Category Archives: Game Reviews

The Best Tutorial I Ever Played

Tutorials are the worst.

“Use the right stick to look around.”

“Hold left trigger to aim down the sights.”

“Press A to jump.”

Yeah, we get it. Most of us have played a video game before, we know what to do. Even if we hadn’t, I think we are probably intelligent enough to figure it out. Pressing a button to see what it does isn’t exactly rocket science.

Nevertheless, almost every modern AAA title has a tutorial, and almost without exception they are incredibly dull. Most developers seem to treat game tutorials like a chore; a mandatory but creatively unsatisfying feature that is simply a requirement in shipping a modern video game.

But they don’t have to be. They can be a creative an integral part of the game if done thoughtfully. A good or even great tutorial is supposed to be an introduction, a starting point. Most games take this a little too literally. They don’t even start players on the ground floor of game literacy, they take players to the sub-basement, telling them how to do every one of the game’s basic functions over the course of the first few minutes and then shooing them along so the “real” game can begin.

Maybe if we just rebranded tutorials into introductions they would collectively improve. A great “tutorial” isn’t only about familiarizing players with the game’s controls, but also introducing them to the world and characters they are about to explore and meet. Like I said, an introduction. Some games do this better than others, but there is one tutorial that I can say without a doubt does it better than nearly any other game I’ve played: Bioshock Infinite.

Say what you want about the game’s over-the-top violence (which annoyed some) or it’s linearity (which annoyed others) but Bioshock Infinite boasts the only tutorial in recent memory I could describe as being perfect (Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon comes in at a close second.)

What is so great about it? Everything.

(Spoilers for the first 30 minutes of Bioshock Infinite below)

Players before reaching the tutorial have already wandered about the floating city of Columbia and taken in some of the sights. Everything seems normal; kids play in the street, paperboys hawk papers, couples chat on street side benches. Despite appearances, there is a lingering sense of discomfort that something about Columbia just feels “wrong.” Before long you arrive at a fairground, with posters and signs promoting some kind of special raffle. You see, Columbia is celebrating it’s Independence today, and you’ve arrived just in time for the festivities.

Upon first arriving at the fair you are given your first vital piece of information about playing the game: the seemingly magical potions called Vigors, serving as the Plasmids of Bioshock Infinite. What are they, and what all can they do? Well step up on up and learn for yourself, the game invites, as a professional salesman standing atop the stage begins to promote his products. “One swig, and feats of wonderment are at the tips of your fingers!” The game shows, not tells, as two men dressed as devils use Vigors on one another in front of the stage to demonstrate the different abilities available to the player. Over the course of the presentation the salesman drops several names which will continue to appear throughout the game, specifically the character of Jeremiah Fink.

After watching the demonstration the player moves further into the fairgrounds and discovers a small area to freely explore, filled with a variety of games and activities. Almost immediately a salesman directs your attention to “Cast The Devil Out,”  a game whose name and objective, like nearly everything else in the city of Columbia, draws upon religious symbolism. It’s here players get the chance to familiarize themselves with using Vigors for themselves, an essential part of combat in the game. Using the “Bucking Bronco” Vigor players are tasked with knocking “devils” hiding behind furniture into the air. Even before using it themselves the game salesman gives players his sales pitch about Bucking Bronco, explaining its potential uses and power with his enthusiastic flair.

Around the corner is another opportunity to learn more about Bioshock Infinite’s combat in the form of a shooting game called “Bring Down The Skyline Vox.” Once again the game in name and purpose continues to expose players to important concepts, in this case the skylines players will be using later in the game to zip around the city and the introduction of the “evil” rebels called the Vox Populi. Players are tasked with grabbing a shotgun and blasting a certain number of cardboard Vox Populi targets off the rails, letting players familiarize themselves with Bioshock Infinite’s gunplay.

Often times concepts important to understanding the world of Columbia can be found in the fair multiple times, just in case a player misses out on one activity. In addition to the skyline featured in the shooting gallery, a non-interactive exhibit discussing Columbia’s skylines and their use in transporting goods is also on display. An additional shooting game continues to reinforce the idea of the Vox Populi as villains, even including the important side character and Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy as a special target that can be shot for extra points.

Better yet, doing well in these “tutorials” cleverly disguised as carnival games grants you rewards like additional money. This gives players an incentive to actually explore everything the fair has to offer.

Even after playing all the carnival games there is still plenty left to see. An exhibit with mechanical horses show the technical capabilities of Columbian inventors, paving the way for the game to introduce the heavily armed motorized “Patriots” that players fight later in the game without having to overly explain why. The game’s audio logs, Voxophones, are introduced and explained in a humorous way with player character Booker recording a Voxophone of his own and then spouting the line to the salesman, “Just so we’re clear, I’m not paying for this.” The colossal Handyman, one of the game’s most challenging enemies, is also on display for players to witness and learn more about before having to face one in combat a few hours later.

Minutes after leaving the fair comes the controversial “raffle scene.” It serves as the conclusion to Bioshock Infinite’s introduction. Picking a numbered baseball from a basket as your raffle ticket, you wait as Jeremiah Fink (the same character responsible for inventing Vigors and introduced just minutes before) announces the raffle winner. Lo’ and behold it is number 77 — your number. All the while the player is curious, “What did I win?” The reveal comes as a shock, quickly followed by a sense of discomfort and revulsion — your prize is the “honor” of giving first throw at the public stoning of an interracial couple. It’s in this moment that the uneasy sensation creeping just below the surface of Columbia comes to light. This is the real Columbia. After Fink and guards catch a glimpse of the “A.D.” tattooed on the back of your hand as you attempt to either throw the baseball at the couple or at Fink,  the game begins in earnest. Players grab a skyhook and melee their way out of the area before truly starting their adventure in the dystopia of Columbia.

All the information in the game’s fair “tutorial” is presented to you, not forced upon you. That is the key here. While the game does give players a quick cartoon demonstration of how to use new Vigors upon acquiring them, several of the Vigors have already been explained and demonstrated in a non-intrusive and interactive way long before players even get their hands on them. Important characters, game concepts, ideologies, and the true nature of Columbia itself have been revealed naturally as the game went along, not as walls of text appearing in the middle of your screen or journal entries. By the time Bioshock Infinite really begins, it’s likely you didn’t even realize you had played a tutorial. You were simply absorbed in the world Irrational created and ready to explore it further.

Bioshock Infinite proves that tutorials can be an integral part of the game experience and don’t have to be a mandatory afterthought. In fact, the fair, raffle,and scenes leading up to both are my favorite parts of Bioshock Infinite, even taking into account how much I enjoyed the game’s combat and dimension hopping storyline. Video games need more tutorials like this. Gamers are (generally) a smart crowd. We know how to shoot and jump. We know how to crouch. Developers, tell us something we don’t know. Tell us about the world you’ve created, the characters you’ve populated it with. If you do have to tell us how to play, make it part of the game, not separate from it. That’s all I’m asking. If you follow Bioshock Infinite’s lead, modern games will be all the better for it.

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How Nidhogg Is Like Real Fencing…Sort Of

From the first moment I saw the indie fencing game Nidhogg, I knew I had to play it. There isn’t much to it really: two brightly colored, blocky figures that remotely resemble humans duel to the death with pixelated lines that kind of look like swords, all in a frantic game type that can most closely be likened to tug of war.

There is a reason the game grabbed my attention immediately — I duel with swords in real-life.  I started fencing around five years ago when I started my freshman year of college and since then the sport has become one of my favorite hobbies (aside from playing games and writing about them that is.) I watched the game from afar and learned more about it, and in June during the Steam Summer Sale I finally managed to pick the game up and play it for myself. It’s super fast paced, intense, and features a fantastic soundtrack. I also found that for a game about people dueling to the death for the honor of being sacrificed to a crudely drawn worm monster called the Nidhogg, Nidhogg the game actually has a surprising amount in common with real fencing and martial arts in general. Minus the Nidhogg, of course.

In sport fencing, two fencers duel to a specific number of points on what is called a “strip.” The strip is basically a narrow playing field where the duel will take place. You can move forward, back, and slightly to the left or right. Depending on what weapon you are using the rules are different, but for epee, the type of fencing that most resembles actual dueling, you can stab your opponent anywhere and receive a point. In foil fencing players earn points only by hitting the chest and having what is called “right of way,” which is basically a way to determine who will receive a point if two attacks land at the same time.

The objective in Nidhogg is a little different, but along the way does manage to incorporate many of the rules of actual fencing. In Nidhogg, one player needs to run all the way to the right of the level to win, while the other needs to run all the way to the left.  The map is symmetrical, and both players start in the middle of the arena. Killing the other player grants the winner “right of way,” which allows them to run and progress to the next screen, with the eventual goal of running far enough in their respective direction to win. The only catch is your opponent will respawn shortly after death in your path, requiring you to defeat them again. If they defeat you instead, they are granted right of way and can progress in their respective direction, essentially erasing your progress and creating a game of deadly tug of war. Watching the game in action will give you a much better understanding — it sounds kind of complicated, but in practice it is painfully simple.

Like in actual fencing, duelists in Nidhogg are restricted to a 2D plane not so different from a fencing strip. You can move forward and back but not to the side. While in sport fencing you can jump and duck, because in Nidhogg the actual objective is to get past your opponent and run to the end of the level, you can actually jump or roll past your opponent and make a mad dash for the objective. This is likely to get you killed, as players can also hurl their blades through the air in Nidhogg, something that as you can probably guess is illegal in actual fencing. Players can also punch their opponent if they happen to lose their sword and even sweep kick their opponent off their feet before killing them and taking their weapon. So you know, Nidhogg is basically real fencing.

When it comes down to it, fencing is really all about three things: distance, timing, and reading your opponent. Speed comes in at a close fourth, but without understanding the first three and putting them into good practice, speed won’t get you very far. Each of these essentials for being a better fencer just so happen to have a place in a game about virtual fencing as well.

First up is distance. Distance in fencing is everything. Distance is knowing when you can hit your opponent, knowing when they can hit you, knowing how many steps you need to take to be able to make that critical lunge, and knowing how long it will take for your point to hit its mark. Without a good understanding of distance, you will find yourself on the end of your opponents point far more often than you would like.

This applies in Nidhogg as well. Unless you are running the opposite direction, players always have their sword tips pointed towards their opponent in Nidhogg, and can raise or lower the level of their point. Depending on the height of your weapon, the longer or shorter your lunge distance (attack) is. If your opponents blade occupies the same height as yours when you attack, your blades will bounce off one another. Knowing when your opponent can hit you at any given time is critical in Nidhogg. If your blade is high and your opponent’s is low, you have to know who has the longer reach or else you will wind up bleeding neon orange blood all over the stone tiles. Unlike in real fencing, in Nidhogg players can run forward and backward as well as  jump and roll, which opens up more possibilities for setting up your distance and striking when the time is right.

That brings us to our next important factor — timing. Timing is basically just that, and is hard to exactly train for. You just have to be able to see the opportunity and take it, going all in on pure reflex and gut reaction. The moment you see your opponent flinch, lower their blade, or take a moment of relaxation, you have to be ready to spring that instant. Wait even just a second and the moment will be gone, along with your opportunity for victory.

Nidhogg is no different.  In the game you can disarm your opponent by having the tip of your blade half way past the tip of theirs, and then moving your blade either down to land on top of their weapon or coming from under and hitting their sword up to perform what we in fencing would call a “beat attack.” In Nidhogg it is a disarm, and gives you the perfect opportunity to strike. Timing, however, is essential. Moving your blade far enough in to perform the disarm isn’t easy, especially when your opponent can simply lunge and stab you at any moment, made all the easier the closer to them you are. The perfect time to disarm then is to wait for your opponent to lunge, allowing them to bring their sword to you, and then disarming them before their sword point finds its mark. This requires excellent timing and a little bit of anticipation. Hesitate for even a moment or misread your distance and you are done for.

Reading your opponent is by far the hardest ability for any fencer to learn, and you never stop learning. Every opponent is different, and it is a constant challenge to keep up. As one of my fencing instructor’s likes to say, fencing is like playing an extremely physical game of chess. You have to always think a couple of steps ahead. If I do this, what will they do? What if I do this instead? To succeed, you need to be able to anticipate your opponents actions and be able to understand what his or her reaction might be to any given attack, all while trying to not get stabbed. By knowing those reactions, you can further set up your opponent to put them right where you want them. This is where gauging your opponents defenses and baiting them come into play. By doing attacks never meant to hit their target, you can see what your opponent does and adapt. By presenting yourself as a target, you can invoke an attack from your opponent, and as long as you are expecting it and are fast enough, can turn their attack into one of your own.

These tactics work just as well in Nidhogg. Knowing that if you turn your back and run your opponent may hurl their sword at you gives you an advantage. As long as you are fast enough to dodge the weapon, you can then quickly turn the tables on your unarmed opponent. Knowing your opponent likes to lunge high whenever your blade is low gives you a similar piece of vital information. By knowing what your opponents habits and strategies are, you can adapt and take advantage of them.

While these aspects of fencing apply especially well to Nidhogg due to the dueling inspired nature of the game, timing, distance and the ability to read your opponent can be applied to any fighting game. In this way games really do imitate life. While specific skills or techniques from martial arts don’t carry over to the virtual world, the knowledge and understanding of the concepts do. Professional fighting game players exhibit an extraordinary understanding of distance, knowing exactly how far they need to be in order to land a hit at its maximum range. They show an incredible sense of timing, having memorized the exact number of animation frames any given attack in the game takes and the time associated with it. They know when their opponent makes a mistake, and they don’t hesitate to jump on the opportunity and turn a game in their favor. They know how to make their opponent react and anticipate those reactions to come out on top.

In spirit and in concept, virtual duels and fights are not much different from ones in real life. They take the same kind of discipline, knowledge, and practice as any martial art in the real world does. Games just sometimes have giant unicorn worms that swallow you whole after you win.

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My Favorite Sports Game Is From 1978

I’ve never been one for sports, at least not mainstream ones. After playing every sport under the sun as a kid I migrated towards individual sports like swimming in high school and fencing in college. I’m not much of a sports “watcher” either. I watch the occasional football game, go to a basketball game every once in awhile and have been watching the World Cup off and on like many, but keeping up with the sports world has never been a priority.

You can imagine then that modern sport video games don’t do much for me. I love more arcadey titles like NBA Jam or Mario Tennis, but games like Madden or Fifa have never appealed to me. They lack the physical aspect of actually playing sports, and combine it with the visuals and audio of watching a sports broadcast. I just find it…boring.

It’s amazing then that a sports video game has quickly become one of my favorite arcade titles. When I went to my local arcade a few weeks back with a friend, I found a strange new cabinet that wasn’t around during my previous visit. It looked like a table with a screen in the middle. Two stools sat on the ends, right in front of a trackball and two buttons, alongside some scribbling I didn’t immediately understand. Older readers may know the game I’m talking about, but I was completely unaware.

Curious, me and my friend took a seat on each side of the table and started to play. It is football, plain and simple. Players are identified with Xs and Os, and each player gets four offensive and four defensive plays to choose from. Though it took a little figuring out, the game is basically glorified rock, paper, scissors. You try to get first downs and score touchdowns. Like I said, it’s football.

Atari Football to be exact, and there isn’t anything fancy or flashy about it, especially in 2014. There isn’t any color. No character models. Yet what I found was that this game from 1978 more perfectly captured the physicality and excitement of a real sport far better than Madden ever has.

It all boils down to great, simple gameplay. If you are on offense and your opponent can correctly guess your play, they can easily counter it by picking the corresponding defensive play. It all becomes mind games, trying to think like your opponent in order to succeed. While this could be fun by itself, it would be nothing with Atari Football’s main attraction — the trackball.

Thanks to the trackball, playing this game is physically exhausting. You always control the player with the ball, and rather than using a joystick you use the trackball to run and juke your way to the end zone. That means using your palm to rotate the ball as fast as you can to make your character run, rolling it rapidly to the left to sidestep, then rolling it back to the right and then forward as you make a mad dash for the touchdown. Your opponent is doing the same on defense, making their ball spin as fast as it can as they try to chase you down and tackle you. After just a few minutes of playing your arm is aching and your palms are sore, but it is so much fun you don’t want to quit. You know a game has done something right when I am in physical pain but want to keep playing.

That physicality is really the secret ingredient to why I think Atari Football is so great. Actually “running”, so to speak, gives the game a rush of excitement that modern sport titles really lack. The smaller number of plays and the simplicity of it all boils football down to its essence and allows for even non-football fans like me to really enjoy what the sport is all about. Maybe that is part of the reason Wii Sports found so much success — there is just something about actually being active in a sports game that makes it more enjoyable.

Whatever the reason, for 20 minutes me and my friend were cheering and yelling as we furiously spun that trackball as fast as we could. In the end our hands couldn’t take any more. Me and my friend stepped away from the table and returned to our old favorites like Gauntlet, Smash TV, and Galaga, exhausted but happily surprised that a game so old, and a sports game no less, could capture and hold our attention like few games can. It’s for that reason that Atari Football, a 36-year-old video game from a long gone era, is my new favorite sports game. Unless Madden 2016 comes with a trackball, I expect it will stay that way.

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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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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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Dark Souls Isn’t For Me, And I’m Okay With That

Few games in recent years have garnered the amount of attention from the hardcore gaming crowd as the Dark Souls franchise. With it’s zero tolerance for hand-holding and bone crushing difficulty, the franchise has won many a fan.

The first game initially passed me by, but after continually hearing good things about Dark Souls II, I decided to give it a try. After spending about 11 hours with the game I’ve come to a conclusion – Dark Souls isn’t for me.

Dark Souls isn’t fun in the same way less difficult games are. The game is renowned for repeatedly handing players their collective butts over and over again, forcing you to improve. The fun of Dark Souls comes from learning how to play a game that gives you nearly zero help, as well as those triumphant moments when you finally defeat a challenging foe after numerous attempts. I did actually experience this. I experienced all the moments of self-paced discovery, brutal difficulty, and eventual victory that causes so many gamers to hold Dark Souls upon high. I can easily see why people enjoy the franchise. But I don’t.

Before we go into my problems with Dark Souls, let me go ahead and lead with this statement: I love a challenge. Nearly every shooter I play I crank up the difficulty to the max. I balked at the idea that many gamers declared Witcher 2 too difficult. I’m about as stubborn as they come, especially when it comes to losing. I will try over and over again to come out on top. I play League of Legends in unhealthy amounts, and if you know anything about LoL then you know it’s a game with steep learning curve that is constantly infuriating.

It’s not the difficulty of Dark Souls that turns me off (I actually really enjoy the combat). Rather, it’s the core gameplay mechanic that for the purposes of this article I will call “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” that makes enjoying the game difficult for me. Improving the stats of your character and purchasing items is done with souls. Souls are acquired from defeating the game’s various enemies. Sounds simple enough, but once you die (which is almost constantly) you drop all the souls you were carrying on your person, requiring you to run back to your corpse and pray you are not killed again before you pick them back up. If you die in route to picking up your soul stash, the souls are gone forever. It’s all very stressful, which I guess is by design.

My main problem with this mechanic is that the entire point of the game is to trial and error your way through increasingly difficult battles. Many battles require way more than two attempts, and more often than not instead of focusing on strategy or tactics, you are instead primarily concerned with recollecting your souls and running far enough out of harms way so when you die again your souls will be easier to recover. The entire point of the game is to try, die, try again, but doing so puts your primary means of improving your characters ability at constant risk. This encourages you to spend your souls and upgrade your character whenever possible, but stats can only be improved while sitting at a bonfire, which are of course few and far between.

The result is I would regularly lose thousands of souls, especially during boss fights when I have no means of retreating and usually die over and over again. For every step forward I would make, I would take two steps back after messing up and losing thousands of souls, putting me back another lengthy gameplay session before I could get back to the amount I had before. Dark Souls isn’t a game where a less than stellar player can grind their way to eventual victory. It instead forces you to improve your skills, and if you can’t, it wants nothing to do with you.

From what I’ve read, Dark Souls II takes the idea of kicking the player while their down up another notch by knocking off a portion of your characters health bar after death in addition to losing souls, up to a maximum of 50 percent reduced max health. The more you die, the more difficult the game becomes, despite the entire point of the game being to die.

If dying simply meant I sucked and needed to rethink my strategy, I wouldn’t have a problem with Dark Souls. I do, however, have a problem with a game that artificially creates length by robbing players of progress, punishing them time and time again for failing by inhibiting character growth.

I can appreciate the game’s zero tolerance policy towards hand-holding and tutorials. In theory. In actuality, I find myself constantly suffering from a feeling of inadequacy. What stats should I be improving? What gear should I be using? How do I improve items? What the heck does this thing do? You kind of figure it out as you go, but when I talk to friends who love the game they just tell me “Look up a guide online, that’s what I did and it became much more fun.” I don’t want to have to look up a guide online just to be able to play the game. This, coupled with constantly losing progress, to me does not a fun game make. But to each their own.

A game does not necessarily have to be fun for me to enjoy it. The Last of Us, for example, isn’t a fun game. It’s a stressful, violent, and intense ride from start to finish. Its gameplay isn’t “fun.” I finished and enjoyed The Last of Us not because of its difficulty or its gameplay, but because of the game’s story. The scarcity of resources and violence found in the gameplay reinforced the themes of the narrative, making me care about its characters and crafting a compelling experience that I had to see finished. I played through The Last of Us to see how the tale of Joel and Ellie concluded, and fought through each encounter to see what developments would happen next.

Dark Souls has none of that. I can’t tell you anything about the world of Dark Souls, the characters, the story, any of it. You are a zombie, trying to not become a zombie, and you die a lot. Occasionally you encounter strange side characters who you have very little interaction with and whose purpose is entirely unknown to me. The story of Dark Souls is your personal story of overcoming adversity and reaching salvation.

That doesn’t captivate me in the same way a great story does. If I’m going to play a game that is distinctly not fun, one that punishes me at every turn, I need a good reason. As the classic saying goes, “What is my motivation?” Dark Souls doesn’t really provide one. It doesn’t care if you make it to the end or not. If you want to bite the bullet and fight your way through just for the sake of doing so, go for it. Dark Souls will be there for you, kicking you every step of the way. Me on other hand, I’m perfectly fine not participating, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything essential.

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My Top 5 Games of 2013

This year was a pretty huge year for gaming – it’s not every year that two next-generation gaming machines hit store shelves, and few console launch’s have been as heated or as controversial as the debate among gamers about the merits or flaws of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. But even though much of the news centered around Microsoft’s and Sony’s clash of the titans, this year’s best games aren’t to be found on the newest pieces of hardware. No, this year I found the best gaming experiences to be the small, short, and often thought provoking independent game titles that I could pick up for $15 or less and play in an afternoon. Below are my top five video games of the year, with number one being my Game of the Year.

5. Injustice: Gods Among Us

Fighting games have a certain affliction which seems to plague them year after year – lack of single player content. The most recent example of this is the Xbox One launch title Killer Instinct, which features absolutely no arcade or story elements. To me, a primarily single player gamer who still enjoys the skill and complexity of a good fighter, this is a problem.

Thankfully Netherrealm Studios, the makers behind the excellent 2009 Mortal Kombat, know how I feel. When I learned they would be making a fight based in the DC Comics universe, my expectations as both a comic and fighting game fan were sky high. What Netherrealm delivered was Injustice: Gods Among Us, a visually stunning fighter filled to the brim with content, both online and off. While most fighters provide bare bone single player experiences or none at all, Netherrealm delivered a full length story mode, complete with voice acting, cinematics, mini-games, and what I would call the best alternate DC universe storyline in the history of DC Comics. Coupled with the S.T.A.R. Lab challenge missions, tons of unlockables and plenty of online matchmaking options and Injustice is not only the best fighting game of the year but one of my favorite games of last year as well.

4. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed III let me down. It really didn’t fulfill any of it’s promises. The controls were sloppy and unresponsive. The main character Connor showed no emotion or complexity. The storyline, with it’s constant shoehorning of Connor into practically every pivitol event of the American Revolution, is boring at best and cringe worthy at worst. If this was the future of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I wanted no part of it. But among all the crap was one shining beacon of hope, the naval missions. Soon rumors began to surface that an Assassin’s Creed pirate game was in the works, drawing heavily from the naval combat of III and expanding it and perfecting it. I told myself I would come back to the franchise if the rumors were true.

The rumors were true, and I came back to the franchise with arms wide open. I don’t regret it. Black Flag is an improvement on III in just about every regard, with more precise controls, beautiful visuals and a more captivating historical background. I feel a little guilty including this on my top game list. Black Flag’s narrative isn’t very impressive. It is sometimes confusing, and for the most part doesn’t accomplish much or move the storyline of the franchise any further. What is does do however is provide the ultimate escape from reality. It is so easy to get lost in this digital version of the Caribbean, exploring every nook and cranny. Who hasn’t dreamed of sailing the high seas, free as can be, with your crew of pirates and friends, doing what you want when you want? Now after nearly 100 percenting Black Flag, I can safely say it is not only the best and most polished Assassin’s Creed game, but also the best pirate game in gaming history.

3. Bioshock Infinite

A long time in the making, Bioshock Infinite let some with too high of expectations down. Some criticized it’s violence or it’s linearity. Others compared it to it’s predecessor, saying the floating city of Columbia wasn’t as interesting or as well done as the sunken dystopia of Rapture. I beg to differ. The themes of race, American exceptionalism, and religion found in Infinite I found to be much more captivating and thought provoking than the economics of Rapture. Throw in the sci-fi element of alternate realities and the idea that one choice, one single act, can change the course of one’s life entirely and you have me hooked. The gunplay is just entertaining icing on the cake.

Infinite is on this list, despite it’s flaws, because it made me feel uncomfortable. Entering a temple dedicated to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, made me uncomfortable. Being asked to lynch an interracial couple made me uncomfortable. The level of violence Booker directs towards his enemies, violence he can’t seem to control, makes me uncomfortable. If something in a game makes me uncomfortable, it is probably doing something right, and Bioshock Infinite hit just enough right notes to make it one of my top games of 2013.

2. Gone Home

There is no combat in Gone Home. No mini-games. Almost no voice-acting. It takes only about two or three hours to finish.

Which is exactly why Gone Home is so brilliant. Players occupy the body of a young twenty-something girl coming home from an extended trip across Europe. While she was away overseas, her family moved into a strange new house, and when you arrive nobody is home. Cryptic messages tell you not to snoop around, and to definitely not go up to the attic. What follows is a simple game of exploration, finding documents, notes, and other clues that help the player piece together what has happened to this family, in particular your younger sister Sam, who is the author of many of the notes lying around the house.

I loved Gone Home because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I finished it in one single, intense and focused sitting as I searched every inch of this spooky and foreign empty house. The game throws curveballs at you, at times making you think it is something it isn’t. At the end, the very real and very strong feeling of dread I had before opening the door to the attic was something I haven’t felt in a video game in a long time. Gone Home is important because it shows games don’t have to be about guns or violence. They don’t have to last 30 hours to be considered “worth it.” And they don’t have to be told in cinematics that take you out of the experience, but rather can be told simply through the gameplay. For all the reasons above, Gone Home is one of my favorite games of 2013.

Game of the Year – Papers, Please

Papers, Please is an indie game about stamping passports. And reading rule books. And verifying birthday’s and expiration dates.

Sound exciting? Not really, but place these mundane sounding game mechanics in a dystopian country called Arstotzka, reminiscent of Cold War Soviet Russia, where you work as an immigration official on the border and things get complicated quick. With one simple “Access Granted” or “Access Denied” stamp can save or ruin somebody’s life. Do you deny this man entry because his paper’s aren’t up to date, even though it would separate him from his wife and child? If you let him through your job might be on the line, as every mistake you make cuts into your already measly paycheck, which you must use to pay for food, heat, and medicine for your family. Do you accept bribes? Do you detain innocent people because you get money for every three people detained? Do you help rebels trying to smuggle agents into the country? Every chapter of Papers, Please includes more heart wrenching choices like these than any other game I’ve played. The consequences of your actions are near immediate and painful. For more than half of the game I wasn’t able to provide both heat and food for my family. Soon all of them were sick, and I was forced to allow my uncle to die so I could have enough income to buy medicine for my wife, son, and mother-in-law. All of this is told in in the retro aesthetic of the game were people for the most part are just pixelated silhouettes and 90 percent of your time in the game is spent at a desk staring over documents.

This simple gameplay and clean interface, combined with it’s social commentary on security checkpoints, full body scanners, privacy and immigration law, makes Papers, Please without question my game of the year. Check it out. Glory to Arstotzka.

What games were among your favorites this year?

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