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‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Review: Lost In Space

Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t a bad game, per se, but it is one that feels from the opening moments to the last like a pale imitation of the popular trilogy of games that inspired it.

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Pulp’s 2001 single ‘Bad Cover Version’ used questionable covers of beloved songs as a metaphor for future relationships that could never hope to compare to a previous lost love. It’s a poignant four minutes of britpop gold, and one that manages to succinctly explain the feelings associated with underwhelming romantic entanglements through the lens of pop-culture references in a tragically amusing way. Towards the end of the song, front-man Jarvis Cocker begins reciting other such analogues for disappointing love, including the television version of ‘Planet of the Apes’, the Rolling Stones in the ’80s, and the later ‘Tom & Jerry’ episodes in which the cat and mouse could talk. Had the tune been written today by a band of avid gamers, it’s not hard to imagine that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” could have been inserted into the song if only they’d thought of something to rhyme with it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t a bad game, per se, but it is one that feels from the opening moments to the last like a pale imitation of the popular trilogy of games that inspired it. There’s an awkward sense of desperation that creeps into the game repeatedly during the forty to fifty hour adventure where you can practically see BioWare pleading with you to be impressed, and while there is plenty worth seeing in Andromeda, the noticeable step down in quality—both narratively and from a gameplay perspective—is unavoidable. Every now and again there are flashes of the brilliance that made Mass Effect such a compelling series of games, but those moments are too few and too far between.

Taking place some two and a half million light years away from the Milky Way galaxy (and by proxy, the divisive and narratively problematic ending of Mass Effect 3) Andromeda tells us the tale of Scott and Sara Ryder, and a cross-species initiative to colonise another galaxy. Scott and Sara are the twin children of Alec Ryder—the “Pathfinder” and de facto leader of the human element of the Andromeda Initiative—and along with thousands of other souls they undergo cryogenic sleep in order to make the six hundred year journey to Andromeda to find a new beginning.

Scott and Sara Ryder are more interesting protagonists than Shepard.

Sending a crew of brave pioneers to a brand new, uncharted galaxy is a tantalising opportunity for an original work of science fiction, but that’s squandered time and again by a trope-laden and unsatisfying main narrative, and some liberal borrowing of storytelling elements from previous games in the series. As Andromeda begins, the human ark full of colonists has just arrived in the Heleus cluster—an area of space within Andromeda containing numerous planets that should be capable of supporting life—and it all starts going wrong. The ship runs afoul of an enormous, energy-based space anomaly that is quickly designated “The Scourge” that damages the ark and causes whichever Ryder twin you’re not playing as to be trapped in cryo-sleep.

Being so close to one of the potential home planets for the initiative—known as “Golden Worlds”—Alec Ryder and your Ryder decide to touch down on the planet with a couple of human comrades to investigate and see what life in the Andromeda galaxy is all about. For what it’s worth, the planet looks very nice, and Andromeda is a marked improvement over the last generation’s Mass Effect games in the graphical department, but in every other regard this is a strange and fumbled opening. Once your gang lands on the planet, your human buddies will continuously tell you how amazing this all is, and how spectacularly different Andromeda is to the Milky Way, as though if they say it enough times you’ll actually start believing it. Andromeda isn’t different to the Milky Way. There’s some floating rocks, sure, but other than that you could be walking on any of the dozens of planets from the original Mass Effect trilogy, and that’s disappointing.

The major conflict in Andromeda is similarly rote. While investigating the planet with your team, Ryder happens upon some silly looking aliens that appear to have been designed by a committee to look as much like baddies as possible. Without any pomp or circumstance the humans and the aliens—the kett—are shooting at each other, and we’re off. Some of the aliens can turn invisible which seems to be a jaw-dropping revelation to your squad mates, apparently forgetting that people could do that in the Milky Way, too. Otherwise the aliens all act like everyone you’ve ever fought before in Mass Effect, and they’re bullet sponges rather than intelligent opposition. Chaos ensues, one thing leads to another, and within an hour or so your chosen Ryder is the new human pathfinder and entrusted with the fate of the entire Andromeda Initiative etc. etc.

The main baddie of Andromeda is a strangely cute pantomime villain.

As the Pathfinder, you’re given access to an AI implant named SAM. This AI can talk to you, and will frequently commentate throughout your adventures, help you out when you need it, and scan things a lot. It also speaks in an amusingly dry and matter of fact way that will likely garner a few chuckles. SAM is an important character because as the Pathfinder A.I., he was previously tied to Alec Ryder, and throughout the game he will provide you with some of your father’s memories that shed light on the beginnings of the Andromeda Initiative and some personal family moments. These optional memories that you can unlock introduce an interesting mystery that unfortunately goes nowhere—presumably it’ll be resolved in DLC or Andromeda 2—as well as a plot twist that is so predictable that they might as well have given it away on the box.

Once you arrive at the Nexus—a space station sent to Andromeda months before the arks to act as a base for when the colonists arrive—you’re given the run down on the galaxy. It turns out that the “Golden Worlds” aren’t quite as golden as you’d hoped, and it’s up to you to make the planets viable for colonisation via a mixture of shooting things in the face and completing mundane fetch quests. Ryder assembles a crew, boards a fancy new ship called the Tempest, and jets off to save an all new galaxy.

The opening hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda aren’t as gripping as you’d expect. Mass Effect 2 and 3 both had blockbuster openings that did a superb job of setting the pace for what would follow in the remainder of the game, and Andromeda flounders a little in this regard. It’s not that any of it is particularly bad, but it never feels more vital than a DLC mission, and the reckless abandon with which we’re introduced to new characters/alien species and then watch them die/make them die means that there’s not a lot of time to actually find a reason to care about any of this.

The politics on board the Nexus are almost as messy as in the White House right now.

Once the obligatory opening preamble is out of the way and you’re allowed to play the game as you see fit it all starts to become a little more enjoyable. The main quest involves quashing in-fighting among the leaders of the Andromeda Initiative, uncovering the secrets of an ancient civilisation with advanced technology (yes, again), and stopping the kett and their moustache twirling leader from killing everyone for reasons that are barely explained. It’s all pretty standard fare, and by the time the various plot threads have been resolved (or maddeningly left dangling to be revisited in a future instalment) not much of anything worth writing home about has actually transpired. It’s not a bad campaign, and the story is at least as involving as most AAA blockbusters on the market today, but it’s notably weaker than the main narrative of any of the three previous Mass Effect games and that’s a shame.

Aside from the main storyline not being particularly interesting on a basic level, there’s a severe pacing issue in the game due to the semi-open world nature of the gameplay. Mass Effect always allowed you to travel the galaxy and approach the various missions in an order of your choosing, but this time around there’s a massive gap between important story beats because the sections of gameplay interspersed between them are so much longer, and so much duller. Upon landing on a planet, Ryder and the gang will be presented with a series of quests that can be completed, and then while exploring the planet they’ll locate more. While some of these quests are enjoyable, the vast majority of them are little more than busy work. One such quest involves organising a movie night that involves travelling to numerous locations to find a movie and other supplies, since apparently they don’t have Netflix and popcorn in the future. It’s dreadful.

Most side-quests in the game involve travelling to another point on the map and scanning three things, or finding three things, or shooting more than three things, and then travelling back for experience points and a couple of lines of dialogue. The quests are remarkably yawn-worthy, even in the early going, and they only become more dull as the game progresses and you learn just how little variety there actually is in Andromeda. This is busy work, thrown at the player in the name of keeping them playing longer but not having any more fun, and in a world where the complex side quest structure of The Witcher 3 exists, Andromeda’s approach feels positively archaic. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all or even many of the side quests in the game in order to progress, and the less time you spend on them the more like a traditional Mass Effect game it will feel, and the more fun you’ll probably have.

You better get used to exploring massive, empty, boring deserts. There’s three of them.

Travelling between the various quests is a massive inconvenience. The open world sections are big but largely lifeless, and so going on foot is a fantastically boring endeavour. Never fear, though, because BioWare decided to bring back the Mako—a massive six-wheeled people carrier—from the original Mass Effect to help you get from A to B. It’s now been rechristened the Nomad, and thankfully it controls a lot better than it’s predecessor did. No matter what you do to the thing it somehow always manages to land on its wheels, paying no mind to any known interpretation of the laws of physics, regardless of how far it falls or what trajectory it takes to hit the ground. The Nomad is largely fine as a means of transportation, but for some reason you have to manually switch to an uphill mode when driving up anything bigger than a small curb in order to not get stuck, which is an annoying and pointless distraction. You’ll likely forget to switch drive modes on numerous occasions during your adventure, and then have to watch as the Nomad slides helplessly, hilariously, backwards down any moderately steep incline.

Negotiating your available missions is also hindered by Andromeda featuring one of the most spectacularly unhelpful user interfaces I’ve ever seen in a AAA game. Quests are logged into various different categories, but the layout is confusing, and made worse by some bizarre design decisions. Quests are listed by planet, but it’s the planet you were given the quest on rather than the one you need to be on to progress that they’re listed under, and since many quests require you to travel to numerous worlds in order to finish them this can get very confusing. It’s actually much easier to just travel to a planet and then look at the map, see what quest markers are available and follow those than it is to use the tools you’ve been given, and that’s simply unacceptable.

The semi-open world nature of Mass Effect: Andromeda achieves little except to make a compelling case for Mass Effect: Andromeda 2 not being open world, but there are a few ways in which it is a legitimate improvement on the games that came before.

Drack is a cranky old Krogan that gets many of the best lines, but is a smart and thoughtful companion at times, too.

The combat in Andromeda is a definitive highlight of the experience. Shooting in Mass Effect has never been a reason that I was drawn to the series, but the changes made to the mechanics here are largely welcome. Ryder has a jet-pack which means (s)he can leap heroically into the air as well as perform mid-air dashes. This leads to combat arenas having a greater sense of verticality than in the previous games, and more frantic battles. There are some downsides to the combat in Andromeda—namely that you no longer have any control over when your squadmates use their powers—but by and large it’s a much improved experience over the stuffy cover based shooting of the original trilogy.

There’s a new system in which Ryder can switch between various classes on the fly, so if you begin the game as a soldier (guns and stuff) but want to be more of a biotic (space magician) you can do so without having to restart your game. You can also switch your chosen powers without any penalty, and so if you want to have one power from the combat tree, one from the biotic tree, and one from the tech tree, you can do so. This gives you a greater freedom to craft your character as you see fit, and it was one area that was of particular benefit to me as someone who likes to pick and choose the best bits from various classes.

The dialogue system in Andromeda is a massive improvement on the previous games in the series. The system works in a manner similar to that seen in Horizon Zero Dawn earlier in the year, whereby instead of having to constantly pick paragon or renegade choices but always having to pick the same one in order to rack up the points necessary for late game decisions, you can just freely choose what you want in any given situation. Sometimes you might want to be carefree or deliver a cheesy one liner, while other times you might want to show compassion or anger. People remember what you’ve said, and might call you up on it later, but you’re not manacled to a system the requires you to pick the blue option every time through fear of missing out. You’re free to approach conversation however you see fit in Andromeda, and it’s a much more enjoyable system than the binary choices the series is used to.

Peebee is more interesting than most asari that have appeared in the series, being less spiritual and monotone, and more quirky and rebellious.

The crew you’ll take on your adventures are, like in any other Mass Effect game, a bit of a mixed bag. In every game in the series barring Mass Effect 2 the human squad mates have been a bit of a damp squib, and Andromeda is no exception. The two human allies you’re given aren’t offensive in their banality, but given that you’ll only have six squad mates to choose from throughout the game it’s a little disappointing that two spaces on the roster are reserved for human characters that would cause you to dive up the fish aisle to avoid them if you saw them at a supermarket. Many of the wackier species are written out of the game—the quarians, hanar, drell and elcor had an issue with their ark before take off—and that’s a crying shame since another alien would have been a lot more interesting than the two stereotypical human soldiers we get instead. Cora is a dull, by the book commando, and Liam’s only vaguely interesting character trait is that he seems to have a strange fascination with not wearing shirts, ever.

The alien squad mates fare a lot better. There’s a grumpy old Krogan who’s only one “I’m getting too old for this shit” away from being a walking cliche, but he gets a lot of the best lines and his loyalty quest introduces some surprisingly touching aspects to his personality. Vetra is a female Turian who is very much the lady equivalent of Garrus from the original trilogy. Peebee—or Pelessaria B’Sayle—is a quirky asari that provides some much needed levity. And then there’s Jaal, a member from a brand new alien species indigenous to Andromeda who provides a lot of the game’s heart.

Getting to know these characters works in much the same way as previous entries in the series. Between missions you’ll have an opportunity to wander around on your ship and talk to the various members of your crew, learning more about them and eventually unlocking loyalty missions for them. The loyalty missions are the best side quests in the game, each providing a more intense look at what makes each of the various characters tick, and often yielding combat rewards, too, as you’ll gain new abilities by completing them. If you make a strong enough impression on any of the characters it’s possible that you might end up as more than just friends and squaddies, but while there are additional scenes if your Ryder is in a relationship, they don’t enhance the story in any dramatic way.

There’s a series of recurring puzzles in the game that’s like space sudoku. There’s dozens of them. And they’re every bit as fun as they sound.

The relationships between the characters and the sense of comradery you get from being on adventure with your squad has always been one of the strongest aspects of the Mass Effect series, and that’s no different here. While you’ll spend an awful lot of time trudging around boring, samey planets to complete boring, samey fetch quests, you’ll also spend an awful lot of time talking to your squad and other characters in the galaxy, and those moments are the ones that most frequently feel close to the previous Mass Effect games in terms of quality. While one game isn’t really enough to learn to love the characters like series favourites Garrus, Tali, or Liara, there’s enough to work with to imagine that some of Andromeda’s characters could become iconic in their own right if given sequels to work with. Peebee, Drack and Jaal are all interesting and amusing characters, and are certainly a lot more interesting than many of the squad mates that Commander Shepard fought alongside during the original trilogy.

And sequels are coming. BioWare might not be talking about the future of the series just yet, but it’s obvious that Andromeda is planned as the start of a new trilogy. Various storylines end abruptly without any real resolution, and there’s even a post-credits scene to tease what’s going to happen to next. Given the amount of plot threads left unfinished in the game it seems that BioWare has an actual plan for the sequels going forward, which is an exciting prospect given how they backed themselves into a narrative minefield by not planning for the future with the original trilogy.

BioWare also seem to have learned some lessons following the debacle surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. The finale of Andromeda is suitably exciting, and while it’s not a patch on the last mission in Mass Effect 2, it gets a lot of things right where Mass Effect 3 got them wrong. The decisions you make throughout the game don’t have earth-shattering consequences at the conclusion, but it’s nice to see the various allies you’ve made during your journey represented during the final showdown. It almost makes all the fetch quests worth it.

Drinking with Drack has a tendency to wind up in a fight.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the hubbub surrounding the technical issues prevalent in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but while I’ve seen enough evidence on social media to know that the problems exist, I have to say that first hand I experienced very little of it. During my fifty hours with the game I came across one fairly jarring moment in which a couple of my squad mates randomly started talking as though we were visiting a planet for the first time even though we’d been there numerous times, and there were a handful of minor issues—animation problems, audio overlapping or cutting short—but nothing game breaking. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones, but the technical issues in the game mostly seemed comparable to those in earlier entries in the series, and occasionally slightly worse.

Graphically, the planets you’ll visit are impressive enough, but practically every location suffers from severe instances of pop in, and shoddy textures. There are some odd animations—I once caught a squad mate looking like they were trying to recreate Monty Python’s ministry of silly walks sketch—but they weren’t overly frequent or game breaking.  Writing is similarly inconsistent, with the loyalty quests and much of the interaction with companions being well written, and many of the side quests being awkward, bizarre, or illogical. It bares all the hallmarks of a game rushed out of the door despite the huge budget, massive publisher and five year development cycle behind it.

What you get out of Mass Effect: Andromeda will largely depend on what you want. The combat is improved and so if that’s your jam then this will be the best experience for you in the series so far. The loyalty quests and the squad mates you’ll spend time with are similar in quality to what came before. But the overarching narrative of the game is disappointing, managing to feel both inconsequential and a riff on tales already told in the series prior, and the new focus on exploration and more open world structure is a massive misstep, forcing you into long, boring stretches of gameplay that just get in the way of the next amusing bar scene with Drack, or crazy scheme cooked up by Peebee.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a great game buried under a mountain of poor design choices and narrative shortcomings. Everything is more complicated than it needs to be, and the sheer amount of busy work forced upon the player is staggering, but if you can be bothered to put in a few hours doing the admin then there are plenty of rewards for fans of the series. It’s not the Mass Effect you were hoping for, and it doesn’t live up to the high standard set by the original trilogy, but as a jumping off point for a new trilogy in a new galaxy there are enough promising characters and intriguing story elements to suggest that Andromeda 2 might be everything you wished this game would be.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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1 Comment

  1. Michael J. Riser

    April 9, 2017 at 3:23 am

    Excellent review. Enjoyed the read.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 4 Review – “Faith”: A Journey Through Trump’s America

Life is Strange 2 continues its strong trajectory from the previous episode, weaving a complex and troubling tale of faith gone mad.

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Life is Strange 2 has returned for its penultimate episode, a dense and troubling exploration of faith, prejudice and family in a time and place that has never been more divided: modern America. Following the events of Life is Strange 2‘s stellar third entryEpisode 4: “Faith” sees Sean attempting to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after Daniel’s violent outburst at Merrill’s farm.

Though the story of Faith” begins in a hospital, with Sean working to recover from his injuries, the trajectory of the tale explores more settings and environments than any previous episode of the series. From wandering the highways of Nevada, to exploring a dusty motel, to sneaking into a remote church, Life is Strange 2‘s 4th entry never lacks for something new to see, or someone new to interact with.

Life is Strange 2
However, the cynical bent of the story is the new centerpiece of Episode 4. Though Life is Strange 2 has never sidestepped the controversy and division of Trump’s America, Faith” leans into these ideas with renewed fervor. Violence is committed more than once against our Mexican protagonist, and his skin color often sees him at odds with the more conservative denizens of the highways he journeys down. In a particularly telling exchange, Sean even finds himself beaten and placed on the other side of a closed compound, with a gun-toting guard glaring at him from the other side. Metaphors don’t really get much clearer than that.

This will, no doubt, lead to more calls of keeping politics out of games and other entertainment by the president’s more ardent supporters, but as other writers have pointed out, gaming has never been apolitical. Further, it would be categorically irresponsible to tell a story like this without addressing the elephant in the room. With these elements in mind, the politics of Life is Strange 2 have never been clearer than in Episode 4: “Faith”, and they account for some of the strongest storytelling fuel the series has found yet.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Politics aside, Life is Strange 2 also puts Sean at a variety of other disadvantages. His starting injuries include a lost eye that must be tended to medically throughout the episode, and the various beatings he takes throughout Episode 4 more than leave their mark. This leaves Faith as the typical darkest, and most troubling, episode of this second series, where we find our protagonist at his absolute lowest point, and must continue on with him in hopes of finding a better future. It’s a common enough trope, but one that is used to great effect here.

There are many returns of characters from previous episodes, some through letters and other communications, and others through surprising reveals and revelations. A particularly shocking character joins the story with zero preamble, and emerges as one of Life is Strange 2‘s finest editions yet. To spoil who, or how, would be criminal, but rest assured that Episode 4 is more full of surprises than any of the previous entries.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Though the main conflict that eventually reveals itself, that of Daniel being used as a messianic figure for an isolated Nevada church, feels contrived initially, the layers that are eventually revealed, and Daniel’s reason for joining the church, make a lot of sense in the overall scheme of things. Due to this strength of narrative, it really feels like all bets are off during the climax of Life is Strange 2: Episode 4, and that’s a good thing for a game so centered around the notion of interactive storytelling.

Fresh, prescient, and altogether rewarding, Life is Strange 2: Episode 4 — “Faith”, is a welcome piece of fiction in a society that has become so increasingly fragmented. It illustrates the horrors of the modern American landscape, but always remembers to remind us that there are good people out there, even when hope has never seemed so far away.

Strongly Recommended

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Game Reviews

‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard

Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.

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There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.

Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path

Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.

Sothis
Sothis will aid the player character throughout their journey

The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.

In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses House Leaders
Claude, Dimitiri, and Edelgard are the heads of their respective houses and will play pivotal roles in the game if you choose them

The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom. 

Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams. 

Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Teaching

The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.

All In a Day’s Work 

Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it.  Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.

There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Monastery

Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations. 

As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.

In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Sylvain
Support conversations range from comical, to serious, to heart-warming — but they are always engaging.

It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.

Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Dining

It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.

All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.

Applying Theory to Practice

The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.

Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.

Battle

The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.

The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.

Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Combat
Battalions also add more life to the battlefields by showing more than just your unit and the enemy facing off one-on-one

Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.

Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.

Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience. 

Lessons Learned, Experience Showing

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.

The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Rhea
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Game Reviews

‘Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order’ Is Endearingly Archaic

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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does not feel like a 2019 game; it’s not “always online,” it isn’t “e-sport ready,” and there’s a noticeable (and welcome) absence of micro transactions (it also looks nothing like the much-hyped Crystal Dynamics-developed The Avengers game, recently debuted at E3). In fact, much of the Team Ninja-developed, Nintendo-published Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a throwback to the previous generation of gaming: it’s grind-y, repetitive, and rather simplistic in the RPG elements integrated into the core mechanics. And yet, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year — a wildly entertaining action game with some serious replayability.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place, bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike.

Ultimate Alliance 3 exists in a strange space; it’s not a sequel of the previous two titles in the series (it’s not even set in the same universe), nor is it aligned with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For better or worse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order lives in its own strange little alternate universe, albeit one where Thanos and The Black Order are still trying to assemble the Infinity Stones for cosmically destructive purposes. As one might assume, the game follows its 36 playable heroes as they hunt down the six Infinity Stones across the galaxy.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

The beats of the plot are stunningly obvious to anyone who has read a comic book or seen an MCU film in the past decade, but I’m here to report that Ultimate Alliance 3 has absolutely nothing to say about those stories, nor does it offer a new take or angle on the now-familiar material. Beat-to-beat, Ultimate Alliance 3‘s story is abundantly forgettable, a series of silly scenes constructed for one purpose: to get to the part where everyone uses their super powers and everything turns into an absolute mess of particle effects, attack animations, and beautiful chaos. (Or, in the case of the incredibly brief, embarrassingly boring chapter on the Inhumans, utterly pointless.)

“Chaos” is the best descriptor for the core gameplay loop: like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 sees players controlling a four-person squad, with the ability to shift between characters at the tap of a button (in single-player mode, Ultimate Alliance 3 also supports up to four players in any offline or online mode). Each character has heavy/light basic attacks and four special abilities, the latter of which can be combined in various ways with another teammate’s abilities (called “synergy” attacks) to combat massive waves of AI enemies and bosses.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

There is also a third meter that builds up in order for all four characters to trigger a special ability at the same time. Although it is absolute visual nonsense (an often-incomprehensible mess of animations and effects, despite a rather consistent frame rate), these super abilities are strategic elements in dealing massive damage at key points during combat. (Plus, they look cool.)

Ultimate Alliance 3‘s core mechanics are rather simplistic and familiar: each super hero can be leveled to 100, raising the stats of their abilities, and can apply up to four stat-modifying ISO-8 crystals. Anyone whose played an action-RPG knows the deal here: it’s like Diablo III without grinding for equipment — or for the real fans, like a simplified version of the now-defunct MMO Marvel Heroes. It’s all about progress, leveling up characters to make them more powerful, completing missions, and taking on challenges to unlock ability points on the game’s massive, hexagonal upgrade tree.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

However simplistic its mechanics are, it’s still undeniably satisfying; triggering massive, particle-effect-laden synergy attacks never gets old, even after more than 40 hours spent playing through the story (and its four unlocking difficulty levels), as well as the game’s Infinity Trials, a separate challenge mode which unlocks special characters and alternate costume for completing variety of different objectives. Ultimate Alliance 3 just feels good to play — even despite its occasional problems with camera (especially in local multiplayer mode), and the rather repetitive loop of “kill faceless bad guys in room, leave room, kill more bad guys, kill boss, repeat.”

It would be easy to write off Ultimate Alliance 3 as “not enough of a good thing.” Lazy environmental design, uninspiring graphics, and repetitive combat loops are blatantly obvious shortcomings, bound to underwhelm players upon first impression. But give it time; eventually, Ultimate Alliance 3 reveals the true frenzy in its heart, and becomes a very challenging (and surprisingly punishing) game. At its higher difficulties, this is not an easy experience, which oddly transforms it from a game of persistent progress into one of measured experimentation and demanding execution.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

Ultimate Alliance 3, often to its detriment, doesn’t really engage players with the depth of its combat system. There isn’t a list of synergies to be found in the game, though that might encourage players to experiment with different combinations of characters and abilities, as there’s a bonus system attached to squad construction, where certain combinations of two, three, or four heroes will buff specific traits on all included heroes.

It also doesn’t foreground the strategies that later bosses and trials will require; at high levels, Ultimate Alliance is about efficiency, position, and discipline — about using one’s abilities and team-specific strengths to contain the chaotic challenges Team Ninja’s constructed. After a dry first 3-5 hours, Ultimate Alliance 3 really begins to blossom, each challenge and boss fight becoming a puzzle of team construction, battle strategy, and timing. It takes a bit to get there, but once it unearths its true nature, it transforms into a completely different, much more replayable game.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

That game is based on experimentation and repetition; for those who like their semi-isometric action RPG’s to have some bite, Ultimate Alliance 3 has you covered. The upgrade/refinement ISO-8 system (akin to the Diablo III gem system) alone offers dozens of hours of replay for fine-tuning a team’s stats to optimize runs through the game’s dozens of story chapters and Infinity Trials, the latter of which often come with specific level stipulations and requirements to complete (including both a three-star rating and S+ rank grading system for the real perfectionists).

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t finished yet, either. There are plans to offer both free and paid updates for the near future, in the form of monthly updates and a $20 season pass (for 3 paid DLC character & expansion packs). Cyclops and Colossous are already scheduled to join the roster in a free update on August 30th, and a number of other heroes have already been named, including Moon Knight, Blade, and Punisher (in September 30th’s Marvel Knights: Curse of the Vampire DLC), the Fantastic Four, and others.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

The opportunities really are endless; Ultimate Alliance 3 has the benefit of an incredibly strong foundation, which opens the door for so much ingenuity to be added as the game continues to grow. Adding more characters, chapters, and modes in the future will only further the insane replay value this game offers — especially if the competent-if-bare-bones multiplayer experience is expanded on in any way.

A little ugly, a little short, a little simplistic, a little unwieldy with its menus and uneven story… Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place — a game that’s bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike. It’s a very thin thread to try and weave, but Team Ninja and Nintendo have done it, offering a deep roster of playable characters (Elsa Bloodstone or Crystal, anyone?) and some seriously well-refined gameplay systems, bound to last the most dedicated fans hundreds of hours of gameplay.

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Game Reviews

‘Super Mario Maker 2’ Review: Made With Love

Does Super Mario Maker 2 surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?

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In 2015, the Wii U’s Super Mario Maker made waves as the gold standard for commercial level creators. It offered quick and capable tools for realising two-dimensional Mario fantasies, backed by accessible controls and a thriving community of creators. Four years later Nintendo have followed up on this recipe for success with Super Mario Maker 2. With a toolbox more jam-packed than ever before, and a full-blown story mode, does this Switch heavy hitter surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?

super mario maker 2

Let’s get creative

Super Mario Maker 2 mimics its predecessor’s blueprint, from the interface (bar a few tweaks) to the Coursebot. Players can get busy flexing their making muscles right away though (no more waiting for things to unlock), with bundles of new cool bits to boot. Most notable is night variations for all course themes, lifting the total from a measly six to a whopping twenty (including four brand new course themes in Desert, Snow, Forest, and Sky).

The Super Mario 3D World game style brings a splash of freshness, but the catch: it exists in a realm removed from other game styles, as switching to and from Super Mario 3D World’s game style results in courses resetting. Co-op is a pleasant addition too, although creating courses together on one screen is a tad clunky.

super mario maker 2

Despite stepping away from the Wii U’s ingenious gamepad/touchscreen controls, Super Mario Maker 2 retains its accessibility and intuitive handling whether in docked or handheld. The learning curve is minor, especially for those acquainted with the original. And of course, the quirky music of said original is back in action, entertainingly soundtracking the countless hours players will invest making their masterpieces.

But the star of the show is Super Mario Maker 2’s Course World, granting players an online hub to play and share courses. It’s built on its predecessor with souped-up search features and tagging, so searching course and maker IDs, alongside course properties, is a breeze. Also, nailing a world record on someone’s course is exhilarating, try it.

super mario maker 2

Story time

New to Super Mario Maker 2 is its story mode. Peach’s Castle has been obliterated (or rather, reset by the Undo Dog), and it’s up to Mario and co. to rebuild it. Cue a reason to dive into a spattering of Nintendo made courses that serve to both inspire players’ ideas and serve up a slice of platforming fun to boot.

Despite Super Mario Maker 2’s blatant improvements over its already awesome predecessor, some gripes remain. As versatile as Mario’s toolset is, I forever found myself running into limitations (some totally nonsensical), including:

  • Vertical stages (a quality addition) aren’t available outside sub-areas.
  • Custom scroll (yet another quality addition) isn’t available in sub-areas.
  • Having Mario ride ascending platforms in vertical stages (like an elevator) fixes the camera to the centre of the screen rather than the bottom (giving a poor view of what’s above Mario). This can be alleviated via autoscroll, but it’s a finicky endeavour that should’ve been streamlined.
  • Clear conditions (yet again another quality addition) still demand Mario grabs the flagpole. Tough luck if players want their course to conclude climatically as the finishing blow is dealt to Bowser.
  • Enemy stacking is prevented in the Super Mario 3D World game style (why?).
  • There’s no means to select music independent to a game style and course theme.
  • Amiibo functionality is out the window, so don’t expect Super Mario Maker’s bizarre character transformations.
  • Oh, and the Koopalings are absent. Come on Nintendo, such a breadth of bosses would be a creator’s dream.

super mario maker 2

Super Mario Maker 2 delivers so much, but still plonks a ceiling over players’ imaginations. Perhaps these limitations will be addressed with DLC, but for now, this anticipated sequel falls Shy Guy of its potential. But negatives aside, the hyper additivity of everything on display, and a host of welcome additions to its base formula, result in Super Mario Maker 2 raising the commercial level creator bar once again. Grab a Nintendo Online Membership, get making and playing, and watch the time fly by.

[penci_review id=”156760″]

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Game Reviews

‘Far Cry: New Dawn’: A Post-Apocalyptic American Dream

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Ever since the Far Cry series really hit its mainstream stride with 2012’s third installment of the franchise, it has been hard to imagine the FPS landscape without its titanic presence looming large over the entire genre. With their mix of finely-honed mechanics, breathtaking landscapes, subtle social commentary, and some of the most noteworthy villains in gaming history, the Far Cry games have set the tone and direction of open-world shooter game design for much of the last decade. New Dawn certainly looks to be on trend, as it joins the likes of Rage 2, The Division 2, and Days Gone in painting an entirely new picture of the post-apocalypse; one that I will be examining more closely in an upcoming article.

In the same vein as Blood Dragon and Primal before it, Far Cry New Dawn is the latest standalone expansion of the series’ roster of titles. The hyper-stylized retro-futurist and consciously naturalistic aesthetics of Blood Dragon and Primal respectively, have been blended into one when it comes to the dubstep-infused visuals of New Dawn. It’s a fresh, bold choice of color scheme and style that contrasts starkly to the realism of the environments of Hope County in Far Cry 5.

Far Cry: New Dawn

After the first screenshots and gameplay footage were released to the world, I’ll admit that I was uncertain as to whether or not the flamboyant color scheme would be appropriate for a post-apocalyptic setting. Having played the game though I can safely say that my initial doubts were blown away on the winds that stir vast fields of vibrant flowers, which dominate the landscape, just as surely as the old world was scoured clean by the atomic fires of Joseph Seed’s prophesied Collapse. The rest of the planet may have been reduced to rubble and ash by waves of nuclear fire, but there’s something almost disarmingly Edenic about the way that Hope County weathered the storm to end all storms.

Far Cry: New Dawn

Where other companies might have elected for a more gritty take on life in a post-atomic horror, for example, 4A Games and their Metro series, Ubisoft Montreal opted for a more vivid vision of the end of the world. According to lead artist Isaac Papismado, the team wanted to avoid presenting players with a stereotypical conceptualization of the post-apocalypse. The result is a charmingly beautiful gameworld that subverts expectations across the board.

The natural landscape is enhanced rather than diminished by the remains of human civilization. The repurposed buildings, either inhabited by peaceful settlers or murderous bandits, with their haphazard reconstruction provide suitably ruinous set dressing whilst at the same time functioning as the perfect platforms for engaging gameplay. The combination of borderline excessive natural beauty and crude human habitats makes for a delightful backdrop to the run-and-gun gameplay loop that we’ve all come to know and love.

Far Cry: New Dawn

The most notable settlement is, of course, Prosperity, your home base. As you progress through the game you can acquire resources to improve it, expanding and upgrading the capabilities of your impromptu home. In and of itself it isn’t anything particularly remarkable, but what makes it truly special is that it’s exactly like the kind of home that you can imagine players who grew up playing this kind of game building for themselves at the end of the world.

Its contents include all the creature comforts that a gamer could want, and the layout means that they’re all within a few steps of each other. It’s a compact, efficient hub from which to gradually expand your influence over the remnants of Hope County, and going back there always has that warm feeling of coming home.

Far Cry: New Dawn

When it comes to the gameplay there isn’t really much to say about Far Cry: New Dawn. If you’ve played any of the recent Far Cry games then you’ll know exactly how it functions. That’s by no means a bad thing though. Part of what makes the series so successful is the accessibility and familiarity of its gameplay. After a long hiatus, coming back to Far Cry felt like slipping into an old pair of studded-leather chaps and a spike-shouldered denim vest (post-apocalyptic threads of choice, naturally).

Being able to instantly recall every single control means that there’s no barrier between the player and the game, which means that you’re able to focus entirely on what’s going on in front of you, rather than what your hands are doing with the controller. Interactions with the game world become instinctive to the point of being muscle memory. From gunplay to menu navigation, crafting to world traversal, talking to NPCs and vehicle control, everything about the game plays wonderfully. The fact that all the attendant systems, such as crafting and guns for hire, function in a “no fuss, no muss” manner means that the game just works. It’s never more complicated than it needs to be, and player progress feels completely organic as a direct consequence. It may not be original or unique, but it’s a testament to great game design.

Far Cry: New Dawn

One of the issues I raised in my review of Far Cry 5 was that the world often felt too busy for its own good. There was so much going on that it felt as if the game was never willing to let you have even a moment’s peace and quiet to just take everything in. The same can still be said of New Dawn but, oddly enough, it’s more of a positive point this time around rather than a negative.

No matter which direction you run in or where you choose to go, there is always something going on which makes events feel like they’re happening completely independent of your presence. Wandering groups of bandits will engage in firefights, wild animals roam the hills and forests, and NPCs with missions and snippets of lore will emerge seemingly at random. This makes it so that, regardless of what you decide to do, there is always relevant and meaningful content to engage with, whether it contributes to the main story or not.

Far Cry: New Dawn

In terms of story, New Dawn could have done better but it features enough set-piece moments and carryovers from Far Cry 5 to remain entertaining to the last. Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of the bandit group tormenting Hope County, never manage to achieve the same manic charm of Vaas, the twisted despotic allure of Pagan Min, or the terrifying insightfulness of Joseph Seed, but they serve their purpose well enough to maintain a consistent level of threat.

As I said in my recent review of Rage 2, it’s a shame that games of this style and genre are consistently let down by weak and short narratives. However, it’s such a consistent issue with almost all games like this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a problem at all and not just the nature of the beast. Perhaps what’s more important is that the games remain consistently great to play rather than offering up in-depth and enthralling stories. Their narrative shortcomings, although glaring, can often be overlooked when you focus on how you’re doing what you’re doing in the game instead of why you’re doing it. Gamers and the industry itself would be poorly served if all games were alike in that regard. Sometimes it’s better a game, or series of games, remains true to the core of its design rather than attempt to ape the constituent elements of other genres.

Far Cry: New Dawn

Far Cry: New Dawn may not be the best game in the series, but it’s far from the worst either. The sheer unexpected nature of Blood Dragon meant that it still stands out as the best among the expansions. Primal, with its unique pre-historic setting and low-tech approach to combat, remains something of an oddity. But New Dawn is without a doubt the DLC that Far Cry 5 deserved. Although Dead Living Zombies, Hours of Darkness, and Lost on Mars were interesting in their own right, none of them really should have been released individually. They should either have been self-contained game modes, storylines in the base game itself, or set aside entirely so that Ubisoft had the time and resources to make New Dawn bigger and better than the previous two actual expansions of the third and fourth games. As it stands, however, New Dawn is an intriguing entry in the series and more than a decent game in its own right.

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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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