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Game Reviews

‘NBA 2K18’: A Great, Frustratingly Backwards Thinking Entry in the Acclaimed Series

It seems like such a simple question; “is NBA 2K18 a good basketball game?”

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It seems like such a simple question; “is NBA 2K18 a good basketball game?” Ostensibly, NBA 2K18 is a masterpiece: the pinnacle of years of work for the Visual Concepts/2K teams, a game that fully embraces the changing philosophies of recent iterations of the world’s most popular basketball video game, markedly better than its predecessors in a number of measurable, tangible ways. Though I roll my eyes at this metaphor, the initial observations of NBA 2K18 at release was the epitome of a slam dunk; great reviews, solid sales, and buckets full of hype for the new modes and gameplay enhancements. It all seemed to be a perfect storm; and yet, after five weeks of playing NBA 2K18 religiously, I’m not able to definitively say whether this is a great game, a good game – or a terrible game that represents the worst business and development practices of the series.

The framework of NBA 2K18 is undeniably solid; as disappointed as I am yearly that the Create-a-Legend and Jordan Challenges of NBA 2K12 are never to return, it’s impressive how much content is available to play in the streamlined myCareer, myTeam, and myGM/myLeague modes, both on and offline (though, thanks to the VC currency system and other “features” I’ll detail throughout, 2K is mostly a useless game when not connected to the internet). myCareer has expanded from being a great career mode wrapped in a terrible story to being an all-encompassing monster of badge grinding, player upgrading, and online play – complete with another shitty story and set of characters –  all taking place in the alternate universe known as “the Neighborhood”. myTeam has quadrupled the amount of single and multiplayer offerings within its mode (including “Schedule Mode”, which features 30 individual challenges to beat for each of the league’s 30 teams – that’s right, 900 mini-events to complete), a never-ending spigot of fantastic content and addictive card pack opening screens that’ll make Hearthstone developers jealous in how much revenue they’ll generate. myGM is no slouch either, the logic of the mode being reworked to incorporate the new rules and intricacies of the new collective bargaining agreement signed this year – PLUS it gets its own myCareer-level awful narrative thrown on top, as well!

Seriously – the first season of this year’s myGM sees a player’s chosen team be bought out by an obnoxious, disinterested owner that does whatever he can to ruin your initial experience with the mode – to the point he makes unapproved trades on your behalf, completely ruining the meticulous construction players go through to set up their franchises to become dynasties for years to come. And (spoilers) it only lasts for a season! The owner comes in, ruins your relationship with coaches and players, forces trades, screws up a team’s cap room for two-three seasons to come, and then he’s just gone the minute the first season has completed. Simply put – what the fuck was the point? Considering nothing else has changed in the mode (the menus are even exactly the same), it may just be a matter of 2K searching for ways to make a mode they hyped up as being completely refreshed, actually feel like something different – however, the only thing it does is ruin a lot of good will that comes with the actual, wanted changes to the mode’s logic and gameplay.

There’s no shortage of things to do in 2K, that’s for sure: in fact, this might be the most time anyone spends off a basketball court in a 2K basketball game without ever running in fear of getting bored. In The Neighborhood, players can always progress their “Road to 99” story by “experiencing” the lengthy, excruciatingly shitty cutscenes that tell this year’s story (which is so awful and predictable, it’s not even worth recapping – just know the player-controller character is a person who goes back to playing basketball when his true dream of being a DJ fails. Yes, that is correct). Players can also participate in any number of activities that will encourage them to spend cash on some hot VC currency: get a fresh haircut (that were so expensive 2K had to cut the prices in 1/4 the week of release, due to player complaints), work on badges in the gym, or head over to the outdoor courts, the myPark of NBA 2K18 that mostly works, most of the time (complete with the requisite amount mechanic cheesing and connection issues, of course).

Perhaps the most disappointing turn about myNeighborhood/Road to 99/The Story of DJ the Fuckboi is just how slow it all feels, top to bottom. Players move sluggishly around the neighborhood to go from place to place, progress of a player’s attributes and skill set is slower, and inextricably tied to VC – which of course, is earned significantly slower in this year’s games; for the first time since the mode’s inception, there’s really nothing exciting or rewarding enough to make myCareer worth playing, unless you’re really into Pro-Am (aka grinding to get into tournaments) mode, or have some investment in the 2K18 E-sports league that’s been slowly forming over the past six months. Forget how disappointing and stereotypical the main plot line of myCareer is; the entire mode is predictably disappointing, thanks to the increasing need to make the mode something that is only fun when extra monetary funds are being spent to artificially increase the almost non-existent feel of player evolution.

No matter how disappointing the mode and feature suites of 2K18 are, there’s no denying the mastery of on-court performance 2K once again offers its audience…. at least, in comparison to EA’s NBA Live relaunch, a well-intentioned basketball simulation that’s just janky and arcade-y enough to keep most virtual basketball heads at bay. For a game that still relies on the increasingly-archaic systems of animation construction and  prioritization (rather than moving to real-time physics, as titles like FIFA have done in recent years), NBA 2K18 mostly looks and plays as smooth as it ever did, particularly on a PS4 Pro, where the 4K assets and 60-frames a second action look buttery smooth, and insanely detailed, right down to facial hair, sweat, and indentations on the court surface from sneaker scratches.

However, this doesn’t mean that NBA 2K18 plays “perfectly”, or even is a marked improvement over last year’s game: in fact, this game seems tuned even further towards replicating “modern” basketball, or at least 2K’s interpretation of it. This means the only two viable sources of offense is driving to the basket off a pick and roll, or driving the lane with a player in order to collapse defenses and kick outside; at least, that feels like the only two viable offensive options. Post play is as subdued as it ever was, and thanks to the everlasting glitches with rebounding and defense (where boxing out and blocking shots often lead to an easy opponent score), still showing off their ugly mugs at various points in each match. Errant passes and players stepping out of bounds in the corner are two big issues 2K clearly wanted to address, so at least there are a few bugs that have existed in 2K games for the past five years that are addressed in 2K18  – but not enough, a sentiment that is doubled down upon when faced with the new frustrations 2K’s on-court product presents players.

The most frustrating, and encompassing, of these issues, is the rampant changes in difficulty. Suddenly, there is no such thing as a consistent offensive player: “good” releases on 85% free throw shooters regularly brick, players like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving regularly miss routine layups on any difficulty above Pro, and the difference between opponent AI defense, and a player’s AI defense, have never been more apparent. The lack of consistency with defensive AI has increasingly gotten worse with each patch 2K has pushed out this year: to the point where I can no longer trust a big man not to leave his defensive assignment wide open under the basket during any type of offensive action, since every single one of them are magically glued to the ball handler during any type of pick and roll action, or getting locked up on screens underneath the basket. This isn’t just on lower difficulties: on Hall of Fame, AI defenders on my team would routinely make the most aggressively stupid choices possible, even though the opponent AI stuck to my players with some of the most aggressively unbalanced ability I’ve ever seen. I can’t get a PF to effectively hedge a pick when I’m controlling him, but I’m unable to create space between my PG and the opponent C 25-feet away from the basket, on multiple consecutive possessions?

As a player who has been playing 2K18 at an effectively high level for the past 15 years, I’m confident in my ability as a virtual basketball player. For the first time ever, NBA 2K18 makes me question my own choices: why are players missing “excellent” release shots, multiple times in a row? Why does every ball poked loose turn into easy points for the opponent, instead of a turnover? Why did I just miss three open layups in a row? No longer do I feel confident that I’ll be able to charge to victory when facing any sort of mechanical adversity in a 2K game; while that may make the game slightly more realistic in terms of shooting percentages and the “look” of a game, it can sometimes lead to a really offputting experience – and oddly, it appears to be totally random. I’ve shot 35% for a game on my home court, and I’ve also made 4/5 free throws with Hassan Whiteside in the late 4th quarter of a road game; the lack of consistency in experience undercuts the experience, in 10 point losses or 30 point wins. Maybe it’s the game’s undying allegiance to the effects of “momentum”, maybe it’s 2K forgetting that consistency in a sports video game is more important than staunch, stiff adherence to “realism” in all aspects; whatever the philosophic changes to the heart of 2K’s gameplay may be, it has ultimately led to a slightly less satisfying experience than in years prior.

Ultimately, that lack of confidence defines my experience with 2K: from the game-changing fundamentally on-court after each post-release update, to the inconsistent on and off-court experiences with its increasingly small mode set (and the game’s unholy obsession with shoving microtransactions down player’s throats, even after offering $80 and $100 priced versions of the game), 2K18 is as impressive as it is disappointing, a game that only superficially offers players new ways to engage and enjoy the most critically acclaimed sports series in the universe. And while it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll put multiple hundreds of hours into the robust myTeam mode, the specific joy of playing myCareer is completely gone, as is the excitement to dig into the new off-court features of any game mode, given how currency driven and uninspired they’ve all become. NBA 2K18 is still the best basketball game anyone could play in 2017 – and admittedly, one of the best sports titles overall – but that accomplishment is not as impressive, or exciting, as it was in years past.

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.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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