LTTP: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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I should have played Horizon: Zero Dawn before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I know they have very little in common outside of the fact that they’re both giant open world games but Nintendo made some transcendent additions that I sorely miss. I can scale many mountains in Horizon by hopping around like a red haired mountain goat but getting down from said heights was laborious. I missed the ability to glide. It’s not fair to expect the ability to scale everything with ease but I found it frustrating having to run around a mountain to seek out this “golden path” of handholds. Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn felt limiting for an open world game.

I wish I could look at Guerilla Games’ contribution to the open world genre in a vacuum but I cannot. The game’s map evoked Ubisoft open world games with its flood of icons. They put their own spin on certain elements like towers (they walk in the far flung future) but it’s so structurally similar that I cannot help but feel like Guerillla Games’ and Sony essentially made a first party Ubisoft game. It’s reductive but that’s how I feel about it.

The moment to moment action involved a fair bit of hunting with a bow. There were slingshots with explosives and the occasional chain gun here and there but the bulk of the action stemmed from the use of the bow. It was easy to wield with a generous amount of aim assist. A myriad of quests gave Alloy, the red haired protagonist, numerous opportunities to kill mechanical animals and humans. Going toe-to-toe with the mechanical beasts was engaging but the same cannot be said with the humans. Fighting them was a chore. Some were weirdly tough for humans wearing nothing but cloth and animal pelts.

The sabretooth and T-rex sized machines were formidable foes due to their size, ferocity, and complexity. Their resilience in battle meant I had to be smarter and not necessarily stronger to win. This was achieved through exploiting elemental weaknesses, shooting off component parts, or using the terrain to keep the mechanical beasts at bay. I found the last tactic shockingly easy to abuse and wonder how open world games will curb tactics like this. I felt I was breaking the game.

The main story thread was the reason for me to keep going forward. I was fascinated by the past and the events that lead the world to ruin. I was fascinated by how FARO doomed the world and how Elizabet Sobeck devised a plan to save humanity. There were a number of eyebrow raising moments that made me question the plausibility of events but in the end, I found it to be intriguing enough to suspend disbelief.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games have its historic and “present” day stories. I was invested in both narrative halves in those games but I had virtually zero interest in the politics, characters, or problems that did not directly tie to uncovering the past. Carja, Shadow Carja, Sun Kings, and Nora nonsense didn’t register with me after the world opened up. I just couldn’t muster a care in the world for tribal politics when there were giant robots running amok.

The new God of War shared similar limitations with golden paths but they worked within those limitations and didn’t create the illusion of being able to scale everything with a giant open world. I felt every inch of God of War was worth exploring; it felt rewarding and not a waste of time. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s strengths laid with its combat and narrative ambitions. I think they would have been better off streamlining that world a bit to allow those strengths flourish.

Verdict:
It was okay

God of War PS4 Review

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God of War put Sony’s Santa Monica Studio on the map during the PlayStation 2 days. While their PlayStation 3 output wasn’t a barn burner like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us titles, they were still a force to be reckoned with. I loved God of War III but felt God of War: Ascension was superfluous at best. It’s been 5 years their last big title and was very curious how they were going to make their mark on the PlayStation 4.

When I first laid eyes on this reinvented God of War, I didn’t know what to make of it. On one hand, it looks like they threw out everything but Kratos, the name, and reinvented with modern sensibilities. On the other hand, they threw out all the memorable and distinctly amazing qualities of the old games as well – primarily the scale and gravitas. I was very curious how this game would turn out and I was going to find out on day one.

God of War was a long game. I don’t know my hour count but I played it on a regular basis for over a month. My total playtime was inflated due to my decision to play on Hard difficulty but despite that wrinkle, there’s a lot of game here. I’m sure a significant percentage of that game is spent traversing via row boat but since they weaved in fun little Norse mythology related stories during these moments, I still felt it was worthwhile content. Even though they built in the ability to interrupt and resume boat stories, I still took the time to just sit in my boat and listen to Mimir’s tales.

We’ve heard intentions for Kratos to move from his Greek stomping grounds for what seemed like ages now. The idea of Kratos moving into the Norse realms seemed absurd to me. How were they going to justify pitting this angry Spartan against Odin and his ilk? Apparently the answer was: Kratos just wanted to get away. Portraying this world where different mythologies occupied different regions of the world made a lot of sense — it’s how it is in the real world, why wouldn’t it be like that in God of War’s version of Earth?

I loved how Kratos was ashamed of his past life in Sparta. He slew numerous Gods, Titans, and mortals alike during his quest to take down Zeus. Moving to Midgaard and starting a new family was the last thing I expected Kratos to do but here we are. He has moved on from avenging Calliope to raising Atreus. Kratos was learning to become a father in function and not just in name. While we saw Kratos interact with Calliope in God of War: Chains of Olympus, the relationship was never explored like this.

I loved seeing Kratos and Atreus’ relationship develop. They weren’t complete strangers in the beginning of the tale, but Kratos did not know much about his son. He knew of the basics (like the audience), but we got to know Atreus and his relationship with his mother and Norse mythology throughout the course of the journey. Watching Atreus grow angry, petulant, brave, cocky, and confident was captivating. When a game manages to evoke frustration towards a boy whom I grew to trust and rely on, there’s nothing to say but: kudos.

God of War showed an aged Kratos but an evolving one as well. He didn’t become a great father by the time the credits rolled. However, his relationship with his son did improve, albeit at an accelerated pace. Atreus learned a lot about himself and his father throughout the course of their journey to scatter his late mother’s ashes. He handled it in a believable manner but I felt he processed it in an unconvincing timeline.

Kratos and I also learned a lot about Norse mythology via Atreus and our traveling companion, Mimir. I enjoyed Mimir’s presence and found the game increasingly more engaging after he “stepped” onto the stage. Brok and Sindri were very helpful and added levity to many of the game’s proceedings but they didn’t give the context and flavor that I needed. I wanted to know more about the Aesir, the Valkyries, the Giants, and the realms that Kratos and Atreus found themselves in. Mimir filled the role I wanted and then some.

Mimir was not only helpful narratively, he also served as the literal eyes behind Kratos’ back. The unwritten rule in many third person over the shoulder games like this is to not attack the player from the behind. God of War didn’t care for those conventions and routinely strikes at Kratos from his blind spot. On screen indicators, and shouts from Atreus and Mimir give me a sense of where dangers are coming from. In theory this should be enough but when I’m in the thick of carving undead with Kratos’ magical axes, a single warning sign may not be enough. This was especially true early on.

I’ve played my fair share of From Software’s Bloodborne, so I’ve been conditioned to expect a certain pace for melee combat. I struggled with the combat for the first three hours or so. I died a lot. Some of it had to do with the fact that I played on hard difficulty but a lot of it was the relatively foreign nature of the combat. But once I got the hang of it, began upgrading equipment, and unlocking new abilities, the game clicked. I still died but it wasn’t’ a struggle like early on. There was only one battle where I struggled mightily and it was optional.

God of War reshaped my expectations for long running and successful modern franchises. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End made strides to evolve their character narratively but it didn’t make a drastic in gameplay. We need more games like this; the Breath of the Wilds and Metroid: Primes of the world. I’m happy to see developers of these franchises toss out the playbook and re-evaluate everything when it feels right. I don’t expect next God of War title to reinvent the wheel again but they should feel welcomed to do so the next time the franchise hits a rut. The pay offs can be tremendous.

Verdict:
I love it

LTTP: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Campaign Review (PS4)

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I gave Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty titles a couple of chances after the studio’s implosion in 2010. The single player campaigns in Modern Warfare 3 and Ghosts failed to garner any lasting impression but Infinity Ward’s output continues to intrigue me. Although I initially passed on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare for its lacking multiplayer, the glowing impressions from its single player kept reborn Infinity Ward’s third game in the back of my mind. So a year and a deep discount later, I finally saw what the fuss was about. Infinite Warfare is one of the best Call of Duty campaigns – I might go as far as to say it’s Infinity Ward’s best work since Modern Warfare.

The tale told in Infinite Warfare was a tale as old as the USMC we know today – but now it’s told in space. It’s not going to surprise anyone to discover Martian born colonists are upset at Terrans. Faithful fans of the series should not be shocked to see playable protagonists and regular NPCs perish. The shock comes from how these Call of Duty studios build up to those moments and for the first time in a long time, I felt Infinite Warfare put in an effort to earn its fatal moments. They invested more time giving side characters screen time and roles throughout the game. I started to realize the crew around me were sticking around for more than a few missions which gave their inevitable demise some weight. I knew the good guys were going to win, I wasn’t surprised by Reyes’ sacrifice, but I wasn’t sure how it was all going to go down.

They put Mass Effect in my Call of Duty. I loved the ability to choose my next mission and explore the little bit of the ship available. I could progress from story mission to story mission but I wouldn’t be getting the added perks/upgrades from completing side missions. I also wouldn’t be taking down all the most wanted SDF “scum” laid out on the whiteboard in Reyes’ quarters.

The actual moment to moment game found in Infinite Warfare is well worn territory. I still find it entertaining in spurts and the gadgets and twists added in this release add enough of a wrinkle to differentiate itself from its brethren in the franchise. Pretenders have come and gone but nobody does bombastic campaigns like the Call of Duty franchise.

I did find this campaign a lot more terrifying than other games primarily because of the setting. Space is terrifying. Being sucked out into the darkness of space is unsettling enough but seeing countless others and Reyes himself struggle with retaining oxygen within their spacesuits was enough of a reminder that space is frighteningly dangerous. I found the moment when they decided to breach and clear the bridge of an SDF carrier to be especially cruel. I may have been playing as the “good guys” but these people are ruthless.

I really appreciated the time they took to transition between different facets of a mission. The take off and landing sequence bookending each dogfight was a grounding touch that I enjoyed despite the fact that it was easy. Details like this brought me into their universe and any game that spends time balancing ridiculous action with the mundane deserves praise in my books.

I also have to give a nod to their use of guest stars. While I didn’t find it as captivating as Spacey’s performance in Advanced Warfare, I did find Kit Harrington’s performance to be solid. I even thought the inclusion of Lewis Hamilton in a minor bit role cute. Colin McGregor slotted in his minor role surprisingly well. In fact, I think his was the most natural – perhaps it’s due to the fact that these games tend to feature a lot of roles for angry Caucasians.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare gave me a glimpse at a very plausible future for humans. Old stories and conflicts will undoubtedly repeat themselves once humans stretch out across our solar system and beyond. While I would like to imagine a Mass Effect or Star Trek styled future, the reality is that we’ll likely still be firing bullets at one another in vacuum of space. But unlike Infinite Warfare, I doubt reality will be anywhere as pretty as Infinity Ward envisioned though.

 

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

Yakuza 6 Review

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How does one top Yakuza 0? My favorite game of 2017 was easily the best entry in the series. So what can Sega do to top that game? How will they cap off the story of Kiryu Kazuma? 

Overhauling the engine sounded like a good idea on paper. Introducing a physics basic combat system should allow for fights to play out more dynamically. New graphical bells and whistles should result in a prettier Kamurocho as well. The end product wasn’t as rosy as I envisioned though. Coming from 60 FPS of Yakuza 0 to the 30 FPS of Yakuza 6 took a bit of time to adjust. What good were dynamic brawls if the controls were less responsive? The visuals received a huge upgrade resulting in a game that didn’t look like a high resolution PlayStation 3 game but it was tainted by horrible aliasing. I would gladly sacrifice all the modern niceties of the Dragon Engine for 60 FPS and a clean image. The lighting, materials, and textures were quite remarkable but the jagged edges crawling across the screen during conversations and cutscenes were very distracting. 

Image clarity issues aside, I found the move to eliminate any sort of loading within Kamurocho or Hiroshima was a long awaited technological advancement for the series. I always liked how dense Kamurocho was and not having to see a loading screen while entering/exiting buildings or combat transformed the little district into one seamless space for shenanigans. I’m particularly fond of the upset restauranteurs who refuse to do business with Kazuma after he smashes into through the windows during a brawl. 

The move to a more physics based brawling system gave way to gems like this but it also sucked out most (if not all) the combat’s challenge. The running dropkick can bulldoze over half-a-dozen enemies like they were clustered dominoes. Heat actions were noticeably less abundant and toned down which genuinely bummed me out coming from Yakuza 0’s wince inducing bangers. But perhaps it’s a fitting departure for an aging Kiryu Kazuma; maybe he’s feeling too old for this crap.

Much of what I loved from Yakuza 0 is present in Yakuza 6 but it’s now viewed through the eyes of a 48 year old grandfather. I didn’t play Yakuza 5 but I was just as surprised as everyone else when I discovered she was Haruto’s mother. Baby Haruto was at the center of attention in this organized crime story and because Kiryu Kazuma’s the loving grandfather, he gets sucked right back into the thick of it. It was a solid tale of fatherhood in various forms but it was also a ridiculous one — just like every other title in this series.

Yakuza games always imparted life lessons and advice laced with wackiness but I felt Yakuza 6’s side stories lacked the wackiness seen in Yakuza 0. Kazuma was older,wiser, and a tad subdued and I felt Yakuza 6’s side stories reflected that this go around.

The big side commitments asked Kazuma to spend his time managing a small time gang to drive out another gang filled with Japanese wrestlers, manage a local baseball team, or make friends at a local Hiroshima bar. I completed the gang management but only dabbled sparingly in the other two. I just wasn’t drawn to these activities like I was with the slot racers and other activities from Yakuza 0. I would have liked to spend more time making friends at the Hiroshima bar but I got around to it too late and the inertia of the main story thread pushed me to just wrap it all up.

I would also like to take a second and give Sega props for including games like Virtua Fighter 5 and Puyo Puyo. I finally found games that I wanted to play in the Sega arcades. Titles like Outrun, Space Harrier, and Fantasy Zone were interesting retro game artifacts but I never had much affinity to them. I am wondering if Sega will be releasing these inclusions as standalone releases on modern consoles. I know a PlayStation 4 release of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown would make some folks really happy.

If this indeed is Kazuma Kiryu’s final chapter in the Yakuza series, I think Sega did right by their man. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it was a solid effort considering the circumstances. I would have liked to have seen the technology handled better but I really cannot fault them for toning down the outlandish nature of the stories for an aging Kiryu Kazuma. Don’t misunderstand, there’s a sizeable chunk of crazy here — they just paled in comparison to Yakuza 0’s and is metered out by a lot more wisdom. It was always going to be tough to follow Yakuza 0 but I’m ultimately glad Sega dragged us all forward with the series. There’s nothing sadder than watching an aging star relying on past glories. 

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

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