Category Archives: Review

Hail Mario 2: Electrodrome Boogaloo

In 2014, I wrote Hail Mario, a post about Nintendo’s aggressive strategy to bolster Wii U sales with the release of Mario Kart 8:

Nintendo gambled for positive reviews two weeks before launch, is now chalking up at least $40 in games to every US and Canadian Mario Kart owning household, and prays that their Trojan horse will be the spark to move units. Since release, the game has received stunning accolades, Club Nintendo has been brought down by what can only be assumed as immense traffic for free games, and at least one Wii U newcomer is being tugged at by curiosity.

When people think of video games, a large majority picture a mustachioed plumber in a red hat, but Master Chief and the Minecraft universe are only 3 points down. There are still many plays to be made but a well-timed, well-calculated marketing play this big could be enough to save the game. Mario Kart 8 may give Nintendo the lead they need to send a message to the HD Twins: Nintendo’s race is not over.

The post was picked up on Daring Fireball and is far and away the most popular Zero Counts post. (Thanks, Mr. Gruber!)

Mario Kart 8‘s early review embargo showed confidence in the game and got media outlets openly singing the game’s praises well ahead of release. In addition to building hype, Mario Kart 8 came bundled with a free download for one of four AAA games.

For the Switch, Nintendo has released Mario Kart 8 Deluxe — a slightly enhanced version with a revived and much beloved battle mode and all cups, courses, characters, and DLC unlocked. To add, what I had already considered the best Mario Kart entry to date, can now be taken on the go and played in a myriad of situations — TV or portable; solo, local split screen, or online; out of the box 2-player with Joy-Cons, 8 paired Switches, or 12 player wired LAN. (Mic has a great breakdown.)

Until this point, the Switch has been a Zelda machine; a single player experience. There were a handful of multiplayer games, but nothing close to a must-have or system seller. With Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has released the true test of the Switch’s promise — console-level gaming with anyone anywhere. How would new Switch players react? Would previous Wii U owners (and likely Mario Kart 8 owners) care? How does portable multiplayer hold up?

On Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s release day, I brought my Switch to work. It was the perfect venue to test the Switch’s out-of-the-box local multi-player experience. In fact, it was the first time I’d attempted any multi-player on the device in any of its various forms. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the office with a Switch. Gasps filled the room when I removed the Joy-Con from the display. I handed one over to a colleague, showed him around the tiny controller, and away we went.

While the 6.2-inch display is fantastic for a single player experience, split-screen is a bit uncomfortable, but not impossible. The fun had over bouts of office Mario Kart eclipsed the discomfort, but it was never completely put it out of our minds. Likewise, a few gripes and cramps were had from the ergonomics when using a single Joy-Con as a primary controller. The situation is tight, but for an experience like Mario Kart 8, the pain seemed to be worth the pleasure.

At home, as my wife and I settled into bed, we decided to have a go at one race. I tried to place the Switch on the bed between us — an impossible feat due to the unforgiving kickstand. So, a book was used as the foundation. We peeled away the Joy-Con and we’re off to the races. Together we squinted at the tiny screen. I proved to be too uncomfortable for extended periods of play, but we agreed that it would serve well on flights.

The main annoyance came from the placement of the L and R buttons. For her, they felt too close together. To be fair, fitting such a functional controller in the palm a hand is a feat. In fact, there were multiple instances throughout the day when players were shocked to find that the Joy-Con rumbled too.

Breaking out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch is all fun and good, but there’s not much for players of the original Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart has always been about the party atmosphere, and this version is the ultimate. And I can see myself jumping into a quick pick up game here and there, but otherwise, I’ve been there done that. There’s nothing to unlock. No new cups, courses, or characters. The portability of the Switch paired with Mario Kart plugs a some gaming holes some may never been the wiser, but nothing more than a quick casual experience romp.

I wish I could speak from the newbie to Mario Kart 8 experience. For that, see Jeremy Parish’s Retronauts review of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s a fantastic game, but even for newcomers, what does Mario Kart feel like without triumphing for new cups or characters? Does the high polish of Mario Kart 8 hold its luster without striving for something other than victory? Does the out-of-the-box portable multiplayer feel as novel when you haven’t played MK8 on a TV for the past few years?

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe shows off all the Switch has to offer, but other than pure competition, there’s no hook. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a must-have for party moments and quick pick up game, but not a system seller. At least not at $60.

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Switch On, Switched Off

I have felt an incredible sense of satisfaction in owning a Nintendo Switch. It sounds absolutely insane and gross, but owning the Switch has made me feel better. I feel less stressed and more focused at work. I feel less anxious as a whole. My mood has lightened. My spirits have been lifted. And unlike Gollum’s incessant need to touch and obsess over the Ring of Power, my joy and calm come purely from ownership. In the twisted space of consumerism, something strange is at play.

Federico Viticci, Remaster podcast:

This is the console that I’ve been waiting my entire life for. That’s based on the idea—and really the dream that I’ve been having since I was a kid and I got my first Super Nintendo—that I want to have the same games everywhere on one console that I take with me all the time, and that I can choose whether I want to play as a portable console or on the TV.

It’s been over 25 years since I’ve been playing Nintendo games and we’ve been through a lot of changes in the video game industry. Other companies have tried to do this sort of dual-screen, single console before. When you think about the PS Vita, when you think about the Wii U or the Nintendo DS, a lot of the ideas have been fragmented over the years in the industry. The Switch feels like the unification of 30 years of work from Nintendo. It’s the distillation of decades of work in portable consoles, in home consoles, and now in just one console.

I think the strangeness I’m sensing has a lot to do with what Federico outlines. The Switch is the amalgamation of decades of hardware design, innovation, and childhood fantasies.

Born in 1985, my first memory is of Mega Man 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. My babysitter owned one. How I yearned for that console. Christmas of 1989, I opened a Nintendo Game Boy. Not quite an NES, with it’s 2-bit color palette on green green display, but boy did my imagination soar. Surely, the tech would evolve and those 8-bit color experiences could live in my hands. The dream of taking the vast digital worlds I played on a TV with me on the go was sparked.

In 1995—the year the original 32-bit Sony PlayStation was released in North America—I was gifted a Sega Genesis Nomad. The handheld Nomad accepted standard Sega Genesis cartridges, enabling full 16-bit gaming on the go, albeit with a massive 6 AA battery pack that lasted 2-3 hours. While it was a console generation cycle off, we were getting closer.

In 2005, the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP) display and graphic capabilities re-inspired the dream. On it’s heels in 2006 was the promise of remote play from PS3 to PSP, later mandatory of PS4 games to the PlayStation Vita. In 2012, remote play was a core gimmick of the now infamous Wii U. Also in 2012 came Sony’s cross-buy service launched, allowing for a single purchase (of compatible games) to work on Vita and PS3/PS4. In 2015, the PlayStation Now’s cloud-based service would seemingly allow Sony devices, Vita and PS4 included, to access a library of online games from PlayStations 1 through 4. PlayStation Now has discontinued support for all devices save PS4 and Windows PC, including the Vita.

Now, the dual set-top/handheld console is a dream realized with the Nintendo Switch. And the versatility of it’s Joy-Con controllers takes it one step further, opening the console to instant local multiplayer. The Switch is a simple and obvious design that delivers and, for some sick reason, fills a hole in my life I never thought existed.

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‘Metacritic’ Still Matters, But For How Long?

Chris Baker, Glixel:

The hue and cry around that score is the best evidence that Metacritic deeply matters to many people. And not just fans – the bonus payments that game makers receive from their publishing companies is often tied to the Metascore and those same publishers spend a great deal of time and effort trying to predict the number as it could affect everything from retail orders to returns.

But the games business, and games themselves, are changing. In many ways, a snapshot of what the critical consensus is at the time of launch does not reflect the ultimate nature of a game. Is Metacritic still relevant in this new climate?

A great insight to the inner workings of Metacritic. Must read.

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Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year

I’m proud to say that I played three of the 10 games chosen as Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year, my reviews of which you can find below:

I also played Uncharted 4, which I thought to have a profoundly moving story and absolutely stunning visuals. My review, which somehow finds room to discuss Mega Man 7 and 2016’s atrocious Warcraft film, can be found here.

Also of note, Pokemon Go took the world by storm, something unprecedented in video games since the Wii. It may have seemed ambitious to deem it Game of the Year in July, but I’ll argue that due to its cultural impact, I wasn’t wrong.

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Inside: A Review via ‘Death by Video Game’

Simon Parkin, Death by Video Game:

Games achieve chronoslip because they replace the real world with a new one that moves to its own laws of physics and time. This reality engages us totally, and we synchronise with its tempo.

Video games, from the simplest card game to the most vividly rendered fantasy world, consume our attention. When we become lost in a book, we enter a state where the fabricated world and its characters seem to real and pressing that we lose all sense of time. Small wonder it’s so easy to lose oneself in a good game, where one becomes not only an eavesdropper or onlooker on a world, but also an active participant in its action and drama. Video games go further than other fiction: they revolve around us and react to our every choice and input. Just as a piano needs a pianist or a violin needs a violinist, video games are lifeless without us. They need a player in a way that a film does not need a view to function.

IMG_0657Simon Parkin’s book, Death by Video Game, categorizes 12 different facets of video games that, for better or worse, make the medium addicting. Reading it, I felt vindicated. I wasn’t alone in my reasons for play, and was enlightened about the reasons others gravitate toward the activity.

As an entertainment medium, video games offer escape, control, and story. As a technology, they push the bounds of simulated physics, animation, textures, and lighting. As a social platform, they foster community via global communication and participation — each of these facets evolving rapidly year over year. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from playing limited, albeit revolutionary, 8-bit single-player side-scrolling jaunts to open world massively multiplayer online role-playing games to photorealistic action-adventure juggernauts.

After finishing the read — a difficult one to put down, mind you — came a steadfast itch to pick up a controller. No Man’s Sky, an exploration game with over 18 quintillion procedurally-generated explorable planets, which is briefly touched on in the book, had just been released. And Inside, Playdead‘s successor to their melancholy indie hit Limbo, was gathering incredibly high marks.

In the debate of open-ended vs short story, I will always choose short story. Therefore, Inside.

inside

Players are thrust into a dark and wooded area as a boy being hunted by mysterious men in trucks; dogs seek you as their prey. Peak X-Files. Once you have escaped the wood, you happen upon a farm and cornfield. Deceased wildlife pepper the dreary, fog-laden landscape. And what’s that worm-like thing sticking out of that pig?

You are eventually lead into the factory cum rabbit hole. The dark and cryptic mysteries you’ve experienced within the 10 minute introduction pale in comparison to what is “inside.”

More than their incredible art style, subtle and gradual storytelling with layers of mysteries, answers, and more questions, and impeccable taste for atmosphere, developer Play Dead’s fantastic switch-a-roo two-thirds into the game sticks with the player. A shock and horror convention is elegantly flipped on it’s head leaving you, the player, scrambling to rework your preconceived notions about the story and characters. It’s challenging, and in hindsight, speaks to the reaction and thought process of being wrong that so many feel today. Can we really be so sure about our truths? Are our beliefs simply sold to us by a manufactured narrative that elicits good as evil, god as grim, heaven as hell? How perceptive can we truly be? Is our mind a slave to the brain? Are we really in control?

It’s difficult to discuss Inside without giving too much away; therefore, I will leave you with an appropriate quote from what turned out to be an appropriately timed and, ultimately, serendipitous read, the aforementioned Death by Video Game:

Moreover, video games flatter us: their worlds exist for our benefits, and usually, revolve around us. A video game requires a player: without input, it is inert. Our world, by contrast, seems indifferent to us. The cogs around us, both natural and human-made, turn regardless of our interest or input. It is sometimes difficult to know whether we matter, whether anyone cares. When a company loses our details or forgets about us for some reason, we talk of being ‘lost in the system.’ This is how loneliness is seeded in the human heart: a sense that the world and all of its people are indifferent, oblivious.

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The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

God, you little devil.

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Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a primer for the state of science today. But at the heart of book lies a core belief and explanation for poetic naturalism. Just what is poetic naturalism? Here’s Carroll in an interview with WIRED’s Eric Niiler:

Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.

For a layman, Carroll breaks down today’s fundamentals of science to painstaking detail (outside of the use of equations) and builds them back up to something simpler that speak to the justification for poetic naturalism. He dives into physics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, biology, and many other fields. He tackles many questions that are asked from casual daydreamers and the depths of Sci-Fi alike. And it all comes wrapped in an idea that there lies something between atheism and theism.

Carroll strives to pit Science against Theism on an even playing field, or one that’s as level as possible; Modern science challenging the ever shrinking God of the gaps. But for all of Carroll’s scientific professing, he is careful never to discount just how vast the gaps remain. By sheer virtue of his lessons on Bayesian credences, he never shuts out theism entirely, always leaving the door unlocked and possibly cracked open.

We’ll see that the existence of life provides, at best, a small boost to the probability that theism is true—while related features of the universe provide an extremely large boost for naturalism.

Chapters and sections read like deep troughs with a steep decline. As soon as the reader is introduced to a concept, Carroll has them barreling down a chasm at breakneck speed, only to bring them up for air in the last few paragraphs. I understood hardly a lick of the depths, but that’s okay. The meat lies in the simplified 30-percent of the pages. I took the rest as hard scientific justification, in the event the reader has any doubts as where Carroll comes up with these notions.

After 433 pages, Core Theory and quantum mechanics and multiverses and up quarks and down quarks are still a mystery to me. But what I did learn — what I can say without a shadow of a doubt — is with as much as we’ve discovered of the Universe, we still know very little. Maybe that will always be the case. Maybe there will always exist the God of the gaps with those gaps shrinking exponentially, but never quite stamped out.

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

What does it take to be moved— deeply and profoundly moved? Stories of grandeur can impress ideas of excellence and glory. Stories of adventure can make us yearn for thill and mystery. Stories of family can reflect the importance of closeness and bonding.

Real life events certainly have the power to move. Novels tackled this ages ago. Music has transformed the world around us for eons. Film figured it out approximately 100 years ago. And within the past 20 years, video games have begun tugging at heartstrings, imbuing wonder, and leaving players in awe.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the latest and possibly last chapter of suave treasure-hunting protagonist Nathan Drake’s adventures, is certainly not the first video game to entertain the idea that some titles in the medium are closer to film than they are to chess. There have been countless titles that have made the case that the narrative in today’s video games outshines most summer blockbusters— BioShock (2007), Final Fantasy VII (1997), The Last of Us (2013), and Mass Effect (2007-2012) to name a few. As early as 1995, in an abrupt turn of events, players watched the heroic and noble Mega Man turn against Asimov’s first law during the finale of Mega Man 7, holding his Mega Buster up to a surrendering Dr. Wily, exclaiming, “I am more than a robot!! Die Wily!!” While not the most striking piece of dialog, it was a profound moment for a video game at the time.

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The Uncharted franchise’s namesake is in big action during gameplay. Gigantic and tightly choreographed sequences unfold while the player is still in control. To this day, it’s something that feels inconceivable to players who grew up with Super Mario Bros. Over the course of four games within the franchise, developer Naughty Dog doubled-down on the technically awe-inspiring moments with each title; be it scaling train cars that are dangling off the side of a mountain (Uncharted 2) or fist-fighting in a battered and rapidly descending cargo plane (Uncharted 3). Story beats and character development didn’t quite take a backseat, but they were never quite at the forefront of the games. By the third entry, Naughty Dog pushed the predefined story boundaries, but was never able to outshine the action.

After Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog stepped away from the franchise, putting it’s effort into a brand new story. The Last of Us delivered what is arguably the most affecting story from a AAA title yet. A survival story of two individuals, the grizzled Joel, who’s young daughter was killed during confused military frenzy amongst a virus-outbreak, and Ellie, a young girl with the only known immunity to the virus. Over the course of the game, the two strangers argue, protect, bond, and fight together, building a relationship unseen in video games prior.

The lessons learned by Naughty Dog and the development of The Last of Us are clear as day in Uncharted 4. Never has the Uncharted franchise felt so human and connecting. While Uncharted 3 swung for the fences, it never quite delivered. But with every turn of a corner, every new setting, every chapter, Uncharted 4’s story beats like a racing heart. Be it the relationship between Nathan and his brother Sam, Nathan and his wife Elena, Sam and veteran treasure hunter and father-figure Sully, or even the tales of Captain Avery and the lost pirate city Libertalia being explored through the game. Every one of these stories delivers and ultimately delivers a whole greater than its parts.

Nathan’s struggle between leaving a life of adventure and exploration for a life of normalcy and marriage is remarkably easy to connect with. The unknown and freedom of one’s past challenged by stability and relationships is something most struggle with. To add, the power of reigniting a relationship with a plundering brother once thought dead adds a significant amount of weight to Nathan’s difficult decisions and ultimately mistakes. Uncharted 4 offers a surprisingly complicated web of relationships that keep the player hungry to find out what happens next. And unlike most lengthy video games, there is a beautiful simplicity to the story that is easy to come back to weeks after setting the controller down.

But what of a video game’s story if the atmosphere isn’t correct. Surely the benefit of experience a story in the medium of a video game must include visuals and music and mechanics. Suffice to say the visuals are outstanding, possibly the best a console has produced to date.

Buying into the world of Uncharted 4 takes little effort at all. Its outstanding graphical fidelity, animation, and motion-capture performance deliver convincing characters and settings. Nathan Drake is as real as any Hollywood hero. And shocking more convincing as a fully CG character than the real actors strewn about the Warcraft movie.

warcraft-movie-lothar-orcs

Not to digress into a critique of the Warcraft film, but it’s worth mentioning that Uncharted 4‘s visuals and performance are a great example of the power of strong narrative without the presence of flesh-and-bone. To put it succinctly, the game is captivating.

(While we’re on the topic and to give credit where credit is due, the photorealistic Orcs backed by stellar performances. Like Avatar before it, there are moments that are dumbfounding when one realizes what is unfolding onscreen is fake. Just look at Orgrim!)

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It’s not to say that the life given to Nathan Drake by the folks at Naughty Dogs and the performance from Nolan North weren’t incredible in past entries, but there is something truly magically about how Nathan emotes and interacts in Uncharted 4 that makes him believable.

Like the story, the mechanics and fluidity of the game have slowly evolved with each iteration. While the first Uncharted title felt much like a demo of things to come, the level of polish given to the player’s controls during extraordinarily big moments feels just as amazing as it did in Uncharted 2. That said, the overuse of sliding down gravelly paths and using Nate’s new grappling hook felted a bit tired halfway through the game. The repetition of these interactions has a tendency to make story feel slower than it should at time and almost like the player hasn’t progressed much. Slow motion via repetition. There are even moments when Nathan pokes fun at having to slide or grapple again and again.

But if the mechanics are the worst part, and they certainly are not even mildly bad, what of the music? The three previous entries found composer Greg Edmonson at the helm, defining Uncharted‘s iconic and booming theme. Edmonson’s work gave a lift to the sense of adventure and thrill. But like the story, the time Naughty Dog took away from the franchise seemed to open the possibility for new talent and new perspectives. And for a story so strong and rife with conflict, the timbre had to change.

In comes Henry Jackman, composer most recognized by his work on Captain Americas The Winter Soldier and Civil War, X-Men: First Class, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. The breadth of Jackman’s work shines in Uncharted 4, adding dark and somber themes to an otherwise epic adventure, namely the heartbreaking “A Normal Life” theme that is sprinkled throughout interactions between Nathan and Elena, displayed most effectively during Chapter 17: For Better or Worse. It’s enough to bring you to your knees.

There isn’t enough that can be said about the impact of the Uncharted franchise. It reimagined what it means to interactive with a digital experience. It’s captivating performances and writing gave life to characters typically seen as avatars. The franchise is a masterclass in the possibilities and power of video games. Most of all, it showed the importance of not rest on your laurels and how care and patience can evolve greatness into something truly special. If this really is the end of the Uncharted franchise, I’m sad to see it go. But better to burn out than to fade away. And what better to burn out on a note that genuinely moves technology, narrative, and players.

Thanks for one hell of a ride, Nate and the Naughty Dog team.

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The Witness: A (Cheater’s) Review

IMG_1272It started by “stumbling” across discussions about the game, convincing myself that I was listening to the Idle Thumbs podcast because I felt that it warrants my attention (true); not because The Witness was mentioned during a particular episode (false). Or because I hadn’t listened to IGN’s Game Scoop in months, missing a show that hooked me on video game related podcasts (true); not because The Witness was mentioned in a particular episode‘s show notes (false).

Like many growing up in the late ’80s, early ’90s, I was a fan of Myst. The game took the adult world by storm and after my father and step-father both began discussing its puzzles with me, I felt I had something to offer these grown humans. I spent large swaths of time on a mysterious island, solving puzzles and eventually pouring over a strategy guide; a “book” I later convinced my 2nd grade teacher would serve well for a book report.

And boy, do I love The Witness. To a point.

You know, the thing about Braid: I loved it, I loved the atmosphere, I loved the visions, the softness of it. It kind of felt like a piece of silk you could run your hands through. It was a lovely, lovely game. But here’s the thing that didn’t work for me: It got so tough that my need and want to experience more of its world was absolutely challenged by my feeling that I wasn’t clever enough. I kept going back to find out more about the world, feeling more and more stupid. After a while, I thought, This game is dumb. Now I think I was wrong, by the way.

– Peter Molyneux, in an interview with Tom Bissell, Extra Lives

I’m sure I underestimate myself by thinking I would have never completed the game without a guide. The game thrives on the notion of beating the player down only to let them realize they could find the solution all along. There were plenty of times when I pondered giving up, only to persevere and surprise myself the following day. But after 215 puzzles and frustrating “Tetris” logic, enough was enough.

After weeks of setting the game aside for Firewatch, Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives”, and Veep, the allure and curiosity of The Witness wore off. I was no longer itching to out-do myself. I just needed to know what the The Witness would amount to. Was the experience worth it?

Many reviewers point to discovery and breakthrough as the reward. That once the player is spoiled with hints, the spell is broken. While those moments of besting oneself are certainly empowering, I found cheating my way through the second-half to be enjoyable as well.

I was able to appreciate the full genius behind the game. Had I spent 20-100 hours attempting to slog through the insanely brilliant puzzles for weeks, months or years, there was still no certainty I’d finish the game. By cheating my way through The Witness, I was able to see and appreciate all of the ludacris and awe-inspiring puzzles throughout.

I don’t want to invest in a game that I’m going to put 200 hours in because I’m never going to put 200 or 100 or 50 or 20 hours into a game. I’m just not going to do it. But something like this, which is substantial to me, it’s longer than a movie but it doesn’t become a lifestyle either.

– Jason Snell on Firewatch, The Incomparable podcast, episode 290

It’s very hard for me to spend 20 hours let alone 200 on a single game, as clearly evidenced by my quick drop off from games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure, I’m attempting to play through the entire Final Fantasy series, but it’s a repetitive mobile effort that I dip into for 20 minutes at a time. (You’re not missing much of a story in the first Final Fantasy to warrant consecutive hours of play.)

Lastly, experiencing The Witness‘s devilish penultimate puzzle — two randomly generated, timed mazes of mixed logic intended to thwart cheaters — was a welcome surprise. As I closed in on the end of the walkthough, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a puzzle that could not be documented or shared. I was forced to figure this one out on my own. It certainly wasn’t the most difficult puzzle in the game, but it’s a puzzle that could only be appreciated (and likely solved) by someone who had learned enough to stretch their rusty two-week-old Witness muscles.

Oh, what a frustrating ordeal the penultimate puzzle must be for those who had decided to cheat their way though the entirety of the game; stopped short of victory at the 1-yard line. It would have been easy to overlook adding this trick, but is a perfect fit for a game that prides itself on using assumption to shoot-down the player’s knowledge. (Hats off, Team Thekla!)

The penultimate puzzle alone leads me to believe that Jonathan Blow and his team wanted a community to blossom, sharing hints, tips, and solutions across the global community. Why else would there be only one randomly generated puzzle? It suddenly made me feel less guilty for succumbing to a walkthrough.

Do I feel cheating spoiled the game for me? Absolutely not. That said, I strongly advise pushing oneself to the brink of insanity, solve the puzzle that brought you there, then do it a few more times. Understand the language of the puzzles. Only then will it be rewarding to experience the building of The Mountain, the final tricks, the puzzles within puzzles, and the tightly woven secret of the island. Only then will the player truly understand the frustrating brilliance of The Witness‘s final puzzle.

Blow and the Thekla team put together an experience that will be talked about for years to come. And they took a very high risk placing the final puzzle where they had. The spiraling essence of zooming out to see the whole connected thought is a lovely thing. So much so that the idea that The Witness has players seeing puzzles in the real-world is completely legitimized.

Sure, all of this could have been said from a player who finished the game without cheating, and likely with greater appreciation and satisfaction. But I know I ended up a whole lot less frustrated yet still deeply satisfied.

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Firewatch: A Review

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It goes without saying Firewatch is an aesthetic marvel. Just look look at the gameplay screenshot above. Better yet, head to firewatchgame.com and get your fill. But it’s what lies within the exterior beauty that Firewatch shines.

Without taking the Up-like blow out of the first act, the game finds protagonist Henry having taken a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. Henry communicates with Delilah, a veteran lookout in another watchtower, via radio through choice-driven narrative queues (à la The Walking Dead, Choose Your Own Adventure). Shortly after the opening, the two find themselves tangled up in a self-provoked mystery.

Throughout my play-through, I became so concerned for Henry’s safety that my own certainty about the wilderness and its role as a haven for the unknown and unexplainable began to fulfill itself. However, it’s at the mercy of a few cheap tricks that this unsettlement is allowed to creep in. One early trick creates the suspicion that something bigger is going on and you’re the only one not in on the secret. Another instills the fear of looking down or turning a corner; two actions that become impossible to avoid and occur at breakneck frequency throughout the entirety of the game. Campo Santo makes it impossible not to feel anxious.

The answer to the game’s mystery will be unsatisfying, but only because this is the wrong puzzle. I’d argue the real answer is to why the game’s mystery is unsatisfying. Therein lies the revelation. Ultimately, Firewatch shows that one’s own ego and neurosis can overshadow important details; that our narcissism and persistence to seek the puppet-masters blur what is right in front of us. Without doubt, an interesting mystery unfolds for Henry and Delilah; but it’s an exposé in egoism that lies at the heart of Firewatch.

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Demo Mode: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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In the shadow of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to say Square Enix’s 2013 Tomb Raider reboot set a bar, but it certainly showed that Square Enix has the chops to add a fair contender to the photorealistic action-adventure genre. To say it another way, if it weren’t for the lack of wit, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Nathan Drake made a cameo. That is a compliment.

Uncharted similarities aside, I imagine Tomb Raider was a welcome reboot of the franchise. Missing a chance with the original Tomb Raider series, 2013’s Tomb Raider was my first-ever jaunt with Lara Croft, and it certainly had me yearning for adventures with her. The mechanics felt nice. There were enough collectibles to make its linear nature feel a bit more open. And it was certainly gorgeous.

However, having never played the original Tomb Raider series from the late-90s, I was unfamiliar with the concept of raiding tombs. Thinking back on my play-through, the reboot had very little to do with it’s namesake. Many Tomb Raider reviews called out the lack of the core aspect of the franchise. In any case, my enjoyment with the reboot left me unquestioning of the game’s title.

Square Enix’s sequel/prequel (the trial doesn’t paint a fair picture of the timeline) Rise of the Tomb Raider appears to have a greater focus on tomb raiding. Various reviews have highlighted that this new focus paired with an open-world nature make for a compelling follow-up and something that is varied enough from the first.

During the Rise of the Tomb Raider trial, I did not have an opportunity to experience either of these aspects. It opens with the player scaling an icy and crumbing mountainside — an Uncharted 2 opening train-scene equivalent — to a lost city and a tomb within. The visuals are stunning and, like the first, the mechanics feel polished. (This coming off of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate which feel clunky to a franchise novice. A story for another post.) After entering the ruins of the lost city, the player is treated with a fairly simple puzzle of rising water and platforming. Unchallenging, but it gives the impression that this type of puzzling will be core to the remainder of the game.

The hour-long trial is ripe with cinematics: the opening, a few during the mountain climb, a flashback highlighting Lara’s father, and the ending. I’d hope that the remainder of the game strays away from the heavy-handed cinematics and quicktime events, opting to focus more on puzzling within tombs. The trial ends in a rushed cinematic with an unnamed baddie, a “shootout” with two henchmen, and a race out of the tomb before it comes crashing down.

Without relying too heavily on reviews elsewhere, the trial of Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like more of the same, albeit a bit prettier than the first title in the franchise.

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