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‘Borderlands 3’ Looks to the Stars While Stuck on the Ground

After a long hiatus, Borderlands returns… pretty much the same as it always was, for better or worse.

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Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 is one of the most bizarre gaming experiences of this generation, a highly-anticipated, long-awaited sequel clearly feeling the pressure of living in its predecessor’s enormous shadow. Both beholden to its past and searching for its future, Borderlands 3 is a strange amalgamation of abundantly familiar elements and a few new ideas, most of which never truly find harmony with each other during the game’s lengthy campaign.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy.

In its attempts to look forward and backward at the same time, Borderlands 3 ends up feeling like a series of half-measures, a collection of systems and story beats that, in the few moments they’re able to take evolutionary steps for the franchise, feel like there’s still room for the now decade-old series to grow. Unfortunately, across the 50+ hours I’ve spent traversing, shooting, and constantly marking items for junk in my inventory, Borderlands 3 hasn’t offered those moments nearly enough, too often falling victim to its old habits, using its legacy as a crutch, rather than a device to propel the franchise into its (admittedly uncertain) future.

Borderlands 3

It doesn’t help Borderlands 3 front loads some of its worst writing; the opening act of the game is gratingly awful, hammering away at the same few punchlines for its characters as players embark on the series of fetch quests that comprise the game’s opening hours. Beginning some unidentified amount of time after Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 opens on a war-ravaged Pandora enraptured by its inhabitants latest obsession: the Calypso Twins, who have seemingly galvanized the majority of the Crimson Raiders in their quest to… well, we’ll talk more about the Calypso Twins, and their role in the story, a bit later.

Early on, Borderlands 3 is desperately trying to prove to the audience it is still the same ol’ Borderlands, interrupting its genitalia references to break the fourth wall and acknowledges that yes, we’re once again beginning with a series of annoyingly spread-out fetch quests to introduce characters and establish tone. But the delivery of the game’s typical blend of meta humor and pop culture references feels stale on arrival; the lengthy fetch quests just feel like simplistic mission design, and “big dick energy” jokes just don’t hit like they used to in 2019.

(There’s also an entire plot line built around Ice-T as a sentient teddy bear, who calls his in-game wife a bitch constantly, in between dick jokes. It’s as terrible as it sounds.)

Borderlands 3 quickly establishes these abundantly familiar rhythms – and then, surprisingly, doesn’t do much to expand upon them through the rest of the game’s main campaign. Though Gearbox has called this title “the big one” in the past, it doesn’t feel like a major step forward in any sense of the word – and at worst, Borderlands 3 occasionally feels like a regression of what it does best, a slow burn of slight disappointments which add up to a confounding experience.

Borderlands 3

There’s also Borderlands‘ absolute dismissal of Twitch culture; as the introductory chapters of the game catch players up on the Calypso Twins’ sudden accrual of power, Borderlands 3 has a strangely “old man yells at cloud” feeling to it (to myself borrow an overused meme for a moment), an odd feeling for a game that prides itself on its own (debatable) edginess and camp.

The Calypso Twins are built around the stereotypical cult of personality associated with the biggest streamers of the world – and boy, does Borderlands 3 not spare an ounce of vitriol for the admittedly complicated, often disturbingly regressive world of streamer culture (though they do have a weapon that is a direct Dr. Disrespect reference, and also feature some of the most elaborate Twitch integrations of any modern game). But Borderlands 3 admonishes creator and follower alike with an empty dismissal of the “influencer” – in a rather bleak application of its signature nihilism, it buries any kind of interesting exploration of the Twins- as either characters or societal critique – under a thick layer of cynicism.

It never really even contemplates their place as unifers in a galaxy full of corporations addicted to war profits, under a thin, cynical veneer of disregard for their place in any culture, Pandorian or human – its critique of streamer culture ultimately just feels empty. At times, it even feels hypocritical; unsurprisingly, Borderlands 3’s consistently been one of the most-watched games on Twitch since before its public release last week (plus again; there are multiple streamer-related references sprinkled through the game). It’s contradictory at best – and when considering how thin the public personas of Troy and Tyreen are actually defined outside of “shitty streamer people and their shitty followers”, it just feels weird.

Borderlands 3

Like the story, the shooting and looting of the game is immediately familiar, though it is a much more welcoming feeling: the single biggest improvement to Borderlands 3 is the shooting, which feels tighter and heavier than it has the previous three entries in the series. If there’s a truly transcendent evolution of the game’s formula, it’s found here: the shooting is simply magnificent from the word go, especially with the new traversal elements of mantling and power sliding, movement options that do wonders to bring life to the game’s many, many, many, many engagements with massive groups of enemies, hidden baddies, and massive (-ly lengthy, though mostly well-varied) boss encounters.

The class selection is also fantastic; there’s a distinct rejection of Borderlands 2‘s semi-linear class system, with each of the game’s four characters featuring multiple unique skill trees players can utilize to create an impressive diversity of builds with. There are hints of old characters in Fl4K, Zane, Amara, and Moze, but those elements are welcomely remixed and expanded upon, in creative ways I just wish the rest of Borderlands 3 would take a hint from; I’ve never had so much fun switching between characters in a previous game, experimenting with the intersections of their diverse ability sets, and seeing how the game’s Legendary and Anointed equipment rarities can further those builds is easily the most satisfying part of the game (though admittedly, all four classes take until about level 30 before they truly unlock their mechanical potential).

Borderlands 3

It is worth noting the game’s technical performance is as inconsistent as its narrative; for a game that’s been in development for so long, Borderlands 3 feels particularly unpolished for a finished product – hell, between writing and editing this review, I lost a collection of 50 legendary items out of my storage bank because of a widespread bug, kind of an unforgivable mistake for an entire game built around loot hunting.

Outside of the major performance issues widely-reported since the game’s release – including the virtually unplayable “Resolution mode” on Playstation 4 Pro – Borderlands 3 is ripe with the glitches of the past: broken mission objectives, inconsistent AI companion pathing – and, as an added bonus, the expected bevy of Unreal Engine quirks (like falling through the map multiple times). Though it seems like a small complaint, waiting 5-7 seconds for your in-game menu to load in every few minutes in a 2019 video game quickly becomes frustrating, one of many examples of Borderlands 3‘s many rough edges.

(Playing as Moze in multiplayer was a particular low light: from the gravitational physics of my character completely breaking, to glitches that rendered my player utterly unmovable, Borderlands 3‘s co-op modes are frustratingly janky, to the point split-screen co-op is almost unplayable in its current state.)

But the most frustrating part of Borderlands 3 is (outside of the character classes, of course) how risk-averse the entire affair is; in terms of mechanics and systems, it is mostly an integration of Borderlands 2 and the new elements of The Pre-Sequel, with a couple of light improvements around the edges. For example, there are now gear scores attached to every item a player picks up; there’s still no way to effectively manage an inventory, or even a consistency to how the scores are formulated, but hey, at least there’s kind of a way to compare gear (which one will do constantly, since inventory management is a still a hot mess).

Borderlands 3

For every tiny improvement, there’s a concession attached to it; a great example is the game’s map and mission tracking systems. While the map now shows the topography of each area, a useless mini-map and a thoroughly aggravating menu UI make juggling multiple missions an absolute chore (even though one can switch missions on the fly with a touch of the button, there’s no way to see multiple objectives on the map, or even switch between them while in the map menu).

This persists across the entire Borderlands 3 experience: and as the tale of the Calypso Twins and the Great Vault lurches through its interminably lengthy second and third acts, it begins to wear on the experience. For better or worse, Borderlands 3 further entrenches itself in the habits and rhythms of Borderlands 2 – which, after seven years, begins to feel stale in areas, frustratingly reluctant to change, or even reflect on its well-established sensibilities (or on itself; there are literal jokes made about CEO Randy Pitchford’s many controversies, which are… uncomfortable at best). And while the game certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of carefully refining its (rightfully celebrated) mechanics, its absolute reluctance to take creative risks begs the question of why it took so long to bring this game together (or, at the very least, begs the question of whether Gearbox really wanted to do a Borderlands 3 at all, and only green lit the project after the overwhelming failure of Battleborn).

As the game moves through its middle chapters, it just feels lacking in a way Borderlands 2 never did, even with its predecessors own inconsistent humor and pacing. Though ostensibly a journey spread across the galaxy, featuring a massive cast of familiar and new characters, so much of Borderlands 3 feels small and isolated. Every area of the game is broken up into tiny segments, covering small areas of these seemingly massive planets – an experience itself constantly broken up by lengthy loading screens and regular back tracking, which doesn’t exactly vibe with the game’s epic, world-hopping scope.

Borderlands 3

The absence of the player-characters in the central narrative is another head-scratching omission; despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, the four main personalities of Borderlands 3 feel underdeveloped – a problem that persists considering how little they’re seen during the most important moments of the game. They’re explicitly excluded from so many of the game’s cinematic moments, they almost feel absent from the game’s actual story (despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, an experiment that pays off to mixed results).

I think about the ending of Borderlands 2, and how much potential it held for the future of the series: the promise of exploring entire planets with friends, finding Vaults and hidden pop culture references was almost breath-taking in its ambition. With its series of linearly-designed, stunted “zones” and limited planet selection at launch, Borderlands 3 never really harnesses the long-gestating potential for growth; and as the story begins building towards its climactic moments, it only further highlights the creative dissonance that plagues so many aspects of the game.

The clearest distillation of Borderlands 3‘s identity crisis is found in the game’s story, which struggles to justify itself as something more than just “another” Borderlands game. It is torn between its desires to attempt something new (at least, at times), and the emotional attachment it knows the audience has with the characters, rhythms, and memorable moments from the first three games of the series. It leads to a story that often follows a template: travel to new area, meet familiar old character for a mission, fight through a series of gently-guiding corridors while constantly staring at the map, rinse, and repeat for thirty-five hours.

Borderlands 3

Save for the occasional interlude and amusing side story – though that often finds itself stuck in its own loop, with a collection of ancillary characters who either wants to remind you how funny poop is, or how much people in this world enjoy murder and death – to the point its cynical nihilism is no longer humorous, and eventually becomes exhausting.

Sure, there are a couple new characters introduced, but they’re left to the fringes of the main narrative, which is, for all intents and purposes, a retread of Borderlands 2‘s major beats. Yes, it occasionally attempts to subvert expectations, but mostly by presenting a mirrored version of the series’ previous events – where Borderlands 2 was about an evil father manipulating their disgruntled child and the Vault Hunters, Borderlands 3 is basically about mad children manipulating their father and the Vault Hunters – but it is satisfied to simply just be that story, and not much more (and at times, even becomes wholly illogical… remember The Watcher and their foreboding warnings? Neither does Borderlands 3, apparently).

There is one particularly strong section of story, however, and it comes in an unexpected place: after serving the role of enigmatic mission giver (and named member of the Borderlands 2‘s lamest DLC), Sir Hammerlock’s arc in the middle section of Borderlands 3, while disappointingly divorced from the central events of the game, is emotionally propulsive in ways none of the other story is, a moment where Borderlands 3‘s themes find their voice for a too-brief amount of time.

Part love story, and part exploration of the intersections of family and legacy, Borderlands 3‘s tale of Hammerlock and the Jakobs family is so satisfying,the one time Borderlands 3 stops screaming at the player in its desperation to be funny or surprising. For a few hours,the overwhelming nihilism of Borderlands‘ eternally cynical world view melts away, and the series truly offers something akin to hope and possibility in its world. It represents the beautiful essence of Borderlands expansive set of characters, companies, and legacies, and is the rare moment where Borderlands 3 finds harmonic brilliance between its shooting, looting, joking, and genuine attempts at emotional beats.

Borderlands 3

But like most of the other familiar faces in Borderlands 3, Hammerlock’s story is contained to his few chapters on his home planet; for a game that ultimately turns on a story of family and shared purpose, there’s so much of Borderlands 3 that just feels like it is missing the mark, or ignoring it altogether. Outside of Lilith and Claptrap (and for a brief time before her quickly-forgotten disposal, Maya) none of the game’s previously playable characters factor into the narrative in any way – hell, most of them, like Axton, Gaige, Salvatore and Krieg, don’t appear or are barely mentioned at all, which kind of takes away from the game’s attempts to be an all-encompassing adventure through the history (and theoretical future) of its surrogate family of bandits, adventurers, scientists, and adventure seekers.

Instead, there’s a lot of focus put on a handful of underwhelming new characters (including Ava, the game’s single biggest missed opportunity relegated to Whiny Teen tropes), only occasionally interjecting those sequences with familiar faces: multiple major characters of the series have precisely one mission dedicated to them through the story, which again feels like Borderlands 3 lacking confidence in its own identity, unable to commit to forging new paths, and instead peppering serotonin-laced doses of nostalgia across the story as a half-measure to cover up that Borderlands 3 really has nothing new to say about its world, its people, or the story it’s been telling now for a decade.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy. That doesn’t make it an abject failure, of course: it’s still a game I’m going to play for hundreds of hours with my friends, thanks to the sheer diversity of gun play and character builds (it is a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, after all) – but there’s a distinct feeling Borderlands 3 could’ve been so much more than… well, just more of the same Borderlands. Seven years after its last mainline entry (and five after its forgettable, under cooked “pre-sequel”), just being Borderlands one more time makes it feel like a series stuck in the past, retreating to safe waters by simply remixing the old game… with a strangely newfound (and ultimately, superficial) hatred of streamer culture layered on top to feel relevant in 2019.

Borderlands 3

That allegiance to the past ultimately comes at a cost; it makes the few moments Borderlands 3 tries to evolve stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game, complete 180’s in emotional tenor that are never met by equal risks taken in gameplay design, or the construction of the main narrative. When the dick jokes and meme references subside, there is an emotionally satisfying core deep inside Borderlands 3, one that highlights the spaces in between the game’s consistently enjoyable shooting and looting gameplay loop (there’s a particular photo I discovered in the game’s later moments that literally brought me to tears, a quietly poignant and beautiful moment this game desperately needs more of).

But that version of Borderlands 3 only comes out in fits and starts, often hindered by the series’ allegiance to its old identity, one that time, and most of the gaming industry, has passed by (at least, during the main story; I’ll be back next week with thoughts on the post-credits/endgame experience). There is a great version of Borderlands 3 somewhere, a more driven action-RPG with a tighter campaign experience, a more ambitious, fully-formed story, and a true expansion of its celebrated mechanics to marry to the game’s wonderfully diverse class set and enhanced movement options. It’s just not this inflated, safe iteration of the series, one that drowns its few iterative innovations in a sea of repetitive familiarity.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Justin Cohran

    November 1, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Let’s just all continue to play the outer worlds and pretend that borderlands 2, the last borderlands game, was the best one.

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Game Reviews

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Multiplayer Offers Classic Gameplay with a Couple of Twists

Love it or hate it, ‘Modern Warfare’ multiplayer is back and as nostalgic as ever, with a few twists.

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Call of Duty Multiplayer

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare often gets a bad rap as a formulaic franchise, especially when it comes to multiplayer. From the original Modern Warfare to more recent titles like WW2, the experience has often felt like a fresh coat of paint on an old, yet addicting, model.

This approach is not always a bad thing though. For fans of the series, the nostalgia and consistency is often the main selling point, and they are always ready to bring the same skills back into a new title’s running and gunning action.

So when Infinity Ward announced that the campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare would focus on revolutionizing the franchise with realistic gameplay, no one was really sure what to expect. Naturally, fans were eager to see how this new combat and action would translate to a multiplayer experience but also wary of whether a radical change would ruin the experience they craved.

Well—love it or hate it—Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer is back and just as nostalgic and familiar as ever, although the update brings a couple of new twists. While it’s light years away from perfect, this newest installment in the franchise still offers up classic gameplay with a couple of interesting alterations. For longtime fans, these changes might be positive or negative, but Infinity Ward at least deserves some credit for trying.

Getting tactical

To put it simply, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer gameplay leans more towards what some would call a tactical, cover-based style of combat. In theory, this sounds like a fairly fresh approach to the run and gun style of the past. This new style forces teams to work together to slowly climb up the map, holding various chokeholds while pushing up on enemy positions.

With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare taking a more realistic approach to combat, it’s natural the multiplayer strategies will change as well. Like the campaign, guns feel more realistic and powerful, resulting in quicker kills and more damage taken. Combined with the new “mount” cover system, this often means that players get mowed down pretty quickly.

But—full disclosure—this new multiplayer gameplay generally means that the game rewards staying in one place for a majority of a match. For lack of a better word, camping. While past COD games placed a heavy emphasis on speed and movement, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare wants players to find a strong, defensible position and hold it.

Modern Warfare Multiplayer

Sure, running and gunning still have a place in Modern Warfare, but it’s definitely not as functional as it has been in the past. Often times, it means just blindly stumbling into the same quick death and missing out on those killstreaks. While not perfect—and a little unbalanced—switching the style up is an interesting move that could be successful with future updates, although no promises.

There’s no list like the quick playlist

It should come as no surprise that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer’s best quality is its Quick Play maps. While the gameplay has shifted to a certain extent, this mode still is a grab-bag of the old nostalgic favorites that pretty much sum up the past decade or more of Call of Duty online. This option has all the old favorites—the traditional Team Deathmatch, Control, and Kill Confirmed—plus a few new additions.

For most COD veterans, these modes are the bread-and-butter of the franchise, and Infinity Ward has really boiled FPS fun down to a science. It’s that perfect video game balance of being both incredibly frustrating and insanely addicting at the same time, sucking players into a cycle of “yeah, okay, one more game.” The lobby keeps the matches coming, the ranks keep the unlocks rolling, and the stats make it all feel worthwhile.

No trouble with doubles

The newest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer element, Gunfight, is absolutely a highlight of the experience. In this new mode, two teams of two duke it out in a close arena-style, last-team-standing match. Every player starts with the same gun and class and spawns in identical positions, and the first team to six wins takes the match. It’s a great example of leveling the playing field and letting the most skilled team win, and it is absolutely intense.

Like the rest of the gameplay, this mode seems to reward patience and teamwork. While running headfirst into danger is always an option, staying back and letting the enemy make the first move seems to be the best tactic and leads to the highest success rate.

While playing with a friend is always the best way to go, Gunfight is still an intense and fast-paced mode with a random partner. Yeah, it can be frustrating at times if players are paired with inexperienced or uncooperative teammates, but Infinity Ward seems to understand matchmaking fairly well.

Not all is perfect

Trying to keep up with other franchises, one of the major selling points for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer was the introduction of the new modes Special Ops and Ground War. While these ideas work on paper, they don’t exactly play out in practice.

Special Ops, the newest coop mode, feels a lot like Infinity Ward’s answer to the social shooter “Strikes” of games like Destiny 2. In teams of 4, players must work together to battle through waves of enemy bots and bosses to achieve different mission objectives and unlock more of the “story” (sort-of). In theory, it sounds awesome, but it’s mind-numbingly awful in execution.

In Special Ops, every objective is incredibly far apart, enemy bots feel both endless and worthless, and the incentive to keep continuing is nonexistent. Unlike Destiny 2 “Strikes,” there is no real coherent narrative that moves players from one objective to the next. Instead, it’s just cookie-cutter “shoot this character” or “stand by this area” quests that feel like huge wastes of time. Combine that with a large empty map and boring enemies, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Modern Warfare Multiplayer

Similarly, Ground War—while a little more interesting—is just as much of a swing-and-a-miss. Taking a few pages out of the Battlefield franchise’s playbook, this mode has 32-man teams and vehicles fighting for control of strategic positions. Again, great in theory, but terrible in execution.

With this Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer game type, it isn’t that everything works poorly. It just doesn’t really sync up into a coherent experience. Ground War plays out exactly as one would expect with vehicles and a larger map, but it still somehow devolves into a convoluted mess of hallways shooting and rapid, almost random deaths. Simply put, its biggest issue is just an incompatibility between the Call of Duty and Battlefield models. The combat just does not feel well-suited to the style of gameplay and the mode just lacks the polish and balance of the Battlefield games.

Where’s the royale?

While many may still disagree, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer feels like it needs a Battle Royal mode to round the whole experience out. As always, multiplayer quickplay is fun for a time, but having something else to break up the repetitive team deathmatch routine would be a welcome addition.

Infinity Ward could even try to mix their experience up a little bit by making a duos Gunfight-style mode the highlight of their BR offering. While single-player is probably the simplest way to play, adding an element of cooperation might make for an interesting and fresh experience.

Rumor has it that this multiplayer mode is in the works and coming in a later update, and it feels like a natural fit. The way that guns are upgraded in the class menu makes finding weapon parts a logical next step. Hopefully, this mode can revitalize the player base of Call of Duty once the holidays roll around.

More of the same

Overall, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer is a slight variation of the traditional Quick Play-style gameplay that the franchise is known for, and that’s not always a bad thing. For diehard fans of the franchise, it’s the same old Modern Warfare package with a fresh coat of paint. Sure, the gunplay and combat changes do take a while to get used to, but after a few hours of mindlessly running through maps, players should be well on their way to 20 kill games.  

For those looking for a fairly basic Call of Duty multiplayer experience with some slight gameplay tweaks, this one is for you. But if you want something new and revolutionary, take a different route.

Check out our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign mode.

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Game Reviews

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Campaign: Finally Shooting in the Right Direction

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Modern Warfare campaign

Let’s face it, not many people buy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare titles for the story anymore. With the dominance of the multiplayer modes, it’s almost like the campaign has become a tacked-on bonus to play if there is ever a problem with the WiFi connection.

A lot of that has to do with the narrative direction of the franchise—it has felt downright cookie-cutter in the past. Every year, COD offers the same old thing. Some generic serviceman is sent to a war-torn 3rd world country to save the free world from a random insurgent leader, military dictator, or rebel group. Sprinkle in some nuclear launch codes, chemical weapons, and futuristic military technology, and there’s the go-to formula for the series.  

With that said, imagine everyone’s surprise when Infinity Ward announced that they were reimagining the Modern Warfare franchise by rebooting its defining title. To establish this entry as a turning point, their new vision for the game would be bold, unapologetic, gritty, and realistic. By moving in this new and unexplored direction, the veteran developer believed that this was THE opportunity to create a new title that could change the landscape of AAA narratives forever.

So how did they do with this fresh direction for the Modern Warfare campaign? Actually, surprisingly well given the franchise’s history of forgettable stories and lackluster single-player experiences. The new 2019 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign is actually an interesting and inventive take on the series and sets the table for some killer opportunities for future success if handled correctly. While it’s not without a few missteps along the way, overall Infinity Ward delivers on their promise and serves up a unique war experience unlike any in recent memory.

Finally, a story worth playing

Taking place in fictional Urzikstan, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign puts players in the tough moral situations of war, asking them to consider what makes a “righteous” cause, an enemy combatant, or a war crime. Initially, the story seemed to follow the traditional COD trajectory, as players start as a CIA ghost tasked with finding a stolen shipment of chemical gas, but the story takes a quick turn into uncharted territory. This usually translates to showing gamers a glimpse of the much darker world of the present day, having players respond to a major terror attack, protect a stormed embassy, or stalk terrorist ringleaders through tunnel mazes.

Sure, these plot devices may feel a bit similar to past campaigns, but it’s Modern Warfare’s murkier presentation that elevates these elements to new heights. Instead of having the feeling of mowing down hundreds of faceless, generic computer bots to advance to the next mission, there is a weight to the combat and atmosphere that adds a certain gravity to the narrative. It could be because of the new focus on characters or just the general atmosphere, but this new aesthetic goes a long way in creating a more immersive Modern Warfare campaign experience.

That being said, while the campaign is solid, it’s no Black Hawk Down or Homeland. The story arc of the main characters, Alex and Kyle, play out far too abruptly and lack the nuance of deep development. It almost feels like a few things were cut for time from the original script or just got lost in translation to favor gameplay. As a result, some of the larger “critical” points about terrorism and morality fall a little flat as the story progresses. Sure, Infinity Ward deserves some credit for ambitiously trying to make some deep statements in video game form, no small feat for a AAA dev, but these complex issues require complex stories to flesh them out and do them justice.

Mostly killer, a little filler

What really sets this title apart from past entries is its willingness to experiment with level design, making for some really unique gameplay moments. Of course, the campaign has all the COD staples—the generic sniper mission, the protect the base objectives, etc, etc. But it’s the new stuff that creates some excitement for the future of the franchise.

Most memorable of these Modern Warfare campaign levels were the missions involving nighttime raids on suspected terrorist cells. As players slowly move from floor to floor with their tactical squad, they are forced to quickly assess whether characters are enemies or civilians. When corners are quickly turned, some of the people react in fear, some pull weapons, and others make a long con to distract while danger lurks nearby. To make things even better, these whole missions take place in dead silence and through night vision, giving it a vaguely Outlast-ey feel. Hopefully, Infinity Ward will be brave enough to bring more of these types of levels into the future of the series.

Modern Warfare campaign

Also, the Modern Warfare campaign seems to be less afraid of letting players choose their own path through the mission. Varying weapon types are available from the get-go and objectives can often be addressed in multiple ways, giving players more freedom. While the narrative doesn’t exactly feel non-linear (although that would have been even more interesting), it certainly opens up possibilities for a little more replayability than previous campaigns.

The devil is in the details

There was a healthy skepticism when Infinity Ward first promised that the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign would be gritty and realistic, but they truly lived up to their word. Civilians and enemies both drop at a similar rate, takedowns are visceral and brutal, and the subject matter of the game can be downright sickening. There are times that will actually have players think, “I’m too soft for war,” which is absolutely the feeling that Infinity Ward is going for.

To achieve this depth, all the assets and cinematics work well in tandem. The gunplay is visceral and realistic, giving some of the best FPS feelings in the current-gen. The cinematics is also awe-inspiring, literally light years away from the Uncanny Valley. To be quite honest, it actually makes one wish that there were more cinematics in the game. 

Finally shooting in the right direction

Although not a perfect game, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign might be one of the bigger surprises of the year in terms of expectations. With a franchise that has been running this long on such half-hearted narrative experiences, the stakes for the title were incredibly low. But Infinity Ward has delivered something worth playing that truly feels like the vision that they promised. Sure, the campaign is not without flaws, as it would be great to see a tighter story and even more diverse gameplay elements, but it is absolutely worth a play just to experience its better moments.

Even though the Modern Warfare campaign is no Game of the Year contender, it’s nice to know that the franchise is finally headed back in the right direction. Who knows? Maybe one day people will pick the game up for the campaign over the multiplayer, instead of vice-versa.

Speaking of multiplayer, check out our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode.

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Game Reviews

‘Luigi’s Mansion 3′ Review: The Franchise is Movin’ On Up

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No more living in the shadow of his more stalwart sibling — Luigi’s Mansion 3 has built its puzzle-solving, ghost-busting gameplay upon two solid foundations, and the result reaches fantastic new heights. With a host of new abilities, an incredible amount of interactivity in a gorgeous setting, and an army of undead hotel staff ready to be sucked up into the afterlife, this is easily the best entry in the franchise — and a culmination of what Nintendo and developer Next Level Games has learned since the original GameCube release.

Luigi's Mansion 3 lobby

While there will always be those who appreciate the more Gothic atmosphere of that first entry, it’s hard to argue the superiority of its basic action. Gameplay-wise, the original Luigi’s Mansion was a starter home, and Dark Moon is where the timid green plumber’s ghost-busting, drapery-sucking antics really settled down. By adding new abilities to the Poltergust, increased interactivity with the environments, and a multitude of secrets, Next Level Games created a blueprint that future entries in the series could build upon. Luigi’s Mansion 3 takes that schematic and runs wild with it, jam-packing their funhouse with a plethora of things to do and discover, and plenty of new ways to do it.

Fans of the franchise will no doubt remember exactly how to blind their foes (and disintegrate creepy-crawlies) with the blinding flash of the Strobulb, as well as obsessively comb every nook and cranny with the Dark Light, which can materialize hidden objects (and Boos) out of thin air. But while these holdovers are just as fun as ever, it’s the additions to Luigi’s repertoire that really take Luigi’s Mansion 3 on a private elevator to the penthouse. The best is Gooigi, a green jello doppelganger of the hero who has all the same abilities, but can also ooze through cage bars or spikes like the T-1000, and travel through pipes like…Mario and Luigi; like the Wicked Witch of the West, however, he will melt when exposed to water. Several wonderful puzzles and boss fights involve switching back and forth between the two controllable characters, and some even require them working in conjunction to combine their vacuum powers.

Luigi's Mansion 3 mummy

Also tons of fun is a suction cup projectile that conveniently has a rope attached for Luigi to yank on. Firing it at bulging pieces of luggage, electrical boxes, potted plants, garbage cans, bathroom stall doors, or any number of highlighted objects around the hotel allows Luigi to perform a smashing slam move that breaks ornaments apart and spills their loot. There are times when Luigi’s Mansion 3 feels like a hotel burglar simulation, as players run around destroying everything in sight, ransacking rooms for anything valuable — but the spree is certainly a blast. In addition to feeling great, these new abilities also force players to scrutinize rooms closer than ever before if they are to find every deviously hidden stash of gold or gems.

It’s sheer pleasure seeing how cleverly Next Level Games has layered puzzle upon puzzle in such luxuriously small spaces, daring players to experiment and think outside the box when it comes to how the Poltergust’s various powers are applied. It’s easy to turn on a bathroom faucet and receive a couple of coins in return, but perhaps this simple button prompt leads players to wonder what happens when other taps — ones that aren’t accessible by hand — are opened. So many puzzles require players to make logical leaps without any telegraphed clues, and that makes the process of discovery so much more satisfying. This is where Luigi’s Mansion 3 stands out most from its predecessors — the incredible amount of variety and interactivity to poke around in.

Luigi's Mansion 3 pirate cave

And unlike Dark Moon, players won’t be kicked out this time upon completing objectives. Completing a floor simply leaves Luigi where the battle began, free to go about his business and explore, or to move on to the next story beat. The seventeen floors blend seamlessly with each other via an elevator (in which Luigi is still controllable — a nice touch), allowing for the feeling that this is one continuous environment more than the multiple mansions of the last trip.

Each floor also is given a specific theme (an deadly overgrown garden, an ominous concert hall, a pirate-themed seafood restaurant, a peppy fitness gym, etc.), and is often presented as a maze of rooms which Luigi must work his way through in order to get to the boss. The more cartoonish vibe of Dark Moon is clearly the influence here, but these spaces are absolutely gorgeous, showcasing a tactile, diorama-ish look that will have players eager to see what inventive scenario comes next. What’s better is that they are also thoughtfully designed and stuffed with complementary amenities, artwork, and knick-knacks (often tailored to the theme of the floor, which only increases the visual variety) with which to manipulate.

Sure, every loose piece of cloth can be whisked away, each sheet of paper can be sent scattering in a blast of air, and no plant’s leaves can consider themselves safe from the mighty Poltergust-00, but a comprehensive physics system is where so much of the magic in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is made. This is introduced immediately in a benign opening sequence that features tumbling luggage and tippable chairs. As Luigi bumps into objects, they react appropriately; plates fall to the ground and shatter like they should, things with wheels can be rolled, loose carpeting can be furled. It isn’t long before knowledge of these principles comes into play, and certain puzzles begin to show how the ‘regular’ moves by themselves aren’t going to cut it. If something is made of glass, it’s likely breakable — one only need to figure out how to smash it.

Experimentation is the key, and one of the real joys of Luigi’s Mansion 3. With so many tools at one’s disposal, it’s only natural to test the boundaries of this physics system, but Next Level Games has risen impressively to the challenge. Unorthodox maneuvers are almost always rewarded, either by a cornucopia of cash, a well-earned gem, or even an achievement recognizing the outstanding industriousness. This validation goes the extra mile in making the gameplay feel gratifying, and encourages spending a lot of time in each room to prod at every corner.

More importantly, training players to think creatively prepares them for the combat challenges ahead, and for those whose primary aim is to to bust ghosts, be assured that there are plenty. While most of the standard enemies conform to the same six or seven types, they often are wielding accessories that complicate the fight. Disarming plays a big part of combat, as savvy ghosts know how to block that Strobulb flash, and swarms of these yammering poltergeists can easily overtake poor Luigi. To assist in this, the previously mentioned slam works well at flattening approaching opponents and reducing their health, while a jump of sorts creates a burst of air which knocks opponents backwards. As usual, this latter move is useful for more than meets the eye.

Luigi's Mansion 3 dance

There is much more visual variety to the abundance of bosses, and while it’s doubtful they will be the subjects of much fan fiction or lore (with a few exceptions), the goofy characterizations are more distinct this time around than the last, and provide some of the most memorable moments. These ghoulies aren’t to be slept on in the difficulty department either; more than one boss ghost will put the plumber in his place if players simply charge right in without thinking first. And while Luigi’s Mansion 3 is generous with healing hearts and semi-useful hints from Professor E. Gadd, these creatively epic battles ultimately rely on understanding the full range of what Luigi’s many abilities can do. Weaknesses are rarely just given away, especially later in the game, and it’s likely that many younger or inexperienced players will be glad of some of E. Gadd’s health-restoring shop items.

Regardless of any bumps in the night, Luigi’s Mansion 3 succeeds wonderfully in creating a bountiful playground out of a haunted hotel that is a pleasure to patronize. With the online play of the Scarescraper still manic fun, and the mini-games of ScreamPark as an enjoyable multiplayer diversion, players are likely to return for many, many lengthy stays. A couple tedious set pieces and one or two frustrating boss fights aside, this is a perfectly paced sandbox (especially on the Egyptian floor) teeming with fun ideas — a towering expansion on previous models that takes the franchise to the next level.

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