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  • Gamespot News Feed: Jon Shafer's At The Gates Review - Fertile New Ground

    In his time at Firaxis as the lead designer on Civilization V, Jon Shafer showed he wasn't afraid to uproot a settled and successful series and venture forth in search of something better. With At The Gates, his first release under the one-man studio moniker Conifer Games and his first game proper since Civ V, you get the feeling Shafer challenged himself to pack up the whole 4X genre and find fertile new ground on which to start over again.

    Connections to the past remain--technologies are researched, resource nodes are exploited, wars are inevitably waged--but Shafer's pioneering vision here is of a genre that is narrower in scope and more concerned with how players respond to the figurative hand of cards they're dealt. At The Gates is a promising starting point that, with a few thoughtful additions, has the potential to develop into a thriving empire.

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    It all starts with a settlement. At first, you play as the Goths on a randomly generated map that represents 400 A.D. Europe. On each map is a number of rival clans, some of whom are always vastly more powerful than you are right from the start, as well as two factions of the fading, but still intimidatingly large, Roman Empire. Your aim is to grow your settlement into an empire and eventually win via one of two victory conditions: by conquering the Romans by military force or by training your own Roman Legion to assume control, i.e. an economic victory. Cleverly, factions other than the Goths are unlocked to play once you’ve met and formed an alliance with them in a previous game.

    As the early turns tick by, clans of people will join the settlement and you can put them to work extracting resources from the surrounding tiles. Each clan can be trained in a profession drawn from one of six disciplines, all of which are unlocked by generating knowledge to progress through the tech tree. Early decisions are influenced by the mysteries of the randomly-generated map algorithm. If it has spawned you in an area with a lot of mineral deposits you will probably want to focus your efforts on metalworking professions, a couple of diggers to extract the iron, and, say, a dredger to multiply their production.

    But how should you employ your fourth and final clan? While the map informs your strategy in certain directions, the whims of your population will often be tugging you in the complete opposite direction. Clans are randomly rolled a handful of traits when they arrive at your settlement's door. Some traits are unambiguously beneficial, like a +1 bonus to their movement points or with a few levels already earned in the crafting discipline, while others are downright bad, like a tendency to commit crimes; others yet are merely circumstantial, like preferring an active profession like explorer over a settled one like cheese-maker.

    These elements quickly start to create compelling conundrums. What do you do when, on the one hand, the mineral-rich starting area of the map might be telling you to invest in mining, but on the other hand the clans you're being sent bear all the characteristics of some really effective soldiers? Or cheese-makers? Clans can, of course, be retrained as the need for new or more advanced professions arises, but it cannot be done instantly and any experience they had accumulated in their previous profession is lost. If you've only got a village of farmers and bards when the bandits turn up, you're quickly going to regret not training at least one of them to wield a spear. Balancing the demands of the map with the skills of your clans is the core strategic concern of the entire game. Along the way--and this is where At The Gates really starts to shine--there are many ways that relationship between the map and your people can change.

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    For one, you're not committed to your starting position on the map. In fact, at any moment you can pack up your settlement, move to a new location, and resettle. For the first 50-odd turns you'll be living something of a nomadic existence, exploring the lands, foraging for food, hunting and trapping animals, and collecting wood before moving on, crossing those mountains to the eastern coast or trekking across the steppes to the lush riverlands of the south. On a mechanical level, all the early technology you have at your disposal depletes resources--send a gatherer to work a fruit tree and they'll keep picking until the tree is exhausted. It's not until the mid to late game that you're able to build structures that don't deplete a resource and, in the case of a fruit plantation, can even replenish it. And it's at this point that you'll want to have found somewhere to make your permanent home.

    This makes for an early game flow that is fascinating and unusual for the 4X genre. You want to be researching technology and training clans to suit your immediate situational needs, while also identifying (but, crucially, not yet exploiting) a resource-rich region you can later claim for your eventual empire. Sometimes this is straightforward enough--in one game I spawned on a narrow land bridge connecting two continents. I fished and picked berries until I was ready to journey southeast and declare my kingdom in a river valley full of wheat and horses. Other times it's more challenging, like the time I spawned on a tiny peninsula with only a bare handful of tiles separating my settlement from the border of the Huns. The beauty here is that even when the enemy is literally at the gates, you have enough flexibility to find an alternative--in this case, several hundred miles away, preferably.

    The beauty here is that even when the enemy is literally at the gates, you have enough flexibility to find an alternative...

    The map itself also intriguingly shifts in fundamental ways thanks to both seasonal and situational changes in weather. During cold months you have to worry about supplying any units traveling outside your territory, or else that scouting party might not make it back home. It's also vital to maintain a surplus of food for the winter as many of your food sources will no longer be operational. Heavy rains, flooding, and even blizzards on specific tiles also keep things interesting, as they can see units immobilized for multiple turns, potentially throwing into chaos your carefully planned assault on a rival settlement or, if you're lucky, delaying that bandit raid on your logging camp.

    As the environment changes over the years, so do the people. Two clans might get into a feud and you'll be forced to pick a side. Another might be caught stealing and you'll have to decide their punishment. It's up to you to sort things out--retrain clans, shuffle them around to new locations, placate them with alcohol--before morale drops too low and everyone's unhappy. This might seem fiddly and a little prescriptive, but it's rarely as simple as it may sound. Clan Dankward may now hate Clan Waller, but the Dankwards are your best breadmakers and the Wallers your best blockcutters, you can't just send one of them out to run the sheep pasture. Besides which, the Wallers are afraid of animals and refuse to work in livestock. Working out a solution to these problems often means having to make tough decisions and uneasy compromises.

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    None of these clans are fleshed-out characters; they're just a collection of buffs and debuffs attached to a random name and portrait. But the way their traits and desires are expressed through their abilities and little exchanges goes a long way to make you feel like you're ruling a loose collection of real people. They're not people, of course, but they're your people.

    The same cannot be said of the opponents you face, though. You’re always pitted against the same opponents on every map, but to my mind this is acceptable within the bounds of the scenario Shafer chose to depict. Instead, the more significant problem here is the lack of interaction with those AI opponents. To begin with, they don't particularly care about you--that's how small and insignificant you are in your initial nomadic phase. As you grow they start to take notice, but it's rarely more than a raised eyebrow here and there. Occasionally a dialogue box pops up and you can give a gift or rudely refuse one, and that's pretty much it until you're at war or you form an alliance. Essentially, you're either utterly indifferent to the AI, or you're their best friend or worst enemy, with barely any negotiating in between.

    Indeed, it feels like the late game in general is underdeveloped. The absence of compelling diplomacy with the AI factions plays a huge part here, as for much of the game it's perfectly possible to adopt an isolationist strategy and focus on the more economically focused victory. Pursuing the military route extends your interactions with the AI to throwing your stacked military units at theirs until you occupy their settlements and structures. Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played Civ IV and it gets the job done in a similarly efficient, if tactically unspectacular, fashion.

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    Even trade is handled in a curiously neutral manner, having you buy and sell goods through an anonymous caravan rather than through any interaction with the AI factions. Worse still, the concept of religion is relegated to a checkbox that has an unclear effect on an AI faction's disposition toward you. Shafer has admitted that the diplomacy features are still in their infancy and he has plans to continue to work on them post-launch. That's an encouraging sign, and one we hope also applies to these other areas, because the late game in its current form is desperately undernourished.

    That makes At The Gates difficult to wholeheartedly recommend. What's there right now is undeniably good; however, what's missing makes you yearn for how good it could yet be. It's a fresh, invigorating, more personal take on the grand strategy game. But at the same time, it's lacking in a few areas, and they really do hold it back from greatness. Jon Shafer has found that fertile new ground on which to settle. He just needs to give it a few seasons to grow.

  • Game Informer News Feed: Return To Raccoon City
    Publisher: Capcom
    Developer: Capcom
    Rating: Mature
    Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

    With Resident Evil 2 only days away, Capcom is gleefully engaging in one of the industry's most time-honored traditions for major game releases: the launch trailer. The Resident Evil 2 launch trailer starts off with a brief and mildly interpretive timeline of the fall of Raccoon City and starts getting into the actual events of Resident Evil 2.

    You can check out the trailer below.

    Click here to watch embedded media

    If you have absolutely no idea about anything about Resident Evil 2, this trailer could end up being a bit spoilery. But if you played the game before or really have a familiarity with the series at all, you should probably be fine. Not a lot being shown here is super hard to parse from pre-release materials.

    Resident Evil 2 releases on January 25 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. You can read our review of the game right here.

  • Game Informer News Feed: Pretty In Pink

    Far Cry New Dawn

    Publisher: Ubisoft
    Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
    Rating: Rating Pending
    Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

    When Far Cry 5 concluded last year, players around the world were left scratching their heads over the ending. The nuclear apocalypse came crashing down on the world and Hope County was just another scorch mark on the planet. Seventeen years later, the world has begun to heal from the scars left by the nuclear winter left by the bombs. Where there is healing and prosperity, however, there will be people who want to take those things for themselves. Once again, Hope County is the stage for another major battle in the Far Cry universe in New Dawn.

    It’s not unfair to say that New Dawn is built on the blocks of Far Cry 5 in the way that previous non-mainline Far Cry titles were built using the foundations of their predecessors. New Dawn hopes to expand around the periphery of what Far Cry 5 has already established by resuming life in Hope County in a drastically different context. Whereas its progenitor focused on liberating the small Montana county from a religious cult, New Dawn is about building something new from its tattered remains.

    A roving band of brigands led by twins Mickey and Lou have been traveling across the United States looking for resources to take for their own. After they arrive in Hope County, the survivors of the nuclear blast and their new generation of children find themselves ill-equipped to fight back. They have, however, heard tell of a freedom fighter named Rush that has been following Mickey and Lou and trying to fight them off. As Rush’s group arrives in Hope County, their train explodes, killing most of Rush’s force and stranding the player character until he or she is picked up by Hope County’s minuscule resistance force.

    New Dawn is based around that resistance base, progressing alongside the game’s story. The more the base is worked on with resources, new partners, and story missions finished, the more it levels up, opening up new resources, partners, and story missions. Ubisoft has taken the criticism of Far Cry 5’s structure, repeatedly imprisoning players by different villains to progress the story, and tweaked it to be paced better with less repetition.

    One way the game plans to vary things up is through Expeditions. After giving the base’s helicopter pilot enough resources, you open up the ability to leave Hope County and travel to other places the rival gang has taken over. Taking the helicopter to Florida, somehow, brings you to an abandoned military ship filled with enemies. Your pilot drops you off, you can switch your weapons before he leaves, and he picks you up when your mission objective is over. In all the expeditions I played, every objective was simply to find a bag in enemy territory, make it to the helicopter landing spot before the bag’s GPS activates, and fight off enemies until the helicopter lands.

    Aesthetically, the new Far Cry is divergent from a lot of post-apocalyptic games. The game is colorful, lush, and has more than a game’s normal share of pink everywhere. Ubisoft is keen to point out that they consulted with scientists working for the U.S. government on the accuracy of this look, stating that the greenery and pink flowers are a result the phenomenon called “super bloom” that kicks into high-gear as the planet heals.

    Far Cry New Dawn looks like it will be a lot of what Far Cry 5 already started, which is also firmly rooted in what Far Cry has been for several games now. Fans who are eager to find out how the end of Far Cry 5 affected the world, including what became of The Father, will find their answers in Far Cry New Dawn. Everyone who is eager for more of the tried-and-true Far Cry formula will hopefully find what they’re looking for when New Dawn releases on February 15.

  • Game Informer News Feed: Everything Is Awesome (Mostly) In First Gameplay Trailer

    Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
    Developer: TT Games
    Rating: Rating Pending
    Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC

    The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part will be released in theaters shortly, but Legomaniacs won't have to wait long to play the home game. The Lego Movie 2 Videogame comes either at the end of February or March, depending on where you're planning to play the game. Either way, Warner and TT Games just released a new trailer for the sequel, which shows it off in all its blocky glory.

    Emmet, Lucy, Benny, and the rest of the crew from the first movie/game are back, alongside a host of new faces from the Systar System and beyond. 

    Click here to watch embedded media

    The Lego Movie 2 Videogame is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 26. It'll be arriving on Switch a month later, on March 26. As for the movie itself, it hits theaters on February 8.

  • Gamespot News Feed: Life Is Strange 2: Episode 2 Review - With Great Power

    The main thing I've learned from having a sibling is that you can be polar opposites who bicker endlessly, but when push comes to shove there is nothing you wouldn't do to keep them happy, safe, and protected. This sentiment is the heart and soul of Life is Strange 2 and continues to ground the strong narrative through the second chapter of the Diaz brothers' journey away from their home in Seattle and toward a new one in Puerto Lobos.

    The second chapter of Life Is Strange 2 begins in the snow-laden Willamette National Forest in Oregon. It is several days after Daniel learned the tragic truth of why they had to flee Seattle, and the ensuing outburst that revealed his telekinetic powers. The brothers are now faced with the reality of managing not only their survival while on the run, but also the nuances of how to handle Daniel's abilities. Sean sets down ground rules for keeping the powers a secret while working with his younger brother to hone them. This supernatural element adds a new dimension to gameplay in that certain situations and objects can be manipulated by Daniel with your say-so.

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    More interesting, however, is the difficult balance you must strike as Sean by either encouraging or discouraging Daniel's use of these powers. Using them may be helpful in certain situations, but there is the danger of being exposed or hurting someone in the process. The tribulations of decision-making in the second episode are far more complex due to this supernatural factor. The options to scare or prank your little brother are almost gone, but in their place you'll have the more difficult choice between keeping him safe and repressing his abilities or allowing him to use his powers--which is sometimes the only way to save others--but potentially put him at risk in the process.

    In playing the second chapter through multiple times and making different choices, it became clear that there are no options to have Sean behave in a nasty manner because Sean is not a nasty person. While you can make choices for the brothers, they aren't puppets. If you choose to have Sean yell at a loved one, he will likely apologize; you can ask Daniel to do certain things but he won't necessarily obey. This feature can diminish the feeling of ownership over the characters, but the way it bolsters the fundamentals of their characterization and relationships increases your fondness for them and investment in their journey. Choosing to act more dismissively or short-tempered doesn't stop Sean from wanting the best for Daniel, nor does being unhelpful or sacrilegious around conservative family members stop them from loving you or wanting to help you. The decision-making in Life Is Strange 2 isn't as simple as being kind or being callous, and this makes the episode far more interesting and nuanced.

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    Daniel remains as impressionable as he was in the first episode. Swearing in front of him will enable him to do the same, telling him you don't believe in heaven will change his beliefs, and being unkind or unsupportive will make him disinclined to listen to you. This puts a huge weight on the way you choose to conduct yourself and how you treat others in Daniel's presence. The supporting characters in this chapter are less colourful than those in the last episode, and a couple of grungy train-hopping standouts are underutilized. While Sean and Daniel's grandparents are well-written, they aren't as unique or interesting as Episode 1 characters like Brody the travelling blogger or Lyla, Sean's bubbly best friend. As a result they don't contribute to the character development of the brothers in the same meaningful way.

    Much of the episode is spent in relative comfort, which is a change of pace for the brothers on the run, although the beginning retreads some story beats from the first chapter and as a result they feel less impactful this time around. There are a couple of instances that feel like cheap emotional shots, one of which is related to an Episode 1 choice that ripples out in a dramatic way, yet doesn't feel entirely earned. Even in these cases, however, the stellar performances of Roman George as Daniel and particularly Gonzalo Martin as Sean keep every moment engaging and sympathetic--from the mundanities of playing dice games to coping with heart-wrenching losses.

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    While this episode is bookended by tense, gasp-inducing moments, the plot has a slower pace than the previous episode. It spends time filling in the blanks of the Diaz family tree and answers important logistical questions as to where the brothers can find a safe haven. This chapter also incorporates the story of Captain Spirit, or Chris, who we first met in the standalone game The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Chris' character is used as a clever device to display different sides of Sean and Daniel. He enables Daniel to flaunt his childlike creativity, while Sean can earn his trust and serve as a confidant for his troubled home life. The impressive writing from Episode 1 persists, making every conversation feel natural and relatable. This ensures that even the new characters that aren't as unique as those introduced previously still have layers and avoid cliches.

    This care and attention to detail extends to the environments, which feel genuine and lived-in. The particulars of places and objects also subtly clue you in to the personalities, priorities, and relationships of those they belong to; like kitschy plaques that signpost the interior of rooms in a house, a recycling bin full of beer cans, and a guitar covered in stickers. Underpinning all of this are acoustic folk tracks that punctuate the plot, echoing the feeling of teenage ruminations. The grounded, everyday vibe of the soundtrack helps drive home that Sean and Daniel are still normal teens and makes it easier to understand their mindset.

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    One minor issue is the meta-knowledge that the Diaz brothers are two episodes into a five-episode journey, so you have an acute awareness that no matter how positively things are going, you're never too far from it all unraveling. However, even if you can see where things are going, there's a joy in taking each new step of the adventure and in managing the careful balance between being a guardian and a friend to Daniel. The larger consequences of how you've chosen to guide Daniel are still to come, but the cracks are starting to show and the pressure is heightening. That said, no matter how you leave Daniel and Sean at the end of this chapter, there is the palpable sense of hope, of a new way forward, and of the unconditional love between two brothers.

  • Gamespot News Feed: Resident Evil 2 Review - Revisiting Raccoon City

    Reliving familiar frights can often make for a less-than-exciting horror experience. But with the remake of Resident Evil 2, Capcom shows respect for the original while also going to great lengths to give the macabre atmosphere and tense gameplay a noticeable upgrade. In doing so, this revamp of the classic survival horror game shows that the series can still offer a terrifying experience like no other.

    You once again play as either Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield. A viral outbreak has unleashed hordes of zombies and other grotesque monsters upon Raccoon City, leading to a series of dangerous and nightmare-inducing encounters for the two characters. While both protagonists' storylines have similar plots and take place in the same locations, there are different supporting characters and unique challenges in each that set the two playthroughs apart.

    In traditional Resident Evil fashion, you're tasked with surviving through the night and overcoming the nightmarish creatures and devious puzzles found throughout the infested streets of the city, the tight, dimly lit halls of the Police Station, and in the subterranean passages below. RE2 is a great mix of the understated survivalist approach from the original games and the tactile, reflex-oriented gameplay from more recent entries. It's very much a game about escalation; as your resources dwindle and the monsters become fearsome and more elaborate, the pressure is always mounting as the story progresses, and each moment feels just a bit more desperate than the last. Even the smallest of victories can feel like major wins in RE2, and you'll often find yourself onto the next struggle before you know it.

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    While those who played the original game will enter with an idea of what's to come, the remake does a lot to refresh certain encounters and locations. Though many locales and their layouts are similar--save for the addition of a brand-new area and a new monster to deal with--the events therein are new. Jump scares don't trigger when you expect them to, or a room that once spelled certain doom in your head is now a safe haven--but then the question arises: if this room is safe, which room is the real dangerous one?

    Early Resident Evil games have a reputation for being melodramatic, often unintentionally, but the RE2 remake a more serious tone that makes for a more evocative story. While there is still the undercurrent of the hokey tone from the classics, with the characters cutting the tension with humor when appropriate, the remake's narrative is far more convincing, propped up by some impressive writing and strong performances that help convey urgency and despair. This is especially evident during the more quiet moments, when the protagonists will try to psych themselves up for what's to come. Even minor characters are given additional substance in the remake, with poignant moments given to the doomed police lieutenant Marvin Branagh and gun shop owner Robert Kendo.

    Both Claire and Leon have two different versions of the campaign, and after finishing the first run for one, you'll be prompted to start a follow-up with the other. Called Second Scenarios, they allow you to see the larger story from a different perspective. Both scenarios are totally isolated from another, and choices therein won't impact the other, but what makes these second runs worthwhile are the different encounters and sub-plots that don't occur in the first. It's a very interesting way to experience the narrative, and with four versions of the campaigns between the two leads--with the first two averaging 12-15 hours--you constantly uncover new details and events that weren't present in the previous playthroughs.

    Resident Evil 2's more serious tone is further enhanced by the renewed, fantastically atmospheric presentation, which gives familiar details from the classic game more of a pronounced look and feel. Moving away from the static camera angles of the original, everything has been redesigned with over-the-shoulder gameplay in mind, giving more of a palpable and invasive sense of dread when exploring. This is heightened even more by the impeccable audio and visual design of the game, creating an eerie, isolating vibe throughout. In a number of cases, you'll only have the illumination of your flashlight as you walk the dark hallways of the bloody and ruined police station, with the ambient rain and distant monster sounds ramping up the tension. You rarely feel safe in RE2, even when you actually are.

    The remake's impressive level of detail is consistently noticeable, but especially so during gorey moments. These gruesome encounters channel the same macabre and staccato approach from the classics, but are now honed through the visual luster of modern rendering and animation. As the zombies are the one constant threat throughout, you quickly become accustomed to seeing flesh chip away as you fire off pistol shots, along with watching the undead torn in half by well-placed shotgun blasts. Though RE2 easily proves to be the goriest game of the series, it never comes off as excessive, and the grizzly details all serve to highlight the grim circumstances of the desperate situation.

    Resident Evil 2's more serious tone is further enhanced by the renewed, fantastically atmospheric presentation...

    At the beginning, your meager selection of weapons doesn't seem like a match for the game's most intimidating horrors, but there are means available that can give you the upper hand in a lopsided fight. In addition to dismembering enemies with well-aimed shots hindering zombies' speed and offense, you can barricade certain windows to block ravenous undead from entering from outside. While many of these options are simply a temporary solution to a long-term problem, which can make it seem like they're not all that worth taking advantage of, they are helpful in a pinch.

    While you will no doubt settle into tactics that work well, RE2 throws in some fresh challenges. In one of the game's more tense encounters, you cross paths with the Tyrant, a hulking presence whose footsteps echo throughout the environment. Though it was a serious foe shown in small doses in the original, this imposing force of nature is now more of a persistent threat that actively stalks you during key periods in the story. Simply ducking into another room isn't enough, as it'll quickly follow you in to keep the chase going--similar to the RE3's Nemesis in that regard. If you manage to create enough distance and it loses line of sight, it'll disengage, but will remain lurking throughout the halls. With this dynamic, the Tyrant also makes the common foes you've gotten a handle of become genuine threats once again. As you find yourself trying to stay focused on the stalking figure, it's all too easy to round a corner and run into a group of zombies.

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    Though the Tyrant offers a nerve-wracking surprise during some of these key moments, which makes the feeling of getting the best of it all the more satisfying, there are other times when it can disrupt Resident Evil 2's pacing. This is especially frustrating when you're simply trying to acquire an item or solve a puzzle in a room that the Tyrant and zombies frequent. What should be tense encounters can sometimes become annoying exercises in trying to lure it away, and in some cases it comes off like you're taking advantage of the Tyrant's rather limited AI to do just that. The Tyrant can overstay its welcome, but in most cases, its presence is a constant reminder of the looming threat throughout the game.

    While RE2 often keeps things serious, it's not all doom and gloom. In addition to occasional references that break the tension, there's also a suite of unlockable content available to the delight of RE fans, including the classic RE2 outfits for both Leon and Claire. After completing the campaign for both characters, you'll unlock a set of bonus modes starring fan-favorites Hunk and Tofu, the later of which is a sentient knife-wielding block of coagulated soy. Both of these extra modes take you on timed gauntlets battling through many intense encounters, with Tofu's mode being the most difficult scenario in the entire game. They also allow for a chance to cut loose against hordes of monsters without the worry of the larger survival-horror mechanics during the main game.

    Resident Evil 2 is not only a stellar remake of the original, but it's also simply a strong horror game that delivers anxiety-inducing and grotesque situations, topping some of the series' finest entries. But above all, the remake is an impressive game for the fact that it goes all-in on the pure survival horror experience, confidently embracing its horrifying tone and rarely letting up until the story's conclusion. Though Resident Evil 2 has its roots firmly in the past, it reworks the familiar horrors into something that feels brand new and all its own.

  • Gamespot News Feed: Pikuniku Review - Tasty Morsel

    With its simple character designs and a game world that often looks like a young kid designed it by cutting up and sticking together different bits of colored paper, Pikuniku sometimes feels like a video game adaption of a children's book. It tells a simple story that doesn't always quite make sense, it's pointedly very silly, and there are scenes within it that seem to be based on how a child understands the world. A giant company pays a town by making money rain from the sky; a trendy nightclub will only let you in if you dress "cool" by wearing sunglasses; you play a game someone "invented," but which is, essentially, just basketball mixed with soccer.

    But Pikuniku (Japanese for "picnic") never feels like it was designed specifically for children. It's a game about battling a corporate takeover, and the writing has the playful, sarcastically irreverent tone you're more likely to see from someone in their 20s or 30s. But the childish veneer is charming, and while Pikuniku isn't the deepest game around, it's lovely, funny, and engrossing in its own weird way.

    At the game's opening, your character--Piku, an entity made up of an oblong red body with dots for eyes and two long spindly legs coming out of it--awakens in a cave, prompted by a ghost to go outside. The opening tutorial doesn't take long, because the controls are simple: You can jump, causing Piku to spin haphazardly as he moves through the air, you can kick in any direction, and you can curl your legs into yourself and roll around in ball form. You spend the rest of the game wandering through the small game world, encountering characters and helping solve their problems until, eventually, you find yourself fighting against Sunshine Inc, a giant corporation that is sending robots all over the land to harvest natural resources from the game's three regions.

    Progression rarely requires much thoughtful effort. You explore the world on a 2D plane, talking to as many people as you can, kicking at everything, and solving objectives as they're handed to you. There are platforming elements that require some finesse, especially when you explore some of the slightly more challenging optional side quests that pop up throughout the game. Pikuniku is entertaining rather than challenging, though, and even the hardest areas you'll find are unlikely to trip you up for longer than a few minutes. But this is to the game’s advantage--it’s accessible to inexperienced and young players, and I never felt like the game would have been more enjoyable if it pushed me harder. Piku’s weird, wobbly walk, his awkward jump, and the force of his kicks mean that just moving through the game world is inherently entertaining.

    Your ability to kick everything and everyone is crucial, and much of the puzzle solving in the game comes down to kicking an object from one place to another. The kick mechanic is great fun, with objects reacting differently depending on the angle and distance you hit them from, although there are occasional moments of frustration when, for instance, a box gets wedged into a corner and is tricky to get out. Getting stuck for a moment kicking something out of a corner, or dealing with an object that isn’t behaving how you’d like, can interrupt the flow of gameplay.

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    You can kick every character you meet in the game with no real punishment, which rarely stops being funny. In a few other instances Piku needs to don different hats or use items he has collected to push forward. Again, the mechanics around this are quite simple--if you see a blooming flower, for instance, you know that you need to use the watering can hat on it because a silhouette of that hat will appear above it. This makes it easy to keep track of what you might now be able to do or unlock when you find a new item. It’s not the deepest mechanic, but it means that finding a hat or item can spark immediate excitement when you already know what it’ll do.

    Pikuniku throws little minigames and oddities at you among all the platforming to mix things up. At one point early on, you're asked to draw a new face for a scarecrow using the analog stick; later, you need to win a button-matching dance-off against a robot. There's even a Dig Dug parody, which amusingly devolves into a little joke about how some retro games don't age well. There are boss fights, too (there's no combat in the game otherwise), and while they're not super involved affairs they use the game's simple mechanics to good effect.

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    Pikuniku is a funny game on numerous levels--the script often undercuts tension and plays with tropes in amusing ways, the goofy way you flip when you jump is a constant source of amusement, and the game will often throw you into strange situations without much explanation. Mess with a toaster in someone's house, for instance, and you'll be hurled into the "toast dimension," which is essentially a dungeon area that you can escape by completing the simple platforming challenge within. In another instance, you enter a pottery store that is clearly begging you to smash everything inside it--it's a clear Zelda homage, but the real delight is in the merchant's zen approach to your destruction. Pikuniku is playful and mischievous. Even the soundtrack is wonderfully kooky, and often faintly reminiscent of Koji Kondo's work with Nintendo.

    However, Pikuniku doesn't last long. You can jump back in after the end credits, which roll within about three hours, and enjoy the aftermath of everything you achieved, but even mopping up the last few missions and trying to collect all the optional trophies scattered around the game world doesn't add much. The world you're exploring is compact, and it doesn't take long for you to feel like you've seen everything there is to see. Pikuniku is so charming, and so much fun, that I wanted more time with it (even though the ending is great and absolutely bonkers). The game wrapped up before I was ready to leave it behind, and more story content, or another village to explore, would have gone a long way.

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    Pikuniku also comes with nine two-player levels, as well as a multiplayer version of Baskick, the aforementioned basketball/soccer hybrid featured in the campaign. These levels are divided between co-op challenges where Piku and his identical friend Niku need to work together and competitive levels where you race one another. You can play with two detached Joy-Cons, and the game holds up well on the smaller screen if you're playing in portable mode. This is not a major component of the game, though, so don't expect a whole second campaign. You're unlikely to get more than an hour out of these levels, but its simplicity makes it ideal to play with a younger relative or someone with little gaming experience.

    While Pikuniku is a light experience, it's got enough charm and verve to stick with you well beyond completion. From Piku's weird wobbly gait and looping jumps in the opening right through to the game's funny, bizarre ending, Pikuniku is more gripping than its simple aesthetic and playful tone would suggest. It'll make you feel like a kid again.

  • Gamespot News Feed: Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey Review

    It’s not every day a hero gets a chance to literally walk around in their mortal enemy’s shoes, which is what made Bowser’s Inside Story such a bizarre but wildly unique concept back in 2009. Even though not much has changed since its original DS release, it's still one of the stronger Mario RPGs, and its innovative gimmick remains exciting on 3DS. The setup here is that a mysterious affliction called the Blorps is spreading across the Mushroom Kingdom thanks to Fawful, an obnoxious trickster who's been handing out poisoned mushrooms. Naturally, Mario and Luigi are on the job, but after Bowser gets suckered into eating one of the mushrooms, he ends up with a surprising side effect: accidentally swallowing everything in his current field of vision, including the Mario Brothers. As Fawful makes a play to take over the kingdom, Bowser heads out to get some fiery payback with some unexpected help from the Mario Bros.

    That's where the inventive gimmick comes in. You switch back and forth between controlling Bowser on the top screen (punching enemies and obstacles and burning down trees) and controlling Mario and Luigi in 2D inside Bowser's body (running, jumping, hitting things with hammers, and sliding down what you can only pray are literal pipes). Specific puzzles on Bowser's side require some assistance on the inside from Mario and Luigi, like shocking his muscles to give him more power to push things, and some actions Bowser performs will affect Mario and Luigi--Bowser drinking water will flood the bottom screen. If Bowser uses the mushroom's power to swallow his foes, Mario and Luigi will be responsible for finishing the enemy off internally. There’s an abundance of cleverness in this story--inspired moments where you are, essentially, playing co-op with yourself, and it’s exciting to wonder how it will bend your brain next.

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    The fundamentals of combat are building off the same-old turn-based Mario RPG mechanics, where attacks have a chance of doing extra damage and you have a chance to defend yourself using carefully timed button presses. There are very few surprises for anyone who played on DS, but a graphical overhaul on 3DS changes the cartoonish watercolors of the original game to something closer to 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It’s not as bright and immediately eye-catching, but there’s a gentle, storybookish beauty to it.

    As far as gameplay is concerned, the series always been delightfully accessible, and the only difference here is the minor learning curve of remembering which buttons control which characters (Bowser's actions use X; Mario and Luigi use A and B; specific to this port, Y controls both brothers at the same time). That said, the game does go a bit too easy on you most of the play time. The game never gets truly challenging until the latter third, and by then, if you're playing carefully, you've learned how to counter every enemy and racked up a massive collection of recovery items. As a result, fights quickly become an unwelcome hindrance on the way to more story after a while.

    Thankfully, the story and writing do drive you forward. There are body-based jokes at every opportunity, Bowser is humorously angry and obtuse, and the Globins--Bowser's melodramatic cellular structures--frequently try to steal the show with their laments. Even just the bizarre little moments of Mario and Luigi speaking to each other in pseudo-Italian are a joy. The entire concept of Fantastic Voyage-but-Nintendo is ripe with possibilities for outlandish twists and turns and distortions to characters we all know and love. Having that apply to someone other than the usual Mario Bros. crew is a special treat, especially for the more ambitious moments, like having to turn the 3DS on its side to play as a giant-sized Bowser. More than all this, though, it's a chance to get to know Mario's archnemesis in more detail.

    This is the rare opportunity that makes the game’s brand new side-story, Bowser Jr's Journey, worthwhile for many of the same reasons. It’s an odd little real-time strategy game that more resembles a wonky sumo match than, say, Starcraft. Bowser Jr. himself is the commander sending waves of baddies across the screen to butt heads with others, dealing damage based on a rock-paper-scissors system of weakness. Like the main game, there isn’t a terrible amount of difficulty in getting through each battle, and these fights are also a lot less interesting and dynamic. There’s a lot more waiting around for enough damage to happen, or for Jr. to accumulate enough points to activate special moves.

    There’s an abundance of cleverness in this story--inspired moments where you are, essentially, playing co-op with yourself, and it’s exciting to wonder how it will bend your brain next.

    If there’s a redeeming quality to Bowser Jr.’s tale, it’s that it gives us the first real look at familial relations within the Bowser clan in ages. Jr.'s tale takes place after his dad goes off to his sit-down with Princess Peach about Blorps. In Bowser's absence, Jr. takes it upon himself to make a move to take over the kingdom. Unfortunately, his bratty overzealousness ends up earning the ire of the other Koopalings as well as the three wacky underlings Fawful plants in Bowser's Kingdom. And yet, as the story goes along, there's a strangely heartfelt streak to the proceedings, of a kid who really just wants his dad's approval and figuring out that he has to earn it, not throw tantrums for it. Towards the end, you're almost rooting for the little guy, and it makes the interminable nature of the fights worthwhile.

    The extra mode certainly sweetens the pot for those who owned Bowser's Inside Story on DS, but fundamentally, it's the same game. If anything, the real drawback is the game coming off as an unnecessary surprise on the 3DS--which can already play the original game via backward compatibility. But the game itself remains one of Mario's RPG best, and it's a cheerful, inventive journey.

  • Game Informer News Feed: Layers Of Fear 2 Trailer Is Short But Not Sweet
    Release: 2019

     Gun Media has released a new trailer for Layers of Fear 2, and it's narrated by Tony Todd, who played the titular killer in the early 90s horror film Candyman.

    As with the last trailer for the game, Layers of Fear 2 focuses on fleshing out the fears of an actor. Todd's narration is succinct, implying the player character wanted to be an actor so they wouldn't have be themselves. Of course, this being a horror game, you can expect some of the genre staples: Coffins, poorly-lit rooms, and doors that close by themselves. You can watch the trailer below.

    Click here to watch embedded video


  • Gamespot News Feed: Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review - Sortie It Out

    There's more to war than just weapons and politics. Ace Combat is a series that showed us just that, hitting its stride in the early '00s with an enchanting mix of jet fighting and human melodrama. But in the past decade, its entries suffered from putting less importance in its signature stories. It dropped four games' worth of fictional lore in favor of real-world locations, traded pathos for machismo, and attempted to add cinematic blockbuster bombast to the clinical nature of flying jets, all at the cost of losing its identity. Thankfully, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown brings the series back on course and is a significant return to what it was in its prime: a thrilling interpretation of modern aerial combat that also tells a war story with heart, a conscience, and personal stakes.

    The narrative of Skies Unknown dives back into the fictional series universe last seen in 2007 and deals with a conflict between the familiar powers of the Osean Federation and the Kingdom of Erusea. You play a silent, faceless Osean pilot who will go through some changing allegiances, but half of the plot actually occurs in cinematics that run parallel to and separate from your actual missions, and come from the perspective of seemingly minor players around the periphery. It's a war story that pivots with the actions of its small cast of characters as much as it does military victories, and leans heavily into themes of the human condition--the greys of fabricated ideas like nationality, borders, and cultural identity as well as the ethics of advancements in technological warfare.

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    To be clear, there aren't many nuanced discussions to be had between the pronounced personalities of the cast; this is a drama first and foremost. Radio chatter is filled with bold statements of ideology ("As long as our nation stands the young will carry on!"), and sometimes it feels like there's a naivety in the writing for entirely different, slightly juvenile reasons ("How penal is this penal colony?"). It's regularly hammy and melodramatic, but the entire endeavor is so wide-eyed and earnest, so endearingly heartfelt and ultimately optimistic in nature, that it's easy to let yourself be swept up and moved by it all.

    Larger-than-life voices amp you up over the radio when you're flying into a sortie, adding an infectious passion to the affairs. They remind you what you're fighting for and sometimes make you feel bad and question your actions. The overlapping conversation can be a little distracting when you're trying to dodge a missile, but it's that vital human element that keeps you really invested in this game about shooting down planes.

    But that's not to say that aerial combat in Ace Combat 7 is anything but superb. The fundamental actions of chasing down enemies at high speeds, out-maneuvering them to line up a clear shot, or banking hard to avoid an incoming missile while your dashboard beeps and flashes wildly at you is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat constantly. Skies Unknown strips away recent mechanical additions to the series seemingly in service of returning to simplicity--gone are the wingman commands of Ace Combat 6: Fires Of Liberation and, thankfully, so are the in-your-face, on-rails close combat mechanics of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

    Your focus lies solely on your plane and your surroundings. There's a variety of familiar factors to take into consideration while flying--different air and ground-based threats, the topography of terrain when fighting at low altitudes--but a significant new element is clouds and the tangible risks and possibilities they invite. Juking into a bank of clouds can break missile locks and give you the element of surprise, but come at the cost of reduced visibility, the possibility of icing up your plane and hindering maneuverability, and even things like strong wind currents and lightning strikes messing with your ability to keep control of your jet. Clouds are legitimately useful strategic considerations, on top of just being a pretty thing to admire, and they make the skies of Ace Combat 7 a more interesting place to be.

    There's also an impressive variety of distinct scenarios across the game's 20 campaign missions. Generally, the scope of most battles are quite large and require you to split your attention between different kinds of skirmishes across the map with a broader objective in mind. But many missions also come with unique challenges that make for some memorable moments--dogfighting in a thunderstorm at night, stealth canyon runs, and avoiding huge area-of-effect blasts in the midst of a busy battle are some enjoyable standouts. The game's few boss-style encounters are a highlight too, as you go up against impossibly good ace fighters and the game's white whale superweapon--which itself fills the map with a terrifying amount of hostile drones. There are a few scenarios that aren't as exciting, however--hunting for trucks in a sandstorm and chasing ICBMs grew tiring pretty quickly, and the game's final challenge was a tricky exercise in plane maneuvering that feels like it necessitates multiple retries by design, which puts a damper on an otherwise grand finale.

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    The act of retrying will inevitably come with a pang of resentment, too, since checkpointing in Skies Unknown is sparse. Checkpoints typically only occur only at the halfway point of a mission, and it's common to get 20 minutes into a battle before failing to hit an objective and having to start from the very beginning. This can get frustrating in the tail end of the campaign, where threats are more abundant and more relentless and the overall demands are higher. Granted, there is a light emphasis on score performance, and your mission score persists even if you need to retry from the halfway point, but a little more generosity wouldn't have gone astray.

    Ace Combat 7 features a straightforward, peer-to-peer online multiplayer component featuring 8-player Battle Royal (free-for-all deathmatch) and team deathmatch modes. Dogfighting with other human beings is certainly a lot more challenging and frenetic, and because matches are only five minutes in length, they consistently feel fast-paced and full of excitement. The planes and equipment you unlock as part of the campaign carry over to multiplayer and vice versa, but everything has an assigned value and you're able to play matches that have a limit on how much you can bring, which helps keep a level playing field.

    Online sorties also feature a weighted scoring system where leading players are clearly marked and have a higher score value attached to their destruction. In my experience, it's an idea that works well in practice, stopping you from being a target if you're doing poorly and keeping you on your toes if you're doing well. It also allows for some great match dynamics too--there were plenty of times where I was falling behind in score, decided to zero in on the leading player, and made a spectacular comeback to take the lead in the last few seconds.

    The PlayStation 4 version of Skies Unknown also features an exclusive VR mode consisting of an Ace Combat 4-inspired mini-campaign. There are only three missions, and their objectives are less complicated than those of the main campaign, but even so, the experience of flying from the cockpit of a plane is engrossing. The feeling of speed and height is literally dizzying, the ability to freely look around and track a target with your gaze is terrific, and the act of pitching and rolling your plane is so effective at eliciting a feeling of actual g-force that I personally had a hard time doing more than one mission at once without breaking out into a nauseous sweat. It's a shame that there's no option to play the main campaign in VR--the head tracking and freelook alone would be incredibly useful--but the mode is a great addition nonetheless.

    Good aerial combat is important for a game involving jet fighters, but it's a given quality for Ace Combat. Skies Unknown boasts a beautiful photorealistic world, entertaining mission variety, and a reason to get excited about clouds. But most importantly, it carries renewed devotion to the history and stories of its fictional universe, and with that, it brings back the human, emotional center that makes it remarkable. Ace Combat 7 is a fantastic return for a series that is at its best when it wears its heart on its wings.

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