Friday, November 27, 2020

"Planet Coaster: Console Edition" Review

 In a time when open amusement parks are hard to come by, "Planet Coaster" slides in as a welcome escapist fantasy. Managing, pleasing and exploiting happy-go-lucky crowds can be as much of a rush as partaking in a thrill ride, once you overcome a sluggish start to get your momentum going.

As with most management sims, most of the fun in "Planet Coaster" comes after you've put in significant time sewing your seeds. What starts off as a slog can quickly turn into a frenetic juggling affair, requiring you to zip from one area to the next, putting out fires, optimizing the finely-tuned facets of your empire while building for the future.

Developer Frontier Developments put in similarly heavy work on the console adaptation of the 2016 sim, taking care to make the menu interface flow as naturally as it would with a mouse and keyboard setup. There's also a narrated tutorial to help get you going.

A nostalgic feel pulses throughout the game. As you prop up coasters, kiddie rides, concession stands and other attractions, a certain pre-pandemic innocence and optimism pulses throughout. 

The "Minecraf"-style sense of freedom stokes players' creativity by offering ample ways to explore, innovate and spectacularly fail. There are already four years of walkthroughs online, thanks to the enthusiastic PC community, to stoke your visions.

"Planet Coaster" loses little in its transfer to consoles, moving as briskly and smoothly as a cart shifting its tracks. A tinkerer's dream, the game is limited only by the heights of your imagination.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

"Marvel's Avengers" Review

 After a disastrous E3 2019 showing, developers Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal took the criticism to heart, using the year to smooth out the rough edges, reshape core concepts and refine the bizarre visuals.

The result is one of the more underappreciated gems of 2020.

With a sweeping story, creative multiplayer co-op integration and promise of much more to come, "Marvel's Avengers" became a game that lived up to its lofty promise. More a "Destiny"-style persistent platform than one-offs in the vein of "Spider-Man," the game nails the core of what it means to unite Earth's Mightiest Heroes and deploy their complementary powers to take on overwhelming threats.

The heart of the story is Kamala Khan, who is coming into her own as the limb-stretching dynamo Ms. Marvel. After a cataclysm disbands the Avengers, she takes it upon herself to piece them back together, helping to heal old wounds and forge new alliances. 

The balance in skill and entertainment value among the likes of Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America is relatable and convincing, unlike the nerfing/overpowering tactics used in the likes of "Marvel vs. Capcom" slugfests. Instead of making, say, Black Widow as powerful as Hulk, each hero is given various skills and challenges that make them roughly equally satisfying to take on. 

A lengthy tutorial introduces you to the skillsets to each, allowing you to upgrade their skills, shaping their abilities to your comfort level and tendencies.

Online options are where the game will thrive over the long run. With an ongoing slate of missions deploying, there will likely long be loot and upgrades to scoop up. Taking on the ongoing saga of the comic book world, rather than telling a distinct tale, you feel like a part of the ongoing operatic journey.

Rich and robust, "Marvel's Avengers" is a veritable Thanksgiving feast of a game, worthy of carrying the banner established by the comic books and lifted to new heights by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues" Review

 "Cobra Kai," which has made the shift from YouTube to Netflix, is one of the most entertaining shows on TV. Its licensed game makes a valiant effort to live up to the legacy of the series, but falls short in subtle, gnawing ways.

There is clearly plenty of love and enthusiasm for the series involved. With eight playable characters to choose from across 28 missions, you can live out just about all of your street brawler fantasies as a member of Miyagi-Do or Cobra Kai dojos. 

The side-scroller gives you the choice between the factions, then sets you free to romp through its side of the story. The approach is wise, given the way it follows the philosophy of the writing. Unlike the righteous dogmatism of the "Karate Kid" films, the series crane-kicks its way along varying shades of grey, with both sides appearing heroic or villainous at times, despite being convinced that they are always in the right.

The story unfolds from both perspectives, allowing you to see the varied shades in which both sides, who are under the tutelage of lifelong rivalry between Danie LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

In the "Streets of Rage" tradition, you slug your way through armies of enemies, with massive life meter-toting minibosses and end-level bosses awaiting you.

A fun and breezy idea in concept, some quality-of-life adjustments would have made things more enjoyable. Wonky hit detection and inconsistent damage amounts make it tough to know whether it pays off to be more precise or prioritize button-mashing. An overall lack of polish abounds, making the game feel more at times like a browser gamer rather than a console release. Also, the levels run on far too long. A bite-sized approach typically works better in repetitive titles such as this.

With spirit and vigor to spare, though, the "Cobra Kai" adaptation is an apt companion to fans of the series. A silly and colorful complement to the mythos, it's worth a look for superfans of the show.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"Black Desert: Prestige Edition" Review

 "Black Desert: Prestige Edition" is a staggeringly large and disarmingly ambitious MMORPG. 

The dev team at Pearl Abyss is filled its realms up with monsters to slay, loot to cobble together and resources to craft. You're never far from conflict, with aggressive -- if often easily dispatchable -- enemies looming around you at every turn. 

The game seems to be geared toward high-end PCs, and tends to chug a little on the Xbox One. It's not game-breaking, but frustrating and awkward at times.

The bombardment of microtransactions is also off-putting, but expected for a persistent online experience.

Taking on "Black Desert" often feels like a chore-filled grind-fest, but the act of collecting goods and button-mashing through battles tends to be more satisfying than rote. 

A sizable fanbase has seemingly gathered around "Black Desert," making its world feel lush and alive. That's likely due in part from crossplay functionality between the PS4 and Xbox One communities.

Console players looking for a fresh MMO addiction will be grudgingly satisfied, but may find themselves with PC envy.

Publisher provided review code.

Phil on Film: Movies and Shows Leaving Netflix in December 2020

 For my full article, click here.

Monday, November 16, 2020

"Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War"

 While the "Call of Duty" gameplan has been all over the map in recent years -- with story modes having been minimized or eliminated entirely at times -- it's the writing and narrative structure that take center stage in "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War." 

In getting back to its smirking, conspiracy-minded, counterculture roots, developer Treyarch finds new life in a formula that had started to grow stale. With branching dialogue, point-of-view shifts and a stirring, historical fiction-driven reimagining of the global state of the play over the late 20th century, the game is a freewheeling and fluid dive into the ether.

At its heart, "Black Ops Cold War" is a loose cannon action movie, straight out of the 80s. With booming bravado, high-octane set pieces and tense shootouts -- as well as imaginative revisitations of famed characters from previous chapters -- it's a AAA blowout that has become the too-rare watercooler event in this era of fragmented attention spans.

Multiplayer options abound, with Zombies taking center stage as a cinematic action-horror spectacle. Fireteam: Dirty Bomb emphasizes cooperation and trust, while Combined Arms and VIP Escort shake up the formula with inventive wrinkles and twists. 

Team Deathmatch is the standard, loosely-coordinate frag fest, with the traditional Kill Confirmed, Domination, Hardpoint and Free-for-All rounding out the banquet of offerings. The cross-platform sensation battle royale component, Warzone, is technically a part of the package but available to those who don't buy "Black Ops Cold War."

Although "Call of Duty" games may have ceded much of the cultural zeitgeist to the likes of "Fortnite" and other free-to-play flavors of the week swiping away the attention of the masses, what remains of the multiplayer scene is a hardened, cohesive group of roughnecks.

A promising new direction for a series that has been all over the map and its flipside, "Black Ops Cold War" delivers the goods with the hope of a parachuted supply drop. Feeling comfortably familiar and new enough to seem fresh and exciting, it's a rambling ride well worth hanging onto by your fingertips.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Just Dance 2021" Review

 Games have the power to captivate you to the extent that you're stuck on the couch for longer than you'd care to admit. "Just Dance 2021" gets you up and moving to the point of exhaustion.

An excellent home workout, especially during a pandemic, the game keeps the varied challenges flowing, reducing the need for you to go to the gym or brave the chilly outdoors to get in some cardio.

With 41 new songs from the likes of Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, The Weeknd and Dua Lipa -- as well as several dozen more if you subscribe to the Unlimited service, "Just Dance 2021" deploys the franchise's trademark flashy visuals to show off scintillating choreography. 

Whether you're playing solo or making a fool of yourself with friends and family in co-op, the game shoves you out of your comfort zone, delivering smiles, sore body parts and occasional frustrations. Nailing a hard-to-conquer move after several failed go-rounds yields immense satisfaction, with your muscle memory upgrading as though you were a real-life RPG character.

Most systems require you to use your phone to track your movements, but for me, the Xbox One/Kinect combination is the best way to play a "Just Dance" game.

Back are the usual kid-friendly mode -- which automatically blocks faces for video recording if you use a camera -- as well as the invaluable calorie-tracking Sweat mode, which can help you keep track of holiday snacks you're burning off while you bust your moves.

"Just Dance 2021" may not do much to shake up the standard formula, but that's mainly because there wasn't much need for innovation. With the wheel spinning so well, there's little need for reinvention.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: "Ammonite"

 For my full article, click here.

Monday, November 09, 2020

"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" Review

With two years having passed since the last "Assassin's Creed" release, fans were clamoring for the next deep dive into its ever-expanding whirlwind of historical fiction. "Assassins' Creed Valhalla" slices off a juicy hunk of Viking lore, letting you don a fur suit as you make your way through the grizzled hierarchy as a young upstart.

As is always the case in "Assassin's Creed" titles, developers went to extreme lengths to nail historical accuracy. From period clothing and food, to dances and social rituals, the team delved into the material with the gusto of a history doctorate student.

Taking some cues from the 2018 "God of War" reboot, the game sets you free in a colossal world that captures the Norse kingdom at its most expansive, powerful and influential. Ubisoft Montreal one-upped that effort with stunning visuals, exquisite writing and captivating story twists.

The Vikings are at war with the Anglo-Saxons, and are prone to much infighting among themselves. After choosing the gender of your protagonist, you're plunged into a torrent of subversion, misdirection and calculated intrigue.

As is nearly always the cases in "Assassins' Creed" games, free-running, climbing and diving, stealth options and myriad options to tackle open-ended objectives abound. The major shakeup is the setting, which is far more loose and freeform than previous ventures into more organized facets of society. The narrative structure -- which does include the common modern correlated element -- intertwines well with past stories while pushing the overarching narrative forward in meaningful ways.

A game this massive and customizable could seem intimidating, but efforts were made to open it up to those of Optional menu narration and a colorblind mode -- introduced before the game starts -- make it one of the most accessible-from-the-jump major releases yet seen.

A fitting sendoff for the current-generation version of the series, as well as no doubt an introduction to the next, "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" makes you want to raise a glass of mead, shout "Skol!" and dig into the glorious unknown past once more.

Publisher provided review code.