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Review: Guitar Hero Live

Gil Scott-Heron had it wrong, at least when it came to music: The revolution most certainly will be televised.

5.0

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Guitar Hero Live
Photo: FreeStyleGames

Gil Scott-Heron had it wrong, at least when it came to music: The revolution most certainly will be televised. The new GHTV mode that makes up the majority of Guitar Hero Live isn’t just a remolding of how we think about plastic guitars, but how audiences listen to music, and it takes its cues both from streaming giants like Pandora and microtransaction-filled free-to-play apps. It’s essentially Total Request Live for the Me generation, with players playing along to classic and contemporary music videos (or concert footage).

Songs stream on two channels and the genre changes every half-hour or so, from “Metal Picks” to “Indie Influences” and “Rock Workout,” just to name a few. Those who don’t want to go with the flow, or are hosting a party, can pay a $5.99 licensing fee to unlock the entire catalogue of already over 200 songs for 24 hours, or can use the Plays they’ve earned to choose specific songs to practice. It’s a brilliant way both to expose players to new music and to part them from their money, but the quality of the experience and presentation ensures that everyone comes out feeling like a winner.

Guitar Hero Live’s other mode, GH Live, is also polished to perfection. As opposed to the pre-recorded music videos and streaming offered in the GHTV mode, GH Live focuses on 46 on-disc tracks. These aren’t meant to be the cream of the crop (Green Day’s represented here by “Nuclear Family,” while “American Idiot” shows up on GHTV), but an exceedingly varied bunch of rock songs from classics like the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to the playful punk of Blink-182, the funk-rock of Jack White’s “Lazaretto,” the peppy pop of Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas,” and a few take-it-or-leave-it surprises like Eminem’s “Bezerk” and Skrillex’s “Bangarang.” But that carefully culled set of songs is paired with full-motion video of fictional bands performing in real life, with the camera’s perspective meant to represent the viewpoint of the lead guitarist (i.e., the player).

The effect should be as cheesy as full-motion video games usually are (think back to the light-gun shooters most recently parodied by Troma in The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles), but it succeeds within the larger-than-life context of Guitar Hero Live. These venues, after all, are places where the player’s avatar might at any moment decide to crowd-surf among the obsessed, head-thrashing, or love-struck fans, or where a particularly wasted fan might run on stage and begin to strum his leg before being chased off by security.

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While no amount of verisimilitude can distract from the clicking of a plastic strum bar, the earnest enthusiasm of the presentation can absolutely drown it out. This is as “live” as it’s going to get for most players: artificially walking through the backstage area, being “handed” a guitar by a trusty roadie, and then playing a three-to-five song set. There isn’t even a distracting score in the GH Live mode (GHTV offers an asynchronous leaderboard): If players mess up, the video reflects it by swapping between cheering and booing fans with the smoothness of an optometrist’s refraction test.

FreeStyleGames hasn’t just reimagined Guitar Hero from the ground up, but also improved on the base component: the guitar peripheral. (This isn’t as surprising as it sounds, considering that they found a way to make spinning a platter satisfying and compelling in DJ Hero.) Instead of using Harmonix’s tried-and-true five-fret method, the guitar now has a two-by-three matrix of frets, separated into black “top” notes and white “bottom” notes.

The binary color scheme is intentional, too, since it denotes simplicity while not detracting from what’s actually a fairly complex system to master. With the inclusion of barre chords (the white and black frets held down together) and open chords (strumming without holding a fret), there are seven different types of notes to hit, and a wide variety of combinations. Most critically, this structure feels closer to playing an actual guitar, with the emphasis on positioning and rhythm rather than one’s ability to splay their fingers wide.

Between the GH Live and GHTV components, Guitar Hero Live effectively crafts the illusion of being in and of the moment. This zeitgeist-y medley of angst and ambition is an absolute dream to play, and with over 200 songs already streaming, one that most players will never have to wake up from.

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Developer: FreeStyleGames Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 20, 2015 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Lyrics Buy: Game

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Review: New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe Opens Its Doors to All

The game comes across like a love letter to everything that Super Mario Odyssey left behind.

4

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New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
Photo: Nintendo

Arriving in the wake of last year’s Super Mario Odyssey, a game that basically reinvents everything players know and love about the Super Mario Bros. series, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe comes across like a love letter to everything Super Mario Odyssey left behind. That said, even without drawing comparisons to that recent Switch triumph, New Super Mario Bros. U is a bit unambitious given its pedigree.

The New Super Mario Bros. titles have always represented a stripped-down, brass-tacks version of the original side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. games, but aside from more kinetic elements in each stage, New Super Mario Bros. U isn’t a progression of ideas from what we’ve seen before from the 2D Super Mario Bros. games. It steals bits and pieces from the ones that came after the original Super Mario Bros. but doesn’t really advance its core concepts the way later 3D titles in the series built on the gameplay foundations set by Super Mario 64.

New Super Mario Bros. U is content to be about the sheer intricacy of level design, simultaneously beckoning players ever forward—to run, jump, and climb across grandly cartoonish obstacle courses, all leading to a showdown in a spooky castle. The Mushroom Kingdom of this game is a watercolor-painted place where the flowers dance to the background music, the coins flow like wine, and enemies mosey across the screen in carefully laid patterns, all waiting to be stomped on by Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Toadette. There are no keys or warp zones—save for a couple of alternate exits to stages scattered around—or warp whistles or Star Roads to find. The game is but a massive collection of stages leading to that one final fortress. The two new power-ups—a Flower that lets you turn enemies into ice, and a leaf that turns you into a flying squirrel, rather than a flying raccoon—aren’t as critical to the gameplay as the cape and raccoon suits are in previous titles in the series.

New Super Mario Bros. U is as basic a take on the Super Mario Bros. formula as the current era of gaming could possibly take. And yet, that simplicity puts the game in contrast with the slew of retro-tinged titles that clearly draw inspiration from the framework that Nintendo laid down over the years with such titles as Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Yoshi’s Island, among others, without really grasping how to make said framework sing—which is to say, to make their worlds into places you want to spend time in. There’s a confidence and ease to New Super Mario Bros. U’s level designs, to how steadily the challenges escalate throughout and how players are afforded every chance to challenge themselves by taking the non-obvious road—to indulge their, say, curiosity about a certain route or pipe.

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As for the “deluxe” part of the title, yes, there are a few new characters that players can now select: Toadette and Nabbit, essentially comprising, respectively, Easy and Easier modes for the game. Toadette gets a special power-up that turns her into a human princess, giving her the ability to float, which, sadly, nobody else can use—and lo, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about that. Nabbit, on the other hand, is practically invincible, as he can only die when he falls into pits. While Nabbit is definitely a casual option for just getting through the game, Toadette offers a much more egalitarian perk in traversal, opening up the harder-to-reach parts of the game to players who don’t have the skill or patience to figure out the precision jumps that are otherwise necessary to move forward. Through Toadette, New Super Mario Bros. U opens its doors to all, and makes no excuses to anyone for doing so.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game’s hard-as-nails DLC for the WiiU, New Super Luigi U, is also included, and its stages have been redesigned to the point that daredevil gameplay is the only way forward. Poor Luigi’s jump may be higher this time around, but he also runs like he’s perpetually on extremely slippery ice. The result is a game that isn’t sadistically difficult, at least not in the same way as many a notorious Super Mario Maker level, but it definitely feels like Nintendo indulging in a little bit of evil. These levels should silence anyone who would accuse the company of coddling a broad audience, and do so without losing the cleverness of design that makes the main game worthwhile.

New Super Luigi U is diabolical in design but immensely rewarding, and while playing the game this time around, I couldn’t help but think about last year’s Celeste, specifically a much-lauded moment in that title where a note comes up saying that players should be proud of their death counts, because “the more you die, the more you’re learning.” It’s a positive sentiment and ethos, and it’s one that New Super Mario Bros. U conveys consistently and brilliantly through its game design but without actually spelling it out for you.

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

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Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Comic Mischief Buy: Game

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Review: Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Is a Poetic Ode to Flight

At its best, the game leaves you by your lonesome to get to know the “deep blue” sky as intimately as possible.

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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Photo: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment

It’s no coincidence that Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown begins with a monologue from Avril, a mechanic with a profound and unabashed love for the “deep blue” of the skies. Even after it thrusts Avril into the middle of a sudden war between the fictional Osean and Erusian countries of the franchise’s Strangereal universe, the game sustains its elegiac ode to flight. That’s certainly evident in the many deaths that occur throughout Ace Combat 7’s campaign and how stirringly scored each mission is. Even at its most climactic moment—when your stealth fighter stalls out as you attempt to spin it out of a missile lock—the game remains focused on the way the sky appears to caresses the player.

If ever it seems as if you’re simply strafing enemy targets, just wait until you’ve reached the replay modes following each mission. A video editor allows you to find the perfect angle for your most sumptuous action-packed stunts (though there badly needs to be a faster way to search through footage). More importantly, the debrief’s minimalistic summary screen iconographically maps each plane’s actions onto a grid, turning the nastiest aerial encounters into a beautiful ballet of colored arrows that wend and weave their way through space, much like a ribbon-twirling routine. Such shifts in perspective, from the sleek photorealism of a replay to the way data renders into art in the debrief, serve to demonstrate the many ways in which Ace Combat 7 is about more than just the momentary, visceral thrill of flight.

The majority of the game’s 20 missions also feature a unique element that in some way further transforms the way in which we interact with and fundamentally regard the sky. One sortie—a military term for deployment—tasks you with navigating through a pattern of detection zones that appear on your radar like a Fibonacci-like spiral of deadly dots. Another has you darting in and out of cloud cover like Asian carp do through water, all in an effort to avoid a base’s automated missile defenses. Sometimes you’ll have to riskily fly through a thunderstorm—getting zapped will temporarily lock up your craft and disable its HUD—or sift through the radar-jamming sandstorm, looking for elusive targets. Beyond the stunt challenges required for obtaining an optional hidden medal in each level, some levels also introduce technical obstacles, as when you’re required to precisely navigate bunker buster bombs to their target, or when you have to manually identify planes as friend or foe when your IFF goes down.

Ace Combat 7 also offers a lot of customization before a mission even begins. There are nearly 30 planes to unlock, and over 50 performance-enhancing parts, only eight of which can be equipped at any time. This makes mission briefings a vital part of the game, as they suggest the best loadouts. If you’re trying to disable a naval fleet that’s well-equipped with anti-aircraft batteries, you’ll want to bring along a ship that can fire an LASM (Long-Range Air-to-Ship Missile). Elsewhere, an annihilation mission that requires you to pick off multiple clusters of ground targets benefits from your plane having a GPB (Ground Penetrating Bomb). And if you’re planning for lots of combat in the clouds, you may want to equip gear that reduces the chances of your plane icing up, or improves the homing capabilities or distance of your missiles. The only downside to this robust skill tree is that purchases are non-refundable, so if you find yourself underpowered for missions with strict time limits, you may have to replay earlier levels or multiplayer in order to earn more MRP.

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Sadly, while Ace Combat 7’s plot does a terrific job of setting up unique scenarios that put your skills as a pilot to the test, it’s far too grounded in exposition and unenthusiastic voice acting to ever take off. The FMV cutscenes initially suggest that they’re going to show the war from both the Osean and Erusian perspectives, with the news-as-propaganda media machines of both countries accusing the other of striking first. But the game commits pretty firmly to the Osean narrative, offering only confusing, slapdash glimpses of an Erusian scientist’s work implanting a war ace’s muscle memory into a new batch of experimental drones and the Erusian princess’s firsthand experience with the plight of war-torn refugees. Given how much detail is put into the game’s briefings and after-action summaries, it’s readily apparent just how superficial these characterizations are by comparison.

This one flaw, though, is hardly a deal-breaker. After all, Ace Combat 7 offers a story-free option to replay any campaign level in a Free Flight mode that removes all enemies and objectives, leaving you by your lonesome to get to know that “deep blue” sky as intimately as possible. Meanwhile, the three bonus VR missions included as a PS4 exclusive offers players the possibility of more immersion. Ace Combat 7, the first numbered entry in the series in over a decade, plays to its strengths whenever its focus leans heavily and poetically on the grace of planes and not on the drama of the humans who fly them. Fly through Ace Combat 7 on those terms and you’ll find it to be a freeing, exhilarating experience.

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

Developer: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Publisher: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Mild Blood, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey for Nintendo 3DS

The effectiveness of the game’s humor doesn’t always tie back to the concept of Bowser as a frustrated, impotent vessel.

4.5

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Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey
Photo: Nintendo

The premise of the 2009 RPG classic Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, recently remastered and issued as part of the exhaustingly titled Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey, is among the weirdest in the mainstream gaming canon. In the game, the player punches, breathes fires, and stomps around as iconic villain Bowser on a mission to recapture his castle, but you also assume the roles of a shrunken Mario and Luigi, both of whom are trapped inside Bowser’s body. Far from perfunctory, this 3DS port of the game boasts superior graphics and a new strategy mode, Bowser Jr.’s Journey, which focuses on the concurrent misadventures of Bowser’s obnoxious son.

In Bowser’s Inside Story, a disease that causes its victims to grow to an outrageous physical size has afflicted different inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom. But this outbreak isn’t Bowser’s doing. It’s a plot hatched by the evil Fawful, who, with the use of a magical mushroom, forces Bowser to swallow up Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and others. This over-the-top plot results in both Peach and Bowser losing their castles. And because the full-sized Bowser presents the only chance to defeat Fawful and restore the status quo, Mario and Luigi are left with the task of boosting the power of their archnemesis by, well, stimulating his muscles, whacking his nerve endings, swimming in his fluids, and cleaning out his organs.

Such suggestive, inner-body hijinks solidify the game’s position as the most adult Mario & Luigi title to date. Here, Mario and Luigi don’t get to kick Bowser’s ass because they’re too busy controlling it, and literally so when they’re accessing his “Rump Control.” Later in the game, a trip to Bowser’s mind suggests that his perpetual plotting to kidnap Peach is partially related to his loins. Such sexual connotations reveal a fundamental insecurity in Bowser’s character, which lends a humanizing element to the game’s kooky plot.

The effectiveness of the game’s humor doesn’t always tie back to the concept of Bowser as a frustrated, impotent vessel. The script drips with absurdity and fun wordplay, as when supporting character Broque Monsieur (a moniker that plays off the character’s lack of money) tells Bowser that he has the “odor of a gentleman.” Fawful’s haphazard style of communication juxtaposes hilariously against his cunning. Right as Bowser and company fall prey to his scheme, he offers up his best line: “Easy as bread sandwiches!” Sometimes the jokes even subvert RPG norms, as when a senile ally of Bowser, forgetting his promise to assist the surly ruler, attacks you after telling you to save the game.

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The gameplay in Bowser’s Inside Story is as creative as that of any turn-based RPG. Although players have to perform separate tasks as Bowser and the plumber brothers, the action emphasizes clever forms of interplay between the multiple protagonists, further highlighting the uniqueness of the game’s narrative framework. Boss fights can involve teamwork such as Bowser swallowing adversaries who then must be dispatched by Mario and Luigi. And at times exploration requires coordinated assistance, as when Bowser drinks water so that Mario and Luigi can more easily navigate a section within his body.

Bowser’s Inside Story, which was originally released on the Nintendo DS, has gotten a significant graphical uptick. Now that the dark outlines of the original sprites are gone, the characters have a more natural appearance. Elsewhere, environments have been spruced up with new static details, extra animations, or streamlined colors. The game also incorporates new audio that brings a certain realness to the experience of being inside Bowser, such as the sounds of Mario and Luigi’s boots stepping on bones and sinking into tissue.

But this remaster’s most striking changes to the original involve twists on point of view. During battle, subtle zoom-ins and zoom-outs punctuate different types of action, such as Mario jumping high into the air or Bowser landing a perfectly timed punch. Certain cutscenes now benefit from 3D effects. The sequence where Banzai Bill flies toward Bowser’s castle has received an impressive overhaul, with the camera hugging close to the bullet fiend and effectively highlighting his enormous size and velocity of movement. In contrast, the original game uses an at-a-distance side view in which Banzai Bill doesn’t look threatening at all.

The game’s new mode, Bowser Jr.’s Journey, doesn’t register as a necessary tie-in to the original story. Bowser Jr. is a run-of-the-mill brat whose hubris isn’t as entertaining as his father’s, chiefly because Bowser’s Inside Story is more biting in the way it plumbs the psychology of the elder Bowser. Moreover, the spats between Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings grow tiresome due to their almost complete dearth of subversiveness.

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Still, Bowser Jr.’s Journey is engaging as a real-time army-versus-army game. Because your party automatically runs toward enemies in the style of the opening scene from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, you only have control over small but crucial elements of the skirmishes. Through punctual button presses, you can help your troops score critical hits, interrupt your foes’ techniques, and provide temporary buffs. Managing your forces here provides an interesting change of pace from the more unorthodox madness of Bowser’s Inside Story, cementing this release as the ultimate version of a pop masterpiece.

The game was reviewed using a final retail 3DS download code provided by Nintendo.

Developer: AlphaDream Publisher: Nintendo Platform: 3DS ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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