Xbox One, PC
It’s halfway through my first season as manager of the club in PES 2020’s Master League franchise mode and everything is going swimmingly – we’re top of the league and leaders of our group in the European cup. At the beginning of the season I made a promise to our board that we could win both competitions, and we are well on our way.
Then, towards the end of the January transfer window, Paris Saint-Germain swoop in and pay the release clause of one of my best players. I hurriedly propose a new contract to him in the hopes of rebuffing the poachers, but his head has already been turned and he’s out the door. Our domestic and continental campaigns continue nonetheless, but the loss of our star particularly hurts because I hadn’t arranged a suitable replacement.
This is one of the scenarios in the mode, along with choosing season objectives and press conference answers, that plays out in new cutscenes without spoken dialog. The intrinsic value of something enigmatic like the pressure of an upcoming derby or the team selection is hard to measure, but it captures a hard-to-quantify quality that this often-sterile mode has lacked. Similarly, it’s nice to finally see realistic transfer amounts although the A.I. still doesn’t know how to manage rosters during the transfer windows. This is emblematic of the title as a whole, a game whose charms and flaws are both apparent.
PES 2020’s gameplay changes can also be very noticeable (I play on Top Player difficulty) even if they don’t seem monumental on paper. Players’ physicality gives gameplay a measure of grit; even if a defender is in a good position they can be held off so a shot or pass can be completed. This, along with defense in general requiring more discerning timing, introduces tension and excitement around the box. Fouls still aren’t consistently fair and collision sometimes fails, but I like the defending overall.
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Timing is also important in passing and shooting, creating windows that separate the delicious from the merely ambitious. Some players have an inspire rating that causes teammates to make runs because they know your player has the ability to get them the ball – that’s if you pick your head up and see their movement. There’s also a difference between getting your body correctly set up to put the ball accurately on net and just swinging your leg at it and sending it into the stands. A less-than-ideal pass or one to the wrong teammate may slow your counterattack just enough to let the opposition gather its forces. Your striker may snatch at a chance that would have been a sure goal if you just took an extra second to get composed.
Relative to gameplay and Master League, PES 2020’s online and MyClub aspects stand out less. Fantasy collection mode MyClub is still generous in how it gives fans starting out a chance at acquiring decent players, and I anticipate the title’s post-launch outlay of agents and ways of accumulating GP, the in-game currency, to be the same as last year. Overall, online play is still at the mercy of players’ connection, Konami’s infrastructure, and the limited matchmaking model – which is to say it’s not very different – but at least you can see your opponent’s connection strength before diving into a match.
PES 2020’s small details create moments that bring into focus the fine margins that determine the results of many soccer games. When compared to the game’s similarities to last year it seems like minutia, but these are the things that elevate it from previous efforts and make PES 2020 look and feel correct. It’s a better game, even if it’s not evolved in every way. It’s like when a manager expresses how pleased they are of the team after a draw: You know they wanted the outright win, but they are also satisfied with the team’s overall performance. PES 2020 can be a familiar experience, but that shouldn’t blind you to its finer moments.
Summary: Konami’s latest entry in the soccer series adds more official licenses and drama to its Master League mode, but it’s the action on the pitch where the game makes its mark.
Concept: Add small but noticeable touches to mainly gameplay and the Master League mode to create an experience that is both familiar and new
Graphics: The Master League cutscenes show both how good the models are but also how hard it is to capture realistic facial expressions
Sound: The crowd swells, but it doesn’t add to the overall matchday atmosphere. There needs to be more vocal away support and back-and-forth between supporters
Playability: The new way of controlling the ball with just the right analog is simple and useful
Entertainment: PES 2020 creates a vibrant drama on and off the pitch through small details that can make a big difference
Replay: Moderately High
PlayStation 4, Switch, PC
The NBA 2K franchise has gotten so large that it services niche fanbases as much as it tries to appeal to the masses. Some players grind out progress and chase the badge meta of MyCareer, others rebuild the NBA as they see fit in MyLeague, and then there’s the never-ending card collecting of MyTeam. All are rightfully NBA 2K fans and deserve to get joy from their favorite basketball title.
This, however, puts developer Visual Concepts in a tough position because if you try going in different directions at once you risk going nowhere at all. This is nothing new for the franchise, which has not only become the preeminent basketball title, but some argue the best sports title period. Visual Concepts has responded in recent years to this pressure by adding new features to many of its modes. NBA 2K20 does this like its predecessors, but as much as it tries to carry the franchise forward, it is burdened by the past.
A prime example of this is MyCareer, which lets players loose in the open world-ish Neighborhood area to grind their player up the ladder. NBA 2K20 tweaks how you make your MyPlayer, letting gamers choose their hard attribute caps within templates of preset strengths and weaknesses. Your abilities are broken out into the finishing, shooting, playmaking, and defense/rebounding buckets, which also house the all-important badges that confer bonuses.
Grinding to increase your attributes through the VC currency (earned throughout the game and buyable with real money) is a central part of the experience, and although you can create multiple builds, each one starts over at 60 OVR and any VC you’ve earned cannot be re-allocated to the new build. This exposes the illusion of freedom of having different builds in the first place, and given how important having the appropriate attribute levels, badges, and even physical features are in multiplayer, you must choose carefully.
The mode’s grind itself is exacerbated by an infrastructure that needs updating. You still have to wait in real-time for MyPark games and training stations, and there is no matchmaking in the mode. This significantly dampens my incentive to take my lumps against players who may have paid real money for VC to expedite progress.
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Thankfully MyCareer also lets players grow through NBA games against the A.I., providing a different outlet for your character. This is bolstered by cutscenes along the way, including the well-done Prelude story put together by Lebron James’ SpringHill Entertainment that advocates players embracing what agency they have in power structures that preferred they didn’t.
MyGM also surfaces the needs of players via the conversation system, but it drags down the mode. The action-point system driving what you can do in a day isn’t interesting when you have to spend it constantly chit chatting with players to hold inane, repetitive conversations about waffles just to keep up their morale. You also have to constantly fend off their requests for minutes. Unlocking GM abilities like training and scouting is understandable, but I don’t like that it’s tied to objectives that might not make sense like signing lots of veteran players at the behest of the team owner. The actual skill tree itself, which is a part of the entire process, is okay but nothing special.
MyLeague is similar to MyGM in many respects, but without the action-point system, and reveals many of the series’ strengths, such as the ability to customize the league in myriad ways via rules, rosters, and the teams themselves (including adding historic ones), as well as the analytics at your disposal. These are the kind of franchise options that few sports games deliver. The series adds the WNBA for the first time, although this is just for a single playable season and in Play Now.
NBA 2K20 also comes through in the gameplay department, allowing individual expression within a team dynamic. Pulling off fancy dribble moves isn’t hard, but passing the ball around, running plays, and putting it all together at the right times to generate space to sink shots is a deep, satisfying path to consistent scoring. Although the low post area can be a jumble of animations, the game adapts well to your commands with branching animations that give you the flexibility while driving to the basket to reroute your path or pass the ball at the last second to an open teammate.
Playing defense is just as important, and I appreciate the fine line between success and failure in contesting shots and the physicality of trying to get in front of the better players so they don’t just blow by – although I haven’t mastered the timing of boxing out and rebounding.
At launch the game has had problems, such as MyCareer players not being awarded earned progress, and MyTeam single-player Triple Threat challenges not being accessible (at least MyTeam’s overall progression isn’t bad). These kinds of hiccups are usual for Visual Concepts, and partly prove that the NBA 2K series – as strong as it is in some areas – needs to keep working.
Summary: The gameplay heart of the series is well intact, although some of the choices developer Visual Concepts makes with parts of the modes aren’t the best.
Concept: Keep delivering on the gameplay front and the overall strength of its League structure while inadvertently reinforcing how MyPark needs significant changes
Graphics: A nitpick of an otherwise gorgeous game: Sweat only comes in one flow – heavy-duty
Sound: I love having multiple commentary teams, and I appreciate that they callout substitutions during timeouts
Playability: The controls easily accommodate a surprising amount of actions, letting you concentrate on what’s actually going on instead
Entertainment: There’s a lot to chew on in this game, good and not as good, but thankfully the gameplay delivers
Replay: Moderately High
Xbox One, PC
This year’s additions to NASCAR Heat are perhaps the most subtle for the franchise so far. Still, the title’s gameplay, career mode, and online suite are sufficient and compelling, making NASCAR Heat 4 the strongest title in the series to date – even if its flaws make it more admirable than excellent.
The best addition to the game is the host of sliders that change both your car and those of any A.I. racers. These cover aspects like tire wear, pack spacing, ability by the A.I. to recover from contact, as well as those addressing the overall difficulty of the experience. The effect on the track is more exciting racing due to a host of factors created by those sliders, from more drafting partners to the overall nerfing of the A.I. drivers, resulting in more interesting currents during the race such as realistic A.I. lap times that create pit strategies during long green flag runs or surprise cautions.
NASCAR Heat 4 has better pack spread, whether that’s stretching out the overall field or having A.I. cars choosing different lines on the track. That being said, I question the viability of those different lines on the tracks. It’s good that some A.I. cars take a high line at times, but either through their setups or driving ability, they aren’t faster overall and they don’t stick with these lines consistently. This means you’ll still get freight trained from below because that’s the default fast line for the A.I.
As far as the game’s A.I. has come, more work is needed. The localized rubber banding causes cars to catch up and pass you, but then settle in and slow down in front of you. Also, the A.I. lap times do indeed reflect tire wear, but they don’t drive like they actually have worn tires.
Online racing has its own problems. Not only is it missing features like matchmaking, grief protection, or leagues, it still hasn’t instituted practice/qualifying sessions. It also doesn’t offer settings available in other parts of the game that could aid the experience such as restricting the effects of car collisions.
The game’s career mode is improved, although it’s not drastically different from last year. It can take longer to save money for your racing organization due to more differentiated contract payouts – but not too much longer. Similarly, I like juggling different cars chassis that are best suited for specific track types as well as employee specialization; resource management is tougher but not excruciating.
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One of the areas that needs work is the friends and rivalries system. Someone praising or shaking their fist at you often doesn’t match up with what actually happened on the track. However, no matter what there’s always a draft partner available, which goes to show how surface the whole rivalry system is in general.
NASCAR Heat 4’s A.I. is a work in progress, the career mode is adequate, and the online suite is behind the times. Nevertheless, it’s the best offering to date even if it’s not totally dialed in, forcing you to get up on that steering wheel and dig deep for your spot on the track.
Summary: The series’ latest from developer Monster Games makes some tweaks to improve the on-the-track experience.
Concept: Give players more control over the title’s gameplay and career options in an attempt to make the game as a whole more realistic
Graphics: The PS4 version again has framerate problems. Thankfully the PC edition does not
Sound: Hearing the shaking and rattling of your car in cockpit cam is pretty cool. Overall, the new sound for the cars is good
Playability: The numerous slider options governing both your car and the A.I. ones offers enough flexibility to accommodate a range of players
Entertainment: Despite its limitations, NASCAR Heat 4 contains enough improvements to make it attractive
Replay: Moderately High
PlayStation 4, Xbox One
A lot has changed in the FPS game scene since 2012, when the last numbered entry of Borderlands arrived in our gaming machines. In all the ways that matter, the sequel hews closely to the blueprint established in that well-loved release, exploding forth onto our screens with a bevy of wild weaponry, asinine humor, and bloody battles. The formula feels dated. But with some updates to UI and gameplay, and a huge adventure across a variety of destinations, it’s easy to embrace the insanity once again, even if – in the back of your head – you know it all feels just a bit too familiar.
Players once again jump into the role of one of four unique vault hunters, each with engaging gimmicks that set their playstyles apart. From the brawling melee charges of the latest Siren to the mech-powered sustained assaults of the Gunner, each character offers a range of build options, and theory-crafting your way to a powerful murder machine is especially compelling after several dozen hours of play and earned skill points. Most of those playstyles borrow liberally from earlier games or other franchises entirely, so most powersets will feel like an old pair of shoes to genre faithful – easy to slip into, but with few surprises.
Across an especially lengthy campaign, Borderlands 3 skewers internet and corporate culture in equal measures, satirizing the inherent narcissism and selfishness of both with the series’ trademark sophomoric wit. The humor is certainly hit and miss, but the writers seem to have adopted the philosophy that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take; the chatter is nearly constant. Storytelling feels more epic this time as the heroes jet between planets. Previous games in the franchise have sometimes felt too tied to a particular environment, and this new installment combats that stale sensation with several well-realized locales, from an idyllic monastery to a corporate megacity. The variety is a welcome diversion, and keeps the visual palette pleasing.
Guns are once again the real stars of the show, with an unreal assortment of firearms that feature just as much gameplay variety as visual uniqueness. I enjoy the varied options at hand, and the solid gunplay across the board ensures engagement for many hours. From assault rifles that launch blasts of radiation to a pistol that shoots rockets, there’s no end of experimentation to be had. If anything, the plethora of options can feel overwhelming and slow down the otherwise frenzied pace of play as you simply try to figure out what is worth keeping or selling – a problem exacerbated by cumbersome inventory management and too few sell spots. It doesn’t help that weapons only sometimes conform to their expected archetypes. When a pistol is sometimes a better long-range option than a sniper, how best to judge an item’s utility at a glance?
Sliding under gaps and mantling over obstacles contribute to the fast flow of exploration, and I appreciate the sense of speed and mobility. Combat is frenetic but simplistic, especially in the early hours, as waves of enemies spawn repeatedly to be mown down. Later hours offer more interesting mixes of foes, but suffer from a different problem; many bad guys are extreme bullet sponges, extending fights in a way that feels unnecessary in an already meaty campaign playthrough. Several bosses are especially guilty of this sin, and can make for a miserable slog, especially played solo, where endless circle strafing quickly loses its appeal.
Like its predecessors, Borderlands 3 is at its best when played cooperatively with up to four players online. As more vault hunters enter the fray, the visual phantasmagoria of color and explosions is amusing and strangely delightful. The game supports easy drop-in play, and options for independent level scaling and difficulty, smoothing out the hurdles facing players in different places in the game.
If the “bang” you want for your buck is simply a wealth of content and a lot to do, Gearbox has you covered. Beyond the potential for trying out different characters and builds through the lengthy sweep of the narrative, the post-game experience opens up a range of challenge options, tiers of mayhem-infused encounters to climb through, and rank increases to shoot for as you dive back into the action. I welcome the commitment to endgame engagement. However, I must add that in my own playthrough, I felt the core loop of combat wore out its welcome well before the credits rolled, especially since the highest available initial difficulty (normal) rarely mounted a meaningful challenge.
Borderlands 3 is a love letter to its fans and a celebration of the style of play it first popularized. Filled with characters from previous installments, and unapologetic in its silly humor and bombastic action, it’s an amusing ride that seems hesitant to innovate. If more of what you loved before is your chief desire, Gearbox has granted that wish through a game of impressive scope that charts some very safe territory.
Borderlands 3 is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Those versions feature 2-Player local split-screen cooperative play.
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Summary: Gearbox treads familiar ground in this lengthy adventure, tossing out jokes and guns with equally wild abandon.
Concept: Return to the bleak but humorous Borderlands for a lengthy adventure that rarely sees your finger leave the trigger
Graphics: The familiar style is intact and attractive, but you could be excused for feeling that little has changed in the years since the last game
Sound: Over-the-top voice work (including some celebrity surprises) vacillates between genuinely funny and irritating prattle
Playability: Smart changes to mobility, solid gunplay, and a well-crafted set of new abilities make the game accessible to a broad range of players – if you’re willing to invest a lot of time
Entertainment: An old formula executed well, Borderlands 3 rarely takes chances or strays from expectation
Replay: Moderately High
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
During the glory days of arcades, the brawler genre was king. Practically every virtual street was packed with goons and bosses waiting for beatdowns, and players were all too happy to oblige. The River City series was an innovator of this era, incorporating elements of RPG-style progression and open-world exploration. Though River City Girls still has those things, it lacks the same experimental spirit that gave rise to them in the first place. This installment sticks close to its precursors’ classic formula, but that unwavering faithfulness is both a success and a liability.
River City Girls delivers an old-school brawler experience. You walk through various districts in River City, punching and kicking through crowds of enemies. When you defeat them, you earn XP that gradually makes you more powerful, and money you exchange for new items and better moves. Ideally, you’re doing all of this with a (local-only) co-op buddy by your side; being able to revive each other is a boon when the action gets hectic, especially during the challenging boss fights.
The fundamental concept is still appealing after all these years, and River City Girls has the basics covered. What initially seems to be a simple “light attack or heavy attack” combat system evolves into a satisfying arsenal of moves that allows you to prioritize threats, manage the crowds, and even recruit foes to come in for assist attacks. I also enjoy the wide variety of objects scattered about; you can wield crates, baseballs, fish, and even downed enemies as weapons to smack anyone who gets in your way. Combined with responsive controls and absolutely gorgeous sprites and animation, the action has several bright spots of spectacle and mayhem. But those shining moments aren’t enough to make up for the game’s missteps.
Almost everything apart from the combat mechanics has an element of arbitrary punishment. For example, when you’re buying a new move, you can’t try it out or even see what category of attack it is. Are you buying a heavy attack, a grab, or a special? That lack of information makes it impossible to get excited about saving up for your next purchase, and considering the high cost of some of these maneuvers, spending money on a mystery attack that you barely use is a major letdown. The pace of progression also disappointed me; you regularly unlock new abilities (both automatically and for purchase) as you level in the opening hours, but then your exciting options plateau in the second half.
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Several other baffling annoyances make River City Girls hard to enjoy, like the hefty monetary penalty for dying, and the need to level your characters separately. Let’s say you’ve reached level 10 as Misako and reach one of the tough bosses, which definitely feel tuned specifically for two players. You can’t just have a friend join as Kyoko and contribute equally; characters have separate funds and XP, so Kyoko will be starting from square one unless she’s been leveled up previously. And because you lose so much money when you’re defeated, repeated failed attempts drain your bank account quickly. The best way to preserve your wealth is to buy a bunch of accessories (which provide minor bonuses) or items to zero out your account before challenging fights. However, you also can’t see what effects these objects have before you buy them.
I’ve loved brawlers for years, and spent what seemed like a fortune on them when I was young. River City Girls feels like one of those games designed to eat your quarters, complete with the joys and frustrations that entails. I love pounding bad guys with an array of cool attacks and inventive weapons, even if I feel robbed by cheap tricks. River City Girls’ chaotic battles are entertaining, but they’re surrounded by an array of decisions that add more inconvenience than challenge.
Summary: River City Girls’ chaotic battles are entertaining, but they’re surrounded by an array of decisions that add more inconvenience than challenge.
Concept: Rescue your boyfriends with punches, kicks, and improvised weapons as you wander the ever-violent streets of River City
Graphics: Beautiful character art, backgrounds, and animations make every screen a pleasure to behold
Sound: The music is fantastic, with contributions from several talented artists. The voice performers also do a good job, though the writing tries too hard (and fails) to be funny
Playability: Combat starts simple, but your options expand to give you a variety of satisfying ways to take down foes
Entertainment: The basic fun of fighting is counterbalanced by some punishing design that makes it hard to get fully invested in the action
Knights and Bikes sends players back to when life was more magical. In this world, treasure maps are real, local legends come to life, and your bike is an extension of yourself. Though the game is set in the ‘80s, nostalgia for a specific era isn’t the centerpiece; developer Foam Sword Games instead focuses on a more universal sense of turning back the clock. Knights and Bikes successfully captures child-like wonder and fun in an unabashedly wholesome adventure – with just the right amount of danger.
The tale follows Nessa and Demelza, two new acquaintances who build a friendship and search for treasure on the fictional island of Penfurzy. Though the setting seems quaint and sleepy on the surface, Nessa and Demelza learn about legendary knights, an ancient curse, and more during their travels. Even amid these fantastical developments, the emphasis remains on the two girls and their interactions, and that’s what makes the experience so charming. They play video games together, sleep in sleeping bags, race each other, laugh, and argue. These moments stack up, building a relationship that feels authentic and even heartwarming, whether they’re just biking through the woods or exploring an ancient quarry.
The journey progresses through a mixture of straightforward action and puzzle-solving. Each girl earns different abilities along the way, and if you’re playing alone, you can swap between them at any time. You often need to alternate between Nessa and Demelza’s powers to beat enemies or reach new areas. For example, Demelza’s plunger-mines are the only way to take out shielded foes, and Nessa’s blaring boombox clears cursed clouds from your path. This all works fine for solo players thanks to capable partner A.I., but to fully appreciate the sense of cooperation, you should recruit a friend or family member. That element of teamwork (and the occasional competitive minigame) is surprisingly helpful in reinforcing the budding friendship between the two heroes.
None of the situations are so demanding that they require skilled human assistance. On one hand, this simplicity suits the game’s tone well; Knights and Bikes is easy to pick up for players of all skill levels, and no scenario is complex enough to become a serious roadblock. On the other hand, the encounters and obstacles grow tedious over time because they ask so little of you. Battles against possessed golf balls and gauntlets are cute at first, but don’t involve enough skill or strategy to be interesting. And calling anything here a “puzzle” is a stretch, since minimal brainpower is needed to figure out how to clear the way forward. Standing on switches, turning on generators, and destroying blockades are recurring tasks.
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Knights and Bikes could use more bite and variety to keep players engaged, but many other elements help make up for lost ground. The island of Penfurzy itself is a great setting, with gorgeous painted visuals that give the tourist town (and the surrounding areas) a storybook quality. The supporting cast is also amusing, like the friendly bike shop owner and old librarian. These characters all have their moments and then exit gracefully; with the exception of the funny pet goose who follows the girls around, no one else steals the spotlight. The customizable bikes are another highlight, and I enjoyed applying new paints, flags, and faceplates. It’s all just cosmetic, but also provides a personal connection to the game’s most persistent and important mode of transportation.
The gameplay may not always grab your attention, but the clever writing, fun character designs, and great sound effects, ensure that your exploits in Penfurzy are memorable. Drawing on source material like The Goonies and Stand By Me, Knights and Bikes strikes an endearing balance between normal and strange; the line between reality and imagination may be blurry throughout Nessa and Demelza’s quest, but at least you never have to sort it out alone.
Summary: Knights and Bikes successfully captures child-like wonder and fun in an unabashedly wholesome adventure – with just the right amount of danger.
Concept: Ride bikes and make a friend! Along the way, uncover the secret of an ancient treasure and save adults from certain doom
Graphics: Gorgeous art makes all of the characters and environments radiate a storybook vibe
Sound: From the background music to the little effects, excellent sound design helps build a believable world
Playability: Your available moves are easy to understand and execute, to the point that battles and puzzles feel routine before long
Entertainment: Even when the action gets predictable, the charming presentation and small touches keep the sense of adventure alive
Replay: Moderately Low
The Blair Witch movie franchise started out strong, with the release of The Blair Witch Project. The pseudo-documentary became a cultural touchstone, with a companion website and TV special stoking the belief that the tale of three missing college students may have actually happened. A pair of follow-ups failed to capture the magic of that initial found-footage phenomena, because it’s tricky to pin down what exactly that magic is. Bloober Team takes a crack at it with its own Blair Witch game, telling an original story while tapping into the few common elements that the films share. The main character, Ellis, is a former soldier and police officer, but he’s just as susceptible as anyone when it comes to getting lost in the woods near Burkittsville.
Ellis and his dog, Bullet, are part of a search party looking for a missing boy, but it’s not long before the pair needs assistance of their own. The forest is dense and confusing, and it’s purposefully impossible to chart on a map. Walk away from an abandoned car in a clearing, for example, and you eventually loop back to it. Once that initial jolt of confusion wore off, I just wanted to be able to get to where I needed to go. Bullet can help navigate by sniffing out clues, but he’s hard to see in the dark forest and he tends to dart ahead.
Bullet is more useful during encounters with enemies. Unlike the films, which focused more on establishing a tone than overtly showing any supernatural beings, you’re going to see some weird things in the game. In the first type of encounter, Bullet barks at the enemies and you shine your flashlight at them to make them scurry away. Repeat it a few times, and they eventually leave. The other enemy encounters are less forgiving. In these stealth-oriented sections, you must avoid being detected by beings that you can only clearly see through your in-game camcorder screen. If you’re spotted, it’s game over. The balance between these two styles is inconsistent. The flashlight sections are trivially easy, and you’re allowed to mess up several times without penalty. On the other hand, the stealth parts are unforgiving. In one particular section, success and failure seem to be based on random chance; the visuals are so dark and murky that it seems impossible to know if you’re in the monster’s line of sight.
Thankfully, these encounters are relatively scarce. Ellis and Bullet usually navigate the woods alone, save for a few radio conversations with the rest of the search party. It’s an isolating experience, and the atmosphere works well overall. Reality is fairly warped in the woods, as evidenced by that camcorder. During several key junctures, you get new videotapes. Some are just there to advance the plot of what’s going on with the missing child, while others show things like collapsing trees or slamming doors. By rewinding the footage, you can affect what happens in reality, like pulling a fallen tree up and out of the way, or opening a door before it’s shut. It’s an interesting concept, but the puzzles are so obvious that they don’t add much. Still, they’re a more interesting way to pass the time than going backtracking across a dimly lit moebius strip to find valves, cranks, and other doo-dads. Perhaps Ellis sums it all up best during a phone call with a friend: “It’s like we’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of bulls—.” I’m with you, buddy.
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The first three-quarters of Blair Witch are a bummer, but they’re redeemed by the last act. Here, Ellis confronts his traumatic past as he explores the interior of an abandoned house. It plays like a more realized version of P.T., with nonsensical architecture and imagery that’s flat-out disturbing. It’s a powerful counterpunch to the rest of the game, and it makes great use of the Blair Witch franchise’s limited mythology. There’s something unsettling about seeing dozens of child-sized handprints on the wall, especially when you know what typically happens to kids in these cursed woods. It’s not exactly scary, but a few decisions – and their outcomes – stuck with me hours after putting the controller down.
Blair Witch ends on a high note, but you need to endure plenty of nonsense to get there. Navigating this world is more tiresome than frightening, especially once you realize that you’re not in peril most of the time. Instead, it’s more about how creepy you find wooden stick figures and walking around in the dark.
Summary: Blair Witch ends on a high note, but you need to endure plenty of nonsense to get there.
Concept: A search for a missing boy gets weird as the hunt goes deeper into the haunted forest from the Blair Witch films
Graphics: Aside from a great ending section filled with trippy effects, the bulk of Blair Witch does a serviceable job in the visuals department
Sound: The soundscape is fairly sparse overall, which makes musical stingers and other moments pop all the more
Playability: You’re only armed with a camera and flashlight, which explains the emphasis on stealth. Enemy sightlines are poorly communicated and encounters can be more frustrating than freaky
Entertainment: Blair Witch does a good job capturing the sensation of getting lost – something I actively try to avoid. A memorable final act partially redeems the tedium of getting to that point
Replay: Moderately Low
PlayStation 4, PC
Most of the cars in Wreckfest look like they were hauled out of a junkyard and spray-painted to hide the rust. The detailing isn’t important here; all that really matters is that the car drives fast and can take (as well as deliver) a beating. Driving aggressively is what Wreckfest is all about, joyfully turning most races into highlight reels filled with flipping cars, pileups, and debris littering the track. Developer Bugbear Entertainment turns chaos into thrilling gameplay that makes almost every event in Wreckfest a heart-pounding delight to play.
Rather than making clean turns, some of your strategy involves deciding how much you need your front bumper, as a good, hard hit against your rivals can send them into the ditch or, better yet, flip them upside down. Wreckfest lives up to its name in most of its racing events, and the computer-controlled opponents are thinking just as devilishly as you are. They try to spin you out, and if they happen to hit you hard enough, they become an official rival for the remainder of the race.
Most of Wreckfest’s tracks appear to be designed with catastrophic outcomes in mind. Straightaways are narrow, meaning cars exchange paint just out of necessity as they navigate these spaces, and the turns are often tight or filled with tire stacks cars can ram into. Even the side banks (which are there to protect the fans) end up doubling as dirt jumps that send your car sailing or spinning uncontrollably. These are the tame courses; others are more obvious in their intent to destroy you. These tracks may feature figure eights, loop-de-loops, and a lack of safety walls for oncoming traffic. Bugbear wants you to wreck, and the excellent tracks designs and aggressive A.I. make this happen, even if you are racing your heart out for first place.
As a spiritual success to the Bugbear’s famed Flatout series, Wreckfest also includes full-on demolition derbies that pit you against 15 other vehicles. Much like Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, the goal of these challenges is to be the last car running. As amusing as it is to see 16 cars smash into each other to start an event, the demolition derbies push you to drive in different ways, especially backwards to protect your engine. These challenges hit at the right time to shake up the flow of play.
Damage in all events is persistent, and a handy meter on screen shows you exactly what shape your car is in, meaning you may have to adapt a protective stance just to finish a race. Again, you end up playing this game in a different way than other races, yet the goal remains the same: finish in first.
The driving mechanics are excellently implemented for the cars (making them feel like roaring weapons), and the upgrades you can give them can be felt the next time you take the track. The same cannot be said for the “gimmick” vehicles (like lawnmowers, harvesters, and RVs). Given their reduced speeds, awkward handling, or ear-piercing engine sounds, I just didn’t get into them. These vehicles are fun in concept, and add a nice diversion for one challenge here or there, but the true stars of the game are the muscle cars, which you spend the most time in, and can give different paint colors and liveries to.
Wreckfest is an old-school racer at heart. You won’t see a guide path on the road to follow, or a rewind function. I love that the game doesn’t give you any assistance, and instead pushes you to create your own opportunities, like smashing into cars to navigate turns or sacrifice a little speed to spin a rival out.
On the flipside of being old-school in design, Wreckfest doesn’t have much of a career structure. To unlock new challenges, you simply need to play what is available, and score well enough to earn points needed to unlock the next challenge or event tier. Money earned along the way can be used to purchase new rides, of which there are some fun and powerful beasts to sic against the competition. I didn’t dive into the marketplace often, however, as the event structure constantly shakes things up and often makes you drive in different vehicles. The career may not have depth, but it works well in terms of showing the player everything this game has to offer. Online play delivers almost every race or event you’ll find in the campaign, but again, doesn’t offer much outside of this.
The video game market is filled with racing simulations, and it’s nice to see oddities like Wreckfest that deliver the exact opposite. Why race a clean path when you can race dirty? If that proposition sounds fun to you, you can’t go wrong with this aggressive racing experience.
Summary: Bugbear Entertainment’s latest racing experience is all about aggressive driving and smashing cars to bits.
Concept: There can’t be a photo finish if your rival is in the ditch. Wreckfest is all about aggressive driving and smashing cars to bits
Graphics: In a race’s final lap, most tracks are filled with vehicle debris and stalled cars. The damage models look good, distracting you from the fairly pedestrian tracks
Sound: The roaring engines and sounds of vehicles colliding are excellent. The licensed heavy metal soundtrack is a bit much, but it can be turned off while racing
Playability: The vehicles control well and deliver the proper feel and physics to initiate takedowns and spinouts. Sustained vehicle damage also can be felt over the course of a race
Entertainment: Smashing up cars is fun, and Wreckfest is an old-school racer that delivers on that thrill
PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Shredding through packs of monsters and elite enemies through swamps, deserts, and technologically advanced hallways is what drives Remnant: From The Ashes, and the progression loop is alluring. Whether you enjoy the satisfying burst-pop from a single-shot pistol or the steady damage from a beam rifle, Remnant gives you myriad options. Since each iteration of the world is generated from a different seed, procedural pieces snap together to create encounters and unlocks your friends may not see, making your first run fresh, mysterious, and inviting.
Starting off in a version of fallen Earth, the player must restore a fantastical and futuristic world. While the combat system in Remnant is a compelling beast all its own, much of the structure and framework in the title taps into From Software’s iconic Souls franchise, from critically timed dodge rolls to limited-use health items, checkpoints, fog-gated boss arenas, and boss drops to unlock new gear options.
Upgrading your equipment, traits, and active abilities is satisfying; I fell in love with a critical-focused build that increased crit damage along with tools to create a consistent barrage of critical hits. The first few times you face a boss and master their tactics are great, but too many use the “Well, here’s a big guy and lots of little guys” concept. Plus, none of the bosses are especially memorable, save for one errant bridge foe that may be a sly hat tip to Dark Souls’ Moonlight Butterfly.
The first trek through the world is the best and the most challenging, but Remnant is built for multiple playthroughs, enticing players to seek things they missed the first time around. Area after area, gun after gun, and boss after boss, your options continue to expand as you advance. Each playthrough’s seed comes with plenty of secret areas and a smattering of bosses, but you can’t do it all solo in one run. Instead, you’re encouraged to join other players to find additional bosses and special areas. You can always reroll the campaign over and over to find them on your own, but the game is substantially better with a little jolly cooperation.
However, the addictive nature of the title falls off hard after a couple runs; while there may be some secrets left to unearth, you just don’t have the incentive or drive to do so. After you understand the world’s rules and layouts, subsequent runs only take a few hours. The mystery of what’s to come next gets handily demystified as you realize that Remnant has only a handful of potential boss fights in any given biome, and relatively few decisions to make.
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Players pump points into traits, upgrade gear, and flesh out a bare-bones story hub that provides a marginal sense civilization’s fall and potential revival. Remnant delivers its story in conversations with random denizens and notebooks stuffed with lore. I’m a fan of this approach; the tale is out there if you want it, but it’s also completely skippable if you just want to cut deep into the meat.
Strong systems and a satisfying gameplay loop give Remnant: From The Ashes a powerful foundation, even if the experience is mired by repetitive and uninteresting bosses and environments. The first 10 hours are challenging and intriguing, leaving you voracious for more loot, more bosses, and more traits. After that, some of the wonder vanishes as you relive past glories rather than continuing to forge new ones.
Summary: Strong systems and a satisfying gameplay loop give Remnant: From The Ashes a powerful foundation, even if the experience is mired by repetitive and uninteresting bosses.
Concept: Take on big bosses, level up, and loot in a fallen reality
Graphics: Some armor sets and weapons look great, but many of the models and environments are uninspired
Sound: Repetitive chirps and generic sound effects do little to suck the player in
Playability: Mastering gunplay and defensive tactics is critical and could be overwhelming for those not prepared for a fierce threats
Entertainment: Gobs of lackluster bosses and lack of any real endgame experience drag down a whimsical world full of secrets, challenges, and fun customization
I adore the notion behind Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey: Follow not one individual, but an entire evolving clan of hominids as they navigate the vagaries of survival and evolution across an inconceivable stretch of prehistory. However, deep and fundamental faults riddle the experience that stems from that idea. As a simulation, it creates rare moments of discovery and reflection about the miracle of life. As a game, it collapses under the weight of history, the ambition of its own concept, and a gameplay model that offers too little reward at the cost of far too much frustration and routine.
To say that Ancestors has a “slow start” is like saying human evolution has taken “a little while.” With no perception of what to eat or safely drink, how to form rudimentary tools, or the myriad dangers of the world, early hours controlling these ape-like progenitors is rife with failure. Poisonous mushrooms, broken bones, and pure exhaustion create an endless series of condition effects that blur the screen, slow down the already glacial movement speed, or cause overwhelming audio noise that otherwise obscures play. Unexpected animal attacks are constant, and after hundreds of exchanges, those pre-scripted battles rarely end in anything one might term a success, thanks to a timing-based mechanic that remains a mystery to me after many dozens of hours. The absence of a map may be authentic to the experience of early man, but I bet those poor hominids hated getting lost just as much as I do. Gauging distance to objects is nearly impossible using the icon-based points of interest, creating a pervasive sense of disorientation.
An entire lineage can die out without careful decision-making, and a full restart is devastating, since it means having to once again burn time to re-identify every object in the world, and slowly begin the evolutionary climb again, but moving through exactly the same locations and situations as before. With no guidance about when to pass a generation or evolve to a new epoch, you’re left without any guideposts for how to succeed and a paralyzing sense of indecision, since many hours of playtime may be at stake.
Of course, those many hours help to clarify things, and open up moments of fun. Leaping off a cliff and successfully swinging through the jungle canopy can be thrilling. Finally figuring out how to fish, staunch a wound, or survive a night in the wild is an accomplishment. And every once in a while, you break out to a high vista, stare out over a sun-drenched lake, and bask in the sense of exploration.
However, even these moments of exaltation are fleeting, as the frustration of not knowing what to do gives way to knowing exactly what to do. The realization hits home that you face many, many hours of identifying the same plant types, having sex and childbearing (far more boring than you would think or hope), and the endless maintenance of clan members’ wellness. Sharpening that stick for the 20th time is little more than a chore. An overwhelming sense of tedium sets in.
Between the increasingly lackluster excursions of third-person action and traversal, your analysis and learning of the surroundings fuels neuronal growth and development, communicated via a fascinating but ill-explained evolution menu that governs progression. I enjoy the indication of clan development, but individual nodes are often so subtle as to not be noticeable in practice, and the need to refill nodes on subsequent generations is both confusing and feels like a time-waster. Another layer allows you to catapult forward hundreds of thousands of years, sometimes witnessing the rise of a new species, and seeing how your clan’s development compares with an approximation of science’s understanding of human evolution. It’s a neat idea, but demands an unreasonable level of patience.
I was deeply frustrated by Ancestors, so it may seem strange for me to say that I found a lot of promise, complexity, and nuance here as well. The novel concept and grand scope are far more appealing than dozens of other action or survival games on the market. This is a deeply flawed but richly imagined effort, but like many ambitious gaming projects at launch in recent years, it can now either die off like the Neanderthals, or evolve into something better from here.
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Summary: An ambitious idea ultimately falls flat, as the rewards simply don’t match a continuous stream of frustration and tedium.
Concept: Confront the challenges faced by early hominids across ages of evolution as you grow a clan and explore the prehistoric world
Graphics: Janky animations and repeated preset visual sequences break the immersion, but the primates and their world are believable
Sound: A mix of classic orchestral and world-music instrumentation successfully adds emotional resonance, but individual tunes are repeated too frequently
Playability: Expressly defended as purposeful from the introduction, the figure-it-out-yourself gameplay is nonetheless off-putting and frustrating to grasp. The functionality of Ancestors’ controls and systems is obscured or poorly explained
Entertainment: Moments of beauty and distantly spaced moments of sublime discovery are separated by hours and hours of tedium and frustration