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The Solitaire Conspiracy Review – Jack Of All Trades

As I played The Solitaire Conspiracy, I couldn’t help but wonder what other classics of tabletop gaming would benefit from the treatment that the solo card game receives here. Story-driven checkers? Chess with hero characters? Mancala with a leaderboard? The latest project from Bithell Games reimagines solitaire as a means of espionage. And while the FMV story that frames each hand is pretty predictable, the mechanical ramifications of this conceit make for a fantastic take on the traditional card game.

You are an unwitting spy, kidnapped and put to work by Protega, an intel organization working outside the confines of any nation’s government. Protega is represented to you by Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller as Jim Ratio, your handler and constant companion throughout the campaign. Ratio tells you that you need to take down a mysterious figure called Solitaire, who has shut down Protega’s means of communication with their operatives out in the field. It’s your mission to regain control of this spy network.

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Your spy work plays out through games of solitaire. According to the credits, the versions of the game that The Solitaire Conspiracy takes inspiration from are Beleaguered Castle and Streets and Alleys. These variants are less popular than Klondike or Spider, to be sure, but they’re intuitive enough and easy to pick up. The board is made up of three columns, each with four rows. In the central column, you place the ace for each suit that’s currently in play, then build on it until you reach the King. You draw these cards from the outer columns, where the cards are dealt in piles. Unlike in some other popular solitaire variants, you can only move one card at a time, rather than picking up the furthest consecutive card in and moving the stack. But, you can move each card to any pile, regardless of suit, as long as the numeric value on the card is lower than the topmost card on the desired pile. These core rules are fairly simple, and will be easy to pick up for anyone who’s played a hand or two of solitaire before. But that simplicity provides a solid framework for Bithell Games to use as it builds out its unique, hero-based take on solitaire.

As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock new suits. But, instead of the traditional hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades, each set of face cards represents a new team of spies at your disposal, each with game-changing abilities. You begin the campaign with just one team, Mantis, who, according to Ratio, “are messy, but they get the job done.” Play the King, Queen or Jack from this suit on any pile of cards and they’ll cause an “explosion,” scattering that pile’s cards across the seven other stacks in play. If you need a card from the bottom of a pile, Mantis may make it easier to access it, but the explosion will have ramifications for the rest of the board.

You unlock new teams with unique skills every few levels, and this hook kept me interested across The Solitaire Conspiracy’s five-hour campaign. Learning each team’s skills is exciting and satisfying. After playing with Blood Legacy, a team that reorganizes a pile so that the highest cards rise to the top and the lowest sink to the bottom, I was stoked to finally unlock Alpha Division, which accomplishes the opposite, making it significantly easier, for example, to access a 2 or 3 buried at the bottom of a stack. Each team has its uses, but it’s up to you to determine when the time is right to use their special skills. For example, Humanity+ will explode any suit that you play them on, scattering sorted cards from the central pile back out onto the flanks. These cards need to be handled with care, especially in Countdown, a timed mode where you gain seconds back for each card played. Replaying exploded cards won’t gain you time back, so misplaying a Humanity+ operative is a surefire way to run out the clock.

As you play, you gain experience and rise through the ranks. After each level gained, Ratio gives you new instructions and/or a pep talk. Often you gain a new team and unlock new missions. Once those are completed, you can come back for more missions. All of this is in pursuit of Solitaire. Ratio tells you that when you reach level 15, you will be ready to take him on and hand control of the stolen network back to Protega.

As Ratio, Miller is a little distracting here. In a rare acting role, the busy host spends most of his time monologuing at the player. Miller’s built a massive audience with his high-energy affability, and that’s on full display for much of The Solitaire Conspiracy. But, when he shifts into very-serious-spy-mode, he’s less believable, speaking with a clipped intensity that doesn’t feel like a natural fit for his easygoing appeal. The small cast is rounded out by UK actor Inel Tomlinson, who plays Diamond, another spy who is often at odds with Ratio. He’s mostly fine, but isn’t given much to do.

That’s the campaign’s primary problem, really. It works well as a five hour long introduction to Bithell Games’ terrific take on solitaire, gradually teaching you each team’s unique mechanics before unleashing you on the timed Countdown mode, and its enticing leaderboard. But, as a bit of FMV storytelling, it’s far too static to work well as a spy thriller. It mostly feels like a dress rehearsal via Zoom call.

Outside the campaign, though, The Solitaire Conspiracy benefits from not having to split its focus between story and gameplay. As a pure solitaire experience, it’s a great, inventive take on the game millions of players know so well. Skirmish allows you to create custom games, picking up to four teams you want on your side. This mode is fine, but it has a weird quirk that will kick you back to the start screen after a completed game, instead of back to the team select. This has the implicit effect of making it feel like you should only play one round of Skirmish at a time.

Greg Miller as Jim Ratio in The Solitaire Conspiracy
Greg Miller as Jim Ratio in The Solitaire Conspiracy

Countdown, however, is where the game really shines. This fantastically frantic ranked mode is what will keep me coming back to The Solitaire Conspiracy. The rules are simple: the clock is constantly ticking down, and playing cards adds time back. This iteration forces you to not only master the basics, but also to memorize each team’s abilities. In the campaign and Skirmish, your success is measured by how low you manage to keep the turn counter. You’re encouraged to take your time and make the proper move, not the quick one. But, in Countdown, you can only keep playing if you play quickly. It pushes you to approach the game in a fundamentally different way, and I love that The Solitaire Conspiracy includes both options.

In the end, The Solitaire Conspiracy’s most unique aspect–its story-driven approach to the well-known card game–is, ultimately, its biggest weakness. The narrative doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, and if you’ve ever engaged with spy fiction to any degree, you’ll see its twists coming from a mile away. Its approach to FMV storytelling is pretty limited, with its cast monologuing at the camera from the same angles throughout. This is likely a limitation of shooting during COVID-19, but it means that the presentation feels oddly staid. We never see any espionage in action, and there’s not much dynamism to what we do see, either.

But, if you’re looking for a solid take on solitaire with an interesting injection of hero-based action, The Solitaire Conspiracy is exciting, well-paced and genuinely unique. You just need to decide if you really need to play another take on solitaire. Especially given the fact that multiple variations of the game likely came pre-installed on your computer, anyway. But, then again, do any of those have hero characters?

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FIFA 21 Review – A Goal Bonanza

With next-gen consoles only a few weeks away, FIFA 21 feels like a swan song for the current generation of sports games. It ostensibly wraps up an era that was defined by the increasing prevalence of microtransactions and the game modes designed around them, and FIFA 21 is no different in this regard. Ultimate Team is still front and center as the main draw for many players, but this year’s game is also the most robust version of FIFA in series history. Volta Football has been expanded after debuting last year, Career Mode has finally received some much-needed new additions, and there are even new ways to play Ultimate Team. None of this is revelatory–and that remains true on the pitch, where subtle attacking changes make for a more dynamic game of football–but each of these aspects sets FIFA up for the future while also ensuring that this year’s game is still worth playing.

The latest gameplay changes aren’t immediately obvious when you step onto the pitch for the first time, mainly because FIFA 21 isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, new features in attack supplement the strong foundations of last year’s game, with player responsiveness and passing also undergoing slight tweaks. There’s an immediacy to everything you do that makes performing sweeping attacking moves a joy to execute. Passing has been sharpened up, with fewer instances of the ball missing your intended target. Through balls are also more effective when playing a runner in behind the defensive line, with well-timed and incisive passes managing to find the feet of onrushing attackers at a more consistent rate. Even heading has returned after its metaphorical absence in FIFA 20 on accord of how useless it was, with aerially strong players able to power crosses into the back of the net with increased frequency.

These gameplay tweaks improve upon the core pillars of FIFA 21’s on-pitch action, while marquee new features, such as Agile Dribbling, elevate its creativity and attacking dynamism. This new dribbling technique gives you greater control when faced with an eager defender by enhancing the speed and responsiveness of your player’s footwork. It’s designed to help you retain possession and create space in tight one-on-one situations, emulating the play of diminutive playmakers and fleet-footed wingers. Players who excel in these moments like Lionel Messi and Bernardo Silva are more adept at using Agile Dribbling than others, utilizing sharp changes of direction and a delicate touch to escape the clutches of aggressive defenders. It can be a powerful tool at the feet of the sport’s best dribblers, but there’s also a palpable learning curve that applies to using it successfully and consistently. Once you do get the hang of it, however, there are few better feelings in FIFA 21 than being able to lure an opponent in close before shifting the ball past their outstretched leg and exploding past their hapless frame into open space.

This increased degree of control is evident throughout FIFA 21’s other new on-pitch additions as well. You’ve always been able to instruct teammates to make off-the-ball runs, but these forward sprints were always static, with players only able to burst up the pitch in a straight line. This ability still exists in FIFA 21, only now you also have the option to choose which direction they run in. This is incredibly useful for moving your teammates into dangerous positions to receive a pass, or to drag defenders out of position and create space for yourself. Player lock is another function of this ability, allowing you to temporarily maintain control of a player after passing the ball to a teammate. This lets you move into pockets of space on the pitch or run beyond the defensive line before instructing the AI to pass the ball back to you. It can be a tad risky leaving possession at the feet of the AI, but your teammates are generally good enough at keeping the ball, so long as you don’t force them to maintain possession for too long.

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Speaking of the AI, Positioning Personality is another new feature that’s designed to allow world-class players to stand out with their use of intelligent movement and penchant for finding space. This essentially heightens the importance of the positional awareness attribute, creating a gap between the best and the rest when it comes to the way certain players move across the pitch. Top forwards, for instance, are less likely to be called offside, able to hold their runs and penetrate the backline at just the right moment. Hardworking wingers, meanwhile, will track back to help their fullback, showing up lazier wingers who neglect their defensive responsibilities in favor of staying further up the pitch. Other players will find pockets of space between the lines to kickstart attacks, while the top defenders are able to close down passing lanes and read danger more effectively than their average counterparts.

Defending hasn’t been completely neglected in FIFA 21, although the vast majority of new additions are geared towards infusing the attacking side of the game with more control, creativity, and dynamism. Positioning Personality helps if you’ve got a player like Virgil van Dijk on your team, or a midfield destroyer who excels at tracking runs into the box and intercepting passes. The art of defending hasn’t changed all that much from FIFA 20, however, especially when playing against others online. The tried and trusted strategy of maintaining control over a defensive midfielder is still the best course of action, lest you attempt a tackle with one of your center backs and leave acres of space in behind for the opposition to exploit.

Tackles are slightly more consistent at winning back possession, but with the deluge of options available to attacking players, FIFA 21 still promotes caution on defense. A reimagined player collision system creates smoother interactions across the pitch, so at least you don’t have to worry about conceding because your entire defense and goalkeeper fell over each other. Players now have the wherewithal to jump over fallen players. Blocking shots has also become more pronounced, allowing you to focus on staying in front of the opposition instead of risking a potentially catastrophic tackle. Despite these changes, there’s still a large skill gap associated with defending. It’s only a small sample size, but low scoring games are currently a rarity online, with most games quickly turning into eight-goal thrillers. If you’re looking for high octane attacking football and plenty of goals, FIFA 21 certainly delivers, but it’s easy to feel outmatched when defending.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. Ultimate Team has remained almost unchanged from last year’s game, but co-op is a welcome new addition. You’re now able to team up with friends and earn weekly progress in both Division Rivals and Squad Battles. There are also new co-op specific objectives that feed into FIFA’s version of the battle pass, rewarding you and your friends for playing together. Even if you don’t play Ultimate Team, co-op gives you the opportunity to engage with it in a potentially less frustrating environment.

As for other game modes, Volta Football has been expanded since first appearing in FIFA 20. This unique mode is essentially a more grounded version of FIFA Street, ditching the massive stadiums for small pitches and a focus on skill moves. The Debut is a brief story mode found within Volta, acting as an introduction to FIFA 21’s brand of street football. There are cutscenes and the smallest semblance of a narrative, but finding any substance is more difficult than packing Cristiano Ronaldo in Ultimate Team. It’s worth playing just to unlock cosmetic items and a star player at the end, but there are more enjoyable ways to engage with Volta.

Featured Battles are a notable new addition, repurposing Ultimate Team’s Squad Battles with a street football twist. By playing and defeating AI-controlled squads, you’ll accumulate points towards unlocking matches against special weekly teams with unique rewards. The first week, for instance, gives you the chance to earn a Liverpool kit and PSG star Kylian Mbappe. The latter is obviously more exciting as you’re able to insert him into your Volta Team. Hopefully more star players will be added each week to give you a compelling reason to keep coming back to Featured Battles. It’s just a shame you can only play one star at a time, because who doesn’t want to recreate a modern version of that iconic Nike commercial from 2002?

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FIFA 21’s new gameplay features also improve upon Volta’s flashy football. Agile Dribbling functions as a relatively simple way to perform skill moves, while the new blocking system makes defending more rewarding. There’s an increased variety to Volta this year, too, with multiple figurations of matches, whether it’s 5v5, 3v3, walls, no walls, rush goalkeeper, and so on. You’ll go from playing within the confines of a concrete pitch in a public park in London to performing in front of fans in an official indoor arena in Berlin. The size of the pitch alters the way you play, as skill moves become less of a necessity when there’s space to pass to your teammates. Walls add a new dimension as well, giving you the ability to ricochet passes off their flat surfaces, while the size of the teams forces you to adapt your strategy. FIFA 21 fleshes out Volta in meaningful ways, turning it into an enjoyable side dish that will hopefully become a staple of the series’ suite of game modes.

Career mode has been around longer than any other mode, but it’s also faced the most criticism for a lack of changes and improvements in recent years. FIFA 20 moved the needle with the introduction of a shallow morale mechanic and overhauled pre- and post-match interviews, but FIFA 21 takes it a step further by adding a raft of new features. The first of these is a Football Manager-esque Interactive Match Sim that gives you control over the outcome of each match, even if you don’t play it yourself. You can sim any match and watch 2D dots play it out at an accelerated pace. There are contextual prompts that let you jump in and take control of key moments like free kicks and penalties, or you can opt to jump in and out at any time. If you decide to sim the entire match, you can still make informed tactical changes since match data reveals your player’s fitness levels and performance rating, so you can still impact the final score even if you can’t be bothered to play Stoke in a cup game on a wet and windy Wednesday night yourself.

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Player development has been overhauled with a revamped growth system that lets you change the position of youngsters in your academy to fulfill team needs. When it comes to the first team, training has also been reworked, giving you the option to set up group training sessions that can improve specific player attributes before a game, such as your striker’s ability to finish big chances. There’s a new match sharpness attribute that determines how likely players are to perform in the most crucial moments of a match. You’ll want to schedule each training session in order to balance your player’s sharpness, fitness, and morale, but you’ll still inevitably have some decisions to make come match day when it’s time to pick your starting-11. This makes Career mode more involved than before, forcing you to manage your players on a weekly basis and ensure your best are ready to play.

Unfortunately, the training minigames you need to play each week just aren’t very fun, particularly once they begin to repeat. It doesn’t take long before you’re tempted to sim each one, but even this is a bit of a slog as you’re forced to mash your way through multiple menus each match week. The UI is similarly sluggish elsewhere, with one menu required to scout a player, and a completely separate one needed to bid for them. That’s a lot of unnecessary navigation for two aspects of football management that are intertwined. Buying players is still a needless grind as well, as you watch the same few unskippable cutscenes over and over again with all of the important information appearing in between via BioWare-esque dialogue wheels.

Career mode is still a mixed bag, then, but it’s reassuring that EA has made some additional moves to try and freshen it up. If you do grow tired of simming through training sessions and managing sharpness, FIFA 21 is still chock full of other stuff to do, whether you want to head to the streets of Paris to show off your skills, hop into Ultimate Team with a friend, or play through a season on Pro Clubs. This is a substantial package that’s propped up by exciting gameplay that puts the onus squarely on attacking football. There are moments of frustration on defense when the balance doesn’t feel quite right, but then you’ll go down the other end and score a Puskás Award contender that makes you forget why you were mad in the first place.

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Kirby Fighters 2 Review – 2 Kirby 2 Furious

Kirby Fighters 2 has somewhat of an adorable identity crisis on its puffy, pink hands. It initially comes across as a gateway fighting game, an entry step even before the widely-loved Super Smash Bros. series. Approachable in both controls and tone, Kirby Fighters 2 is a mostly pleasant brawler bursting with charm. A slender content offering and some bizarre difficult spikes notwithstanding, Kirby’s latest spinoff is a capable combatant.

There are no stage knockouts or lives here, just a scrap until someone gets knocked out. Also, most of the characters are Kirby–well, a variety of Kirbys equipped with different copy abilities, alongside some other familiar characters who aren’t Kirby to round out the roster. Among the pink puffballs of pain are series classics such as the Link-wannabe Sword Kirby, Artist Kirby who draws minions to cause damage, and Bomb Kirby, who does exactly what you think. My personal favourite is Wrestler Kirby, thanks to his stylish little lucha libre-inspired mask and utterly brutal throws.

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One of Kirby Fighters 2’s strengths is how easy it is to jump in and start belting the tar out of cute characters. Between jumping, attacking, and inhaling, you’ll only need to get your head around three buttons for attacking and a fourth for blocking. Kirby’s range of identities provide a surprising amount of variety, with characters such as Fighter Kirby suited to close-quarters combat and Yo-Yo Kirby adept at keeping foes at a distance. Each Kirby wields unique combos and attacks and each is relatively simple to learn–most only need a combination of a single button press paired with a directional input.

Compared to other fighting games, everything about Kirby Fighters 2 is compact–the stages are small, fights are quick, and the moment-to-moment gameplay is tightly confined. Each stage conjures up a different obstacle or quirk to navigate, including a runaway train, lava pillars, and enemies who don’t discriminate against who they attack. Because of the tightly crafted nature of these stages, there’s just enough room to dodge obstacles and opponents’ attacks, while always keeping you involved in the combat and reducing any potential lulls in the action. Additionally, Kirby Fighters 2’s revival mechanic means you’re always in with a chance of winning–getting knocked out turns you into a ghost, at which point you can try and land a hit to return to the fight with a sliver of HP–as long as your teammate is still conscious or at least one character is still standing in a free-for-all bout. While you can disable revivals, it’s entertaining and chaotic knowing everyone has a chance to win until all foes are KO’d. Most importantly, in team fights, characters on the same side can smooch to recover HP in battle–just like in real life.

Kirby Fighters 2’s story mode is a more uneven experience. This mode sees you play as a Kirby of your choosing alongside either a second player or a reasonably intelligent AI partner, ascending a tower to lay the smackdown on King Dedede and Meta Knight. Even by Kirby game standards, the plot here is thin, told through slides of text to provide a bare minimum amount of context before fighting floors of enemies. Between each successive battle, upgrades can be equipped before each fight to increase health or attack power, while some enhance the effectiveness of restorative pickups or augment your damage output against bosses. It’s an interesting system that adds a gentle layer of strategy in between fights, but it can lead to frustration during later chapters, namely during boss fights.

The boss fights in Kirby Fighters 2’s remove much of what makes combat so dynamic. When pit against adversaries your own size, fights are more kinetically responsive, as grapples and special moves cause interruptions, while battling the big boss brutes is like hitting a static punching bag with a health bar. They move around and unleash moves that keep you on your feet, but the push-and-pull elements that make combat interesting are significantly reduced here. The difficulty of these bosses is predominantly linked to their exorbitant amount of health and a restrictive time limit to beat them in. Only by having a certain set of upgrades do you stand a chance, something that is significantly less important in all other fights. Having to overcome bosses who act as annoying difficulty spikes is a maddening decision that betrays the happy-go-lucky nature of Kirby games.

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The final story mode chapter stands out as Kirby Fighters 2’s most baffling design choice. All previous chapters allow you to retry after any defeat at the cost of some points towards your end score. However, the 50-floor final chapter slaps on a three-retry limit completely out of the blue. This wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if it had been playing to this rule all along and setting your expectations accordingly. I managed to beat the final chapter in a dramatic last-retry fashion, but I spent most of the last few floors lamenting how I’d have to start from scratch if I made any errors instead of actually enjoying the challenge.

Aside from the story, there aren’t many compelling modes for longer play sessions. The lightweight Single-Handed mode sees you fight to complete waves of battles as quickly as possible. Other than this, you can play up to four-player battles with or against others locally on the same system or via local wireless connection. Unfortunately, not much in the way of interesting customization is available for these modes, just the tweaking of parameters such as items and hazards. Online multiplayer is also barren at the time of writing, with battles against random players restricted to two-on-two, while slightly more flexibility is allowed for online friend battles. I played a few rounds against a friend online and was pleased with how smooth the connection was, but there weren’t any other avenues to mix things up once we were ready to move on. If you’re going to play Kirby Fighters 2’s multiplayer, doing so on the same system is your best bet–at least then you and another person can play story mode together too.

One method Kirby Fighters 2 uses to try and hold interest is the Fighters Rank system. Every battle across all game modes nets you points towards increasing this rank, with rewards tied to each tier. Rewards include extra playable Kirby fighters, additional stages to choose from, more powerful story mode upgrades, and stylish hats to jazz up your Kirby. For a while, it’s nice continually unlocking goodies just for playing, but with a few exceptions, it doesn’t really inspire you to engage with all the game modes in interesting ways. For example, unlocking every playable character happens quickly just by playing story mode, but there’s no incentive to try and improve your performance or replay with different characters. With each subsequent Fighters Rank, the points requirement increases, which makes unlocking later rewards a grind–especially considering the diminishing attractiveness of the upcoming rewards.

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Visually, Kirby Fighters 2 is a beautiful game. It perfectly captures the whimsical and kaleidoscopic heart of the Kirby series, bursting with color and personality. Plenty of stages not only pay homage to Kirby’s previous adventures with recreations of iconic settings, but also include additional flourishes to transport you back to that era. These flourishes include mixing 8-bit and 16-bit graphical touches alongside 3D renders on stages such as Butter Building and Gourmet Go Go, where the stylized environment or character sprites pop alongside the modern visuals. Or the likes of Coo’s Forest, which looks like you’re playing in front of a freshly drawn-on easel–there are so many wonderful details to absorb. Even the bold Smash-like menus are adorned with gorgeous artwork at every step. Of course, this is all backed up by an equally delightful soundtrack, and hearing reimagined classics like Gourmet Race and King Dedede’s Theme is always a joy.

Comprehensively adorable and approachable, Kirby Fighters 2 is a solid entry point into the fighting genre. It’s phenomenally beautiful and plays tightly, but the story’s difficulty spikes and limited game modes see Kirby’s latest outing falling short of stardom.

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Crash Bandicoot 4 Review – Bandicoots Are Forever

The increasingly popular reboot-sequel is a hard needle to thread. You have to create a game that hews close enough to the original to make nostalgic fans happy, while modernizing and innovating enough to resonate with new players. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time balances the two effortlessly. It impeccably preserves the vibrant look and feel of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, while integrating new ideas and platforming possibilities. And like the original Crash games, the hybrid of Crash’s old and new ideas will test your platforming skills in interesting new ways.

Like its groan-inducing dad-joke of a subtitle says, Crash 4 is about time… travel. When the villains of Crash’s past open an interdimensional portal, Crash and Coco have to collect a set of quantum masks in order to set things right. As with past Crash games, small exchanges in cutscenes between levels do a lot of narrative legwork. It’s not much of a “story” per se, but Crash and his friends’ charm fills in the gaps and makes you care enough to follow along.

Crash 4’s time-traveling story takes you to all sorts of times and places, including dinosaur-infested jungles, futuristic cities full of flying cars, and sunken pirate ships. Every place you go feels lush, full of color and detail, with a painterly quality that’s simply wonderful to run through. My favorite is the Mardi Gras world, where Crash and Spyro balloons float in the background as you hop over neon-colored flames and trumpet valves. Occasionally, you’ll run through an area and the camera will pull back to let you take in the scenery. The environments never failed to impress me with their visual depth.

The best thing I can say about Crash 4 is that it mostly feels like classic Crash. In my mind, Crash’s signature is in the way the camera moves to create different perspectives from area to area, giving each set of jumps a fresh feel. Sometimes you’re moving left to right, while other times you’re running away from the camera or bouncing straight up from box to box. Crash 4’s long levels are chock-full of carefully plotted platforming sequences, which require quick reflexes and the ability to think on your feet. The dynamic design changes things up frequently, making every level feel winding and unpredictable, with every new set of platforms presenting a surprising, exciting new challenge.

It still feels classic, even as it introduces new mechanics. Once you find each of the quantum masks in the campaign, they will start to appear in levels, giving you access to reality-bending powers such as slowing down time and reversing gravity on the fly. Though none of the four powers the masks bestow are wildly original, they are all used to great effect. Slowing down time at the exact right moment to create a clear path of platforms requires just as much thought and reflexes as jumping and spinning, and sequences with each power come with their own lessons to learn and quirks to master.

In addition, each world includes optional levels that allow you to play as some of Crash’s friends, including Tawna, Dingodile, and Dr. Neo Cortex. Each of the alternate characters have their own skill sets–Cortex, for example, cannot spin or double jump, but instead has a gun that turns enemies into platforms and an air dash. Levels built around these skill sets create even more room for variety; you’ll see new situations and need to approach challenging platforming puzzles differently. The downside is that switching from any of these characters to Crash or Coco, or vice versa, can lead to some muscle memory mix-ups and accidental deaths. It’s a momentary annoyance, but one that creates a slightly bitter aftertaste whenever you play one of these levels, especially during the campaign.

And mastery is crucial. From early on, Crash 4 insists on precision. Many platforming sequences demand you land multiple jumps in rapid succession with perfect accuracy and timing. Sometimes, the difficulty is invigorating–an action-packed puzzle for your mind and fingers. Occasionally, though, it feels as if the game expects more of you than it should. There are times when you’ll land on the edge of a platform and fall to your death, only to wonder whether or not you should have been safe. Those frustrations are fleeting, though. More often, the next success is close enough at hand that you’ll want to keep trying.

Crash Bandicoot 4 captured on PS4
Crash Bandicoot 4 captured on PS4
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And merely finishing the campaign barely scratches the surface of the experience. Crash 4 is truly a perfectionist’s delight. Each level offers up gemstones and a character skin depending on how many wumpa fruit you find, how many boxes you break, and how few times you die. Each level also boasts a time trial mode and an “N.Verted” mirror level, which not only makes you replay it backwards, but also with a creative visual filter that may make it easier or harder. The N.Verted levels are especially interesting as they let you see Crash 4’s vibrant levels in a completely different light.

Even more so than playing the N.Sane Trilogy, which literally remade the original Crash games from my youth, playing Crash 4 felt like getting back in touch with the series. It’s an injection of new ideas into now-classic gameplay that surprises and delights, even as it feels like a homecoming. Truly, games like this are why we come running back to long-dormant franchises with open arms.

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Crash Bandicoot 4 Review – Platformer’s Delight

The increasingly popular reboot-sequel is a hard needle to thread. You have to create a game that hews close enough to the original to make nostalgic fans happy, while modernizing and innovating enough to resonate with new players. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time balances the two effortlessly. It impeccably preserves the vibrant look and feel of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, while integrating new ideas and platforming possibilities. And like the original Crash games, the hybrid of Crash’s old and new ideas will test your platforming skills in interesting new ways.

Like its groan-inducing dad-joke of a subtitle says, Crash 4 is about time… travel. When the villains of Crash’s past open an interdimensional portal, Crash and Coco have to collect a set of quantum masks in order to set things right. As with past Crash games, small exchanges in cutscenes between levels do a lot of narrative legwork. It’s not much of a “story” per se, but Crash and his friends’ charm fills in the gaps and makes you care enough to follow along.

Crash 4’s time-traveling story takes you to all sorts of times and places, including dinosaur-infested jungles, futuristic cities full of flying cars, and sunken pirate ships. Every place you go feels lush, full of color and detail, with a painterly quality that’s simply wonderful to run through. My favorite is the Mardi Gras world, where Crash and Spyro balloons float in the background as you hop over neon-colored flames and trumpet valves. Occasionally, you’ll run through an area and the camera will pull back to let you take in the scenery. The environments never failed to impress me with their visual depth.

The best thing I can say about Crash 4 is that it mostly feels like classic Crash. In my mind, Crash’s signature is in the way the camera moves to create different perspectives from area to area, giving each set of jumps a fresh feel. Sometimes you’re moving left to right, while other times you’re running away from the camera or bouncing straight up from box to box. Crash 4’s long levels are chock-full of carefully plotted platforming sequences, which require quick reflexes and the ability to think on your feet. The dynamic design changes things up frequently, making every level feel winding and unpredictable, with every new set of platforms presenting a surprising, exciting new challenge.

It still feels classic, even as it introduces new mechanics. Once you find each of the quantum masks in the campaign, they will start to appear in levels, giving you access to reality-bending powers such as slowing down time and reversing gravity on the fly. Though none of the four powers the masks bestow are wildly original, they are all used to great effect. Slowing down time at the exact right moment to create a clear path of platforms requires just as much thought and reflexes as jumping and spinning, and sequences with each power come with their own lessons to learn and quirks to master.

In addition, each world includes optional levels that allow you to play as some of Crash’s friends, including Tawna, Dingodile, and Dr. Neo Cortex. Each of the alternate characters have their own skill sets–Cortex, for example, cannot spin or double jump, but instead has a gun that turns enemies into platforms and an air dash. Levels built around these skill sets create even more room for variety; you’ll see new situations and need to approach challenging platforming puzzles differently. The downside is that switching from any of these characters to Crash or Coco, or vice versa, can lead to some muscle memory mix-ups and accidental deaths. It’s a momentary annoyance, but one that creates a slightly bitter aftertaste whenever you play one of these levels, especially during the campaign.

And mastery is crucial. From early on, Crash 4 insists on precision. Many platforming sequences demand you land multiple jumps in rapid succession with perfect accuracy and timing. Sometimes, the difficulty is invigorating–an action-packed puzzle for your mind and fingers. Occasionally, though, it feels as if the game expects more of you than it should. There are times when you’ll land on the edge of a platform and fall to your death, only to wonder whether or not you should have been safe. Those frustrations are fleeting, though. More often, the next success is close enough at hand that you’ll want to keep trying.

Crash Bandicoot 4 captured on PS4
Crash Bandicoot 4 captured on PS4
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And merely finishing the campaign barely scratches the surface of the experience. Crash 4 is truly a perfectionist’s delight. Each level offers up gemstones and a character skin depending on how many wumpa fruit you find, how many boxes you break, and how few times you die. Each level also boasts a time trial mode and an “N.Verted” mirror level, which not only makes you replay it mirrored, but also with a creative visual filter that may make it easier or harder. The N.Verted levels are especially interesting as they let you see Crash 4’s vibrant levels in a completely different light.

Even more so than playing the N.Sane Trilogy, which literally remade the original Crash games from my youth, playing Crash 4 felt like getting back in touch with the series. It’s an injection of new ideas into now-classic gameplay that surprises and delights, even as it feels like a homecoming. Truly, games like this are why we come running back to long-dormant franchises with open arms.

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Now Playing: Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Video Review

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Pendragon Review – History Repeating

Legends are slippery things. One tells of Arthur, the once and future King of Britain who united the realm against the Saxon invaders. Where historical fact is elusive, literary fancy has imagined Arthur’s idyllic court of Camelot, its chambers populated with knights, wizards, and witches, its halls reverberating with chivalry, romance, and betrayal. In exploring the legend of Arthur, Pendragon mixes interactive fiction and tactical combat within a short-form roguelike structure to tell myriad tales. As a study of how myths are formed from countless half-truths, it’s effective. But as a narrative journey, it feels slight, its more admirable efforts undermined by repetition and an uneasy relationship with combat.

In this particular rendition of Arthurian legend, the story always begins in 673 A.D., about a week before Arthur reaches the castle of Camlann to face his son, Mordred, whose challenge for the throne has ignited a civil war. Each time you roll a new game, you’ll play as one of Arthur’s court–his estranged wife Guinevere, her possible lover Sir Lancelot, the enigmatic Merlin, to name three of the more familiar characters–dashing across Britain to aid the king in the climactic showdown. En route, you will run into characters that you can convince to ride with your banner, others you’ll need to put to the sword, and an alarming number of wolves, snakes, giant spiders, and rats to fight or flee from. Though rest and rations will help the wounded recover, all members of your party–even your starting character–can die permanently, and the journey is over if everyone falls in battle. A complete run will typically take only 20-30 minutes, depending on how quickly you find Camlann.

No Caption Provided

The rapid turnaround of a run serves to highlight the dynamic nature of Pendragon’s storytelling. By embarking on a new journey, you’ll quickly find yourself exploring a reconfigured map, discovering new locations and story events, and accumulating alternate perspectives on the core myths of the land. And the game does a remarkable job tying together the many disparate narrative threads you can follow throughout one run. In one run, I began as Morgana Le Fay before meeting and recruiting Guinevere. Morgana was later wounded in battle while Guinevere fled, leaving me to play on as the latter. By the time I reached Camlann, Guinevere too had perished and so I ended up facing Mordred’s knights with just Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay, and a strong-armed peasant blacksmith in tow. What’s impressive is that the dialogue doesn’t miss a beat; conversations feel coherent and reactive to whatever choice and chaos has occurred along the way.

Of course, there are limits. By the time I was on my fifth or sixth journey, I recognised that certain scenarios were repeating. I could tell, for example, upon arriving at the burned-out village that this was where I’d be able to recruit that blacksmith. But while some of the individual components do become familiar over time, the unpredictable order in which they occur and the different choices you’re able to make ensure that each journey, when considered as a whole, feels unique.

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Encounters, regardless of whether they’re friendly or hostile, play out on a small isometric grid, often no more than half a dozen tiles squared. Characters switch between stances that inform their movement and available actions; with your weapon drawn you can attack but can move only linearly, while diagonal movement is possible only with your weapon sheathed. As a combat engine, it’s relatively simple yet capable of presenting interesting challenges through some further complexities. Outwitting a group of enemies–baiting them with one character while a second deploys a special ability from the flank, or switching stances at the crucial moment to prevent an attack–feels well-earned since every fight carries real danger. The condensed nature of a run means there’s no grinding and little filler.

You’re also not always fighting. Indeed, many encounters conclude without any steel being drawn. Characters engage in conversation as they move back and forth across the board, weighing up the situation. This verbal sparring, in conjunction with the gliding movements as each participant adjusts their stance and demeanor, feels like some kind of formal dance routine with each step accompanied by a witty riposte.

By contrast, such encounters underscore how Pendragon is at its weakest when not telling a story. Straight combat dulls the momentum of the journey. I had one run where Merlin and his companion fled from a pack of wolves only to meet another they couldn’t defeat. After fleeing from that, they ran into yet another pack and, with the ability to flee now removed, were killed in a premature and underwhelming end to their quest.

No Caption Provided

In general, the various wolves and wild dogs you meet, not to mention the giant spiders, snakes, and rats, seem out of place, a relic from another more combat-focused design. Encounters with wary peasants or knights of uncertain loyalty wring far greater tension out of the delicate “Are we gonna fight or are we gonna talk?” balance inherent in the combat engine. The stakes are raised here, and you come away feeling better informed about the politics of the world.

But even when you’re able to best appreciate Pendragon’s procedural storytelling, when you’re able to grab a handful of its narrative threads and weave them together across multiple half-hour playthroughs, the returns are diminishing. Each session is too short to allow for the consequences of your actions to carry real weight. By the time you make it to Camlann, you’re only just getting to know Lady Niambh or Sir Lancelot, and now it’s farewell until you are reunited on a future playthrough–minus any memory of what you just experienced together. And as the scenarios start to repeat, you’ve got to dig deeper to find something fresh.

Pendragon is a fascinating experiment in trying to marry procedural storytelling to a roguelike structure. It does so with mixed success. With smart writing at the forefront, it delivers a rich and evocative world steeped in fantastical adventure. But when its more mundane systems intrude, you find that reality is a little more prosaic.

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Pendragon Review – Endless Legends

Legends are slippery things. One tells of Arthur, the once and future King of Britain who united the realm against the Saxon invaders. Where historical fact is elusive, literary fancy has imagined Arthur’s idyllic court of Camelot, its chambers populated with knights, wizards, and witches, its halls reverberating with chivalry, romance, and betrayal. In exploring the legend of Arthur, Pendragon mixes interactive fiction and tactical combat within a short-form roguelike structure to tell myriad tales. As a study of how myths are formed from countless half-truths, it’s effective. But as a narrative journey, it feels slight, its more admirable efforts undermined by repetition and an uneasy relationship with combat.

In this particular rendition of Arthurian legend, the story always begins in 673 A.D., about a week before Arthur reaches the castle of Camlann to face his son, Mordred, whose challenge for the throne has ignited a civil war. Each time you roll a new game, you’ll play as one of Arthur’s court–his estranged wife Guinevere, her possible lover Sir Lancelot, the enigmatic Merlin, to name three of the more familiar characters–dashing across Britain to aid the king in the climactic showdown. En route, you will run into characters that you can convince to ride with your banner, others you’ll need to put to the sword, and an alarming number of wolves, snakes, giant spiders, and rats to fight or flee from. Though rest and rations will help the wounded recover, all members of your party–even your starting character–can die permanently, and the journey is over if everyone falls in battle. A complete run will typically take only 20-30 minutes, depending on how quickly you find Camlann.

No Caption Provided

The rapid turnaround of a run serves to highlight the dynamic nature of Pendragon’s storytelling. By embarking on a new journey, you’ll quickly find yourself exploring a reconfigured map, discovering new locations and story events, and accumulating alternate perspectives on the core myths of the land. And the game does a remarkable job tying together the many disparate narrative threads you can follow throughout one run. In one run, I began as Morgana Le Fay before meeting and recruiting Guinevere. Morgana was later wounded in battle while Guinevere fled, leaving me to play on as the latter. By the time I reached Camlann, Guinevere too had perished and so I ended up facing Mordred’s knights with just Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay, and a strong-armed peasant blacksmith in tow. What’s impressive is that the dialogue doesn’t miss a beat; conversations feel coherent and reactive to whatever choice and chaos has occurred along the way.

Of course, there are limits. By the time I was on my fifth or sixth journey, I recognised that certain scenarios were repeating. I could tell, for example, upon arriving at the burned-out village that this was where I’d be able to recruit that blacksmith. But while some of the individual components do become familiar over time, the unpredictable order in which they occur and the different choices you’re able to make ensure that each journey, when considered as a whole, feels unique.

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Encounters, regardless of whether they’re friendly or hostile, play out on a small isometric grid, often no more than half a dozen tiles squared. Characters switch between stances that inform their movement and available actions; with your weapon drawn you can attack but can move only linearly, while diagonal movement is possible only with your weapon sheathed. As a combat engine, it’s relatively simple yet capable of presenting interesting challenges through some further complexities. Outwitting a group of enemies–baiting them with one character while a second deploys a special ability from the flank, or switching stances at the crucial moment to prevent an attack–feels well-earned since every fight carries real danger. The condensed nature of a run means there’s no grinding and little filler.

You’re also not always fighting. Indeed, many encounters conclude without any steel being drawn. Characters engage in conversation as they move back and forth across the board, weighing up the situation. This verbal sparring, in conjunction with the gliding movements as each participant adjusts their stance and demeanor, feels like some kind of formal dance routine with each step accompanied by a witty riposte.

By contrast, such encounters underscore how Pendragon is at its weakest when not telling a story. Straight combat dulls the momentum of the journey. I had one run where Merlin and his companion fled from a pack of wolves only to meet another they couldn’t defeat. After fleeing from that, they ran into yet another pack and, with the ability to flee now removed, were killed in a premature and underwhelming end to their quest.

No Caption Provided

In general, the various wolves and wild dogs you meet, not to mention the giant spiders, snakes, and rats, seem out of place, a relic from another more combat-focused design. Encounters with wary peasants or knights of uncertain loyalty wring far greater tension out of the delicate “Are we gonna fight or are we gonna talk?” balance inherent in the combat engine. The stakes are raised here, and you come away feeling better informed about the politics of the world.

But even when you’re able to best appreciate Pendragon’s procedural storytelling, when you’re able to grab a handful of its narrative threads and weave them together across multiple half-hour playthroughs, the returns are diminishing. Each session is too short to allow for the consequences of your actions to carry real weight. By the time you make it to Camlann, you’re only just getting to know Lady Niambh or Sir Lancelot, and now it’s farewell until you are reunited on a future playthrough–minus any memory of what you just experienced together. And as the scenarios start to repeat, you’ve got to dig deeper to find something fresh.

Pendragon is a fascinating experiment in trying to marry procedural storytelling to a roguelike structure. It does so with mixed success. With smart writing at the forefront, it delivers a rich and evocative world steeped in fantastical adventure. But when its more mundane systems intrude, you find that reality is a little more prosaic.

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Serious Sam 4 Review – The Fourth Encounter

In Serious Sam 4, the long-running FPS series may have finally found a workable identity. Through each entry, developer Croteam has held onto the core gameplay loop that defined Sam’s initial jaunt across Egypt. You will always back-pedal, you will always circle-strafe, and you will always fight dozens of Sam’s memorable cadre of alien enemies at once. But, at times, that loop has been obscured by some of the strange decisions Croteam has made with the series. It was never broken, but each game finds the developer trying to fix it.

Enter Serious Sam 4, yet another reinvention that seems to draw from every period of the series’ long life. As in Serious Sam 3, the graphics are realistic (though a little stiff). As in Serious Sam 2, there’s vehicular combat and humor to spare (and a surprising portion of the jokes land). And, as in First and Second Encounter, the gameplay is razor-sharp and front-and-center. It’s been nine years since the last mainline entry, and in that time we’ve witnessed the revival of circle-strafing shooters thanks to games both big (Doom) and small (Dusk). But, in this newly crowded landscape, Serious Sam 4 has a secret weapon. Croteam is simply willing to throw a ridiculous number of enemies at you at all times and it has the tech to pull it off.

No Caption Provided
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In this outing, which functions as a prequel to The First Encounter, Sam and a small group of resistance fighters are attempting to push back the villainous Mental’s assault on Earth. The alien horde has already won, but the resistance hopes to score a strategic advantage by tracking down the Holy Grail, which is actually an alien artifact hidden somewhere among the art and architecture of an impressively unspoiled Italy.

As Sam embarks on this quest, he faces down a familiar horde of enemies with a familiar arsenal of weapons. If you’ve played Serious Sam before, you’ll recognize most of them. There’s the Sirian Werebull, a fleshy creature with horns that charges headlong at you, unless you can take it out with a few well-timed blasts from your double shotgun. The Beheaded Kamikaze, which boasts a pair of bombs in place of hands and a scream you can hear from a mile away, is also back, and will force you to pick it off before it gets close enough to explode. It can also be led into a larger crowd of enemies before you shoot, setting off a powder keg of blood and gibs. One of my personal favorites, the Reptiloid, often posts up on a tower, then hurls acid green homing missiles that will follow you until they find their target, or until you shoot them out of the air.

It’s an impressive roster composed of some of the most memorable and well-designed enemies in gaming. The Serious Sam model–drop a ton of enemies in an arena and dare you to come out on top–only works because each enemy is easy to recognize and, as a result, internalize and remember how to handle. Say you hear the Beheaded Kamikaze’s signature scream and switch to your assault rifle to handle the dozen the game throws at you before they get close enough to explode. Once they’re dispatched, you hear the ground rumble beneath the feet of the Sirian Werebull and pull out the rocket launcher to finish the herd off with a string of one-hit kills. But then a pair of Reptiloids appears on far off towers, so you switch to the sniper rifle to pick them, and their homing projectiles, off from a distance. All of this happens in the space of a few seconds and the game rarely does you the favor of sending each group separately. But the enemies are defined by distinctive designs, behaviors, and often audio cues, so you’re rarely caught by surprise.

As Sam manages these crowds, the chiseled hero draws on the same impressive arsenal he’s wielded since the beginning (and a few new tools, as well). The rocket launcher returns, now with an upgrade that allows you to lock on to multiple enemies. The minigun is essential for crowd control, ripping through dozens of aliens in a matter of seconds. And, my favorite, the portable cannon, is back, too, allowing Sam to launch massive cannonballs into enemies, destroying even the meanest minotaurs in a few hits. Each gun has its use, and I enjoyed the process of figuring out which gun worked best against which enemy. You can also expand your roster of tools by completing side quests–a new addition in Serious Sam 4. Sometimes these diversions grant you a weapon mod, like that rocket launcher upgrade. Other times, it might grant you a gadget, which can run the gamut from health kits to portable black holes or a bomb that slows down time for everyone but Sam. These gadgets can help turn the tide in battle, but you find them so rarely that you need to be choosy with how you use them. As a result, they don’t feel like a major addition; more like an interesting touch.

My biggest gripe with the game is that it rarely gives you space and time to marvel at a weapon’s power. As soon as you get the cannon, you’ll be launched into a fight that demands you use it against every enemy just to keep up. In this way, the game often robs you of any real feeling of power. Sure, you’re obliterating Reptiloids in one hit, which is cool. But the game overcompensates by throwing a dozen Reptiloids at you at once. Instead of providing an opportunity to appreciate the cannon’s one-shot one-kill power, Serious Sam 4 skips straight to making you feel like you’re barely scraping by, cannon notwithstanding. You’re constantly on your back foot, which can make the (otherwise excellent) combat begin to feel a little repetitive. I love the tension of Serious Sam 4’s fights, racing around hordes of enemies, attempting to pick the right weapon to buy myself a moment’s peace. But the game rarely gives that tension a release valve, and as a result, it can be exhausting to play.

The Bull Monster in Serious Sam 4
The Bull Monster in Serious Sam 4

In tough fights, it helps that, at least some of the time, Sam has a team he can rely on. In this entry, you’re joined by a squad of soldiers who can help take enemies down in battle. Given how frenzied late-game battles are, I was always grateful to have any help I could get. Each member of the squad fits pretty neatly into well-known archetypes: the priest who’s handy with a shotgun; the paranoid conspiracy theorist; the female soldier who can kick just as much ass as the boys; the new recruit who can’t quite hold his own in battle yet. These are reliable stock characters, and I mostly enjoyed watching the group banter. A running joke has each of the squadmates attempting to proffer the best one-liner after dispatching baddies. These moments made me laugh out loud on a few occasions and, more surprisingly, the story actually manages to land a heartfelt beat or two along the way.

Serious Sam 4’s reliance on tropes isn’t always harmless, though. There are two men from marginalized backgrounds on Sam’s squad, and both fall pretty neatly into racial stereotypes. Rodriguez, a Mexican-American soldier, peppers his speech with words like “cajones,” “culo” and “pendejo.” This trope, which sees Latinx characters dropping Spanish words into otherwise English sentences, is common in games, employed by writers to highlight a character’s Latin-ness. But, as Latinx critics have pointed out, it’s an ignorant portrayal of the way bilingual Latinx people actually speak. Similarly, a Black character in this game falls into a well-known trope that feels dated and has for years. I would have loved to have seen Croteam put even just a little bit of thought into the ways they handled the writing around these character’s racial identities.

The story is also occasionally hampered by the game’s technical issues. While Serious Sam 4 on PC ran at or around 60 fps during frantic action, frequently hitched during cutscenes. Pop-in was also a consistent problem in and out of cutscenes, with background textures often arriving midway through a shot or a few seconds after a level began. Both of these problems plagued my initial playthrough and persisted even after Croteam put out a massive day one patch on Wednesday. I also experienced a corrupted save, which caused the game to crash to desktop when I attempted to load it.

Serious Sam 4 captured on PCSerious Sam 4 captured on PC
Serious Sam 4 captured on PC

This all contributes to the feeling that this game is still a little rough around the edges. While Serious Sam 4 plays (and mostly looks) great in combat, its characters look pretty stiff. This fits Sam just fine; if you played The First Encounter back in the day, you’ll remember the moments when the camera shifted to a third-person view as Sam ran, ramrod straight, to the next level. It fits Sam’s specific variety of generic action hero cool. But for other characters? Not so much. One scene that shows a crowd of resistance soldiers cheering after the usually reticent Sam gives a rousing speech is particularly uncanny, with each character’s eyes bugging in their pale faces as they applaud woodenly. I’ve rarely been more aware that I was watching 3D models go through the motions they were rigged to perform.

Luckily, the combat is as fast and fluid as the cutscenes are slow and creaky. Thanks to Croteam’s impressive tech, Serious Sam 4 can now throw an even more ridiculous number of enemies at you at one time than ever before. Some late-game fights put Sam in the midst of the biggest fights I’ve ever experienced in a game; they’re the closest approximations I’ve seen in a first-person shooter to the actual size and scale of what a violent battle for the planet might actually look like. The only problem is the frequency with which Serious Sam 4 leans on this trick. I enjoy the combat a lot, but outside of watching the story unfold through cutscenes, it really is all that you’re doing. It’s a tense and exacting game that will often have you leaning side to side as you strafe, utterly engrossed in Sam’s bloody struggle for survival. But it’s precisely because that core is so tense that I wish Serious Sam 4 had something else to offer in between battles. With the fights forcing you into all-out war so often, most sessions I felt like I was ready to call it a day after a single mission.

Overall, Serious Sam 4 is a successful synthesis of the series’ disparate identities, with humor to spare and jaw-dropping large-scale battles. But technical issues, tired tropes and a lack of gameplay variety make it just a solid foundation rather than a new pinnacle for Croteam.

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NBA 2K21 Review – Ball Another Day

With NBA 2K21, you just know what you’re getting into–a basketball simulation with the presentation chops, star power, and gameplay mechanics to embody the sport on a professional and cultural level. You know you’ll build a custom player to go through a story that leads into a full career and take to the streets and rec center for pick up games. You know you can play a management sim through MyGM or build a playable fantasy team through card packs in MyTeam. And you also know all too well about the scheme of VC that looms over it all, which remains one of the prominent offenders of intrusive microtransactions.

At this point, NBA 2K21 suggests that the franchise is out of surprises. It comes with a robust suite of modes, but despite minor remixing year after year, the annual releases are starting to blend together (if they haven’t already). Mechanics get minor tweaks or additions, but largely remain untouched. So, for those embedded in the 2K cycle, you know what the deal is, but because this year’s game changes things mostly on a surface level, it’s hard to be excited about yet another entry.

Your player in MyCareer starts in high school, goes through college for a short time, then gets drafted.
Your player in MyCareer starts in high school, goes through college for a short time, then gets drafted.

Don’t get me wrong, as a lifelong basketball fan who embraced the culture as a wee lad and cherishes street ball memories from back home, I’m still a bit in awe of how well the sport has translated into video game form (I said as much in my NBA 2K19 review). And that doesn’t just come from the player likenesses, character creation tools, or the broadcast-style presentation; it’s a matter of the core gameplay, too.

Dribble moves with the right stick offer nearly full control of ball handling. It can feel a bit cluttered having so many actions mapped to slightly different motions on just one stick, as errant inputs can sometimes have you pull a pump-fake instead of the crossover you intended. But if you can master a few key moves, you’ll be at an advantage for opportunities to drive to the basket or mitigate shot contesting. The same goes for making the right moves in the post-game to either get under defenders or get positioning over them. All of these have been staples of NBA 2K for quite some time.

The big new addition in terms of offense is the optional Pro Stick shooting. Prior to 2K21, shooting would either be done by holding down Square, X, or the right stick and timing your release at the height of your jump, indicated by a shot meter overhead. With Pro Stick shooting enabled, you hold the right stick down without having to worry about release timing and instead focus on accurate stick alignment according to the shot meter before your player releases the shot. While it’s much easier to just use square or X for scoring in the paint, Pro Stick is a viable new alternative for jump shots, especially in situations when lag or latency can throw off traditional-style release timing.

Solid moment-to-moment basketball is still a highlight of NBA 2K21.
Solid moment-to-moment basketball is still a highlight of NBA 2K21.

There aren’t really any standout changes on the defensive side of the ball. Of course, you still need to stay locked in to track your matchup’s movements, know when to press up, move laterally, contest shots, and fight over screens. But the sluggish nature of off-the-ball movement can still be a tiresome thing to struggle with when controls don’t respond the way you intended or you simply run in place, stuck on teammates, and subsequently get punished for a defensive breakdown.

Every action in NBA 2K21 is deliberate and at higher levels of play, the game requires your full attention to succeed. By virtue of this, playing through actual matches–whether it be in MyCareer avenues or through full-team control in the various other modes–can be taxing, but extremely rewarding when you come away with that W.

The most rewarding aspect of NBA 2K is in the MyCareer path, and the same holds true for this year’s game. You create a player, spec them out for a position, and build them further by specializing in certain basketball skills and stats. For example, I built my guy to be a point guard who can thread the needle when dishing assists, but one who can also easily finish with driving layups or mid-range jumpers.

You're not my dad, Jesse Williams!You're not my dad, Jesse Williams!
You’re not my dad, Jesse Williams!

Once you’ve settled on your template and stat potentials, you go through a new yet familiar story of being a young, upcoming player leading into the NBA draft. Notable actors like Michael K. Williams, Djimon Hounsou, and Jesse Williams play roles in your cinematic-style story and deliver strong performances. But while some dramatic or pivotal moments draw you in for just a beat, it doesn’t really add up to much or sensibly connect on a narrative front. There’s a cheesy romantic subplot, petty player drama, a thread about your dad who apparently passed away but shows up in flashbacks (he’s played by Jesse Williams and doesn’t look a day older than your player, so that was confusing), and a somewhat shady family friend who can become your agent. Really, it’s fancy set-dressing to usher you into the full roster of MyCareer activities.

Like past iterations, the level of depth that goes into building your player remains the strongest hook–this includes working your way into the starting lineup as an NBA player as you play through seasons, gaining endorsements, getting swagged out in new clothes and shoes, and playing in competitive pickup matches online.

Here, NBA 2K21 flexes one of its bigger changes with The Neighborhood, now centered around a Southern California beachfront. It’s a refreshing change of scenery and a much more pleasant backdrop for this hub world where pick-up 3-on-3s and half-court 2-on-2s take place, and various facilities and shops are propped up. The functional purpose remains the same, but if anything, the new layout makes it harder to get to shops and facilities since they’re placed on the streets opposite of the courts, rather than the outskirts surrounding the courts like in previous iterations.

The Rec is great for organized pick up games when matchmaking works its magic.The Rec is great for organized pick up games when matchmaking works its magic.
The Rec is great for organized pick up games when matchmaking works its magic.

Matching up for games in The Neighborhood remains the same–it can be a slog, waiting for players to queue up and the game to cycle through all the pre- and post-game animations. I find the The Rec’s 5-on-5 games much more satisfying with proper matchmaking (given that teams are balanced in skill and positions), and you can take this basketball ethos a step further in the organized Pro-Am league. But enjoyment from these competitive outlets relies on the players you get matched with, and also how much your player has progressed in order to keep up.

This is where virtual currency (VC) comes into play, yet again. It’s no surprise that microtransactions litter every corner of NBA 2K21–and for me, I’ve moved on from being outraged to feeling despondent. The game borders on a pay-to-win model, with progression tracks that are paced in ways to nudge you towards paying for VC rather than earning it. Improving your stats still relies on spending VC, and the costs increase exponentially the further you upgrade a certain ability. There are plenty of nice cosmetics to earn, and it’s admittedly a ton of fun dressing up your player in fresh kicks and the flyest Nike and Adidas apparel, but their steep VC costs suck the life out of the experience.

MyTeam Triple Threat matches get a futuristic Tron-like makeover.MyTeam Triple Threat matches get a futuristic Tron-like makeover.
MyTeam Triple Threat matches get a futuristic Tron-like makeover.

VC permeates the MyTeam mode again, too. This mode acts as a fantasy-esque build-your-own-team endeavor where you earn card packs to unlock players among a roster that spans multiple NBA eras. MyTeam can be captivating for long-time basketball fans such as myself who have Allen Iverson teamed up with Anthony Davis and can take this dream team roster into single-player or multiplayer matches. However, the loot-box nature of earning card packs–which can be obtained by slowly earning MT points through new avenues like challenges, seasonal events, and turning in useless cards, or by buying them with VC–makes the reliance on VC unsurprisingly egregious.

MyGM, which puts you in the shoes of a team’s General Manager, is a mode worth mentioning. You call the shots for everything from roster moves, trades, ticket prices, marketing, and personnel decisions in hopes of building a successful franchise. It’s a sports management simulation dream, but changes here are only skin deep. You’ll go through awkwardly written and animated dialogue scenarios to manage relationships within your organization–like how I chatted to RJ Barrett about how he used to play clarinet in order to boost his morale stats, or became the yes-man of head coach Tom Thibodeau to keep him happy. MyGM’s menus are also flooded in a way that makes it difficult to navigate and get a grip of how to spend your limited time and resources through the season. I’ve really enjoyed this mode in the past with its RPG-like sensibilities, but it’s one that needs a serious revamp.

“Yeah, clarinet.” – New York Knicks small forward RJ Barrett

I can run down every other mode of play or feature in NBA 2K21, but I’d really just be going through the laundry list of things we’ve seen in years past–although I do want to point to the continued inclusion of the WNBA. It’s a great feature for current fans and those who want to familiarize themselves with WNBA teams and players. Where this falls short is that the WNBA is relegated to just season play, and the inclusion of female player creation is only featured in the upcoming next-gen versions of the game.

NBA 2K21 shows that the lone basketball sim we have now has largely stagnated. It’s a full package, for sure, but one that demonstrates little-to-no motivation to meaningfully improve upon itself. That doesn’t take away from the strong foundation that makes NBA 2K a fun and rewarding time. However, when you go through the same grind and the same process with only superficial changes, you just get burnt out faster than years prior. If ball is still life, NBA 2K21 is as good a version as any to pick, although even the greatest ballers need a rest.

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Mafia: Definitive Edition Review – An Offer You Could Probably Refuse

Mafia: Definitive Edition may look like a contemporary video game, but it doesn’t exactly play like one. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering it’s a remake of the classic 2002 mobster epic, but it also doesn’t play like that game either. This is a remake that’s been built entirely from the ground up, with a stunning visual overhaul, expanded story, and greater sense of place. Yet its gameplay systems have only been modernised to a limited extent. As a result, Mafia: Definitive Edition feels archaic as it covers the well-trodden ground of its contemporaries, hindered by many of the same ailments that held back Mafia III, despite that game’s strong narrative.

The same is true here, as Mafia: Definitive Edition’s story is far and away the best part of this remake. You play as Tommy Angelo, a timid cab driver who gradually turns to a life of crime in the fictional city of Lost Heaven during the 1930s. Tommy’s an interesting and often conflicted protagonist, and a few new scenes have been added to the original story to flesh out the rest of the cast and inject some levity into Tommy’s tale. Characters like Don Salieri have been given more ambiguous motivations, while weapons supplier Vincenzo is now a point of comic relief instead of the self-serious tough guy he was before.

Dialogue has also been reworked and sharpened throughout, although the main story beats of the original game are still present. It’s clichéd at times, and sometimes relies on homages to classic gangster cinema, but it’s easy to become attached to its relatively small cast of characters, particularly now that each one has been enhanced with new voice work and facial capture from its accomplished cast. Aside from looking a whole lot better, these new performances allow for more subtlety in each scene, as facial expressions are able to express more than words often can.

There are some missteps, such as an undercooked villain and a predictable final act. Tommy’s relationship with his partner, Sarah, also produces some of the game’s best moments, but these scenes are few and far between, despite being expanded from the original game, and feel like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into their relationship. The opening hours are a slow burn, too–which only puts a firearm in your hands once–but this gradual build is used to introduce you to Mafia’s world of organized crime and establish an atmospheric sense of place and time.

Set during the Great Depression and Prohibition era of US history, Mafia: Definitive Edition features all of the period-appropriate elements you would expect. Large luxurious cars populate the city streets, while zeppelins soar above the skyline. The jazz-infused soundtrack includes songs from artists like Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt, and the radio broadcasts presidential speeches from Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as ominous news reports detailing the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. There’s also commentary on the socioeconomic factors that were impacting the United States at the time. Lost Heaven may be a fictional Chicago-esque city, but all of these aspects help to ground it in the realities of 1930s America, ensuring that you’re quickly immersed in the ambiance of its distinctive time period.

The game world itself also contributes to this sense of place. While Mafia: Definitive Edition may look like an open-world game at first glance, it’s actually exceedingly linear. You’re sometimes free to explore the city when travelling between mission objectives, and there is a seperate Free Ride mode available on the main menu, but there’s no reason to. The entire game takes place across 20 levels, during which you’ll drive when it tells you to drive, shoot when it tells you to shoot, and sneak when it tells you to sneak. This linearity certainly isn’t a bad thing, especially when it comes to worldbuilding, allowing developer Hangar 13 to curate certain scenes. When walking Sarah home at night, for example, you’ll see people sitting around a table on a nearby roof, food vendors peddling their wares, and groups of rowdy gentlemen arguing with each other or trying to score dates. These moments make the world feel genuine as the city’s denizens try to get on with life amidst the hardships of The Great Depression.

Visually, Lost Heaven can look a tad flat during the day, mainly because the predominant colour palette contains various shades of grey and brown. Maybe this is a reflection of the period’s economic collapse, but it makes for a dreary city to inhabit. Fortunately, Lost Heaven comes alive once the sun sets and the roads are lit by headlights and the faint dim of street lamps. Puddles in the middle of the road reflect the neon glow of signs adorning the sides of gentleman’s clubs and sketchy hotels, and billboards for Swift Cola are illuminated in the darkness.

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You’ll see most of the city from behind the wheel of a car, whether you’re hurtling around a corner trying to keep pace with a couple of hoodlums who are making a break for it, or slowly passing the police to avoid raising suspicion. There are myriad vehicles to drive and they’re all fun to cruise around in, even if the vast majority struggle to build up much speed. There’s also a palpable sense of weight to these bulky cars that’s keenly felt when throwing one around a narrow bend.

Mission design is varied, too, even if each one revolves around some combination of driving, combat, and stealth. You’ll go from competing in an open-wheel race in order to win a tumultuous bet for your Don to sneaking into a politician’s house to crack open his safe and steal some incriminating documents, before attempting an assassination at an opulent steam boat party. Driving regularly revolves around travelling from point A to point B, but there are some getaways and chase sequences to spice things up, and even a lamentable–and mercifully short–tailing mission. Combat, meanwhile, takes place almost exclusively behind pieces of cover, while rudimentary stealth missions are aided by simple enemy patrol patterns that guide you through each encounter without you really having to think about it.

Combat in Mafia: Definitive Edition lacks any sort of exciting dynamism. Enemy AI represents an extravagant game of whack-a-mole as you wait for each mobster to pop out from behind cover before filling their face full of lead, and player movement is so stilted that there’s no real incentive to shift around the battlefield, aside from the rare occasions when an enemy throws a Molotov or grenade in your direction. There is a new melee combat system, but the animations are stiff and each fight essentially boils down to countering a single attack and then mashing the strike button until you can activate a cinematic final flourish.

Mafia: Definitive Edition captured on PC
Mafia: Definitive Edition captured on PC

When it comes to fighting back with firearms, the grunts you’re mowing down aren’t bullet sponges per se, but they do take a few shots to dispatch outside of accurate headshots. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the dearth of feedback in their reactions means shooting them isn’t as satisfying as it could have otherwise been. It’s difficult to gauge the power of a shotgun blast when an enemy can shrug one off as though it were a minor annoyance, rendering each firefight stunted from the get-go. When you factor in the lack of enemy types, any type of character or weapon progression, and a limited arsenal, the combat is more dull than it is outright bad, and it simply pales in comparison to contemporary third-person action games, more closely resembling Mafia II, which was released 10 years ago.

There’s no denying that Mafia: Definitive Edition is a stunning remake when you consider everything that was done to re-introduce the 18-year-old game to a new audience. The changes made to the story, both on the page–as it fleshes out more of the cast–and in the performance booth, enhance what was already a captivating story, while the revamped visuals breathe new life into the city of Lost Heaven. Unfortunately, the rest of the game falters when you’re the one in control. The archaic and repetitive combat hasn’t evolved since Mafia II was released in 2010, and the years since have dated it even more. Mafia: Definitive Edition might be an improvement on the original game, but its modernisation stops short of the mark, resulting in an uneven game that squanders its enticing potential.

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