After a long wait, Xbox One owners can finally get their hands on the much anticipated sequel to one of Microsoft’s biggest franchises, Gears of War. In 2014 Microsoft announced that they had purchased the Gears of War IP from Epic Games and that a new game would be in development for the Xbox One by a Microsoft owned studio called Black Tusk Studios, which would later be renamed “The Coalition”. As part of the deal, Microsoft hired Rod Fergusson of Epic Games, who served as the executive producer of the first three Gears games, to oversee development of this sequel. So in the hands of new a developer, does Gears of War 4 live up to being a worthy successor to the franchise?
Gears of War 4 is set 25 years after the events of the Locust War, which was depicted in the original trilogy. After firing the Imulsion Countermeasure weapon that defeated both the Locust and the Lambent, there are only hundreds of thousands of humans left on the planet Sera. While the weapon was successful, it created a harsher environment full of windflares, which are large electromagnetic storms. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) has created wall-offed cities to protect the dwindling populations and declares martial law which states that nobody is allowed to travel outside these cities. The humans who rejected this law and live outside their jurisdiction are called the “Outsiders”, and they conduct raids on COG territories for their resources.
Gears of War 4 features a variety of new faces. The protagonist of the game is J.D. Fenix who is the son of the original trilogy’s protagonist, Marcus Fenix. J.D. used to work for the COG before joining the Outsiders. Together with his friends Delmont “Del” Walker and Kait Diaz, J.D. not only battles the new alien race called the Swarm, he also battles the COG and their robots. These characters aren’t as gritty or as serious as their predecessors since they often make quips and jokes throughout the game, even in the most dire of situations. It makes sense considering they grew up in a different time than their predecessors. These new characters encounter familiar faces that will provide fans of the series with nostalgia while also bridging together the original trilogy with this new saga. This game is basically The Force Awakens of the Gears of War franchise.
If players expect this game to completely reinvent the franchise, they are going to be disappointed. Mechanically speaking this game feels just like any other Gears of War title. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the developers decided to use elements of the older games and mix them with new gameplay mechanics and characters that will satisfy older Gears of War fans while introducing newcomers to the franchise.
Gears of War 4 still uses the typical cover and shoot mechanic the series has always used, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the gameplay still holds up very well and feels more improved. It’s much easier to cover and move the sticks on the controller to aim and shoot. This makes the combat feel far more fluid. Players can do a variety of things in cover; they can mantle over walls to hit their enemies, they can execute their enemies over cover, they can pop out and shoot at enemies, or they can just wildly shoot without looking. This game still uses the same reload mechanic seen in every Gears of War game where players press the right bumper to play a mini game to get a cursor into the white spot of the bar to reload faster and even get special ammo.
It is important to note that the game’s stop-and-pop style needs to be fun because that’s basically the whole game at its core. In its five acts with multiple chapters, the whole campaign of Gears of War 4 is basically getting from point A to point B while taking cover and shooting enemies. Outside of times where players will use a bike or a mech, the game will lock players into an area and force them to fight the enemies until they are all defeated. The game play is a lot of fun, but at times it can feel a bit redundant.
Gears 4 also features a co-op system that can be played either online or via offline split-screen. Teamwork has been a staple for the franchise since the original game so it’s nice to see the new developers have kept the series close to its roots. Players can come up with different strategies in how to handle a situation, and they rely on each other to be revived when things get dicey. For players who want to play this game alone, even the AI controlled characters do a terrific job quickly getting to the players to revive them. This is very important because so many enemies appear on screen and it is easy for players to get downed, especially on higher difficulty. Split screen co-op is not a feature that is done often anymore, so it’s nice to see it done very well here.
Similar to the previous games, there are survival horror elements of the game that involve players venturing into dark areas filled with monsters. The fork in the road mechanic also returns where players have to decide which path to take. This adds replay value to the game as every play through can be different. The plot is also similar to past games as it focuses on Kait’s search for her mother Reyna Diaz, which is similar to how Dominic Santiago of the original trilogy was searching for his lost wife.
There are a variety of new toys for the players to use to mow down their enemies. The EMBRAR is a charge-shot sniper rifle that must hit a target or it will overheat in the players’ hands. The Buzzkill shoots lethal saws at foes and beautifully rips them to shreds. The appropriately named Overkill is a very strong double-barrel shotgun that fires two shots: one when players press the trigger and one when they let go. There’s also plenty of old weapons in the game that older fans of the series will easily recognize such as the Lancer and the traditional Longshot. It’s a lot of fun picking up weapons and seeing what they can do. Players won’t really have a choice but to try out a bunch of weapons because it’s really easy to run out of ammo and often times players will be picking up their enemies’ weapons during combat.
While many of the Swarm enemies look and play similar to the Locust, the campaign also offers a bunch of new enemies that fight players in a completely different ways. The new DeeBee robot enemies aren’t afraid to get shot at so they will get close and personal with players. The Pouncer is a new enemy that shoots quills from its tail and jumps on players if they get too close. The only way to kill it is to shoot it in its weak spot. Another cool enemy is the Snatcher who can grab players and pull them into its body. This will leave a blurry field of vision on screen until the players’ allies rescue them with gunfire. In order to combat the Pouncers and the Snatchers, players need to stay in cover and shoot, and continue to move to different locations.
The game looks great; It is definitely one of the best looking games on the Xbox One. The environments are a pleasure to behold. If players take a break from the action and simply enjoy the scenery they’ll notice there’s a lot going on, especially when encountering the windflares. Players will battle enemies in these storms with debris flying everywhere on screen, and the game still runs smoothly without a problem. This game is full of hyper-realistic gore that looks far more convincing when compared to the borderline cartoonish gore of the past games. It is a lot of fun to blow an enemy’s head off with a shotgun or chainsaw them in half. The deaths of the players can also be pretty brutal with a lot of dismemberment and chainsaw slices. The game looks even better if fans own an Xbox One S and a good TV since this is one of the first Xbox games to support HDR. And of course it looks even better on the PC.
The campaign doesn’t offer the greatest story and the new hero is relatively generic. That’s not to say J.D. is a bad protagonist or that his story arc is inadequate, but there’s nothing unique about him at all. Despite J.D.’s shortcomings at least he keeps good company, as his companions Del and Kait are likable and easy to care about. The story itself isn’t a grand tale compared to the war of the original trilogy, but more small scale and personal. The campaign’s theme is family as it focuses on J.D.’s family, Kait’s search for her mother, and their relationships. Because the campaign is about 7-10 hours depending on the difficulty, it is pretty well paced. There’s a lot of gun fights of course, but the game also gives players time to breathe so they can relax and enjoy the set pieces and characters of this new world. The story plays it very safe and focuses more on kicking the can down the road for future games, but it is still enjoyable. This game is a lot fun so playing it safe doesn’t hurt the game too bad, but this will displease some people for sure. Overall, the campaign offers entertaining brutal and fun combat, cinematic moments, and character banter. It is a true blockbuster.
Where Gears of War 4 really shines is in its multiplayer. Similar to the campaign, The Coalition chose to evolve the multiplayer rather than reinvent it. One of the most notable and noticeable changes is an adjustment to the frame-rate. While the campaign runs at a steady 30 FPS, the multiplayer actually runs 60 frames per second. Given the fast-paced and hectic style of Gears multiplayer, the boost in frame rate is much appreciated.
Gears of War 4 offers a versus mode and a horde mode. In versus mode, there are 10 multiplayer maps and several modes. Compared to the linear areas of the campaign, the multiplayer maps offer players large areas full of brutal tools to defeat their adversaries. This game has the basic modes one would expect to see in the franchise such as Team Deathmatch and Guardian, but it also has a couple of new really fun modes. One of the new modes (a personal favorite) is the Arms Race where everyone is given the same weapon in a round and races to kill the other team three times with this weapon to advance the round. This puts everyone on equal footing and makes it so skill shines more than the weapon. Especially since players usually love to use shotguns in multiplayer. Another new mode is Dodgeball that plays like Team Deathmatch, but in this mode players can respawn. It plays just like a regular game of dodgeball. In order to revive a teammate, players must kill an enemy and then survive for five seconds. If they do, the player will respawn and the next player who died will wait in death queue.
Players are rewarded for playing multiplayer with experience to level up and with credits that can be used to purchase Gear Packs. These packs are full of cards that provide players with a variety of items to customize their multiplayer experience. Using credits, players can purchase characters, weapon skins, emblems, and bounties that offer additional rewards for competing challenges. Players also have the option to buy card packs using real world currency if they want to build their collection quickly.
Perhaps the best aspect of Gears of War 4 is its horde mode 3.0. In this mode, five players survive waves of enemies by building defenses to protect the team. Teams now have access to the Fabricator (the team’s mobile emplacement builder), which allows players to create turrets, sentries, fences, and more as they battle 50 waves of DeeBees and Swarm enemies. Every tenth wave spawns a random boss, such as the Snatcher who steals downed teammates or the Kestrel which is an attack helicopter that attacks the team from the sky. There is also a new class system in horde mode which gives players the option of choosing between the Soldier, the Scout, the Heavy, the Sniper, and the Engineer. Each class of course has a specific strength, for example, the engineer can repair fortifications and the Heavy uses strong weapons. This new class system really emphasizes teamwork since encouraging specialized roles grants specific action bonuses. This makes horde mode is a lot of fun and offers a lot of replay value because there’s so many strategies the team can use to win the mode. Players should expect to play this mode for hours with friends.
Gears of War fans will feel right at home with this new entry. It doesn’t reinvent the franchise and it does play it a bit safe, but The Coalition did a great job mixing in the nostalgia of the original trilogy with a batch of new characters and enemies while improving on its lore and gameplay mechanics. There are very few games that still feel as satisfying to blow an opponent’s head off or chainsaw them in half. But now gamers can enjoy that with even better graphics. The campaign is really enjoyable, but the game really shines in multiplayer and that’s where the majority of the player’s time will be spent. If this is the first step for a new saga in the Gears of War franchise then this series has a very bright future.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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