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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

‘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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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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