Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Early Game Review: 'Diablo IV'

"Diablo" games don't really begin until they end.

After the main quest ends, your character's journey is just getting rolling, with new quests, rifts and treasure to seek out. Blizzard Entertainment's commitment to ongoing content additions is well established, and a reason why "Diablo III" is still wildly popular 12 years after release. Heck, even "Diablo II," re-released in 2021 with the subtitle "Resurrected," is in heavy rotation.

New to the family is "Diablo IV" -- due out June 6 --  a colossal undertaking for the developer that not only manages to lurk out from underneath the shadows of its predecessors, but will no doubt emerge as a giant in its own right.

"Diablo IV" thrives just as much on advancement as familiarity. From the jump, the game sinks you into its fresh take on its captivating realm -- a land called Sanctuary that's been ripped apart by demonic forces under the leadership of Lilith.

In the new outing, the focus shrinks away from the grandiose developments in the past, focusing more on the day-to-day politics and townsfolk who live, scrape by and die in Sanctuary. "Diablo" games have never been grounded, but this one feels as though it's deals with people with real problems.

The game unfolds in a vast open world with no loading screens, procedurally-generated dungeons. A morose, haunted feeling of dread hangs over the world like a weighted blanket, but within the gloom lies opportunity for thrill-seeking and fulfillment.

As always has been the case with "Diablo" games, and likely always will be, there is an irresistible gameplay loop that makes the progression grind a compelling thrill. You take down enemies, collect the loot they drop, craft and upgrade your armor, enhancements and weapons, then seek out bigger and badder enemies, who will drop even more valuable stuff.

The thrill of seeking out rare, ultra-powerful items is captivating, building the empowerment fantasy that the game casts upon you.

The upgrade economy plays into Angelic, Demonic and Ancestral power schematics, which bestow status effects

The classes, all drawn from previous games, include Barbarian, Druid, Necromancer, Rogue and Sorcerer. You're encouraged to develop multiple builds in parallel saves, with each character taking shape in wildly varied ways.

While season passes and cosmetic items are out there, looking to gobble up your credit card funds, at least there are no pay-to-win items for sale as there are in the franchise's mobile spinoff, "Diablo Immortal."

Everything in "Diablo IV" feels bigger and badder than in previous games. The in-game cut scenes are gorgeous and rendered with an enormous cinematic flair, and the combat and menu interfaces are silk-smooth and intuitive. Myriad quality-of-life improvements have been made, and as much as I love the previous two "Diablo" games, I can't imagine going back to them when "Diablo IV" has so much to offer.

While we're less than halfway through the year, the 2023 Game of the Year race already seems like a two-horse contest, with "Diablo IV" roaring down the back stretch to catch up to "The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom." 

While comparisons of the two are apples and oranges, it says something that when I carve out time for my gaming day, it's "Diablo IV" that's always top of mind. The dark obsession has returned, and like its predecessors, will no doubt be around for the long haul.

Publisher provided review code.

Early Game Review: 'Street Fighter 6'

A new "Street Fighter" release is a hallowed occasion for fighting game fans. Because Capcom typically only releases one new entry per console generation, taking great care to build out each release into a platform unto itself, the hard reset of a new numbered release is nothing short of a paradigm change.

Seven years after the release of "Street Fighter V," "Street Fighter 6" -- due out June 2 -- enters the ring with flash, style and vigor to spare. Continuing the trajectory established by 2008's "Street Fighter IV," Capcom's deep, robust effort is a treat for fighter fans, even if there is little left for those who aren't hooked by the initial concept.

The game is divided into three main phases: the story-based Fighting Ground, the training and casual match-centered World Tour and  multiplayer-focused Battle Hub. Now linked more firmly with Capcom's "Final Fight" universe, the game adds customization options that are new to the series. You're encouraged to build your own character, who will serve as your public-facing avatar for your online exploits.

The game launches with 18 characters, including a mix of stalwarts such as Ken, Ryu, Blanka, Chun-Li, with six new fighters to freshen up the mix.

Adding to the broadcast-style feel is a mix of play-by-play and color commentary, which helps boost the stature of each battle to tournament-level quality.

The e-sports focus permeates, with precision balance and a steady drip of choke points and momentum shifts meant to make for fantastic theater, reinforcing the legacy of "Street Fighter" as one of the most watchable and digestible spectator sports.

Among the hooks to keep players coming back for more, as well as emptying their virtual wallets, are season-driven Fighting Passes, cosmetics-focused Fighter Coins and challenge-based Drive Tickets, which reward gameplay success with premium items. Capcom says the purchases come with the assurance that they won't break the balance, with fighter boosts only affecting gameplay in World Tour and Battle Hub throwdowns.

The gameplay is meant to discourage turtling and routine, rewarding creativity and flourish with the Drive Gauge. With mechanics that let players unleashed parries, focus attacks and other specials, the wild, spirited fights will no doubt dazzle crowds.

While the barriers to entry for the upper echelons of online competition will always be intimidatingly high, "Street Fighter 6" challenges you to hone your skills as you aspire to climb the ranks. Bursting with an overall sensation of joyful exploration, the game quickly establishes itself as the contender to beat in the fighting realm.

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Game Review: 'The Lord of the Rings: Gollum'

Every bit as sad, weird and creepy as its antihero star, "The Lord of the Rings: Gollum" is a complete mess. What little value it has comes in the forms of laughing at what a sloppy, bizarre and insipid experience.

One of the worst major releases I have ever had the misfortune of playing, the effort from Daedalic Entertainment probably should have been put to death when it was delayed from its original 2021 release. 

A mixture of stealth and platforming, the game is set decades after Bilbo Baggins wrested the One Ring from his control. In the custody of Gandalf, Gollum recounts his pathetic and desperate plight to the wizard as he scales walls and leaps across chasms.

Among the many off-putting aspects of the gameplay, the jarring standout is Gollum's awkward, unnatural jumping ability. He springs upward and outward like some sort of demented jack-in-the-box, and you have to force back a chuckle because the sight is so awkward.

The writing isn't much better. The story unspools with the grace and precision of middle school fan-fic, with the everpresent, unanswered question lingering about why it is this consequence-free story needs to be told.

Any goodwill built up by the "Middl-earth" series falls to the wayside. This is a far different animal, and it's something that's best quickly dismissed and forgotten. This poor oddball should have been ignored and left to rot in the caverns. 

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Game Review: 'Lego 2K Drive'

Adding some Lego flavor to the open-world driving concept popularized in series such as "Burnout" and "Forza Motorsport," "Lego 2K Drive" is a breezy, family-friendly romp on four wheels.

As you'd expect in a Lego-flavored racing game, you're allowed to unleash your creativity, crafting whatever wild, brick-fueled concoctions you can dream up.

Working your way up through various racing circuits and side missions to claim the Sky Trophy from rival Shadow Z, you boost, drift and jump across diverse terrain.

Set in the realm of Bricklandia, the effort from the dev team at Visual Concepts Loads of "Mario Kart"-style power ups spice things up and add elements of paradigm-changing chaos to the races.

Your ride adapts to the challenges that await it, transforming into a boat when you hit the water. The traversal is forgiving enough to be accessible to beginning gamers without making advanced racers feel as though they've got training wheels on. Nuanced controls can make the difference between victory and defeat.

As with the best Lego games, in-jokes and sight gags abound, with a lighthearted, free-wheeling sense of humor that's a joy to take in. Split-screen racing allows for couch competition, making it an ideal game for parents to play with kids.

While some mission objectives are obtuse, you're best off avoiding walkthroughs and exploring Bricklandia at your whim. There are enough Easter eggs hidden around the map to make your journey a fun, satisfying experience.

While some of the writing falls flat and not all of the jokes connect, "Lego 2K Drive" thrives as a charming playground that bursts with surprises and whimsy. Like a pair of fuzzy dice dangling from your rear-view mirror, "Lego 2K Drive" is superfluous and silly, but also too enjoyable to part with.

Publisher provided review code.

Phil on Film: 'White Men Can't Jump' (2023)

The best thing a remake of an overlooked film can do is draw attention to the original.

A remake of the 1992 Ron Shelton-directed sports comedy, which starred Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, the Hulu-exclusive takes the bones of the original, updates the humor and basketball moves and rolls the ball onto the court.

The result is a mixed bag, with a C-level cast and some plot points and character motivations that don't register.

Sinqua Walls plays Kamal, a flamed-out hoops phenom who angrily works a job as a UPS driver. He partners with Jeremy (Jack Harlow), a former Gonzaga star who tore both ACLs and hopes to recover enough to get his career going again.

Kamal and Jeremy both need money, so they team up to start a street ball hustle, with the eventual goal of starring in an -- oddly -- three-on-three tournament that could net them big dollars.

Jeremy's situation is hard to fathom, because he reasons that he needs to save up funds for an experimental treatment for his injury, yet is so good on the court that it's unclear why he needs the surgery at all. 

As with the original, the best moments come on the court and in trash-talking exchanges. While the film's perspective is understandably updated for the modern age, there are still plenty of charming jabs that make their way through.

If you can set the insipid story aside and enjoy the movie's better moments for what they are, you'll have enough fun to make your way through to the insipid, if oddly satisfying, conclusion.

Otherwise, you may be better off bailing out and finding the 1992 film, enjoying it for its unsanitized charm.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Report: 'Molly's Game'

Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground PokerMolly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Molly Bloom's tell-all about the Hollywood upper crust's poker addiction is fascinating. She doesn't hold back in exposing celebrities and power players, particularly sticking it to Tobey Maguire, who became her rival as she set up a standing poker game to the stars.

Shameless and bulging with an ego on the rampage, Bloom is also freely self-deprecating as she explores her insecurities and ambitions, making you feel as though you're on the ride along with her as she lures in free-spending whales to succumb to their gambling addictions and need to impress their peers.

My favorite part is the conclusion, in which Bloom -- who would end up serving prison time for her role -- says she would gladly do it all again. She is not a reformed criminal, but a proud rebel against society who treasured her role and will no doubt find another way to attain the dizzying heights she once ascended.

View all my reviews


Thursday, May 04, 2023

Review: 'Hogwarts Legacy Collector’s Edition'

The Warner Bros. Games wizards outdid themselves with this one. The floating wand is the coolest gaming pack-in since the "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" night vision goggles. I show off what the collection has to offer in this video.

Publisher provided review unit.