Saturday, September 23, 2017

"The Witness" iOS Review

One of the most thought-provoking puzzle games in recent memory has finally made its long-promised debut on iOS, and at quite a discount. After launching on consoles last year for $40, it's only $10 to play on your iPhone or iPad.

At that much of a price cut, you'd expect fewer features. Instead, you get a refined experience tailored to touch screen use. Its connect-the-dots style brain teasers are more intuitive to solve while pointing and tapping with your finger rather than manipulating onscreen prompts with analog sticks and buttons.

Obtuse and demanding, "The Witness" forces you to think differently and taxes the outside fringes of your intellect and creativity to advance. Should either of those fail you, there are plenty of Reddit threads and YouTube walkthroughs to guide you along. But as with most puzzlers, you get more out of it the less you rely on outside guides to help you along. There's something to be said for being stuck in the much without a hope until you manage to stumble upon a breakthrough that renews your vigor and outlook.

Deep and thought-provoking, "The Witness" is an excellent commute or office wait time killer, as well as something to settle your thoughts before you go to bed. iOS feels like the system "The Witness" was always truly meant to be played on.

Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Nex Machina" Review

Housemarque, the developer that ushered in the PS4 era with the fascinating launch shooter "Resogun," continues its momentum with yet another bullet hell odyssey. "Nex Machina" breaks away from the formula of the original to hew closer to the "Geometry Wars" template. You play as a soldier with unlimited ammo, spraying ordnance at swarms of assaulting enemies in order to carve out enough space to rescue captives.

Upgraded weaponry, power-ups and new levels await around every corner. Relentless and unforgiving in the vein of old-school, quarter-chomping arcade shooters, "Nex Machina" somehow manages to toe the line between brutally punishing without slipping into frustrating territory. Every time you're sent to the grave, you're itching to pop right back into the action and build upon your past successes. A certain amount of trial and error is involved, giving you an instant "Groundhog Day" feel as you repeat your successful moves and experiment with new ideas to further your advancement.

Enemy formations are tricky but predictable. Pay attention and you can master the intricacies of what it takes to advance through seemingly impassible swarms. Once you've put in enough time, you feel like a zen master who controls all he sees, bending time and space to your will.

If you're less than hardcore, you can slam through the levels as something of a tourist on the lower difficulties. But the game is at its best when it's most intense. "Nex Machina" has proven to be one of the more addictive shooters on the system, as well as one of its most exhilarating experiences. The highest praise I can give it is to say it's a game good enough to get you to put "Resogun" down for a bit.

Publisher provided review code.

"SteamWorld Dig 2" Review

Every two years, developer Image & Form somehow manages to top itself with yet another Metroidvania-style smash.

Following the head-turning successes of "SteamWorld Dig" (2013) and "SteamWorld Heist" (2015) comes "SteamWorld Dig 2," which reaches fascinating heists while allowing you to dig deep into its subterranean depths. The side-scroller tasks you to seek out currency and upgrades beneath the surface, teasing you with just-out-of-reach caches you vow to return to dig up once you've equipped more powerful tools.

Packing a steampunk-style vibe blended with Wild West influences, the game's cast of characters make for a steady stream of chuckles and occasionally thought-provoking witticisms.

Labyrinthine levels are designed with exquisite ingenuity and care, and the bite-size mission design makes it easy to pick up and play in quick hits or invest long-term time for marathon sessions. The versatility is what makes it an apt pairing for the Switch, which has replaced the 3DS as the system of choice for "SteamWorld" games.

A game as filled with hidden treasures as its levels, "SteamWorld Dig 2" is one of the year's highlights and yet another home run for the skilled dev team. Ya dig?

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Thimbleweed Park" Review

Due to the success of Telltale episodic entries and the rise of the walking sim, there has been an adventure game renaissance in the past few years. But left in the dark has been the classic point-and-click, inventory-collection emphasizing style of the genre. Those with fond memories of the likes of "Myst," "Hand of Fate" and "Day of the Tentacle" have had to scrounge for spare new releases or stick to retro gaming to get their fill.

That changed with the release of the shameless and adoring "Maniac Mansion" wannabe "Thimbleweed Park," which has now found perhaps its most appropriate home of all on the Switch. Playable with both touchscreen or JoyCon inputs, you can move around the cast of wacky characters and swap from scene to scene at will. While the genre has always felt most at home with the mouse-and-keyboard combination, the Switch's offering matches -- and in many ways, surpasses -- the classic setup.

With crafty writing, humorous plot twists and an ingeniously interlocking ecosystem, "Thimbleweed Park" is best enjoyed by shunning online walkthroughs and forcing yourself into trial and error. It's a joy to get lost in the myriad puzzles, only to claw your way out with a clever solution. With plenty of red herrings present to throw you off, the experience feels more open-ended than linear.

While plagued with bottleneck issues that always dogged games like this, "Thimbleweed Park" is blessed with enough nods to modern gameplay conventions to make the experience seem intuitive rather than archaically punishing. Yet another joyous addition to the Switch library, "Thimbleweed Park" is worth a look on whatever system you favor.

Publisher provided review code.

"Pokken Tournament DX" Review

Having learned its lessons the hard way in the software deserts it created for the Wii and Wii U in their rookie years, Nintendo has pumped out a steady stream of head-turning games for its fledgling Switch.

Since launch, each month has yielded yet another must-have title for a rotating subset of fans. With a healthy sprinkling of new titles and heavy subsidy of Wii U remakes, Nintendo's first-party lineup has dwarfed those of its rivals in 2017. In October, it's Pokemon devotees' time in the sun.

"Pokken Tournament" is an odd bird even by Pokemon standards, and manages to stand out from among the rest of the franchise with its emphasis on kinetic, real-time battles and boss battle-esque graphics. This is all about rounding up Pokemon lineups and pitting them against opponents, both online and off, in relentless slugfests. Without having to worry about exploring, collecting or trading, the horse blinders are on attacks, counters and strategic tuneups.

Falling in line with "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" and "Splatoon 2," "Pokken Tournament DX" embraces the base of what came before and tops it off with some compelling new features that probably always should have been there. The main draw is the new battle Pokemon Decidueye. Also included are four battle Pokemon that only appeared in the arcade version, running the total number of battlers available to 20. There are also several new support Pokemon in the mix, as well as the option for three-on-three team tangles.

A plausible entrypoint into the fray for casual fans who get lost amid the minutiae in mainline Pokemon games, "Pokken Tournament DX" is strong offering to sate Switch gamers as they inch closer to the holidays. Both on the couch and on the go, this Pokemon-themed slugfest rocks its chosen arena.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Report: "The Secret Adversary"

The entire book was a footrace of annoying characters and plot developments. Christie loves her heroine Tuppence, a shamelessly shallow and obnoxiously vain hustler, but her twee demeanor is frustrating rather than endearing. Her would-be lover, Tommy, is oddly aloof and creepily jealous of anyone who comes between him and his frenemy. When they finally get together at the end, it's eye-poppingly forced, and feels like Christie is just giving up rather than concluding things. But even more agonizing than Christie's leads is her storytelling formula. "The Secret Adversary" is a break from her trademark whodunnit style, with no real question ever lingering about who the bad guy really is -- making the Bond villain-like monologue unnecessary. There is no mystery here involving anything to do with the plot. The real wonder is how an effort this haphazard from a legendary writer could be lumped in with her classic creations. The one high point is the outrageous use of inventive slang. I wonder whether characters from the 20s really spoke like this, but suspect Christie was just making things up and forcing her characters to talk the way she wishes they would. Which is just what a writer should do.

"Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite" Review

"Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite" is a fighting game that's full of fan service, but struggles with a blatantly corporate-driven need to hold back. As a result, the subtitle is something of a minsnomer int he distressingly finite offering.

Capcom's tendency to hold back characters and skins in order to prime up copious rereleases and special editions is annoying, and seems to be in effect here. Frustratingly, several favorites from earlier "Marvel vs. Capcom" titles are missing, and are planned to be released later, making loyal gamers cough up even more cash to play them via buying character packs.

No modern fighting game plays things any different, but it's tough to ignore the already filled-out roster available in "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3," which was remastered and released on modern systems earlier this year. At half price, the bones of the 2011 game hold up well and are still a more exciting alternative to the new game.

The story mode is forced and riddled with ludicrous writing. The art style is inconsistent, looking slick with characters such as Spider-Man but exaggerating odd features of fighters such as Dante and Chris Redfield.

Despite its flaws, I find myself mysteriously more drawn to the new game than its predecessor. Maybe it's the steadier flow of 2-on-2 battles rather than the frenetic wildness of the standard 3-on-3s of the past. Maybe it's the new move sets and specials, and the cataclysmic ways they interact on screen.

Damn you, "Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite," for possibly earning that subtitle after all by convincing me to continue to cough up good money to buy up whatever characters you release via piecemeal IV drip. I am as hooked on the new game as much as I was on the old ones in spite of logic and willpower.

Publisher provided review code.

"NHL 18" Review

Hockey has always been one of the sports that translated best to video games. Dating from the crude early NES sims to the 1990s, when EA started dominating dorm rooms with its annual releases, the digital version of the sport has served as a gateway drug to the genuine article.

"NHL 18" marks an attempt to snap out of a stagnation, and shows marked advancement in encouraging directions. The key is that developers didn't insist on taking the gameplay in one definitive direction, but rather adapted it to the varied needs of both lapsed video game hockey fans and annual re-uppers.

You can tweak countless options, ranging from standard difficulty levels to rule sets. Want to let it fly with no offsides, over-the-top checks into the boards and slap shots that careen into the goal from center ice by players who never tire? There's a preset mode for you. Prefer a gritty, grimy brand of ultra-realistic hockey with strategic line changes, clock management and special teams lineups? "NHL 18" has got you covered as well.

Everything including the controls layout is adaptable. My favorite way to play continues to be "NHL 94" mode, which simplifies controls to equate to those of the franchise's Super Nintendo glory days. Savvier players will probably gravitate toward the modern control setup, which utlizes the analog stick as an extension of the hockey stick. The beauty of the diverse control layouts is how they allow players of different backgrounds and skill sets to compete on balanced middle grounds.

Although be-a-player, card-stacking fantasy team and franchise modes continue to develop, the calling card continues to be the MMO-like online multiplayer, which allows you to form pickup games with A.I. relegated to the sidelines. This rooftop-style hockey continues to capture the glee of the sport, and makes "NHL 18" an essential pickup for serious sports gamers.
Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Project CARS 2" Review

Two years ago, the long-gestating "Project CARS" was a major disruptor in the racing genre, putting some heat on the likes of "Forza" and "Gran Turismo." With scores of unlockable vehicles, tracks and impressive environmental effects, the game shook the foundation of the competitors and sparked some imitation.

Now "Project CARS 2" comes along to compete with its fiercest rival -- the shadow of its predecessor. The new game builds steadily -- if unspectacularly -- upon a solid foundation, content to re-trace much of the same path of what came before.

As with the previous game, much of the enduring success of "Project CARS 2" will be determined by the legs it finds in the online realm. An intuitive interface gives it an impressive head start in that regard. With its rivals asleep at the wheel, Bandai Namco could seize this opportunity to drift into the head of the pack.

A welcome mix of arcade and simulation aspects keeps the career climb intriguing. Nearly everything you do on the track contributes to your climb to the top. Not that you need much of an incentive to keep on playing. The race action is exhilarating enough to keep you fascinated without any manufactured rewards loops.

Publisher provided review code.

"PES 2018" Review

For the past few years, the soccer obsessives at Konami have launched free kicks directly at the nuts of their EA competition. Rather than park the bus and run out the clock to preserve its perceived dominance, "PES 2018" stays with the strategy to got it to its current position, pushing its midfield up into an all-out attack on the back of the net.

Lifelike player renditions and motion captures, exquisite ball physics and enchanting crowd noise continue to amplify the experience and make it feel strikingly close to not only broadcast quality, but also the in-person experience of catching soccer at its highest level. An overpowering sense of knowledge, research and detail went into every aspect of the production, making the game feel like a passion project come to life rather than the annual, corporately mandated series update it is.

Although lack of licenses will always be what holds "PES" games back, but loyal fans push out accurate roster updates you can patch in to keep your players and squads as up-to-date as the "FIFA" counterpart.

Another minor niggle is the somewhat stiff menu interface that takes some adjustment to master for newbies. Anyone with experience with past "PES" games will feel right at home, minimizing the adjustment needed.

A true game for the soccer fanatic rather than the casual tourist, "PES 2018" excels in just about every facet of the game. While there are no standout features that necessitate an upgrade, the allure of the highest-precision soccer game on the market is probably enough to tip the balance in favor of plunging in.

Publisher provided review code.

"NBA 2K18" Review

Year in and year out, Visual Concepts slays with its NBA 2K series. "NBA 2K18" continues to rise to the incredibly high bar. Refining earlier slipshod attempts at acing the story mode aspect of the package, this year's entry sticks closer to the previous template, ignoring the unfortunate Spike Lee-directed detour.

After you design your player, you hit a prospect camp and start attempting to play, scheme and talk your way into a high draft slot. Your choices, especially the headway you make in the RPG-style aspects of your character build, determine your skills, status in the league, contract and star power. More than a standard be-a-player mode while stopping short of forcing your player into a predetermined, overly dramatic narrative arc, the mode provides a strong basis for your avatar in the game's various other arenas.

Whether your penchant is for streetball, career simulation, franchise or online team play, your character will be there to help you go up against the greats.

Player movement and animations have been considerably upgraded, adding to the ever-shrinking proximity to Uncanny Valley and inevitable vault into the beyond. As expected, live updates to rosters, injuries and skill developments continue to match real-life developments.

"NBA 2K18" is as brilliant in execution as a Steve Kerr-coached championship squad, and also every bit as fun to watch as Kerr's Dubs. This game is a beacon for what can be accomplished in basketball sims, as well as sports games in general.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review

After the disaster that was the 2016 release of the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung rebounded in a major way earlier this year with the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. As fantastic as that handset was, though, it served a larger strategic purpose for the company as something of a table-setter.

The Galaxy Note 8, packing its larger screen and S-Pen, is the definitive, full-circle success story for the company that gives its devotees a reason to crow to their Apple-toting rivals. Packing a 6.3-inch screen that stretches across nearly the entire face of the handset, the new design is barely distinguishable from the svelte, sexy S8 models. No longer is the Note a workmanlike, bulky phablet for those who prize screen size above all else. It's now a demure, sleek unit that is deceptively large rather than overtly colossal.

The devices's look also belies its toughness. Water resistant enough to survive an inevitable dunk into a toilet and shatter-resistant enough to survive a hard faceplant on tile, the device largely negates the need for a case. Its glass back makes it easier to hold onto the phone in the first place.

The interface and guts of the Note 8 more than back up the streamlined design. The 12-megapixel dual camera setup is a game-changer that ups the ante for Apple, as well as HTC's line of competitors. Expandable Micro SD storage is back, combining with USB-C charging that lets you quickly charge up the impressive battery. If you're into wireless charging, you can eschew the USB-C in favor of inductive charging via Micro USB.

The 1080p AMOLED screen, which you can adjust to peak visuals by tinkering with the settings, blasts your video and games loudly and proudly, and the packed-in AKG earbuds help enhance the already-superb native sound that pumps out from the speakers.

Although the interface still lags behind Apple in terms of simplicity, multitasking capabilities continue to far surpass those of its rival. You can play a video in one screen and check your email in the other half, toggling one of your split screen spaces for social media updates. It's the perfect phone to live tweet while streaming.

A dynamic and almost absurdly impressive package, the Note 8 is a head-turner packed with smart upgrades geared to aid your productivity and its durability at every turn. With nagging ghosts of the past finally exorcised. Somehow, 2016 seems so far away -- just a lingering flicker in the Note 8's rear-facing camera, which is turned boldly toward the future as it slides gracefully into your pocket. Don't call it a comeback.

Manufacturer provided review unit.