Connect with us

Game Reviews

‘Stellaris’ — A Strategic Space Opera

Published

on

Stellaris is a game, or at least the concept for one, that I’ve been wanting for a very long time. Marrying the grand strategy of Paradox Interactive and classic 4X space strategy games (read: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) like Galactic Civilizations, Stellaris is poised to be one of the most robust games of its kind. The only question is, can this ambitious hybrid live up to the vastness of its potential?

The short answer is yes. Mostly.

Stellaris Combat

Fleet combat doesn’t have a tactical focus, but ship design options deepen it considerably.

The legacy of Paradox’s rich development history is evident right from the start. Players can create their own alien races before they even begin the game proper, assigning an assortment of different variables in addition to choosing their preferred habitat and phenotype. Once in the game, they’ll then find that political influence is a resource needed to recruit and maintain leadership in various aspects of their society, including the three branches of science research, stellar science exploration done via civilian ships that travel from planet to planet, the governorship of planets and sectors, and the military. War is more complex than most 4X games, requiring that both sides declare goals, meet those specific goals in their war efforts—rather than just rolling over their opponent’s entire empire—and generally deal with the end of the conflict in more diplomatic fashion than galactic genocide.

Alliances with fellow empires are an option, but so are federations of four or more empires, which feature a rotating presidential seat, a position allowing one to make use of the federation fleets and declare war for the group. There is also a huge array of empire government types, migration and slavery options for different species within an empire, vassal and protectorate empires that exist under the sway of a larger group, and the ability to “uplift” and “enlighten” primitive races at various stages of early development. Even a fleet’s basic FTL travel has options. Each empire can choose one of three starting methods: warp technology sets a direct course to a star and travels to it slowly, hyperspace lanes allow for faster travel between systems but are more restrictive and can be subject to bottlenecks, and wormhole technology is even faster, allowing an empire to essentially slingshot its fleets anywhere within range of wormhole generators which need to built, and thus also defended. These are smart additions to the formula that go a long way toward deepening and extending the baseline 4X gameplay, making Stellaris something truly unique compared to its peers.

Galaxy size and empire density can be set manually, and the possibilities are huge.

Thankfully, that base offering itself is solid. The general concepts will be familiar to anyone who has played these kinds of games in the past, and they work as expected. Planets can be colonized, outposts and fortresses built, and neighboring empires negotiated with. Resources must be managed on an empire level, with energy credits (money) and minerals (materials for construction) joining the accruing influence used for political movements and sustaining empire edicts. Research happens along tech trees of the usual type, but the selection of available technologies is semi-random, reflecting that not all empires will develop in the same way. It adds a small but interesting element of surprise that makes every game fresh.

Planet management falls to a Civilization-style grid, with various “pops” or population groups inhabiting different tiles that will in turn provide different benefits to economic or research production. These tiles also support a variety of structures, as do orbital spaceports which allow for further customization. To make the greatest use of these spaces, players must fight the natural obstacles of each world, which can be cleared via researching specific technologies and spending some extra time and resources. In addition, habitable planets—a statistical rarity compared to barren worlds and gas giants—come in several forms, such as continental, desert, ocean, tropical, and arctic worlds. Every species will have its own preferences, meaning that the habitability of any given planet inherently varies by race, making the rush for expansion into the cosmos all the more contentious.

Sectors also help with planet management, allowing one to automate large sections of an empire, which then act as mini-economies that feed back to the player, at least when given enough resources to maintain their infrastructure. This cuts down on a ton of micromanagement given how much territory a player can have at any given time, though it can be slightly frustrating for those who don’t want to give up absolute control. It isn’t optional: only 5 core systems can be maintained without an economic penalty by default, and while this can be increased through research, total control just isn’t an option. That said, even though I personally micromanage city and planetary development in games like this with something approaching glee, I found that my core systems were always enough to keep me busy in Stellaris. As I expanded, bringing new worlds into the fold, I’d only turn them over to a sectorial governor after years of basic infrastructure-building, usually as I was about to make a further push for expansion with more colony ships. The system works as designed if handled correctly, but it does require the player to understand some of its nuances.

Empire complexity ramps up considerably in the mid-game, making sectorial governorship a welcome reprieve.

If it sounds like a lot to consider, it is. Stellaris doesn’t shy away from complexity. Yet it’s considerably more accessible than most past Paradox titles, with fairly decent tutorial options helping acclimate players to the universe. A friendly robot gives a walkthrough of some of the basics, explaining the various screens and their functions as the game progresses, and it’s a decent way to convey information gradually, without being overwhelming. It can’t answer every question or convey the nuances of every system, which players must discover for themselves, but the barrier to entry isn’t unreasonable.

Some of these systems are explored in part through what can best be described as “quests” that appear in a running log. They provide objectives for players to chase after in the early game, and are generally well-written, with interesting flavor text to accompany their progression. These aren’t limited to just tutorializing, however, and various objectives open up as science vessels discover anomalies and research the myriad things hidden about the galaxy. These ongoing concerns are compelling enough that it actually becomes something of a bummer when they largely dry up in the game’s middle portions, after empires have expanded to swallow up most star systems within their ever-increasing borders, and the game does slow down considerably as those options decrease. Players will have to get creative with war and diplomacy to keep things interesting in the mid-game.

And war can certainly take up a lot of one’s attention, given how differently Stellaris does things from your average 4X title. Units come in a several flavors, with civilian construction and research ships flying alongside attack vessels of various sizes and loadouts. The latter represent everything from small corvettes to hulking battleships and carriers, and a robust ship design screen allows players to fine-tune their construction. If that’s too much micromanagement, the computer can auto-update designs as new technology becomes available. The ship design tools are handled expertly, being complex enough to allow for players to meet specific needs in hull, armor, and shield values, while mixing and matching weapons and power sources via a simple system of placing components onto ship hardpoints.

Low-level aggressive and neutral factions exist, bringing the galaxy to life even before other empires are discovered.

This level of customization is necessary because Stellaris doesn’t feature any tactical combat. War more or less boils down to assembling fleets of different ship compositions and throwing them at each other; but this is an overly reductive way of looking at it. While the individual movements and attack patterns of ships can’t be micromanaged, some of their internal logic can be altered by swapping out the “combat computer” of a given design. The changes are extremely basic, but can be used with complimentary sibling ship designs to create useful dynamics within a fleet. While this means there are no micro-level tactical decisions to make during combat, modifying weapon loadouts and defensive measures adds a tactical element to warfare as players change builds to deal with new threats. In addition, the simplicity of any particular combat encounter becomes welcome as campaigns progress in length, since huge empires with multiple ongoing conflicts would have a hard time managing the details of every battle given the game’s real-time nature.

Yes: eschewing the classic turn-based approach, Stellaris is a real-time strategy game, but don’t let this cause you undue alarm. The pace is slow, the game is pausable, and the speed is adjustable on the fly. There is no need for manic rushing, and given the largely fire-and-forget methodology of the combat, players will have plenty of time to attend to the needs of their empire. This feels even less like an RTS than the well-liked hybrid Sins of a Solar Empire, and shouldn’t overly frustrate turn-based gameplay purists. The overall flow lends itself to a real-time nature, also allowing for the varying FTL methods that empires can choose, and a real-time clock keeps the longer mid-game stretches of production from devolving into clicking the “end turn” button over and over again. The game is technically even pausable in multiplayer games, but only by the host, which is handy if everyone needs to stretch and grab a snack.

Planet management is straightforward, but must be managed carefully to best maintain your empire.

These multiplayer options aren’t neglected, either, with online matches supporting up to 32 players. Good luck finding that many friends, of course, but it’s nice to have the option for huge community-driven games if those opportunities presents themselves. You can also throw AI empires into the mix, or set yourself as an observer and watch AI empires duke it out over the course of centuries all by themselves.

Unfortunately, not everything is quite so rosy. There are problems with the current state of the game, most notably a selection of bugs that affect wars undertaken alongside AI alliance partners, empires generally being a bit too passive about declaring war on players (or helping out allies in wars they might have a vested interest in seeing won), and a few other bugs associated with endgame events that keep them from working as intended.

This last is truly unfortunate, as the galaxy-wide crises that develop as campaigns go toward the final stretches are an incredible addition to the standard formula. Instead of getting so huge and powerful that you can simply steamroll the universe, a number of late-game disasters can occur which are capable of affecting multiple empires or even the entire galaxy, sometimes forcing unlikely alliances. Combined with the overly-passive AI, however, it doesn’t always quite work as effectively as it could, leaving the responsibility largely with the player, which is a problem if they can’t get to the affected areas of space quickly enough to deal with the issues at hand. One of the events is also bugged to the point where players can’t successfully rid themselves of the problem, which can in some cases render a savegame nearly unplayable. The specifics of these events are too much fun to spoil in a review, but suffice it to say that if the issues can be patched, these events represent a wealth of harrowing excitement to shake up what in other titles can sometimes be a dull slog toward the finish line.

It's easy to design a custom empire to fit almost any taste, and the art designs are wonderful.

It’s easy to design a custom empire to fit almost any taste, and the art designs are wonderful.

Stellaris is a lovingly crafted product that, imperfections aside, captures many aspects of what makes so-called “grand strategy” so grand, and presents them in a more accessible package with a ton of personality. It looks the part, with decent ship designs, a nice-looking galaxy filled with beautiful stars and planets, and a huge number of alien species with tons of unique portrait art to go with them—arthropoid, avian, reptilian, molluscoid, mammalian, fungoid, you name it. The music and sound are pleasing, and the interface is robust and functional. While there are some problems, Paradox has a history of long-term support for their games in the form of both extensive patches and (mostly) worthwhile DLC options, which means that the existing wealth of content is hopefully only the beginning. There are some bugs to fix and some areas which need fleshing out, diplomacy in particular, but even as it stands, Stellaris is an accomplished game that no fan of strategy or space exploration should miss.

Michael J. Riser writes weird fiction and articles about videogames. He occasionally posts stuff at Bookruptcy.com, and (more frequently) @Quemaqua on Twitter.

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.

Published

on

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

Continue Reading

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.

Published

on

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
Continue Reading

Game Reviews

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

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?

Published

on

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″]

Continue Reading

Game Reviews

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Freelance Film Writers

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.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

Advertisement

Trending

Share
Tweet
Reddit
Pin