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Xbox E3 2019: The Good, the Bad, and the etc.

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Microsoft went into this year’s E3 with a veritable open goal. Sony’s absence from proceedings left them as the only console manufacturer to be putting on a press conference. Surely it wouldn’t be a wholly underwhelming waste of everyone’s time, right? Let’s get into the good, the bad, and the rest.

The Good

The Xbox show got to unveil (provided you hadn’t seen the leaks) a new FromSoftware game, and in collaboration with George R. R. Martin, no less! The man who didn’t screw up the end of the Game of Thrones TV show — unless you find him guilty through the absence of his book material to keep things in order — looks like he’s reined Miyazaki and the lads back into the dragony, swordy, magicy, fantasy stuff with Elden Ring. There wasn’t any gameplay to look at, but there was a bloke with a spear who looked like he did a Dark Souls-esque thrust attack, so let’s hope that it’s sticking with what FromSoftware do best. The addition of Martin surely means a more story-focused approach akin to Sekiro, and an amalgamation of Souls and Sekiro could be very interesting indeed.

The Almost Good

Probably the biggest surprise of the whole presentation was the culmination of the seven-year teaser from Sonic Team that Phantasy Star Online 2 would get an English release. It will arrive in spring 2020 in the US for Xbox One and PC, and will have cross play, which is a legitimate near-miracle after this long, and even more so on such a Western-oriented platform. What sucks (for me and my European brethren) is that it’s not slated to come to Europe yet, if at all. Sega have since tweeted, “There’s nothing to confirm right now. We understand it’s frustrating, but when we have more news to share, we will.” Do you understand, Sega? Do you?! With the region-free capabilities of the Xbox One, this won’t be that much of an issue, but still.

Mech yeah! Y’know. Like heck yeah. But Mechs.

The Not Good Enough

Microsoft knows that PS5 is probably going to be unveiled later this year when Sony decides the time is right, so they could have smashed E3 out of the park with a dazzling showcase of their new console. While it did get announced, it was a really vague and half-baked announcement. I’m nervous about the fact that Phil Spencer said “next new console” a couple times instead of “next generation console,” so I won’t be a true believer until I see that it’s not a streaming machine or another Xbox One iteration.

We got lots of impressive statements — 4x more powerful than One X, capable of 120fps, able to output in 8K, raytracing technology, an SSD, a 40x performance increase over current gen, and a release date of holiday 2020 — but what we didn’t get is a picture of the thing, or even a proper name outside of its Project Scarlett codename. The next generation of consoles certainly sounds capable of providing beautiful, smooth, loading-free gaming, but at the moment it’s just words. Sexy-yet-empty words.

Ah, dammit. I got Master Chief all over my windshield.

Scarlett’s launch title, Halo Infinite, got a trailer that may have looked like an Xbox One game because I was watching footage of it on my measly Xbox One X, but I wasn’t overly impressed (or even convinced) that it was indicative of what a Scarlett game will look like. Obviously there’s so much more to come, but just saying specs at people and having a big circle jerk over some numbers is not what the E3 stage should be used for.

The Bad

Well, Gears POP is obviously just the worst, but Gears of War 5 didn’t exactly do anything mind-blowing here either. First, Rod Ferguson’s garish fluorescent green shoes are a disgrace. He came out in his snot green sock-protectors to show us a wholly underwhelming trailer that tried to make us care about one of the crappy new generation Gears characters, and had absolutely no gameplay. Much like Halo Infinite, you could probably close your eyes and imagine all the gameplay that Gears 5 will have in it, but it would have been nice to see something more than a modern version of the Mario 64 menu screen.

It’s-a-me, Kate Diaz!

What made the Gears 5 segment even worse were the tone deaf attempts to make gamers still care about pre-orders. To be fair, they realized that a game releasing on Game Pass is likely to attract pre-orders from absolutely nobody, so they decided to lock the ‘Ultimate Edition’ behind Game Pass Ultimate subscriptions. Of course, if you get this version you can play it early, and of course you get more stuff in game. Don’t be fooled, kids. Stop pre-ordering games. Especially if that pre-order gets you a bloody in-game Terminator skin.

The Ballsy

We Happy Few in the montage that opened the show? My, my — look at the big balls on Xbox. Rather than Men in Black that game from our collective memories, there it was, representing the platform like it wasn’t a glorious symbol of suck fuckery. I almost admired it.

Why was this in the opening segment? Who wants to see this game again?

The Shouty

I know they’re all outside already, but do any of the characters in Dragon Ball Kakarot have an inside voice? Quiet down, you damn kids.

Xbooooooooooooox!

The Slightly Better

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order had a slightly better showing here than it did during EA Play, chiefly because Xbox decided to cut a trailer full of bombastic music and action-packed moments rather than show some gameplay of a dude walking down corridors, squeezing through small gaps, and getting a robot to open doors. It’s still up in the air whether this will be up to the standards of the classic Jedi games Academy and Outcast, let alone an improvement on the Star Wars game EA cancelled last year, but Xbox did it as much of a solid as it could.

Ah, dammit. I got Forest Whitaker all over my windshield.

The Beautiful

The trailer for Ori and the Will of Wisps is so damn sexy it could probably impregnate people. The release date still seems miles off (Feb 2020), but nobody can claim that serious work isn’t being put into it, as it looks absolutely astounding.

What is a wisp anyway?

The Ugly  

My word, State of Decay 2 is ugly. Not only did the expansion look really low-budget, but that game has clearly fallen off a cliff so much that it didn’t even get a single clap — even from the obvious plants in the audience who basically burst into rapturous applause every time Phil Spencer paused for breath.

The realest hair I’ve ever seen.

The Familiar

And here comes Obsidian with the latest Fallout game! Oh, hang on…that’s not a Fallout game. Wait, that’s not a Fallout game? Well, I’ll reserve judgement until I play it, because until I do I’m not convinced, as it really looks like a Fallout game. Obsidian have got a lot of retrospective praise for Fallout: New Vegas — a game everyone seems to forget ran about as well as an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping — and Bethesda are clearly incapable of making anything decent anymore, so if Obsidian want to rip off Fallout and make The Outer Worlds the new big name in futuristic Western RPGs, then they can go right ahead.

50’s American aesthetic? Bad guys in robot suits? Nah, not Fallout at all…

The Not Minecraft

Minecraft: Dungeons is Minecraft without the mines or the crafting. Sounds like a good Minecraft game to me.

The Bait and Switch

Am I the only person who thought that the first minute of the Blair Witch trailer was a Silent Hill 2 remake? I’m convinced it was deliberate, and I’m also convinced that Blair Witch is a terrible movie that should only be translated to a game if it doesn’t feature a map at any point because Heather lost it.

As if Konami would actually make something Silent Hill related that isn’t in a Pachinko parlor.

The Booty

There’s a man named Matt Booty.

Cool.

The Lego

As a Brit, I love the fact that Forza Horizon 4 is set in a mock version of the UK. The road signs, the roundabouts, the driving on the left, the cottages, the Edinburgh — I love it. Granted, Legoland is also in the UK, but that doesn’t mean I want to go there, and I certainly don’t want to go there and trade in a Lamborghini for a car made of plastic bricks. Is there some kind of underground Car Enthusiast Lego Club I don’t know about? Because, seriously, what was that Lego DLC all about?

Everything is not awesome. Nothing will ever be awesome again.

The Jerky

If it was just my stream messing up, then I apologize, but the frame rate in the 12 Minutes trailer looked on the same level as a CCTV camera. An interesting idea took my attention and jerked it right into apathy.

This trailer was jerking for 12 minutes. Think about it. Gross.

The Censored

What was with all the bleeping and censoring? When I saw the M rating right after the conference countdown ended, I thought we were in for some raucous good times, and instead we actually got bleeped swear words in the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer, and even a blacked-out middle finger in the Borderlands 3 trailer. We did get tons of violence and gore, however, sometimes immediately following a bleeped-out word. Because it’s OK to violently murder someone, just as long as we don’t say big bad naughty words.

Oooooh, matron!

The Lore

That’s right, Spartans — 343 Industries cares about your Halo lore! Don’t believe them? Did you not see the Halo Mythos on that dev’s desk? How dare you besmirch their reverence!

The Expensive

If that Elite 2 controller doesn’t cost over $100, then I’ll give you over $100.

The Baba Yaga

Keanu Reeves is cool, ain’t he? Sad Keanu seemed a million miles away during his cameo in the Cyberpunk 2077 segment — probably because a room full of nerds were losing their collective minds over him. The way he was struggling to keep his concentration amongst all the audience’s fanboy hysteria was adorable.

He’s right, I am breathtaking.

The Verdict

Xbox had the chance to have its most memorable E3 ever, and it severely missed the mark. While they didn’t do anything egregiously wrong, they didn’t really wow anybody either. Project Scarlett sounds impressive, but this felt like the most underwhelming console announcement since the Wii U.

Aside from a few interesting new games, there wasn’t much razzmatazz here, and the whole thing should rightly call into question whether we really need to bother with this E3 thing anymore. Microsoft is making all the right moves at the moment — acquiring studios, developing new hardware, focusing on backwards compatibility, having excellent subscription models, and keeping things about the games — but it was all so thoroughly low key. I almost have to keep reminding myself they announced a next gen console is coming out in 18 months. That should be huge! Instead, it’s just decidedly medium-sized. Still, that dude had a really good beard.

His beard scared away his mustache. Awesome.

7/10 would Keanu again

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes ranting about the latest gaming news in his weekly column.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. OxaI

    June 16, 2019 at 10:43 pm

    Fuck Microsoft…. I’m done with Phil Spencer and the shittY xbone. I never even felt like a gamer these pass five years of xbone one and thier buggy and problemacric hardware. If the next play station isn’t out when project scarlet gets pooped I’ll get me a ps4 pro and sit there

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Games

Nintendo Through the Years: 1984

1984 was the year before Nintendo released the NES in North America. Let’s look at the steps the company took in preparation for its global assault.

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Ah, 1984. The year that Big Brother was invented (or something like that), and – more pertinent to this article – a year after the Nintendo Famicom was invented. If you don’t know what the Famicom is, shut down your computer, call your parents and apologize for how much of a failure you are, turn your computer back on, read the previous article, call your parents back and tell them you’re on a path to personal betterment, and then come back to my welcoming arms.

1984 was, of course, the year before Nintendo released the NES in North America, and while that may seem like it could render this article as something of a ‘filler episode,’ it’s interesting (trust me) to take note of the steps the company took in preparation for its global assault on the social lives of millions. Also interesting is the state of the industry Nintendo was gearing up to join, as the fallout from 1983’s crash of the North American games industry was very much being felt throughout ’84.

All of that, and more, are coming up, but first let’s have a little chat about a promotion for a certain genius, shall we?

Gettin’ Shiggy With It

Miyamoto was riding high in 1984 (in fact, he probably has been ever since 1981). Fresh off his arcade successes, he was rightly set to swap the barrel-bombarded ladders of Donkey Kong to the bastard-bombarded ladders of the executive corporate world. Yamauchi had previously split his R&D departments into three divisions. Division 1 was run by the hero of the previous article, Gunpei Yokoi; Division 2 was under the control of Famicom designer Masayuki Uemura; and future inventor of battery-saves, Genyo Takeda, was boss of the third. Shiggy was about to get jiggy all over Division 4.

Now in charge of his own division, the Shigmeister was tasked solely with creating games for the Famicom. No more literal monkeying around in the arcade market, this was Nintendo’s new generation of game development, and luckily there was a genius at the helm. One of Miyamoto’s first acts was to hire Takashi Tezuka – who had just finished up part-time work on the graphics of arcade title Super Punch Out!! – as a designer on his first Famicom game: Devil World.  

Miyamoto

Tezuka graduated from the Osaka University of Arts, where I’m assuming he majored in bullshit, because, despite Devil World playing a lot like Pac-Man, the cheeky git claimed he had no idea what Pac-Man was prior to the development of his own game. And people say millennials are clueless, eh? Apparently, after being the last person in the games industry to play Pac-Man, Tezuka was able to use what he learned for Devil World. If you have no idea what Devil World is, you’re probably from the US. Your lot decided it was a little too ‘Bibley’ for them, so it was never released. And to think the Portuguese got kicked out of Japan for all their Jesus stuff. If anything, it was really progressive for the Far East.

It was a relatively modest beginning on the Famicom for the great Miyamoto, but if you stick around there are definitely some better times for him ahead.

I Got This New Console, Fam

By 1984, the Famicom was pulling up some serious cherry blossom trees, having sold three million units. Not bad for just over five months, especially considering that the console was basically serving as a hub for arcade ports at the start of the year. The console was still some ways from unveiling its killer app, and its output of games in 1984 is a veritable ‘who cares’ of sports games, shooters and arcade ports. You know, the type of shite Nintendo has flooded the NES Online Switch library with so far.

It’s probably a little spiteful to shit-talk the early Famicom titles too much, as they clearly represent a company warming up and setting the stage for an immensely popular console.  Among the ‘highlights’ were Clu Clu Land, Urban Champion, ports of Donkey Kong 3 and Pac-Man, and Miyamoto’s second Famicom title Excite Bike. It’s interesting to look at the earliest console video games, because so many of them were firsts in their genre that they required almost little-to-no salesmanship. 1984 boasted titles with such linguistic acts of poetry as Tennis, Pinball, Golf, and F1 Race. Truly unforgettable.

Nintendo famicom

All was going well at home, but Nintendo was looking to join the big American party, so it needed to put the feelers out. Nintendo had sought to tempt Atari to bring the Famicom to the US the previous year, but Atari couldn’t cope with it in the aftermath of the ‘83 crash. Their next steps to breach the US market was to tour the Famicom – ‘cunningly’ titled as the ‘Advanced Video System’ – across American trade shows. In the wake of the market crash, Nintendo decided that it should try to advertise it as a home computer rather than a dirty, stinkin’ console. To complete the disguise, they unveiled it alongside a keyboard peripheral; most likely to compliment launch title Family Basic. Naturally, this ruse was about as convincing as a giraffe in dark glasses trying to get into a “Polar Bears Only” golf club, and the Advanced Video System was laughed out of each and every building.

The Hunt Begins

Not all Famicom games released in 1984 were arcade ports or one-word descriptions of sports, as the biggest title of the year – certainly in terms of pushing the system towards breaking into the American market – was Duck Hunt. Y’know, ‘cause guns. Not my opinion, people, the opinion of Nintendo.

duck hunt

We all know the game by now, you and your doggo pal are out for to cull a flock of ducks, and rightly so, as their numbers seem to have skyrocketed to an almost infinite amount. Your canine chum will dive into the tall grass to flush out the poor bastards, and you lay waste with by pointing your light gun at the screen and getting triggered. Literally.

The Japanese version of the game is an interesting one, in that its light gun is very different to NES Zapper we’re all accustomed to here in the west. Resembling an old west six-shooter, it perhaps spoke to the misjudged impression of rootin’ tootin’, gun-slingin’ American consumers. Someone clearly pointed out that, come time to release the NES in the US, marketing a replica revolver to children was a bit much – especially with the growing number of US cases involving the replica guns being used in actual crimes in the late ‘80s – hence the grey laser blaster we all know and love.

Nintendo famicom pistol

Also, you can shoot the dog in the Japanese version. So, yeah, probably best you don’t give impressionable American kiddly-winks handguns and let them shoot their virtual pets, eh? Either way, Duck Hunt and the light gun began to convince Minoru Arakawa that the Famicom could be marketable in North America, even with its market in tatters. Speaking of which…

A Harsh Mistress

One can’t talk about Nintendo in ‘the year after the year before’ without checking in on the sorry-ass state of the rest of the video games industry, if you could even call it an industry in ’84. Fresh off the ET incident of ’83, Atari was in a right old state. ColecoVision was putting the graphics and arcade ports of the 2600 to shame, and the 5200 wasn’t backwards compatible with 2600 games, even though Intellivision II was. Launching as it did with little more than updated versions of 2600 games anyway, it was a disaster.

As a result, fed-up Warner Communications Inc. were pretty much done with the whole home video game scene for losers. They got rid of the whole lot – selling off Atari IPs, the Atari logo and trademark, and even inventories of Atari home video game hardware and software to Tramel Technology. This effectively split the company, as while Warner Communications closed its domestic video game and computer divisions, it retained the arcade division – renaming Atari Inc. to Atari Games. Tramel themselves gave Warner permission to do this, while renaming themselves as Atari Corporation. You got all that?

Atari

All this buggering about strongly hampered the release of Atari’s upcoming console, the Atari 7800 (originally known as the Atari 3600). After the initial Californian release of the console in June 1984, The Tramel sale meant that plans to mass market-release the console were shelved a month later. The reason for this? If you think it’s not nonsensical corporate silliness, then you’re really underestimating mid-80s Atari.

The 7800 was developed by General Computer Corporation rather than Atari themselves, which was a great cost-saving measure in that it cost them absolutely nothing… because nobody paid them for it. Tramel owner, and holocaust survivor, Jack Tramiel assumed his initial takeover payment was going to cover the debt, but he was sadly wrong. He ended up relenting and paid GCC in 1985, with the 7800 releasing nationwide in May 1986.

If I Can Make it There…

Nintendo loved their home console, and so did Japanese consumers. The global potential was there, and they were desperate to crack North America. They were ready, but the market, especially the retailers, wasn’t, so they needed a way to dip a proverbial toe into foreign waters rather than adding another passenger to a sinking ship.  

Enter the Nintendo VS. System. Initially devised by Yamauchi as a way to update Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. cabinets, these multiplayer arcade cabinets would be fitted with beefed-up versions of Famicom games and shipped to the States. About 30 different games were released from 1984 into the following couple years, including Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Dr. Mario, Ice Climber, and Duck Hunt.

Nintendo

Obviously, releasing games in the arcade before porting to the home wasn’t exactly a lightning-in-a-bottle new idea, as it had been done throughout the decade already, but Nintendo was well aware that North American kids were still ploughing quarters into arcade cabinets, and this was their way to hook them for what was about to come next. To say it worked is an understatement, but we’ll get to that next time.

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Games

12 Years in the Zone: ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl’

Like Dark Souls, Shadow of Chernobyl can be hostile, unfriendly, and off-putting.

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‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl’

Near the road, listening to campfire blues. Someone’s guitar gently weeps as fellow wanderers shut their eyes. Irradiated monsters await nearby yet nothing matters now but this safe space of camaraderie. The poetry of this moment is how missable it is. Players are not asked to contemplate it. There is no dialogue and no cinematic; it does not end a sidequest or activate one. Just slouching men resting to music. Tomorrow will see them again on some Ukrainian wasteland, searching for valuable artifacts sometimes guarded by unspeakable fiends. Another day in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Open world games tend to have pacing problems, partly because players are the ones who set the rhythm. There is usually a central plot thread crisscrossed by dozens of optional tasks. It can often happen that the latter are a distraction while the former is boring. But what if an open-world game had both excellent additional content – missions worth completing, quests worth undertaking – and an intriguing story that led players through a path of increasing complexity and tension? And what if, despite a plethora of options, the gameplay were consistently fun, intense, and gratifying, without lulls?

That game exists. 12 years ago, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World released what remains one of the moodiest, most frightening and distressing videogames ever made, a reimagining of Roadside Picnic, the celebrated science fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers that inspired the similarly beloved 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker. The European studio took elements from their predecessors – the geopolitical and economic aspects of one, the mystical and existential dread of the other – and spun their own brilliant version.

Book and film were released prior to the Chernobyl disaster, but have henceforth been linked with it. In Roadside Picnic, extraterrestrials briefly touch down on our planet before continuing their journey elsewhere, leaving their trash behind. These alien objects are basically magical to human beings, so they’re sought after by both military and black market dealers. Which is where the “stalkers” come in, sneaking into the fenced-off landing sites, or “zones,” in search of fantastic loot. Tarkovsky trimmed most of these specifics and retained only the idea of zones – where supernatural incidents may or may not be happening – and of the stalkers who infiltrate them, no longer for loot so much as contact with the transcendent and sublime. After the nuclear plant near Pripyat broke down in 1986, sending radioactive material all the way to Italy and Moldova, the subsequent Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was inevitably associated with the aforementioned.

GSC Game World amalgamated these sources, from page, screen, and history, and mixed them up with first-person conventions and open world mechanics. Players control The Marked One, a wounded stalker who wakes up right outside the Zone. Like dozens of videogame protagonists before him, he’s lost his memory. But he has two clues to his identity: a tattoo on his arm and a helpful note on his PDA: “Kill Strelok.” As players uncover his past – and inevitably advance towards Pripyat and Chernobyl – they also discover what’s befallen the neighborhood. As it happens, a second meltdown left behind a landscape of radioactive patches; deadly anomalies; strange artifacts that sometimes come packaged with inexplicable perks, like increased endurance; mutated animals; zombified former stalkers; and what can only be described as hellspawn.

Linear progression, from the outskirts of the Zone to the infamous plant, is married to typical open-world nuts and bolts. There are factions in territorial disputes, which players can ignore or get involved in; random people who ask random favors, some of them exceedingly dangerous, the sort they should never expect a stranger to accept; and those awkward notes only people in videogames seem to leave behind, with precise indications to treasures and weapons.

Players can effortlessly juggle main and side quests, and all of them are compelling because of one simple reason: not the plot, not the dialogue, not the lore, but the environment. No matter where players go and why – to track a lost family rifle, find a hidden stash, meet someone – the whole adventure of getting there is rife with dangers and memorable encounters.

Early on, some players may be tempted to run across the fields, face reddened by the afternoon sun. But such bucolic saunters are promptly interrupted by the million and one things out there in the Zone. Step over a hill and you may inadvertently stumble into a radiated anomaly, everything around you quivering like a mirage as you’re jostled left, right, and away from your computer in righteous indignation. Stand under a tree and a pack of ravenous dog-things may decide to play fetch with your legs. Crash an abandoned house and you may discover it’s occupied by gun-happy bandits. Get distracted and your head may be blown off by snipers so far away they might as well be camping in a different videogame.

Shadow of Chernobyl is savage. It’s up there with some of the classics of anxiety: System Shock 2, Alien: Isolation, etc. They don’t trade in jump scares. Opponents are too deadly, too smart. They don’t need the element of surprise, though they nevertheless often possess it. Players can sneak or engage, but neither is easy. Gunfights can be chaotic and messy – especially when faced with growling, cloaking, hunched, bloodsucking mutants. And they’re just the entrée in this infernal banquet.

Patience tends to be the best tactic. Approach every corner like you would a gate into your worst nightmare. Don headphones and listen for the clicking of your Geiger counter. Recognize danger areas and bypass them. Clothe yourself in midnight darkness. Love open spaces, fear ruined cities and manufacturing plants, and treat underground laboratories like battles for your soul.

Like Dark Souls, Shadow of Chernobyl can be hostile, unfriendly, and off-putting. The most innocent stroll can quickly devolve into a breathless struggle against radiation poisoning, human aggression, and posthuman otherness. Players come to cherish infrequent resting spots and watering holes, like the 100 Rads bar, where they can relax, nod to the mellow instrumental beats of “Gurza Dreaming,” drink to dearly departed stalkers, and chat with patrons or the barman. Then it’s back outside, to deteriorating industrial territories crawling with monsters or swamplands infested by the undead.

For the unacquainted, the appeal of such a grueling, stressful experience can be difficult to understand. But veterans get it. Videogames that offer such a continuous all-embracing challenge are teeming with life, despite or maybe because of the constant proximity of virtual death. Each square mile is a self-contained epic. There are no dull stretches of nothing between waypoints or mission locations. Each surface can either hide horrors or shield you from them. To put it fancifully: the entire digital world is activated, burning with interactive possibilities, like a heat map on fire, everything the red of potential or ongoing activities. Such videogames demand absolute, unyielding attention, and can be exhausting. But in retrospect, players might realize that, while scouring Ukrainian wreckage, they were more aware, more awake, more in-the-moment than in other, less demanding titles. And that feeling is worth more than the price of admission – and of lost sleep.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl

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Game Reviews

‘Judgment’ Review: No OBJECTION here

Judgment is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

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Judgment Game Review

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio don’t make perfect games; they make special games. Anyone with a vested interest in the developer’s Yakuza series will be well aware of the cult-level of fandom that surrounds these quirky, violent, and gripping titles. Despite the hugely increased Western exposure Sega’s given these games in the current generation, being a fan of RGG Studio’s work still feels like something of an exclusive club for those who ‘get it’; those who can embrace the weird and wonderful world of Kamurocho and its oddball denizens. As a spin-off (of sorts) with the same virtual setting, and built in the same game engine, Judgment probably won’t be signing up too many new club members, but those already ingratiated into the insanity will find a lot to love.

Judgment may be set in Kamurocho, but its plot is completely new and doesn’t have any links to the Yakuza titles. Players take control of Takayuki Yagami, who’s currently working as private investigator after his first, and only, criminal case as a defense lawyer saw him secure the acquittal of a murder suspect who, upon his release, went on to kill his own girlfriend. ‘Tak’ runs the Yagami Detective Agency alongside his partner Masaharu Kaito, a former Yakuza member of the Matsugane family. Because of course there are Yakuza in this game.

If Judgment didn’t do this, we’d all be rightly disappointed.

Considering series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is rarely ever actually in the Yakuza, the Japanese gangsters probably have about as much of a role as antagonists in Judgment as they always do. This time, as well as constantly starting fights with Yagami, the Yakuza secure their role in proceedings via the distinction of being murdered by a serial killer and having the eyes gouged out of their corpses. In their quest to uncover the truth, Yagami and his partner find themselves fighting – both figuratively and very, very literally – against myriad foes, including a variety of Yakuza clans, the local police department, prosecutors, the Ministry of Health, journalists, and more.

Being a private investigator means Yagami can’t focus on just one serial killer to pay the bills, and there are 50 side cases to fill out the lengthy main plot. They’re mostly brilliant, genuinely intriguing, typically hilarious, and stuffed full of the type of risqué material that has become a staple of RGG’s games, and Polygon writers’ nightmares. It’s pretty standard for one of these games to present an incredibly complex and dramatic plot supported by utterly ridiculous side quests, and for the non-sensationalist fan this is both a mandatory inclusion and the source of countless memorable moments. I’ll certainly never forget roping a vampire into doing community service, or chasing down a bald male idol’s “hat” (see: wig), only to have him apologise and explain that, “it’s a really fast hat.”

The noise this ‘hat’ makes when it blows in the wind is comedy gold.

It can be a little jarring to see so many shockingly sex-related story beats end with well-meaning humility, but the writing quality of RGG consistently bails them out of controversy. The women of Kamurocho are almost constantly being stalked, harassed, or just plain paraded in front of horny salarymen. It seems that RGG is aware of the outside world’s perspective of this facet of modern Japanese culture, and is often quick to condemn anything that could, and should, be seen as out-of-touch. They could, of course, just take it all out in the first place, but where’s the fun in that? Yagami is the player’s window into the debauched world of the Tokyo underbelly. His insightful reactions humorously pick apart this questionable culture in a way that likely mirrors your average westerner’s attempts to fathom characters like Ass Catchem and Judge Creep ‘n’ Peep.

Yagami can gain boosts by both drinking and smoking, engage in illegal underground gambling, have four girlfriends on the go at once (which I did purely for the trophy), and is absolutely not averse to smacking seven shades of Shichifuku Street out of anyone who messes with his cause for justice. You know what, though? If Judgment, and the Yakuza games before it, didn’t throw open this window into wacky Japanese culture with the enthusiasm that it does then it just wouldn’t be credible, and would be a damn sight less fun. It might be shocking, but it’s a truly joyful experience that pokes fun at itself with snappy, witty writing and a bevy of interesting characters completely devoid of tired tropes or insipid dialogue. It’s all turned up to 11, and that’s why I love it.

What sport do you think you should play based on your butt?

Being built in the Yakuza 6 engine ensures that general gameplay feels, well, pretty much exactly like Yakuza 6. Naturally, Yagami has his own unique fighting ability – which he employs a darn site more than he does any actual detective work – that consists of two styles: crane and tiger. Crane is a faster, more agile fighting style and is recommended to be used against large groups of mooks, whom you’ll be squaring off against 90% of the time. Most of the EX special moves for this style are focused around crowd control, whereas the tiger style is better suited for one-on-one battles (aka bosses) and is a much more visceral and power-based approach.

There are tons of potential weapons lying around all over the city, including the obligatory bicycles, and Yagami has easily some of the best EX special moves of all RGG’s games. Befriending local shop owners allows for context-sensitive help, usually in the form of some variant of burning hot food to throw in the eyes or force down the gullet of some hapless schmuck. Better still are the tag team moves available whenever Yagami has a buddy in tow, and the cherry on the icing on the cake is the traffic-based finishers – one of which is probably my favorite of all time.

This is awesome, and it’s not even the one I mentioned as my favorite.

It’s not all fighting, though, and the main appeal of Judgment is in its potential for a more methodical, puzzle-based, detective campaign. It’s, unfortunately, a potential that isn’t as well-realized as many would have hoped. There are a couple of lock-picking mini games which are completely unremarkable (and barely used after the first couple of hours), a scene-analyzing first person mode used to dig up clues, and a tailing mechanic. The latter is employed the most by far, and my word does it get boring by the game’s end. Slowly walking after a target that will routinely turn around out of trepidation is not fun, and it’s made even less fun thanks to the wonky hiding mechanic that supposedly lets Yagami duck behind obvious cover points to avoid detection.

I say obvious cover, but I believe that my definition of obvious differs from that of the developer’s. Sometimes a car will be cover, other times it won’t be, and you’ll be stuck standing with head poking over the top of a car smashing the circle button expecting Yagami to do the thing he’s done dozens of times before. Same goes for certain light boards and walls. It’s basically a crapshoot that often left me running around in the open like a total maniac, and an obvious one at that. For some reason, each target has a meter that tracks how much they’ve noticed the really conspicuous man flailing around behind a car and knocking people over, so if that meter never gets filled then you can just duck behind whatever bit of cover is the correct one and they’ll react like they didn’t see a thing.

Okay, Maybe a Few Objections…

The biggest disappointment is that it leaves Judgment feeling like another Yakuza game with a few uninspired additions rammed down your throat, rather than the standalone experience it tried to market itself as. The detective angle definitely works from a story perspective, but it barely alters the gameplay in any meaningful, or satisfying, way. Unless you count flying a drone directly upwards to press X by a second-floor window, or wearing a disguise to walk into a room and press X by someone you want to spy on.

10/10 would one-liner again.

Undeniably worse than the misstep of not fully utilizing the investigative elements is the inclusion of the Keihen Gang invasion events. These happen way too often, and are guaranteed to always abruptly halt whatever story process you’re making. They essentially boil down to the owner of a Chinese restaurant (I have no idea why) texting Yagami telling him that the Keihen Gang are back causing mayhem, and you’re then left with a threat meter to try and whittle down.

I say try, but you’ll basically be forced to do this, as Yagami will be jumped by goons every 20 seconds or so, and there will be up to four gang leaders chillin’ on random corners waiting for a good ol’ fashioned, mano a mano slobberknocker. These bastards all have the ability to deal mortal wounds to Yagami, which manifest as a permanent health drain that requires an expensive medical kit to remove. Yay. It’s a completely needless bit of padding that can really spoil the flow of player progress. Worse still, the rewards for fighting them off, and the overall impact on the game’s narrative, are completely negligible and not worth anyone’s time.

Dice & Cube is another of the new mini games. It sucks.

Time is something that you better have ready if you’re wanting to fully beat Judgment, as anyone familiar with the Yakuza series will already know. I beat the game after just over 50 hours, completing all but three side quests and missing a couple of the 45 friends Yagami can make in the city, and that was still only listed as 63.7% completion. Kudos, as well, to the new drone races mini game, and the brilliant arcade ‘light gun’ game Kamuro of the Dead.

You certainly can’t complain that Judgment doesn’t offer value for money. In a world where most games are intent to charge real-world money for extra character skins or maps, Judgment is content to take your initial investment, throw a 50-hour campaign at you and still make time to include a full version of Virtua Fighter 5.

Oh, for crying out loud, lads. Can’t the drone race stay sacred?

When all’s said and done, though, Judgment lives by its story, and what a story it is. Ryu Ga Gotoku are operating at an absolutely astounding level right now. Their consistent flair for creating truly nasty bastard villains, infinitely likeable antiheroes, excellent character development, believable relationships, snappy dialogue and jaw-dropping drama is, for me, completely unparalleled. Add that to the flawless Japanese voice cast, and the considerable work that the best localization team in gaming has to put in, and it’s a truly incredible piece of work.

Judgment has all the nonsense of a typical RGG game, but it’s all offset against an impressively modern and intelligent narrative that expertly piles a lot of emotional weight onto the notion of true justice. It questions the role of a defense lawyer, weighing up the value of finding the truth vs. simply disproving the prosecution. It also raises the very topical issue of uncovering the truth against those who wish to stifle it for ‘the greater good.’ It’s mature, it’s gripping and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Fundamentally, this will last a lot longer in the memory than some dodgy tailing mechanics. Not perfect, then, but undeniably special.

Judgment isn’t quite the Yakuza-meets-Phoenix-Wright we were hoping for, but it’s held together masterfully with the recognizable formula of terrific fighting mechanics, a jam-packed open world, and an incredible story starring yet another brilliant protagonist. The game is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Missing in ‘NBA 2K20’ Initial Rankings

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After perhaps the craziest free agency in NBA history, 2K Games has released their top twenty player ratings for the upcoming NBA 2K20. Let’s take a look at what they got right, what they got wrong, and who’s missing. 

What They Got Right

Russell Westbrook (90)

I’m about as big of an apologist for Russell Westbrook as you can find. During his time in OKC, Russ delivered a virtuoso performance nearly every night. He’s averaged a triple double for three straight years, is perhaps the best rebounding guard in NBA history, and has proved that he has the ability to take over games when needed. However, his lack of outside shooting and questionable decision making prevent him from taking the leap to the next level.

Jimmy Butler (88)

Jimmy Buckets found his way to Miami this offseason vis-a-vis a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia. The 29 year old small forward is one of the League’s toughest players, with an ability to hit shots in the clutch, create his own shot in isolation, and overpower his opponents in the post. However, the high number of miles ran under coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota combined with a so-so three pointer keep him firmly planted in the 80s. 

Paul George (93)

Despite finishing third in MVP voting last season, there’s still one major question surrounding Paul George. Can he stay healthy after surgeries on both shoulders in the offseason? In last year’s playoffs, he struggled in OKC’s five game loss to the Blazers, looking nothing like the MVP candidate that had, at times, carried the Thunder over the course of the season. Despite some concerns about his future, George is still one of the League’s best two-way players, a characteristic that his 93 rating accurately reflects.

What They Got Wrong

Ranking LeBron James (97) higher than Kawhi Leonard (97)

I guess being the best player on the planet for well over a decade, making eight straight NBA Finals, and starring in Space Jam 2 gives LeBron the benefit of the doubt. However, at this point in his career, it’s clear that LeBron, at least in some ways, is declining. Wracked by a major injury for the first time in his career last year, LeBron showed that, despite what we’ve seen, he is mortal like the rest of us. There’s not that much of an adjustment to be made, however, and a 96 would have been perfect.

Ranking James Harden (96) higher than Steph Curry (95)

For as good of a player as James Harden is, from his highlight plays in isolation, to his great three point shot and incredible ability to get to the line, he’s not a better player than Curry. Despite concerns about his size, health, and overall durability, the fact remains that Curry is a two-time MVP who led a team to a 73 win season and he deserves more respect than he’s often afforded. 

Ranking Kyrie Irving (91) higher than Klay Thompson (88)

For all that he’s done, from delivering the biggest shot in Cleveland Cavaliers history to leading a locker room meltdown in Boston last year, Kyrie Irving is an amazing player. However, ranking him significantly higher than Klay Thompson doesn’t make any sense. Thompson is one of the League’s greatest shooters, a locker room blessing, and an effective team player: things Irving isn’t at all. Ask yourself this: who would you rather have on your team?

Where is Ben Simmons?

For all his flaws, including an incredible lack of a jumpshot, off-court issues, and questions of passion, Ben Simmons is a top 20 player in the NBA. A 6’ 10” forward who handles the ball like a guard with an incredible ability to finish around the rim, Simmons deserves a higher ranking than aging players like Blake Griffin or similarly unproven talents like Karl-Anthony Towns. With a ceiling as high as his is, he needs to be recognized more than he is. 

What are your thoughts on NBA 2K20‘s ranking? Sound off in the comments below.  

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‘Mario Maker 2’ Online is a Beautiful, Chaotic Mess

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Mario Maker 2 online

First off, this should come as no surprise to anyone. Nintendo has always had a long and convoluted history of poorly crafted connectivity in their first-party titles, but this one may take the cake. Even with its stellar reviews and tremendous sales numbers, it is safe to say that Mario Maker 2’s online coop and versus modes are nowhere near as polished as they should have been for Mario’s first foray into online gaming. In all, Mario Maker 2 online is a beautiful and chaotic mess, suffering from connection and gameplay issues that damage the experience; however, there are moments of fun and brilliance that ultimately make it an addicting and rewarding mode worth spending time with. For what Mario Maker 2 online lacks in connectivity and user experience, it makes up in charm and pure fun. It’s odd, weird, and I can’t get enough.

Mario x 4

Super Mario Maker 2’s online mode is built on a very simple idea: throw four random players into a user-created level and let them platform their way to the finish. It’s the classic Mario formula multiplied by four, and it sounds like a spectacular time in theory. In versus mode, it’s first to the flag to win. Players can take the quick routes and run as fast as possible to the finish or opt for a safe approach and snag powerups or sabotage enemies. To ensure that a good time is had by all, players are ranked based on wins and losses and paired with other gamers of similar skill levels.

In coop mode, Nintendo fans are encouraged to work as a team in order to get the squad to the finish line, making for a much less stressful experience. Instead of slamming people out of the way, there are much more sharing powerups, making room on platforms, and working as a team involved on the way to the goal. Often times, games can take interesting turns as players get bored or maniacal, but co-op is a relaxing and stress-free experience for the most part.

Mario Maker 2 onlineWhen it works, Super Mario Maker 2 online is a ridiculous amount of fun, and possibly the best online experience on the console. It’s Mario, online with strangers, and it is crazily addicting. With very minimal loading screens, games that only last for around a minute and thirty seconds, and a goal that is always just within your grasp, you will constantly find yourself wanting just another go. It’s a simple, fast, and accessible drop-in multiplayer that is low risk and high reward, and it is easy to pick up and play for five minutes or five hours.

It’s A simple, fast, and accessible drop-in multiplayer that is low risk and high reward, and it is easy to pick up and play for five minutes or five hours.

That being said, this all comes with a really huge asterisk, because Super Mario Maker online rarely works perfectly. Here’s why:

Lag Time Makes for a Bad Time

In my experience, one out of every four connections in Mario Maker 2 online seems to suffer from essentially game-breaking lag. It is hard to tell if it is related to the internet quality of other players or the complexity of the level designs, but you can tell from the very start of a match that the game has literally dropped to a frame a second. This lag turns every game into a slow-motion slog through some user-generated level created with precise platforming mechanics in mind, and generally, these lagged lobbies end in a time out with no victor. With reaction time, precise movements, and careful jumps being an essential part of Mario, a smooth and streamlined experience is needed to appreciate the franchise’s magic.

Mario Maker 2 onlineAt first, these laggy levels might seem really comical, as everyone was moves at a same snail’s pace, but the novelty quickly wears off once a 280-second game lasts around 8 minutes. The only way to make it through is to hope that someone gets fed up and backs out, usually resulting in an immediate rush as things launch back into full speed.

Mario Maker 2 onlineTo make matters worse, the wins and losses from these lagged out versus matches affect the player rankings in the online matchmaking, often unfairly damaging the user’s stats through no fault of their own. There’s an option to have no positive or negative outcome if the experience was unsatisfactory and you back out mid-match, but it’s hard to gauge when is a good time to do so.

Game Mode Woes

Mario Maker 2 online also suffers from some seemingly shortsighted decisions in the levels that versus mode pushes on players. The best Super Mario Maker 2 online levels are short, simple, and relatively easy, although the game often places players in matches with clear conditions or bosses to defeat, and keys to collect before the goal can be touched. This often results in some unfair and sneaky moves on the part of other competitors, as usually everyone can advance once the clear conditions are met by a single player, leading some players to just wait by a door or flag until someone else can snag what is needed. It can also be frustrating when levels require a Yoshi to complete, and the Maker has only left a single Yoshi on the level for four players to fight for. One person gets it, and the other three are forced to wait until that player either wins or falls in order for the Yoshi to respawn.

While there is a rating system for levels after each match, Nintendo could just simply filter the multiplayer levels a little better, eliminating most with clear conditions and bosses. These could then be thoroughly vetted by the community by being tagged as a ‘multiplayer approved world’ before it is dropped into the versus playlist.

The Goal Pole

Even with these gripes, I’m still constantly brought back to the insane, chaotic, and addicting nature of Super Mario Maker 2 online. It’s odd, weird, incredibly addicting, and I just can’t stop playing. Even though it can be a chaotic mess, the title makes up for it in Mario magic and delight. Although no one can say for sure if Nintendo will be able to fix some of these gameplay and connectivity issues with future patches, it is possible that later updates could polish the Mario Maker 2 online into the best feature on the Switch. For now, it’s still first to the Goal Pole. I’ll race ya.

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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.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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