Category Archives: Review
Game: Journey [PS3]
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 92
Completion Time: 2-3 hours
Buy If You Like: World peace, Justice, Art, Sand simulators
I do not even know where to begin with describing Journey. Perhaps the beginning? That always seems to work for most people.
Journey starts out as (and continues to be) the most impressive sand-simulator I have ever seen. Sliding down the first sand dune instantly transported me back into childhood, or at least as far as Super Mario 64. But Journey is not a platformer; it is an emotion, an experience. One that only gets more and more compelling as the minutes pass.
Describing your mechanical actions as you play the game almost feels like missing the point, but to not mention them would miss the point. Nearly every single thing about Journey is perfectly crafted. You move around with the left analog stick, and can pan the camera by either tilting the PS3 controller or using the right analog stick. In the opening desert-scape, you get some extra fabric added to your avatar’s scarf, which allows you to jump and glide for a few seconds. The only other button used is “O,” which lets out a little “energy chirp” or longer blast if held down.
That is it. There is no UI, no hearts, no power meter (aside from the scarf), nothing to distract you beyond the immensity and immediacy of the moment.
After the tutorial “level,” gamers connected to the internet will encounter perhaps the most sublimely executed feature in videogames: another human being. That sounds facetious, until you realize how often games treat other players as competitors, enemies, or judgmental peers desperately trying to foster virtual respect. Your fellow traveler in Journey is exactly that, no more, no less. Except… it is much, much more than that.
Remember when I mentioned the player’s scarf controlling the ability to jump? While there are items scattered around the landscape that add length to said scarf to further increase one’s hang-time, the ability to jump is always limited to how much of a “charge” the scarf has. One can only replenish this charge at certain locations along the map.
Unless, that is, there is another player around. Merely being in close proximity to a player with charge remaining on their scarf, will cause your scarf to recharge to full as they entwine. This is not a draining of power, but rather a creation, a resonance. Similarly, the sort of “energy chirp” players can do will also charge your partner’s scarf if they are in range.
I am spending so much time talking about this because the way Journey fits together as a whole led me to one of the most intimate experiences I have had in videogaming – all without voice, text, or even names. I felt connected to this stranger, as we slid down sand highways and soared above the dunes while alternating our energy chirps. I had a suspicion that my anonymous partner had played this game before, but he or she seemed tolerant of my exploratory inclinations. If they wanted to direct my attention towards something or indicate that we should give up on trying to get that tricky scarf-extension orb, a series of chirps was enough. Of course, as we traveled, I would occasionally chirp to keep up his/her power level, and after a while I think he/she realized what my seemingly random chirping accomplished (and then returned the favor).
I am not going to talk any more about the rest of the game and the environments explored, both to avoid “spoilers” and because the game itself is only 2-3 hours long. But suffice it to say, it’s brilliant. Absolutely, devastatingly, goddamn brilliant. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which is universally praised and adored. And have I mentioned the visuals? I believe I have, but they too are striking and sublime – there were a few moments during Journey at which I seriously considered buying a $150 video capture device solely to take screenshots of this one game.
Sometimes I struggle with these shorter, more artistic games insofar as how much they are really worth. A game like LIMBO can be amazing (and it is), but spending $15 on something you finish in a single sitting? Perhaps I should have waited for a sale there. But with Journey I do feel it is enough of a novel experience to be worth skipping one night out at the movies to play. Not to mention it comes with two other games, although I have not yet played them. Possibly all combined they could make a full MSRP ($30) worth it. Even if it is just Journey though, anything more than a 25% sale means this bundle will be worth it on the strength of Journey alone.
…”Journey alone.” Whatever you do, don’t Journey alone. Christ, I want to play again.
Recommended price: $10 (full)
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: 50+ hours
Buy If You Like: 2D Minecraft, procedurally-generated Metrovania platformers
Up until I started playing a few weeks ago, the entire mental space Terraria occupied for me can be summed up as “that 2D Minecraft knock-off.” I am not even sure which game came first, and it did not seem to matter: Terraria was just another game about digging for ore and crafting better pickaxes to mine for more ore. In only two dimensions.
After seeing an entire weekend evaporate in a flurry of clicking pixel blocks however, I am here to say that Terraria is not just a 2D Minecraft clone. It is an unholy union between all the addictive parts of Minecraft combined with legitimately entertaining Metrovania gameplay with a liberal dose of SNES graphical/musical nostalgia thrown into the mix.
Terraria starts out innocently enough, with your character equipped with a copper sword, axe, and mining pick. The beginning hours will be spent chopping trees, building your first crafting station, killing some slimes to turn their quivering innards into fuel for your torches, and so on. Much like Minecraft, zombies and other uglies come out at night which drives you to create shelter and then start digging underground for wont of something else to do.
While it might not initially seem so at first, there is a surprising amount of depth (har har) to Terraria’s gameplay. While you are hunting around for Copper and Iron ore, you will of course encounter enemies in the deep places of the earth. You will also frequently encounter priceless clay pots of a forgotten age which can be broken and looted for coins. You will eventually start coming across chests filled with goodies/equipment, and even crystalline Hearts, which can be broken and then consumed to increase your HP.
As you hit certain milestones, the world around you changes. Once you have accumulated 50 silver pieces, a Merchant will hang around your house, provided you build a room for him to sleep in. Finding and hoarding bombs will cause the Demolitionist to start peddling his explosive warez. And once you surpass 200 HP, there is an increasing chance the Eye of Cthulhu (the first boss) will settle its gaze upon your growing hamlet.
Not only does all this progression feel natural, it is also addicting. Your hunt for better ores to craft better armor and weapons to make your life easier leads to encountering stronger foes and ever more secrets. While crafting is a lot less complex than with Minecraft – you can talk to the Guide to see every craftable item that a given ingredient can produce – it simultaneously feels a bit deeper. Hitting Diamond could be accomplished relatively quickly in Minecraft, at which point you were essentially in the endgame. Contrast that with Terraria, where the natural hardiness of your foes directs your exploration of the whole of the game map before culminating in a Final Boss… whose defeat unlocks the Hardmode version of your world, with new enemies and even harder bosses.
Of course, all of this implicit progression leads to a necessarily more finite resolution. While there are quite a few different set pieces to play around with, you are probably not going to spend the same amount of time building castles and mountain fortresses here as you would in Minecraft. That said, my game clock read 53 hours by the time I finished off the last of the Hardmode bosses and crafted the final piece of my ultimate armor. I could farm these bosses a few more times for their exclusive material drops – who wouldn’t want to run around with a flamethrower? – but it almost seems superfluous at this point. What would be next? Would I reroll a new character in a new procedurally-generated world? I could. But I feel I have already mastered these mechanics, and would simply arrive at the same destination a bit faster this time around. Hell, I could even equip my new character with the flamethrower and best pickaxe in the game to further speed along the process. Or I could go play something else.
Overall, the only real regret I have with Terraria was having spent all the time up to this point thinking of it as just a 2D Minecraft. Both games share many similar qualities, but why would another instance of “cause one to lose all track of time” or “become obsessed with mining better ore” be considered a deficiency? Both games are fun, in slightly different ways. Indeed, I am not even sure which one I would recommend first to someone who has played neither. Show Minecraft first, and like me, you might be a tad disappointed in the more limited forms of customization and Terraria not quite comparing to the sheer scale of an infinite 3D world. With Terraria going first though, you run the risk of having the person balk at Minecraft’s lack of direction and flat sense of progression.
In any case, having indie game companies force these tough choices on us when the AAA industry is falling over themselves pumping out derivative, 6-hour long sequels is ultimately a good problem to have.
Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion
When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?
By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3′s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.
This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.
Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.
This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.
Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.
It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.
Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.
F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.
Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.
There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.
Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.
Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.
Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.
Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.
Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.
Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.
Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 6 hours
Buy If You Like: Kane & Lynch-esque cover-based military shooters
Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder cover-based military shooter that seeks to subvert the tropes of its genre. You control Captain Adams, tasked with commanding your two Delta Force squad mates in search for what happened to Colonel Konrad and the rest of the 33rd Battalion. The search leads them into the ruined city of Dubai, which appears to have devolved into anarchy after a series of epic sandstorms cut it off from the rest of the world.
After killing some insurgents whom had taken members of the 33rd hostage, the mission starts to go pear-shaped when the very soldiers you are trying to save confuse your team for CIA operatives who have been riling up the insurgents. From there, things just keep getting darker and darker as you continue taking completely rational steps towards a line you did not realize you already crossed hours ago.
I was interested to play Spec Ops precisely because I heard about its subversive themes. What I discovered though, is that I have seen this all before in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In fact, Kane & Lynch is the perfect analog here despite approaching from the opposite side of the legal spectrum: both games are over-the-shoulder cover-based shooters whose scenarios start off as reasonable before relentlessly veering into the absurd. What seems like a natural progression or escalation of violence suddenly sickens you once you realize what exactly you are doing. How did I go from killing insurgents to killing Americans? Why am I looking forward to the next cover-strewn environment so I can use my grenade launcher to kill even more soldiers?
The eponymous “Line” referred in the game title probably refers to one specific incident (that I won’t spoil), given how long it was dwelt upon, but I personally found it curiously ineffectual. At first, I didn’t even realize that my actions caused the incident in question, and even after I wasn’t particularly convinced player agency was involved. In spite of that, the game does a great job in fostering a sense of nihilistic fatalism. The situation becomes so FUBAR that it almost doesn’t matter what else you do at that point. And then you, the human player behind the screen, start to realize what that means for soldiers in real situations out in the world.
I am sympathetic to the argument that perhaps some reviewers give Spec Ops: the Line too much credit. While the gameplay doesn’t noticeably change, I absolutely felt fatigued by the end of the six hour story campaign. Construing that fatigue and feeling of pointlessness as being intentional artistic designs, might be a little too clever an excuse to take seriously; it sort of hand-waves away any possibility of bad game design, and feels a bit too convenient besides. If you are willing to give the designers the benefit of the doubt though, it is certainly an effective plot mechanism… just as it was in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch.
Ultimately, I feel Spec Ops: the Line as an experience is worth a bit more than my usual limit for these shorter games. The visuals are amazing, the interaction with your squad is superb, and the setting is both unique and artistic. You might feel drained and depressed by the end, but at least you felt something – a feeling that might actually persist beyond turning the system off. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have played.
Game: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: ~16 hours
Buy If You Like: Japanese indie games with funny localizations
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a Japanese indie game localized in the Working Designs (RIP) tradition, wherein you take control of Recette as she turns her lonely house into an item shop to pay off her missing adventurer father’s defaulted debt. With the aid of the loan shark fairy Tear, you can either buy weapons, armor, and other goods at wholesale prices from the markets to sell at a premium, or hire out adventurers to go clear dungeons and sell those drops in your store. Time is limited however, and you must make each week’s increasingly crazy payment lest your home get repossessed.
I found the general gameplay and underlying mechanical tension surprisingly fun. Each day in Recettear is divided into four slices, which you can use to run your shop, spend going out shopping, or use two at a time to go through dungeons. I frequently found myself in interesting dilemmas: with the 80,000 payment due tomorrow, should I spend all four time slices to peddle my dwindling wares? Should I gamble that a dungeon run will net be some expensive “free” items, and that I still have time to sell them? Or should I actually spend money at the market in the hopes that I can recoup with profit before tomorrow?
These dilemmas even extend to the actual selling of items too, as you must decide what markup percent your customers are willing to accept. Shoot for the guaranteed 110%… or stretch to 130%? Finally, at random intervals the market for weapons/consumables/etc will either crash or spike, which can force you to sell at half price or lets you double your profits respectively.
Overall, I enjoyed the game while it lasted, or at least the first 8-10 hours. Defaulting on the loan actually leads to a Game Over screen, but you can start again at Week 1 with your full inventory, same adventurer levels/equipment, and same Merchant Level and other unlocks. While this makes beating the game an inevitability, you are likely to understand the underlying systems well enough to make beating the game a forgone conclusion before the end of Loop 2. For those who find themselves obsessed, Recettear does offer a quite a selection of post-game activities, including New Game+, Endless mode, and even Survival Hell mode where you have to keep making six-figure loan payments until you finally default.
If you want a unique, quirky indie game with an amusing localization, Recettear has you covered.
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 78
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: A less artistic LIMBO, or short side-scrolling puzzle games
Deadlight is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer in the tradition of Out of This World or LIMBO, to use a more recent example. You control Randall Wayne has he navigates his way through a 1980s version of a Seattle zombie apocalypse on a mission to find his family. Amidst the frankly ridiculous jumping scenarios that Randall solves with Assassin’s Creed-levels of aplomb, you will frequently be harassed by zombies (or “Shadows” as they are termed here), which creates an extra level of tension and danger to the side-scrolling navigation.
It is worth noting that this game is stunningly beautiful; clocking in at 4.1 gigs, I suspect that the characters and environments are actually rendered in full 3D, with the camera merely forcing a 2D perspective. Aside from the graphics though, my comparison with LIMBO remains apt: Deadlight is an incredibly short game whose merits largely reside on the artistic side of the spectrum, rather than gameplay. Whereas LIMBO’s style accentuated the gameplay though, Deadlight’s more realistic bent strains credulity and breaks immersion in a few places. An example is in the screenshot above, where Randall had to leap from a building onto a series of cranes, then jump down to wire before launching himself over a barbwire fence. While platformers require a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief in general, I had a hard time getting over the fact that there is clearly a perfectly safe pathway not 10 feet in the background of that very screenshot.
Despite the immersion breaks, Deadlight isn’t a bad game – it is simply something I would not recommend picking up outside of a bundle. Even if you pick it up on a $5 sale as I did, the dollar-per-hour of entertainment is not particularly impressive.
Game: Borderlands 2
Recommended price: $20 + $10 season pass
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 30+ hours
Buy If You Like: Funny and nonsensical cel-shaded FPS games
Borderlands 2 is the cel-shaded, “why so serious?” smash-hit FPS pseudo-Diablo-clone follow-up to the original breakout Borderlands. Taking control of one of the four classes (or five with DLC), you set off on an adventure of mayhem and random looting across the now-much-more-varied landscape of Pandora, helping the heroes of the original game try and stop Handsome Jack from taking over the world.
To be honest, I am having a difficult time reviewing Borderlands 2 after having spent 130+ hours playing it. If you played the original, BL2 is better, longer, and more… Borderlandy than before. If you haven’t played Borderlands before, well, prepare to experience one of the frighteningly-few games out there with a distinct style. Said style might be nonsensical ultraviolence, but at least it is consistent and generally amusing.
The basic flow of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played a Diablo derivative: get quest, kill mobs, get random loot, repeat. There is a decent range and variance of mobs, but the AI controlling them is not especially robust; every encounter either involves mobs rushing to melee or shooting from range. In fact, since all the visible mobs aggro after the first shot and many mobs simply don’t exist until you get within range, an entire swath of the strategic playbook (Stealth, sniping) consists of blank pages. This is no different than what occurred in the original Borderlands, so if it was fine for you then, it will continue being fine now.
What saves BL2 can be summed up in three words: guns, guns, and guns. The trick that the Borderlands series pulls off is not merely emulating the loot-centric gameplay of Diablo, but how the loot itself can change how you approach the encounters. If a really kickass shotgun drops, for example, you might find yourself suddenly getting more up in psychos’ faces than you were just five minutes ago. While the character talent trees stamp down on this more freeform behavior by virtue of weapon-specific bonuses, respecing is only a trip to town away. And sometimes that minigun that shoots missiles is just too much fun to fire to care about trivialities like your +15% critical hits with sniper rifles.
Once you complete the game proper, you unlock “True Vault Hunter Mode” which allows you to redo the game from the beginning while keeping your level, cash, and gear. The enemies in this mode get new abilities, more health, and hit significantly harder as you plow your way to the level cap of 50. While this difficulty extends the life of the game quite a bit, it also leads into some counter-intuitive behavior. You see, sidequests typically reward you with unique items that are scaled to the level you were when you started them. Ergo, the “correct” way to play TVHM difficulty is to skip ALL of the sidequests until you reach level 50, and then go and complete them for the highest-level version of the unique items. Otherwise, the unique items may as well not exist, as they will inevitably be replaced by even the most generic level 50 drops.
As I mentioned before, I have clocked in over 130 hours into Borderlands 2, with around ~20 of those hours being from two of the DLCs. Although I chose to play solo the whole way through, I’m positive that the experience would have been even more entertaining with a group of friends. Hell, the DLCs even include the equivalent of 4-man raid bosses, if you are into that sort of thing. By the time you start to question why, exactly, you are chain-farming the last boss for legendary drops, Borderlands 2 will likely have generated twice as many hours of entertainment as your last non-Skyrim single-player games combined.
So get in there and start shooting some faces.
Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 22 hours
Buy If You Like: Relatively simple but slick Tactical Sci-Fi games
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the 1990s cult-classic tactical title of the same name. In this game, you take charge of the XCOM project, which is a worldwide military response to what appears to be an alien invasion of Earth. You engage in a series of turn-based tactical battles, which is then broken up by periods of base building and resource management inbetween alien incursions.
Combat is “team turn-based,” which means that you can move all of your own units before giving the floor over to the aliens to do the same. Individual unit turns boil down to “Move + Shoot/Ability,” while trying to make an effort to end your turn next to some cover. As units earn experience, they gain levels and can unlock new abilities/bonuses in their class’s (limited) talent tree. There are a number of different weapons and armor types available (including special items like Grenades and Medkits), but for the most part they are limited to the class they are designed for.
If this all sounds pretty simple, that is because it is. While XCOM won a number of accolades and serious blogging goodwill for its tactical combat, its primary accomplishment is simply existing as a tactical offering at all in a desert of similar titles. At no particular point did I find myself especially challenged tactically, at least in terms of historical titles like Fallout Tactics, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Suikoden Tactics, and so on. While I did “only” play on Normal Ironman mode (Ironman meaning you cannot reload a saved game to avoid a team member death), I simply do not see enough moving parts to justify some claim to XCOM’s tactical brilliance. In particular, I have a problem with team turn-based gameplay leading to “dogpile tactics” (maneuvering units so as to unload a full turn’s worth of damage without recourse), combined with an enemy that almost always waits patiently for you to discover them before taking any initiative at all. And then there are a few of XCOM’s uniquely questionable design decisions, such as not showing the range on, say, Sniper Rifles.
Some of the lack of complexity in the tactical segments is made up in the planning stages. Character growth and equipping is straightforward, but trying to juggle base expansion, e.g. building more research centers vs power plants vs ect, with the other demands like satellites for XCOM member states or research into better weapons can get a little dicey. While I got a handle on things by the end of my first playthrough, I was not particularly sure whether the complexity was via the underlying systems or if it were just random chance that, say, China kept getting bombarded by UFOs.
All of this is not to suggest that XCOM is a bad game. It is, in fact, a fun game that I think is an auto-buy at $15 or below. I just want to distance myself from the blogging narrative that XCOM is some kind of superstar in the tactical gameplay arena. It certainly wins the “best tactical game in years” award, but it does so due to an utter lack of competition. If you enjoy this subgenre you will enjoy XCOM, but you will likely find most of your planning taking place outside of the tactical battles rather than in them.
Game: Warhammer 40k: Space Marine
Recommended price: bundle/$0
Metacritic Score: 74
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Warhammer 40k, mindless 3rd-person action
Let me start out by saying that I am a huge fan of the Warhammer 40k universe. The setting gets a lot of flak for being grimdark and violent and possibly even juvenile, but whenever I start hearing phrases like “Adeptus Mechanicus” and the “God-Emperor of Man” I put on my game-face and settle down for some fun. Up to this point, I have almost religiously played the Dawn of War games and all the expansions up to Space Marine and generally loved them all (Dark Crusade being my 200+ hour ultimate favorite).
After the ending credits to Space Marine, I came away… well, curiously disappointed.
You take on the role of Captain Titus, one of three Ultramarines sent as vanguard to the fleet coming to the rescue of a besieged Forge World. The basic game structure is 3rd-person mayhem in the styling of Devil May Cry/God of War without the fighting depth, or Darksiders without the exploration/puzzles. Part of the promotional campaign involved making fun of other 3rd-person cover-based shooters (“Cover is for the weak”), but around the 30% mark it becomes quite clear that the health regeneration from executing stunned enemies won’t, ahem, cover the increasing volume and severity of ranged fire. In fact, in the late stages of the game, you will be reduced to peaking your head around crates to take pot-shots at uber-laser troops while actively running away from anyone trying to melee you.
There are a few cool moments for 40k fans, and the levels where you get access to Jetpacks really cements the feeling that I’d love an MMO or more free-ranging game in this universe. In between these moments of fun, however, are about 60+ thinly-veiled elevator loading screens, repetitive battles, large empty spaces devoid of any reason to explore, and a vague sense of hollowness. Darksiders gets away with long stretches of nothing happening because you’re solving a puzzle, but here you’re frequently just stomping around for 5+ minutes inbetween the small pockets of button-mashing. Watching my hero units in Dawn of War felt more exciting than playing as one in Space Marine.
Bottom line, if you were primarily interested in Space Marine because you like the Warhammer 40k setting, you can safely skip this entry into the franchise and have missed nothing of note. If you don’t care about the 40k setting, well, you aren’t missing anything either.
The Dresden Files (series)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Modern Fantasy
The Dresden Files series follows Harry Dresden, a private investigator in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard. Each of the books follows along the prototypical mystery/whodunit framework, presenting 2-3 seemingly unrelated events that each carry the possibility of death/cataclysm before a resolution at the end. Despite each books’ fairly standard formulaic structure, where the Dresden Files series really shines is with its down-to-earth characters, the witty/hilarious dialog, and straight-forward style. I was at first put off with the “kitchen sink” approach used when presenting the supernatural (demons, fairies, vampires, oh my!) but again, the writing definitely saves what might otherwise come across as convoluted.
Overall, I feel pretty good in recommending this series. Compared to a lot of other fantasy series out there, the Dresden Files are considerably less dense but no less satisfying. I am definitely hoping that book 15 (and beyond) comes out sooner rather than later.
Codex Alera (series)
Author: Jim Butcher
When a friend recommended this series to me, the only thing I knew going in was the following paragraph from the Wikipedia entry:
The inspiration for the series came from a bet Jim was challenged to by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop. The challenger bet that Jim could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and Jim countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion”, and “Pokémon”.
Reading that will either intrigue you or turn you off immediately, but let me just mention that the Codex Alera series won Jim Butcher that bet, in my opinion.
The series itself follows the life of Tavi, a particularly clever boy who nevertheless was born without the ability to use magic in a world where everyone has an elemental familiar. As with Jim Butcher’s other series, the Dresden Files, the Alera books lean towards a sort of detective model that is very much Butcher’s style; you can definitely expect a lot of long trains of logic and counter-logic. It is not all cerebral however, as there will frequently be 10+ page fight scenes that may or may not leave you at the edge of your seat.
Overall, I enjoyed these books. Like many fantasy series, I felt it started somewhat slow and required a bit of acclimation to the world being presented. I was hooked by the second book though, enjoyed the natural progression, and quickly finished the rest thereafter.