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 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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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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League Of Legends’ Newest Champ Is A Step In The Right Direction

As a longtime player of League of Legends, I’ve always been bothered by how one of the most popular games on the planet portrays it’s women characters.

It’s sadly not anything video games haven’t seen before. The game is filled with women champions for players to play as, almost all of them boasting ridiculous breast sizes and skimpy outfits. Heck, even the most clothed women in the game, the armored Leona, is still wearing high heels.

Thankfully, developer Riot is not completely blind to criticism. The champion Sejuani upon her initial release wore a helmet, a fur bra, and a loincloth. If that sounds like a severe lack of clothing for a warrior who fights in the frozen north, where sub-zero temperatures aren’t uncommon, you are probably right. They remodeled her based on player feedback and now Sejuani is among a select few female characters in the game that isn’t overly sexualized.

Going hand in hand with the game’s sexualization of it’s female characters is one of the game’s champion roles – support. Supports in League of Legends exist almost exclusively to help their AD carry, making sure the carry gets as many kills and as much gold as possible so they can deal out heavy damage to the enemy team. The AD carry gets all the glory, but it’s the supports that are the unsung heroes of the League.

This role, defined by supporting others from the sidelines, is almost comprised exclusively of female champions, with the exception of a robot, an undead creature, and a very obviously gay man. There are women champions for every role in the game, but support limits itself to primarily women. Sure, a women can be an assassin or an AP carry just like a male character can, but women are the only ones who can support. To support is to be feminine. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that support is the least played role in the game. Intentionally or not, Riot is sending a message.

Riot’s newest champion looks to be changing that. Recently unveiled, Braum is probably the manliest man in the entire League of Legends. He’s also a support. Bare-chested and sporting a supreme mustache, Braum protects his carry and teammates with a massive shield, taking hits so they don’t have to.

This is incredibly refreshing to see. It sounds silly, but developers should be thinking about how their game’s depict gender, race, and sexuality. Like it or not, our worldview is shaped, even if only in a tiny way, by the games we consume. Millions upon millions of gamers play League of Legends every day, viewing the splash art for the game’s sexed up girls that reinforce the idea that to support is to be feminine. If women are only there for support in game, what does that tell players about women in the real world?

Riot with Braum is showing that support is not in fact feminine in nature, and that there is no shame in a manly man protecting others instead of going for the kill. No doubt Braum players will frequently find themselves supporting female carries, intentionally sitting out the spotlight so their women partners can carve a path to victory. It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done. I just hope Riot can continue to build on what they’ve learned so far as they move the game forward.

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Is 2014 the Year of the RPG?

Dark Souls. Elder Scrolls. Dragon Age. And of course the new (and supremely awesome) kid on the block, the Witcher. What do these four sword and sorcery franchises have in common? They all have games coming out in 2014.

Let that sink in for a moment. The third Dragon Age, Inquisition, and the third Witcher game, Wild Hunt, are coming out in the same year. The sequel to Dark Souls, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2011, is returning. And of course it is a huge occasion when any new Elder Scrolls game is released, even more so when it is in an MMO that lets players explore all of Tamriel for the first time in the franchise’s history.

It is without a doubt a great time to be an RPG fan. But let’s say, just for fun, you can only embark on one epic quest in 2014. Which will it be? Let’s break down what each game brings to the table.

Dark Souls II

Few games captured the interest of hardcore gamers in recent years like Dark Souls. With it’s refusal to hold player’s hands and it’s bone crushing difficulty, Dark Souls really showed there is a huge number of gamers who hate themselves. Which brings us to Dark Souls II. From what I can tell it will be very similar to the first Dark Souls, though larger in scope and with an easier starting zone to ease newcomers into the painful ways of the game.

Potential Pitfalls: Might be easier than the first Dark Souls, not on next-gen systems (booo)

This might be your pick if: you enjoy pain and suffering, you love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting knocked down only to get up once again.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While other franchise’s on this list are trying to replicate the past, Witcher 3 is plowing forward, with the third and final entry in the series going full open-world. The game will conclude the story line of the monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia on his quest to find his long, lost love Yenneffer. He will probably kill a lot of people/monsters along the way. Geralt’s trademark moral ambiguity will be returning, and developer CDProjekt Red promises meaningful choices and consequences. This is also probably not only the best looking game on this list, but the best looking next-generation title I’ve seen so far. That alone might be reason enough to give it a play.

Potential Pitfalls: the game looks so good you might not be able to play other games without thinking they look like crap. The difficulty, much like Witcher 2, could be too much for some. Oh who am I kidding, this game looks freaking amazing.

This might be your pick if: You loved Witcher 2, you enjoy open world games, like choices that aren’t just “light side or dark.”

Dragon Age: Inquisition

After a disappointing second entry in the franchise, developer Bioware has a lot to prove with the first (and maybe last) next-gen Dragon Age. Players can once again choose their race as they take on the role of the Inquisitor and begin to rebuild an ancient order, brokering deals between various warring factions to defeat the army of demons that are pouring forth from the Fade, also known as Dragon Age’s version of the spirit world. If that storyline sounds familiar, well, that’s probably because it is almost identical to the “rebuild Grey Wardens, unite Ferelden, defeat Darkspawn,” plot of Origins. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bioware looks like they have taken criticism of Dragon Age II to heart and are bringing the series back to it’s roots, but I have a nagging feeling it might have a “been there, done that” feeling to it.

Potential Pitfalls: Being a prettier version of Dragon Age: Origins (maybe that isn’t a bad thing?)

This might be your pick if: You loved Dragon Age: Origins, you hated Dragon Age II, aren’t cool enough to buy Witcher 3.

Elder Scrolls Online

Not only for the first time will gamers be able to explore all of everybody’s favorite fantasy playground, Tamriel, in one game, but thanks to Elder Scrolls Online, they will be able to do it with friends. Or enemies. Or both. Gameplay looks to be a mixture of Skyrim with more traditional MMO elements such as ability bars and classes, which could be interesting. Graphically Tamriel, from the deserts of Hammerfell to the snowy peaks of Skyrim, has never looked better. Throw in some intriguing pvp dynamics where actual players through their conquests can become the Emperor of the continent and Elder Scrolls Online is looking to be the next great MMO.

Potential Pitfalls: A $15 subscription fee. Really? We still are doing that? Also how the MMO mechanics in a traditionally single player game will work out is still up in the air.

This might be your pick if: you loved Skyrim, you want to rule a virtual country, enjoy social interaction.

As for me, if I absolutely had to only pick one, it would be Witcher 3 without hesitation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of every franchise featured here. I love Dragon Age: Origins, I love me a good challenge and I played 80+ hours of Skyrim just like the next guy. But after playing Witcher 2, I just can’t shake the feeling that Wild Hunt is going to be incredible. The Witcher universe and characters are just too captivating for me to pass up. Combine that with great gameplay, unbelievable graphics and meaningful choices and you have what very likely could end up being my game of 2014.

Regardless of which game is more up your alley, RPG fans of all shapes, sizes, and preferences have a lot to look forward in the coming months, so be sure to keep those swords sharp and your wits even sharper.

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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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