's characterization was good, but occasionally got downplayed in order to accommodate a fairly large cast. Here, she's front and center. Her upbringing, what drives her, what makes her keep going, how she feels about the crazy stuff that happens around her... it's all here, and the game is far better off for it. Camilla Luddington's performance as Lara is the best that the franchise has ever had, and helps the character balance the thin line between "legendary heroine" and "flawed human being" with the utmost perfection.

The excellent narrative helps too, of course. Rihanna Pratchett, a writer who I love but is certainly hit-or-miss, knocks it out of the park with Rise. It's a spicy blend of gritty survival drama, paranoid conspiracy thriller and otherworldly horror, all thrown into a blender and mixed to perfection. There are no jarring tonal shifts here. Somehow, gruff men in military outfits, otherworldly skeleton soldiers, a secret cult seeking to purify the world through genocide, and a quest for immortality all work together perfectly. Nothing feels out of place, and from the explosive start to the jaw-dropping finale that opens up the mythos like never before, I was hanging on every second in a way I didn't expect.

Speaking of "hanging," that's something you'll be doing quite a lot of in Rise, as expected. Hanging on ledges, hanging on ice axes, hanging on arrows, hanging on branches... lots of hanging. It's all really fun, though, because what you're hanging onto is often on the verge of crumbling between your fingers, blowing up, or some other horrible thing. What I'm basically trying to say is that, unlike a lot of games of this variety, in which "hang on a thing, then jump and hang on another thing" is a primary mechanic, the "climbing around" parts of Rise are probably the best out there. It never feels same-y or monotonous, or anything even close to that.

The same can be said of virtually every other gameplay mechanic, actually, It seems like Crystal Dynamics took every criticism of the previous game to heart and tweaked Rise into being the technically superior product. Shooting feels faster and less easy to rinse and repeat than it did in the 2013 game. Players get access to gear that lets them traverse the environment much, much earlier than last time. "Run while stuff explodes" sequences feel much more visceral and don't happen in a super heavy concentration, giving the whole game much more room to breathe. Oh, and platforming actually feels like platforming again; it's very not streamlined in some respects, and the result is a game that feels like it actually requires a degree of skill to pull off the climbing, jumping and other stuff that Lara has to do. It all just works, and works exceptionally well.

Which gave me some worry as the game opened up, actually. Would Lara being put in a quasi-sandbox limit the appeal of the gameplay? Would it feel out of place, in the same way that the open world in Metal Gear Solid V did? The answer is a resounding "no," because Crystal Dynamics wisely chose focus over breadth, and it pays off. There is definitely an open-world aspect to Rise of the Tomb Raider, but it has a distinct flow to it that your average open-world game does not. Instead of a big sprawl with stuff dotting it, the world feels like a cohesive little world that has several other, smaller worlds to go explore, each with their own distinct feeling. The feeling of the whole world is one of interconnectness, something that other games could learn a thing or two about.

Those "smaller worlds" I mentioned often (but not always) take the form of "Challenge Tombs," something introduced in the previous game. But those, while fun, were just small rooms with relatively simple puzzles at the center of them. Here, Challenge Tombs are whole other sections of the map, massive areas to traverse, fight through, and explore before you can even get to work on the puzzles housed within. Most of them are also hidden, too, which gives a huge sense of discovery and accomplishment when you stumble onto them. Imagine walking through a frozen forest, accidentally wandering through a cave, and then finding a weird crack in the wall. You squeeze through the crack, and suddenly, you're in a massive canyon, wind and snow whipping at you as you stand at the edge of a bottomless abyss, the sun glaring in your face. These are the kind of moments that make Challenge Tombs feel like crucial parts of the game world, and not just little diversions. They help build an atmosphere of discovery that was missing from the 2013 game, and hearkens back to the franchise's roots.

Only, unlike those early Tomb Raider entries, there is finally enough graphical horsepower available to render everything the creators can imagine in jaw-dropping detail, which is exactly what they've done here. I don't think it's any stretch to say that Rise of the Tomb Raider is the most graphically spectacular game of 2015, especially on a home console. The attention to detail here is truly impeccable, from sweeping vistas dotted with intricately detailed trees to tiny lines and scratches that accumulate on Lara's face. Environments, characters, enemies, and everything else all look flat-out incredible, almost to the point where I couldn't believe my eyes at times. For a game to capture realistic scenery and nuanced facial expression without treading into the uncanny valley is no small feat. It's also remarkable that the Xbox One is capable of housing such detailed visuals without the framerate slowing to a chug (see: The Witcher 3,) and yet, here we are, with a game that runs at a steady framerate and rarely (if ever, really,) dips below that. From both a graphical and performance standpoint, Rise of the Tomb Raider towers above every other console game this year, even impressive titles like Until Dawn or Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

It feels bad, almost, enjoying this game as much as I do. 2015 is almost over, and I've already doled out "perfect" scores to a few other titles this year, which is a far cry from 2014, in which barely any decent, let alone good, let alone great, games were released. Maybe that's a testament to how good gaming was this year. 2015 really has been kind to us, hasn't it?

And yet, I believe with full conviction that Rise of the Tomb Raider is perhaps the most innovative title this year in many ways. The "run while stuff blows up and then shoot stuff but also climb" type of video game is arguably the most popular type of third-person experience around now. Because of that, it's sort of stagnated, hasn't it? We've jump off cliffs. We've dashed between rooftops. We've surfed trains as they blew up beneath our feet. But hasn't it all gotten a little bit old? It's gotten so that whenever an Uncharted-esque title hits shelves, I sigh and play through it, not hating it, but not loving it either. Hell, even everything from Uncharted 4, so far, looks very much like stuff I've seen before. And this is speaking as a fan of that series.

Then along comes Rise of the Tomb Raider. A game that, for all intents and purposes, is the next logical step for the action/adventure genre. With years of games to pull from, Crystal Dynamics cherry-picked mechanics and put them here, refining them until they all played perfectly. Uncharted's climbing, The Last of Us' crafting and choice of how to approach combat, Tomb Raider's own archery system... they're all here, but all of them work better than they ever have. And then, the developer went the extra distance. They restored the Tomb Raider franchise back to its former state, to a sprawling, overwhelming adventure with lots to see and even more to do. A game that will, undoubtedly, take me hours to scrounge around in, poring through every inch of the map, scaling every last surface.

It's a huge game, both in scale and in what has been accomplished. It wouldn't be far from the truth, in fact, to call it "monumental." Because, for years, I will be comparing every game of this variety to Rise, and I suspect very few will even get within striking distance of it.

Back in 1997, sitting next to my dad and watching him play Tomb Raider II on our old iMac, I never dreamed that Lara Croft would be destined for bigger, better things. And yet she was. Rise of the Tomb Raider is her greatest outing yet, a game against which other games should be judged. And, for my money? It's one of the greatest games since the medium's inception.

Oh, and that Karen O song at the end is pretty toasty.

Pros:
- A lengthy, engaging narrative.
- Fantastic, varied gameplay.
- Unforgettable set pieces.
- The most engaging Lara yet.
- Best visuals on the Xbox One, and of the year.
- Loads of content, all of it great.

Cons:
- An optional mode that isn't a part of the main game has some form of microtransactions

Score: 10
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 27, 2016 12:15 PM PST


Call of Duty: Black Ops III - Standard Edition - Xbox One
Call of Duty: Black Ops III - Standard Edition - Xbox One
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Future Imperfect... But Still Pretty Great, November 9, 2015
It's November, so that means it's time for more Call of Duty. We've been doing this song and dance for almost a decade at this point, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Treyarch's back in the saddle this time around, so that gives reason to be excited; the first Black Ops is one of the highest points of the franchise, and the follow-up introduced a remarkably fresh take on the single-player component of the series.

Five years after the initial entry in the sub-series, though, does Call of Duty: Black Ops III deliver the shot in the arm that last year's above-average Advanced Warfare did, or does it lazily slum it like 2013's embarrassing Ghosts?

The answer is to that question is another question: does Black Ops III really need to be a Call of Duty game at all?

That sounds rather negative, I'm aware, and that is sincerely not my intention. Honestly, I'm enjoying my time with Black Ops III, all told. It has a campaign that tries some new stuff. It has pretty stellar multiplayer. Its Zombie mode would be amazing if the online component wasn't functionally broken. As a package, it's a substantial one, and pretty much all of the stuff here is solid, some of it even exceptional.

But my larger question, I guess, is whether or not this needed to be a Call of Duty game in the first place. There are bits and pieces of this game that shine through and wow the player, and these are the components that are the most unconventional for the franchise. Let's take the campaign, for example. There's a whole intrigue narrative thread about "good guys gone rogue" and "political intrigue blah blah" that permeates the story. It's dully executed. I couldn't care less about it, in fact. It's something Call of Duty's done in virtually every "modern" game in the franchise.

And then you shoot robots. Or get torn limb by limb by robots. Or watch robots march out of the flames of a destroyed buildings. On top of that, there's a whole smattering of virtual reality, neural linking, and augmented reality stuff that plays a large part at the beginning and then in small helpings throughout the rest of the game. It's awesome. I love it, and want more of it. It's basically Terminator, in so many ways, and it's great.

Are you seeing the problem, then? One half of this game is the rote, boring, conspiracy thriller junk that's become a hallmark of all Call of Duty games. The other is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic techno-thriller blockbuster with robot armies and futuristic battleships. It's like two entirely different games have been smashed into each other, and that's just in one of the three modes. It's almost like Treyarch was a child in an art class, drawing a cool, beautiful, amazing thing, and then Activision, the state-appointed teacher, tapped them on the shoulder and said, "Mm-mm, Treyarch, remember, you still have to make this a Call of Duty campaign!"

As a consequence, what we have is part predictable junk, part exhilarating sci-fii action. It's entirely incongruous. Sometimes, I ended up walking away from the story feeling disappointed, jilted, and exasperated. Others, I didn't want to stop playing because, dang it, I really wanted to wreck some more robots. It never stopped swinging wildly between those two feelings, and I predict that many players won't have the patience to slog through the junk to get to the good stuff.

"But I never play the campaign," you might say. "Tell me about the multiplayer!"

Well, the good news is that this is probably the best that Call of Duty multiplayer has been since the original Black Ops. It's fast, furious, and full of an astonishing amount of customization... at least, as much as this series will let you be. You pick one of nine operatives, MOBA-style, each of whom have their own backstories, perks, appearances, so on, so forth. From there, it's the same sort of "play a lot, unlock stuff, specialize your character, max out your level, then prestige and do it all again, but differently this time."

Now, I actually do still like this system. It hasn't gotten old for me yet; it just has to be done well and tweaked, in a way that I wasn't entirely convinced Advanced Warfare pulled off, and in a way that Ghosts never came within striking distance of. But Treyarch has managed to make stuff interesting again. There is an impressive and astounding amount of freedom given to players when it comes to how they level up, how they want their loadouts, so on, so forth.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, Treyarch has done their best to perfect the formula while still adding in twists. Everything controls similarly to past games, and the same general strategies for success will carry you far. But it's the little things that make it count. Running on walls is in. Power slides are in. Class-exclusive perks are in. These additions to the formula, without diluting the basic core of what makes that formula work, make Black Ops III not only feel like a well-oiled machine, but one with plenty of bells and whistles to impress longtime players.

That said? Those bells and whistles are impossible to bring up without mentioning another game: Titanfall. Almost everything that Treyarch "introduces" here is lifted wholesale from Respawn's fantastic 2014 shooter, and frankly, that's really disappointing. The developer had an opportunity to try genuinely new things, in the same way that Sledgehammer did last year. Instead, they just cribbed something from another game, and honestly did it in a far more linear and restricted fashion than Respawn here. There's not nearly as much variety in terms of strategy and map selection in Black Ops III; it feels like a pared-down Titanfall shoved into Call of Duty maps. Your mileage may vary depending on how appealing that description sounds to you.

So, all-in-all, multiplayer is good. It's fun, I've put a lot of time into it, and I suspect that I'll put several more hours into it over the coming months. For the first time, I've even considered partaking in the Season Pass, as I definitely enjoy what's on tap here. While, yes, it's a tempered sort of enjoyment, and yes, I do think the cribbing of elements from Titanfall is pretty low, there's no denying that, as a whole, it's very fun and super addictive.

While I'd like to say some stuff about Zombies, I really can't. I've tooled around in single-player, and I liked that alright, but this mode shines with multiple people. Unfortunately, Activision didn't get the memo, because as of right now, matchmaking of any sort is functionally broken, preventing any sort of online multiplayer whatsoever in this mode. I have tried, quite literally, several dozen times to get games going or join other games to get an impression of how it worked (hence why this review is late,) before giving up in frustration. Launching a game in which one-third of the package just flatout doesn't work is kind of awful.

You'd think with Destiny's disaster of a launch, Activision would have learned its lesson, right?

But unlike that game, Black Ops III has a major saving grace that bumps it up above many, many games on the market right now: local multiplayer. Yes, every single mode in this game has couch co-cop, and it's wonderful. The campaign, Zombies, and the online multiplayer all have split-screen capability, meaning that there are literal hours upon hours of content here for you and your buddy/significant other/knitting club to dive into. In a marketplace where developers are prioritizing 60 FPS over fun with a friend, it's a godsend that Treyarch remembers what really matters when making a video game.

And I think, overall, that says it best about Call of Duty: Black Ops III. There are some flaws here, for sure, and some elements that hold the entire package back from perfection, not to mention bits that are cribbed from competition. But Treyarch, a veteran studio with almost two decades under their belt, has been around the block hundreds of times by now. They know what gaming enthusiasts care about, and it's all here. Fast action, lots of content, and a ton of stuff to do with friends, either online or on your couch.

Despite niggling imperfections, coupled with a desire to see Treyarch do something that isn't a game in this franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is an average game in some areas, and an amazing one in others. When you throw it all together, though, you've got an overall very good game that's got something for nearly everyone.

Pros:
- Local multiplayer for everything.
- The most polished multiplayer in years.
- Half a great campaign.
- Heaps upon heaps of content.
- It's like Terminator, and I like Terminator.

Cons:
- Liberal cribbing of Titanfall mechanics.
- The other half of the campaign is mediocre.
- Zombies online component is busted as of now.
- A visual mixed-bag, as some parts look jarringly bad.

Score: 8.5


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