All posts by David Fox

LEGO® Builder’s Journey Review – Xbox Series X

When people think of LEGO video games they think of TT Games Studio and licensed IP from pre-existing brands. Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Marvel, there’s a torrent of similar LEGO games using the same charming formula. I understand some people can’t wait to play these cute leisurely games, but I find myself turned off whenever I see yet another LEGO game coming out. While technically a licensed IP of LEGO, this game looks to do something different.

An arthouse, puzzle game that doubles as a visual showcase is a wonderful palate cleanser from some of the tentpole shooter releases of the last few months. Developed out of Denmark by Light Brick Studio, this small team sought to capture the flow and imagination that happened when you were younger and lost track of time while playing with LEGOs. Originally launching on the Apple Arcade in 2019 it is now available on everything except for the PlayStation platform. This review will cover the Xbox Series X|S versions.

The game design of Lego Builder’s Journey is simple and clear. Within a few seconds, you’ll confidently be solving LEGO-based puzzles of getting one character from “A” to “B.” With only a couple of buttons, it’s obvious that this started as a mobile game ported to the console. Don’t let that turn you off. It’s the charm, atmosphere, and story that stays with you as much as the clever puzzles.

As you begin to solve puzzles you’ll see a story begin to unfold of a father and son going camping. Laying the ground to follow in your father’s footsteps, you can take your time fiddling with different pieces and permutations. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong and the game encourages you to take your time. Eventually, the parent has to go to work and you feel the disappointment of a promise broken as the child is left to make their miniature castle. Left to their own devices, the child finds their way to the basement and sets out on an adventure of his own. It’s remarkable how much story is told without using any spoken or written mediums. It’s a solid reminder of why good stories can be told, but great stories need to be shown.

The showcase of this storytelling is evident through the impressive fidelity of the visuals. Taylor-made for 3D recreation, the blocks look incredibly lifelike as you construct and reconstruct various paths to navigate through. It seems like every bell and whistle that could be turned on for the Series X stood out as something that enhanced the experience to make it feel real. At times, it could be considered a tech demo especially when you consider the length of the game. This leads me to a few criticisms.

There are really only two shortcomings of this game and one is how short the game is. The current asking price is $20 on Xbox (on sale for $14.99). The game is excellent but I just don’t think it’s an attractive time to price ratio. Without much of an incentive to replay, that price will be up for each individual to decide. As a gamer with very little time to play, I personally don’t mind the length but I do think a $10 per. Hour is a lot to ask. It’s not just the game’s length that pulled me out of the experience.

I have a fairly high tolerance for clunky control schemes, but I was disappointed that so much TLC went into the visuals, but not into the controls. Given the geometric view, You’re looking sideways at a 3D object. Your task is to move around pieces on the LEGO grid. What’s frustrating is that you do not have a clear depth of field or view of where you’re about to place your next piece. Furthermore, the reflections are beautiful as the water mirrors light, but using white as the outline color to designate what piece I have selected is too similar to the reflections. At times the game asks you to select and movie pieces within a set amount of time, but it’s frustrating when you can’t clearly see which piece you have selected and where you’re about to place it. When this wasn’t a problem you are lulled into a relaxing and atmospheric paradise, but when you’re struggling to solve a puzzle, it’s an unforced error. Luckily, this only happened a handful of times and it isn’t so severe that it detracts from the overall experience.

The intersection of a heartfelt story, excellent visuals, outstanding soundtrack, and approachable challenges is a beautiful couple of hours spent relaxing. All too often I find myself feeling a bit tired after the competitive twitch shooters I usually play. Furthermore, one more licensed LEGO game from TT is the definition of unimaginative. (I know people love them, but I’d argue that you’re playing the same game reskinned.) It’s a shame that there weren’t more options to make selecting the appropriate piece easier or controls that were a bit more intuitive. All that to say, amid the onslaught of action RPGs and competitive shooters, this is such a refreshing way to spend a couple of hours. LEGO Builder’s Journey was an endearing reminder that now and again I should slow down and lose track of time with a slower-paced game.

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review – Xbox Series X

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy Definitive Edition launched in a laughable state. Since then, it has received several updates addressing the deluge of bugs, poor performance, and graphical blunders that plagued these beloved games. At the time of writing, patch 1.03 went live, and I have only reviewed the patch notes. I will endeavor to give you my unbiased impressions as I only recently dug into the background of how and why these games launched in the state they did. While I attempt to not jump on the dogpile of gifs showcasing the bizarre and befuddling bugs, I do want to give my honest impressions.

Having played the originals (Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) when they first launched in 2001, 2002, and 2004 respectively, I expected the rose-colored glasses of my youth to get a reality check. What I didn’t expect was to continually scratch my head and think, “that doesn’t look right.” Public relations crisis aside, how do they play, and more importantly are they worth $60?

For the uninitiated, the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect. Faithful to its name, you steal cars, mow down mobsters (or civilians if that’s your thing), larceny, arson, and general skullduggery. You’ll get updated controls, however, even updated controls for Rockstar games are still PS2 controls. If you’ve ever smashed an X button to death in order to outrun the law, then you’ll be right at home.

Playing through the games, you see the original design concept of an open-world game that reacts to you. This was groundbreaking at the time and with each title, Rockstar steadily increased scale, complexity, and quality. Grand Theft Auto III feels so small in comparison to the other two games. Likewise comparing this old watershed game to modern open-world games is like revisiting your childhood bedroom. It just felt so much bigger when you were younger. This isn’t a bad thing as you can beat GTA III in about 5-7 hours. The other two games are a good bit more time to see credits roll. Although this is on the patch list, when you saw fly over San Andreas, you get a sense of how large games are now in size.

Modern control schemes and native resolutions built for today’s televisions are a great touch, but it’s the bare minimum I’d expect of any game. The games ran well enough on my Xbox Series S|X, but the issues come in when you consider what they’re running. Of course, I’d expect modern consoles to run PS2 games without dropping frames. The issue comes in when you look too closely at the character models and textures. To understand what graphically is happening you have to understand how the game was developed. It’s one thing if character models, set pieces, and rain effects were designed to look artificial, but we know that the original intent was gritty, immersive, and raw. Instead what we see is plastic-looking, artificial, and bizarre.

The project was outsourced to a development house that specializes in mobile ports called Grove Street Games. You can begin to see how this project lost its way. No disrespect to the studio, but they are clearly marked as a support studio that specializes in porting console games to mobile. It is apparent that the studio used AI image upscaling to streamline the workflow of “remastering” the assets. The result is inconsistent at best and characters look like melted action figures at worst.

To make matters worse, not all of the beloved soundtrack is present in this definitive edition. The music industry’s notorious copyright deals are a nightmare to navigate. However, if the aim was to bring these old games to a new generation, they missed the mark. I must assume someone was in charge of playtesting these games before going gold and charging people a premium. Because Rockstar saw fit to issue take-downs to modders who had worked on PC versions graphical upgrades, this is now the “best” legal way a consumer can experience these games. I hope Rockstar continues to release updates and seeks to make right what was an unforced error. Furthermore, given the revenue generated from GTA Online, there really was no reason to release this at this time. Consumers should expect more from publishers and developers. Likewise, console storefronts should have higher expectations for the content they allow to be sold.

I can’t say that I had no fun knocking around my old haunts. The older quest structure and dialogue made me nostalgic for the times when we’d turn the TV volume down lest my parents find out what games we’re playing. However, the launch version of this game was unacceptable. The Definitive Edition should at the very least hold up to the original Likewise, fans who purchased this at launch because it was a Rockstar game, have every right to be upset. There’s a long hill to climb to reclaim the goodwill Rockstar games carry in the meantime, I still have a couple of PS2’s lying around.

Battlefield 2042 First Impressions – PC & Xbox Series X

This is a first-impression review and as such opinions are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.

Battlefield 2042 takes players back to a near future war zone where “non-patriots” act as specialists who join different international powers in massive battles around the globe. For 19 years DICE has aimed to let players make their own adventures by dropping them into massive conflict zones and equipping them with weapons, supplies, and vehicles. While the series has struggled to remain relevant in recent years, the gameplay always differentiates itself from other dominant shooters year over year. Halo is an arena shooter built on a longer time-to-kill while Call of Duty is a twitch-based multiplayer where speed and nearly instantaneous time-to-death levels the playing field. Battlefield, however, has always stood out as a slightly slower tactical shooter that prizes squad cooperation and positioning over reaction-time or map memorization. In this latest iteration, it promised to double the scale and player counts of previous generations and add specialists to refresh the class-based formula to modernize the game.

A cutscene will play, setting up the gameplay of these specialists taking various sides and you’ll be greeted by three different game types. All-Out Warfare, Hazard Zone, and Portal. All-Out Warfare pits two teams against each other vying for territory or attack and defense games. This is the traditional large-scale 128 player Battlefield past players are accustomed to. Hazard Zone is the “Escape From Tarkov” quad-based extraction game that has you looting drop pods for hard drives and safely extracting before another team or NPC can gun you down. Lastly, Portal is the “Battlefield Salad” where you can mix up select previous titles into a customized, player-created game for a new twist using old assets. Portal is a genius idea that I loved seeing the creativity and variety of game types.

The asking price for this package is between $60-$110 depending on the platform and edition. Alternatively, you could get 10 hours of access or unlimited hours with either Gamepass/EAPlay or EA Play Pro for $4.99/$29.99 per month or $14.99/$99.99 respectively. The value proposition is further complicated by the release date. While certain editions grant you early access, with unlimited playtime other editions grant you limited playtime with no ownership. If you made it through those two sentences with clarity of what to purchase, I congratulate you. I would love it if anyone in the comments could give me one sentence that tells me where, how, and when I can play this game if I’m a potential customer. I write this to illustrate the hoops that are asked of the consumer to jump through and how frustrating some people must feel when the game doesn’t run as advertised or release when they expected.

During my 15 hours with the game, I have spent a collective 3.5 hours either queuing or restarting the program to try and get into a match. I have experienced bugs such as items not unlocking, graphical errors, full crashes on Xbox series X, and more. The frustrating cherry on top is not having game chat enabled. There is a ping system but it is not as intuitive as other shooters. Not being able to communicate in Hazard Zone severely inhibits the capability of a cross-platform team and the lack of inclusion of a chat system is a glaring oversight.

Since Battlefield 3 and the ubiquitous adoption of online console gaming, it has been understood that EA’s flagship shooter always stumbles out of the gate with bugs and stability issues. Therefore, it should always be a question as a publisher what state is acceptable to ship a game in or call it “launched.” Furthermore, after Sony’s very public removal of Cyberpunk from their online store, it begs the question: what obligation is there from Microsoft or Sony to regulate these unfinished games during the certification process?

Let me put some sugar with all this salt. I will continue to play Battlefield 2042 weekly if not daily. I love the chaos and unpredictability of each battle. When the game runs as intended it is a joy to play and feels great. I want DICE to patch and update this fast so a community of players grows and 128-player lobbies are full. I understand publicly traded companies have to hit deadlines, but I wish this game was baked longer in the oven. I gladly gave them my $70 in addition to the review copy, because I love the formula.

I will play the hell out of Battlefield because I am a glutton for punishment, and I love the scale and skirmishes. Likewise, when this game works it’s a technical marvel that looks beautiful to boot. Therefore, I’d recommend you buy one month of EA play as a means to “rent” before purchasing. Perhaps we got rid of Blockbuster too soon, because this is a try before you buy, but if you love large-scale chaotic battles, this is a damn fun one when it works. I would love to be able to return to this article a year from now and write about how DICE made this right by patches and community support. Time will tell but, in the meantime, I’ll be on the Battlefield.

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Toy Soldiers HD Review – Xbox Series X

Toy Soldiers was originally released on the Xbox Live Arcade platform in March of 2010. The unique blend of 3rd person action, tower defense, airborne dogfights, armored vehicles, and top-down real-time strategy was acclaimed at the time and sold nearly 5 million copies. Fast forward 11 years and the quirky World War One game is looking to attract a new generation of gamers by releasing an HD version. Likewise, it includes the two DLC packs, The Kaisers Battle and Invasion! Faithful to its origins, the following review was played on the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. At the time of writing, the current price is $30 to jump into the trenches once more.

Toy Soldiers HD was developed by the original studio, Signal Studios, and published by Accelerate Games. The Seattle-based studio was the original developer of the 2010 success and I was excited about what they could do given how much more powerful both online infrastructure and hardware have become. I recall playing this back in 2011 and loving how replayable each skirmish was, due to how many different variables were at your fingertips.

From the moment you fire up Toy Soldiers HD you can see and feel that this is a raw port through and through. The loveably, cheesy vintage song plays and classic oversaturated colors of lead-based paint and miniature models fill the screen as you’d expect. The game is as charming as ever, but as you load into the first campaign mission, the novelty wears off.

You will command one side of a world WWI conflict where your opponent will rush at you in waves. As expected your defenses will be tested more and more as the waves continue. Some missions have a different variety like boss battles the farther you get into the campaign, but the premise stays the same. You switch between a top-down god view to a 3rd person action game to eliminate the enemy forces and achieve victory. You are in control of placing battlements, defensive equipment like barbed wire and calling in various strikes from your top-down view. However, when you zoom into an encampment like a machine turret you’ll aim and mow down the enemy cavalry and infantry as they attempt to overrun your position. Each kill earns you more money that you can use to purchase new ordinance, upgrade your encampments, repair damaged equipment, and more. I typically am too bullish in these types of games and end up painting myself into a corner regularly. For this reason, I played on easy and thought it was a good balance for my play style.

Jumping into the single-player campaign reminded me how much more I expect to be onboarded by a game’s initial tutorial.  It’s not to say that the first few hours of the game aren’t curated enough, but it does stand out as a bit more obtuse of an interface than we’re used to today. Today’s game landscape of remakes, remastered and reimagining muddy the water for consumers as to what distinguishes the level of quality attached to a dollar value. In this case, with a $30 asking price, I’d expect more than just a port. Furthermore, I had anticipated the game to look and run much better than what I saw with the title of “HD.”

Everyone has played a bad game in high fidelity; likewise, we’ve all loved low-resolution gems that are just fun to play. Sadly, Toy Soldiers HD lies somewhere in between. The same fun, I felt in 2010 was there. I thought about how I could jump from one end of the battlefield to the other in order to counter an offensive. However, the game’s fidelity and resolution were so antiquated at this point, that it was very distracting and didn’t meet my expectations of what $30 should buy you as a consumer. Every game doesn’t need 4k, HDR, 120FPS, and ray-tracing. However, every game’s visual presentation should complement the gameplay. In this case, I didn’t think the “High Definition” was present in the package and the muddy polygons running at me weren’t as charming as they once were.

Another disappointment was when I tried to test the online gameplay. At the time of review and running the latest version available, I could not join or host an online session. My collaborating reviewer was on an Xbox Series S and said he was able to get into an online session, however on my Series X, I was unable to join him. After an hour of reinstalling, restarting, and refreshing I am afraid I have to report that I was unable to test the multiplayer aspect of the game due to the game’s technical faults.

I wanted to like Toy Soldiers HD. Every time I started having fun though, something about the visuals or tedious exposition pushed me away. The multiplayer not functioning for me is so disappointing when this original game was one of the early showpieces of how online multiplayer can create infinite replay-ability given the right support. In the end, I have to advise that only the most hardcore fans shell out the asking price to march into these trenches. I have to raise the white flag and say wait for a deep sale if you’re at all interested.

Inscryption Review – PC

From the moment you fire up Daniel Mullins Games’ Inscryption you are transported back to the PlayStation One’s early, polygonal world of a sinister card game. The game’s premise is that you’re locked in a room, and tasked with defeating a mysterious stranger in a card game/tabletop narrative where your “dungeon master”, has you trapped in a game of life or death. It’s one part deck building, one part roguelike, and one part puzzle-solving all combined into a potent cocktail whose game loop is easy to overindulge on. Certainly a unique and creative combination of genres, Inscryption is a must for deck-building fans or even mobile game fans of the 2012 breakthrough app, The Room.

This psychological horror game is published by Devolver Digital. Those in the know will immediately understand the brand of eclectic, independent titles the publisher has been known for. Over the last 5 years, Devolver Digital has sought to disrupt the independent developer space by backing creative game ideas without compromising on artistic vision. Daniel Mullins certainly fits the bill as the mind behind Pony Island and The Hex. True to form this is a real feather in the cap of Devolver Digital and an outstanding example of what happens when creative integrity is allowed to flourish. Nothing in this game feels focus-tested or mass appeal and I love it.

You‘ll awake to find yourself in a purgatorial, blacked-out room with a sinister set of eyes staring at you from across the table. Like any good roguelike, you should expect to die and die often. Once the game walks you through the basics of this dark tabletop contest, you’ll inevitably lose and be forced to endure having your photograph taken. Each photograph will produce a new powerful card you have a chance of acquiring on your way to defeat your foe. There are intermittent boss fights that serve as waypoints along the journey and the game gives you the means to fast track your way back to where you left off.

The candle-lit table is surrounded by various artifacts, puzzles, and books. In between game sessions you can examine and explore as you see fit. Each puzzle was rewarding and illuminated a little bit of information as to what the nature of this world is. Upon playing a particular card you will realize that there is a sentient being attacked to the two-dimensional representations. This adds weight to the sacrificial mana system laid out by the mechanics of the game.

Those familiar with deck-building combat games will feel right at home. Instead of mana you have sacrificial squirrels, instead of health points, you have teeth, instead of artifacts, you have plyers to pull out said teeth. The game bleeds macabre and psychologically dares you to both play and try to escape. It’s complemented by an excellent soundtrack and art design that allow you enough separation due to the “low-res” nature of the design but enough squeamish buy-in to ask you to slaughter your creatures to spawn new and more powerful fighters. This is further exhibited by the writing, communicated by text, that illustrates just how out of your control your fate is.

I loved when my opponent would role-play as various characters I’d meet along my journey. I had a crazy cole-miner and a murderous fisherman each represented by a mask my evil “dungeon master” wore. With each boss battle, there’s a new modification to learn and overcome. Sometimes you’re speaking cards will help you solve the current challenge and other times they will ridicule you for not making wiser choices.

If I have one criticism it is that roguelikes are always inherently flawed. Whenever you have a random element on the draw of your cards, you’re bound to have better luck and worse luck at times. This means that you can be battling your second or third boss, knowing that you probably won’t make it to the end because of a bad start. While I know you can always restart and try for a better starting hand, the crux of roguelikes is the randomness of each life. If this is something that is off-putting to you, then I’d recommend you think twice before laying down the appropriately 20 bones to partake. If you’re not already a fan of roguelikes, this will not change your mind. However, if you know what you’re in for, then this is sound money for hours of dark entertainment.

Although I have not yet completed the campaign, I cannot stop playing this game. I want to keep pushing to see how far I can go while testing just how much sacrifice Inscryption asks of me. I love seeing my past selves pop up in my deck reminding me just how trivial resistance is. As I unlock various riddles around this prison cell of a room I’m rewarded with plot or powerful cards. This game nails the addicting loop of knowing what you did wrong and wanting to correct it. If you’re ready to fight for your life, and don’t mind losing it along the way, then pull up a stool and deal the cards because Inscryption is for you.

Back 4 Blood: Ultimate Edition Review – Xbox Series X

We’ve been shooting, slashing, and exploding digital zombies for nearly 4 decades. Zombie video games date back to 1984 with Zombie Zombie on the ZX Spectrum. Since then, we’ve had a slew of every conceivable permutation on the genre, and yet, like the insatiable appetite of our enemy, we still want more. One of the high points of this apocalyptic category was Turtle Rock Studio’s Left 4 Dead in 2008. Since then, the studio has fought to find the same success culminating in the short-lived and tepid response to Evolve in 2015. Though the game received critical praise, the payer base evaporated quickly leaving the studio to ponder, what’s next? Their answer is to make a spiritual successor to Left 4 Dead appropriately named Back 4 Blood.

You will play as a “cleaner” in a squad of four. Each member has some unique stats and brings in modification cards that can help the team. In each of the campaign’s acts, you’ll move from point A to B, kill swarms of the undead, and occasionally complete a simple task. While the story is relatively simple, the player hub is Fort Hope where you’ll take orders from a crusty military leader named Phillips. As you finish levels, you’ll be able to draw more modification cards from your custom-built deck. The deckbuilding system acts to produce unique experiences in the hopes to alleviate the fatigue of playing levels repeatedly. It’s a great idea, I just wish there were more cards with more extreme changes. I appreciate the buff to reloading my gun faster, but it would have been fun to have a higher risk/reward card in my deck.

The game is strongly designed to be played with three friends. However, you can jump in with computer-controlled allies, as well as matchmaking, to equip solo players to experience the full campaign. Overall, you should be able to complete the campaign in about 6-8 hours if you try to move through the levels quickly. During your time, you’ll purchase equipment and upgrades, discover steadily improving guns, and even purchase attachments to make sure you feel like you’re always picking up new weapons.

The gun variety is great with dozens of weapons to choose from and hundreds of permutations when you consider the attachments. Each gun feels distinct and sounds great, but I wish there was more utility for longer-range rifles. I found myself using an SMG for the bulk of my playthrough and I always felt like using a sniping rifle put me at a disadvantage. Instead, I found myself maxing out my player’s speed and reload times with SMGs via the card system as they are disproportionately the easiest way to move quickly and spray bullets. The guns feel great, I just wish it were more practical to use all of them.

The art and level design are top-notch. You’ll wind through apartment buildings, wade through swamps, navigate through downtowns, and much more. This dangerous and bleak world is underscored by a great soundtrack and solid sound design. I was able to hear the direction of one of the specialist zombies and even enjoyed the voice acting for the most part. In a game that is largely sold on shooting as many living dead as possible, the attention to detail raises the overall experience and made me want to play as different characters to see what dialogue I had missed. It is also worth noting, this game has the best fire animation I have ever seen. I know it’s not exactly a marketing bullet point, but I spent a generous amount of time examining this game’s lighting and fire visuals. My hat is off to whoever designed and made that system.

After you’ve built your modification deck, and had your fill of the campaign, the game also features competitive multiplayer in Swarm mode. Teams of four square off with one group as cleaners and the other as Ridden. The basic zombies act as a distraction while you sneak or sprint at your human opponents. While this serves as a welcome distraction from a repetitive campaign, the combat isn’t deep enough to spend too much time in. I always appreciate games trying to add multiple modes to add value to the purchase, but I would have preferred one more story act rather than competitive mode.

I did not experience much of any game-breaking bugs. The game largely runs at a steady framerate and has plenty of polish. The biggest disappointment was matchmaking for both campaign and Swarm. It took six or seven tries to get into a lobby of Swarm with players who didn’t back out or kicking me back to the matchmaking screen. Likewise, finding players in the campaign was fast, but teammates frequently backed out. Hopefully, offering private matches and lobbies will alleviate this for people playing with friends, but for those looking to fill a slot or solo players; it can be frustrating to find a solid match.

It’s also worth noting that the cross-save and play-anywhere functions on Xbox worked like a dream. I started it on my console, then fired it up on my laptop, and finished on my desktop, all without a hitch. I certainly hope other platforms adopt this style of allowing me to be flexible where I play the content I own. Furthermore, the day-one patch and release on Game Pass should alleviate the matchmaking woes.

The Ultimate Edition provided for this review sells for $100 and includes the base game, an Annual Pass ($40) that will include three upcoming downloadable content drops with New Story, Playable Characters, Special Mutated Ridden, and more, four Character Battle Hardened Skin Pack, and additional digital in-game items: Rare Banner, Emblem, Spray, Title.

Back 4 Blood unapologetically is a reconstruction of Left 4 Dead’s formula in a modern package. While even the name gives a wink to their previous projects, I wanted Turtle Rock to shake up the formula more. While I don’t believe the game’s merits are strong enough to attract anyone who isn’t already a fan of the formula, I’m sure Back 4 Blood is strong enough to hold players’ attention for a while. It is a solid package and a good game. I hope that sales are strong enough to warrant large content drops down the road and more for players to sink their teeth into. Until then, this is a fine way to shoot zombies, but just not enough to stand out from the hoard of other games in the genre.

 

World War Z: Aftermath Review – PlayStation 4

World War Z: Aftermath is a large update to the base game that adds new locations, a vanguard class, and a first-person perspective to an already established game. The co-op shooter was originally launched to tepid responses and varied reviews. However, the development team released continual updates to grow a consistent fan base. Now totalling a staggering 15 million people have played the game, it is an example of how a slow and steady burn can redeem a launch that stumbles out of the gate.

The game is based on the 2006 by Max Brooks book, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. This was adapted to a film in 2013 and then the licensed moniker was put on the original 2019 release of the game. All that to say, the game probably has much more in common with the original book as it is an episodic, international romp through multiple groups’ experiences of traversing unique settings and eventually finding safety in exfiltrating from highly populated areas.

You will play as one of four player-controlled characters, and make your way through various locations until a defensible location is found. You’ll have a set time to fortify these massive kill boxes followed by thousands of undead attempting to overrun your location. This game is at its best when you’re spraying a .50 caliber machine gun into an oncoming deluge of ghouls while they crawl over each other to eat you alive. Balancing the strategic defenses of traps, auto-turrets, and mortars with the inevitable swarm of undead enemies was what shined about the previous version of World War Z, and with some quality-of-life patches in this update, it is still the high-point.

You’ll be able to switch to a first-person view for the first time, but don’t expect a snappy first-person feel. Like Grand Theft Auto V’s addition of this feature, in 2014, changing the camera perspective does not change the ground-up mechanics of how a 3rd person game feels and was originally designed. I played through one level completely in first-person. It was a fun challenge to have the more limited view and closer audio proximity to zombies hiding around the corner, but the lack of a true aim-down-sight mechanic was sorely missed. As you squeeze the left trigger to take aim, the camera will slightly magnify your view and tighten your crosshair spread, but you won’t be able to see through that fancy new scope you just purchased to put on your favorite gun. I suspect, like me, most people will turn it on for about 5 minutes and then want to disable it. It’s a great bullet point for your marketing team, but don’t expect the tight controls of a Call of Duty or Halo.

The melee system got an overhaul as well. Now, you can dual-wield smaller knives or sickles to quickly dispatch a wider arc of deadly force on a group of zombies. Previously, you had slow, two-handed weapons that weren’t useful when being overrun due to their encumbrance. This addition gives the player a fighting chance when cornered and it’s a welcome addition. I found myself swinging away once my clip had run dry to try and relocate to then take aim and start unloading on enemies again. It smooths out a wrinkle in the gameplay loop.

The second combat addition is the inclusion of a Vanguard class. In this upgrade path, you’ll sprint forward at oncoming enemies with an electrified shield. It was the perfect answer to being cornered and out of ammo. I loved bulldozing under the base of an ascending wall of zombies and watching them tumble over themselves. It’s a nice addition to current classes and can add a fun wildcard in a group being overrun.

The two new locations are Vatican City in Rome and the snow-covered Kamtchaka in Russia. Each location took about an hour to run through on a lower difficulty and felt meaty enough to warrant the $20 upgrade. I was playing the PS4 version via backwards compatibility and ran into some very heavy frame stuttering in Rome and even some crashes. There was one particular time when I was tackled through the floor and saw the horrific underbelly of shambling zombies as my character fell to the great abyss. These few incidents aside, I hope future patches will stabilize the game.

World War Z originally sucked me in with the promise of copious amounts of undead sprinting towards me and the latest update in Aftermath builds on this solid foundation. It’s still a blast to party up with three friends and mow down droves of rotting monsters as we yell at each other when we’re reloading. The addition of first-person may be a bit of a party trick, but the new melee system gives you a new tool to grab when you’re in trouble. I hope that the stability issues are patched and the team’s impressive technical abilities can shine brighter on older systems. Given the broad player base and the base games availability on Gamepass, I’m sure plenty of people will agree that Aftermath is well worth the price of admission.

Xuan Yuan Sword 7 Review – Xbox Series X|S

Xuan-Yuan Sword VII sits in a AA space that until a few years ago was bone dry for games. Now, however, numerous quality titles are vying for our attention and dollars. Xuan-Yuan Sword VII wants to compete in this crowded space, but is the intriguing story and setting enough? Trying to find a new audience in the West, you play as Taishi Zhao, a young son of a noble who years after going on the run with his sister, must go on a quest to repair her broken body. Entrusted with a magical artifact called the Elysium Schroll you are empowered with combat abilities and tools to aid you on your quest.  If you can see past the flaws, Xuan-Yuan Sword VII will take you to a new and fascinating world.

In collaboration with DOMO Studio and Yooreka Studio, Xuan-Yuan Sword VII was developed and published by SOFTSTAR Entertainment Inc. out of Taiwan. Though you could find previous entries into the franchise on Steam, this is the first numbered console launch of the series that is localized with English subtitles. Similar to watching a foreign film, you’ll need to read the translations of the voiced characters. While many of the design choices feel antiquated at this point, the combat is solid and the setting is more than intriguing.

Taking place in a war-torn, mythical China, Xuan-Yuan Sword VII has its roots in history while still presenting a mythical and surreal universe. It was fascinating to step into a foreign history, namely the transition between the Western Han and Xin Dynasties (circa 25 AD). Porting this game to a region that largely isn’t versed in Asian history makes the setting a double-edged sword (pun intended). On the one hand, it is fascinating to explore and uncover a new piece of history, but it can undercut some understanding of character motivations when you don’t have a versed background in Chinese political history. I enjoyed getting lost in this ancient context and looking up references that I wasn’t familiar with, but I understand if everyone doesn’t enjoy scouring Wikipedia articles as they play a game.

Xuan-Yuan Sword VII is a 3rd person action game with RPG elements. The map has many twists and turns as you retrace your steps or use the fast travel system. The world is more of a honeycomb of outdoor hallways than a sprawling open world. You’ll run from encounter to cutscene and then repeat for about 10 hours if you’re mostly focusing on the main story. The gameplay loop is interrupted often by forced cutscenes or dialogue that is designed to flesh out the setting or develop plot points. It’s appreciated to have so much story in a game with a fascinating environment, but the ratio of cut-scene to gameplay is too lopsided towards exposition.

The combat is a mix between hack-and-slash and managing cooldowns. Your party members will follow your lead and execute special attacks when prompted. The upgrade paths of skills and fighting styles make you want to level up each new style just to see what it will do. However, I didn’t change my tactics depending on different enemies or styles. In my experience, I could pretty well spam my way through most encounters with a few well-timed dodges to maintain my health. It’s a shame there isn’t more combat variety, because they worked on developing several enemy types that each feature different attacks. I felt like I solved different problems with the same solution.

For a welcome change of pace, the game throws a puzzle at you every now and again. None of them were overly difficult and each had just the right amount of challenge to make you feel clever. I enjoyed getting the “Aha” moment and having a character acknowledge the epiphany. It was a nice effort to balance out all the story.

The game also features a crafting system with recipes and upgrades to equipment and weapons. It’s a nice way to have you engage with vendors in towns, but I never felt the need to craft a specific potion for an upcoming encounter. If you’re in it for the story, you can ignore most of the crafting systems.

The controls felt tight and responsive. It’s no small feat to give games like these responsive controls. I appreciated the stagger and area of effect for my sword slashes and never felt like I wasn’t connecting with my character’s movements. It did feel a little frustrating not being able to climb on reachable ledges and shelves. It reminds me of old PS2, running invisible walls. I kept thinking “but I could step over that…” I know it’s a design choice, but it feels like an antiquated one at this point. Coupling this with the older aesthetic and quest structurereally made me feel like I was playing a 10-year-old game that had great controls.

Some textures like character assets look sharp and crisp, but others, like the floor or walls, are muddy and untextured. I understand this isn’t trying to compete with AAA visuals, but the graphical fidelity feels mismatched with the more contemporary upgrade paths and controls. I tested running the game on Series X and S. The game looked acceptable on Series X and was very blurry on Series S. Unless you are dying to play it on the latter platform, I’d recommend either waiting for a few patches or look at YouTube videos before purchasing.

Like a foreign film, Xuan-Yuan Sword VII is an acquired taste. Its appeal may be hampered by older game design, quest structure, visuals, and an excessive number of cut-scenes, but I’ll bet there’s an audience here for it. I’m glad they are beginning to localize more games from this region, but I cannot recommend this game at full price. Being a good game in a sea of great titles at the moment, just makes Xuan-Yuan Sword VII’s faults, all the more visible. That being said, if the setting sounds intriguing to you, then put it on your wish list.

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Murder Mystery Machine Review – Xbox One

Murder Mystery Machine promises to put you in the shoes of a detective and solve gritty homicides using your clever deduction and puzzle-solving abilities. Originally launching on Apple Arcade in 2019, it was originally an episodic mystery, puzzle game. Now launching on consoles and PC, with all 8 episodes, it hopes to find a new audience in the various platforms. There is an array of challenges when translating interactive entertainment from a mobile device to other platforms such as interface, play session length, and dollar-to-value expectations. Will you have the gumption to solve this mystery, or will this case remain uncracked?

Developed by Blazing Griffin out of Glasgow, Scotland, this studio develops video features, post-production services, and video games. With a headcount of over 45 people, the current permutation of this company came from a merger of three different companies. Presumably, this accounts for such a diverse offering in the creative arts space. Touting a coveted BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award, the video game development wing of this studio is best known for a remake of The Ship and Murderous Pursuits. Needless to say, this team is no stranger to the theme of murder mystery. Murder Mystery Machine was developed and released on Apple Arcade forgoing the free-to-play model in favor of the tech giant’s mobile game subscription service. From the moment you load up Murder Mystery Machine, its mobile roots and episodic structure feel out of place on this new console ecosystem.

You play as Cassandra Clarke, a graduate from the police academy who is reporting for her first day on the job at the District Crime Agency. With an isometric top-down view, you’ll start your first day by meeting your disgruntled partner, Nate Huston. Nate makes it clear that you are not welcome in this dilapidated department nor are you a suitable partner. The police department acts as a hub-world where you’ll have a conversation with Nate and then interact with a strange terminal that bears the game’s namesake, Murder Mystery Machine. It’s not explicitly clear what this terminal is doing or why it is needed in the structure of the game, however, it is where you’ll need to go to progress through the stages and chapters of each case take.

The gameplay starts with you and frequently Nate, sizing up a crime scene and having initial conversations with a witness. You’ll begin scanning the environment for clues represented as icons on your evidence board. As you being to make logical links between the different icons, new dialogue options will arise. After exhausting your deductions, you’ll be able to hypothesize a person, weapon, place, or motive. If your theory is correct you’ll be given a grade and move on to the next stage in the case or solve your current mystery to move onto a new one. Each of the 8 cases has 3-6 individual chapters and depending on whether you utilize the games Hint System, each case will take about an hour.

The art design features 3D assets with a camera-rotation system to make you feel like you’re scouring every nook and cranny for clues. There are some audio queues as you interact with different evidence, but largely you’ll be listening to the same sound-bed in the background. To keep up with the twists and turns of the plot you’ll need to read and re-read quite a bit of text as none of the characters are voiced. I would also note that it felt a bit out of place to have Nate’s dialogue evoke an “old-and-crusty” detective when his character model looks like a teenager.

The writing in Murder Mystery Machine is varied and inconsistent. Apart from the narrative technique, the game lacks thorough localization for the North American audience. For example, one piece of evidence is labeled as a suspect’s “ledger.” However, linking it to purporting evidence, it should have been labeled as an “Expense Report.” This was further apparent with terms like “Car-Park” rather than “Parking Lot.” It may sound like a minute detail, but when you’ve been drawing lines on an evidence board for half an hour trying to reflect what you’ve already figured out, you start rooting for the murderer.

The evidence board is arguably where you’ll spend half your time. Linking people, places, weapons, and motives to one another in order reflect your deductions. The interface screams touch screen or at least mouse and keyboard. Using a controller to try and organize my board into orderly categories was frustrating. To add insult to injury, a text window would overlap my icons reminding me to link evidence to unlock new dialogue paths. I quickly turned off the game’s tips system and became overly reliant on asking the game for hints out of frustration. Eventually, I began to see some of the design choices and patterns that expedited this process, but it was certainly at the expense of fun. Instead of feeling like a brilliant Sherlock Holmes, I was continually asking the game for help to understand how to communicate what I had already figured out.

My final qualm is with the story itself; Specifically the protagonist, Cassandra Clarke. Without giving away a larger narrative happening behind the scenes, your character quickly acclimated to this severe and cruel world. Instead of redeeming her fallen comrade into “Protecting and Serving,” she begins to browbeat and threaten her suspects to force confessions and cooperation. There may be a cultural gap between the game’s origin in Scotland and the North American market, but those are heavy themes and I get the feeling that Blazing Phoenix was intending to walk down that road. I began to dislike my character for berating a grieving Mother and forcing suspects into damning positions so that I could get my way. Because of the game’s lackluster writing, I don’t get the feeling this was created as a commentary on the topic.

In the end, I did not feel that Mystery Murder Machine delivered on its promise. Between a clunky interface, obtuse evidence board, and inconsistent writing I was not able to find the fun of playing detective. In some cases, games miss their intended mark because they aren’t able to fully execute the original vision. In this case, I don’t think the game is under-backed, I think I just don’t like what came out of the oven. For me, Murder Mystery Machine has turned into a cold case.

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