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Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, at its most well-executed, is a grueling slice of a very real nightmare.

3.5

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered
Photo: Activision

There was a time, nine years ago at this point, when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare did in fact represent modernity. It was the first and most successful attempt to translate the very real, raging war America was fighting in the Middle East into a video-game narrative, despite the fact that the game goes out of its way to avoid being an actual commentary on current events. Fast forward to 2016, though, and we find a game whose best ideas have been cribbed, improved upon, and just flat-out copied by other games, including and especially other Call of Duty titles. This should have theoretically rendered Modern Warfare toothless. Instead, what we find in Modern Warfare Remastered is a game that has to work overtime to not come off as a ghost of 2007’s Christmas past, and manages to succeed more often than not.

It’s a rather understated success, however, borne of instincts that somehow didn’t take hold of the gaming conscience the way Prestiges and Perks in the game’s ridiculously popular multiplayer did. Modern Warfare’s success lies in the war itself, when it gets to the dirty business of placing you in the midst of complete chaos, where the bullet that kills you is typically invisible, where there’s nothing pleasant or cathartic about the use of heavy weaponry, and where the player is rarely, if ever, a hero. Much of that success is made possible in the game’s first half, which is kicked off by a chillingly bravura sequence that sees a Middle Eastern leader, held captive by a power-hungry despot named Khaled Al-Asad, being loaded into a car bound and gagged, driven through the streets, forced to watch his people lined up against walls and executed, before finally facing the despot’s bullet in first person, and caught on camera as the money shot to a terrorist recruitment video.

It’s from there that the narrative splits, between John “Soap” MacTavish, a British Special Air Service (SAS) operative doing the covert intel wet work that feeds the operation to kill Al-Asad, and Paul Jackson, a boots-on-the-ground American marine following his crew into the heart of the Middle Eastern war machine to take out Al-Asad altogether. The British side is where most of the actual character of the game is found, with the relative quiet of having to stealth around, run down prey, and slit throats in the dark forcing Soap to become familiar with his vicious yet honorable cronies. Meanwhile, the American side is a never-ending series of wide-open war zones, flooded with cross-firing bullets, bombs, and zealots ready to die for their cause.

The American side of the story imbues the player with something that doesn’t come easily to first-person military shooters: a sense of fear. Every single action you take as you fight your way down ruined Middle Eastern streets is made with heart-pounding trepidation. Heroism ends lives, and to even peek out from behind cover is to risk a swift, unmerciful death. War is always hell whenever games decide to portray it, but even on normal difficulty Modern Warfare requires precision and caution with every bullet you fire. It forces the player to pick up new twitch reflexes and paranoias that, surprisingly, never really go away, even after years away from the last playthrough.

Throughout, it’s impossible to not think of the real men and women who actually put themselves in this situation, and don’t have the luxury of being able to hide behind cover to heal up when injured. Combined with this remastered edition’s fresh and spectacular coat of graphical paint, the game has never seemed more hellish. Modern Warfare, at its most well-executed, is a grueling slice of a very real nightmare, the cherry on top being the game’s most effective, horrifying sequence, of a soldier being caught in a nuclear blast and the player having to guide him through his final moments of life as he crawls feebly across the ground, inhaling the scorching, irradiated air.

In its second half, though, the game starts to slip off the rails, becoming more self-serious as the SAS, in the wake of the nuclear blast, tries to get payback for their fallen brethren. There’s still some greatness in this stretch, especially a flashback to the SAS commander running a sniper mission in Chernobyl, but it’s a predictable ride from there on. The ultimate shame of this edition is that the elements keeping it relevant in the current gaming landscape are the things that made it more than just an overblown interactive action movie, but with only a scant few exceptions (Spec Ops: The Line, Battlefield 4, some scattered moments in the last two Halo titles), the wrong lessons have been taken from its success. Modern Warfare does struggle with relevance, but it still has plenty more to teach the new school of shooters.

Developer: Infinity Ward and Raven Software Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 4, 2016 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Is Addictive in Spite of a Shaky Engine

It’s an addictive, delightfully rowdy experience in spite of the creaky, decrypt gameplay and engine.

3.5

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
Photo: Nintendo

When Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched alongside the Nintendo Switch in March 2017, it felt like a wake-up call to developers the world over, showing that with enough creativity, a game’s horsepower scarcely mattered. Now, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity has arrived on the scene as if to further test that premise. It’s rare that a first-party Nintendo game feels like it’s rubbing up against the upper limits of what the Switch can do, but that’s exactly the kind of judder you can feel the second the playing field in Age of Calamity gets remotely busy. Lucky for us, the experience of playing it remains addictive and delightfully rowdy in spite of the creaky gameplay and engine.

Age of Calamity, a pseudo-prequel to Breath of the Wild, shows us the last optimistic days of the Hyrule that was. As Calamity Ganon lays waste to Hyrule, a stray Guardian robot manages to open a portal and travel back in time to warn Link, Princess Zelda, and King Rhoam of the coming catastrophe. Creating an alternate timeline, the king orders Link and Zelda to travel around the world, getting the greatest champions of each of Hyrule’s tribes to pilot the massive Divine Beasts who can defend Hyrule from the apocalypse.

Here, massive armies of beasts, knights, and wizards are looking to burn Hyrule to the ground in Ganon’s name. And, of course, this being a Warriors game at heart, annihilating those armies is much easier than it is in Breath of the Wild. Arguably too easy. The sporadically winning formula from the Warriors series hasn’t changed much, as the vast majority of enemies our heroes will face are hapless cannon fodder that you can either run past to reach your goal on the map or slay en masse with three presses of the Y button. You can count on one hand the number of times that any of them will take a swing at you, let alone have it connect, during an entire playthrough. Still, this formula persists for a reason, as there’s undeniable satisfaction and glee to obliterating whole armies in a matter of minutes.

What Age of Calamity lacks in difficulty it makes up for in variety. The game’s greatest success is its huge roster of characters—the forebears of known characters from Breath of the Wild—and how wildly different they play as they dazzlingly wield the magic powers from the prior game’s Sheikah Slate. It’s easy to button-mash through Age of Calamity, but more satisfying is trying to figure out the exact Sheikah Slate power to stun your enemies with, then experiment with how to chain melee attacks into elemental barrages, arrow storms, and spectacular feats of swordplay. Just as the original Hyrule Warriors meshed Dynasty Warriors’s mechanics with Twilight Princess’s aesthetic and gameplay extremely well, it’s impressive how seamlessly Breath of the Wild adopts this combat system, possibly more so here given how much this game kicks Breath of the Wild’s less popular features—like breakable weapons—to the curb.

Here, advancement is handled by turning the various items and currencies you find on the battlefield into money or ingredients to open up new item shops, craft new items, and complete random challenge stages. While it’s possible to build characters up into overpowered invincible juggernauts with surprisingly little effort, you also don’t necessarily need to in order to do well here. Aside from leveling up your weapons at a blacksmith, you could get along perfectly fine without every other crafting system in the game. The various missions that involve actual gameplay are far more rewarding of the player’s time and efforts.

There’s nothing wrong with another Warriors game providing a familiar experience, but all that’s dependent on this particular game being enjoyable to look at and play comes up incredibly short. At its best, Age of Calamity keeps a weak grip on 30 frames a second, and at its most visually chaotic, the game effectively becomes a slideshow. And it’s at its absolute worst when it puts you behind the controls of one of Hyrule’s Guardian Beasts, massive stone-and-metal kaiju that wreak havoc on hordes of enemies. These segments should be wicked displays of payback. Instead, they’re smudgy, indecipherable nonsense, given that the camera can’t figure out where to go, enemies are too small to stand out against the various smoke and light effects, and the explosions from destroying them tank the framerate.

Age of Calamity isn’t a game that’s likely to stay with you too long after the credits roll, even if it hurts the eyes from time to time. But Warriors games have always been there to scratch a very particular itch, and Age of Calamity still manages to deliver on that front, while also letting Legend of Zelda fans spend some quality time with some familiar faces. It’s a somewhat broken experience, but it’s scarcely a heartless or empty one.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin on November 20.

Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: November 20, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Brings the Fun, but It May Leave You Uneasy

The game is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series.

3.5

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Photo: Ubisoft

Fun comes through more effortlessly in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla than it has in years for Assassin’s Creed. Where Origins and Odyssey took more than a few cues from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Valhalla embraces the things that, once upon a time, made Assassin’s Creed unique. Here, there’s renewed emphasis on actual assassination, but also more focus on showing how each of your targets connect, how they affect the world at large, and the direct result of their elimination. You get to see the ways your actions make the world a better place, at least in the short term. That, in turn, provides plenty of motivation to do all the extra non-essential stuff that Origins and Odyssey kept trying to foist upon the player.

It does, though, take a few hours—after an introductory sandbox in Norway provides a bleak and uninspiring bit of setup—for the game to get to that point. You play as Eivor, a Viking who finds themselves tagging along on the first exodus out of Norway with their hot-blooded brother, Sigurd, when their father bends the knee to a new king without consulting the rest of his family. The journey leads Eivor and Sigurd to seek out their Norwegian brethren in England, where the game blooms from a set of linear plot points to a much looser structure.

The next main story mission is always out there waiting for you to tackle it, but with enough time, effort, and honest detective work, visiting a diverse array of well-written and amiable NPCs will be a great opportunity to tame the hostile English terrain. That work will also lead you to the two dozen or so assassination targets that will make settling down in England easier in the long run. There are still plenty of mindless sidequests, minigames, and timewasters to blow a 40-to-50-hour game out into something closer to 90, and a plethora of fascinating little nooks and crannies to explore for treasure, customizable items, and random secluded hermits with grand stories to tell. But blessedly, these are truly optional, instead of a required grind. Now, just about anything you do in game can help improve your equipment, or provide enough XP to unlock new tricks, better attacks, defends, and the like.

Raids are the backbone of Valhalla, at once the main source of its enjoyment and its most problematic component. On its face, a raid will find you blowing a horn and charging alongside 30 of your best CPU allies into battle against the Saxon dogs who choke the life from the land, burning their villages to the ground. It feels as if, in the thankful absence of rape, there’s triple the amount of pillaging to be done. At its best, the film’s combat strikes that happy medium between patient, Souls-like sword-and-shieldplay and easy, effective button-mashing that usually ends with your enemies finding out what your favorite axe tastes like.

The quests as part of the main story go even further, turning into full-on Lord of the Rings-scale melees. Aside from the rock-solid frame rate, if there’s anything that truly shows off the power of the next-gen consoles, it’s the way these battles, such beautiful displays of chaos, never skip a single frame—something that can’t be said about the stuttery previous gen port.

Stop for even a moment to consider the implications of all the looting and burning, though, and Valhalla starts to unravel. You spend much of the initial boat trip into England talking about how you intend to take the land from the Saxons, who had to take it from the Romans, who had to take it from others before them. But the option to take a different path, one toward coexistence, isn’t an option. And why not? A dialogue system has been built into this game that takes some rather intriguing twists and turns with the story, where enemies can become friends, innocent people can die as a consequence of your actions, and Eivor can try to find diplomatic solutions before things escalate into war. But bloodthirst is always the first option.

Granted, Valhalla is a game about a Viking assassin, so it’s difficult to imagine peace as a possibility within that premise. But the violence you bring about in prior Assassin’s Creed titles has a different flavor. You’re meant to revel in the good you’ve done in the other games, while chaos is your guiding principle here, as it’s considerably easier to progress with fury than it is with grace, which nearly every other game in this series makes a point to lean into.

There are a few motions toward grace later in Valhalla, especially when some of the more despicably bloodthirsty Vikings start to play a role in the game’s narrative, betrayals start to pile up, and named innocents start dropping like flies. Eivor begins to develop a wider, empathetic view of the world around the Vikings as the narrative progresses. There are more than just Danes trying to carve a small piece of England for their own, and Eivor is able to recognize that same settler struggle in others as time goes on. Given that everyone has lost friends and family trying to make England their home, and Eivor is often tasked with being an emotional bedrock for them as they build and rebuild. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder why Eivor is meant to feel so uneasy about the way their people operate now. Why wasn’t it a problem decapitating the men whose primary crime was defending their village?

Of course, you know the answer to that: Because it’s fun. Admittedly, lots of fun. Indeed, Valhalla surrounds you with people, places, and activities that make spending time in a bloody Assassin’s Creed open world the most enjoyable it’s been since Syndicate. A golden sunrise greets you every few hours in the game to bless a journey you take. You get the sense that you’re not supposed to think about the implications of your actions, that you’re supposed to kill and pillage at your leisure, which doesn’t make the game much different from most others, except that it makes such a point of bringing frightened terrorized bystanders into the mix.

Valhalla is fairly dedicated to correcting many of the worst creative decisions made across the lifespan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Most notably, it empowers its female characters and puts them on equal footing with the male characters. But there’s a cost, as the force of colonialism is front and center here in ways it never has been before in an Assassin’s Creed game: You’re meant to take anything that’s not freely given in England, and not nearly enough nuance has been baked into the story to say that your enemies deserve what your Vikings have come to bring. That makes the primary mode of advancement in the game rest a bit uneasy with where the narrative ends up going. Arguably, that uneasiness is the point, but it’s not enough to support how much fun the game wants you to have throughout.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 160over90.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: Xbox Series X ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: The Pathless Grasps for Profundity in the Shadow of the Familiar

The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché.

3

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The Pathless
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

There’s something almost defiant about how prototypical and familiar The Pathless is, treading as it does territory worn not only by Shadow of the Colossus and The Legend of Zelda, but the countless other media they’ve likewise inspired, to say nothing of further forbearers like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. That familiarity suggests an intent to transcend the thick muck of video game cliché in which The Pathless stands, and what’s most disappointing is that the game almost manages to do so.

The forces of light and darkness are at it again in Giant Squid’s open-world game. The Hunter has traveled to a distant land where the requisite giant animal deities have been cursed and struck down. To put things right again with nature and the world at large, she must cleanse the cursed gods and switch off the radiating red towers that look like the Eye of Sauron.

The game’s unique movement system provides a magnificent sense of momentum. Armed with a bow, the Hunter sprints across the world while shooting floating talismans that replenish an ever-draining dash meter. Aiming is more or less automatic; all you have to do is look in the direction of a talisman and hold down the trigger for a brief lock-on period. As you get a feel for how long it takes to shoot and how quickly arrows reach their targets, navigation becomes a captivating rhythm that frees space for you to experiment with different maneuvers, weaving through trees or hopping over rocks and rivers while expertly aiming without a hitch.

Complementing this freedom of movement is your eagle companion, who can soar to great heights or carry you across gaps and long distances. Sometimes a river is a little wider than your jump distance, so the eagle can carry you the rest of the way. But some of The Pathless’s most thrilling moments occur when you cross areas without the eagle’s aid. For one, if you hit a talisman in midair, the boost keeps you aloft and provides just enough push to jump a wide river. Mastering the navigation means blazing through the world at high speed, able to propel yourself across the landscape while scarcely touching the ground.

Otherwise, the bow tends to be used in the puzzles that dot the landscape. And, unfortunately, those puzzles are pretty standard stuff, from lighting a torch by shooting an arrow through some fire, to hitting a switch from a distance, to, if you really want to get wild, weighing down a pressure plate. But what the puzzles lack in distinction they make up for in a fulfilling sense of discovery when you find them on your own. They’re nestled inside the trees and the ruins that might catch your eye from a distance, rewarding you with light orbs that are used for markedly less inspiring means: turning off the video game towers to unlock the boss battle.

In each area, a cursed god roams the land within an enormous storm, a swirling cloud of ominous red that occasionally expands to pull you inside for rather tedious stealth segments. While it’s possible to outrun these storms, they tend to interrupt puzzles and exemplify the odd identity crisis at the core of The Pathless. The game visibly aches to be more traditionally dramatic, which manifests in more guided stretches like the stealth sections and boss battles.

And when The Pathless doesn’t lean on the sense of discovery that so few games trust the player with, its most familiar attributes become almost laughable because there’s no longer anything to differentiate them from those of countless other games. It’s then that it becomes yet another game where you have to shoot giant eyeballs, light torches, and look around in bog-standard blue vision to highlight relevant objects while making dark clouds go away. In the wrong hands, the wonder-of-nature, light-in-the-darkness archetypes merely become another flavor of generic. The Pathless ultimately buries anything it might have to say in a stupefying level of cliché, grasping for profundity in the shadow of the things that inspired it.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Giant Squid Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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PlayStation 5 Roundup: Devil May Cry 5, Spider-Man Remastered, & Demon’s Souls

Even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

The PlayStation 5’s exterior design feels sprung from the imagination of Björk, as if capable at any moment of releasing a bloom of black smoke that will eventually transform into a flurry of butterflies. Which makes it somewhat disappointing that actually playing games on the PS5 feels, well, just like playing them on the last generation. Mostly. But we can see strands of the future laid out in its handling of the past, and three games in particular provide the most intriguing taste of things to come.

The least ambitious of these visions is Devil May Cry 5, a fantastic game on the previous gen that’s been given the “special edition” treatment. In this case, that means the inclusion of all the previously gated bonus content from the deluxe versions available on the PS4—most notably new costumes for the main cast, and a delightful feature allowing players to see live-action pre-viz footage of select cutscenes—alongside a massive cache of starting currency and the addition of series antagonist Vergil and a new Legendary Dark Knight mode that drops insane hordes of enemies on the battlefield at any given moment.

The cherry on top is a next-gen spit shine, almost completely eliminating load times but adding a high frame rate mode, ray tracing, and an extra bump in detail to what was already an extremely pretty game. The most anyone can really say is, yep, that’s Devil May Cry 5 all right, and the visual uptick is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially given the manner in which light plays off the world in ways that pop off the screen. In a game that often devolves into chaos, there’s a newfound clarity that really drags you into the world just a bit more. Fundamentally, though, it’s still the same game folks may already own.

The same can mostly be said of the remastered Spider-Man, included in the Ultimate Edition of its semi-sequel, Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It’s a prettier, more detailed game now (the frame rate can be kicked up to a solid 60), but the PS5 adds a lot more to the fundamental experience here. Two of the bigger flaws of the original game were a virtual New York City that was less effective at invoking the real thing the closer you got to the ground, and rather extensive load times that made any segment where you had to go indoors feel entirely separate from the rest of the world. Both of those problems have been solved on the PS5.

Spider-Man Remastered

A scene from Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

While it’s not a one-to-one reflection of the real deal, the New York of the game absolutely bustles with life now, brimming with new details, vendors, and NPCs interacting with each other—and it does so for full city blocks ahead of your field of vision. But more than this, the world is absolutely seamless, only breaking immersion for cutscenes, which have also been given a nice new level of detail and photorealism. That realism has, however, led to probably the most notable change to the game: A new face model for Peter Parker who, for unquestionable reasons of synergy, looks a hell of a lot like the MCU’s Tom Holland.

The kid looks great, but there’s a small dissonance cost, as his is a rather young face for a Spider-Man who, in the game, is an old hand at the superhero gig, and is already feeling its fatigue. That older, frazzled voice (Yuri Lowenthal’s) doesn’t quite synch up with the fresh face, but there’s an impressive new level of earnestness in the physical performance now that captures more actorly decisions and expressiveness. All in all, the change is worthwhile, and it’s certainly a strong reason to revisit the game before jumping into Miles Morales.

The real main event on the PS5 right now, though, is the Demon’s Souls remake, a top-to-bottom makeover that brings the eldritch grandfather of Souls games rocketing into the future. I was there back when the original Demons’ Souls was an evil secret, a dare for those who had the belly for a true challenge during one of the least challenging generations of games. But unlike the worlds offered up by its wicked spawn—Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—it never felt like a place you wanted to get lost in or held wonder. It was a grim, grisly labyrinth of torments that seemed to revel in your failures, with nothing but cold, unyielding, nicotine-yellow brickwork to bear witness, even if its enthralling representations of death and decay made it difficult to turn away from it.

Perhaps the perfect example of everything special and different about Demons’ Souls is its hub area, the Nexus. It was always a dead place, with the mood of an abandoned church—dim, bleak, and yawning, whose main purpose is to get you away from it. Its guardian was a ragged banshee barely discernible against the darkness. Conversely, the Nexus on the PS5 is a true sanctuary. It’s a palace bathed in the gentle amber of candlelight, where the floor is a clockwork mechanism protected by a membrane that ripples like water. It’s a place where choral voices soothe in all directions—probably the best example of the PS5’s 3D audio feature hard at work—where the faces of the damned are easy to read and commiserate with. It’s a place of respite, creating a powerful contrast between you and the endless agony to come.

Yes, the look, feel, and sound of Demons’ Souls is absolutely a next-level experience. The irony, however, is that the game is otherwise a carbon copy of the game that dropped on the PS3 back in 2009. Every strategy, every secret, every bit of balancing feels as warm and familiar as a hug from an old friend—that is, a friend who’s ready to kill you within 10 seconds if you don’t watch your step. It doesn’t feel old per se; every FromSoftware game that comes out is a reminder that Hidetaka Miyazaki has insight on how to build worlds and experiences that even the best Souls copycats haven’t been able to touch. But it does feel oddly safe in 2020. We’ve seen this brand of game one-upped in various ways over the years, and Demons’ Souls, as excellent as it often is, is still playing with a mood and mechanical language that’s very well tread at this point. Funnily, one of the other PS5 launch titles, Godfall, is riffing on many of the design tenets set forth by Demons’ Souls, and while it’s a more repetitive experience, it also feels like it’s reaching toward something more ambitious in concept.

Demon’s Souls

A scene from Demon’s Souls. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Of course, we don’t expect launch titles to answer the question of what the next generation of video games will look like. The experiences that have come to define the last seven years of video games were absolutely inconceivable way back in 2013, when the PS4 and Xbox One arrived on the scene. We know how good it can look, at the very least, and we know it can make games engulf our senses like never before. But as beautifully lavish and deserving of reverence the old may be, even the PS5’s most grandiose examples of a remake still pay more tribute to the past than they provide a window to the future.

These games were reviewed using retail copies purchased by the reviewer.

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Review: Tetris Effect: Connected Will Leave You Wanting for VR Support

Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

3.5

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Tetris Effect: Connected
Photo: Enhance

There are few among us who haven’t heard of Tetris, the addictive tile-matching video game created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov in which players must move and rotate tetromino pieces in order to form and clear horizontal lines. For years, developers have been crafting their own iterations on this familiar formula, and they almost all feel largely the same. Perhaps that’s why Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of trippy games such as Rez and Lumines, puts so much of the focus of Tetris Effect on literally changing the way people feel, using a variety of audiovisual effects to present an artistic, emotional spin on Tetris.

And yet, the successes of Tetris Effect, named for a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, come not from such ultimately superficial and distracting bells and whistles, but from the introduction of a brand new ability. As players clear lines, they’re also charging their Zone gauge, which, when it’s completely filled, will allow you to significantly slow down time. It’s a game-changing mechanic that shakes the foundation of the Tetris experience, allowing masters to massively boost their scores by clearing as many as 20 lines while also re-balancing the game for amateurs who may need an extra advantage to puzzle their way out of a tight spot.

Tetris Effect offers the most responsive Tetris experience to date, in part due to the best improvements in the series’s history, such as the ability to store a single tetromino in a queue and to T-spin shapes into awkward gaps before they lock into place. An Effects mode offers a wide variety of modifiers to the basic game, from standard speed runs and score attacks to skill-training puzzles that test your ability to quickly All Clear a board or combo together line clears. And the Master mode, which all but instantaneously drops pieces, makes a return here, but now there’s also a Relax setting, which offers up different themed levels, like Sea or Wind, but without the risk of a dreaded Game Over. And for those who have mastered every aspect of Tetris, there’s the Mystery setting, which throws weird and random rule modifications into the mix. It’s one thing to play on an invisible board, and quite another when that board is flipped upside down, or when the tetrominos take on new and unwieldy or massive shapes.

Pity, then, that the game’s emotional resonance is rather lackluster. The Journey mode, self-billed as “a journey of discovery and emotion,” more closely resembles a Couch to 5K-like training program, one that hides the repetitious work of building Tetrises beneath 27 increasingly challenging levels. Abrupt shifts between high-intensity havoc and slower, soothing tempos give players a chance to recover from the more taxing speeds, just as the varying visual styles—not just for backgrounds, but for pieces—helps with training.

Tetris Effect is staggeringly immersive, but it falls short of justifying its audiovisual ambition as anything more than a novelty, a way to resell one of the oldest video games in the world, now gussied up with high-definition colors and graphical bloom. There’s Tetris, better than ever, in the foreground, but then there’s all these other effects going on in the background.

Now, Connected brings a multiplayer component to the Tetris Effect experience. In addition to PVP modes (the same that have been available in other Tetris compilations over the years), the strongest multiplayer mode is its namesake, Connected, wherein three players unite online to take on a series of astrology-themed AI-controlled bosses. The player starts a game alongside two co-operative partners while the bosses play their own game, firing attacks back and forth as lines are created. Occasionally, all three games link up so that players can take turns dropping pieces onto a play area that’s three times the size of the standard area, making longer lines that do devastating damage against the zodiac bosses. It’s suitably epic and engaging, and boasts the same kind of thrilling immersion as the core Tetris Effect campaign.

But just as the Tetromino Lord giveth, the Tetromino Lord taketh away. The multiplayer additions, while compelling, don’t make up for the absence of a virtual reality mode, which is unfortunately unsupported by the Xbox One platform. After all, the complete audio-visual immersion of virtual reality is where Tetris Effect really shines: Beyond the stellar visuals, the sound effects of the gameplay synchronizes to the beat of the soundtrack, and when the engaging gameplay is in lockstep with the music with the gorgeous graphics surrounding the player, Tetris Effect generates a feeling of transcendence. Tetris Effect is one of the best VR titles on the market, so without the feature Connected feels, well, disconnected.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Enhance.

Developer: Resonair, Monstars, Stage Games Publisher: Enhance Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 10, 2020 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: With Melody of Memory, Kingdom Hearts Takes an Undeserved Victory Lap

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory
Photo: Square Enix

The franchise equivalency of auto-fellatio, Kingdom Hearts features Disney and Final Fantasy characters as bit players in a contrived, bloated narrative revolving around saving the world through the power of friendship, pureness of heart, or some other nonsense. The common element between each game is that Kingdom Hearts is the greatest and you’d be a fool to think otherwise. In fact, the last thing the series wants players to do is think at all, lest they see it for the shallow, juvenile, incoherent blather that it is. And after last year’s disappointing Kingdom Hearts III, Melody of Memory serves as a wholly undeserved victory lap, a recap of the series’s major narrative beats baked into a mediocre rhythm game.

Melody of Memory features three types of levels across its World Tour campaign, all requiring you to press buttons when prompts appear: Field Battles, wherein a trio of characters (most commonly series protagonists Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck) run down a floating path through a level from past Kingdom Hearts games and fight enemies; Memory Dives, a kind of interactive music video where the characters fly in the air as video clips from the prior games play in the background; and Boss Battles, wherein your trio circles a boss and attacks and defends until the fight ends, often unceremoniously. Completing levels unlocks cutscenes from each game, moving through the narrative of both the main numbered titles and its spin-offs.

After a bewildering interactive opening that Melody of Memory doesn’t make clear that you can even play, you’re introduced to the serviceable but unexciting basics of its gameplay—attack, jump, fly, and multiple attack—little of which changes or evolves from the start to the end of the campaign. But the game’s lack of variety is only part of its problem. The difficulty swings wildly throughout Melody of Memory, with the most difficult option, Proud, providing the most comprehensive experience, wherein the player has to press buttons in time to all of the beats in a song and misses are punished severely. Conversely, Beginner gives the player significantly fewer button prompts and frustratingly little to do, as playing the game this way doesn’t allow one to really maintain any sort of rhythm or even enjoy the music.

Better examples of this genre of game, like Harmonix’s Rock Band series, have found ways to not only give beginners a fun experience, but teach them how to improve, by, say, enlarging the timing window to hit beats instead of reducing the number of beats that you have to hit. Alas, Melody of Memory doesn’t even provide adequate feedback as to how the player isn’t hitting specific beats, making progress arduous. And while the game boasts a tracklist of over 140 songs, the arrangements often disappoint, with few orchestral versions of popular tracks and some notable soundtrack omissions from past games in the series, like “Scythe of Petals.” Surprisingly, the game also contains few licensed Disney songs, as more of them would have given Melody of Memory the opportunity for broader reach and appeal.

In the end, Melody of Memory is very much a fans-only affair. You will find no better proof of this than the banal narrative, which plays out as a “greatest hits” edit of the series’s overarching story, and in such patchy fashion that only those intimately familiar with the games will be able to make heads or tails of any it. Like Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and its awful video-game adaptation series Pirate Warriors, truncating Kingdom Hearts’s overcomplicated narrative into fragmentary clips somehow makes the whole thing seem more incoherent. But the more cultish, nostalgia-fueled fans of the series will remain undeterred, which is ironic given that the more dedicated among them are the ones who should be the most frustrated with this gimmicky, transparently pandering product. (Imagine the backlash to a Just Dance: Dark Souls, or, heaven forbid, a Silent Hill pachinko machine.) Melody of Memory is less than the sum of its parts, a judgment one can fairly cast over the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Square Enix Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 13, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Bugsnax Is Excitingly Weird but Clumsy When It Has Something to Say

The game noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept.

3

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Bugsnax
Photo: Young Horses

The eponymous creatures of Bugsnax—sentient food with googly eyes—live within their environments in much the same way that regular animals do. A Bunger, a hamburger with curly fries for legs, roams its terrain, charging at anything slathered in ketchup. A pineapple spider, naturally called a Pineantula, remains buried in the sand until a crab made from apple slices—a Crapple, of course—can be coaxed to dig it out.

And those are just a few of the strange creatures that fill the delightfully odd world of Bugsnax, including anthropomorphic walrus-looking thingamabobs called Grumpuses, some of whom have built a settlement on the illustrious Bugsnak domain of Snaktook Island. As a desperate Grumpus reporter from the city, you make your way to the island to investigate the rumors of things that are, per the game’s theme song by Kero Kero Bonito, “kinda bug and kinda snack” in a comedic adventure that flounders as it reaches its climax.

With Grumpus names like Beffica Winklesnoot and Wambus Troubleham, the game can often feel like an elaborate ploy to make voice actors recite ridiculous words, given that the Bugsnax don’t grunt or growl so much as say their own names aloud like Pokémon. But unlike the Pokémon games, Bugsnax seems to be much more consciously in touch with its darker side. Upon devouring a Bugsnak, a Grumpus will transform accordingly and horrifically—though not, it appears, painfully: a leg becomes a carrot, an arm becomes a shish kebab, a nose becomes a pickle. And not long after you does this for the first time, the player meets a Grumpus who’s morally opposed to the idea of eating Bugsnax in the first place, preferring to keep them as pets on a ranch that other Grumpuses view more as an auxiliary food source.

The game is most disturbing at its most overtly whimsical, when no one seems bothered by the fact that these characters blundered onto a remote island and are gradually becoming grotesque food chimeras by eating the wildlife raw. Most of the game functions in that mode of comedic ignorance, where a Grumpus has some request and you run off to capture the corresponding Bugsnak through some combination of sauce packets that grow like plants and the gadgets you’ve accumulated, like a launchpad or a tripwire. Light on challenge, the game works best as a procession of weird characters among even weirder fauna, the Bugsnak interactions more like momentary puzzles than particularly in-depth systems.

Which isn’t to say the game is incapable of surprising you with the way the Bugsnax behave even without your interference; sometimes you’ll see them attack each other while moving along their predetermined paths. But in its breezy nature, the game ends up living and dying by its storytelling, which noticeably stumbles as it attempts to more overtly address the darkness beneath its concept. If the game is funniest and strangest while playing dumb, it becomes tedious and wholly predictable once the time finally comes to say into the camera that all the Grumpuses have done on Snaktooth Island might actually be bad. Bugsnax is so much more inventive when it’s pretending everything is okay, even when it clearly isn’t.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by popagenda.

Developer: Young Horses Publisher: Young Horses Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 12, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence

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Indie Roundup: Carto, I Am Dead, and Noita

Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic.

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Carto
Photo: Humble Games

The layout of the world in Carto (Humble Games) is subjective, but only up to a point. The latest from Taiwanese developer Sunhead Games finds the title character collecting pieces of her magic map to make terrain appear in the world. Place, say, a patch of forest to her east and what was once a blank void transforms into a very real forest for Carto to explore. If you pick up that same map piece and place it to her north, the forest moves to the north instead. As long as the edges match up—forest to forest, grassland to grassland—the beautiful, storybook-esque world of the game is totally within Carto’s power.

Other people also live in Carto’s world. In addition to the grandmother who she’s been separated from, there are the various tribes that have settled in different environments according to their own customs. And they’re already familiar with the land; if one character says that his hut is by the sea to the east of another hut, his home won’t appear until the player sets the map piece down in the proper place. And even if the map piece fits just fine to the north, south, or west, he knows where his home is.

Though the more complex, and occasionally obtuse, puzzles can make your constant opening and closing of the map feel a little tedious, Carto gets a lot of brain-bending mileage from its central mechanic. Each area introduces some pleasant new wrinkle, like moving big chunks of the map at once, connecting the path of an earthworm, or rotating a map tile to open a safe before moving on again, one more stop on a lovely journey about getting to know different cultures and how they survive in so many different conditions.


Death, as it turns out, isn’t the end. Deceased museum curator Morris Lupton is now a rather nosy ghost, capable of supernaturally peeking inside objects around the small island of Shelmerston in I Am Dead (Annapurna Interactive), the latest from the creators of Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehous. The outsides melt away on command, letting him look inside of a grapefruit, the circuits of a walkie talkie, or the gears of a clock. But Morris finds himself without purpose, until the ghost of his dog informs him that they need to find a replacement spirit for the island to keep its long-dormant volcano from exploding.

What follows is a rather simple game where you seek out mementos of the dead that tend to be hidden in unexpected containers like a fox hole in a sculpture park or an armchair at the lighthouse turned yoga retreat. I Am Dead places its objects among scenes of such vibrant life and history, bursting with strange details and memories tackling a range of emotions that’s all the more surprising for the cutesy exterior. There’s pleasure, charm, and sadness here, rummaging through mementos seeing how our touch on the world persists, however brief it may seem, through the people and objects we leave behind.


Though so many games call themselves sandboxes, few can claim the depth and variety of the pixelated playground of Noita, the latest from the self-proclaimed nerds at the Finland-based Nolla Games. The simple art style belies an enormous spiderweb of systems upon systems, actions and reactions. When your magician character lights something on fire, the fire spreads and takes the terrain with it, pieces of it crumbling off into the cave network below. Smoke rises, collecting in pockets of the cavern to drain oxygen from you or the hostile creatures lurking in the dark. You can douse the fire in water or blood, or you can feed it with oil or alcohol and watch from a distance as it consumes the monsters in your way.

And fire is just one of the many potential variables on your journey, something that might crop up because you knock over a lantern or manifest it as an unexpected side effect of your spells. Acid melts terrain, electricity surges through water, and parasitic plants block your path as they grow unchecked. Even with just a handful of basic spells, Noita is an astonishing, reactive, and chaotic achievement. But as you progress, starting from scratch upon death, as it is customary in roguelikes, even the spells grow in complexity. You can bolt on additional effects, change trajectories, and tweak their potency until, say, you’re obliterating ground as far as the eye can see in a flash of red fireworks, probably killing yourself by accident in the process.

Death will come often in Noita as you puzzle out the secrets of its merciless systems, and to the game’s occasional detriment. Without a safe, reliable place to experiment, you’ll often find yourself dealing with powers and enemies that you’re unaccustomed to, scrambling for footholds and bottlenecks that might crumble at any moment. The desperation can be exciting to be sure, but Noita’s systems are so fascinating on their own that it’s difficult not to long for an option to make its wondrous sandbox just a little less dangerous.

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope Puts Scary Ideas in a Safe Package

The gameplay blunts the effectiveness of the game’s aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here.

3

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope
Photo: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Right out of the gate in Little Hope, the second game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, the so-called Curator (Pip Torrens), a Rod Serling-like master of ceremonies, makes promises that this modest thriller can’t keep. This will be a “confusing” and “disturbing” tale, he promises, one filled with “infinite” possibilities. What follows is a decent enough thrill ride with some especially well-conceived monsters, but it’s little more than a gamified ghost tour of the fictitious Salem-adjacent abandoned town of Little Hope.

A stubborn professor, John (Alex Ivanovici), attempts to shepherd his four students to a working phone after their bus crashes along the road to Little Hope. Each student is a distinct type: cynical and guarded Taylor (Caitlyn Sponheimer); her jock-y, earnest boyfriend, Daniel (Kyle Bailey); the older Angela (Ellen Davis), who’s quick to disdain; and Andrew (Will Poulter), who’s a bit of a frightened cypher on account of the head injury he sustained that’s given him temporary amnesia, though the other four all recognize him as their classmate.

If you’re playing alone, Little Hope chooses which character you control, supplying responses from the others that fit whatever character traits you’ve leaned toward in prior scenes. And if you’re playing with a co-op partner online, you’ll each concurrently take control of a character, meaning that you might see completely different scenes. The latter option is the better, faster mode that best emulates a horror movie—or, at least, it is if you’ve got some way to hastily talk things through with your partner, sharing your nuggets of the plot with theirs.

Little Hope’s quintet of bus crash survivors don’t have any real freedom, emphasized here by a disorienting fog that only lets them proceed in one direction. The mostly binary choose-your-own adventure selections you make might change the dialogue and personalities of these characters, but they don’t seem to impact where you go or what you experience there. Dario Poloni’s script neatly evokes parallels between a witch trial in 1692 and a tragic house fire in 1972, but by doing so it proves itself to be too tightly tethered to them, with a clear and correct way to “save” everyone in the present day from similar fates.

Little Hope is more ambitious than Man of Medan, thanks in no small part to its more expansive setting. It helps, too, that you aren’t just stumbling through nightmares, as the monsters here are thematically associated with the main characters. Periodically, your survivors snap back in time to 1692, long enough to see their doubles being accused of witchcraft. Joseph was once weighed down by stones cast by his fellow Puritans, and James, the drunk patriarch of the 1972 prologue, was crushed by a collapsing roof. And modern-day John finds himself pursued by a shambling, half-flattened grotesquerie, just as his students are chased through the town’s abandoned factory, sewers, woods, and church by the mangled corpses of their past selves. Such specific details and parallels go a long way toward elevating by-the-books scares that are at times undermined by some odd design choices. For instance, though these characters are reflexively aware that what they’re experiencing is “exactly what happens in horror movies,” they all move at the same plodding pace, regardless of their age. In fact, Little Hope only shows them running during quick-time-event-filled cutscenes.

The game’s aesthetic enhances the horror, with your crew’s flashlights rarely being much of a match for the overwhelming fog and darkness, and the monsters reflecting the full ugliness of witchcraft murder techniques like drowning, burning, and pressing. But the gameplay blunts the effectiveness of that aesthetic, because there’s no real danger to exploring the environments here. There might be the occasional jump scare upon opening a window or door, but nothing’s actively chasing you as it would in something like Resident Evil. It’s the weirdest sort of plot armor to be found in a horror game, in that your characters are completely safe in Little Hope so long as you control them, and at risk only when a cut scene takes over.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: In Watch Dogs: Legion, Revolution Is the Stuff of Brand Aspirations

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render.

2.5

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Watch Dogs: Legion
Photo: Ubisoft

True to its name, Watch Dogs: Legion has no one protagonist. Early on, the game presents a list of random, regular Joes, asking you to choose one to restart hacktivist group DedSec. From there, you quite literally recruit characters off the street. Where prior Watch Dogs games let you pull up the personal data of any bystander, like their jobs and interests, Legion also lists what the people you encounter can bring to the table: their vehicles, weapons, and skills, like calling allies or knowing how to take a punch. Once you complete a mission to convince a chosen person to join the ranks of DedSec, they become totally, fully playable throughout the game—one more out of a potential many to join the fight.

It’s a premise that bursts with potential but is immediately poured into the familiar mold of Ubisoft open-world video gaming, right down to its toothless conception of near-future London as a dystopic police state. Like so many video games (and like many other Ubisoft games, for that matter), Legion employs a setting of unrest and political upheaval, selling itself on fashionable, exciting imagery of conflict and revolution. But such settings are often designed less for commentary than simple narrative convenience: as environments within which to take on hordes of designated enemies, and with zero qualms.

Most glaringly, the police state in Legion isn’t run by the regular police. In the aftermath of terrorist bombings falsely attributed to DedSec, the private military corporation Albion has been given free reign over Britain. They set up checkpoints, administer beatings in the streets, accost passersby for random ID checks, and openly carry lethal weapons. This allows the game to trade on what is, at a glance, the sight of people resisting the police and military while giving fascist goons a degree of remove from any recognizable institutions, obfuscating the chain of command to the point where the most visible bad guy is just the head of the PMC. DedSec’s goal is to restore a largely unexamined status quo, as characters do things like deride Albion for plastering holographic propaganda over, horror of horrors, Buckingham Palace.

Though some characters specify how Albion often specifically targets immigrants, Legion broadens the question of oppression to a point that becomes meaningless. You can recruit anyone because everyone is under Albion’s boot, and with the finger pointed so consistently at DedSec, the game’s conception of a repressed class essentially becomes DedSec hackers in particular, as you’re less targeted for your gender, skin color, or immigration status than for your ability to do cool hacker shit like hijack security cameras or make cars move on their own.

And yet, the bald appropriation of struggle and revolutionary iconography is hardly surprising. With so many millions of dollars at stake, how can a corporation afford to co-opt social justice in anything but the most brainless, superficial fashion? After many, many, many hours of playing Legion, the story doesn’t provoke ire so much as a feeling of resignation, given how it settles into a dull hum of mediocrity as it blunders through the obligatory topics of extra-judicial drone strikes and human consciousness beyond bodies.

What softens the blow, at least, is Legion’s undercurrent of absurdity. With so much of its cast at the mercy of character randomization, you spend a lot of time staring at a growing array of unfortunate haircuts, inexplicable ages, and ill-fitting voices. Though there’s a decent amount of diversity in terms of ethnicity, many of the faces (particularly the women) look so similar that they wouldn’t seem out of place in a family portrait, while everyone exhibits little meaningful variation in body type beyond being elderly or not-elderly.

It’s difficult to escape a sense that the game’s ambition far outstrips the number of unique people it can plausibly render. There’s also amusingly little pretense about characters summoning vehicles, drones, and allies out of thin air; if you’re playing as a spy, her car with a cloaking device and missiles is only ever a few button presses away. These weird, messy parts of Legion are far and away its most distinctive, such as the way a middle-aged construction worker with a baffling granny voice to hop aboard the flying cargo drone she can pluck from the ether and ride straight to the upper levels of a restricted area.

But like the initially appalling story, you soon grow accustomed to the same few displays of absurdity because there’s little variety to be had in Legion’s version of London. Each mission is a similar, stealth-viable map of cameras to jump between and vents to infiltrate with a small, discrete spider robot. Though you can commit to engaging with the clumsy, unsatisfying combat system every so often for variety’s sake, the game is so long that it runs out of different approaches long before the locations begin to repeat and the mission design begins to favor hordes of hostile enemies regardless of how stealthy you’ve been.

Worse, the characters have no meaningful sense of progression. Operatives don’t develop skills through repeated use, which may ensure that new recruits are viable from the jump but also prevents people with less immediately applicable skills from bridging the gap. If one guy only has a police contact for reduced arrest times, he’ll never grow to do more damage, carry more gadgets, or hack more quickly; he will always be less useful than, say, the construction worker or spy—good only to keep in reserve if you somehow manage to get every other operative arrested, hospitalized, or (with the permadeath option on) killed. What upgrades you earn are cross-character abilities like jamming enemy guns or more ammo for the nonlethal shotgun.

Sometimes characters have hard-wired flaws like taking more damage or hiccupping to alert guards or even spontaneously (and inexplicably) dying, but the game rarely forces players to deal with such flaws. There’s no calling for help from anyone nearby and being stuck with the drone expert who’s useless in a fight or the clerk who hacks slowly, while missions often have drones and spiderbots on site in case you didn’t bring your own. And while the game simulates what your operatives are doing when you’re not playing them, the fast-travel system and ability to swap out characters with no consequence mean there’s no incentive to just use who you have; even if you want to try and exclusively hop between nearby characters, the cumbersome process to display individual operatives on the map seems to discourage it.

Perhaps there’s some other take on Legion that lives up to its potential, if not for salient commentary then for player-authored mayhem as you juggle random variables. But as is, the game takes care to sand down its roughest edges, ensuring that no future police state can truly hinder the progress of a growing #rebellion. To turn London boroughs defiant against Albion, one of the tasks you must complete is to find a particularly prominent piece of their holographic propaganda and switch it to instead display the ever-marketable DedSec iconograph, firing up onlookers with that most powerful tool of all: a good brand.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Ubisoft.

Developer: Ubisoft Toronto Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 29, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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