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Review: BioWare’s Barely Competent Anthem Is at War with Itself

The game’s bland mélange of competence feels like the deliberate, calculated, focus-tested murder of ideas.

2.5

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Anthem
Photo: Electronic Arts

To say that Anthem is war-torn would be an understatement. The scrappy survivors holed up in Fort Tarsis, the game’s ostensible hub area, are fighting for their lives, while at the same time players are caught in the crosshairs of an ugly and tragic war that results from dueling interests. On one side, we have BioWare, whose storytelling chops shame those of most developers. And on the other, we have Electronic Arts, a publishing leviathan that seems hellbent on feeding the immense talent under its roof into a grinder that creates perpetual live-service revenue. BioWare is known for immersing players in detail-rich worlds, but you wouldn’t know that from playing Anthem.

There’s a story here, but it’s so convoluted that basic dialogue between characters creates literal footnotes in an in-game encyclopedia that you have to constantly refer to in order to make sense of it all. As much as that story can be boiled down, Anthem takes place on a planet called Bastion, which exists at the mercy of an unknowable energy source known as the Anthem of Creation. This energy source has malfunctioned ever since a military force called the Dominion triggered a cataclysmic super-storm in a device made specifically to interface with the Anthem. Ten years prior, a group of Freelancers—Bastion’s sworn protectors, equipped with powerful mech suits called javelins—tried to fly into the storm to shut down the device. When they failed, Freelancers were treated as second-class citizens, and forced to take random contracts out in the wild just to get by. Here, you play as one of those Freelancers.

That’s a considerably truncated version of the story Anthem throws at you, but even after you spend the time to read through all that history, it’s hard to ignore the lack of an eyebrow-perking hook for doing what you must do in the game. Anthem makes the first Destiny’s mistake of thinking that lore is the same as narrative; there’s so much of the former that doesn’t apply in any way to the latter. Anthem tosses haunting inspirational words into a Cuisinart along with a D&D rulebook, calling the resulting chutney a captivating reason to want players to spend every day in an open world. What passes for characters in the game are all wafer-thin archetypes—steely, tight-lipped bureaucrats, jingoistic hardasses who speak of the glory of war, overenthusiastic sidekicks wishing they could get out there with the big boys, barflies who were once adventurers like you but took a gunshot to the knee—all realized with a sort of Whedon-lite cadence of speech that can only wildly gesture at being more than a collection of quirks. BioWare, even at its most twee, is better than this.

And yet, this is the aspect of the game that actually evinces a personality; it’s a pale, mournful shade of BioWare games past, but it’s a personality nonetheless. Look past the lush tropical beauty of Bastion once you leave Fort Tarsis, look past the simple but stingily doled-out joys of flying a mech suit like Iron Man, and you’re left with the most depressingly banal collection of gameplay loops and mechanics in a major AAA game in the last 10 years. It’s not even sheer incompetence at work in Anthem. The problems of BioWare’s much-maligned Mass Effect Andromeda could perhaps be blamed on that. But there’s at least purpose in that game, a beating heart, the sense of the developers at BioWare reaching beyond their means, trying to make No Man’s Sky when even No Man’s Sky was too ambitious for its own good. Anthem feels almost like a direct Misery-style hobbling to the factors that made Andromeda.

The game’s gunplay boils down to “shoot anything that moves with whichever gun feels good until you need to recharge shields”—an approach that hasn’t been cutting-edge since Halo 2. And the inventory and customization options are small and limited, despite the fact that shiny, glowy items and the resources to build them are everywhere. Even your arsenal—the curation of which has fast become a selling point of this type of game—boils down to a half-dozen weapons in each class that never discernibly change until the last third of the game.

Anthem’s way of ramping up the difficulty is by introducing more of the same enemy—of which there are only around a half-dozen types—but with longer health bars and no experimentation when it comes to placement or abilities. Even with flashy special maneuvers unique to each class of javelin, and element-based combinations to unleash, nothing you face in the game is so tricky or intelligent that just holding down the trigger can’t do the job.

In fact, unleashing your special abilities while playing with a full team of four often leads to you missing a key piece of narrative or instructions for the next step of your mission, because the sound and fury of your special abilities is often louder than the voice acting, and so obscenely bright that you can’t read the subtitles. The circle of life in Anthem is “fly, kill, collect, repeat,” and there are no compelling narrative or mechanical reasons to take part in it. Your weaponry may be varied, but even your most basic pistol is just as effective at taking out every single enemy type as a shotgun or an assault rifle, giving you no reason to experiment once you’ve tried out every possible gun in the early hours. And while there are materials to collect, there’s so little to actually craft for much of the game, and nothing of note to buy with them, that after a while it feels like you’re just amassing stuff for the sake of doing so.

No one single aspect of Anthem is bad, per se, but it’s not bad in the same way that a dinner composed solely of Edible Bread and Drinkable Water isn’t bad. The game’s bland mélange of competence feels like the deliberate, calculated, focus-tested murder of ideas. From the weapons, perks, items, and crafting supplies, to the enemy types, to the structure of each mission and what you’re asked to do, every single facet of Anthem feels made for broad accessibility for the obsessive-compulsive. None of this is normal for BioWare; this isn’t even their first super-expensive MMO, and even that game, 2011’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, had a killer collection of unique stories to tell. It is, however, the new normal for their publisher, across a whole slew of their games. The war in Anthem is a war of sensibilities, of ethos, of ambition. And there’s no doubt that BioWare is losing it.

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

Developer: BioWare Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 22, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Language, Mild Blood, Use of Tobacco, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 Is a Blast, and in Spite of Its Split Personality

The game doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks.

3.5

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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2
Photo: Ubisoft

O say can you see, perhaps by the dawn’s gleaming light, the mortars bursting through air? That’s the impression Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 so clearly wants to evoke as it asks you and up to three squadmates to determinedly scramble from the cover of one barricade to the next. There’s a story baked in there somewhere, something about reclaiming the various districts of Washington, D.C. from a violent gang of criminals known as the Hyenas; the cultish, embittered, quarantine-surviving Outcasts; and the traitorous former military True Sons, who’ve carved up the country’s capital. But what most clearly comes through the muddled yet consistently entertaining The Division 2 is a narrative driven less by plot than patriotism. You don’t fight for the American ideal so much as for its iconographic representation. That’s evident in everything from the restoration of the White House to the liberation of the Washington Monument, as well as in the familiar dome of the Capitol Building coming closer into view as you make your way between barricades.

The Division 2 is a, well, immensely divided game. Sometimes this is the result of intent on the part of developer Massive Entertainment, like the decision to keep the PvE campaign content apart from the PvP Dark Zones, in which players can turn on one another—to go rogue in order to steal high-level loot from other players. In others, this schism speaks to some necessary compromises, like the way in which this challenging, unforgiving game that’s been finely tuned for a co-op multiplayer experience can often feel untenable when tackled solo: Encounters scale to the number of players in the party, but without a squadmate to revive you, loners have to adapt to a much slower, methodical, and long-range approach to missions.

But above all, The Division 2 is marked by a disconnect between its story and its gameplay. The details of the game’s already vague plot never seem relevant to any mission—so much so that it comes as no surprise that your radio briefings are often conspicuously drowned out by the sounds of gunfire and your squadmates yelling for help. Still, the adrenaline rush of battle, your need to survive, is almost enough to distract you from the lack of story. Indeed, this is a game that requires your full attention to be placed on the actual engagements and their scenic settings, from desperately seeking cover in the Air and Space Museum’s famed planetarium, to trying to hold the besieged stage of the Potomac Event Center’s theater, to looking to outflank enemy encampments in the forested areas of Theodore Roosevelt Island.

It’s fitting that The Division 2 takes place in America’s capital, because the game, like many of D.C.’s politicians, is driven above all by strong emotions, many of which are dangerously misguided, and with very few facts to back them up. The game’s introductory sequence doesn’t elaborate on the biological attack that left American in ruin; instead, it proselytizes on the importance of owning a gun. Post-collapse society is the Republican wet dream of limited government, where if you want something done, you just go out and do it by any means necessary. For all the weapons and skills—like drones, turrets, and nanobot beehives—at your disposal, there’s no variety to the overall conflict or various factions you encounter. Enemies are suicidal zealots who never negotiate or surrender; they just keep fighting until their health bar has been whittled away. In this way, the game echoes the devolution of the Tom Clancy brand itself, which once dealt in complex geopolitical entanglements before turning to a modern-day fetishization of guns and violent, paramilitary engagement.

There’s depth to The Division 2, but it’s evident only in its systems: the looter-shooter gameplay, the cover and co-op mechanics, and the min-maxing of equipment. The story is just the window dressing, a fact that becomes almost painfully obvious during a mission that takes place in a fictionalized version of the National Museum of American History. Here, players non-ironically fight their way through an ambush that takes place in a Vietnam War exhibit. There’s no consideration given to that historical conflict, just as there’s no deeper significance given to any of the battles in The Division 2. For the game, a war is especially “cool” to fight if it gets to play out within a memorial to a past one. But that drive to simplify history is at least consistent with the way the game doles out its McGuffins: Location aside, there’s no difference between retrieving batteries from a big-box retail store’s warehouse than there is from recovering the Declaration of Independence from the hallowed National Archives.

Whether or not the player notices the interchangeability of its objectives, The Division 2 still works like gangbusters, and in no small part because there’s an iron curtain between the various components of the game. Each mission is pretty much its own self-contained vignette, which leaves players free to tackle them in a nonlinear order, a choice enhanced by the way The Division 2 scales a party to the relative strength of the highest geared player. Without having to focus on the big picture, players can take in all the little ones. And the effect is almost liberating, like taking a vacation in D.C., albeit a run-down, war-torn version of D.C. in which you may have to save a bunch of hostages from the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool before using the selfie emote, or might have to disrupt an enemy convoy before getting to kick back in a quaint Foggy Bottom house with a terrific view of the Potomac.

The Division 2 doesn’t rely on narrative reasons to entice the player, leaning instead on endorphin-releasing gameplay hooks. And the best one is saved for last, with a fourth enemy faction—the Black Tusk private militia—showing up after players “beat” the game, which allows previously completed areas to be recycled with new objectives and enemy archetypes. There’s a “final” showdown that players can unlock against these enigmatic elites, but because the game isn’t driven by plot, this ends up being just another step on the loot treadmill, this time opening up access to exotic-tier weapons. Instead of revealing a deeper story, the game keeps unlocking deeper customization options, with a shift from merely collecting weapons and upgrading skills to crafting and tacking on modifiers for that gear and then choosing one of three specialization skill trees that reward long-range, explosive, and support classes.

Though there’s a less-defined storyline in The Division 2 than there was in its predecessor, every other nuance has been refined to keep players engaged in the post-game. It’s easy to jump into a quick bounty hunt, or to matchmake for higher-difficulty replays of the side, main, and stronghold missions, depending on how much time you have. The addition of clans provide a peer-pressuring incentive to keep logging on to work toward communal goals, and the splitting of the Dark Zone into three distinct areas is a smart way to cater both to PvP and PvE communities. Ultimately, whether you’re playing to take in the detailed Washington, D.C. scenery or simply to cause a scene, the game is optimally balanced to keep you hooked.

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

Developer: Massive Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 15, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Hypnospace Outlaw Is a Lament for the Wild West of the Early Net

The game masterfully uses its microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

5

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Hypnospace Outlaw
Photo: No More Robots

The technology at the center of Hypnospace Outlaw sounds futuristic: a headset that lets you access an online community while you sleep. But it’s also 1999, which means your brain-beaming helmet displays the limited color palette and grainy, pixelated artwork of an early internet, cursed with horrendous fonts that mingle with faintly terrifying 3D image renders and cursor trails. Nothing quite compares to the gaudy Wild West of the early internet, and Hypnospace Outlaw mines that eye-searing kitsch for pages upon pages of vivid, outrageous comedy as you dream-surf a privately owned net.

Throughout, you marvel at unfortunate interests like fan pages for rap-rock groups and chain letter-esque images that promise to ward off evil. You click through personal blogs and projects and advertisements grouped into zones according to shared subject matter. That’s the job, after all, since you play the game as an “enforcer,” a newly assigned moderator to the Hypnospace community. A purveyor of banal justice, you seek out unapproved commerce or strike down images and links with the divine hammer of copyright infringement.

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you’ll page through the teen zone and the conspiracy theory hub, but the game simulates more than just a web browser; an entirely customizable desktop runs the programs you find and opens downloaded documents. You can’t send email, but you’ll receive it. As you’re assigned more cases, the scope of the detective work begins to incorporate these other elements, requiring you to scan for references and redirects to pages tucked out of plain sight, accessible only through backdoor links, search keywords, or outside software that’s just as clunky to use as something from the early net era might have been.

The game could easily sustain itself on no more than this conceit, the base investigation and ironic appreciation of a World Wide Web still full of strategically deployed “under construction” banners. Instead, it uses those elements to build something both stranger and more ambitious, weaving a world of staggering consistency. Designers of HypnOS—the headset’s operating system—hang around their creation, and so do their commercial partners. You begin to pick out business strategies and creative decisions, to spot revealing nuances in page design, some as small as whether or not they redirect back to the home page.

The more zones you gain access to, the more familiar you grow with Hypnospace’s own terms and trends. Its users post images en masse to protest copyright removal, support underground music like “coolpunk,” or supposedly insulate themselves from “beefbrain.” Others make pages that recount the deepest cuts of a comic book bull’s history, link to spooky interactive fiction, discuss the nuances of “trennis,” and recount the erratic career trajectory of The Chowder Man, an aging rocker turned corporate sellout. Some of the autoplayed page jingles—all of them specifically, hilariously designed for the game—get stuck in your head regardless of how much they sound filtered through a tin can. Though Hypnospace Outlaw’s clear reference point is the early internet as we knew it, the game is more about exploring the developers’ own unique spin on the web pre-Y2K, which is so distinct that it never devolves into a round of spotting real-world references. Hypnospace, after all, is a world of its own.

To a point, the game is about pointing and laughing at the outdated presentation of user-created web pages, but it’s careful not to fall into easy parody. Hypnospace users are totally sincere about their creations, or totally sincere in their insincerity. They live in their present, and that present is one where every page hosts disastrous touches like an eyesore font or a 3D emoticon with a terrifying rictus grin. While you become accustomed to, and begin to appreciate, such idiosyncratic Hypnospace trappings while you moderate content, the web pages seem to build partial portraits of the people behind them: thoughtful writers, edgy teens, misanthropes, simpering wannabe cool kids, myopic control freaks, and people who feud through amateurish MS Paint-like art because they see too much of themselves in each other. Snippets of real life peek through every page’s design choice and written word.

You never directly converse with these people, but you come to know them by their work. They maintain their own projects and pages, displaying personas that are deeply personal because everything had to be built by hand. Hypnospace Outlaw functions as a kind of goofy lament for a personality that’s been diminished in the decades since, as social media corrals us into an infinitely more homogenous personal space. But the game never feels limited to its chosen era, as its depiction of obsessive personalities, crowd mentalities, and people who look for meaning by carving out a space online resonates all the way through to the present day.

For as much as the game pays tribute to the spirit of the early web, Hypnospace is certainly not a utopian vision. Even between the content you’re supposed to scrub, the place is absolutely ravaged by commerce and capitalism. Such a space must, of course, be monetized as much as possible. The desire to be recognized and heard by literally anything or anyone, to feel like more than voices that cry out into an online void from small towns where they don’t fit in, is exploited for corporate gain. Companies cash in on trends, marketing to children in their sleep. They pay people like you, volunteer enforcers of dubious corporate norms, in currency that can only be spent in Hypnospace. The company town has gone digital.

None of this stops Hypnospace Outlaw from being hilarious (one child’s drawing is too poor to qualify as copyright infringement), but it situates the game on the thread that connects comedy with tragedy, and endearing eccentricity with outright toxicity. The pain seems funny until you recognize that it’s real, learn that there are people behind those screens. The game is a monumental achievement, not just for its detailed rendering of another place and time but for the observed humanity of its writing and the things it has to say about the intersection of capitalism and art. Hypnospace Outlaw’s surprising thematic sweep transforms an already wondrous internet simulator into a striking commentary on the development of movements and communities even in the intervening decades, using this microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by No More Robots.

Developer: Jay Tholen, Mike Lasch, Xalavier Nelson Jr., ThatWhichIs Media Publisher: No More Robots Platform: PC Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: With Devil May Cry 5, a Series Is Back to the Old-Time Rock n’ Roll

The game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

4.5

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

Not only a return to form for the Devil May Cry series after the lethargic Devil May Cry 4, Devil May Cry 5 is also something of a restatement of intent for the original numbered series after the woefully underrated DmC: Devil May Cry’s detour into more grungy terrain. Devil May Cry is now back to the old-time rock n’ roll for Dante, reverting to much of the trashy anime swagger of the first four games, emphasizing style over anything resembling substance. And yet, there’s still a touch of the reboot’s madness floating around in here, which keeps the game from falling back on some of Devil May Cry’s worst habits, while also advancing the series’s past ideas with great zeal and imagination.

As one might expect, considering that Devil May Cry 4 was released 11 years ago, Devil May Cry 5 represents an enormous jump in visual complexity for this series. Beyond the incredible fine detail in every humanoid character’s face and performance, the landscape marries realistically rendered European cities with a stomach-turning sebaceous mess, borne from a demonic tree that leaves a sort of hellish insectoid apocalypse in its wake. In terms of actual game design, there’s nothing terribly audacious going on here, with sometimes too-tight linear corridors leading to wide-open kill zones. But the this isn’t a game about what you plan to do about a problem, but how ridiculously elaborate and flashy you can do that thing, and the game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

Every move that’s ever been a part of Dante and Nero’s repertoires in the past is an option here. Nero is all about hard single strikes, and figuring out ways to maximize them each and every time. He’s aided by the Devil Breaker system, which builds on Devil May Cry 4’s main gimmick. In that game, Nero could grab or slam anything from long distances with his demonic arm. In Devil May Cry 5, after the arch-demon Urizen rips off that arm, Nero now has a set of disposable cybernetic replacements that can do anything from blasting nearby enemies with lightning, to being able to temporarily stop time. The upshot is that the arms are fragile, and will break if you get hit while using their special functions. It’s a careful balance that teaches players to respect the immeasurable power at their fingertips.

Dante, on the other hand, is all about the right tool for the right job, and the four styles returning from Devil May Cry 3 and 4—Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster, and Royalguard—combine with an expansive, devastating arsenal that changes function whenever those styles change is legitimately daunting at first. Experimentation is welcomed more in this game than the others, especially thanks to a new long-overdue practice space called The Void. However, it doesn’t take long to find a set of moves you’re comfortable with, and once you’re ready, there’s a formidable list of skills to unlock in order to take your repertoire to the next level.

The wildcard here, however, is the addition of a new character, V, a demon conjurer who fascinatingly resembles a frail, underfed, Uncanny Valley version of Adam Driver. He doesn’t fight himself, but instead summons three demonic familiars—a panther, a wise-cracking talking raven, and a massive golem—to do his fighting for him. The slower, more deliberate gameplay in his levels is a strangely captivating contrast with the typical Devil May Cry style, if not entirely successful since you’re issuing commands second-hand.

V’s mechanics feel like they were built for a JRPG that never happened, rather than for a series built for speed. Yet it’s such a unique moveset for this type of game that it’s hard not to admire Capcom’s bravery for even trying it here. More than the developer’s typical method of ratcheting up the difficulty in the series’s traditional Dante Must Die mode, V’s stages require players to truly study their prey, to think 10 seconds ahead at all time in order to avoid V getting hit before the familiars can take out the closest enemy. Playing as V requires considering the opening created by every move instead of wailing away at a ragdolled demon. These levels truly force the player to consider and respect their enemies, something none of the previous games can really allow given that they’re all about making Dante and Nero look unstoppable in combat. V never does, and it’s an intriguing breath of fresh air.

Devil May Cry 5 executes this rowdy stage-destroying romp with all the glee that was missing in the fourth installment, making the real difference between the main series and DmC abundantly clear. Most players would like to pretend that Devil May Cry is all about being stylish and cool, but the truth is a bit more complex. Because, as far as what’s legitimately popular and edgy in the 2010s, DmC had its thumb right on the zeitgeist, with its EDM-kid Dante, its beautiful graffiti-infused aesthetic, tipping its nose rather unsubtly at the loneliness and teenage abuse that create alt subcultures in general. Arguably, Devil May Cry 5 is more successful as a traditional Devil May Cry game for not trying to follow the zeitgeist and instead existing permanently in the one it created back in 2001—one that revels in recent-past hallmarks of cool like Scrooge McDuck taking a bath in a bin full of ‘90s arcade tokens.

On the surface, Devil May Cry’s aesthetic appeal conforms to a sort of goth-Eurotrash John Wick chic: wearing a trench coat, doing death-defying acrobatics wielding dual pistols in ways that would make John Woo proud. This is the window dressing for what is—and, in retrospect, always has been—a collection of mechanics, character beats, and elaborate flourishes that thrives on self-awareness and arch camp more than the series’s severe and grim premise lets on. DmC leaned into that severity and grimness with great seriousness, whereas Devil May Cry 5 gave us a climax involving a character becoming a divine creature of retribution by literally giving a middle finger to heaven itself. It’s enough to wonder why nuance and social relevance would ever want to become part of this series’s narrative vocabulary?

If anything, Devil May Cry 5’s success stems from embracing that camp with greater vigor than the series ever has before, if not as wholeheartedly as its estranged cousins, Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2. However, there’s no greater embodiment of Devil May Cry’s entire ethos as a series than Devil May Cry 5’s newest and absolute best character: Nico, a chain-smoking, biracial cowboy hipster gun nut engineer-slash-arms dealer who’s into lo-fi hip-hop, built her workshop into the back of her van, and cartoonishly drives into any situation to sell our heroes weaponry like a deranged version of the Kool-Aid Man.

An entire review could almost focus on Nico as the perfect encapsulation of the game as a whole, but the one scene that says it all is right at the start: After arriving on the scene by mowing down an entire crowd of demon ants with her van, Nico steps out to face one of the survivors, a cop who’s still dumbstruck that the demon apocalypse is even happening and his friends and colleagues have just been burned or eaten alive in it. Nico, on the other hand, is the one fully human character who’s seen that angels and demons exist and that a bunch of goth pretty boys are the only ones capable of stopping them. She plops down next to the cop and tells him to sit back, chill out, and enjoy watching Nero whup ass. Which they—like anybody who sets eyes on Devil May Cry 5—can’t help but do.

The game was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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