All posts by Tyler Zane

Lover of most all sports - both real and video game versions, but the yearly installments are getting old. Ready for a major breakthrough...whatever that may be.

Super Mega Baseball 3 Review – PC

With the exception of a few aging franchises (mostly from EA Sports) sports games have dwindled and died.  Even the ones that remain are pale and pathetic attempts for keep their various brands alive.  I remember looking forward to a new Madden or FIFA game…ten years ago, and ever since the last PGA Tour game in 2015 we’ve all been starving for a new golf game – and we finally get one this summer.  America’s favorite pastime has also been severely underrepresented this generation, and outside of a few PC managerial sims and the yearly PlayStation release of MLB: The Show you’d have better luck finding a baseball game at your local pub or civic center than a video game store.  And for fans of the real sport, it looks like our 2020 season is postponed indefinitely.

Thankfully, Metalhead Software is here to save the day with their third and best installment of their Super Mega Baseball franchise.  I’ve been playing and loving this series ever since the original debuted in 2014, coincidentally the same year I stopped playing MLB: The Show.  At the time Super Mega Baseball was purely arcade fare, lacking in all the serious backend nuances of the sport, but for those looking for a fast and fun baseball game with solid controls and charming graphics this was arguably one of the best sports games of the year.  Things only got better in 2018 when the sequel arrived.  Super Mega Baseball 2 improved on the game in nearly every possible way yet still lacked the depth that serious baseball fans were craving.

That catches us up to today and Super Mega Baseball 3, the best version of the game that we already love, now enhanced with all of the optional hardcore simulation aspects that franchise fans have been requesting.  There are plenty of fan-favorite modes to play including the new Franchise mode, and nearly every part of the game can be shared locally or online – even the Franchise mode.  The game is perfectly playable solo or you can bring in a friend to go 2vCPU on Exhibition, Pennant, Season or Elimination games.  You can also play against your friends in exciting head-to-head games including 2v2 matches.  There is also an online-only Pennant Race mode for those looking for the ultimate challenge and bragging rights.  Or perhaps you just want to watch a game of baseball.  The CPUvCPU mode will allow you to do just that.  It’s also worth noting that the online modes now support crossplay with other systems creating a much larger online community of players.

At the core of every baseball game are the controls and Super Mega Baseball 3 has some of the best with a fantastic pitching and swinging game that, in my opinion, is far superior, intuitive, and fun than any other baseball game out there.  You have the timed contact hit or the press-and-hold power hit all playing into anticipating the pitch within the zone box.  On the mound you have a diverse selection of pitches that vary by pitcher that you will need to strategically mix up to keep the batter guessing.  There are new mechanics for stealing bases or picking off the runners who try, as well as wild pitches and even an optional designated hitter.

The defensive game is fantastic with great controls for getting the ball from deep field back into the diamond and executing thrilling pick-offs and double-plays.  There is a timed strength meter tied into every throw that determines the velocity of that throw.  The in-game tutorial teaches you all the new and old mechanics, and while the game supports mouse and keyboard you are going to have a much more enjoyable time using a gamepad.  The tutorial will also help you understand specific features like Ego and Pressure that all affect how your team performs, especially under moments of stress.

The biggest addition to this year’s installment is the Franchise mode where you are free to tinker with just about every element of your roster over multiple seasons both on and off the field.  Don’t let the charming art design fool you; this is a serious baseball simulation if you want it to be.  Some elements are still missing.  You can’t trade players but you can kick them off your team to free up salary cap funds before flipping through the roster of free agents.  Players can even up and retire.  There is a robust set of skills and attributes to fuss over to keep players at the top of their game, and these really help to bond the gamer with the players/team, creating some unexpected emotional moments.   At the end of a game you will get a list of players you can improve by spending cash on points for key skills and situational traits much like a standard RPG.  The new franchise mode and the deep statistical backend really enhance your investment with the game and is a welcome addition to the series.

Super Mega Baseball 3 retains its goofy presentation style with exaggerated player designs and amusing animations for the diverse set of players on these co-gender teams.  Even the names are hilarious. There are 14 stadiums that are gorgeously detailed and playable in both day and night games with realistic lighting conditions.  The crowds look fantastic with lots of variation, and they all react visually and audibly with the action on the field.  The game is scalable across a variety of systems, and my RTX2060 Super card was able to render a flawless 1440p experience with maximum settings.  There is so much detail you can even see footprints in the dirt and dust kicking up off the bat.  The audio presentation is also quite good even if it does lack any type of play-by-play or color commentary.  You do get player introductions from the stadium announcer and the umpire calls, and there is some energetic music that plays throughout the menus and team transitions.

PlayStation 4 owners are still going to find a more thorough and feature-rich experience with MLB: The Show, but for everyone else or anyone looking for a family-friendly baseball experience that balances intuitive controls and adorable design aesthetics with a deep underlying simulation engine look no further than Super Mega Baseball 3.

You can also check out our gameplay video with a complete 5-inning exhibition game.

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Submersed Review – PlayStation 4

First off, don’t get this game confused with Submerged like I did when accepting this assignment. It’s hard to believe that one letter can change a game so much. Instead of exploring beautiful outdoor environments and a flooded city I quickly found myself trapped in an underwater research station. Submersed reminded me a lot of one of my favorite movies, Deep Blue Sea, also set on a failing research station where the occupants were slowly getting picked off by a giant shark that also happens to be the result of some sinister experiments.

The game wastes no time in getting started as you find yourself scrambling to escape the station as control panels spark, alarms are buzzing, and parts of the lab are flooding. In true adventure game fashion you will explore your surroundings, read all sorts of memos and documents that provide background info, collect random items for eventual use in minor logic puzzles, and interact with your surroundings, flipping switches and levers, crawling through air vents, etc. Submersed never elevates the genre to anything that we haven’t experienced in dozens of other games. Even the stealth portions of the game seem a bit strained with you having this sonar/light combo that will indicate when danger (i.e. shark) is near, but by using it you are also revealing your location with the light, so you end up inching around toggling the sonar to see if its red/yellow/green ready to shut it down the moment danger is near then cower in the nearest safe zone until you can repeat the process. It was moderately entertaining the first few times but quickly wears thin even before the prologue concludes.

You’ll be playing as Jack Ballard, a Coast Guard paramedic sent to the research station after receiving a distress call. Your chopper crashes during landing leaving you to solve the mystery of what actually happened. Submersed is your classic first-person adventure that looks and plays a lot like Resident Evil 7 – you even have your health status on your wrist. The atmosphere is suitably claustrophobic and tension-filled throughout; especially in those moments where you need to put on your diving suit and explore outside the station. There is a lot of instant death outside the lab, and the shark can even get inside and attack from waist-deep water, but in these instances you can repel the shark with a stun stick that electrifies the water and drives the shark back for a few moments so you can escape. Don’t ask why electrified water doesn’t hurt you.

One of the more annoying aspects of the game is the inventory system that seems to date back to the original Resident Evil. You have eight slots to carry eight items and later you will find a storage box that holds another eight items that can be magically accessed from any other storage box in the facility.   The interface for swapping items between your personal inventory and the storage box is needlessly awkward as is the interface for combining/crafting items such as a lock pick. Some items critical to the game cannot be moved to the storage box or even discarded after their intended use, which means they are taking up valuable space forcing you to make some tough and illogical decisions near the end of the game. I thought struggling with inventory restrictions was long behind us.

The graphics are merely average and often too dark to appreciate any details. There doesn’t appear to be any native 4K or HDR support; not that this art style requires or would benefit from it. Even after adjusting the brightness I still had to play the game at night with the lights off to navigate the darker portions of the underwater lab. The audio was a bit random too with some below-average voice acting and odd music choices. Instead of something sinister like the Jaws theme the shark seems to come with his own heavy metal soundtrack. The sound effects were actually quite good and added to the tension. There are also several quality issues with all of the reading material in the game; numerous spelling and grammar issues. I understand this was created by a small Spanish indie team but surely Sony has some oversight into what goes on their store. I’m sure this could be patched in a future update if anyone cares to do so.

I don’t want to trash the game or complain about it too much, as I respect the effort these incubator studios represent. There are some moments of fun and even some tension and slight terror, but those are all quickly erased by the slow linear pacing of the adventure formula and the horrible inventory system. Perhaps if the game were compatible with PSVR; something clearly suitable for this genre and style of gameplay, it would find a cult following with VR gamers.  Submersed quickly became a chore to play with the results not nearly being worth the effort to attain them. Budget gamers will appreciate the $15 price, but the game is only four hours at best and you’ll only enjoy yourself about half that time. Maybe check this out if it goes on sale or becomes a PS Plus freebie, but otherwise; there are a lot better spooky games out there for the same or less money. Try one of those.

Inside The Park VR Early Access Review – PC VR

This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions and scores 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.

I consider myself a fairly competent baseball fan and player; at least when it comes to competitive bar leagues. I’ve been known to smack the ball around at the local batting cages and I play catch with my nephew, which is mostly the extent to what Inside the Park VR strives to achieve and does so somewhat successfully, at least at a superficial level. Sadly, the experience comes nowhere close to the hype built up in the Steam description and I’m guessing nowhere near the hopes of the developers despite their best intentions.

Inside the Park VR has a boatload of features, most of which are implemented even in this stage of Early Access, but when it comes to actual playable content and the level of immersion when it comes to control in the game, things fall apart quickly. I reviewed the game on a moderately high-end PC with a RTX2060 card and an Oculus Rift.   The graphics were quite nice whether you chose to play in the stadium or hang out in the batting cages. It was especially fun to switch to night mode and watch the stadium lights kick on and see the city skyline light up. There were good models for the bats and gloves that featured different materials and colors and fun visual effects like ball trails to help you see better.

There is a plethora of settings and options, not only for technically tweaking the game but also in how you want to play with numerous difficulty settings, drill options, etc. But no matter how you tweak the game it just isn’t fun or even that playable using VR and motion controls. There are only two modes of play, batting and fielding, and batting falls apart immediately when you realize there is no way to realistically hold a virtual bat with two hands using the Oculus Touch, so you end up swinging the bat more like a tennis racket. Honestly, this tech would make a great tennis game. Apparently there is a way for Vive owners to attach a motion controller to a real bat, but who wants to swing a real bat inside your house? So with no proper way to hold a virtual bat in virtual space you lose any chance of posture or realistic swing velocity. To make matters worse the pitcher, whether human or machine is an idiot, throwing these insane pitches. On numerous occasions the ball would actually hit the bat that was sticking up behind my head while waiting for the pitch. Two out of every five pitches were behind my back and others were these crazy softball pitches that would arc 20’ above my head. You might get one good pitch across the plate out of every ten tries.

This lack of immersion carries over into the fielding mode as well where you get a glove on your non-dominant hand and a 3D model of the Oculus controller in the other – not even a hand. You can squeeze the grip button to close the glove if you can happen to make contact with the ball, but that will be extremely unlikely – took over 30 tries before I scooped up a grounder. The incoming balls are all over the place but if they happen to be outside of the dark green stripe in the grass you won’t be catching them. This mode is extremely dangerous to your surroundings, and even in my 10’x10’ play area I was still crashing into perimeter objects. This mode wants a room-scale experience the size of a gymnasium so you can realistically rundown the pop-flies, line drives, and grounders. This would be a perfect game for the wireless Oculus Quest and playing outside, but if you’re going outside just play for real. Inside the Park VR tries to make up for its shortcomings by offering a teleport movement and even an auto-move that will put you within range of catching the ball, but this sudden relocation is disorienting and doesn’t work nearly as well as expected.

Throwing the ball is equally as problematic with the Touch not being accurate enough to track your hand speed or get the timing of the button release down for actually throwing the ball, so you usually make the full throwing motion and the ball falls at your feet. You actually have to overthink to force yourself to delay the button release until the very end of your throwing motion and even then the ball has some pretty weak velocity. I appreciated the flexibility of playing outfield, catcher, or any of the bases, but none of these positions were remotely realistic or fun for me.

There are some great ideas buried within this poorly executed training sim, but current VR tech just isn’t up to replicating the sport of baseball…yet. It takes pioneers like Intelimmerse to get us where we are eventually going to end up, so I can’t fault them entirely for the current state of Inside the Park VR, and who knows; they might turn this thing around before if finally releases. I’ll definitely revisit this title up to and including final release and make any changes to the review and the score if necessary, but for now, your money is better spent at the real batting cages or playing catch in the backyard.

Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR Early Access Review – PC / VR

This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions and scores 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.

The only thing more boring than a hunting game is a fishing game yet somehow those Cabela hunting games seem to remain eternally popular with their fan base and somehow Bit Golem actually made a fishing game fun…or at least more fun that actually fishing.   Originally released last year, Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR gets a one year update that takes the traditional PC game into the world of VR for even more immersion, but once you realize it’s nearly impossible to drink beer while wearing a VR headset you’ll be glad that VR isn’t required for this latest version.

Still in Early Access, Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR is definitely a work in progress, but the devs seem very active in the forums and new updates and patches are frequent, all working their way through an extensive roadmap of planned content. The fishing simulator is already looking to be a cash cow with new DLC fishing holes popping up at $5 each bringing back memories of all those golf course DLC’s in Tiger Woods PGA. There is loads of fishing gear, some of it licensed, not that I would know, and all sorts of fishing tackle, etc. that might actually attract real fishermen.

Straight up, I’m not a huge fishing fan; haven’t hooked a worm in 20+ years back when I went with my dad, so I might not fully understand all the work that went into making this ultra-realistic. It seems odd that the people who would appreciate this level of detail are likely the same people who would never play a video game and certainly wouldn’t own a VR headset. The list of features for Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR is massive, and rather than reprinting them here I’ll just cover a few of my favorites.

The graphics are surprisingly good for a VR game and not much was lost moving from a 4K monitor to my Oculus Rift. I enjoyed the scenery across all the fishing locations as well as the variable time of day and changing weather, but my favorite visual was the bait cam that takes you underwater so you can check out your baited hook as you jiggle it to attract any passing fish. My RTX2060 was able to run this game with everything set to high and shadows on medium. The underwater distortion effect was very cool and didn’t seem to affect performance.

The game kicks off with an extensive tutorial that is strongly recommended. It not only teaches you the basics of fishing but how to fish in this particular video game and in VR. Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR supports multiplayer fishing with built-in chat along with tournament modes and even a trophy room to admire your catch. I dabbled with the online for only a few sessions but mostly stuck to fumbling around in the offline mode.

Using the Oculus Touch felt pretty good when casting my line and didn’t require any exaggerated movements. My issues with controls came with just about everything else. The buttons on the Touch were highly unresponsive, so I would be watching from the bait cam and when I saw a fish take interest I would try to revert to the normal view but the button wouldn’t register. I would have to hit it 2-3 times or really mash on it and by then the fish had escaped. Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR currently only supports right-handed players with your right hand permanently fixed to the pole, but rather than model your left hand you simply have a 3D model of the Touch controller, which feels and looks odd when trying to reel in your catch. Screenshots show a left hand so maybe Vive players get that; I didn’t.

The game is great about teaching you all the facets of fishing with frequent pop-up tips to guide you while you play. There are plenty of fishing spots built into the core game and as mentioned, more you can buy. The game is packed with content and features, much of which is locked behind a progression system that hopefully incentivizes you to keep playing. Personally, I found the game almost as boring as the real sport of fishing, although things did seem to move along more rapidly and successfully in the game vs. reality. The multiplayer is a nice feature if you have friends who also have VR and want to use this as a virtual chat room or just want to challenge strangers in a tournament. There is also a difficulty setting so you can choose Normal (fun), and Realistic (boring).

Ultimate Fishing Simulator VR shows a lot of promise and the devs seem dedicated to check off all the items on that roadmap; it might just take a bit of time. I’m not entirely sure anything they have planned for the future will make this game any more fun or appealing for me, but those who enjoy fishing and want to enjoy the pastime on a computer or in VR won’t find a better simulation of the sport.

As always with our Early Access reviews, I’ll revisit this title when it officially releases and update the review and score if necessary. I am pretty excited about the ice fishing and using boats and my dad loves fly fishing, so he might be contributing to the review when that gets added. For now, I give the VR version a 3 and the screen version a 4, so I’ll split the difference for a final score of 3.5 and we’ll see what happens down the road. Happy fishing!

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Deluxe Launch Edition Review – Xbox One

I’ve been a big fan of the Ace Combat series for many years now, dating back to Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, which also happens to be a PS4 pre-order bonus for Namco’s latest numbered installment, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.  For this review, we are playing the Xbox One Deluxe Launch Edition, which has its own pre-order bonus; Ace Combat 6: Fire of Liberation, along with a two bonus planes and several skins and emblems.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper numbered installment in the franchise, with Namco going off on several desperate tangents to add something new the aging flight combat game design; none of which was met with any real enthusiasm or critical acclaim.  Namco gets back to basics with Skies Unknown yet still manages to toss in a few new concepts to keep things fresh and for the first time, take advantage of the current-gen hardware…sort of.

Structurally, the game runs two parallel stories; one dealing with a young female pilot prodigy who gets tossed in a military prison for flying in a restricted zone, and the other dealing with an ace pilot (you) that gets tossed in that same military prison for a friendly fire incident.  The stories never truly converge in any meaningful way, as you are quickly assigned to a squadron of prisoner pilots sent out on random missions much like an aerial A-Team.  Eventually, you’ll prove yourself so invaluable that you are absorbed back into the military as the war between Erusea and Usean rages on.

There is a lot of story packed into Skies Unknown with the occasional lengthy cutscene along with detailed missions briefs and debriefs complete with tactical screens, battle maps, and lots of futuristic data displays adding gravitas to the actual gameplay.  Thankfully, all of these are skippable when you return to replay the campaign or select missions later.

I’ve always considered myself pretty good at the Ace Combat games, so I instinctively chose the Normal skill level fully knowing that you cannot change this mid-campaign, but I was confident that wouldn’t be an issue.  Imagine my surprise upon reaching Mission 6, the first Annihilation Battle, and finding I was unable to win/complete that mission after three days (roughly seven hours) of repeated attempts.  The mission not only had a time limit, it also required you to destroy enough targets of varied value to reach a certain total score.  In the 20-30 attempts at this mission I could either not reach the score goal within the allotted time, or I would run out of ammo, or I would get shot down.  My only option other than rage-quitting the game entirely was to restart the campaign from scratch on Easy.  This led to several revealing discoveries.

First, your mission earnings carry over as well as any previously purchased planes and upgrades on the new Aircraft tech tree; a massive flowchart of linear unlockable items ranging from planes to plane upgrades to secondary weapons and perk slots like damage modifiers and even an auto-repair for your plane.  The game was insultingly easy on the Easy mode – planes go down with a single missile hit – and I even got past Mission 6 on my first try with time to spare, and it wouldn’t be until Mission 11 where I would encounter a similar choke point with the exact same mission type only at sea.

I’ve come to learn that there may be a bit of grinding involved in the way Namco has designed Ace Combat 7.  Many of the more difficult ground assault missions are considerable easier once you have unlocked the A-10 that can withstand crazy amounts of damage and carpet bomb an entire continent.  Unlocked tree items for improved speed, handling, and weapon reload times also greatly affect the built-in difficulty of the game.  What really bothered me was the fact that the combat never got any harder; it was just the impossible conditions of success that were frustrating.  In a mission where you must score 20,000 points in 18 minutes you are forced to do a lot of selective targeting to find high-scoring things to blow up, and targeting while under near-constant missile lock gets very annoying.  And don’t count on your AI squadron to help.

When the game wasn’t pissing me off I did enjoy most all of the other missions that featured the usual Ace Combat assortment of mission types and locations.  You had the nighttime mission avoiding searchlights, the sea battles, the canyon runs, the weaving through radar patches, the staying under cloud cover, etc.  It’s all the same stuff we’ve played in past games with some better looking graphics and an interactive weather system that directly impacts your gameplay.

Clouds are the new big deal in Ace Combat 7, as they are no longer just part of the skybox but rather real-time volumetric formations you can use to disrupt radar and weapons lock, impact enemy visibility, and potentially even ice up your aircraft.  You also have thunderstorms where lightning strikes can short out your HUD and there are wind gusts that will blow you off course.  Clouds and weather play an important part in the game and add that extra notch of realism to what is still a rather arcade flight system.

Ace Combat 7 looks impressive compared to previous installments in the franchise, but there is a total lack of support for Xbox X enhancements including 4K and HDR support.  The game runs at a near-consistent 60fps at 1080p with only a few dips into the mid-50’s under stress, but it also begs the question why the clearly more powerful Xbox One X is being beaten in performance by the PS4 Pro, which also doesn’t run 4K but offers a solid 60fps as well as VR support for three custom missions.  Japanese developers are clearly still favoring the PS4 when it comes to multi-platform development to the point of not even bothering to optimize for a clearly superior system.  Those wanting true 4K support and hopefully wider aspect ratios will need to wait for the PC version coming in February.

The campaign should take around 8-10 hours to complete assuming you don’t get stuck on Mission 6 for three days and stubbornly beat your head against the wall.  It’s clear there is a lot of replayability just in earning enough credits to unlock all the planes and tech upgrades in the Aircraft Tree then going back and replaying those mission with new and more powerful planes.  There is also the obligatory multiplayer component for Ace Combat 7 featuring two primary game modes; Team Deathmatch and Battle Royal, which will provide as many hours of extended gameplay as you choose to invest.  It is pretty fun and the matchmaking seems surprisingly fair most of the time.

At its core not much has changed with Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.  You still fly around in loops and circles trying to get a target lock then double-tap your missiles and hope the enemy doesn’t evade.  There is no true dogfighting; at least with guns, but the ground and sea assault missions provide just enough variety to keep things fresh.  The story is great (the first time), and the Tom Clancy-style mission control ambience is spot-on.  The voice acting is great in both mission and com chatter and the orchestral score with chanting chorus ranges from chilling to thrilling to almost haunting at times – truly one of the best soundtracks of any Ace Combat game to date.

There haven’t been a lot of flight combat games on console or PC lately; certainly nothing of this caliber, so whether you are a veteran of the franchise or a rookie feeling the need for speed, you definitely want to play Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.  If you have a choice the superior PS4 version would be my recommendation; especially if you have a PSVR, and if you have a high-end gaming PC and want the ultimate in realism with the best assortment of flight sticks and HOTAS options, wait for PC.  Hopefully the Xbox One version will see an optimization patch soon to make this version run as good as it should.

Immortal: Unchained Review – PC

Immortal: Unchained is the latest Dark Souls clone to arrive for PC, this time replacing medieval combat with futuristic guns as you take on the role of a one-man killing machine who gets out of prison just in time to save the galaxy from impending doom. On the surface the game should be amazing; the description, screenshots, and trailers all suggest that it would be, but when you look beyond the vertical slice of PR hype you’ll find a rather uninspired action-RPG shooter that is broken in just about every conceivable way. If this were the first stage of early access I would reserve judgement and retain some hope, but this is a final $50 game in serious need of patches, if not an entire overhaul.

To the game’s credit I did enjoy the premise and what little story I could glean from the minimal attempt at storytelling, but everything about the way this game felt, looked, and played was far more distracting than anything positive I could muster for my notes. I guess we should talk about combat since this is primarily a fighting game. The weapons in Immortal: Unchained are totally uninspired when it comes to futuristic design. It’s like the art team paged through a few issues of Guns and Ammo and modeled all the designs from real-life guns then tweaked them with neon accents. Even worse, all the guns perform pretty much the same way with no real variables on spread or distance, so a pistol shoots much like a sniper rifle, etc. Even the sound effects are nearly identical, at least with guns in the same class, and you’ll hear the same exact effect for multiple guns.

One nice touch is the addition of location-specific damage so you can hit an enemy in the leg and cause them to stumble, but at the end of the day you are going to end up going for headshots so it seems like a disposable feature. There is some melee action if somebody does get too close – I’m talking about YOU, you shitty teleporting enemies. Enemy AI is non-existent with some guys who will just stand there and soak up bullets until dead and others that will slowly hobble toward you giving you plenty of time to inflict a lethal dose of lead poisoning. Even the boss fights suffer from a lack of tactics or strategy and are ultimately just larger varied versions of standard enemies that eat more bullets. You can defeat most with casual dodging or even standing out of their attack range and slowly picking them off. The only enemies that do pose a threat are the ones that teleport right up to you and kill you instantly with little or no time to defend yourself. It’s cheap and unfair and a poor substitute for a game that lacks challenge in any other meaningful way. The only enemies that do pose a threat are the ones that teleport right up to you and kill you instantly with little or no time to defend yourself. It’s cheap and unfair and a poor substitute for a game that lacks challenge in any other meaningful way.

Immortal: Unchained just seems to be the result of minimal effort which begs the question of why they are charging $50 for this. At least the soundtrack is a free download, but that is ironic as well since I noted there were only one or two looping tracks in the entire game – there might be others but I couldn’t tell them apart. The music kind of lulled me into this trance as I explored dark muddy visuals that were used to create these maze-like repetitive levels that had entirely too much backtracking. Later on you will unlock the ability to fast-travel which can save you some precious time, but that’s not until 3-4 hours into the game.

I love the idea of a futuristic Dark Souls but this game just doesn’t cut it. I had more fun with The Surge, which was not without its own set of issues. I see some good ideas and good intent behind this game but it looks like the devs gave up or just stopped caring long before the project was finished. At least I hope that’s the case otherwise they just aren’t good at making games. I mean, there were missing textures and a few times where I just fell through the map and had to restart. This is not prime time gaming.

Obviously I cannot recommend Immortal: Unchained at this time at any price. If the game gets a few more patches it might be work $20-30 someday, but many of the issues are rooted in the games core design and may be beyond a simple patch. There are so many other games in this genre, most all of which are less expensive and higher quality, so you have options. I’d recommend replaying Dark Souls (again) or giving Lords of the Fallen a try or even check out The Surge. These all have their own assorted issues but are still more fun and challenging that Immortal: Unchained with less investment.

AO International Tennis Review – PlayStation 4

Is anyone else feeling nostalgic about the total lack of secondary sports games on next-gen consoles? I’m talking about games like volleyball, golf, and tennis. I remember one year where we had three volleyball games release in the same summer. Now, if I want to swing a golf club I have to go back to 2015’s Rory McIlroy PGA Tour and if I want to play tennis I’m breaking out the Kinect for Sports Rivals on Xbox or playing the cartoon version of the sport in Hot Shots Tennis on PS4. And I don’t think any game devs care about volleyball anymore.

Big Ant Studios obviously saw the opportunity to fill the gap with their latest game, AO International Tennis, but sadly, the end result is anything but fun and actually turns out to be one of the worst and most frustrating games of any genre I’ve played this year. Much of my disdain for the game lies in its minimal downright barebones production value of the actual game while simultaneously featuring a character creator with enough options to create a REAL human being. Seriously; do we need 20+ sliders to create a NOSE on a character that we will almost never see outside of brief cinematic replays.

I admit to getting trapped in the character creation process, probably longer than I spent creating all my other sports characters combined.   Just how many millimeters should separate my eyes and what degree should my nostrils flare? These are all crucial questions for creating the perfect tennis player. By the time I actually got to spend my generous six-figure bank account on a variety of actual tennis stats I was exhausted. As you play more and more of the solo career you can boost these stats even further.

Don’t even think about diving into the game without playing through the tutorial lessons. Not only will it earn you a trophy it will also make you somewhat capable of playing this awkward game that functions like no other tennis game before it. For those seeking ultimate realism at the cost of losing nearly every match, you can try the analog swing input using the right stick. Much like trying to swing a club in PGA Tour, this opens you up to endless degrees of imprecision and missed shots. Every type of tennis shot is represented by a button press from flat and top spin to the high-flying lob. These can be further modified with the right trigger for added flair.

Actually hitting the ball is an extreme effort in multitasking, as you must position your player, press and hold down the desired shot-type button to put just the right amount of power behind it while simultaneously aiming your shot location with the left stick. You’ll feel confident in being able to do this after finishing the tutorial, but in the actual game it just doesn’t work the same. Shots will inevitably fly wide or deep, and there is this whole “call challenge” system that seems to be in place only to prove that it exists and the AI is more observant than the line judge.

The solo career is a mashup of exhibition games and tournaments with a heavy focus on the Australian Open, mostly because this game released Down Under in time for that event and now we get it in May. Lacking any major licensing we end up with only 3-4 players that avid tennis followers may have heard of, but Big Ant Studios seems confident that the gamers will create all the missing content using the abundant crafting tools provided. Not only can you create an infinite assortment of human tennis players, there is a fairly substantial arena creation tool set. Those with the time and patience can eventually create any of the licensed players or locations that don’t come with the game.

AO International Tennis seems more about creating a tennis game than actually playing one. With its apparent focus on content creation and sharing combined with its overly complex shot controls and lackluster presentation values, there is little joy or spirit of the game of tennis to be found here; certainly not enough to recommend this as a budget purchase let alone considering this at $50. I’d recommend waiting for what comes next and if you haven’t already played it, check out Hot Shots Tennis for only $10. At least that one is FUN to play.

Madden NFL 16 Review – PlayStation 4

Perhaps the biggest change for Madden NFL 16 this year is the system I am playing it on. That’s not to say EA hasn’t nipped, tucked, and tweaked their annual installment in their never-ending quest for football perfection. Last year I concluded that Madden 15 was “hope for a new generation”, and that hope has become fully realized in this year’s release. While there is (and always will be) room for improvement, Madden 16 is a remarkable achievement in next-gen sports gaming and easily the best iteration of the series to date.

Impatient gamers can jump right into a Superbowl game while 20+ GB gets installed to your PS4 hard drive. If you do play during installation framerate will be all over the place, but this is not indicative of the post-install game.  This opening game serves as a great introduction to what waits ahead, and I encourage both rookies and veterans to check out the Gatorade Skills Trainer afterwards that will reacquaint you with old concepts and teach you the new additions to Madden NFL 16.

Every year Madden NFL gets one big feature addition and this year that is the Draft Champions mode. This is the perfect blend of Fantasy Football and EA’s famous Ultimate Team. You’ll create your team over the course of a 15-round draft choosing from some of the best the NFL has to offer. Once your team is assembled you’ll test their might in three games against the computer. Winning earns you bonuses while losing sends you back to the drawing (or drafting) board to start over. Much like real Fantasy Football, the real joy is defeating your friends with your custom teams, and Draft Champions fully supports online multiplayer.

For those who never got into Fantasy Football or those who never cared or played the Ultimate Team modes in any of EA’s sports games; I highly recommend you check this out. While I admit to not being a fan of either of these separately, somehow by combing the two EA has managed to create a mode that is actually more fun than many of the traditional game styles. During my review I had some friends over who are heavily into Fantasy Football and they were getting into Draft Champions with as much fervor as their own fantasy draft.

Franchise mode also gets some slick improvements with the addition of milestone objectives that task you with a variety of mid-game goals that, when checked off, will improve your team’s morale. Personally, this changed the way I played the game entirely. No longer was I of single mind to simply get the ball into the end zone. I was now obsessing over passing for x-many yards or rushing for x-many yards. Finally, it wasn’t about just the destination (aka end zone) but more about the journey. Sure, you can ignore these challenges, but there is no denying the perks you get from completing them really pay off in later games.

One thing Madden has never been lacking is presentation quality, but this is the first year where new technical enhancements to the visuals actually improve the gameplay. You may have noticed that network coverage of real football has managed to get the camera right down on the field almost putting you in the game.   This is something that you would think video games would have no trouble pulling off but it is only this year that the game camera has been modified to get you closer to the action, and it does so without compromising your field of view, reaction time, or gameplay.

One of my favorite new elements is the augmented reality approach to having player stats appear in the game right by the player. But the biggest improvement award has to go to the menu system. The new interface borrows heavily on Windows Metro panels and allows you to navigate to any mode, setting, or option with just a few button taps and not a single bit of lag or loading. It’s these “quality of life” enhancements that really pay off for those who spend hundreds of hours playing these games.

Visuals may have gotten an upgrade but the audio takes a huge hit with some poor choices (subjectively speaking) in music and some of the worst commentary since I’ve been playing Madden.   Phil Simms and Jim Nantz really phone it in this year with genuine disinterest and an obvious lack of enthusiasm.   It doesn’t help that whatever coding EA uses to tie their commentary to the onscreen action is either off in timing or just outright wrong – not all the time but often enough to notice and tarnish an otherwise great presentation.

EA has always seemed to alternate their yearly releases in focusing on either passing or running, but this year they come dangerously close to perfecting both. The biggest improvement is clearly in the passing game; not so much how you throw the ball, but with much more focus on how you catch it and what you do after the catch. In those precious seconds where the ball is in the air you get to decide if your receiver is going to make an aggressive catch, a possession catch, or if you are going to catch and attempt to run for more yards. This decision does not actually perform any part of the play, but merely sets up the AI and corresponding animations to execute your intentions. I did notice that the aggressive catch did seem to drastically improve the odds of your receiver catching the ball, even under heavy coverage, so this may need some balancing in a future patch.

Your ground game also gets some much-needed improvements this year with tweaks to the way your running back is able to actually get through the offensive line. He’s almost as much fun to play as a tail back…almost. The ground game enhancements also carry over to defense where you will find all your players much easier to control, and if you are going after the intended receiver you also get a chance to signal an aggressive interaction in hopes of an interception. Aggressive interceptions are a risky move and can generate some of the best “shouting at the screen” moments in the game.

Sadly, EA has not seen fit to show any love to the Be a Player mode. When compared to career modes in games like the NBA 2K series Madden is lacking in nearly every way; so much in fact that it’s really not worth your time or effort. I found it totally preposterous that no matter what position you are playing in this mode you are calling all the plays – sorry QB, your services are no longer required. Plus, all of the fun trimmings of these career modes (draft, agents, sponsors, pimp my crib) are either lacking or completely omitted.   Either work on this or drop it entirely next year EA.

As for console specific issues or comparison, I did play several games on the Xbox One as well and I found the PS4 to have slightly sharper graphics and perhaps even a better or at least more consistent framerate. There were occasional moments of lag during online games on both systems, but they were rare and evenly split across platforms. I did find the DualShock 4 a bit more comfortable over periods of prolonged use, although the battery lasts only half as long as a fully charged Xbox One controller. There is no clear advantage to either system, so everyone wins. One major disappointment is the complete omission of Coach Glass. I was a big fan of using my iPad as a second screen device in the last two games. Now that I am getting into the fantasy and Ultimate Team modes I would really like to manage and explore those features on my tablet.

Overall, Madden NFL 16 is a big win for EA. The game has never looked better and once we get some fresh talent in the broadcast booth the presentation will be as close to perfection as watching the real games on Sunday (or Monday or Thursday).   The new Draft Champions is an exciting new way to play that seamlessly merges the nuances of Ultimate Team and Fantasy Football, and with significant upgrades to both the running and passing games along with in-game challenges that fuel your team’s future, Franchise mode gets a much-needed breath of fresh air.   This year’s Madden is a must for any dedicated football fan and if you were on the fence I would encourage you to check it out.   It’s a whole new game…well, not really, but it’s a whole new way to play an existing game.

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Madden NFL 15 Review – Xbox One

August is upon us and we all know what that means…it’s MADDEN TIME!    This year we resume the normal numbering scheme with Madden NFL 15 as opposed to the cryptic 25 moniker from last year’s anniversary game.   While I didn’t review Madden 25 last year I did play it and I did NOT like it, but that was no surprise as I have never really liked any of these yearly sports games that release in a year where consoles are transitioning to a new generation.   Now that the Xbox One has been around for nearly a year, EA Sports has finally figured out the hardware and has been able to turn their attention to gameplay.

I am pleased to say that Madden NFL 15 is one of the best installments in the aging franchise in quite some time.  Not only does it offer balanced offensive and defensive gameplay, it refines many of the new features that seemed to have been hastily tossed into last year’s “next-gen” game, but many areas of improvement remain, especially in the Connected Franchise and GM portions of the game that involve offseason gameplay.  Still, this might just be the best Madden yet.

One of the biggest surprises comes just moments after installation is complete and you start up the game.  Rather than dropping you into a menu you are dropped into an actual football game – Panthers vs. the Seahawks in a late-game scenario from last season where you get to recreate or perhaps rewrite those events.  I love these “what if” game modes, and this is a great way to relive exciting and memorable sports moments and perhaps put your own spin on history.

EA’s Ignite engine delivers some stunning player models, animations, and an incredibly detailed physics engine, which means players act and react properly to the events unfolding on the screen.  The difference between the new Ignite and last-gen’s Infinity engine are easily apparently, even if you are just observing the game.

EA is determined to connect every facet of the game from careers to franchise allowing you to play as owner, coach, or take control over your own personal player.  I have to say I do miss the simpler days of picking up a football videogame, choosing your favorite team, and playing a regular season with your team in hopes of going to the Super Bowl.   While it is possible to do that in Madden 15 it is not entirely obvious and requires a lot of behind-the-scenes juggling of options and settings.  Hint:  Start in the Coach mode.

New for this year’s game is Player Confidence and Game Prep where you spend lots of time between the actual games coaching and drilling your players to build up their XP and confidence levels, which all work their magic when it’s time to play.  The Game Prep drills are infinitely more fun than the practice format from previous Madden titles, with tiered levels of completion that can unlock Ultimate Team packs.  I actually spent several hours working through all the training drills before ever even playing my first game, and the results of all that training really paid off.  I felt I had better mastery over the new controls and gameplay enhancements and was just playing better football.

Ultimate Team is back for those who want to integrate some fantasy football into their Madden.  This year we get some refinement and streamlining like the removal of the reserve deck and some increased difficulty when it comes to earning money in the Owner’s mode.  I particularly enjoyed the player choices from past and present and their organization into style packs.  For those new to Ultimate Team or fantasy football there are some useful in-game tips and help screens.  While perhaps not as fleshed out as FIFA Ultimate Team, Madden is starting to catch up.

Whether you are playing just your own personal player or the entire team in coach mode, you will certainly enjoy the new refined control scheme that allows for all the standard offensive moves as well as modified enhanced versions of those moves if you can nail the timing.  The defense has some new tricks up their sleeve as well.  If you can squeeze RT at the moment the ball is snapped your rusher will get an advantage on their blocker potentially allowing you to squeak by for the sack.  When it comes time to make the tackle you can opt for the controversial hit stick or go for the fast or hard tackle, possibly forcing a fumble or even an injury.

Picking the right play is just as important as executing it and this year we see a much needed improvement in play recommendations.  Instead of having the computer randomly pick a play in the name of John Madden we now get to consult the community and see what other players have picked in similar situations and just how effective those results were.  This feature was part of last year’s Xbox SmartGlass integration and was pretty interesting, but it has been refined and is highly useful in Madden 15.

CoachGlass on iPad Gallery

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CoachGlass is a fantastic second-screen experience compatible with most smartphones and tablets that really immerses you in the coaching experience by putting a virtual clipboard in your hands and presenting you with all of the slick play-calling and info-on-demand required to lead your team to victory.  There is a wealth of info available and the streamlined interface and helpful use of colors keeps everything organized and accessible.  The system will intuitively adapt to offensive and defensive strategies, filtering the appropriate plays, and giving Madden coaches pretty much the same info real NFL coaches have during real games.  Those who use CoachGlass are certain to have the competitive edge on opponents who don’t, and this second-screen experience is available in Play Now, Online Head to Head, Ultimate Team, and Connected Franchise modes.

Madden 15 looks remarkable; perhaps not as awesome as the countless screenshots would have you believe because those are all mostly cutaway non-gameplay moments after the whistle.  Rest assured that when you are actually playing the game you are still playing from that distant top-down camera view with controller icons floating over players’ heads.  I did enjoy the new offensive feature that allows you to zoom in or go for the wide shot.    Both angles have their purpose depending on if you are running or passing.  There is even a side view and a defensive player lock view that will lock you and the player with the ball into the same frame – almost like a pilot lock in a flight combat game.  Of course you have all the other camera views including broadcast simulation that, when combined with all the pre, post, and halftime game reports, does an amazing job of recreating a televised football experience good enough to fool most anyone walking through the room.

Local multiplayer is back for up to four players and you have your two-player online versus modes which adds greatly to the longevity of the game outside of the already lengthy connected modes.  Madden NFL 15 is a surprising breath of fresh air in what had already become a complacent series of yearly cash grabs.  EA Sports has proven, or at least given us hope for a new generation of football.  With the ability to play as owner, coach, or career player, there has never been a wider approach to videogame football; truly something for every lover of the sport whether you want to be on the field or sitting behind a desk.

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