My picks for best of E3 2017

A Way Out (Hazelight, EA)

My pick for best of show is Hazelight’s “A Way Out”. This story driven tale requires two players, and was designed to play split screen on a couch. It is one thing to create a great single player experience with optional multiplayer, but this flips the assumption entirely when the story is specially crafted to be told from split perspectives simultaneously. Given the variety of gameplay shown and innovative story telling on par with a good movie, I feel this will be the breakout title of 2017.

Anthem (BioWare, EA)

Shrouded in mystery, this new IP from Dragon Age and Mass Effect creator BioWare looks like a solid challenger to the “Destiny-esque” throne when it is released in 2018. There are a few moments in this trailer that remain my favorite from all of E3 – there is something magical about the perspective of putting on power armor and arriving at the jump point prior to heading into the wilderness. The flight mechanics looked like a Iron Man dream come true, but with even cooler heavy weapons.

As a fan observation, I thought a few things here reminded me distantly of Mass Effect 3. The design of the lead narrator’s helmet, a few NPC that appeared to possibly be a familiar non-human race, and ruins of a giant ringed structure and storm that to me resembles a mass relay. No word yet if this world exists in the same universe as the Mass Effect series, or if the art style is just a nod to their prior work.

image credit vg247

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Square-Enix, Deck Nine Games)

We had heard some chatter from developers that a new content in the Life is Strange setting was in the works, but I didn’t expect to see a trailer for it at E3, nor how soon its first chapter would be released. I was also unprepared for how emotional it would be to see these characters again. The story appears to be told from Chloe’s perspective prior to the events of the original series over the course of three new chapters. I’ve cleared my schedule for the day these come out, and look forward to these more than any cable tv series.

Edit: Corrected development studio to Deck Nine Games.

Ori: Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios)

The debut Ori and the Blind Forest was a masterpiece of difficult precision platform exploration puzzles that hail to an era of gaming I grew up with. Add to it gorgeous graphics, heartwarming story and a breathtaking musical score and you have Ori. Seeing Ori’s return in the 4K “Will of the Wisps” is very exciting news.

image credit vg247

Sea of Thieves (Rare)

Once you’ve seen actual Sea of Thieves gameplay footage from people who aren’t actors you immediately understand why they choose to use a typical gameplay scenario as the E3 trailer. This is a game that demos better than you could explain in as many words. Comedy, ingenuity, exploration and PVP mayhem. Oh, and Pirates, obviously. I can’t wait to play this with friends.

image credit Ubi Blog

Beyond Good and Evil 2 (Ubisoft)

A trailer for the long awaited sequel to Beyond Good and Evil was the big close to Ubisoft’s E3 show and was my favorite from the publisher this year.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Fortnite – Although it did not get a lot of screen time, Fortnite looks like an excellent twist on team survival defense games. It also has very interesting premium bundle pricing, the most expensive comes with two additional full copies of the game to give to friends. Given the team first emphasis of the game, it should do very well.

Forza 7 – It would be a rare show that didn’t have a Forza title to show off, but between the flagship Motorsport series and the openworld racing in Horizon, Forza enjoys a full lap advantage over the competition. Every iteration of the game improves on the last, and there is simply no other racer that compares to it in terms of pure driving enjoyment and vast range of features – nor one that looks half as good in 4K. It’s almost unfair.

Ashen – Beautiful water-color style cell-shaded graphics on what appears to be a co-op (?) dungeon explorer with freakishly awesome bosses not unlike those of Dark Souls. Can’t wait to see more on this.

image credit vg247

Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle – an unlikely mashup of Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom and Ubisoft’s Rabbids, this tactical RPG-ish game packs signature crude humor and characters from both franchises into what looks like a riotous good time. I expect it will be a big hit.

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Seven Tips for Mass Effect Andromeda Insanity Mode

captured on xbox

One hundred seventy five hours and eighty two levels later, I completed a second play through of Mass Effect Andromeda on Insanity Mode. The combat in ME:A is a fresh new look for the franchise, and gets even more fun when you turn up the heat. Hardcore mode was very satisfying, but I could not resist the ultimate challenge of Insanity mode. It was well worth the effort. Below are a few tips that helped me.

New Game Plus

Even if you’ve completed the prior Mass Effect trilogy on Insanity mode, I do not recommend attempting Andromeda on Insanity mode the first play through for reasons that have nothing to do with skill. Once you have finished it on normal or hardcore, you can choose “New Game Plus” mode, and keep all of your skills, gear, upgrades and squadmate skills except for specific abilities unlocked via story. You also keep your research, rare consumables, and other critical resources. If you take your time and get the most out of your first play through you could be upwards of level 60 with multiple profiles at maximum rank, with squadmates at the level cap. This makes that first return to Eos on Insanity mode a lot more do-able, and will better prepare you to tackle the boss fights later on.

Use Multiple Profiles in the Favorites Wheel

The critical stat bonuses provided by the top ranks of each profile are useful in different situations, and quite frequently in the course of the same fight. Shielded heavy ranged opponents require a different approach when you find your cover compromised and with only three moves you need to be able to switch between maximum damage output and maximum survival on the fly. Experiment with the favorites wheel and different profiles to find out which work best for you depending on combat situations. I kept profiles for optimal sniping via Infiltrator, well rounded close quarters combat with Adept or Sentinel, and variations of each optimized for high damage output or immediate shield recovery with key tech and combat tree skills.

Stack Anti-Shield Attacks

By a large margin, the hardest part of Insanity mode are the blue-shielded heavy opponents. Not the bosses, not the big hairy armored beasts, but the quite common “normal” shielded foes like the Observers and Kett Heavies. Because shielded opponents fully regenerate their blue bar if you cannot sustain enough damage to deplete it in a timely manner, they recover while you waste ammunition. On Insanity mode that definitely will take a turn for worse fast. My main profile stacked three skills out of a handful that can be upgraded to do quite a bit of shield damage. Overload is a signature anti-shield move that can be charged to also hit other enemies nearby even if they are in cover. Pull from the biotic tree can be upgraded to do reasonable shield damage, has a quick recharge and doubles as a super effective knock-down on unshielded opponents. Energy Drain does great damage to any target including shielded ones and is the best self heal in the game. There are other anti-shield moves, like Lance, but I find they are not as well rounded as the above three for most situations. For any of these moves, be sure to pick up passive bonuses from the skills at the bottom of the biotic or tech trees, which could boost your damage or defenses significantly.

Tactical Cloak

It wouldn’t be Insanity mode if you didn’t find yourself neck deep in melee critters, flanked by half the Kett marksmen club and low on ammo with squadmates dropping. This is business as usual in several parts of the story no matter how good your aim or approach is. One of your favorite profiles should have tactical cloak. If you are careful not to uncloak on accident you can interact with terminals and revive teammates without being seen. There are numerous opportunities to hack turrets that you can get to at the start of a very tough fight only if you use tactical cloak, turning a nightmare encounter into a fun one as the turret wrecks their heavies instead of your squad. Tactical Cloak is also a life saver when you need to make a big position change for new cover or fresh ammo/health boxes during a long fight.

DIY Armor and Weapons

Another big benefit from starting from New Game Plus is keeping all of your research data and progress, and higher end crafted gear and enhancements are substantially better than the random loot you’ll find or vendor bought weapons. A tier VIII or higher crafted sniper rifle like the Widow or Black Widow with max mod slots and proper level mods may be the most valuable piece of equipment you’ll ever carry. Use AVP to unlock as many Science and Market options related to special merchant inventory (for rare mods) and crafting as possible to make the best gear you can and it will keep you in the fight.

Know Your Consumables

When push comes to shove, the boss fights and encounters with monsters like fiends can demand more than you have to spare in a pinch. Ammo consumables like Incendiary or Cryo rounds are too rare or expensive to use constantly, but are amazing in specific encounters. A Cobra RPG can turn a surprise ultra encounter around, and Incendiary rounds can cut the time to kill a fiend in half. Cryo rounds are best when combined with an AR against a swarm of unarmored foes like Kett Chosen or Raiders, as they will snap freeze your targets long enough for you to reassess cover or close for a melee kill. Finally, Overcharge boosts a few key stats and instantly recharges your current abilities so they can be used, which can make the difference between death and narrow escape if you needed a Tactical Cloak or Energy Drain right now. This trick saved my bacon in at least one of the tough fights towards the end of the game, and prevented a frustrating reset to the last auto save spot.

Bring More Ammo, Not Less

Some mods, including tasty fusion mods have a negative trait of reduced ammo or clip capacity. Insanity mode will push your ammo conservation and recovery skills to the limit. Avoid tempting critical hit bonuses that trade for reduced ammo, as most encounters are quite capable of expending all of your ammo and anything to be found in crates no matter how good you are with headshots. With proper investment into crafting you can choose mods with reasonable damage bonuses without penalties or trade-offs.

In conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised at how fantastic the combat would be in Mass Effect Andromeda, and thrilled at how well the fun scaled with the challenge. I found I enjoyed the game even more the second time through.

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Reinventing the Iconic – Mass Effect Andromeda

image credit vg247.com

Undaunted by the gravity of their own legacy, BioWare forges a new path forward. The premise of Mass Effect: Andromeda mirrors the new life of the franchise in more ways than one. Putting behind them one of the most epic science fiction sagas in video game history and all of the characters we had come to love is no small feat, a challenge other industry giants have avoided or outright failed at. Despite the rose colored lens through which the original, decade-old Mass Effect is viewed by many, Andromeda does just this.

Enter Sara and Scott Ryder, youthful recruits who along with their father joined the Andromeda Initiative to seek out a new home for humanity in the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda galaxy. Scientists, unlike the soldier origins of CDR Shepard, the Ryders are a refreshing new look and feel for main characters. The crew and your squad mates include many races familiar to the original trilogy and a few new ones as well, all brilliantly voiced and brought to life in the stunning Frostbite engine – which is also new to the series.  With one of the best team of writers in the industry and more dialog than Mass Effect 2 and 3 combined, Andromeda may be the most ambitious and in-depth story BioWare has attempted yet.

As the experience unfolds and the player is introduced to both new and familiar activities and opportunities for exploration, the more close to home Andromeda feels. It feels like a Mass Effect title should from the outset – wasting no time putting your Ryder twin of choice into action and trusting the player to keep up with the lore and references without letting it get in the way. Returning players will find the new ship, the Tempest, is a fitting tribute to the Normandy, but is also comfortable being itself and has a fresh, elevator free layout. The all-terrain Nomad is even cooler than you remember the Mako being, which is great news because you’ll spend more time than ever behind the wheel in it. It inherits the mining and most of the scanning tasks that used to occur only from orbit in the original trilogy, and has its own tech upgrade tree along with the rest of your gear.

Speaking of upgrade trees, the character advancement and gear research and upgrade paths are an order of magnitude more complex than any of the previous Mass Effect titles. No longer limited to just one “class”, the Ryders can develop multiple combat profiles that cover all of the classic builds like soldier or infiltrator, and now also includes the biotic and tech tree skills once exclusive to the non-playable characters. The build choices are staggering at a glance, but are easy to get the hang of as you go along.

Combat sees a huge update, featuring faster movement, more agility and a bigger emphasis on coordination of abilities between squadmates to defeat difficult encounters. Players looking for a challenge will be pleased to find the harder difficulty settings are a step up from the prior titles, and require a lot more than just cover and ammo management to defeat hard encounters, even for returning veterans. Playing on one setting below “insanity” I died frequently despite a confident hard mode finish in the first three.

My ten hours in the play-first trial of Mass Effect: Andromeda sped by in an instant, just enough time to get my boots dirty and whet my appetite. It is not enough time to judge the story, which I’ve avoided discussing, but from what I have seen so far exceeded my expectations. I had concerns that BioWare would not be able to top what they had completed with closing chapters of Mass Effect 3 – nor fill the boots of an iconic heroine like Jane Shepard. Thankfully, Andromeda is following its own heart and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes.

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For Honor – Such Beautiful Flaws

for-honor-standard-edition

Like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a shiny wrapped box, For Honor is the gift that keeps on giving well past your second black eye. Equal parts stunning faux-history medieval brawler and cruel test of patience and temper, Ubisoft’s unconventional arena fighter pits Knights, Samurai and Viking warriors in a cycle of never ending war. As unforgiving as it is breathtaking, it will bring out the worst – and occasionally the best – in any team.

The heart of the game is symmetrical, cinematic 1v1 Duels, 2v2 Brawls and a variety of epic 4v4 melee battle modes. Each of the three factions has four classes loosely categorized into well-rounded Vanguard, armored Heavy, nimble Assassins and wildcard Hybrids. However it would be more accurate to just say there are twelve characters, as you can only draw distant similarities between two of the same class, like the Samurai Hybrid and a Knight Hybrid, despite both using polearms. Each of the twelve has a staggering amount of visual and technical customization to further match a specific playstyle or loadout, with gear appearance and performance customization on par with the highest end RPG and way beyond anything I’ve seen in traditional arena games. The feeling of ownership of a fighter as you raise them, unlock feats and collect gear for different loadouts is only further emphasized when you’re thrown into the fray. Unlike some other competitive games where gear stats only matter in top tier combat, the default PvP mode here has gear stats enabled. Battles are brisk, do-or(and)-die trying pace with zero room for mistakes. The melee combat itself is a masterpiece of exact directional blocking, dodging, parries, strike distance, stamina, footwork and oh, learning to avoid any ledge taller than a street curb. Combine light and heavy attacks into Street-Fighter-esque combination moves that must be memorized per hero, each with situational advantages and potential one hit kill uses, and try to survive for the chance to show off a brutal execution move. The difficulty of the combat also makes it very rewarding when you win. I’d dare say this is the skeleton in the closet – the dirty secret, so to speak. If it were easy, it would probably be a lot less fun.

New players will do well to enjoy the story mode first, which is not too short and teaches most of the class basics along the way. It can be played alone or co-op with a friend. Ratchet up the difficulty and the story mode is also nearly impassible challenge on “realistic” mode, at least towards the last few chapters. The AI in both the story mode and the Player vs. AI versions of the multiplayer modes is often surprisingly clever, although prone to predictable patterns in some situations. I find it fascinating in either case, as the different bots seem to have assigned behaviors. Also as they seem to also have a set of pre-assigned names (a few which are just as ridiculous as some real names I run across), you soon start to recognize some of them from prior battles. Some are notably more aggressive, others will flee a fight to find help, and some are just as cheap as their human counterparts can be. I’d love to chat with the team that worked on the AI to see how they make the magic work. In mixed AI and PvP modes, the game auto tunes the AI bots for the skill ranking average of the teams. In custom modes you can select the difficulty level of the bot AI to better test yourself as you practice for the apex predators of For Honor; the other real players.

Even in game modes like elimination where it is a series of four not-quite-isolated 1v1 duels (4v4 total on the same map), it is more or less guaranteed that as soon after the first body drops, someone will find themselves defending in a 1v2 fight, likely injured. Even though there is a scoring mechanic that gives extra points for honorable 1v1 kills, most matches center around uneven fights. A skilled player can survive being outnumbered, but in an even match the odds are definitely with the mob. This encourages some very bad tactical behaviors, and combined with working knowledge of ledges and natural bottlenecks in a specific map can turn a lot of fights into a slaughter by the better coordinated or plain dirty tricks. Class balance is arguably imperfect, specially in certain modes with characters that have easy-to-perform block breaking or body tossing chains yield a lion-vs-lamb advantage if a ledge or spike wall is nearby. An easy, legitimate counter argument may be to try and squeeze the classes into rock-paper-scissors classifications, which feels super accurate if you are playing paper against a scissors class in a 1v1 duel. Is that balanced? Maybe. For Honor treats the entire concept of dirty fighting and unfair situational advantage as the last rule of the battlefield: victory to the team that wanted it more.

Despite its glitches and numerous flaws, it remains highly engaging to play. It gets under your skin, for the better or worse. You’ll find out for yourself if you are comfortable being the plus one in an unfair fight, or if you can muster the respect to let your ally live or die on their own merit on principal alone, even risking a loss to let your opponent settle his affairs one honorable fight at a time. Or maybe you’ll cackle with glee as you finally behead the ledge kill spamming Heavy at any cost. This is a game for both types.

If I wasn’t clear, this game is a blast to play. It is easy to pick up, difficult to put down and worth hundreds of hours to master. It will definitely be a candidate for Game of the Year and is one of the more ambitious Ubisoft multiplayer games to date. With an optional season pass and another six fighter types coming in future expansions plus an innovative seasonal faction vs. faction persistent score, their intentions for this to be supported for the long haul are well entrenched.

Broken controller replacement not included.

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Battlefield Beta Breakdown

Evidently, DICE does not believe in resting on one’s laurels. The pioneers who brought us the undisputed king of epic-scale sixty-four player battles in Battlefield 4 already had their sights on something higher, and are finally able to reveal the game they had been wanting to make for years: Battlefield 1. The “reboot” in sequel numbering is symbolic of a return to the root of all-out warfare in what history would call World War I. DICE invited players to help beta test their latest build of the nearly finished title, which features just one battle in the Sinai Desert. At a glance it seems like a narrow slice of the game to preview, but the resulting mayhem feels anything but small, and is shaping out to be the best in the series to date.

Keeping the familiar

More than any other modern wartime themed shooter, the Battlefield family is distinguished by a specific feel , one that starts with a common foundation. Squad up with five friends and choose between one of four iconic supporting roles, control heavy armor and dominate objectives to win.  DICE did not meddle with its successful formula much at all here. The four classes to choose and develop over time include the close quarters anti-armor Assault class, a field Medic, passive defense and ammunition lugging Support and the sharpshooting Scout. Individual performance is secondary to successfully coordinating capture and defense of key locations and mitigating enemy heavy armor while keeping your own running. It’s no accident this will feel familiar right away to returning players.

Raising the stakes

Unlike the near-present day battles in the hypothetical clash between US, Russia and China in Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1 is a trip back to the earliest conflicts of WWI nearly a century prior. The changes are far from cosmetic. Gone are the signs of hyper technology in every aspect of game play, including effective visible range, how spotting enemies is communicated between allies, and nearly every other aspect of the UI. Other changes come from improved game engine, like dramatic weather effects and ultra-realistic detailed environments. Everything from weapons, vehicles and uniforms and even dynamic dialog is historically accurate. Marksman rifles excepted, nearly all of the fighting takes place at much closer range than ever before, including the most terrifying trench and tight quarter troop to armor fights I’ve ever played in a game. Even the sounds the soldiers make in reaction to a threat – like a live grenade or soldier charging with a bayonet – is downright frighteningly intense. Even more so is the inevitable gas attack. Every troop carries a gas mask – a startlingly authentic and claustrophobic recreation of what you might see and hear – your own labored breathing, mostly, as you struggle to make out friend or foe in the dense smoke through dirty lenses.

BF1_Gas_Mask

Among my favorite improvements and additions are the classic WWI dog fighters and bombers. Battlefield already had the best air combat outside a dedicated flight combat sim (and still better than most of those), but the historically accurate planes in Battlefield 1 are one of the most genuinely breathtaking additions to the game, and are a dream to pilot. To be quite honest, I feel that a lot of the jets in prior Battlefield titles were silly and Helicopters, well, that’s something else, but here I feel like a kid again imagining the dog fights of legend including those of the Red Baron himself.

Mixing things up

Borrowing a theme from an unlikely source – Star Wars Battlefront –  special weapon crates scattered around the map offer much more of an upgrade than map-specific weapons in prior Battlefield titles. So far in beta I’ve seen a plated armor heavy machine gunner, an anti-tank rifle and the shock trooper style flame thrower. Teaser trailers and other alpha footage suggest there are other of these “elite classes”, each which turn your soldier into a much tougher than usual threat that can turn the tide of a close fight. Also available is cavalry, which can either be chosen prior to spawn or by hopping on a loose horse in mid fight, offering valuable speed and vital saber reach in melee quarters. A well timed charge can close the gap with marksman, a squad mate in dire need, or to an enemy trench. A skilled rider is a serious threat, a welcome dynamic on either side of the barbed wire.

The game changer

In the second half of the game of conquest one team will take control of a vehicle of unprecedented size and power – in the battle in Sinai Desert it is a massive, densely armored train loaded to the brim with heavy guns. Other pre-release footage shows a colossal zeppelin-style gunship entering the fray on a different map. Even if it fails to turn the tide of a one-sided fight, its appearance is certain to make an impact and can make a huge difference in a tight match. This escalation late in the fight further underscores overall improvements to the flow of battle and sense of urgency when the score is too close to call.

Blowing everything up

Another hallmark of the Battlefield series is environment destructability. Battlefield 4 had an uneven mix of nearly static maps and ones where some or most buildings could be destroyed, as well as some amazingly catastrophic map-changing destruction – the collapse of Shanghai Tower among the most notable from the previous in the series. From the beta and other footage, Battlefield 1 is a step forward in overall general destruction, including realistic cratering from explosions and bombs that create dynamic cover. Nearly every structure and object I found was vulnerable to explosions, including some portions of the landscape like the giant stone archway so many marksmen traverse. The buildings in the village sustain heavy damage under fire from tanks or other artillery until they are reduced to rubble. Seeing great clouds of sand and individual sandbags rain down where a wall of cover once stood before a bombing run left measurably deep holes is an experience no video footage can really do justice to. I was blown away by how visceral it felt.

Parting observations

If I didn’t make it clear already, I have really enjoyed beta and think it will be a huge success at launch. I do however see there are bugs yet to fix, and some further thought needed to balance the four classes in their roles. Scouts as long range marksmen are super effective and very easy to play even for the inexperienced. I believe a sniper should have some challenge or aspect to limit domination seen in beta, and require some sort of real skill to play well. As it stands, you could win a reasonable number of fights with mostly scouts on your team, which for team balance just sounds… wrong. At the moment there is almost no reason to play Support as they have next to no anti-armor capability and an effective range similar to Assault; the latter of which has the only useful close range anti-tank ordinance. Furthermore, since ammo refills prior to the coveted ammo crate are also available from cavalry and some vehicles, it further limits the importance of having Support in your squad. I’ve read that at launch that Support players may get a mortar of some sort, which may help answer both of the prior observations as it could help make sniper nests a little less effective at asserting unanswerable deadly threat to a large area. Sure, tanks, cavalry and counter sniping (sigh, MORE snipers) are valid responses to a sniper flush enemy team, but as it stands playing on or against a team with three-quarters Scouts doesn’t feel like a strategy, it feels like… imbalance.

Melee combat needs finishing touches – it is really squishy at the moment in determining who in a face to face combat comes out on top, making a lot of melee feel random rather than calculated. Horse melee is supposed to be dominant against foot troops (don’t break this) but at the moment it has unexpectedly long reach from certain angles, leading to deaths from riders who didn’t seem to be close at all. A tweak here and there could go a long way, as well as routine fixes for graphical oddities like backpacks that appear to swing like lassos (super strange to witness… why are you swinging that like that??) and floating objects left untouched by explosions. Some of these are just funny, but most look plain unfinished. None were game breaking.

Above all, it’s clear DICE still has the magic touch. Much like Battlefield 4 before it, Battlefield 1 will emerge at the head of the pack in true next-generation gaming when it is released later in October and maintain the high bar at least as long as its predecessor did. There seems to be quite a bit of the game they have kept under wraps this time, I think I’ve only seen real footage from two or three maps and almost nothing from the single player story – but what they’ve shown is really second to none. I look forward to discovering what else they have in store soon.

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Music Matters – Eight Games with Exceptional Soundtracks

image credit: pcgamehardware.de - Gears of War 4 Soundtrack

image credit: pcgameshardware.de – Gears of War 4 Soundtrack

No matter the genre of game, one detail stands out among all others that truly completes a good title: music. Whether you are racing, exploring, fighting a war or just watching a story unfold, a great soundtrack will invariably set the experience above its peers. Everyone is aware of this effect to some degree or another, and it has been well demonstrated in movies, including a fantastic short documentary online showing movies like “Jaws” with and without its score. I believe it is just as critical to the success of a game to get the soundtrack right. Here are eight games that I believe owe part of their success to an exceptional soundtrack.

Final Fantasy 2 (US)

A sure sign your soundtrack is great – no future title in the series sounds complete without emulating or otherwise honoring it. Each Final Fantasy title has had great music, but like Star Wars it began with a single score. Now they would be woe to cast a Star Wars movie without the original composer. The first Final Fantasy title had quite simple early video game music, but laid the framework for the most recognizable theme song that grew into the “8 bit” orchestra score immortalized in the second and third US releases. I still get chills thinking of the theme to the airship, the entire opening sequence and of course the main prelude itself which has been heard in some form or another in every Final Fantasy production or movie since. It may sound out of place next to the music in today’s games, but for its day was revolutionary.

Skyrim

Elder Scrolls, another fantasy heavyweight with an enviable legacy of good music took a dragon’s leap forward with the soundtrack in Skyrim. Already known for well-established music motifs, the larger than life orchestra score and choir accompaniment may be the best thing to ever happen to an Elder Scrolls title. The game relies heavily on it to establish a sense of awe and epic wonder in the breathtakingly beautiful frozen landscapes, sprawling dungeons and legendary battles.

Battlefield: Hardline

Hardline is an anomaly in the Battlefield family for a lot of reasons, and was not as well received by some but stands out among almost all of them as having a nearly flawless single player campaign – the best in the series since “Bad Company”. A huge part of this was in thanks to a unified theme of “90ies police show”. Coupled with unparalleled actor capture, the soundtrack delivers, both in the mix of popular hits chosen to play during specific scenes and the unique bass guitar riffs during dramatic or suspenseful scenes weave a very enjoyable experience.

Witcher 3

With the potential to go in the books as a game with all the awards already, Witcher 3 distinguishes itself further with a outrageously vibrant soundtrack – well past “ooh that’s good music” chills, this is more likely to blow you out of your seat. The vocal arrangements and visceral, rowdy fantasy tunes go perfectly with the gritty melee, stunning visuals and surprisingly difficult boss encounters the game built a legacy on.

Destiny

The score to Bungie’s breakaway follow-up to its Halo legacy “Destiny” is not without some sad controversy – the original composer split ways with Bungie in a bitter dispute – but the finished product is hauntingly beautiful. If I were to chose any five memorable moments from the original story missions all of my favorite scenes would be because of the music that was playing. This is a soundtrack you can listen to comfortably away from the game, with an equally awesome sequel in “The Taken King”.

Life is Strange

Built almost entirely of selected popular songs, Life is Strange uses the music to establish emotional tone and drama in each of its masterfully written episodes. More than most titles, Life is Strange would look strange indeed with the sound off, where many moments of introspection are slow panning shots of otherwise plain things, turned sad, happy, hopeful or lonely by a perfect choice of song. Life is Strange was a surprise hit from a new development group – one that seems to have a keen ear for how a story should sound, as well as read.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori is special for a lot of reasons – it is in many ways a love letter to the action and exploration games we grew up with. The music underscores this love of the genre, deeply emotional, dramatic, energetic and quite poignant. It reminded me of how magical becoming lost in a game could feel, and brought the characters to life.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarnia of Time

It would be remiss to write of music scores that capture the imagination, magic, adventure and wonder without including the The Legend of Zelda. It set a timeless precedent in a score that may be the most well recognized from any game ever. Ocarnia of Time to me is the pinnacle of the series in terms of musical score, even though others in the series stand out for their own reason, the musical instrument transcends the audio experience and becomes a key part of the story itself – a theme in the series inseparable from the hero.

 

Trimming a list of games with great musical scores to just eight leaves dozens out that are worth mentioning – some that I agonized over including or not. Today it is commonplace for a finished title to have video game music every bit as good as a major production movie, something that is not lost on the ears. If I left your favorite out, leave it in the comments below! Thank you.

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Impressions from the Titanfall 2 Tech Test

“Follow mode engaged. I have your six, pilot” – Ion, skirmish at Forward Base Kodai

It’s tough – and potentially just inaccurate – to write a review on a pre-alpha test of a game when so many aspects of the finished product were kept under wraps, but what we were allowed to see does say quite for what we can expect. The bottom line is that almost everything has changed since Titanfall 1, except that pilots are still the real heart of an experience that has grown a bit more personal.

To demonstrate, compare the training and story mode from the first title to what we see in the technical test. The objectives covered in the training modes are quite similar, but despite being spoken to in a direct manner in the first, it is almost deliberately generic – you play an anonymous pilot playing through a training scenario designed for mass consumption, like a pawn in a galactic corporate bargain. Granted, the program and module was stolen – which leads into a genuinely interesting story – but in the second your training is one on one with a very specific character – and you seem to be playing an actual character in the story, one with a voice.

The contrast between wordless anonymity and personal experience seems to carry into the main gameplay. In Titanfall 1’s campaign, you get a mission briefing and a flow of feedback as you work towards (or fail to achieve) various objectives in your nameless pilot’s role in the story, but in the sense of chatter over radio. It has a good style and fits with the theme, but you’re really just on the sidelines of the story most of the time. I liked it in that it made itself pretty distinct from other games at the time. Although we get no glimpse of the story mode of Titanfall 2 in the technical test aside from a teaser video, the way your titan speaks to you already shows a subtle shift towards having an actual personality. The little details add up, and coupled with a fantastic orchestra musical score heard in select moments, we may be in for something really amazing.

Pilots, like in the first, are highly agile with a broad range of customization options. The movement, traversal and parkour feels better than ever, rewarding a skilled hand. Unfortunately the three maps available in the technical test were relatively flat, having just a few opportunities to really show off wall-run chaining or other exceptional feats. The new grappling hook is both really fun and also somewhat of a skill gap closer for players who may have a harder time using wall jumps to reach high places, as it can take a pilot from the ground to a high perch in a flash. Oh, and it is also effective as a ranged weapon – something I learned on the fly when an enemy pilot used me (in mid jump) as a hook anchor to get from one place to another. Ouch. Well played, sir.

As for Titans, we see the biggest changes here. I suspect the two Titan loadouts available in the tech test are just samples of the finished game – but gone were the weapons and most of the abilities from the first. Also gone is a lot of Titan survivability – at least, at first glance. Ironically, also gone is the direct Titan rodeo kill attempt. That’s not to say you cannot kill a Titan by jumping on it, but it does completely re-imagine the concept of the rodeo attack and the circumstances in which you would want to attempt it. The resulting mechanic does surrender a centerpiece of the classic Titanfall “feel”, but in return yields a whole new level of optional objective management. When your pilot successfully jumps on an enemy Titan, you steal a shield battery and do a small amount of damage. This takes place in a much shorter period of time than a legacy rodeo attack – with less in return. If the pilot survives escaping with the battery and delivers it to a friendly Titan or her own, that Titan gets a sorely needed shield and will survive a little longer on the field. With practice, you can time this attack along with a team mate to steal the battery right before the Titan would explode, which results in both a battery and a destroyed Titan. If a pilot dies carrying a battery they drop it, which either team can pick up. These “micro objectives” encourage a new level of teamwork that felt somewhat absent from the first, and give a little more life to your somewhat fragile Titans. Hopefully in the full game the loadout choices will include some to improve overall Titan durability.

Among the changes to Titans includes an increase in the personal performance bonus towards the build of your next titan. Players who are doing well, or at least participating with effective assists, can expect their titan much sooner than someone who is off objective or struggling.

The three maps available in the technical test were each a bit larger than most maps in Titanfall 1, although with smaller five man teams this can easily lead to feeling alone on the map if you aren’t working closely with your squad. Despite the previously mentioned mostly horizontal layout, the attention to detail and map design is actually quite nice and offers a lot of opportunities for flanking, clever ways to hold otherwise open objectives, plenty of sniper roosts (including one that is labelled by graffiti “Pew!”), and a lot of scenery. I can’t wait to learn more about these places and the new factions and references that are hinted at.

Another new feature is an awesome boost to in game clan support, “Networks” can be created and managed directly via the game client. Once set up, you can see who from your Network is online, the clan message of the day, and invite those online that arent in a match to join in a match with almost no effort. It’s a jump ahead in terms of match making speed and organization. I give a hearty applause for the team that engineered this.

Although it was just a short test, we can see all the pieces coming together and I have a good feeling about the finished product, due late October. Titanfall 2 dares to be different than its competition, and even different than the first in the series. They’ve set a high bar for themselves. Finally, sequel or not, I still get a small chill every time I hear the impending sonic boom and operator call out “Confirmed.. stand by for Titanfall”.

 

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