Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Report: "Fighter Pilot"

With humbleness, a natural, easygoing voice and unbridled passion, Robin Olds tells his life story as though he were hunkered down over a beer or three at the VFW. His book is filled with spectacular stories of death-defying battles in the skies during World War II and Vietnam.

He downplays his exploits rather than embellish them. Despite his heroism, he saw himself as just a regular guy doing his job.

Sometimes Olds loses track of the point of his tales by getting mucked up in technical minutiae, but for the most part he keeps his stories soaring. He keeps his guns blazing in the latter half, describing his salty encounters with the dopey military brass about his frustrations over Vietnam rules of engagement that set the operation up to fail.

Above all, Olds translates the sheer thrills and fun of his service. He was a vital part of what made the Greatest Generation great.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Stick it to the Man" Switch Review

If you had a giant pink spaghetti arm sticking out of your brain, you'd naturally use it to vault you from one platform to the next, tear down pieces of paper hiding people who need you to get objects for them, find those objects, then deliver them back to the people in need.

That's the oddly logical concept behind "Stick it to the Man," which puts you in control of the hero, who is on the run from the Man, who's accusing him of a crime for which he was framed. With Adult Swim-style visuals, creatively designed levels and obtuse but engaging tasks, it provides an easygoing diversion from heavier fare.

The 2014 2D puzzle platformer re-emerges on the Switch in fine form. Like most indie games of its ilk, it seems to be an apt fit for Nintendo's handheld-home console combo. With bite-sized challenges and checkpoints that make it fitting for on-the-go gaming, the game is a whimsically welcome addition to the console's holiday lineup.

Adjustments made to the base game are minimal, but that's because the game already fit so well with the JoyCon setup. If you missed it upon its original release and have a Switch aching for a library-extending download, you could do much worse.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"River City: Rival Showdown" Review

"River City Ransom" (1989) was a groundbreaking marvel of the NES era, adding RPG elements to a "Double Dragon"-style brawler to create a hybrid experience that developers still try to emulate today. Word that Arc System Works was crafting a spiritual sequel has tantalized fans of the original for years. Now after a stream of nagging false starts and delays, the end result is finally here. It doesn't disappoint.

The devs not only had to live up to the towering expectations of the original, they had to surpass the shadow of the legend to create a game that adhered to modern standards while nailing the feel and energy of the predecessor. They accomplish both tasks by nailing the basics -- this is a game with looks and sounds ripped straight out of the late 80s -- and constructing a deep, satisfying ecosystem around the archaic trappings.

Taking cues from "Groundhog Day" and "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask," the setup takes you through three days on the gang-infested streets, allowing you to spend them any way you like. While forced to adhere to a day/night cycle with a set amount of time to seek out objectives, you are free to plow through the main storyline, chase off on side quests or just stay in one area braining the same group of thugs over and over again. Various characters have different things to say to you depending on the time of day you encounter them, and you need to follow routines and devise a plan of attack through trial and error to make headway.

With a deceptively complicated and satisfying battle system complete with throws, blocks, punches and kicks -- the latter two of which can be modified by jumps -- there are a host of ways to set out attack and defense strategies. With two difficulty modes to consider, you're probably best off starting on the easier mode to get your feet wet before taking on the game n its more cheap and punishing level. The fact that you'll keep on diving back in with a determined grin on your face says something about how replayable "River City: Rival Shodown" is.

Publisher provided review code.

"Lego Worlds" Switch Review

A "Minecraft"-style universe building game dressed up in Lego trappings is a no-brainer, and while the execution lags behind the game "Lego Worlds" imitates -- it lacks the depth of "Minecraft" and the charm of licensed Lego adaptations -- the bones are there for a rock-solid experience.

With both freeform creative modes -- complete with expansive online multiplayer -- and a quest-based campaign to test your building talents, there is enough to see and do to knock out dozens of hours of largely iterative gameplay.

The Switch is an excellent fit for the game because of its portability. It's therapeutic to craft a part of a village while stuck in a waiting room or airport terminal. And the campaign missions are short enough to be satisfying in quick sessions.

With the $40 physical version down to $20 on Black Friday -- that's cheaper than the $30 digital version -- now is a spectacularly good time to check it out.

Publisher provided review code.

"Coco" Review

For my written review, click here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Report: "Seal Team Six"

Wasdin is an excellent storyteller and poor writer. If I have to choose one quality, I'd always go with storyteller. He either has a memory with an uncanny sense of detail or is skilled at inventing minute details he forgot. Either way, he excels at describing the tumult and grind that Navy SEALs go through as they hop the globe to perform video game-like ops.

His weakness is the humblebrag. Every single story he tells has the same moral: He is the strongest, smartest and most easygoing member of whatever group with which he was involved, and was the unsung hero of every activity in which he took part. Once you just accept that Wasdin is incapable of identifying any flaws within himself or questioning anything he did, you can enjoy his tales for their homespun campfire qualities.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Outcast: Second Contact" Review

A wholesale remake of the 1999 cult classic, "Outcast: Second Contact" hurls you into an open-world, sci-fi saga as hero Cutler Slade, who explores the deep-space world of Adelpha. In what was an innovative style at the time, you advance through adventure game-style mechanics, blending point-and-click sensibilities with an action combat motif.

Although the remake is spiritually faithful to the original, there are several enhancements to appreciate, such as the ability to crouch and roll during combat, as well as a streamlined, modern save system.

Legacy issues, including a slow-moving plot with copious comic book-inspired cut scenes, remain. The main challenge tends to be to stay interested despite the blocks the cumbersome story and mission structure foists in front of you.

What might have been a rush job -- the game was originally scheduled to drop in September -- instead is a polished, steady effort. Whether or not it reconnects with its old audience and manages to find new appreciators remains to be seen, but the work has been done to revitalize what many hail as a cult classic.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"L.A. Noire" Switch Review

Rockstar's stunning 2011 period police procedural "L.A. Noire" has been blessed with a late-2017 renaissance, with a 4K upgrade on its PS4 Pro and Xbox One X debuts.

But leave it to the Switch release to steal the thunder from the better-looking counterparts.

With HD rumble, touchscreen controls and dual-screen play seamlessly adapting the dated title to Nintendo's new system, the developers managed to make the game feel as though it was designed from the ground up for the handheld/home console hybrid.

Set in the grim, dank 1940s Hollywoodland era, the game pits your mildly corrupt cop character -- a grizzled World War II vet -- against the Black Dahlia murderer. You scour crime scenes, hunt down clues and grill witnesses. At the end of an episodic scene, you decide which suspects to arrest. The choice-based gameplay adds replayability and ratchets up the intensity of choices you make.

Enough time had passed for me from my initial playthrough to make the missions seem new again. With only a vague recollection of where clues were hidden or what questions and responses I needed to ask to get the most out of witnesses I grilled, the story seemed fresh rather than like a rehash. The less familiar you are with the original release, the more you'll be able to enjoy the new version.

A hefty 14GB install file puts up a significant barrier to entry to players, pretty much requiring players to pony up for a massive SD card to expand the Switch's memory enough to take on the game.

"L.A. Noire" is such a resonant accomplishment that Switch owners shouldn't let the SD card requirement keep them from taking it on. Further rounding out the console's ever-expanding library, it's now the home of a true classic.

Publisher provided review code.

"Star Wars Battlefront II" Review

The initial "Star Wars Battlefront" current-gen relaunch slowly evolved into a solid multiplayer representation of the cinematic universe, but took a bunch of updates and expansions to get there. The sequel is a far more comprehensive experience, boasting not only expansive multiplayer with an impressive collection of modes and maps, but a solid campaign with canonical story that provides a peek inside the inner workings of the Empire.

Although multiplayer is still the main event, the campaign is far more than the throwaway extended tutorial that many online FPS efforts are stuck with. Excellent voice acting and strong writing make the campaign a resonant and borderline essential experience for hardcore "Star Wars" fans, which will make up pretty much the entirety of the player base here.

No review of "Star Wars Battlefront II" would be complete without mentioning the problematic loot crate system. While just about everything in the game that helps you stay competitive can be unlocked through gameplay rather than pay-to-win, the amount of time it takes to unlock high-end characters is cumbersome. In the game's pre-release version, it was said to take at least 40 hours to unlock characters such as Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. While a flood of negative comments convinced EA to knock that time down to 10 hours, the commitment is still frustrating for the pickup-and-play crowd who would rather not plunk down hard-earned cash or put in so much time to unlock the icons.

Despite the obnoxious economy that makes the $60 game feel like a money-grubbing, freemium title, the content that's there for the taking without any paid or played unlockables is still impressive. With far more to offer out of the gate than its predecessor, "Star Wars Battlefront II" should manage to shake off initial hesistation from the fanbase to emerge as the dynamic fan service vehicle it is.
Publisher provided review code.

"Rocket League" Switch Review

No console has had a 2017 to match that of the Switch, and the release of "Rocket League" on the system only adds to the momentum. One of the most addictive sports games on the market manages to make significant strides on the handheld/home console hybrid. The game particularly excels in handheld mode, with the screen's proximity to your eyes making your connection to the gameplay.

A game that thrives on kinetic action and requires rapid reflexes to stay competitive requires pinpoint precision in controls, and the Switch comes through in that respect with relish.

Some Switch ports have suffered from weak online play, but "Rocket" League" has a large and engaged enough community to support yet another platform. While a lack of a cohesive chat system could be seen as a drawback, the fact that most of the gameplay is one-on-one minimizes the lack of ability to fluidly communicate.

Each of the modes doled out by the expansions makes the cut on switch, with the old standbys based on soccer and basketball continuing to make the most resonant impressions. Whether you're competing against bots or live opponents, the action is consistently thrilling and addictive. If the Switch has a weak sector so far, it's the sports genre, but "Rocket League" makes up much of that liability.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"The Sims 4 Deluxe Party Edition" Review

Three years after release on PC, "The Sims 4" finally makes it grand entrance onto consoles, and is all the better for the wait.

Buttressed with countless updates and add-ons since the initial release, the PS4/Xbox One edition coincides with the "Cats & Dogs" expansion, console players get a wealth of content to delve into.

You can customize the look, mannerisms and attitude of your feline or canine companions, dressing them up in costumes and dealing with unexpected quirks that pop up and keep things interesting. You can play with your pets, socialize them by setting them up on playdates with neighbors and friends, train them to take part in obstacle courses and bring in strays to give them siblings. The expansion also adds veterinarian as a career option, allowing you to set up your own clinic, conjuring antidotes to pet diseases and performing surgical procedures.

The game proper functions swimmingly on consoles, but never comes close to shaking the feel of being conceived for the mouse and keyboard setup. The PS4 touchpad helps streamline the pointing and clicking to an extent, but it still takes some getting used to in order to be accustomed to all the pointing and clicking required by manipulating the analog sticks and buttons. If you prefer to forego the customizations, you can auto-generate various setups, then work from there to tweak them to your liking.

Once you get into the flow, it's an effortless joy to manipulate the lives of your Sims, setting up their lives, playing virtual dollhouse and, if it's your thing, torturing them by confronting them with one ludicrous torment after another.

Live Mode is one of the most freeing additions, allowing you to hop between worlds, checking out various neighborhoods and social strata which to adapt.

An impressive achievement that successfully translates the enduring PC obsession to consoles, "The Sims 4" feels like a definitive experience. Whether it manages to keep pace with the continuous updates of its PC counterpart remains to be seen, but for now the console version is on par with the original, and is off to as impressive a start as any fan could hope.

Publisher provided review code.

"America's Greatest Game Shows: Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune" Review

"Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" have been natural fits for video game adaptations since the NES games, with each generation nudging the adaptations closer to the genuine articles.

Far more than the quick and dirty adaptations they could have been, both games include loads of variety in questions, authentic sights and sounds from the game show and plenty of reasons to keep coming back for more.

Both games offer extensive online options, connectivity with Ubisoft Club and options for quick matches.

Excellent for get-togethers, family game nights or couples competition, "America's Greatest Game Shows" is a superb compilation that distills the best of the enduring game shows, translating them to gamedom. Here's hoping a steady flow of online updates keeps the question banks refreshed to maintain the replayability factor.

Publisher provided review code.

"Murder on the Orient Express" Review

For my full review, click here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

"Ace of Seafood" Review

 An undersea, third-person shooter consisting of laser-blasting fish, "Ace of Seafood" starts with about as absurd a premise as you can dream up. The execution is fueled with just as much creative precision.

After choosing a six-creature party, you venture out into the cut-throat world of seafaring dangers to seize control of various reefs. The visual design thrives by sticking to realistic looks and sizes of the creatures, making the high-powered weaponry stand out.

As the commanding "ace" that leads the pack, it's on you to set the tone by taking the lead in combat ops, setting formations and doling out special ability attacks.

Two-player couch multiplayer and four-player, voice chat-equipped online slugfests keep things lively, and the open-world map, which teems with procedurally generated armies of sea creatures constantly provides a daunting challenge. Although the gameplay is slim, the execution of what the game does well makes it a standout in the sea of PS4 indies.
Publisher provided review code.

"Need for Speed: Payback" Review

Just about every year, "Need for Speed" re-emerges in a new form. Whether it be the nuts-and-bolts drag circuitry of "Grid," the madcap cross-country racing of "The Run" or the cops vs. robbers motif of "Most Wanted," the one constant is always sexy cars romping at high speeds.

"Payback" is a return to the series' go-to setup of "Fast and Furious"-style fantasy fulfillment. Set in a world in which gearhead buddies vie for control of the streets by collecting pink slips, upgrading their rides and teaming up for improbable heists, the mission-based, open-world romp set you free to explore its twist-filled circuits of lost highways, off-road pathways and hidden nooks.

This has been a particularly impressive year for racers, with the likes of "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe," "Gran Turismo Sport" and "Forza Motorsport 7" all tearing up the track in impressive manner. That leaves little room for the likes of "Need for Speed Payback," which pales in comparison when compared in graphical horsepower and racing bona fides.

Where "Payback" manages to carve out its niche are the realms of story and high-octane set pieces. It's also the only game in the bunch that allows you to mash on the nitro button to pull into the lead down the stretch. Arcade-style thrills help separate "Payback" from the pack, with the cheesy-yet-satisfying writing taking the wheel, for both better and worse. At least it's never a dull ride.
Publisher provided review copy.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Book Report: Columbine

I was dreading this book, figuring it would be a depressing and agonizing experience. Cullen neutralizes those concerns with magical storytelling coupled with exhaustive research. He explores the shooting from every conceivable angle, tracking down witnesses, obscure media reports and evidence.

His goal is to dispel myths about the shooting, such as the assumption that the killers were bullied loners who targeted jocks. He instead reveals that they were a codependent, psychopathic duo who fueled one another to abandon lives of relative privilege and moderate popularity to lash out at society in a misguided, mentally ill explosion of teen angst. Cullen forces you to recast your perspective on the tragedy and revisit false presumptions society has clung to and built up over the years among the rubble of the most notorious of school shootings.

"Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds" Review

"Horizon Zero Dawn" was a vast game to begin with, and its "The Frozen Wilds" expansion considerably expands the scope and majesty of one of the most deep and exciting adventures of 2017.

Unlike Sony's "Uncharted" spinoff, "The Lost Legacy," "The Frozen Wilds" requires the original game to play. You can play it as post-game content or take it in the flow of the story if you've yet to beat the game. Recommended for players who have hit level 30, the new areas and missions it provides are accessible from the standard map. Once you take down the "A Seeker at the Gates" quest, you can access everything. Helpfully, the install file transfers over your save to work on the new, expanded map.

Living up to its name, "The Frozen Wilds" rolls out an intimidating tundra teeming with natural obstacles and robotic menaces that plague the northern wildlands. The quests it presents rank among some of the game's most creative and challenging, and the narrative manages to beef up the lore and strengthen the relationships between Aloy and the peripheral characters.

The gameplay-to-cost ratio here is a bargain, and a savvy pickup for fans of the game who have been hungering for more for months.
Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

"Superbeat: Xonic" Review

Originally released two years ago on the PS4 and Vita, Nurijoy's anime-influenced DJ sim makes its debut on the Switch. Like so many indies that have made the move, it feels like a natural fit on Nintendo's tablet, which is a credit to the vision and design of the handheld/home console hybrid.

You manage a series of circular-edge tracks -- the number of which is determined by your chosen difficulty level -- and tap the segment related to the track as beast flow to the edge of the rim of your circle. The only way to rack up impressive combos and high scores is to feel the flow of the J-Pop grooves, losing yourself in the rhythm and letting your fingers tap the screen automatically.

The tactile feel of using the touch screen rather than the button sto play enhances the DJ-style feel of the game, and the screen's larger size than the Vita -- especially if you're playing on TV -- makes it easily the definitive version of "Superbeat: Xonic," somewhat justifying its eyebrow-raising $40 price. The one drawback isn't a design flaw but a rhythm game reality. It doesn't work as well while on the go. You best enjoy the game by locking yourself down, putting on some headphones and focusing on the game and nothing more. It pays off in direct correlation to the amount of focus you channel into it.
Publisher provided review code.

"Call of Duty: WWII" Review

Activision's ongoing global offensive mission with the "Call of Duty" series is to keep introducing new facets to global combat. After years of pushing technology forward until it finally went full sci-fi last year with "Infinite Warfare," the publisher got the point that what was old became new again. Hence, back to the well with the suddenly refreshing concept of the World War II FPS with "Call of Duty: WWII."

The series built on combat in the European theater returns to its roots, and the campaign is a "Battlefield One"-inspired best-of hit list from World War II, starting with a hellacious take on D-Day. The combat is fluid and gritty, and all the more impactful because it holds back from gratuitously over-the-top set pieces, scaling down to an intimate look at one infantry man's scampering to survive the storming of Omaha Beach, a scramble to clear out five bunkers and eventually drag a wounded ally to safety under fire. Gritty, intense realism pulsates every note, making you feel as though you are genuinely experiencing the war in a way the early 2000s games never managed or even earnestly attempted.

Multiplayer remains the main draw for a colossal contingent of casual beer and energy drink chugging gamers, as well as e-sports participates in training. The biggest change of pace comes here, where standard wall-running, jetpack-aided double jumping and drone-hawking are gone in favor of old-school, cover-to-cover stop-and-pop hunting.

Whether the change-up maintains the interest of stream viewers and all-night players remains to be seen, but the mechanics are balanced and sound, with intricate, well-designed maps making the experience calibrated with precision and thought. A new, camp-based hub system adds some sense to the multiplayer oeuvre, adding some wandering downtime reminiscent of the "NBA 2K18" career mode hub world by allowing you to wander around to scout for upgrades, weaponry and other players you can squad up with.

The third facet of the three-in-one game -- the concept that continually makes "Call of Duty" games one of the better values in the annual release spectrum -- is Nazi Zombies, which continues to carry the spiritual torch of "Left for Dead." That mode always works best in cramped quarters, and the better maps here are the ones where you can hear the undead menace lurking around a corner and need to ration out your ammo in order to avoid getting into a melee struggle with multiple creatures. A refreshing palate cleanser that will never be the main draw, the mode continues to fulfill its orders dutifully.

Overall, the "Call of Duty: WWII" package feels like a bold, fresh move for the franchise by returning to basics and nailing them. Where it goes from here is anyone's guess, but the state of the "Call of Duty" nation for now remains fierce.
Publisher provided review code.

Friday, November 03, 2017

"Thor: Ragnarok" Review

For my written review, click here.

".hack//G.U. Last Recode" Review

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of the obnoxiously named yet deceptively fascinating cyberpunk JRPG series, ".hack//G/U. Last Recode" compiles the PlayStation 2 trilogy in sorely needed remastered versions, also adding the long-awaited fourth game, subtitled "Reconnection."

The ".hack" games were always visually strong, but shine like never before in HD. The old RPGs take on a new life, playing like the interactive anime they were always meant to be.

The convoluted, self-important trappings are still every bit as gleefully dorky and shamelessly inspired by the likes of "The Matrix" and its own antecedent, "Ghost in the Shell." You play as Haseo, a heroic hacker who is steeped in fantasy tropes. The blend of deep-dive cyber sci-fi dystopian projections with 1990s coding nomenclature makes for an oddly compelling blend.

Sticking with the hacking motif, there is also a new "cheat mode" that allows you to just watch the story and disregard all the combat and inventory maneuverings. Those who take on the games the old-fashioned way will find them much more easier to navigate than before, thanks to a streamlined interface and save system that brings the franchise up to modern standards.

The ".hack" games have always been geared toward an insular crowd, but "Last Recode" is a genuine attempt at making the series accessible to the masses." It's an unexpected treat to have the entire series to date rounded up in a single tight, well-calibrated package. ".hack" has been hacked, and the JRPG scene is all the better off for it.
Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

"Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back" Review

It's been more than two decades since the wannabe Mario and Sonic platforming hero Bubsy graced consoles, but he's back in the retro throwback adventure "Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back," which plays like a Genesis, Super Nintendo or Jaguar title.

That's a compliment, sorta.

Like "Sonic Mania," Bubsy sticks to its wheelhouse. Running from side to side, you bust through barriers, snatch up tons of collectibles and dash-jump your way above towering obstacles. Unlike "Sonic Mania," there is not as much of an iconic feel to strive for. Bubsy was always an also-ran, and for good reason. There was little to distinguish the goofy character from scores of his platforming contemporaries, which is why he disappeared to little sorrow.

Developer Black Forest Games stays true to the Bubsy formula rather than trying to shoehorn the character and concept into modern trappings. The result, for better and worse, is vintage Bubsy. Meaning it's frivolous and forgettable. On the plus side, there are few platformers nowadays for Bubsy to get lost in the shuffle among, making this new adventure feel somewhat refreshing.

It's hard to imagine this long-distance sequel reigniting the franchise, though. It may well be another 21 years until we see another follow-up.
Publisher provided review code.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

"Monopoly for Nintendo Switch" Review

Like "Tetris," a "Monopoly" adaptation seems to work its way onto just about every console in existence. But never has there been a more appropriate fit than on the Switch.

Ideal in the underutilized-by-other-games Tabletop Mode, in which players set the tablet up on a kickstand and either both assume a JoyCon or pass it back and forth, is more of an ideal electronic version of the game than any I'd seen. "Monopoly" is one of the greatest board games, but its cumbersome setup and cleanup make it a pain to play. Video game versions have always been awkward fits. The Switch solves both problems, making it a joy to play against local competition or online.

The usual slate of adjustments are available. You can play streamlined versions of games, adapt your own house rules or stick with the standard setup. The only barrier to marathon sessions is the Switch's battery life. But a group who has played the game for the three hours or so it will take to drain the battery will probably be ready for a break at that point anyway.

What's more important is that people will be willing to play it again once the system has juiced up again. The same isn't true for that sad, dusty "Monopoly" box hiding out in your closet.

Publisher provided review code.