My review of “Lost in Random”

image credit EA – official store pages for the game

“Lost in Random” is delightful, different in the right ways and drop dead gorgeous. Told in six acts, this puzzle exploration adventure follows Even on a journey to save her sister Odd from the nefarious Queen of the Kingdom of Random. The art style is a triumph of twisted dreamscapes telling a distinct story of each of the areas in the Kingdom. While one may be tempted to compare the trip down the rabbit hole to one or more other popular stories with unusual styles of art, Lost in Random seems quite comfortable being itself instead. Setting itself further apart is the combat gameplay and your adorable companion, Dicey.

Battles in Lost in Random put the player much closer to action than most 3rd person floating camera style games, which is where the zany art and fantastic animations really shine. Collect and draw “at random” one of many ability cards, which Even executes with a bodily toss of her dice friend. Some grant her a sword or bow, heal or shield her or unleash havoc in a number of other creative ways. Even’s voice actress plays a big part in setting the tone for fight sequences as the spoken lines not only pair with direct actions, but also continue the specific scene within the story. Combat never felt like an interruption in the story, and some of the best dialog between Even and the numerous adversaries she faces takes place in the thick of an encounter. The end result is a huge compliment to the voice talent that worked on the game and feels almost like a stage performance in several parts.

I reserved my last compliments for the character and story writers – I felt very engaged in what was easily a storybook come to life from the start. They hit all of the right notes – a lot of laughs, a few tears and many characters that were memorable because they were different.

Lost in Random is not exceptionally difficult but did get tough in a few encounters. I played it in approximately one sitting per act – about a weeks worth of evenings. It would be possible to complete much quicker if you rush through.

Lost in Random, night in Two Town.
Even and Dicey admire a mysterious mural

Star Wars Battlefront II – Not A Trap, Actually

Crush the Rebellion. Commander Iden Versio leads Inferno Squad from the written novel page to a breakout cinematic gaming experience that has to be played to believe. Combining the solid variety of multiplayer and arcade game modes of the first next-gen Battlefront reboot, stunning top shelf graphics and the A+ story mode the series deserves, EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is the game we were looking for. Or, so the developer had hoped.

With launch week marred by a few wildly out of control fans threatening individual developers over micro-transaction related features, the opening cry of horns and trumpets felt more like a disturbance in the force. I feel this was hugely undeserved and representative of an increasingly toxic culture within gaming that has soured the launch of many titles the last few years, and in this case, it was over mostly bogus information. Even today I see negative comments about the game tied back to an idea that you have to pay real money to unlock certain heroes, which is inaccurate in more than one way.

Edit 11/17 – Huge Update: EA removes micro-transactions, for now

Heroes unlock via in-game credit system, NOT from real-world purchased currency.

Star Wars Battlefront II has two forms of progression, one represented by experience points earned only through multiplayer matches, and another measured by “credits” earned through all activities, including a big handful for story mode and more via tutorials, challenges in all game modes, and based on merit in multiplayer. Game Revolution breaks down specifically how long they estimate it would take to unlock all of the heroes, but not counting the large chunk of credits you’ll have after finishing the story and some arcade (from which you can definitely get your favorite hero), it is reasonable to expect you could unlock a hero in a night or two of regular gaming. Furthermore, none of the “crystal” credits you can purchase with real money can be used to unlock heroes, and the crates you can buy with those crystals will not unlock a hero, so there is literally no way to unlock the hero with cash. This is a far cry better than the “time saver” bundles available to be purchased for other EA shooters, which actually do unlock functionally superior equipment and loadouts other non-pay-to-win players have to earn via advancement.

Edit: As mentioned in a release day statement (11/17/2017), EA has since turned off micro-transactions and disabled use of the “Crystals” credit option, which will be reintroduced at a later date following review of the feature.

As Game Revolution also points out, there are other potentially more valuable things to spend your in-game credits on, like upgrading the loadout for the base troopers and vehicles you are leveling up, which gives players more choices on how to advance and get an edge in fast-paced multiplayer.

My officer is almost level 15

Crates, earned for completing challenges, logging in daily or when purchased via in-game credits or crystals, do contain Star Card upgrades that directly improve your loadout in multiplayer, so there is validity to the idea that you can buy superior gear with cash, but you get these so frequently there is hardly merit to dropping your beer night monies into randomly drawn upgrade cards you already get multiples of in an average gaming night.

Bomber with an astromech repair upgrade Star Card

 

No, seriously, these are the droids we are looking for

I am actively recommending Star Wars Battlefront II to all of my gaming friends. The gameplay is a fantastic mix of the more serious, gritty Battlefield 1 it shares an engine with and the lighter-hearted arcade feel I associate with Star Wars titles. The various maps and game modes draw from at least all seven main movies, and includes additional locations and references to anthology and novel locations including Christie Golden’s “Inferno Squad”. Every aspect of the game from the breathtaking cinematics and rousing story to the frequently cheeky humor in multiplayer and kid-loose-in-a-toy-store flight combat shows the developers share a true passion for Star Wars and for great gaming. The actor capture and performances make it feel like you are in the movie, and I was left stunned at its conclusion.

I hope to see you online in a galaxy far, far away!

 

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.

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.

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.

Double-jump for joy – Titanfall’s beta delivers on hype

Titanfall

Take cover last generation shooters, Titanfall is ready to make its entrance into the static team vs team shooter genre like only a giant low orbit deployed armored mech could; with a pavement cracking, expectation crushing boom.

EA & Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall explodes into life March 11, and is gunning for top spot in a genre dominated by long standing franchises like Battlefield, Gears of War, Halo and Call of Duty. Titanfall made a huge splash last year when debuted at E3, garnering an unprecedented number of awards. With all of that positive reception and press, it had set the bar very high even for itself. As it turns out, reaching heights isn’t much a problem when you’re riding a two-story tall armored mech, but the real show-stealers are the pilots themselves.

From the moment you set virtual boot to ground in the training simulator, you’ll find out how wallrunning, cloaking and double-jumping put the unarmored pilots on even ground with their giant armored mechs – and ahead of the competition. In an instant you’ll see maps in a whole new dimension and find yourself looking for ways to chain wall grabs, runs and jumps together with ease and discover the true heart of a Titan is far from soft.

The beta contains just a select few maps and competitive game modes, saving the best for release along with the highly anticipated multiplayer story mode. Still, what was shown was solid, highly playable release-quality gameplay that distances itself from the frequently buggy competition – a huge relief from the recent norm. At present, the modes available to test include Attrition, Hard Point and Last Titan Standing.

Attrition is described as a classic Titanfall game mode and is recommended as the best mode to start with. Featuring gameplay style made famous by the footage from E3, you start as a pilot and earn points by killing either AI or players on the opposing team. With each kill you decrease the amount of time until you can call in your Titan, which enters the battlefield with a spectacular sonic boom and annihilates anything that happens to be nearby. You can then choose to pilot it or set it to guard or follow mode to continue the fight. If you happen to die while outside of it and it survives, it will continue it’s last orders while you respawn. Once the points-based objective is met, the losing team must scramble to reach evacuation points to earn an epilogue XP bonus – although you get just one life to make the escape.

At a glance Hardpoint might seem similar to Attrition, except that points are earned by capturing and defending objectives. As these objectives are almost always in a location only a pilot can reach outside of her Titan, a different level of coordination is required by both pilots and Titans to effectively attack or defend an objective. Additionally, little or no reward is gained by fighting away from the objective – wander off on your own and you could cost your team the win even if you technically outskilled your opponents. Like attrition, it ends with a bonus epilogue chase to an evacuation point.

Last Titan Standing plays like it sounds – 6v6 Titans, multiple timed rounds, no respawn on pilot death and everyone starts in a Titan. It’s Titanfall TDM, with a brisk no-mistakes pace.

All three modes were a blast to play – featuring just the Atlas class of Titan out of the three available at release, as well as three sample pilot buildouts and numerous innovative weapons. It is easy to pick up but shows it will reward those with the skill to master both pilot and Titan abilities to their maximum. It will also challenge players to unlearn traditional “two dimensional” shooter gameplay habits – where even your Titan can outmaneuver yesteryear’s corner to cover positional warfare.

Stand by, your Titan will be ready for launch on March 11 on Xbox One and PC, March 25 on Xbox 360.