Diablo III’s Unlikely Comeback

As my friend so eloquently put it a few days ago, if a future version of myself came back in time to tell me in 2012 that I would be pouring dozens of hours into Diablo III in the year 2014, I would have laughed in his face and sent him back to his own time without a second thought. That I would be playing the problem filled Diablo III two years after its release would sound like an impossibility, and it was. Until a few months ago.

You may have seen my write up during my GI internship on some of the Patch 2.0.1. changes. That was just the beginning. Since then with the release of Reaper of Souls expansion, Diablo III has me hooked. I’ve made a new character, poured more than 70 hours into end-game content, and have become obsessed with finding the perfect gear to finish my character builds. How is it possible that a game so plagued with problems a few short months after its original release could be completely reborn two years later? It all comes down to Blizzard, and their willingness to admit their mistakes and go back to the drawing board.

When Diablo III launched in May of 2012, it had a fair share of problems. First among them was the always online component, made even worse by the fact that for the first several nights after the game’s release it was near impossible to log on and play thanks to server issues. This, however, would become the least of the game’s numerous issues.

Diablo III at launch shared a nearly identical formula to that of Diablo II. Pick a hero and level them up as you play through the story mode multiple times, with each completion allowing you to tackle a more challenging difficulty. End-game was Inferno difficulty, the hardest of the hard. Only the most well equipped and skilled players had any chance in hell of getting past Act II of Inferno. Repeated deaths in Inferno carried a heavy cost as well, as gear durability degrades after each death, eventually resulting in broken gear and an absurdly high amount of gold needed to repair it. Trying Inferno for many players wasn’t even worth it.

Therein lied the problem. While skill was certainly a factor, progressing in Inferno mode came down more to gear than skill. Without legendary gear and item sets, you could not succeed. How is one to obtain these items? In theory drop rates in Inferno mode for better gear were much higher, but due to repair costs and the high difficulty, most players could only farm for items on lower difficulties, replaying boss battles or certain encounters in the game’s story mode hoping and praying the loot would drop after defeating the enemies.

In practice, useful item drop rates around the board were abysmally low. You could play for days and find nothing remotely usable for your character. It was frustrating. RPGs, especially ones like Diablo, are all about character progression, and due to a lack of things to do and new useful gear, Diablo III players ran into a brick wall. This frustration played directly into Diablo III’s other main problem, the auction house.

A good idea in theory, the in-game auction house became a symbol for everything wrong with Diablo III. Implemented to eliminate illegal item and gold selling sites that were incredibly popular in the time of Diablo II, the Diablo III auction house gave players an easy to use, legal version of the same idea, while also cutting Blizzard in on the profits. Diablo III’s auction house came in two forms; an auction house where in game gold was used to purchase items, and one where players could buy items with real world cash.

Many players, frustrated with being unable to obtain gear through simply playing the game, resorted to farming insane amounts of gold to purchase new gear for their characters in order to have a fighting chance in Inferno. If a player did have the luck to encounter a legendary item, chances were it wouldn’t be useful for their character, resulting in the player selling it on the auction house for huge profits and then using that money to buy gear they could actually use.

Or, as became common, you could just spend real world money to gear out your character. Diablo III in essence became a “pay to win” game, the type of business model despised by gamers everywhere and more often seen in free-to-play titles. Except Diablo III wasn’t free to play. It was the sequel to one of the most loved RPGs in gaming history, and millions of gamers paid $60 expecting a game they would play for years to come. What they got was a game that through all i’s systems pushed players towards spending more money, with Blizzard getting a cut out of every auction sold.

Whether this cycle of “pay to win” was intentional on Blizzard’s part is hard to say, but as more and more players began leaving Diablo III barely three months after it’s release, the developer took serious notice. Numerous changes came to the game over the next year and a half, though most of them small and not addressing the core issue of loot and the auction house.

The first big step in truly bringing Diablo III back to life was Patch 2.0.1., released on February 25 of this year. While it implemented a number of changes, the most important were the refining of the game’s previously implemented paragon leveling system and what Blizzard calls “Loot 2.0.” Paragon levels could be achieved after hitting the level cap of 60, allowing players to still put their XP to good use. Each paragon level grants small choices in character improvement, whether slightly increasing base states or reducing resource costs. The more paragon levels, the more improvements, slowly adding up some substantial character improvements.

Loot 2.0 implemented  the chance of each piece of loot becoming smart loot, or items that roll intelligently based on your character to determine the item’s attributes. This made the chance of finding gear useful to your character much greater. Blizzard also greatly increased loot drop rates across the board, resulting in more and better loot, as well as completely reworking the game’s difficulties. Players could continue to progress their characters once again. All that remained was the closing of the auction house.

That finally happened on March 18, when in preparation for the game’s expansion, Reaper of Souls, Blizzard turned off the auction house, in the process killing the core game feature that plagued Diablo III for close to two years. All auctions being sold at the time either went to the highest bidder or were returned to the seller. Blizzard will close the auction house for good on June 24. While some players were making thousands of dollars in real world cash off the game, the vasy majority of players won’t miss it.

Reaper of Souls reinvigorated the game, adding a new character class, a new act for players to play through, and most importantly end game content in the form of adventure mode, an endlessly replayable form of the game that rewards players for doing bounties with quests, gear, and more. Special events like double XP weekends and a double legendary drop rate weekend, later made permanent, further added icing to the cake and attracted players like myself back to the game.

More than two years since it’s original release, Diablo III is a completely different game thanks to no small amount of effort on Blizzard’s part. No longer plagued by the auction house and lack of end-game content, the game is fun again. Playing the game, farming for that legendary item you need to complete your set, and earning more paragon levels to tweak your character captures some of the vital essence of Diablo that made its predecessor so addictive. I never would have guessed I would be playing Diablo III in 2014, or that Blizzard would put the time and effort to completely gut and reimagine their game. But I am, and Blizzard did. Now all I want to know is this — when does the next expansion come out?

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DinoZ: Surviving in The Stomping Lands

You lay prone, the tall grass concealing your body as you wait for your prey to approach. Fast, agile, the Gallimimus will certainly flee out of your reach if it senses the slightest hint of danger. You equip your spear. With one well placed thrust you can bring the dinosaur down. The moment of truth, the Gallimimus is right there, a few feet away. You stand in a crouch, approaching slowly, but the Gallimimus becomes spooked — it knows you are there. It begins to run, but not before your spear finds its mark. As you reap the spoils of your catch, you hear footsteps. Heavy footsteps. Something big is coming your way.

And then another player comes riding by on a massive Carnotaurus, attaches you to a rope, drags you to his camp, locks you in a cage, and watches as you slowly starve to death while he feasts on your hard earned dinosaur meat. This is The Stomping Land, a Kickstarted survival game that is part DayZ and part Jurassic Park. The game recently launched on Steam Early Access, and being the dinosaur fan that I am I couldn’t wait for the full release to get my hands on the title.

Many of the game features are yet to be implemented including character customization, additional dinosaurs, more craftable items, and all around improvements. What is in place is the core experience of the game, hunting dinosaurs, forming tribes, and fighting or teaming up with other players.

Each player starts near the beach of a large island equipped with a tomahawk. This starting item has a number of uses. It can be used for extremely close ranged combat, but more importantly it is used for obtaining the games two primary resources, wood and stone. By gathering large amounts of these two components you can craft an assortment of weapons and items, ranging from a bow and arrows to totem poles.

Starting off, you almost always want to build a better weapon ( a spear or a bow) and a campfire. The Stomping Land is a survival game — you must eat to survive — and the only food around is dinosaur. Thankfully there are a number of smaller dinos to pick off, allowing you to take their meat and cook it over the campfire to sate your hunger.

As you survive longer in the world, you gain expertise, one for every 30 seconds alive. Killing other players nets you 20 percent of their expertise as well. What is expertise used for? Probably the coolest feature of the game — dinosaur taming. The higher your expertise, the larger and more fearsome of a dinosaur you can tame. Of course, you must also have in your possession a healing herb, found in a handful of caves that are found on the island. After killing a dinosaur and having the necessary expertise, you can heal the creature using the herb and then mount it. Now you can navigate Capa Island in style.

This of course leads to dinosaur drive-bys. The world in The Stomping Land is a dangerous place. While the dinosaurs can be deadly if provoked, players more often than not are much deadlier. Just like in the zombie survival game DayZ, some players in The Stomping Land are much nicer than others. Some will want to form a tribe with you and go on hunting parties to bring down the larger dinosaurs, while others simply want to run you over with a Carnotaurus and take all your stuff. It’s just part of the game, and part of what makes the game so fun.

Running on the Unreal Engine, the game looks solid, and boasts a slick UI that keeps your screen clear of health meters and items bars. That being said, the game is definitely in Early Access. Currently there are no graphic settings, meaning even my fairly decent computer struggles to run the game at times as heavy rain pours down in a forest densely populated with all manner of grass, bushes, ferns, and trees. It makes the game difficult to recommend in this current state for anybody who isn’t using a higher end machine. Some game systems, like in-game chatting, are unnecessarily clumsy, requirng way too many clicks and button presses to type a simple message such as “Please do not murder me.” I expect most of this will be cleaned up at some point as more content is added, but unlike some Early Access games The Stomping Land truly means it when it says “you may want to wait until the game progresses further in development.”

That being said, what is included in this Early Access package is a blast to play around with, especially if you enjoy games like DayZ, Rust, and Minecraft. If so, or you really love dinosaurs, you might want to give The Stomping Land a try even in this early state. Otherwise players may want to wait for the game to receive some more polish, but don’t worry though — there will be plenty of dinosaur drive-bys to go around when you do decide to jump in.

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Battlefield Hardline Is A Nice Chance Of Pace

I have never enjoyed Battlefield as much as other shooters like Call of Duty or Halo. Whereas the action in those titles is near constant, Battlefield as a franchise to me features way too much down time running from point to point, only to be sniped by a sniper’s bullet from afar before I start my trek across the map all over again.

Why the heck did I sign up for the Battlefield: Hardline closed beta then, you ask? The game’s E3 showing impressed me, so when they announced a beta going live right that minute, I signed up, got in, and started playing this new take on classic cops and robbers.

Hardline is definitely still a Battlefield title. There are big teams sizes, vehicles galore, weapons, gadgets, and accessories to unlock, and large maps with destructible environments. Any player who played Battlefield 3 or 4 will instantly be at home here. The game map featured in the beta, High Tension, is set in the middle of a downtown city center, complete with skyscrapers, cranes, and overpasses. While the map is big, it isn’t near the size of many Battlefield maps, lending the game a generally quicker pace than some earlier titles.

Rather than the tanks and machines of war seen in Battlefield 4, Hardline features more civilian grade vehicles, though occasionally supped up to meet the needs of the would be bandits. Armored sedans and muscle cars can be used by the gangsters, while police have access to armored SWAT vans, squad cars, and helicopters.

What really sets Hardline apart from the rest of the Battlefield franchise are the two game modes featured in the beta, Heist and Blood Money. In Heist, robbers attempt to break into a vault and make out with the cash, with the police of course doing everything in their power to stop them. Blood Money puts a stash of cash in the center of the map and tasks each team with collecting as much as possible and bringing it back to their teams respective vaults. Classic Battlefield capture point wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but I would be surprised if it didn’t make it’s way into the final Hardline product.

Of the two modes, I found I preferred Blood Money, despite Heist being the game type that is clearly trying to be Hardline’s main attraction. The pace of Blood Money is frantic. You can be killed while carrying your wad of cash, allowing the enemy to pick up your hard earned money off your corpse. Your team’s vault can also be raided by the enemy if not defended diligently, requiring some members of your team to play defense while others make cash runs.

New equipable gadgets like the zipline and grappling hook shine in these modes. Because of the verticality of the maps, the grappling hook makes reaching sniping positions much easier, while the zipline is invaluable as a tool to quickly escape to your teams vault with a money stuffed dufflebag. Other gadgets like trip mines and the taser are fun additions as well, but the utility of the zipline and grappling hook work well with the fast paced nature of the game types.

Cops and robbers seems like a strange idea to fit into the Battlefield mold, and it is. If you actually think about it, why are the police causing billions of dollars in collateral damage by blowing up buildings, cars, and overpasses just to catch some thieves who are making away with a few million bucks? While the concept isn’t perfect, the game manages to breathe creative life into a franchise that has more or less been the same since Battlefield 1942. Will the full game be worth playing? Who knows, but after spending some time with the beta I can safely say this is the first time I’ve been interested in a Battlefield game since Battlefield 1943.

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Lara Croft’s Therapy Session Isn’t A Sign Of Weakness, It’s A Sign Of Strength

When I saw the teaser trailer during Microsoft’s E3 press conference for Rise of the Tomb Raider, I was excited. I thought it was one of the better game trailers I’ve seen in a long time. It had a great sense of momentum, a wonderful aura of suspense, and a fantastic musical score that had me excited for the future of the franchise. It helped that it was also a complete surprise.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, it shows a hooded woman, later revealed to be Lara Croft, in a therapy session with an older white man. As her therapist speaks to Lara about the trauma she sustained after the events of the previous game and her mental condition, Lara can be seen visibly shaking. Her therapist worries she’s fallen into a “mental trap” that she may never escape from. But there is another possibility — Lara could become who she was meant to be.

I was impressed and excited to see Lara’s return. So when I went online later that day, I was a little confused by some of the reactions I saw. Some shouted “How dare the developers make Lara Croft seek help from a man!” or highlighted the idea that Lara receiving therapy somehow made her weak. They claimed developers were once again stripping a powerful female protagonist of her strength, similar to how Metroid: Other M transformed Samus into a character completely dependent on her male supporting cast.

For me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Lara Croft is a gaming icon, though probably for all the wrong reasons. She’s starred in her fair share of great action titles and a few poor ones as well, but she isn’t recognized the world over because of her brains, skills, or the quality of her games. She is remembered because she is a female protagonist sporting tight shorts, a small waist, and huge breasts at a time when most gamers were still teenage boys. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the above promotional image. The fact that she is a strong, independent woman is secondary to her sex appeal, at least where the old games are concerned.

I can’t say I was ever a fan of the old franchise for basically that reason. So with no history with the franchise I went into the recent Tomb Raider reboot with an open mind, and what I found impressed me.Tomb Raider is by no means a perfect game, but it does plenty right. Unique puzzles, solid shooting, good platforming, beautiful scenery, great voice acting and good writing. The story left a little to be desired, but after finishing the game and putting down the controller I can safely say that my favorite part of Tomb Raider is, well, the Tomb Raider herself.

It’s brilliant really. Crystal Dynamics managed to transform a character that existed first and foremost as a sex icon into a strong, smart, and believable heroine. She doesn’t begin as a hardened killer or expert explorer. She starts as a very intelligent woman in a deadly situation, who is forced to rely on herself to see that she and her friends make it to safety.The Lara of the the rebooted Tomb Raider has a powerful will to endure, and a desire to protect those she cares about that allows her to do the impossible.

The trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider looks to build upon this idea by looking at Lara and the events she survived with a level of attention rarely seen in games. On that island Lara killed for the first time, lost loved ones, suffered unimaginable pain and survived near unbearable conditions. But she survived, though surviving in the world of the new Tomb Raider, just as in the real world, doesn’t mean emerging unscathed.

I’ve written about this before. Though by no means the only entertainment medium guilty of this, video games seem to have a knack for completely disregarding the repercussions of a life of violence. Game action heroes kill thousands of people on screen, and then act like completely regular Joes at the end of the game. As a lover of narrative, it’s always been a disconnect that has bothered me.

Which is why I enjoyed the latest Tomb Raider and the new trailer for it’s sequel so much. The developers look to be actually acknowledging that what Lara went through isn’t normal, isn’t something that you can just shrug off. It has to be overcome.

We sadly live in a society where to accept help is viewed as weak. Lara, to some, is showing weakness by seeking help in the new trailer. It is because she is a woman, some say, that the developers are choosing to show her seeking help, reinforcing an absurd idea that women aren’t as strong as men and somehow butchering her character in the process. If Lara was instead a man, they say, he wouldn’t seek counseling. That last bit is correct, and is exactly the problem.

I hear stories every day of veterans coming home from war who are too afraid or too ashamed to seek help for their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Instead they bottle it up and keep it inside, often with dangerous consequences for both themselves and those around them. The truth is this — men and women are equally weak. Nobody goes through traumatic events like seeing friends killed or killing others and is completely, 100 percent okay afterwards.

I would argue the problem is not with how Lara is being portrayed, but rather the problem rests with how our medium instead chooses to portray its stoic, white, male action heroes, men who often kill without hesitation, thought, or remorse. We don’t see the men of countless military shooters struggle with survivors guilt or the loss of loved ones. We don’t see action heroes like Nathan Drake think twice about killing hundreds in a quest for treasure. It’s all swept under the rug, reinforcing the fantasy that men are magically stronger and better equipped to deal with the horrors of war and combat than woman and thus don’t ever have a problem with it.

The fact that we do see Lara, both in the reboot and in this trailer, struggling with what she’s lived through doesn’t make Lara weak. It’s in fact quite the opposite. It makes her stronger, much stronger than the countless, interchangeable male heroes whose developers choose to make them mentally invincible. It gives her obstacles to overcome that aren’t as primitively simple as “shoot the bad man,” or “blow up the base.”

Seeking help isn’t an act of weakness, it’s an act of strength. And this new Lara Croft has it in spades.

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My Favorite Shooter Isn’t What You Might Expect

I’ve played more shooters over the years than probably any other genre. I distinctly remember Medal of Honor being my first. I remember Halo enthralling me, Half-Life scaring me, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare addicting me with its progression system. Along the way I’ve played just about every shooter in between.

None of the games listed above rank as my favorite shooter though. No, my favorite shooter is a game I’ve continued to come back to for more than five years, playing an hour here, an hour there. Every match is still just as fun as the first. It doesn’t have a progression system or perks. It doesn’t have crazy power-ups. It doesn’t have regenerative health. It’s simple, easy to understand, a throwback to a different time.

That game is Day of Defeat: Source. If you aren’t familiar with it I’m not terribly surprised. Day of Defeat is the red-headed step child of Valve shooters. It has never been as popular as Counter-Strike, no matter what version you are referring too. It hasn’t undergone a dramatic transformation like Team Fortress 2, which went free-to-play and added a huge number of new weapons and cosmetic items. It’s not the intense cooperative survival experience of the Left 4 Dead series. It’s not an immersive single-player experience like Half-Life.

Compared to all the titles listed above, Day of Defeat: Source is incredibly basic. It’s a simple class-based multiplayer shooter, where players play as either the Allies or Axis in the European theater of WWII. There is no deathmatch to be found. The entire game is essentially capture point, in most cases resulting in a never-ending tug-o-war between two teams. That’s all there is to it really.

Every so often when I’m looking at the hundred plus games in my Steam Library or the stack of Xbox 360 titles next to my desk, wanting to play something but not knowing what, I boot up Day of Defeat. I find one of my favorite maps (Avalanche, Argentan, or Donner). I pick random to be a good sport, even though I prefer the German weaponry to the arsenal of the Allies. I play for an hour or two, most of the time one match on one map the entire time. The two teams more often than not become quickly entrenched. One team will grab the capture point in the middle of the map and set up defensive machine guns, the other team will throw their bodies at it in an attempt to capture it. Sometimes they eventually will, and they will hold the middle for a span before the cycle repeats itself. Very rarely does anybody actually win or go on to capture the two points deep behind enemy lines. It’s quite an accomplishment when it does manage to happen.

Part of what I find appealing about Day of Defeat is the WWII theme. The second World War has always fascinated me, in part because of it’s simplicity. I know the reality is far different, but WWII always seems so cut and dry, so simple. Good guys versus bad guys who want to take over the world. America good, Nazis bad. The world isn’t really like that now. It probably wasn’t like that back in 1942 either, but that’s always what we’ve been taught in school and how it’s portrayed in the media, back then things weren’t so complicated, and now after wars like Vietnam and Iraq they are.

Day of Defeat is a lot like WWII actually. In a time where insane levels of customization and RPG like elements are becoming commonplace in shooters, Day of Defeat: Source is a rapidly aging relic, a throwback to the old days when things were more simple. You won’t find microtransactions here, like in Team Fortress. No weapon skins. No hats. No unlockables. Just shoot the enemy. Do your duty for your team.

Playing Day of Defeat: Source is sort of what I imagine the Norse afterlife of Valhalla being like. Log on. Fight. Die. Fight. Die. Log off. It’s a never ending war, where everybody regardless of team respects one another and collectively reminisces about past battles from the good ol’ days. It’s a small community of game veterans who, for whatever reason, log on every night to play a nine-year-old game most people have never even heard of. More often than not I play with a friend or two, and instead of focusing on reaching level 50 or getting that new skin for a virtual AK-47, we just talk about life instead. It’s nice.

What’s most surprising is that I’m not even particularly good at the game. I do decent enough, but I’ve never been great at PC shooters. I mostly just throw my body at the capture points, try to kill anybody who gets in my way, die, and then try again. My KD ratio is not even approaching positive. I don’t mind. I still have fun.

Team Fortress 2 is a completely different game from when it first released. Counter Strike has been reimagined with Global Offensive. Left 4 Dead has gotten a sequel to further expand upon it’s core idea, with a third game likely on the way. But in Valve’s pantheon of shooters, Day of Defeat stands alone and most likely always will. I will be surprised if the game ever receives a sequel or any kind of substantial update. It’s not the kind of shooter people care about anymore, and that’s okay. As long as the servers are still up and running, I will keep logging on long after Half-Life 3 and Halo 5 are released. Sometimes there is just something refreshing about simplicity, something refreshing about not having any bells and whistles. There isn’t an end goal of prestige mode or end game content to reach. It’s just a game, meant to be played, enjoyed, and then turned off. Sometimes that’s all I want.

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Heroes of the Storm Alpha Impressions: A Truly Different Breed of MOBA

It’s no secret I’m an avid League of Legends player, so when several years ago it was announced Blizzard would be entering the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre with what was then simply called “Blizzard DOTA” and then “Blizzard All-Stars”, I was excited. Flash forward a few years and that game is finally playable, albeit under a different name, new gameplay mechanics, and locked behind a Blizzard invitation due to the game’s technical alpha status.

After what seemed like an eternity of watching friends and acquaintances receive invites, I finally joined the increasingly less exclusive Heroes of the Storm club earlier this week. Now that I’ve spent more time playing this alpha in the last two days than I have playing many full release games, I can safely say Blizzard has once again done what it does best, crafting a MOBA with plenty of depth and complexity but at the same time eliminating many of the elements that can serve as a barrier for newcomers to the genre.

Heroes of the Storm will be instantly familiar to players of League of Legends of DOTA 2 — you choose a hero ( in this case a variety of heroes and villains from Blizzard’s core Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo franchises), waves of minions push towards opposing bases, and there are towers that must be destroyed to move forward. The similarities for the most part end there. Unlike many other MOBAs following in the footsteps of LoL and DOTA, looking to carve a place in what is becoming a quickly crowded genre, Heroes of the Storm is legitimately much different.

First up on the traditional MOBA chopping block is last hitting and farming. Rather than personal gold or experience, your team collectively levels up, incentivising teamwork and removing the need to run around in circles while you wait to hit a minion when it reaches 10 HP. Because experience is shared, you will want a member of your team in every lane to soak up experience, but other than that who goes where or does what is more up in the air than in most MOBAs. In another departure, players also start the game with their three core abilities, unlocking the choice between two ultimate abilities for the fourth later in the match. There is no need to figure out what skills you want to level up first either — each ability scales with your level, and each player comes equipped with a mount that can be summoned for increased movement speed.

Without gold to purchase items or abilities to choose and level up, what ways are there for customizing your hero? After all, experimenting with crazy item builds is part of what makes MOBA games so addicting, as there is always a new build or strategy to try. Blizzard realizes this and provides an answer with the game’s talent system. Upon leveling up, you are often presented with a choice between two or more modifiers that will determine what your character excels at. Some talents increase stats like health and attack damage, others modify existing abilities and some even grant a completely new ability to add to your arsenal. While complete role variation is much more difficult in Heroes than in League of Legends (a support for example will have a very hard time going toe to toe with an assassin, regardless of build), you can build a support with a focus on damage, or an assassin with an emphasis on dealing extra damage to enemy structures.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Heroes and other titles are the battlegrounds you will be duking it out on. Rather than the often seen 3 lane format that is almost exclusively played in other MOBAs, Heroes of the Storm features several maps, each with different lane numbers and jungle layouts. More importantly, each maps features a unique and vitally important gameplay mechanic that if ignored will quickly turn the tide of the match against you. One map, called Cursed Hallow, has players gathering tributes to the Raven Lord, who then reduces the HP of all enemy minions to 1 and the health of enemy forts by half for a limited time. The Dragon Shire map tasks players with capturing shrines in order to have one of their team members transform into a massive and resilient dragon knight, capable of punting enemy players long distances and excellent for pushing. Each of the objectives are of vital importance, and serve to naturally bring together teams for fights as each attempts to claim the objectives.

Presentation is just icing on the cake for a game like this, but Heroes even in Alpha looks great and packs style, from the rocking menu music to the character banter between heroes and enemies. Much of the magic of Heroes of the Storm comes from the characters themselves. In the same way that there is just something great about seeing Link face off against Mario in Super Smash Bros., watching your favorite Blizzard characters team up and face off is definitely a selling point that other MOBAs can’t match.The games progression system takes what Blizzard has learned from years of World of Warcraft and their recent success with the digital card game Hearthstone, using daily quests and hero specific challenges to keep players coming back. Being a Free to Play title, a number of skins are available to customize the look of your favorite hero for a price, but completing hero quests unlocks some free character customization options in the form of recolors.

There will be many in the MOBA community who will call Heroes of the Storm “dumbed down” or “casual.” Players looking for the relentlessly unforgiving gameplay of a game like DOTA 2 will no doubt be dumbfounded by the lack of items and balk at the idea of shared experience. While Heroes of the Storm does indeed lower the barrier of entry for first time MOBA players, that isn’t a bad thing. Even at this extremely early stage, seasoned MOBA veterans will find plenty of strategy, customization, and just plain fun to keep them occupied for hours on end, and if that’s the case, what is there to really complain about?

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Luftrausers Review: Flying High

You blast off into the sky in your high-speed super weapon, ripping enemy planes apart with ease. You dive, roll, and boost circles around enemy fighters, but before long the battle intensifies. Battleships fire streams of anti-air rounds, and you do everything in your power to evade. Instinct takes over, and before long your aircraft is performing a deadly aerial waltz. A storm of bullets comes your way, and you see no other option than to dive straight into the depths of the ocean to escape. This would be suicide for any normal aircraft, but you aren’t piloting any old plane — this is a Luftrauser, a deadly piece of war engineering that can be customized with a variety of experimental weapons and engines. When you emerge from the sea you show no mercy, but for every enemy you defeat three more take its place. You die in a hail of bullets. Thankfully, you have an ace up your sleeve. Your craft goes nuclear, taking out any and all enemies in the surrounding area.

You check your score: 20,000. Not bad, but you can do better. You launch your Luftrauser once again, and the battle begins anew. That’s Luftrausers in a nutshell, a frantically fast paced game that looks and plays like it’s straight out of an old arcade cabinet. That’s part of it’s charm.

With one battlefield, one mode, and a few plane customization options that you can mix and match to craft your perfect flying machine, Luftrausers doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t. But it doesn’t need to be. Like the classic arcade games of old, Luftrausers is all about the score. Killing enemies in succession builds up your combo meter, with each kill granting you increasingly more points until it maxes out at 20. Keeping your combo up is the key to posting big numbers, but the way the game is structured means you can rarely keep it up for long. With every kill and second that passes on the clock, Luftrausers becomes more and more difficult as it spawns deadly new enemy types, ranging from dangerous battleships to enemy aces that maneuver in ways similar to a real player. The game reaches its climax once the massive and heavily armed blimps begin to appear, flying fortresses that only the most skilled pilots will be able to defeat and live to tell the tale.

As you can probably guess, Luftrausers is hard. Really hard, and even harder when you turn on the games unlockable bonus mode. It’s classic bullet-hell, but rather than confining you to a box in which to maneuver like other games in the genre, Luftrausers gives you a freedom of movement that essential if you want to survive. Players manually use the boost on their craft to propel their plane, allowing for some fancy aerial acrobatics as you let off the boost and tumble through the air, rotating to shoot an enemy plane behind you before hitting the throttle again and ascending to the heavens.

Even if Lufrausers only featured one plane to choose from it would still be replayable due to its score focused nature, but I couldn’t imagine myself logging in more than a few hours. The inclusion of multiple engines, weapons, and aircraft bodies that unlock as you play changes that entirely. Parts can be mixed and matched, adding a great deal of replayability. As a result I’ve logged in way more time than I ever imagined I would. After dying I would almost always head back to the hanger to make a new plane combination. Trying to find the perfect aircraft for your playstyle is a game in itself, with my personal favorites being a plane that could dive into the ocean without taking damage and fire massive cannonballs or one whose entire strategy is to kamikaze ram enemy units thanks to it making you immune to collision damage. Each plane variation comes with various challenges to be completed, adding goals to strive towards every time you take off in your Luftrauser.in to ascend skyward. Watching a good Luftrausers player is awe-inspiring, as they flip and roll with ease between streams of bullets and enemy planes.

What really sells Luftrausers though is its visuals and soundtrack. The 8-Bit sepia tone look creates a 1950s vibe that invokes a post-Word War II world where aerial supremacy meant everything and new and experimental weapons were becoming reality. Adding to the package is an amazing soundtrack unlike any other I’ve experienced in a game. It’s really only one core track, which can be listened to here, but becomes modified and transformed according to which parts you choose for your craft. What begins as a triumphant military march becomes a sci-fi space battle as electronic sounds begin to blend into the familiar theme, and there are literally dozens of unique versions, each one the perfect background music to accompany your aerial achievements.

There has been some controversy surrounding Luftrausers — its art is clearly inspired by that of Nazi Germany, leading many to criticize the games creators. I can see where they are coming from. Luftrausers definitely glorifies the idea of aerial dogfighting, and with the inclusion of all the eagles, crosses, and character portraits like the ones seen above, it’s hard not to draw the comparison. The developers were clearly looking for an alternate history that would fit in with the the game they wanted to make. What they landed on was a unnamed country reminiscent of Nazi Germany that emerges victorious from World War II and in turn is able to implement many of its fabled “super weapons” that never saw the light of day. It’s important to note that none of this is ever explicitly stated. Being an arcade game at heart, Luftrausers has no real story. Kill planes, get score, test your Luftrauser, rinse and repeat.

Minor controversy aside, Luftrausers is a great fun. For me it conjures up memories of hour long 1942 sessions at a local arcade trying to beat my previous score, entering a trance-like state as the pounding military march that is the games music blares into my ears. If you love bullet-hell shooters, a great challenge, or want to feel like an aerial ace for a few hours, Luftrausers is more than worth the $10 it will cost you.

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Godzilla Review: Return of the King

Man, this one has been a long time coming. Since the first attempt at an American Godzilla in 1998, fans have been clamoring for a return to form for the King of the Monsters. Sadly, it became clear that Godzillas Japanese parents, Toho, had no intention of creating new films after 2004s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Fans didn’t have much to look forward to.

For a long time it looked like a new Godzilla film would ever see the light of day, in America or Japan. But last night, after what seemed like an eternity, Godzilla returned to American shores in spectacular fashion thanks to Legendary Pictures. While the film isn’t without problems, “Godzilla” is a bold new take on the character that manages to still stay true to the series me and so many others grew up watching.

Some very general plot points are discussed below. Slight spoilers ahead!

“Godzilla” begins in 1999. Joe Brody and his wife Sandra (played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche ) work at a nuclear power plant in the fictional Janjira, Japan. Massive tremors begin to destroy the plant, causing a radiation leak and a subsequent nuclear meltdown. Officially the incident was caused by an earthquake, but Joe believes that what he experienced that day wasn’t a natural disaster. He becomes a man obsessed with finding the truth of that day, in the process alienating his son.

Cut to the present day. Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), works in the military as a bomb disposal expert. Upon returning home from a deployment overseas, he is reunited with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco. His reunion is short lived when he quickly learns his father has been arrested in Japan for trespassing in the Janjira quarantine zone, and Ford travels to get him out. Ford reluctantly agrees to help his father return to Janjira to test a theory. It’s there they meet Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and uncover the truth — giant monsters from Earth’s ancient past are real, and they feed on radiation to grow and reproduce. All of this has been covered up by a secretive international organization that studies these organisms, led by Serizawa.

As first one and then two M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) begin to hunt sources of nuclear radiation around the world, Earth’s only hope lies in Godzilla, an alpha predator from those prehistoric times who exists to keep the order of nature in check. And by “keep the order of nature in check,” I mean beat the living snot out of other monsters. Ford, desperately trying to return home to his family in San Francisco, is caught right in the path of destruction, eventually becoming involved in the U.S. Navy’s plan to destroy all three of the creatures in a single blow.

Godzilla films have always struggled with what to do with their human characters. Afterall, the whole point of the movies existing are for moviegoers to see the spectacle of giant monsters wrecking havoc, not human drama. Most films in the series throw in human characters that have very little reason to be around, are terribly uninteresting, or both. Monsters can’t be on screen all the time, and if the human element fails, then the audience is bored for 3/5ths of the movie. The best Godzilla films not only deliver great monster action, but also human characters that are more than loosely associated with the films overall plot.

Bravo then to director Gareth Edwards, who in only his second directorial debut after his indie film “Monsters”, never loses sight on the human side of massive monsters on the warpath. Most of the films glimpses at the monsters, aside from the majority of the final climactic battle, are done from perspectives that go to great lengths to emphasize just how gigantic these creatures are, and how small we are in comparison. Whether looking through the googles of Ford as he parachutes into the heart of a destroyed San Francisco or catching a peak of the monster through an airport terminal, Edwards is a master at providing perspective. You feel like an ant watching this movie.

The films characters are all relatively normal people, each solidly acted. Ford is a soldier, wanting to return to his family but at the same time conscious of his duty to help others. Elle is a nurse, who stays behind to help the injured but also to wait for her husband. The Navy Admiral wants to save as many lives as he can. “Godzilla” feels more real as a result. There are no insanely powerful super soldiers or crazy future weaponry. It is normal people struggling to survive and figure out what to do in a situation the world has never faced before.

Unlike films like “Transformers” of “Man of Steel,” where buildings are destroyed willy nilly with little regard for the impact or consequences, this film looks strongly at the human impact such a monumental event would create. People are evacuated, but many die, and the film doesn’t gloss over the fact. “Godzilla” is in many ways more akin to a natural disaster film rather than last years Kaiju brawl fest “Pacific Rim.”

In many ways, the disaster film vibe both helps and hurts “Godzilla.” The title monster himself gets little screen time until the last 20-30 minutes of the film, with most of the creature footage stemming from the M.U.T.O.s rampage. It’s for the most part a disaster film following the events of a family separated and trying to reunite as a storm rages all around them. You see tons of destruction and the aftermath of titanic struggles, but not much of the actual events themselves. One scene in particular serves as a truly epic introduction to Godzilla, the first time he is fully revealed. As he prepares to throw down with the enemy creature, the film painfully cuts away. Instead, we watch a CNN broadcast of the battle in the background at the Brody home. I felt more than a little robbed.

If “Godzilla” has one major problem, it’s that Godzilla feels like he is in second place. He is barely mentioned for much of the film, while the M.U.T.O.s get all the attention. His origins, and purpose, are never really explained beyond the vague idea of “restoring balance.” He is hidden behind buildings and underwater for much longer than you would expect.

It’s a shame, because Godzilla really does feel like a character here, not a mindless monster. As a character, he could have used a little more time to be developed. He’s big — bigger than he has ever been before. He fights like an enraged animal rather than a WWE wrestler, but his eyes and emotions are very much human. Don’t worry though, he has a couple of moves up his sleeve that I’m sure will cause more than a few fans to squeal with glee. Godzilla causes plenty of destruction by himself, but he never goes out of his way to inflict damage. He completely ignores the military for the most part. He is singularly focused on defeated the M.U.T.O.s. In many ways it feels like the old Showa movies of the 70s, where Godzilla serves as Earth’s defender against mankind’s own arrogance. And occasionally alien invaders. I wasn’t expecting to find that here, in what had been billed as an incredibly grim and dark film.

On a purely technical level, the film goes far above the everyday blockbuster. The cinematography is top notch. The visuals are awe inspiring — an achievement in a day and age when we have literally seen just about everything thanks to CGI. These look like living, breathing creatures. The sounds, I can’t even begin to describe. See this in IMAX 3D for an amazing experience. It truly deserves it. The score by Alexandre Desplat isn’t half bad either, though the music of Akira Ifukube is so iconic and near perfect that it is hard not to be disappointed by hearing anything else in a Godzilla film.

Unlike Roland Emmerichs 1998 film, I anticipate Edwards’ “Godzilla” will be lovingly adopted into the Godzilla film pantheon as a fan favorite, and it deserves to be. Edwards brought a much needed human element to a franchise that aside from a handful of films, paid little attention to the tiny people running around on the ground. Sadly, Godzilla himself suffers for it. I sincerely hope this film will spawn a sequel, or even a whole new generation of Godzilla films. If that is the case, the next director would be wise to pull back the curtain and let the big guy shine. He is, after all, the star of the show.

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